Thursday, March 26, 2015

You don't know Jack (not his real name)

I'm back... again. Need proof? Two drunks walk into a bar. You'd think the second one would have ducked. Bam! I take my wife everywhere,,, but she keeps finding her way back. Yes!

Hmmm. Do you go to read my column each week wondering, “Gawd. I wonder what sort of mood he's in today. I hope it isn't like when he found out he had two spleens. We're still dealing with the fallout from that one.”

Actually, I've decided, for me at least, because I read these columns too, you know, it's like the old television show, “Maverick.” Growing up as a kid in Scotland, I always loved that show, still do as a matter of fact. But I always liked the ones with James Garner just a little bit more. Probably because they usually (Tom) mixed in some humor. Cheyenne, The Lawman, Bronco and most of the other Warner Brothers westerns that dominated TV at the time were many things- funny wasn't really one of them.

So, I was looking at MSN the other day and a picture of presidential hopeful Ted Cruz caught my eye. He had his arms spread out in a supplicating gesture and, for whatever reason, it reminded me of the comedian who said, “My mother always liked to encourage me, and one of her favorite things to say was that anyone could grow up to be president. I look around and see that she was right.”

But, I have no wish to get political, I have enough to deal with. It just reminded me of an incident in my young newspaper editor days where I came close to being put in jail for calling a town justice by his first name. Really. And his first name was jackass, or poophead or anything. It was Jack (not his real name)..

First a question. Do you think you've spent more time this long, lousy winter reminiscing than usual? I mean, what else could you do, right? It was just soooo cold. Sure, it didn't deter ice fishermen, as far as I could see. But, c'mon, ice fishermen? Is that how you want to measure the severity of winter? Don't get me wrong, plenty of our friends are ice fishermen. Love 'em, but the fact that they have to cut a hole in the “water” before they can even start? Enough said.

Anyway, I had an instant recall- I don't even think it was reminiscing- when I saw that photo of Ted Cruz.

About 40 years ago, shortly after the unceremonious end of my career as a rock and roll disc jockey, and just as my career in journalism was off to a shaky start, I was in the town hall of one of the municipalities I covered when one of the town justices came up to me, took me by the arm (a gesture I truly hate), pulled me to one side and confidentially told me, “I'm not running for town supervisor this fall.”

I was underwhelmed. The election was months away and over 30, 000 other people weren't running for supervisor either, so I said, “Thanks, Jack,” and that was the last I thought of it until about two months later.

I was right in the heart of the town hall, surrounded by the assessors office, tax collector and and town clerk offices, and the police department, at a sort of four way intersection.

Jack comes running- yes, running- at me and demands to know why I didn't put his announcement in the paper. I gave him the too early-30,000 people argument and he started yelling, screaming and spitting on me.

His arguments started with, “Who do you think you are,” never a good start in my experience, hit on how young I was (24-ish), and how little I knew (OK, so he got that one right). And then it got nasty (ha ha). I don't know if he'd gone a little crazy, or anything, but, if that wasn't crazy, then crazy is something I never want to see.

So, I'm standing there and he's yelling, spitting, insulting me, and I noticed most of the people around us, though pretending to still be working, were all leaning their heads in our direction. I took it for a while, and as he started to repeat himself, I tried to wrap up the conversation.

“Look, Jack...” And that's as far as I got.

“That's another thing,” he screamed (screamed!). “From now on that's Justice Nothisrealname to you.” Well, that seemed to have brought us to the last stop on the crazy train, so I simply said, “Look, Jack,” admittedly curious as to what would happen next.

“You're under arrest.” As God is my witness, those were the next words out of his mouth. “You're under arrest.” I said the obvious: “For what?”

“Harassing a town justice, “ Jack said, and ran off to get the chief of police. When they got back, I said what I thought was the new obvious: “Go ahead. Arrest me. Just know that my one phone call will be to our photographer to have him come out and take a picture of me raking my tin cup across the iron bars of my cell.”

No arrests were made and it sort of fizzled out after that, sadly. Years letter Jack was in the news for being involved in some malfeasance involving thousands of dollars in court funds.

I hadn't thought about that incident in years, believe it or not, but I wouldn't put it in the book as a cancer-inspired recall or even the result of becoming older. I just think crazy has a long shelf life and this had been sitting there, waiting to be dragged out and since everything around it was frozen shut, out it came. Wow, huh?

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, March 19, 2015

No one told me it would be like this

The moon has a face
And it smiles on the lake
And causes the ripples in Time
I'm lucky to be here
With someone I like
Who maketh my spirit to shine

Warren Zevon

Does anyone have a positive thought they could spare? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Seriously. I'm at the Jack and the Beanstalk stage of need. I'd happily exchange the family cow, or 21st Century equivalent, for some magic beans, or in this case, an uplifting notion.

The subject this time was supposed to be how this journey through cancer changed considerably when people decided it was okay to... to... what? Not make fun, I guess, but to know if they wanted to make a joke at my expense, that was okay with me. Not only okay, but... well, fun.

See, as people first came to know I had cancer, it quickly became obvious that most really didn't know what to say; how to react. I think most of my friends were afraid of saying the wrong thing. No matter how hard I tried to make it clear that there was no “wrong thing,” their discomfort remained obvious. Some were so unsure what to do, they started avoiding me, or at least avoiding talking to me. I can understand why people would want to avoid me, but not for that reason. Bummer.

As time has moved along, and they've come to see my death isn't imminent, certainly no more so than it was before I got sick, we've been able to get back to more of the give and take, “So's your mother” sort of thing.

The trouble with writing about it is that the humor around my illness is normally situational. It's not jokes, per se, but joint attempts to fight fear with fun.

On top of that, anytime you try to write about humor, it invariably comes out convoluted and/or boring. There's also the argument to be made that cancer is no laughing matter. I think you know where I stand on that one, brothers and sisters.

As it turned out, I had to turn my pondering on this subject off to deal with how sick I've been in the last few days. How sick? Real sick. Wanting to curl into a ball... sick.

My go-to, non-oncologist physician, whose main goal is to manage my pain, has had to make changes to some of my medications and it set off a sickapalooza throughout my system., complete with a soundtrack by P!nk (or Pink, I guess); if a soundtrack can be the same two songs running through my head over and over for three days and counting.

The symptoms are pretty flu-like. Nausea (Do we remember how much Jim hates nausea? Yeah. That's right. A lot.), chills, cold sweats, hot flashes, no appetite and so on and so on an scooby dooby do. Beyond crappy, in other words... waaay beyond. You can't even see crappy from where I am.

Look, I didn't sign up for this. Cancer? Sure. Bring it on. After the initial surprise, I'm there. I'm fighting. But flu-like symptoms for days? Being sick enough to want my mommie? Nah. Not acceptable. Uh uh. No one told me it would be like this.

Still, lying in bed, maybe feeling a little sorry for myself, definitely feeling terribly ill, I think of my friend Cindy. She, too, had a stem cell transplant, though her cells came from a man in Germany whereas we were able to use my own. She passed away in December having put up an amazing fight against her type of leukemia, a variety of infections and/or who only knows what else.

In all the time I knew her, her courage and strength were obvious. She was so sick, but she stayed amazingly positive.

We had talked a lot about the “nasty bits” around cancer and stem cell operations. It helped both of us to be stronger, I think. It certainly did me. But being sick in the manner I have been these past few days has made my admiration for her grow even stronger. I hate being nauseous. I hate having the chills. I hate having to sit, or lie, still waiting to see if I'm going to throw up or not. I hate it!

But, when Mr. Totally Self-Absorbed managed to be less so for a moment, I realized that Cindy dealt with all that and so much more while in an isolated hospital room, with everyone who came to her room wearing gloves and a mask, with limited access to her husband, cats and everything else she loved, and endless nights with only her thoughts for company.

At least, as sick as I've felt, Sheri was almost always there, always when it mattered. Our loving kitten Kenzie was always there to jump up on me to seek her own comfort, reducing my physical sense of well being, perhaps, but adding so much love and joy to my heart.

I guess I won't be needing your positive thoughts after all, though I'd be happy to have them. I just need to remember to be grateful for all that I've been given and that there are so many people who haven't had the good fortune I've had.

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, March 12, 2015

Does this check smell right to you?

Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland
But I think it's all overdone
Exaggerating this and exaggerating that
They don't have no fun

Paul Simon

When I was in my early 20s, writing about age was easy. I was shallow enough, and sure that I knew everything, so- easy peasy. As long as Hallmark produced greeting cards and Rod McKuen kept churning out poetry. I could insert observations on aging in anything I was working on.

Now, I'd have to say, “Not so much.”

Look, I see people who use their age as an excuse so often, that it leaves me with the feeling that they can't wait to get old. Truly. As I listen to them, I get the sense that it's just another way to give up. Quit the fight. I have always tried to avoid age as an excuse, unless it was, you know, something I really didn't want to do.

“Honey, I'd love to clear the driveway, especially since temperatures are in those single digits I enjoy so much. But, I'm not as young as I used to be. I wouldn't want to break something and have to have you take care of me,,, even more than you do... which is a lot... and which I sure do appreciate... and as long as I have your attention, could you get me another cup of coffee? I'd get it myself, but, my knees, you know...”

Other than that, I haven't wanted to rush the aging process since I reached the mark for “You have to be this tall to take this ride.”

But as we've grown older, so have many of our friends and we all end up being aware of our age, comparing aches and pains and bemoaning true limitations. You also have a new view of how paranoia strikes deep in the heartland. For instance...

The other day I got a call from my credit union. I love my credit union. They actually look out for me, and help me manage my accounts when I don't even know I need help.

This time, the charming woman on the credit union end of the phone, after identifying herself and confirming who I was, asked, “Did you deposit a check here earlier this week?”

“Why, yes I did. Is there a problem?”

“No. Not really. It's just that the girls (?!) were looking at it and thought it looked... funny. They hadn't seen a check like it before and were just a little concerned.”

This is what I mean about my credit union. Something didn't seem right and they called to ask.

“It's fine. It's money from a grant we receive to help us pay our medical expenses. It's been a life saver for us. And you have actually cashed a number of them for us already.”

“So no one asked you to send any money, then?”

“Nope. It was strictly a very generous thing for them to do.”

“Well, that's good. We just don't want any of our customers being taken advantage of.”

“Thanks for checking.” I always like to finish credit union calls with a little banking humor. Checking. Get it?

A couple of hours later, though, I started to think about what the call had really been about. I know it was positive, and it was certainly a terrific thing for them to do, but... “We don't want any of our customers to be taken advantage of...” What? Wait. Hold on. I've been banking with this company a long time and no one has ever called to be sure I wasn't being taken advantage of. Is that sentence actually saying, “We don't want any of our older customers to be taken advantage of.”

So was she really asking if I had sent any money to a Nigerian prince so they could release my family's long, lost gazillions in gold to me? Had I been offered stock in a Somalian diamond mine? Paranoia can be an investment strategy, you know. Regardless, I decided it was just a nice thing to do. Thank you credit union!

In a somewhat related matter, many of my friends, from every age group, have been voicing their concern about forgetting things. They are so worried about having Alzheimer's, which seems like it can strike at virtually any age, that any type of forgetting upsets them terribly. To our general discredit, we tend to try to joke it away, probably because we don't want to look at our own fear around the issue.

My mother lived to be 91 and virtually every day she did at least one crossword puzzle. She maintained it helped her stay mentally sharp. Since she certainly was, I thought I'd try something similar.

I don't like crossword puzzles, so I got a book of “Jumbles” to help keep me sharp. You know “Jumbles,” right? You straighten out four words, take designated letters from each answer, then use then use those to solve an illustrated puzzle, with puns looming large in the solutions.

I like doing those. But, here's the thing. I have put my Jumble book somewhere “safe” and I can't find it. I'm not kidding. I've looked in all the usual places, but that's how I know I put it somewhere safe. Safe is like the place where elephants go to die. It may or may not actually exist, but if it does, a whole lot of my stuff is there waiting for me.

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, March 5, 2015

We all need a faithful companion

I was awakened on a recent morning by this terrible pain in my stomach. That, in itself, was disappointing because we've been working on adjusting my medications and we seemed to have been making some progress in the past few days. I slept longer than I normally do, though, and I think that had an impact on the effectiveness of my medicine.

On top of that, when I wake up at a different time than usual, I can feel frazzled, and that's an invitation to the unnamed, but deep, fear I sometimes experience to come and join the party. It's almost paralyzing, made the more upsetting because I have no idea what causes it or what it is about. I think I'll be going to a “special” (wink, wink, nudge nudge) doctor to talk about that.

Once upon a time, it happened rarely and was easily ignored. Now, it's becoming more and more common and it can't be ignored. I also can't really do anything about it because... Hello. Unnamed. Unknowable.

Those are hard to get out of bed days, you bet. I'm afraid to get up because... Hello. Unnamed. Unknowable. So, I lay there and feel an almost physical presence keeping me in place. I'm only aware of how tense I've been when I finally shift position and find my knees aching, my hands cramping and a big knot at the back of my neck because I've been locked and loaded the whole time.

And this, brothers and sisters, is where you come in. When I say I couldn't fight this cancer the way I have without you, these are the times when it is truer than true. As I lay there, with fear marching to “Night at Bald Mountain” - as seen in the fabulously popular movie, “The Wizard of Oz- with none of the fun and all of the menace of the original piece of music, I, frankly, don't have the power to reach out: not to my wife, who is generally nearby; not to my children, who are only a phone call away and the cell phone is right there; not to all the supportive friends I see on a regular basis.

I have to go with what I've got on hand, which is mostly a head full of fearful nonsense I've managed to convince myself actually means something. But, I've also got things you have told me, done for me, given me and they are right there with me as well.

I used to be big on drama. BIG on DRAMA. If there wasn't any in my life, I would work hard to create some. With drama, comes exaggeration and the need to make things seem “more” than they are/were. It's something I now constantly guard against. So, when I say my fight against this fear begins with the knowledge that thousands of prayers have been said on my behalf, you need to know I am not selfishly inflating that number. There have been that many and it has made a huge difference.

This leads me to one of the women's circles at the Oxford United Methodist Church, Oxford, PA, where my son-in-law Mark is the pastor and my daughter Jennifer helps keep the women in a circle (he he). They not only prayed for me, they knit me a prayer shawl, the weight and warmth of which brings me great comfort.

A co-worker and her family gave me a wonderfully heavy blanket with a great texture. Comfort comes from the weight and the texture and, this winter especially, the heat it provides.

You have given me countless talismen/talismans? to carry with me offering messages of comfort, hope, faith. Truth is, if I carried them all at once, I would list to one side. I do keep them all in the same drawer, though, so that I see them every morning as I get ready to leave the house.

In the same drawer, I also keep a rosary. I am not now, nor have I ever been, Catholic, and readily admit that my knowledge of the rosary comes from movies, television and books where people seem to use it to help them with their prayers, usually, popular culture tells us, when the person saying the rosary is in some sort of trouble. I have no doubt it provides comfort. But consider this: the guy I know gave me, not only a rosary, but his mother's rosary, and told me to carry it with me all the time. I tried to refuse. It was his mother's rosary, after all, and I can't begin to imagine how important that would have been to him.

Still, he wanted me to have it, so I took it. I carry it with me every day, receiving calm from the feel of it in my pocket.

I have received cards, letters, emails, phone calls, encouragement from people I don't know, but who have been reading what I've been writing; been picking up what I've been laying down, if you will. Thanks.

My younger daughter Alison and a group of her friends get together for breakfast on Friday mornings during the school year. They are all moms with children in the same elementary school. Unbeknownst to Alison, they got a card that represented a string of balloons, and each of them wrote a message of hope and encouragement to me on a separate balloon. They didn't want Alison to know because they wanted me to see it was their idea, generated by how they felt about my situation, and not just because Alison was my daughter.

They sent it to me while I was in the hospital for my stem cell transplant. Now, there are rules about what you can put on hospital room walls and how you can put it on there (no tape, for example). The nurse in charge when the card arrived (note- she was neither of the ones I dropped my pants in front of) was not such a big rules follower. I don't think she broke any, but there were some curved rules by the time she was done. I didn't used to be a “cheer him up with balloons” kind of guy, but the joy that card gave me made me a balloon believer and a homecoming queen (trivia fans?).

Then this week I got a call from a reader who wanted to send me something to show how much she appreciated my writing. She had been a cancer survivor for eight years and, since her initial treatment had been radiation and not chemo, she sent me this hat that, on the front, said “Chemo Sabe.” OMG. As a fan of truth and goodness as unashamedly brought to the (mostly) black and white television screen by the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian (?) Native American (?) companion Tonto, it struck a chord somewhere deep. She'd had it for eight years and knew the right person would come along to share it with and, after all that time, she felt the right person was me.

Man, I got a great life!

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.”