Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Good night, my friend, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest

So, my friend Cindy passed away a few days before Christmas.

My copy editors at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel were absolute in their insistence that when people are no longer among the living, they are dead. Not passed away, passed over, gone to be with the Lord. Dead. And I pretty much agree, and it isn't meant to be as harsh as it might sound.

But my friend Cindy... she passed away.

We both had stem cell transplants, hers was done a short time before mine. There are two basic types of stem cell transplants: autologous, which uses the patients own stem cells; and allogenic where they come from a brother, sister or parent, though they may come from an unrelated donor as well if they meet a set of strict criteria. I had the former, and Cindy the latter, her cells provided by a donor in Germany. Because of how so many cities in Maine are named, I should point out that he is from Germany...Germany, not Germany in Aroostook.

Though they were used against different diseases- she had leukemia and I have multiple myeloma- there were a lot of similarities in what we were going through.

Now, I'm not good at talking to people I don't know very well, and certainly not about something like this. But her brother, who lives in Clinton, insisted both Cindy and I would benefit from talking to each other. I dragged my feet, called a couple of times, but it was not going well. Her brother simply would not let up... at all. Oy. But, thankfully, once we realized we both preferred to use email- problem solved, relationship begun.

From the day of our first email in the fall of 2013 until our last in early December of this year, we shared just about everything that related to our health. When we were afraid, we told each other so and if it meant crying together, we did. We also laughed at the absurdity of our situations. We used a few curse words here and there (her more than me- just sayin') and didn't shy away from the seriousness of our illnesses. She told me how much she loved her doctors and nursing staff and I told her how much I loved mine, As a nurse herself, she allowed she may have been a “little” difficult as a patient in the beginning, but quickly learned to let them do their job.

As we settled into the longer-term care for our illnesses, our paths started to diverge somewhat. My results were very good, right from the start. Hers were initially encouraging, but didn't stay that way. She was home for a short period of time, but constant infections forced her back into the hospital. She had numerous transplants in an effort to get her bone marrow to start growing again. It had been destroyed at one point, but, unlike my own, it wasn't responding to treatment. She had no white blood cells and despite numerous attempts, they would not return.

At the same time, she was suffering infection after infection, and the decision was eventually made to let her go home. She wasn't going to get better and she deserved to be where she could see her beloved cats, and her gardens, and all the things that made up the life she and her husband had carved out for each other.

I continued to send her emails, though I knew she didn't have the strength to reply. But I wanted her to know that I still cared for her and was still thinking about her, and frankly, I didn't want to give up the connection. So the emails were chit-chatty and needed no reply. But as her conditioned worsened, it seemed like dealing with them would have been just another burden on her family. So I stopped.

Then her brother sent me the message that she had passed away at 5 am., quietly and in peace. Amen.

I have to tell you- we lost a shining light when this woman left us. The light was fueled by unimaginable courage. So many of you have talked about the courage you see in my writing, and I thank you for it. I look at Cindy and thank her for the courage she showed me, some of which I hope to be able to pass on to you.

The other huge thing I saw in her was her love for her family. The last days of her fight were for them, I think. It would have been so much easier to just let go, but there was no way that could happen. She wanted to give her family every minute with her that she possibly could, and she did.

She was as important to me and my recovery as anyone, except my wife, Sheri. I find myself sad at the end of each day now, because that was the time I gathered up the bits and pieces to put in my email to her for the day. I guess I'll stop doing that soon enough.

So, I've lost one more person who has been very important to me and I am certainly diminished by the loss. Oh... Did I tell you that I never met Cindy? Never. We made numerous plans for when she was well enough to come up here to see her brother, but the one time she was able to, she had way too many other things to do, so we settled on the next time. Sheri and I also offered to stop by the hospital when we were in Boston for one of my own checkups, but she asked us not to, and I certainly understood that.

Goodbye, Cindy.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Oh. Christmas tree!

And you asked me what I want this year

And I'll try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days

The Goo Goo Dolls

Thanks to my friend Maria, a lot of people have read about my embarrassing search for the perfect Christmas tree.

It started long enough ago that the particulars of how I came to write about the search for the perfect tree are foggy, but I know Maria was the one who made me do it. Whether it was because she was editing a particular Christmas supplement for our newspapers and needed material, or because it was easier than arguing with her about it anymore.

She's 5-feet tall, on a good day, if you squint, and measure in meters. She's an Italian-American from Brooklyn, NY, and... well... Let's just say she's feisty. She also has a huge heart, is incredibly loyal, and, when it comes to loving people, after my wife Sheri, my kids Jennifer, Alison, Kristie and Jason, there's no one I love more.

Anyway... There was space to fill in this special section and I put together a piece about my search for the “perfect” tree. Maria thought it was hysterical and, in fact, used it during more than one Christmas. I didn't think it was all that funny, and that some of what people were responding to was the fact that almost all of them had spent a similar amount of time trying to find their perfect tree, probably with similar results.

The real problem with the search idea was that I had actually found the perfect tree in the first one we bought. Janice and I, who were married at the time, found it just outside Geneseo, NY, where we were both trying to finish college. We paid $5.00 for it, at a time when I was making $1.15 an hour working part-time, and we were preparing for the arrival of our first daughter in less than a month. We used the price tag as an ornament. Perfect.

I don't know if that was pure luck, or our standards were lower, but it was never that easy again.

In the interest of time, let me just cut to the most horrible part- the hunting and foraging phase. Someone decided it would be great to head into the woods to cut own our own tree. I say someone, because I cannot imagine I thought this was a good idea. I had a feeling that “we” would become “me” once the terrain turned bad, sawing had to be done, and dragging was brought into play.

So let me ask those of you who have done, or still do, this. What's the biggest problem with the tree you get? Right. It is waaaaay too big. No matter how hard you try, you cannot get perspective when you are looking at one tree amid a forest. I mean, it can be the smallest tree for miles around and still be more appropriate for the town square than your living room.

This led to a number of years of Janice turning up the Christmas music in the living room, while I cursed my way through resizing numerous Christmas trees. A holly, jolly Christmas indeed.

The hunting-foraging phase peaked the year our younger daughter Alison and I went alone on a weekday afternoon to get our perfect tree. I should note that, in terms of snow, knee-deep is a relative term. What was knee-deep snow for me was shoulder deep snow for Alison who was about two-and-a-half years old. This meant carrying her for a ways, putting her down, going back to drag the giant tree, then carrying her, then putting her down and so on.

Well, as I'm sure you can imagine, that got old pretty quick. Then my big brain kicked in. Alison was little, the snow was solidly packed... so I simply dragged Alison across the top of the snow with one arm while dragging the tree with the other. It was perfect. Yes, she bounced a little bit now and then, and yes, she did sink in a few times, but I just made a big deal about her helping Daddy with the tree and, probably, told her Santa wouldn't like it if she complained (or told her mother).

I know. I know. It's no wonder I have trouble sleeping at night.

Once I was single again, and the kids were with their mom most of the time, the pressure was off. I bought an artificial tree, but had trouble getting it to stand up straight. So I got a coffee can, filled it with cement, and stuck the tree in the cement. Now that, brothers and sisters, was a perfect Christmas tree.

So, you're probably wondering, what does all of this have to do with my journey through cancer? Everything, actually, because I'm not just a cancer sufferer. I'm also the guy who dragged his young daughter across the snow when looking for a Christmas tree; who saw cement as an important part of the perfect tree[ and the guy who married the girl of his dreams.

I'm also the guy who has looked fear in the eye and laughed (ha ha) and looked fear in the eye and curled up in a ball and cried; who still tears up when he thinks of Samantha, the beloved cat that he and Sheri had to put sleep last year but who, a few weeks ago, was finally able to find a place amid the grief for seven-month old MacKenzie who helps make every sorrow we have right-sized.

I'm also the guy who can honestly say that when it comes to my life... cancer is the least of it. As noted in song by Emerson, Lake and Palmer: “Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell, the Christmas we get we deserve.”

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Anybody seen my path? I had it when I got here

I have another question for you.

Have you ever been going along, pretty comfortable with who you are, quite sure that the opinions you share with others are, if not Dali Lama deep, at least Salvador Dali deep? Then all of a sudden a voice in your head says, “Poseur.” Or maybe it says, “Poser,” or “Poophead” or “What are you going on about?”

Anyone? Anyone at all? It happened to me a few days ago. Actually, it's happened to me plenty of times. The difference on this occasion was that when you decide that the things you think about are of sufficient interest to others to have them printed in a column in the newspaper, or online... you better be sure that what you write has some value to anyone who isn't you.

Whaaaat?, I hear you say. “Not you, Jim Arnold. Of course your thoughts have value. You're brilliant.” Yeah, sure. Don't kid a kidder people. What if I'm not even all that interesting? Suppose I just had a limited number of semi-interesting thoughts stacked up over the years, and I've used them all up?

Well, I thought about that, and decided, no, regardless of what else, I'm still the person/writer I was when I began writing “Finding the Pony.” Technically, if anything, I'm a better writer now than I was a year ago. I certainly have become more serious about writing than I ever have been, and have actually thrown away a number of completed columns that just didn't feel write (get it?). There have also been dozens of false starts, an idea that was foreign to me in the past. If I started it, I was going to finish it, by cracky. And not to brag or anything, but I won awards for column writing in New York. Yes, the last one was 16 years ago, and, yes, I gave up writing columns when we moved to Maine, but give me a break. I'm having a crisis of confidence here.

So, if the writing itself isn't the issue, what is? Well, I think I might have gone off the path... a little bit.

When I started to write about having cancer, I had no idea what I was doing. I set up my blog and began to write.... about cancer! Better topics to write about aren't going to come along too often. Cancer has everything: life, death, joy, sadness, fear, hope, drama, comedy, longing, regret and so much more.

Okay. Let the writing begin! Ooops. Within a week, the editorial page editor of the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel asked for permission to use the blog, say, once a month. Sure, said I. After all, one of my motivations was to reach people who might not be able to express themselves, so the more the merrier.

Involvement with the newspapers turned out to be a game changer though. Instead of just writing for me, and a handful of friends (maybe), what I wrote was now being read by thousands of people... and it was being run on the editorial page every Saturday, not just once a month.

As the weeks went by, I began to get emails, cards, letters, phone calls from readers, most of whom I did not know at the time. You began to approach me and Sheri at the grocery store, the cancer center, on the street, in elevators... to tell me how much you enjoyed my writing. How much it meant to you. How helpful it was. And how many other people you know looked forward to it every week.

At first, that was okay. My writing had generated interest before, mostly positive, and it was nice to know that people were enjoying what I was doing. And I knew the praise would stop. It always has. Well, guess what? It still happens. A lot. Not only do people continue to tell me how much they like it, they ask me “Please keep writing. You help so many people.”

How did this happen? Who's responsible? I'm not the “Please keep writing” kind of guy. I'm more the, “That was fun, but it's become too hard. I think I'll quit” sort of guy.

When I was little, my grandfather used to show me how to candle eggs. If one didn't look right when held up to the candle, we didn't keep it. That's what I feel like now: If you held me up to the light from a candle, I wouldn't look right and you'd put me aside.

And that's part of losing the path. I began writing about how I felt and I think I'm now trying to write how I think you want me to feel. On top of everything else, it all seems a bit egotistical. So, I stopped writing. So what?, I said. Get over yourself I counseled.

Hey... Wait a minute. This doesn't sound like a pathetic attempt to generate compliments for my writing does it? Does it? Noooooooooooooooooo. Don't fall for it.

Great. Now I seem to have gone off my new path. Still, if, despite all I've just written, you feel moved to offer positive comments, you can reach me... Wow. I'm going to stop now.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Unmitigated gall? Mitigated gall? Tomato? Tomahto?

In the year-plus that I've been writing this blog/column, my wife Sheri has never, truly, asked me not to write about something. She's been my partner through many of my column-writing years, both in New York and here in Maine, so she knows that I need to write what I need to write.

By the way, this writing/not writing has never been about some melodramatic expose likely to bring hoodlums to our house to break things, including one or both of us, to get me to see the error of my ways. (I have had threats like that, but they were before Sheri and I met and mostly involved comparisons to Adolf Hitler, and/or his henchmen, so I'm not sure how serious they were.) Frankly, it isn't always easy to find something to write about each week. When I do come across an idea, I don't like to abandon it just because it might prove embarrassing to one or the other of us.

So, when Sheri asked me not to write about the hospital/medical stuff we were going through this week, I knew the request came only after considerable thought. I also sensed that this request was motivated by something other than what normally causes her to hope that I don't write about what she's pretty sure I'm going to write about.

Early on in our relationship, her main concern was that I not write something embarrassing, especially to her. When she saw that embarrassing was my middle name, she modified her wish. She asked me to just not write something that would make it uncomfortable for her to leave the house for a week, or more.

Hey, I'm a sport. I'm a player. I figured I could do that. And other than a column I wrote in New York about trying to get rid of squirrels using a method that involved a garden hose, a duct-taped extension, her leaning out over the edge of a roof while I (hopefully) held her to keep from falling, as we tried to blast a squirrel nest from a backyard tree during a violent thunderstorm... I've been pretty successful.

Sure enough, the latest request, presented while sitting in the gastro doctor's office waiting to try, again. to determine what, if anything, we could do about the pain in my stomach, came from a worry Sheri had about regular readers of the column. I asked her why she didn't want me to write about it. She was concerned that as we failed to make progress on a solution, people would become discouraged, worrying that maybe they would have to go through the same trial and error over what their ailment was.

I considered that a terrific answer/reason and it did cause me to pause for a moment. The last thing I want is for anyone to be discouraged by anything I write. Au contraire, as our French friends say, I want people to feel encouraged and supported by my writing. That's actually the main point of struggling to put a piece together week after week.

But, here's the thing... I decided I needed to write about this as I have written about every other aspect of my journey through cancer. Remember, I said in the very beginning that I would tell the story of what I was going through, at any point in this fight, as honestly and openly as I possibly could. How else, I figure, can people count on what I say to be credible.

Regular readers know I wasn't always the type of person I am now. Previously, my main goal was to keep you happy. If that meant being somewhat circumspect, well... it was for your own good, right? What you didn't know wouldn't hurt me. I wanted to control your pain and unhappiness. So I doled out the truth in pieces I determined were just right for you to take. My goodness. What an ass. That's the worst possible kind of ass-ness, by the way, because at first blush it can seem like a well-intentioned effort to help another person through pain and sorrow.

But it doesn't. It's wrong-headed. People have the right to suffer their own pain at their own time and in their own amounts.

So, you might ask, other than, blahbiddy blah blah blah humina squawk and fizz, what's it all about, Alfie?

It's about me telling you that I am surely going to have my gall bladder removed, even though we aren't 100 percent sure that it's the culprit. There was one more test Gastro Guy wanted to run, but it would have meant injecting my body with IV contrast to help the scan I needed and that was a non-starter. From the very beginning, I was told not to have IV contrast used during scans. The possible issues for patients with multiple myeloma include renal failure. I didn't even have to consult my well-worn copy of Reader's Digest's “Make Pain Disappear; Proven Strategies to get the Relief you Need” to know that renal failure was bad.

Now, the normal Plan B would be for me to drink a god-awful liquid that would produce the necessary contrast. But Plan B wasn't an option because... Well, I don't know because. I was just told, by yet another very nice nurse lady, that this next test was not Plan B-able.

So, it's time for there to be one less gall bladder in the world. Which is a great Plan C, if ever I heard one.

As to Sheri's concern: I hope you haven't found this search for a solution discouraging. There's no reason to when you consider that determining what it isn't can be just as important as figuring out what it is. Besides, I think the Masons have something to do with it and I know a guy.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, November 27, 2014

When is a great-grandfather not all that great?

I am not now, nor do I envision a future in which I might be, a great grandfather. And let me be clear... By that, I'm not discussing whether one of my grandchildren will have a child and I will become a great-grandfather in family lineage terms. That may happen, but it has nothing to do with this situation.

No, I mean I don't think I'll ever be a great grandfather in the sense of Facebook/bumper sticker/t-shirt messages. You know what I mean. The Facebook post that says, “'Like' if thinking of your grandchildren brings a big smile to your face.” Or, “Retired engineer, full-time grandpa.” Or even, “Ask me about my grandchildren.” Sure, you can ask me about my grandchildren, but if I have to go much further than their names, we're going to be on rocky ground.

I'm more the, “”Who are these children, why do they keep following me, and why do they keep calling me grandpa?” type. I've also considered a t-shirt that reads “I take my grandchildren everywhere, but they keep finding their way back.”

I'm sure you're smirking a knowing smirk, and telling yourself that would be quite bad if it were true and I wasn't just trying to be funny, while you're harboring the thought that it just might be true, which would allow you to feel at least a little superior. Well, here's the thing. As far as all that goes, it is true. I'm not terribly demonstrative about how I feel about my grandchildren. You should let smugness and superiority out of their cages! And don't waste a millisecond on guilt. Feeling proud of your grandchildren is a good thing.

Still, make no mistake- I happen to think my grandchildren great and I think they know that. I think their parents, my daughters and their husbands, know it too. The grandkids range in age from 17 to eight or nine, four boys and a girl. I do not dote on them, although I might if we all lived closer. I do not spoil them, ditto. I don't smile at the very thought of them, although I often laugh at many of the clever things they've said and done.

The way I treat them is, I think, a continuation of how I treated my girls when they were growing up. I had a difficult upbringing because of the way my mother was treated as she grew up. Her stepfather, my grandfather, was the town drunk, a violent and abusive man. My mother was never taught how to be loving and nurturing. She was taught to stay out of the way and take cover.

I didn't want to be like that, so I tried to strike a balance between discipline and letting them find their own levels. How did I do? My ex-wife would probably tell you I was too easy on them. The kids themselves? I don't know. They seem to have turned into adults I like to hang out with, raising kids who are loved and supported in all that they do.

My older daughter Jennifer, her husband, my son-in-law, Mark, and the three boys were able to visit us for this Thanksgiving. That allowed Jennifer to go with me to my monthly appointment at the cancer clinic to see what that was all about. Her sister Alison had visited me when I was in Brigham and Womens for my stem cell transplant, so now they had both gotten an up-close and personal look at my cancer and its treatment.

Jen's two boys, Jacob and Mathew, have been spending a week with us each summer for the past number of years. They missed this year because of my health issues, so they were very happy to be able to come up now, even if it was only for a couple of days.

By the very nature of those visits, we had developed a relationship with Jacob and Mathew that was different from that of the other kids. Sure, in time, the others will all get the chance to come and stay with us in the summer, but for now it was just the two older boys.

Therefore, when I was diagnosed with cancer, though I was concerned about how all of the kids would react, I had a feeling it could be worse for the two older boys- in part because they were... older, and also because we had spent quite a bit of time together without their parents around, time when my attempts to divert them from the straight and narrow were only mildly successful. They would not watch an R rated movie for example, without calling to get their parents permission. I was all “They're part of The Man and all The Man wants to do is keep you down. C'mon boys. Let's Up the Revolution and watch “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes!”

What did I get for my efforts? “Grandfather... There are rules. We must call mother and father to make sure they give their approval to our movie choice.” Okay, so that might be a slight exaggeration, but only slight. Instead of helping to raise budding revolutionaries, I was helping to raise budding Citizens of the Year.

I love these kids and I love my daughters, who are their mothers, and their dads, who are my sons-in-law. My girls grew into women about the same time I was wrestling with many of my own demons. There were times when, it seemed to me, that they're turning out as well as they did was a pretty close run thing. It wouldn't have taken an awful lot for them to have turned out very different.

So, yes, I love my grandkids, all of them. But, I personally don't need messages on clothing, crockery, bumper stickers or anywhere else, to remind myself of the fact. Besides, let's face it. When we wear the shirts, drink from the cup, put the 30-cent stick on our $25,000 car, those messages aren't for us. We know our grandkids are outstanding. We display those messages for the benefit of those around us. We want everyone else to know what we already know: your grandkids are the best. If you used your Captain Crunch Super Secret Decoder Ring on any of those messages, regardless of medium, you'd unravel some variation of: “My grandkids are way better than your grandkids so you can just suck it!”

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

No more curmudgeon for you

First off, I want to thank you for all the support and caring you offered me last week when I wrote about my “meltdown.”

Over the months I've been writing this, it no longer amazes me when people are kind or supportive about something I write. You have been wonderful about that. But, the compassion that poured down on Sheri and me last week was even more humbling than usual. Seriously. You are generous beyond words. So generous, in fact, that I don't feel comfortable being a curmudgeon any more. If you are going to be so nice to someone you don't know except through the written word, how the heck am I going to be all, “You don't really care. You're just saying that.” Or, “Yeah? Well, life sucks and then you die.” I can't. I've tried. You've taken all the fun out of being curmudgeonly.

Want to buy a “My curmudgeon can out snarl your curmudgeon” tee-shirt. I have plenty!

To update you on all that... As it turned out, the alternative the medical staff came up with worked. They were able to view my gall bladder function and saw that it was normal. That was actually disappointing to me, because I figured that malfunctioning gall bladder would be the solution to what is going on with my stomach. Then, we'd smash that gall bladder, or whatever they do to them nowadays, and let me pay the land of pain free a visit for the first time in over 14 months.

Besides, Thanksgiving is coming up. That would be a great thing to be thankful for! As we all know, my knowledge of anatomy and physiology is sketchy at the very best, but it seems to me that if my gall bladder is gone, not only would I have an appetite again... But, with the extra room, I would be able to cram in more food. Yes! Right, I know I have that extra spleen, but that doesn't take up much room. Besides, I've had that for countless Thanksgivings past. It's just that this year I know it's there.

Well, no. The palliative care doctor remains convinced that there is something wrong with my gall bladder, though, and so I'm scheduled to see the gastroenterologist on Dec. 1. True, that's too late for Thanksgiving, but I'm sure I can scrape up something else for which to be grateful (note the proper grammar??).

Did you see what I did there? Huh? Threw you a little curve ball. Didn't I? I intimated that without the obvious good news of my gall bladder being removed, I was going to have a hard time “scraping up” something to be thankful for. It was a ruse. A ploy, if you will, to get you emotionally involved in what came next. I'm sure they have a name for that sort of ploy in writers' school, but I never went to writers' school, so I couldn't tell you.

Fake ploy not withstanding, obviously, I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for the current state of my life.

The big thing heading into this time period last year was that I had no idea what my cancer was up to. Was it active, thinking about remission, going into remission, or “other.” I had no idea and wouldn't know until the first of the year.

But there were things I did know, and that I was grateful for. The love of my wife and my family and how much support they extended to me. I had friends to help, but at this time last year I had no idea how many nor how connected they were to me and my recovery.

Last Thanksgiving I was facing a tremendous unknown in my potential stem cell transplant. I mean, what the heck was it and what was it going to do for me. The general things I knew about it were both encouraging and daunting. It would help beat back my cancer, true, but it meant spending days in isolation and a long period of recovery.

It meant spending a lot of time in Boston and we had no idea where Sheri was going to live while I was in the hospital. We spent hours making phone calls, trying to keep the expense of spending a month in Boston within our weakening financial grasp. On top of a place to stay, we had to consider the cost of parking and meals, and this was all on top of the medical care I need.

Last year, we believed it would all be okay and that we would manage just fine. This year, we can look back and give thanks for all that was done for us. Friends gave us a place to stay, rent free. We were able to get assistance with the parking which would have cost us hundreds of dollars otherwise. We even were helped with the cost of gas traveling back and forth between home and the hospital.

The stem cell transplant went like a dream and was so successful that I was released a day early, the projected at-home recovery time was seriously shortened and I was able to re-start my life much sooner.

Last year, Thanksgiving was all about hope and trusting. This year it's about saying thank you for the hope and trust being true!

This year, for the first time in 30 years, one of my daughters and her family will be spending the holiday with us. That's one daughter, one husband, and three male grandchildren which = a happy Jim and Sheri. Maybe I should say happier, since we're pretty grateful for what we've been given every day of our lives. We hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and, if I may quote Warren Zevon again, "Just let us be brave, and make us play nice.”

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

OK. Cancel the waaaaahmbulance

Those of you who had Nov. 12, 2014, in the “When Does Arnold Have a Complete Breakdown During a Procedure” pool, congratulations! That's when it happened. The tie breaker, I suppose, would be the actual time the breakdown commenced and that was around 8 am. Good luck.

I cannot begin to tell you how bad the whole experience was. You each know I have been through so much in the 14 months since I was initially diagnosed with cancer. I mean, CAT scans, whole-body X-rays, MRIs, the test where they put a camera down your throat and into you stomach, or someplace nearby, I don't even remember. I've had bone marrow biopsies; note, I said “ies,” not “y,” biops-ies. I've had a Hickman line put in and taken out (although taking out shouldn't really count). I've had countless IVs. I've injected myself with a very painful stem cell fortifier. And, of course, I've had my immune system completely destroyed, along with the accompanying stem cell transplant. I know. We'll serve no whine before its time. Yeah? Call the waaaaahmbulance, right? “Get to Arnold's house, stat!”

But, without laying all of that out for you, I can't lay it out for myself. If I can't lay it out for myself, I couldn't possibly make any sense out of what happened during my hidascan on Thursday. Even at that, we have to back up to the day before.

After 1 pm. on the 11th, I couldn't take any pain medication because it would interfere with the way my gall bladder functioned. Since the whole idea of the test was to find out if my gallbladder was functioning properly, “No pain meds for you!”

Normally, that wouldn't be too bad, but both my stomach pains and back pains decided the 11th of November would be just the right time to come by and say “Howdy!”... at the same time. The end result- and I think this was an important factor in what happened later- was I got no sleep from the time I woke up on the 11th until the afternoon of the 12th. No sleep. None. Not any. Nada. Well, I'm sure you get the point.

The spasms in my back were nonstop; not big rolling spasms, but constant little ones that made it impossible for me to get comfortable. Fine. Lots of times, no sleep, no problem. This time, no sleep, big problem.

I don't know what I expected a hidascan to be, but it was nowhere near what it was. Again, I'm used to walking in to these things and dealing with them, whatever they might be. As soon as I looked at the hidascan machine, I knew I was in big trouble. It looked somewhat like a CAT scanner. I laid on my back and a camera was moved into position above my liver/gall bladder and The Nice Lady told me I had to lay still for 45 minutes. Then, they would put something into my IV, and I'd have to lay even stiller for another 31 minutes.

Honestly, I tried. I really tried, but I couldn't. The pain was terrible. Usually, I would be able to put my brain in a spot that would allow me to be distracted by anything bright and shiny. Nuh uh. Not this time.

After about 15 minutes, I had to call The Nice Lady back in and tell her I couldn't do it. I was embarrassed, slightly ashamed, concerned because I needed to have the test done and I was very emotional. I asked TNL to get Sheri, who was sitting in the waiting room.

When she left to get her, I started to cry. Really, cry. I know, that's not what you've come to expect from me in these situations. But, you know what? I think these tears were 14 months in the making. I have kept going and been cheerful and “tough” through all sorts of things. But this felt like the proverbial “Bridge Too Far.” I just couldn't be brave anymore. So I cried and cried. Then Sheri came in and the crying went to a whole 'nother level. I felt like I'd let her down, on top of everything else. We had put so much hope into this test; that it would find the source of my stomach pains once and for all. And here I was, sitting up, weeping, telling her I couldn't do it. Talk about a low point.

Of course, Sheri was worried about me and me only. The test? Whatever. It's only a test. She'd seen me cry before, but this was different. I'm not sure she'd seen me seem so beaten at any previous point in this ordeal. So, she took my hand, and I got big, soppy tears all over both of us. But that's when I knew I wasn't beaten. I'd just been knocked around... a lot. I mean, there was no “Theme from Rocky,” or even “Theme from The Care Bears Movie.” We simply decided, as we have so many times before, to just get on with it.

And we did. The Nice Lady, and The Other Nice Lady she was working with, were able to come up with an alternative they thought would work. I just had to stand (stand!) completely still for two periods of five minutes each and they thought they'd get the data they needed. Not ideal, but...

Well, in the interest of truth in pony finding, I wasn't completely sure that I was going to be able to do even that. But I did. Good for me!

This is another of those things I needed to write about as quickly as possible. The brain, being occasionally merciful, is already convincing the rest of me that... you know... it wasn't THAT bad.

But it was and, yet again, I thank God for my wife and the medical staff that is working with me as I take this journey. Let me say it again: “I Feel...eel...eel. Like...ike...ike... the luckiest...est.est.est on the face....ace...ace... of the

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Becoming a “better” person is tougher than I thought

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I thought... Well, I thought a lot of things. Diagnosed in September of 2013, I wondered if I would see Christmas. Obviously, that was very early on and was probably one of the first thoughts I actually had about it.

Then, as I became more aware of what I was truly dealing with, I thought having cancer offered me the perfect opportunity to become a better person, which in its own way was just as naive as wondering if I would be around at Christmas time.

And I'm not sure if being a “better” person was what I really meant. I think I was a pretty decent person at the time. I wasn't as angry as I had been for much of my life and I had certainly stopped taking my anger out on other people or pets, for the most part. I think I was a good friend, although you'd have to check with them. I was generous with time and money. I was funny and liked to make people laugh.

But, being sick, I thought I would stop dragging my feet when it came to doing things that were important. If I loved someone, for example, I would be sure they knew it. I think I even gave that advice to you in an earlier column. Turns out that really is a multi-layered task.

I had no trouble telling people in my life now that I loved them. I think, at least on some level, that I knew there wouldn't be too many surprises in that group. I mean, I figured most of them would say, “I love you too.”

See, “I love you” only has two appropriate responses: “Thank you” and, more importantly, “I love you too.” “I don't blame you,” is hardly an appropriate reply, for example. Neither is, “You and God knows how many others.?” And of course, “What's not to love?” is just plain lame.

What really makes saying “I love you” so risky is that your declaration may be met... with silence, or something non-committal like “That's nice.” Wow. If you're like me, you immediately want to take it back. “Yeah? Well, I just said that to see what you would say. I didn't really mean it.” The wrong reply makes you feel like a chump. Sort of like, I suppose, giving some kind of talk in front of a large number of people and realizing that your pants are unzipped, or the female equivalent thereof. What are you going to do? True, it's bad, but how is surreptitiously trying to zip them up going to make anything better?

So, as it became obvious that my multiple myeloma was going to give me time to take care of some of the second-layer “I love yous,” I started to put some serious thought to the task. There were people I had hurt, who had hurt me, or with whom I had just lost touch that I wanted to get to and explain. Explain what? Good question, but I know love was in there somewhere.

There are probably about eight people who would fit in this group. My mom and dad are both dead, so there is nothing to say or do, at least openly. Still, eight is quite a few. Fourteen months down the road, how many have I performed this important act with? Well, counting everybody, and leaving out my parents, that would be... none.

Hey. Don't judge! Besides, it's haaaarrrrddd. I don't even know where most of those people are. The fact that most of them are women who have probably changed their last names doesn't make it any easier. Again, I've done all the skimming-sort of things, mostly Google and Facebook. But, to be honest, I haven't tried real hard. I mean, I don't like feeling like I'm talking to a group of people with my pants unzipped, what's the rush? By the way, I've actually had my pants fall down in front of a group of people two or three times and that's bad enough (don't ask). And that doesn't count the incident in the hospital during my stem cell transplant.

Well, it's all fun and games until you find out someone you've been meaning to contact, someone you've known how to find all along, is very ill and may, in fact, not survive.

Here's what upsets me most about that situation at this point in my life: you'd think that someone with an incurable, albeit treatable, form of cancer would understand that you need to take care of these things now. Haven't I admonished others about doing it? What kind of person in my position fails to do that. Well, me, as it turns out.

I got word earlier this week that the man I have considered one of the most important in my life, since I first met him back in 1972, was sick and there was a good chance he might not recover. Damn! And double damn! All the excuses you've used for not getting in contact for 15 or so years sound... lame? Stupid? Embarrassing? All of the above and more? Yes.

As I tried to decide what to do about it I came up with a solution: don't bother. Don't bother with excuses; there are no good ones. “But, I have cancer.” Yeah, and as my mother would have said, “Have ye lost the powerrrrr o' yer hands?” Well, no, mum. “And whit aboot the otherrrr 14 years?” Yes, mum.

It was a horrible feeling, worse even than when my father died. My dad had been unavailable to me for most of my life; initially his choice, eventually mine (“The Cat's in the Cradle” kind of thing). But this man has guided me through so many difficult times in my life that they defy counting. Why did we drift apart. Me. That's kind of what I meant by thinking having cancer would make me a better person. I would deal with situations like this much better.

Well, no. But, then word came that he had made a truly surprising recovery, and had actually been moved to a facility for rehabilitation. I felt like Scrooge on Christmas morning. So, I did... nothing. Suppose I lay my feelings out and nothing comes back? Oy.

That lasted about another day. I swallowed my pride, ego, embarrassment, whatever and laid it all out to him in a letter. I told him all the things he had done for me, how important he had always been to me, and, yes, I told him that I loved him. I even mailed the letter right away.

Now, not to be crude, but I just need to keep my pants zipped and wait.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, October 30, 2014

What could clowns and Lou Gehrig possibly have in common?

O.K. So guess what I've been doing. Go on. Take a minute. Guess.

Those of you who answered, “Sitting thinking about all my fears” should... Wait. Seriously? Any of you thought that? Why that's... not right. Really. Why on earth would you think that?

Anyway, that's what I was doing. I was thinking about the things that make me fearful. Why? Good question. My answer: Who knows? I suppose the easy answer would be that it's around Halloween, the spookiest, kookiest time of the year. Do I strike you as a spooky, kooky kind of guy? Right.

Besides, I've never been a big fan of Halloween. When I was a kid, growing up in Scotland, our teachers always made us do some of kind of Halloween-themed craft project, usually a lantern. It never mattered much what the theme was, mine always turned into a horrible, terrifying lump of paper strips glued together: “Now, Masterrrr Arrrnold. Do we rrrrreally think that worrrrk is acceptable?” “No teacherrrr.” “Ah should think not.” Arrggghhh. One year we were supposed to make a spider. Hope was high for a while, but my spider ended up looking more like a lantern than any of my lanterns ever did.

But about these fears. I don't know why I started down that (dark and scary, for those of you who are Halloween fans) path. True, fears pop up now and then, but it's usually more of a Whack-a-mole situation: one pops up, you whack it with the mallet, it disappears, then another pops up. But, in this case, I was actually making a list.

Now, just by bringing such a thing up, I realize some of you may have started doing the same thing. Sorry. If you haven't, don't. Facing your fears and thinking about the fears you don't want to face are far from the same thing. Think about bunnies instead.

One revelation I did have, though, was that the fears at this point in my life are considerably different than what I would have listed even a couple of years ago. I mean, I'm still afraid of snakes, and there is still no actual reason for that fear, but I've had it for as long as I can remember. Adam and Eve, maybe? Mind you, on two continents, I have probably seen a total of five snakes in 65 years and each one was scurrying away from me as fast as it could slither (eew).

And clowns. I'm still afraid of clowns. I understand that a lot of clowns are involved in helping others, and most certainly devote a lot of time and energy to entertaining people. I do. I understand that. But, they still creep me out. They're usually so big and energetic. Even so, if they kept their distance, it might be okay. But they insist on getting into my personal space and trying too hard to make me laugh. It's called coulrophobia, by the way, the abnormal fear of clowns. Though says it looks like “the sort of thing idle pseudo-intellectuals invent on the Internet and which every smarty pants takes up thereafter.” Well, the smarty pants thing sounds somewhat familiar.

The fears that I need to confront today are deeper, more emotionally based.

I am afraid of losing any more loved ones. I guess that's always been running as a background script, but now it's very much to the forefront. Obviously, finding out how quickly one can go from thinking you're healthy to having an incurable cancer could do that to you. Linked with that, we had to put our beloved cat Samantha to sleep about a month before I was diagnosed with cancer. That was horrible. If you're a pet lover, you know what I mean. If you aren't, I can't explain it to you. I have actually shed far more tears over that loss than my own illness.

My reaction to this type of loss is, “Fine. I'm just not going to love anyone or anything again!.” You can probably see the obvious flaw in that plan, right? Even if you don't love anyone or anything else, you're still stuck with the loved ones you already have. Damn.

As bad as multiple myeloma may be, I don't think it even makes my top 10 list of diseases I wouldn't ever want to have. Number one, with a bullet as we used to say in the radio biz, is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. As I'm sure you know, with ALS your body slowly deteriorates while your mind remains strong and active. My big brain frustrates me enough now. I can't imagine not having someway to periodically dump some of the crap buildup. Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, polio, and, I'm sure, countless others I've never even heard of, would be higher on my list that multiple myeloma.

Sitting here, writing this, though, my biggest fear is that my multiple myeloma becomes active again before I'm ready. Yeah, I know, you're never ready, but, in some ways, you can be.

That one is pretty situational, though. I have my monthly clinic visit tomorrow, when they do the blood work that will tell us how I'm doing. Initially, I thought that the cancer becoming active again would be a constant fear, hanging over my head like the proverbial Sword of Damocles (whoever he was). It isn't, though. I don't actually think of it very often, but around my checkups it does tend to make a cameo appearance. I'm actually getting much better at letting things be that I have no control over, though.

One positive in this fear list thing is that I realized I no longer have inkafaceaphobia: the abnormal fear of ink from a restaurant paper napkin coming off on your face and having no one tell you about it. Look, we have to deal with our fears where and when we can. Cut me some slack.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Really. I have got to start paying more attention

My search for a cure for what ails me, stomach subdivision, drifted back to the more conventional side this week as Sheri and I went to a palliative care doctor. You're probably thinking, “A what?” I know, right? Prior to this experience, neither Sheri nor I knew what a palliative care doctor did.
In fact, until my Augusta oncologist suggested earlier this month that I go see one, I had never even heard of such a thing. But one of Sheri's friends had.

“Yes. She said a palliative provides end-of-life care.”

“Well. That's good to... Wait. What?! End-of-when care?”

“End-of-life. She says people normally see a palliative doctor when their illness has brought them close to death and he helps them deal with the pain- physical, mental and spiritual.”

“Well. That certainly seems like the type of thing I would use. Good to know it's available. I just didn't think I needed it now. I thought my oncologist said this new guy would help me deal with the pain in my stomach?”

“Maybe he does that sort of thing too. I'm just telling you what my friend says each time she hears me say you're going to a palliative care specialist.”

Look, I was 98% sure that I was to see this person to help me deal with my pain, but we all know paying attention isn't always one of my strengths. You mix in a large dollop of denial, and there is a chance, small though it may be, that I missed something. Just remember, my doctors and nursing staff told me over and over, from day one, that there was no cure for multiple myeloma, but it was a year before I actually heard them and processed what that meant.

Anyway, we went to the appointment, and once again found ourselves walking the corridors of the hospital, looking for yet another new office (with the help of one of the wonderful volunteers), past places we'd already looked for answers, past many people who seemed worse off than I was, to arrive at the latest location in our search for hope.

As I answered the usual intake questions, Sheri casually inquired what sort of doctor we were seeing.

“Palliative care.”

“Right, but what does a palliative care doctor... do?”

“Oh,” the nice lady doing the intake said, “End-of-life care, physical, mental, spiritual.”

I wish I could leave a large chunk of white space here. It would be the only thing that could adequately convey how we felt when she said that. Eventually...

Me to Sheri: Did you hear the oncologist say anything about end-of-life?

Sheri to me: No. I thought he said this was to help you deal with the pain.

The fact that Sheri was somewhat stunned was disconcerting. She's always the one who has the proper grasp on what's going on.

Me to the nice lady: I thought my oncologist sent me here to deal with my pain?

Nice lady: Well, he does that too. I'm sure that's why you're here.

Whether it was the way she said it, or the way I heard, her answer fell a little short of providing the comfort I'm sure she intended.

Then we met the doctor and the whole end-of-life thing became something we agreed we could make an appointment for in the future, hopefully the distant future, but for now he wanted to talk about my stomach pain. And talk we did.

Just so you know that I am capable of restraint: as part of his questioning, he asked what other specialists I had seen. I told him, but really, really wanted to add that I was going to see a voodoo specialist but I heard you had to bring your own chicken. (Sorry, it never gets old.) But I didn't! I did point out to him, however, that I was seeing him only after I had already seen an acupuncturist and a medical intuitive, so...

That was just me being an ass, by the way. Both those people had helped me a lot, and I'd actually made the appointment to see him before I saw either one of them. But, restraint is relative- you can look it up.

As we talked, Sheri and I felt our hope actually stay with us, rather than fading. While the tests showed that there was nothing physically wrong with my gall bladder, none of them really assessed how my gall bladder was working. In other words, it could be like that car you bought from the local shopper- it looked great, but didn't work so well. He also prescribed a medicine that would help deal with excess stuff (bile? Acid? Don't remember) that could be getting into my stomach.

Or it might be something else entirely. But at least it gives us hope that we might have found the long-sought solution, and in the Arnold house, we eat hope with a spoon.
There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

It's not how you start, it's how you finish

As Sheri and I considered how to celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary, history was hardly on our side. We rarely celebrate our anniversary or Valentines' Day for that matter. I'd tell you why, but you'd think it was corny and/or I was making it up, so...

We thought about restating our vows, but we wanted it to be private, without even a minister around, so that wasn't going to work. Besides, when it comes to writing those types of things, she's much better than I am and I didn't want to start off our 19th year with a resentment.

Given my recent concern over losing my sense of humor, I probably ought to address the old joke that many of you old joke fans probably have running through your heads right now: A guy is sitting at the bar of his favorite drinking spot and says to his cronies, “Yeah. I probably should be getting home. It's my wedding anniversary.” One of the guys asks, “How many years?” Our guy answers, “It's been nine happy years... Nine out of 23 ain't bad.” Bam!

Anyway, we kicked around some ideas before finally agreeing we should go to the Glimmerglass Opera House in Cooperstown, NY, the scene of our first date.

Now, some things you should know about that first “date.” First of all, we didn't call it a date. We were both 44 years old, which seemed like way too old to each of us to be going on a first date. Also, she and her husband were getting divorced after 26 years while a nine-year relationship I had been in ended about three months earlier. Dating hadn't been on the radar until I happened to get these damned tickets to the damned opera. So, we called it an outing. Yeah, I know, but since the whole thing felt like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, let's just give us a pass on the fact that outing and date, in this case, are the same thing.

The morning of the outing, I tried on almost every shirt/pants combination I owned, some of them twice, looking for the right outfit. I gave up and just settled for what looked the least wrinkled. I subsequently found out that Sheri had done pretty much the same thing.

I wanted to be on time, but not too early because that would make me seem overeager. So, I made the 25-minute drive to her house with 15 minutes to spare. So I went to a nearby drugstore, bought some Tic Tacs and ate the entire box while I killed so much time I was almost late anyway.

I got to her house, knocked on the door which was answered by her daughter Kristie who was headed out on a bike ride. “You be nice to my mother. She's a nervous wreck.” Well so was I, but I didn't know if nervous plus nervous equaled calm or if nervous plus nervous equaled complete disaster. Oh well, too late to worry about that.

Here's another thing you aren't going to believe but it is the God's honest truth. I had only seen Sheri dressed for casual occasions, but she always looked lovely. She came to the door that day dressed to go an... “outing,” and virtually all of my nervousness left me immediately. She was stunning. I mean... whatever comes after incredibly beautiful in the lexicon of beautifulness. One look and I knew there wouldn't be a second date. I mean, it wasn't necessarily the Beauty and the Beast, but it certainly was the Beauty and the What's That Gorgeous Chick Doing with a Guy Who looks Like That? So the pressure was off. There couldn't possibly be a second outing.

Anyway, we got in the car and she noted that my windshield wipers were tied on with two different colors of yarn; one was orange and one was black. Did I mention that Sheri has immaculate taste? Yeah, she does, so it was only normal that she would notice this and ask me about the yarn. “My windshield wipers keep flying off and I don't know how else to keep them on.” “But why is one tied on with orange yarn and the other black.”

I wanted to come up with some cool design concept to explain it, but I figured lying was no way to start a relationship. So, knowing I would lose an inestimable number of style points, I said “When the one flew off I had a piece of orange yarn in the car and when the other one flew off I had a black piece in the car.” Oy.

She was a bit guarded about men touching her, so I had admonished myself all the way over, “Don't touch her. Don't touch.” As I eased the car into reverse to back out of her driveway, I released the clutch too quickly, the car jerked, and I reached out and put my hand on her knee, as we used to do with our kids, pre-seat belts. It seemed like this would actually be a good point at which to stop the outing, especially after she yelled, “Are you out of your mind, touching me like that?!?!?!?”

But God obviously had a plan that even we couldn't screw up, because we made the two-hour drive, loved the opera (“Cosi Fan Tutte”), and spent about three hours sitting on a hill overlooking the opera house, talking about all kinds of things which somehow led to us living happily ever after, or at least happily ever to this point.

The opera house was closed, but we were able to walk all around the grounds and remembering that first outing. How could we possibly know what the next 21 years would bring? I would say we were just as unprepared for the extent of the happiness we would share as we were unprepared for her to develop type one diabetes and need an insulin pump and me to contract multiple myeloma and need a stem cell transplant.

But, I guess, that's the real truth behind happily ever after. You don't ride off into the sunset leaving any possible problems behind to live a silly fairy tale life. No. You join hands, trust and respect each other, face things, good and bad, head on and move through life daring anyone or anything to even think about trying to spoil your happiness.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, October 9, 2014

About “The Box”... Is outside the new inside?

Got a wang-dang-doodle wrapped in bog snake hide
This goat head gumbo is keeping me alive
I don't want your pity or your fifty-dollar words
I don't share your need to discuss the absurd
Rub Me Raw
Warren Zevon
I guess we don't need any of our new digital devices to tell us that there are bad people in the world, Right? Just for fun I Googled “bad people” and got 26,600,000 results in 0.31 seconds. Impressive, wouldn't you say?

I guess for my purposes, I'm interested in the bad people sub-category- “Taking advantage of people who have serious illnesses.” No need to use Google this time. I know there are people who prey on the sick: on the young and the old; the poor and the not-so-poor; the hopeless and the hopeful. Without doing even so much as my usual shoddy research, I'm quite sure that the common denominator in all of this would be that the sufferers are all desperate.

I don't think any of us would put these bad people in the dumb category. Au contraire, mon ami. The best of them know exactly when to make that phone call; write that letter; send that email. I'm sure you've experienced it yourself. When you're first ill, you have all sorts of options, most of them readily dispensed by your family doctor, or any of the specialists to whom he may refer you.

But as the illness gets worse, and the number of solutions dwindle, possible cures we considered ridiculous initially, now move over into the “Let's give it a try, what could it hurt, folder.” Take something as innocuous as the hiccups. “Sure, you can try to give me a sudden scare. But, I'll be darned if I'm going to drink my beverage from the opposite side of the glass.” Continue to hiccup, though, and pretty soon the front of your shirt is liable to be soaking wet.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I quickly drew the proverbial line in the proverbial sand. I'll do this, but I won't do that. For example, I'll consider alternative medicine solutions, but I won't try, say...voodoo, Because, as I understand it, you now have to bring your own chicken.

Anyway, these low lifes go around bilking people out of their hard-earned savings, while simultaneously giving them hope, the one thing they need so desperately. The fact that the hope is as fraudulent as their so- called solutions, raises category of their crimes from despicable to heinous. The best mentor I've ever had once told me, in answer to a question: “Sure. I believe in God. If I don't, none of this makes any sense.” So, the one thing we can all be sure of is that, if there is a heaven and/or hell, these people will be given trials that make Sisyphus's task of rolling a boulder uphill as ordered, only to have it roll back down... Well, let's just say that before the first day is over, they'll be begging for their own boulder and hill.

One of the bothersome side issues these people and their false treatments, their false hope, bring is that it can make us leery of some possibly beneficial alternative treatments that are considered by some to be a little outside the box.

In my case, I've been looking at non-traditional treatments for this constant stomach pain I have. My oncologists, as well as a variety of specialists, close to numbering double digits, have been unable to come up with a solution. Ironically, they have, if I may call upon the vernacular at this point, creamed my multiple myeloma. My blood work continues to look great, and the myeloma is hiding in my system somewhere, licking its wounds. But this stomach pain... I didn't hesitate to go to an acupuncturist because my wife and a number of friends have benefited from acupuncture. But when she conceded that she wasn't going to be able to help me, and recommended a medical intuitive, it gave me pause.

As a result of these Sisyphus gonna-be's, I needed to really look at that concern over fraud versus the recommendation of a woman who had done her best to help me, and admitted defeat quickly, only so that I could move on to give someone else a chance to help. It should have been a no brainer- someone I trusted versus the scum of the earth, with apologies to the actual scum.

And it ultimately was an easy decision. Sheri and I drove 50 gorgeous New England fall miles to be treated by this woman. The methods she used were certainly out-of-the-box. I won't describe them here because “You really had to be there.” Was it touchy-feely and New Age? You betcha. Was the woman wonderful? Yes. And kind, and caring, and loving. Did it work? Don't know yet.

The whole process gave me another chance to thank God and my friends and family for helping to make me the type of person who would be willing to try something unusual, rather than just sit, wring my hands, and feel sorry for myself. Other options remain, mostly back towards the more conventional side of things. However, there's nothing stopping me from checking out the best place to buy a live chicken, just in case.. you know. It rhymes with who do.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, October 2, 2014

George Bailey should have just paid more attention

You ever feel like George Bailey had it right the first time? (Before the stupid angel wanna-be butted his nose in.) The world would have been a better place without you. Or worse yet, you'd have been better off if you were never in the world.

I certainly have. We live in a tough old world, brothers and sisters, and if you get your butt kicked enough days in a row, you wouldn't be human, I don't think, if you didn't want to pull a George Bailey at least once in your life. Look, I think there are plenty of days when the bravest thing we do is to get up in the morning. For me, those are the days when I run through my morning checklist and realize there isn't a single thing on it that makes me think it could possibly be a good day. And I get up anyway.

I mean, that's what I've always done. I got up, when I was seven and knew the school bully was going to beat the crap out of me, just because he could. I did it a lot in high school, maybe because I hadn't read the book and handed in a report based on the movie, hoping to God that the two were close to the same. Or it could have been that I hadn't studied for a test on something I didn't understand anyway. Or when I extended my own school record for consecutive days without having a girl acknowledge my existence. And in a related example, I also got out of bed when I realized my only chance of getting a date was if I ran into a girl who was conducting some sort of social experiment to see if it truly was possible to make someone die of embarrassment.

And I don't think you have to have to have a terrible illness, or a broken heart, or any other “big” reason to feel George Bailey-bad; you just have to be a living, breathing human being, just trying to get by.

But brothers and sisters, life can also be wonderful. Maybe just for a few minutes, but maybe for hours, days, weeks... who knows. But I've become curious about how that's going to happen. I have no idea what terrific thing might happen today to make the past period of misery not even worth considering.

I'm not gonna lie. In mid-September I was about as done as a twice-baked potato. I kept going, as always, but in my mind somewhere was the thought that this would be the time something terrific wouldn't happen, and then what?

Well, then I experienced the following extraordinary sequence of events.

First, I got a phone call from arguably the best male friend I've ever had. We had not been in touch for 23 years. Yeah. Nada. No in touch. Turns out we'd both made attempts to find each other over the years, but this time he couldn't get over the feeling that he really needed to find me.

He now lives in Idaho, and the last he knew I lived in New York. He remembered, after all this time, that our daughter Alison's name was spelled with one “l” and that led him to her which led him to me.

We had always had a different kind of connection, more than close really. How did we drift apart? Don't know; we just did. But as we talked, it seemed like my getting cancer was somehow the driving force behind his not giving up this time.

Then, rather incredibly, a couple of days after we talked, he had a biopsy done on a mole and found out he has basal cell carcinoma. He seems okay with it and it does seem very treatable, quite curable. Still...

While continuing to reel from that shock, I checked my voice mail one day to find a message from my sister. Now, I won't bore you with the details of why I would have been less surprised to receive a message from my other sister, who passed away six years ago... Suffice to say I was stunned.

Here is how surprising it was. Sheri, one of the best people I know, heard me listen to a message but didn't know what it was about. I told her it was from someone pretending to be my sister, and she didn't tell me that I wasn't being very nice, which would be her usual reaction. She merely laughed, thinking it had been a wrong number and I was just trying to be amusing. When she heard me call my sister back, and it became obvious who I was talking to, she joined the ranks of the stunned.

I had called my sister when I went into the hospital at the end of April, and hadn't heard from her since. That was fine. That was normal. We used to go years without talking to each other. Truly. Years. But, this calling to find out how I'm doing... I don't know about that.

Still a bit wobbly after all that, I talked to my daughter Jennifer. Among other things, she told me she had heard from her college roommate who worked for a drug company that was working on a cure for multiple myeloma. So now we not only know that “they” are working on a cure, but someone we know is working for “They.”

That would have been a lot to miss and that is why I get out of bed every day, sometimes twice, if I take a nap: to endure the bad long enough for the good to arrive, because the good is usually terrific and the bad fades quickly.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

I didn't say I took my own advice, did I?

I have a couple of things to tell you before I go too far on this one.

First, I must make a confession. I am 65 years old- 65 YEARS OLD!- and here I am unable to go to bed when I want to because I have to do my homework. Seriously. In this case my homework is this column and if it is going to be in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel on Saturday, I have to get it to the editor now.

So many of you have come up to me in so many different, sometimes unusual, places, to confirm that it's me (and Sheri) and to tell me how much the column in the papers means to you; how much it has helped you; how much you enjoy it.

So blowing it off is not an option; well, not a serious option. I have known since last Thursday that I would need to get my column done by this Thursday. What is the matter with me? That's a rhetorical question by the way; no need to send me your answers. I do have feelings after all.

I can always claim the thrill of writing on deadline, but that ship sailed years ago. There was a time that knowing I was on deadline added an edge to working. Now, it just makes me wonder why I'm still doing it after more than three decades in the newspaper business.

Second, I guess I have an apology to make, but I don't think I do. I make it because I'm 65 years old, and while I may not have learned much about getting my homework in on time, I have learned a remarkable amount about treating my wife properly, while keeping her happy.. And, more importantly in this particular situation, keeping people who know us both happy.

Last week part of the focus on my writing centered on the Jimmy Soul song, “If You Want to be Happy for the Rest of Your Life, Never Make a Pretty Woman Your Wife.” I suppose you can see already how that might not have turned out as I'd planned.

In my defense, I thought that it went without saying that I hadn't taken the advice myself. It was strictly do as I say, not as I did. Honestly. However, it apparently didn't actually go without saying; not according to a number of you. “What the heck were you thinking?,” or variations on that theme were popular. “Why would you suggest something like that after all Sheri has done for you?” No. Wait. You missed the point... No one wanted to hear it.

Sheri seemed to get it. She may have suggested confusion in her comment on the column when it appeared in blog form, but I definitely didn't get the stink eye over it. Well, I thought I might have caught her preparing to give me one, but it doesn't count unless her stink eye slams you in one, or both, of yours.

So, I'm sorry I suggested any of my current happiness comes from getting an ugly girl to marry me. Look, Jimmy Soul died of a drug-related heart attack at age 45. If I was serious about getting marriage advice from pop/rock music I surely would have gone with John Lennon when he opined: “Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower, Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna, Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Alan Poe. I am the egg man, they are the egg men, I am the walrus.” That, my friends, is how you have a happy marriage.

It comes as no surprise that my “sense of humor” should cause me problems. After all, it did bring an already mediocre career in rock and roll radio to a halt when I got fired, at least in part, for a “humorous” comment I made at a company Christmas party. People laughed a lot, though not, it seems, the two new station owners at whose expense the comment was made.

But, I remain convinced that I'm a funny guy. I'd say ask anyone, but it might actually be better if you submitted names to me before you asked them about me and my sense of humor.

My confidence in that area can be shaken though. Just the other day, my local oncologist was reviewing my blood work and trying to figure out why he couldn't come up with a solution to the stomach problems I've been having. He seemed tense, trying to save my life and all, so I said to him: “I was thinking about going to a voodoo expert, but I understand you now have to bring your own chicken.” Nothing. Well he did say something that sounded like “Mumble, mumble, what.”

Not being one to give up easily, since the doctor's concern for my current and future health was more important that being amused by me, I decided to tell one of my nurses the joke, which I still thought was funny. Nothing, and she's normally funny. Nothing, until I explained it to her, but then, of course, it didn't seem funny even to me.

I went through a mini-crisis because funny is one of my best things. If I wasn't funny, who was even going to talk to me??!! Well, it didn't take long to get my confidence back. I just needed to fall back on some vintage material: “Two drunks walk into a bar. You'd think the second one would have ducked.” Bam! Who's funny now? Yeah. That's right. This guy!

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

I've made me so very happy

I've always felt unsolicited free advice was worth what you paid for it. I mean, it's one thing for you to ask someone for their thoughts or ideas, but something else entirely when they stick their nose in your business, usually by saying, “I know it's not any of my business,” or “I know you didn't ask what I thought, but...,” or something similar. Right?

Granted, sometimes the advice is sound: “Don't touch that, it's really hot,” for example. Sometimes, though off-putting, it could have some worth: “Don't eat the yellow snow.”

I stopped asking my dad for advice when I was VERY young, because he always told me to ask my mother and she always made it sound like any problem I was having was my fault: “If ye didne listen to that music of yours when ye werrrre supposed to be doing yer homework, ye might no have trouble with yer algebra.” Or: “That lassie's that nice so she is. And she's that smart tae. If yer havin' a harrrd time talkin' to her, maybe ye should be talkin' te some o' the lassies that aren't as clever.” Hard to believe she never put together a self-help book.

Anyway, I know it's none of my business, and I know you didn't ask what I thought, but I think you should do everything possible in your life not to settle for less that what is best for you. You're welcome.

This came up the other day when someone asked me if I'd learned anything special from having cancer. I'm not sure if I've learned anything “special.” but I do know I'm more determined than ever not to settle for less.

Notice I didn't say settle for less than what you want, right? I do that for a number of reasons, but mainly because what I want isn't always what I should have, let alone something that's good for me.

Once I realized that getting what I needed was far better for me than getting what I wanted, things started taking a turn for the better. I met and married Sheri, we moved to Maine, met people who would have tremendous influence on our lives. Those and plenty more, all without asking.

But... BUT...Finding what you need demands paying attention and, quite often, sacrifice; sacrifice of something you have or something you thought you had to have.

I hate paying attention; seriously. I end up hearing, seeing, experiencing all sorts of things I could have lived without, just to get what I needed.

And it's hard not to settle for something less, don't you think? Hard enough that we come up with all sorts of rationalizations when we do.

A relationship is okay because the two of you are comfortable together, and who wants to go through all that dating hassle anyway?

A job is okay because you make good money, and you feel about as secure as you think is possible in this day and age. Yeah, you hate coming to work each day, but being out of work sucks.

You'd love to try living in a different part of the state, or even a different part of the country, or the world, for that matter, but... It's scary. You'd be leaving people you know and love. You're secure where you are, comfortable. Still, it would be nice to see what it's like living in a completely different place.

Believe me, I get it. Being secure is important; comfort is nice. But, just think: You're favorite baked good is wonderful, until it goes down the wrong hole and you start coughing, snorting and spewing because you can't breathe.

As I said, I'm hardly the person to be telling you what to do. I'm the last one I usually listen to when trying to make a decision.

Since I got sick, though, I've really come to see the amount of crap we have no control over. There is so much this and that we have to do, or get arrested, fired or told “this relationship isn't working and I think it's because of you.” The amount of life stuff we even have the option of settling on is very small. So, we don't get much practice, one way or the other.

I feel a spunky bit coming on and we all now how much I hate spunk. But, what all this blah, blah, blah comes down to, it seems to me, is understanding that our happiness is our responsibility. I chose where I live, who I have a relationship with, and I used to choose the job I had. If I'm not happy with any of those things, or countless others, I'm the only one that can do something about it. Sure, I can wring my hands together. I can point fingers at others. I can say, “If it wasn't for (fill in the blank), I would be happy.”

In the end, though, be happy or not. Your choice. Of course we have all been given a terrific piece of advice, possibly life-altering advice, back in the spring of 1963 when the soon-to-be-drug-addled Jimmy Soul advised: “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife. So for my personal point of view, get an ugly girl to marry you.” Amen, Brother Jimmy. Amen.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”