Thursday, January 29, 2015

They just don't make haggis like they used to

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak yer place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my airm.
Address to a Haggis
Robert Burns
As I believe most of you know, I am originally from Scotland. I came to America, with my parents, in 1963 to join my sister who had been here for a couple of years. I turned 14 about 10 days after we got here. If there is a worse age at which to totally uproot someone from all they ever knew, I'm sure I don't know what that age would be.

It was a tough situation to be in. In school, for example, I went from an environment where we were expected to stand whenever the headmaster entered our classroom, and teachers used corporal punishment to maintain discipline, to a place where a kid was stabbed in my home room. Why was he stabbed? Well, as I would have said at the time, “I dinna ken (I don't know),” but the story that went around was that it had been the result of an unfortunate accident. The kid tripped and fell on the knife...14 times. Hey, I'm not saying I believed it, I'm just telling you what I heard.

You would think that speaking English would have been a big plus. Right? Well, maybe not. Initially, my Scottish accent was thick enough that I might as well have been speaking a foreign language, especially if my parents were around, because the accent got thicker if we outnumbered the Americans in any given situation. My friends would nod and smile as they listened to my parents, but most of the time they didn't have a clue. “Can ye bide a wee bit to have some gammon and totties fur yer tea, hen?” could easily bring the answer, “October 13th,” when in fact my friend had just been asked if she could stay a little while and have and ham and potatoes for supper. Oh, how we laughed. McHa, McHa, McHa, McHa.

I tried very hard to lose the accent, right from the get go. It seemed people were less interested in what I was saying than how I was saying it. Also, I wanted to be a rock and roll disc jockey and, in those days, you had to, as George Carlin has said, sound like you were from nowhere.

I really came to love living in America, but there were, certainly at first, some funky things about being a stranger in a strange land. For example, we had to confirm our resident alien status by filling out a form at the post office every January. Why the post office? You tell me. I know it's still about the easiest place to get a passport, if that gives you a clue.

Also, I was ineligible for certain scholarships, grants and student loans because I was not a citizen. The biggest thing was probably being able to be drafted while not having the right to vote. It seems like that should have been a matched set, but it wasn't. Uncle Sam might have been a distant relation, but he was always able to come around when there was war work to be done.

All this comes up now because this time of year is when Scots and people who wish they were Scots, gather for a Burns Supper to honor Scottish poet Robert Burns. The centerpiece of the evening is when The Haggis is brought into the hall, accompanied by bagpipers. Before this main course is consumed, someone will read Burns' “Address to a Haggis,” and a terrrrrific time will be had by all.

Except, since 1971 when the USDA ruled [l]livestock lungs shall not be saved for use as human food,”  one hasn't been able to get a true haggis in the United States. A haggis is made by mincing and stuffing sheep offal (lungs, heart,liver, suet) along with oatmeal, onions and various spices, into a sheep's stomach and baking the entire thing.

I know what you're thinking. Yum, right? And, why is the government interfering in our ability to enjoy such a marvelous dish. I think it's because they can.

I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to guess, that the amount of outrage generated by this particular governmental interference was probably easily contained. I mean, I've never eaten haggis and don't see doing so in the foreseeable future. How many people have? Besides, I only found out about this cavalier act a few days ago when I tore a page out of a magazine in my doctor's office that told of the ban. Yeah. You heard me. I tore a page (well, part of a page) out of a magazine. It was the Scot in me rebelling against the Sassenachs. What can I tell you?

All this Scottish-ness has led me to actually consider this: Would I still have gotten cancer if I had never come this country? Look, I know it's a ridiculous thought, one that can't be considered in stand alone fashion. This country has provided me with everything that is of importance to me, so to pick out one bit like that is pointless. I get that. Still, is seems at least as worth an answer as “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”

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, January 22, 2015

Does taking psyllium husk powder indicate desperation?

The sky was on fire
When I walked to the mill
To take up the slack in the line
I thought of my friends
And the troubles they've had
To keep me from thinking about mine
Warren Zevon

Regular readers may have noticed that I really haven't written much about having cancer recently. How about that. And really regular readers my have noticed I haven't written much about my stomach pain either. So, what's up with that? As usual, you guys ask good questions. Actually, you probably haven't missed hearing about either, but, since the subtitle for my column refers to “my journey through cancer,” I figure it's bad form not to at least keep you up to date on what's been going on.

First, my stomach ailments. I'm not sure where we were when we last addressed this ongoing melodrama, so let me just say where we are now.

You know we'd tried all sorts of things and were getting nowhere. The gastroin..gastrointes..stomach guy, asked me to come in and we did. Whenever we get to see a doctor, Sheri and I both have some hope around the visit. With my cancer, it makes sense because we have had so many positive visits in a row. With the stomach issue, it makes no sense. None. Not any. Look, if we were playing Stump the Doctor, we would be the Ken Jennings of StD (I know. Ignore it. Let's just keep going.), you know- the guy who set all those records on Jeopardy. Well, as my Kilbirnie granny used to say: “If a frrrog had wings, it widne hit it's backside on the grrround everrry time it jumped.” True enough, granny.

Anyway, this time the gastro guy said we probably should take out my gall bladder. He couldn't find anything wrong with it, but he thought maybe it should come out. So, he sent me to yet another surgeon. We thought it was just to set up a date and time for the operation. Hahahahahahahahahahaha.

He said he wasn't going to take my gall bladder out because he couldn't see anything wrong with it either, and, therefore, he had no reason to remove it. My thought was, “Hey. It doesn't really do anything anyway. Out with it!” His thought was “No. If I started removing parts of people because those parts weren't working, I'd be scheduling a lot of brain removals.” As you might guess, he didn't really say that. I made the brain removal part up. He did say no, though, that he wasn't going to remove a seemingly healthy gall bladder.

I wanted to ask him where he stood on second spleens, but for once I kept my mouth shut. The obvious question then became, “Well. What do you suggest we do instead?”

“Fiber!” he proclaimed- seriously, it was like a proclamation, the way he said it- “And lots of it.”

“And 'a lot' would be how much, exactly?”

“Forty grams.”

He was a big believer in fiber and felt that it kept people from having a lot of bad things happen to them. He seemed to think getting that much fiber in my system would not be difficult, so, as always, I said, “Alrighty, then,” and set about researching fiber content in things, beginning with the supplements we see advertised all the time.

I went to the pharmacy and checked out the contents of said supplements, in terms of fiber. “0.5 grams per tablet.” Cool. That meant I would only have to take... Wait a minute... What? That can't be right. I would have to take 80 a day. Ever the optimist, I looked at the details on other brands. They all said the same thing, more or less.

As I considered options, I figured I'd be okay as long as there were discarded Christmas trees by the side of the road, I could gnaw on, but then what? Well, I did find some of things that work and only one of them is kinda disgusting- psyllium husk powder, which pretty much goes down the way it sounds like it would. You dissolve it in water and it's a bit grainy, but I've had to drink worse. And it's seven grams!!!! I do wonder, though, who first saw psyllium husk, and thought, “Hey. Let's pulverize this into a powder, add it to water, then drink it.” In fact, who ever thought about psyllium husk for any reason?

So, I've got the fiber thing under control, but, unfortunately, it isn't working either. My palliative care doctor and I keep missing each other's calls, but that's the next step. Back to him and see what else we can do. I'll probably keep consuming the fiber because... Well, why not?

As far as my cancer goes... All seems to be going well. My blood work has been excellent and wherever the multiple myeloma is hiding, it seems to be behaving itself. So, there's not a lot to say. I mean, good news seems to have a much smaller vocabulary and takes less explaining.

I do have my monthly check-up in a couple of days, and that always creates a bit of wariness. I have my blood work done and get an IV dose of my bone densifier, which sometimes creates some pain, but good pain in that it is helping to heal my bones.

Other than that, we're just trying to bring some normalcy to our lives. We don't talk much about my cancer, not because of fear or denial, but because it is now right-sized. We simply want to be Jim and Sheri, fabulous, must-invite couple, rather than poor Jim and Sheri, having to deal with Jim's cancer all the time. If you must feel bad for us, think, “Poor Jim, having to drink psyllium husk powder every day.”

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, January 15, 2015

I mean it. Mend those fences NOW

For the second time in three weeks, I find myself trying to express the sense of loss I feel over losing someone important in my life.

First my friend Cindy lost her battle with leukemia. Now, I'm trying to come to grips with losing a man who has been in my life for over 40 years, most of them as a mentor to me. My friend Dick Manville died a few days ago at the age of 88 and I miss him terribly.

Before we moved to Maine in 1998, he was closer to me than any other adult figure I've ever had in my life, including my own parents. It wasn't moving to Maine that changed that, by the way, it was me and my stupid pride. Shortly after we moved here, Dick's father died. Instead of calling him as soon as I found out, I put it off and put it off. By the time I did call, it didn't feel right, even to me. It sounded contrived, though I didn't mean it to be. I got the feeling Dick was disappointed, though I don't remember him saying anything that would make me think that. The truth is, I behaved poorly towards someone who deserved much better, and I knew it.

But, hey, those things can be fixed. Twenty-six years of closeness doesn't disappear because of one bad interaction. All I needed to do was call, or, heck, even write and tell him what I thought, apologize, and then we could laugh through it, just as he had helped me through so many of the tougher experiences in my life. And while I was at it, I could have told him how much he meant to me; how much I loved him; and, because of the way he had always treated me, how many people I came to treat with grace and respect.

Yup. All I had to do was call or write. But, you know... One year became three. Three years became six... No one ever says there's a statute of limitations on making those kinds of amends, but, as far as I'm concerned, there is. My pride swelled to a size that seemed unswallowable. It would be too embarrassing after all that time. He might say something that would hurt my feelings. Why shouldn't he? My behavior was a textbook example of men behaving badly.
This was a man, who along with his wife, Carol, allowed us to use his beautiful home on Cape Cod for our honeymoon. In the years that he and Carol had owned the property, we were, at that time anyway, the only non-family members to whom they had offered that wonderful gift. Not only would he accept no payment, he met with me two or three times to be sure I knew the ins and outs of the house, and all the best places to go on the Cape to save us time, since we only had a week. So how could calling him to apologize become something too big to be able to do. I do not know. I swear to God, I do not know.

I worked as a newspaper editor for Dick for 13-14 years, over three separate spans with the company. The one consistent fact in each tenure, was that I did many things that made people angry enough to call Dick to complain about me, mostly because I thought I knew more than you did and didn't hesitate to put it in the paper. The first, and worst, was after we were finally able to establish a local office for the newspaper I was editing. It literally took decades before we were able to get space in the back of a real estate office.

After we had it for a couple of weeks, I decided that would be the perfect time to write a funny column about what one of the real estate agents was going through to try to find a house for me and my family to buy. This was my first exposure to the power of the printed word, as well as how “funny” was a relative term.

Our real estate landlords were quite succinct in their reaction to the column. “We've thrown your desk in the snow. We've thrown your phone in the snow. And if Arnold walks into this office any time soon, we'll throw him in the snow.”

Dick called a meeting of the five people this most affected, including me. I was fully prepared to resign and skulk out of town. I didn't get the chance. “Well, this is bad,” Dick said, hardly overstating the situation. “Someone's going to have to fix this, and it isn't going to be me.” And, just in case there was any lingering doubt who “someone” was, he pointed to the other three not-me people in the room, one at a time, and said, “And it isn't going to be you either.”

Scared as I was, I did it, learning a very hard, but memorable, lesson about accepting responsibility. We got our desk and phone back, and I never did end up in the snow, although I may very well have set some sort of record for groveling. One the amazing things in the end, is that Dick never brought it up again. And even more than that, he never censored anything I wanted to write, no matter ho controversial. He asked only that he saw if before it ran so he could be ready when people called all upset about it. Deal.

Surely writing an email to someone who supported you like that must have been a pleasure to be able to do. Well, no. Saying that now, I feel like an even bigger idiot and my heart hurts even more for not having taken care of it.

Still, the man died and I ran out of “tomorrows.” When I heard he had been admitted to the hospital through friends on Facebook, I was able to write the letter I should have written years before and sent it to his family, priority mail, which felt tacky, but for once, my pride didn't get to make a peep.

I heard his wife had read the letter- it was actually written to both of them- and I understand she was very moved by it. I don't know if Dick heard it or not. While it did make me feel somewhat better, it still felt... inadequate, late, like a 65-year-old guy with cancer trying desperately to fix something that couldn't be fixed. And maybe that's what it was. I don't know if Dick knew I had cancer or not. There was a time when, after Sheri and my friend Maria, he would have been the first to know. That time was not now.

One of the first things I wrote when I knew I had multiple myeloma, before my doctors were able to at least get it under control, was that you, readers, should mend fences with old friends and/or family members while you still could; that to wait was a big mistake. Well, I guess I can now tell you I was right; it's great advice. Frankly, brothers and sisters, I can also tell you that being right isn't what it used to be.
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, January 8, 2015

Laryngotracheobronchitis? At my age?

Did you hear the one about the guy who walked into the doctor's office. He already has a pretty rare form of cancer called multiple myeloma, an even rarer genetic defect caused by a broken chromosome, two spleens and a stomach ailment that seems to be baffling modern medicine.

He says to the doctor, “Doctor, my throat hurts.”

The doctor asks, “Does it hurt when you cough?”

“It does.”

“Then don't cough.”

Ha! Who says vaudeville is dead?

But, as so often is the case, it seems, I'm making fun of a semi-serious situation. I did end up going to the doctor this week because my throat was really sore, I sounded like I'd been chewing glass, and was having a really hard time getting out of bed in the morning and staying awake during the day.

This was the doctor who diagnosed my multiple myeloma in the first place, so I have a lot of confidence in him. He had me spit on a stick, or swab my cheek, or something, and then we waited to see it was going to be a boy or a girl. Well, not that, but it did have to cook for a while before he could tell me what it was.


Of all the ailments I've had in the last 16 months, that's certainly the one that's used by far the most letters, I thought, even as I wondered what the heck it was that he had just said.

'I don't suppose it has another name. One that I could pronounce, maybe?”

“The croup.”

“Oh. That's okay if it's... Wait. What? Say that again.”

“You have an adult version of the croup.”

“I thought only little kids got the croup.”

“Well, you would seem to be living, breathing, albeit with some difficulty, proof to the contrary.”

he croup. It sounded positively medieval to me; like the cure would involve reptile body bits, some sort of locally grown fungus, and a drop of something from a bottle with a skull and crossbones on it.

“The cure is to let it just run its course. Take in fluids and get plenty of rest, preferably in a humid environment. And exposure to cold, if you can.”

I thought humid air might be a problem, but, Sheri, of course had the answer: a vaporizer. It's been spewing out cool, moist air for a while now and it seems to help. Of course, Sheri also told me to stick my head out the window and suck in some cold air. I think that was right after I'd whiningly asked her to get me one more thing than she was capable of managing while maintaining her own cool demeanor.

As I was pondering how the heck I managed to get the croup, Sheri reminded me about one of the aspects of my stem cell transplant that hadn't yet come into play.

“Your entire- that's entire- immune system was destroyed, remember? Including all the things you were vaccinated against as a child. You have to have all those baby shots again.”

Oh... right. And on the same schedule: 9 months, twelve months and so on. The first to be redone is DPT, which I am due to have done in February.

Interestingly enough, as I was reading about croup online, I read that the severe decline in the number of adult cases was thought to be linked to the increase in immunizations against diphtheria, as that disease was at one time a dominant cause of croup.

The reading I did also said it is virtually unheard of in anyone over the age of 15, probably because virtually everyone has been vaccinated by that age. I am determined not to think about all the other childhood stuff I've already had or am now susceptible to once again: chickenpox, measles, TB, rubella... Well, maybe “not think” is too ambitious a goal. Maybe, I am determined “not to obsess” about those things. Yeah. That even feels better. No obsessing here. Though, chickenpox...

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, January 1, 2015

New Year's Eve? Oh wholly night!

We've made mistakes
But we've made good friends too
Remember all the nights
We've spent with them?

It's Just Another New Year's Eve
Barry Manilow (!!)

I know what you're thinking. Barry Manilow, Arnold??? Barry. Manilow. Did something happen to you over the holidays? Did you bump your head? Hard!!?

Let's just take a step back, everyone. Before he became kinda fake... Okay. Maybe he was always fake, but at one time I found Manilow's fakeness had a certain charm. And, okay, true, he did not write “the songs that make the whole world sing,” though later in the same song is the lyric, “I write the songs that make the young girls cry,” and I can believe that..

Wait. I just realized... This is a lot like the time I made critical comments about “Close to You,” by the Carpenters. You probably danced to a Barry Manilow song at your wedding. But, hey, look... I'm quoting one of his lyrics!! Isn't that nice, Barry Manilow lovers? Huh? Isn't that a nice thing for me to do?

Of course, while “It's Just Another New Year's Eve” has everything to do with what I want to write about, the Barry Manilow critique does not. But here's the thing...I am a music snob. Big time. With the exception of jazz, I am open to virtually every type of main stream music. However, I am very selective about what I listen to, and, more importantly, what I let people know that I listen to... and that's where the snob part comes in. I can, with some pain, admit that I have “mm Bop” by Hansen on my iPod, but I continue to consider ways to have it removed should I get myself into a position where the contents of my iPod become public.

Now, I realize that also serves to confirm Sheri's belief that my ego is getting out of control (again), since, other than in my big brain, who in the world cares about what I have on my iPod? But there you are. Truth is truth.

Anyway, I try not to spend too much time looking back over the past. For me, certainly, it is a mixed bag of wonderful wonders and horrible horrors. If you're going to look back, you must be “this tall” to enter, and do so at your own risk.

Still... New Year's? How are you not going to think about the past; previous New Year's Eve celebrations, if nothing else. Right?

HAPPY New Year's Eve? For me? Not so much. For example, the first time I had my heart crushed by a woman (a girl really) was on New Year's Eve, 1968, in Ilion, N.Y.

Four years later, I learned to be sure to stand up at midnight. This was after half-a-dozen people leaned over to hug and kiss me while I was seated, and spilled most of whatever it was they were drinking all over me. I know, six? Right? I'm a slow learner. And, while it may not seem so bad on the face of it... I had to travel home in single digit temperatures, in soaking wet clothes, reeking of alcohol. If a policeman had stopped us, I might be writing this behind bars, just from the smell alone.

A couple of years after that, I spent New Year's Eve running lights and the sound system at a cavernous bar in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Normally, we charged $2.00 for all the beer and wine you could drink, but on that special night it was $5.00 for all you could drink, period. Period? Period. Scotch? Yes. Rum? Sure.

Vodka? You betcha. All three at the same time? Absolutely, and more if you so desired. I can see you asking yourself, “Well, that's a great deal. What could possibly go wrong?” Don't ask. No one actually died, but it wasn't for the lack of effort.

And so on, and so on. Of course, there were some good New Year's, they don't pop any too quickly to mind, though. Even the first New Year's Eve Sheri and I spent together... We had a nice fire going in our wood stove. We put a nice thick rug on the floor to get close to it to the heat. We had some nice hors d'oeuvres. It was wonderful... right up to the moment I fell asleep... about 10:30 pm. Truly. There are some things you just have to learn to live with. Know what I mean?

Oh, you say, there must have been one that was really good. Actually, there were two. This year's was one, but last year's was the best so far.

We'd known I had cancer for just over three months, but that's about all we knew. There were a number of treatments being discussed, and one underway involving chemotherapy in a pill, combined with steroids. We were pretty certain I was going to undergo a stem cell transplant- a fact that would be confirmed one week later on my first trip to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
I suppose any Dec. 31 is like sitting in a sled on top of a snowy hill, ready to take off. You know any number of things could happen on the way down, but thinking about the thrill of the trip makes it all seem worthwhile. That's how we felt as 2014 crept in. We were scared, anxious, excited about getting better, actually awake as midnight arrived. Best of all, we had each other, ready to meet whatever came next, head on. In my mind, there couldn't have been a better New Year's Eve, ever.

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.”