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.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Help arrives with dialing back the “Me” meter

I'm not gonna lie to you. I'm tired.

And it's not the type of tired taking a nap is going to help. Believe me, I'm good on naps.

But when I wake up, the things that are making me tired are all still there.

I still have cancer, obviously. But I actually think I can manage that. It is such a big thing that, maybe, my expectations of what I can do about it are pretty low. I can't really do anything about it... Expectations met!

When I was a lot younger, the Chinese Water Torture was all the rage. It was in movies, television, books, real life: water dripping onto a person's forehead, one drop at a time, until they can't take it any more and start screaming out what the torturers want to know. And the torturers didn't even have to be Chinese. In fact, they rarely were.

That's what the things that are sapping me feel like: one little thing after another until I just want to scream, but I don't really have the energy for that either. Besides, where I live... no one can hear you scream. Well, Sheri could. But when she's with me, the drip, drip, dripping seems more manageable, less scream inducing.

Can I give you examples? Sure. But if you have any idea what I'm talking about, you have your own examples: the car needs an oil change; the library books have to be returned; you need another prescription filled; your computer has a virus you can't get rid of; you've got emails or letters to answer; there are a couple of bills you have to sit down and pay; the lawn needs to be mowed; that basement light bulb that burned out in April still needs replaced; and on and on. Not a single one of them is worth much worry; put them all together... it's scream time.

And if you don't have any idea what I'm talking about, there aren't enough examples in the world to explain it to you.

So into this environment comes a truth so obvious, you would think it would have been one of the first things I would have thought of when I started to feel this way.

See, all of this comes from being self-absorbed. Me, me, me, all day, all night Marianne (calypso anyone?). My computer, my car, my light bulb, my cancer, my stomach problems and on and on. Each issue starts with “My” and ends in some semblance of despair.

I got an email from a man I don't know. He had just found out that his multiple myeloma had gone from a “pre-” state, to full blown. He had been reading my columns and wondered if I could give him a call so he could talk to me. The truth that I once thought I couldn't forget, but did, hit me like the laughter of my tenth grade health classmates when the teacher told the whole class that my answer to the question about the name of a poisonous snake common in swamps in the South was “Cottontail.”

When you're self-absorption meter is so out of whack it looks like an outtake from a Bugs Bunny cartoon complete with “BOINGGGGGGGG!!!!”, step back and see if you can help someone else. Duh. Would I ever have remembered that if I hadn't received the email? Like the answer to whether or not I would behave properly in a situation which called for bravery, I'd like to think yes, but more realistically it would be maybe.

Of course I called him and probably didn't offer much real help, which is one of my best things. He asked me some questions and I told him what I did, or would do, in similar situations. Mostly, he told me what he felt and how he was dealing with things and I told him he sounded great, which he did. One of the first things I said to him was that I wouldn't lie to him just to help him feel better, and it turned it he didn't need me to. He had a terrific grasp of what his situation was and what he needed to do. Good for him.

I asked about his wife and how she was managing with it, because it is surely a “we” disease, and again, it sounded like they were solid on things.

As irony would have it, though we talked for quite a while, I did have to cut it short because I had to go for my monthly visit/treatment at the cancer center. I said he could call me anytime and he said he would, and maybe he will.

I do hope I helped him because he did so much good for me. He got me to turn down the volume on the “me/my” meter, at least for a while. I was able to remind myself that so many of you who are reading this are also engaged in a battle of some sort involving your health, your family, your financial difficulties, your ability to simply keep going in a world that often seems preoccupied with giving you reasons not to.

But here's the thing: as broken, sad , fearful, lost, sick as we may be... as long as it's “We/Ours” and not “Me/Mine,” we're going to be okay. “We” gives us a pot to capture all those drips, one at a time. And , yeah, if WE have to, we can also set up a communal scream. That might actually be kinda cool!

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 4, 2014

Well, that was a heck of a year

Don't let us get sick

Don't let us get old

Don't let us get stupid, alright

Just make us be brave

And make us play nice

And let us be together tonight

Warren Zevon

September 5 will mark the first anniversary of my being diagnosed with cancer.

I know what you're thinking. Is it paper that you give after one year? I know it isn't tin... What? Tacky? Maybe. But if you've been following this for the past year, or even part of the year, you take offense at your own risk. You've certainly had plenty of opportunities to be offended and stop reading. Thank you for not, though.

How do I feel one year down the road? Good question. For one thing, I thought the road would be much more direct. I thought, “I have cancer and we'll come up with a treatment plan and follow it and there you are.”

Now, I look at that thought and wonder, “What in your life experience to that point could have made you think that could possibly happen?” Wishful thinking? Hopeless naivety? Blind faith?

Right at the very beginning, a friend of mine named Pinky... His name is John, actually, but everyone who knows him calls him Pinky, not sure why... A friend of mine named Pinky told me to be prepared for what I knew was going to happen because what I had no clue about would knock me on my butt. He would know. He and his wife both survived terrible illnesses and supported each other while they did so. It's certainly proved to be true in my journey..

Surprises have been more of a constant than... well... the constant. When all is said and done, though, none of that really matters. Damaged chromosome? Doesn't matter. Negative reaction to medications? Doesn't matter. Having influenza A and food poisoning in the same week, followed closely by a broken collarbone? Doesn't matter, doesn't matter, doesn't matter.

What matters is refusing to be defeated by any of it. So far, so good.

As part of “The Year in Review,” I've been re-reading the blogs I've written. There were some constants in the writing: my attitude remained positive; I was thankful for the medical staff who have been helping me; I have been buoyed by the letters, emails, Facebook posts and so on from so many of you; wishing me well, offering prayers and so many of you I didn't know when the journey began; the love and support of my wife and children.

In regards to my wife Sheri- in the beginning I said I felt that it was We who had cancer, not just I. That has certainly proven to be the case. We have gone through a lot together and continue to do so.

In my early writing, optimism and positive thoughts seemed to be easier to come by. There was a clean feel to the writing, uncluttered by random feelings and emotions. The path was clear and we were on it.

With time, though, the writing seemed to become less so. Fear, anxiety, extreme fatigue, persistent pain and discomfort, nausea, all took their toll. Neither my writing nor my mood became particularly dark, but there was more of a sense of what the stakes were. I was literally betting my life on all this stuff and I had moved all in.

Multiple myeloma is incurable. It doesn't really go into remission, my doctors tell me. It sneaks off and hides, but there is always some of it in my system- though we don't know where- waiting to come back and ruin an otherwise lovely day.

Looking over the past year gives me a headache, and we still haven't discovered anything about my constant stomach pain. There's another thing- If you'd told me in October that I would do all the right things, take all the right treatments, have a tremendously successful stem cell transplant... and still feel this lousy because of a stomach ailment most likely unrelated to my cancer? Well, I don't know what I would have said, but it wouldn't have been fit for your kids to read, I can tell you that.

My scheduled colonoscopy was canceled when I threw up all 64 ounces of pre-procedure liquid the night before the event. I would have to reschedule. All the fasting, liquid diet and bland food were for naught. We are still trying to reschedule. Pinky's admonition came to me again. I've faced what I was prepared for, but tossing up 64 ounces of anything wasn't in the plans and my butt is starting to hurt.

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.”