Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Yeah. Another year's gone by already

Well, there's another year gone to heck.

It doesn't seem that long ago that I was sure I'd never get used to a year with a 20 in front of it. Having been in the 19s for 51 years. But, just goes to show you... I don't actually know what it goes to show you, but it must go to show you something.

I also couldn't tell you when New Year's Eve went from a meaning great party, complete with next day remorse and January resolutions, to meaning just another day, albeit one where my stuff all got a year older overnight.

I was saying last week that Christmas usually finds us looking back on Christmases past. I think New Year's tend to make us look back at things in general. Right?

Sure, you can spend time considering specific New Year's Eves and how much stupid stuff you may have crammed into one evening, but surely you 1) Wonder where the years went and 2) Remember some fondly, some not fondly.

Here's a funny thing you might not have seen coming: there isn't that big a difference, looking back, between the years since I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and the years prior. What?!?! Yeah. Truly.

It ties in with something that I've been saying all along- I'm much more than a guy with cancer. The years I live are about waaaay more than having cancer.

So when I look back, I think about- friends, lost and living, each still an important part of my life; places visited and visits not taken because of health reasons; visits from family not completely driven by their concern for my health; our cat Kenzie whom we lost to intestinal disease and our cat Wolfie who has already added so much to our lives.

And what about my cancer, you ask? The treatment has changed a lot this year. I stopped taking the oral chemotherapy because it was making me ill; likewise the medicine that was helping repair the damage done by cancer to my bones. My blood work has shown wonderful results almost all year long.

My stomach ailment, though. My stomach ailment is something else all together. It has gone from a mildly irritating pain in my intestinal area to really severe stomach pains and daily waves of nausea. I have spent more hours feeling ill than I have feeling well, many more.

I've tried treatments from methods suggested by my doctors, to holistic healing involving passing hands over my stomach, which had a basket full off bottled tinctures and things on it at the time, with a side trip to acupuncture.

Virtually every medicine I was taking at the beginning of the year has been changed to something else, all in an effort to fix my intestinal woes.

As the year winds to a close, I have hope that some of the latest changes have been successful. We are, obviously, I think, pretty guarded about our optimism, but there is some sense that the latest round of changes have had an impact. I still feel really sick in fits and starts, but they seem to be coming less often and are a little less severe when they do come.

As 2016 gets under way, I, again, have no New Year's resolutions to tell you about. I remain convinced that anything worth doing is simply worth doing. Decreasing the amount of gluten in our diet, for example. At one time in our lives, we would have put it on a list and likely postponed it until the next time we made a list revolving around our health. Now, we're just doing it. Not full scale yet, but baby steps. We're beginning with the obvious, even as we still are researching what the obvious might be, and we'll go from there. That's a new approach for us.

Like a lot of things we do, the decision on eating gluten is only tangentially tied to my having cancer... eating healthier can only help.

We do wish you a Happy New Year. May you meet your challenges and successes with the same spirit and may you grow stronger because of them.

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Can we be more Christmasy, please?

So this is Christmas...

… though I guess when we say Christmas we mean much more than just the day itself; more like all the way from Black Friday (a term I dislike, a lot) to Christmas Day and slightly beyond.

It's a pretty emotional time, huh? Is there another time of year where we spend so much time considering Christmases past (damn you Charles Dickens!), or the past in general? I think it's like the entire country falls under some post hypnotic suggestion. “When you hear your first Christmas song of the season, you will immediately start longing for a time when Christmas was... well, more Christmasy.”

Most of us probably don't even know what that means, or at least, can't express it. Perhaps it's a time when we were younger, or the kids were younger, or the World was younger. It certainly can't be from Dickens' time. Have you seen the way the average person dressed in those days, let alone the poor? Please. Just eat your apple and chestnuts roasted on an open fire and move along.

Nah. There's something else. Is it despite the fact that most of us have so much more than we even know, that we are constantly reminded that we need more? Need newer? Need better?

I don't buy that (ar ar), because most Christmas buying seems to be for someone else. The most insistent advertising message is “Makes the perfect gift.” So, I don't see it being about what we want or what we don't have, unless it's the financial ability to provide “the perfect gift” for people we care about.

The irony in that- I guess we could call it the Christmas irony- is that, other than when we're very young, how much do we really care about getting the “perfect” gift? Not very much would be my guess.

Don't get me wrong, I like getting gifts. Like it a lot. But just show me that you put some thought into, and that would be excellent; that would be enough.

I suppose it's easy to sit back, at 66 years of age and say Christmas shouldn't be about the gifts. I have everything! Well, I should say I have everything I want, or, more importantly, I have everything I need.

I suppose one of the new giving trends is giving upgrades of things: the latest tablets, smart phones, Nooks, iPods and so on. And that makes sense. Rather than run the risk of buying someone something they don't want, buy them something they already have, only newer. Looking back at that sentence, it may or may not sum up consumer greed in a handful of words. I don't know, nor do I care. It just strikes me as a sensible gift-giving strategy.

This is the point of any Christmas column where the writer, in this case me, goes varying degrees of mushy to talk about what Christmas means to him or her. Know what I mean? And there's nothing wrong with mushy. Frank Capra made a career out of it. The word itself is a little deprecating, so how about if we say... warm, the writer goes warm to talk about the personal meaning of Christmas.

I think... Well, it seems... One thing I... Nope. Can't do it right now. No mush. No warmth. This has been a difficult Christmas season. I was too sick to visit friends and family. I've had these stomach issues for well over a year and we seem no closer to figuring it out than when we started.

But despite all that, Christmas remains a wonderful time to enjoy our friends and our families. We just need to keep ourselves centered on what is really important and we'll be just fine. Wait, was that a little bit of mush there??! A little warmth? It's true though. Celebrate what you have and what you need, and you'll have more than enough stuff left over to give to others.

I had real doubts about being able to be at all positive at this point in my journey. But, as always, when I really think about how fortunate we've been, Sheri and I, gratitude and positivity seem inevitable. Good for us and we wish the best for you!

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

'The Christmas we get we deserve'

Since I've been writing this column, I've always maintained that I would write it if no one read it. It came to me this week that that's only partly true. If it was completely true, I'd just write in a journal and keep it an a drawer.

But I've also said that I was doing it in the hope that it would help people. See, I know there are all sorts of people who do not have the good fortune to have a life like mine. Well, maybe I don't KNOW that, but I certainly sense it.

I also sense that there are plenty of people who are truly lonely, with no one to talk to about the biggest things in their life, good or bad. And we all have big things, good or bad.

I think the good generally takes care of itself. It tends to spill out of us and even strangers will put an extra little uplifting ooomph in their greeting as they pass us in the street.

But the bad... hmmm... the bad. To me, the bad lives in a lonely place and wants you to live there too.

That's why I hope my writing touches you and makes the bad more bearable. Heck, you can have all the friends in the world to help you through things, but who doesn't need at least one more?

I have an amazing support system. Family, friends, people I don't actually know wishing me well and praying for me. How could I have all that and not share?

This week, though. This week showed me there is a linchpin to all of this- my wife Sheri. She's been gone for the last six days on a trip to see family that we were supposed to take together.

When it came down to it, I was just too sick to go. It was nine-hour trip back to New York to see my daughter Alison and her family and to visit Sheri's mom. Too much. I was disappointed, sad, and felt that I had left everyone done. Still, there you are. That happens a lot these days. I make plans and then my body says, “Nice try, brother. Maybe next time.”

So, Sheri has not been here this week. Oh, I know that she's with me all the time, regardless of where we are physically. I get that, and it's true. Memories of her, of the two of us together, are everywhere I go, everywhere I look. But, here's the problem. When we don't get back together at the end of the day, a lot of those memories end up just making me sadder, more melancholy.

Back in the early 1990s, co-dependence became the next big thing in analyzing the human condition. It told us we tended to hang too tight to people we loved; we became too dependent on them for our happiness, for our own lives. I guess there's some truth to that. But, I also think the idea of co-dependency ties negative bits to things that are actually wonderful.

Look, when I'm sitting at night, in the big ole recliner that Sheri insisted we buy, I want to be able to look over to the couch and see Sheri sitting there with the laptop on... well... on her lap and I want to hear her keep up her stream of chatter about what's going on with our friends, her friends and the world in general.

I want to be able to see her excitement when our new cat offers further proof that he is Sheri's cat, not mine. Oh, I think I'm probably OK, as far as he is concerned, but Sheri is the bees knees in Wolfie's world.

I need her to take my hand to tell me she loves me and make my pain and the fact that I have an incurable form of cancer bearable.

Yes, she can tell me all that on the phone. Now that we have cell phones, which she absolutely loves using, by the way, she can even write to me (texting) and send me a picture of who she is with and/or what she's doing... and it's wonderful... and it's not the same.

Prior to actually finding out I have cancer, I'm convinced, if you'd asked, grateful would not have been one of the things I felt about it. But, it is. It has made me stop wondering if my behavior may be co-dependent. It's made me love my family and friends all the more and realize it's okay to need them; that it's okay to let them help me even though that's the last thing I want, it can still be the one thing I need.

Sheri will be back tomorrow, and we'll take our accustomed spots on the furniture and Wolfie will again show himself to be Sheri's cat. And I know this: no matter how sick I feel, I will feel better.

Let me end with my usual Christmas message from Emerson, Lake and Palmer: “I wish you a hopeful Christmas. I wish you a brave New Year. All anguish, pain and sadness leave your heart and let the road be clear... 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 10, 2015

A wonderful offer not seen on TV

I got a nice email the other day. It was like getting an actual letter. You know how few of those we get any more, right? Emails, for us at least, or becoming the same. We get lots of ads and so on that we don't want, and very little person to person communication.

So it was good to get an email that had some actual correspondence in it. Also, it was from someone I like and respect and haven't heard from in a long time. So, I was happy to get it.

It was from Ginger (not her real name, of course) and she wanted to tell me about an offer from someone she ran into as part of her job who reads my column and wanted Ginger to get a message to me. We can call him Roger... again, no real reason for Roger other than it sounds good. Ginger has red hair (hint), hence her name makes more sense than usual.

Anyway, Roger, according to Ginger, is a talented bagpiper and told her he will play any service for me, “should the unthinkable happen,” and that he would do it at no charge.

This is such an amazing offer, I was initially gobsmacked by it. Let's face it, when he says “any service... should the unthinkable happen,” he's obviously talking about when I die, presumably from multiple myeloma, though the offer did not seem to limit itself to that.

Think about this for a minute. How sensitive a subject is that? As I have observed here before, people have a difficult time talking about death and dying in front of me. To bring up the subject in regards to my exact situation is amazing. Not only is the offer very generous, but to be able to make it, knowing that it could be upsetting to me and my family, but willing to offer anyway. Wow.

I am from Scotland, so the thought of having someone play the bagpipes at my funeral has always been a natural. I realize that not everyone is a fan of the instrument, but I am. My daughter Jennifer had a bagpiper play at her wedding, and, while Sheri and I didn't have an actual piper, we did incorporate music from “Braveheart” and used a recorded version of “Amazing Grace” in our wedding.

At the same time, it would have been easy for Ginger just to say thanks and not pass along the offer because it was too difficult or embarrassing for her to do. After all, we are friends, and she certainly wouldn't want to make a difficult situation (my having cancer) worse. And how easy would it have been for her to tell Roger, “Yep. Passed it along. He said thanks but no thanks,” or to simply tell him I didn't reply? I think the answer is very.

So I truly want to thank both of them for getting this offer to me. As I wrote Ginger, we'll think about it and get in touch with Roger, one way or the other.

Now, in the never ending need I have for full disclosure, I must tell you this. In doing so, I take my own type of risk since you likely will think less of me. How much less, I could not guess, but less.

I am going to preface this by reiterating how wonderful the offer was and how much it brightened up another wise gloomy day. I am also going to claim that this part of my reaction was driven by the fact that it did bring up the subject of my death and funeral after all, and who wouldn't be uncomfortable around that?

Here goes: Ginger wrote that Roger plays in a Shrine band and... and... Darn it. I couldn't help but imagine a bagpiper riding on one of those little bikes while trying to balance and play the pipes at the same time.

There. I said it. I am so sorry. But it didn't seem right to be showing myself to be a deep, sensitive human being able to discuss actual funeral arrangements, without admitting that I'm not that deep and my sensitivity can be an on again/off again thing. It didn't help that off all the scenes in all the movies I have ever seen, one of my favorites comes from Woody Allen's early effort “Take the Money and Run.” It shows Woody's high school marching band taking part in a parade down Main Street when around the corner comes Woody... playing the cello... dragging his chair with him, and trying to sit and play every few feet.

I know there have been numerous times in my journey with cancer when I've distressed people with how I look at my situation. I hope this is not one of them. Roger's offer touched my heart in a way that not many things ever have. Ginger's part in it spoke volumes about the kind of person she is. And me? Well, sometimes I just need to laugh.

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 3, 2015

Ballad of the Not-So-Easy Writer

I think I'm going to have to start allowing myself to be called a writer. I know, right? You'd think it would be easy, if for no other reason, then because of the 126 “Find the Pony” columns I've written since I started.

I haven't done 126 of anything else, that I can think of during the same period of time, except, of course, functional things like eating (though not much) and going to the bathroom (though not too much of that either, a fact I hope doesn't qualify as too much information). Well, sure, I've watched over 126 television shows and read over 126 books, but those are pretty passive acts when all is said and done.

I don't know why I've bristled at being called a writer. After all, I walked into a newspaper office and got my first job there in the fall of 1972 and worked in newspapers off and on until my illness forced me to retire in 2013. But, especially in the days when I worked for newspapers in New York, I really considered myself more of an editor than a writer.

My main job was to get out, initially, my one newspaper a week, If I did NO writing, I still had to do the editor's job of getting the paper to readers. Yes, I wrote something every week, but that usually seemed like “something else” that had to be done. First and foremost was the editor's work. So how could I call myself a writer? I had a hard enough time referring to myself as a journalist, though that is surely what I was.

Now it occurs to me, that most people probably couldn't care less if I think of myself as a writer or not, and I think that is actually the appropriate view to take. But here's the thing... An increasing number of people are coming up to me and saying variations on the following: “I've always had an interest in writing. Do you think you could help me get started?” Or, “My relative/friend does a lot of writing and really wants to do it more and get better at it. Could you look at his work and offer him/her tips?”

And the answer is “No.” I can't help. I really can't offer tips. I HAVE NO IDEA what I am doing! I don't want to say “No.” So many people want to be writers, even if it's just because their life story would make excellent reading. But “No” is the only truthful answer I have. I sit down, I think a lot, put a bunch of words together in a row, and out comes a column. I don't think there's much in that process that could help anyone.

I think, too, on the face of it, writing probably doesn't seem like itcould be all that hard. We all use words, and we all have to write things out, mostly every day. Notes to friends, personal notes on greeting cards, keeping diaries or journals. How much harder could it be to write in some kind of professional capacity? Well, it seems, a lot harder.

Of course I would like to help, and I sometimes try, although most people, I think, quickly realize that I don't have much to offer them; no magic bullet that will make the work easier.

All I can tell anyone is what happened to me. When I was a child, I was sent to my room a lot. Not necessarily for misbehaving, but because, I think, my parents wanted peace and quiet. There was no television in Scotland through much of the early 1950s, and even when it did become more accessible, most of it wasn't very good. So, I didn't have that distraction to deal with. I went to my room and wrote. After a while I also listened to records, but that was it for distractions.

You'd think another source of my writing development would have been in school. My academic history should be littered with a plethora of “brilliant,” “well written,” “highly regarded” papers in virtually every subject. Hah. You'd be wrong. B's were a triumph, and A's were few and very far between... very far between.

The result was that I never thought much of my ability to write because I genuinely believed anyone could do it. When I became the executive editor of a group of 15 newspapers, responsible for hiring journalists and writers to staff them, I realized I was wrong. Not everyone can do it. Far from it.

I won awards from the New York Press Association and the Syracuse Press Club in the last couple of years I worked in New York. I was also given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the press club, all of which must have meant my writing was certainly OK.

But, in truth, it is only since I started writing about my illness and sharing it with you, that I have begun to feel like a writer. For one thing, I take every column seriously and work it and rework it until it's as good as I can get it. I didn't always do that before. That comes down to you as readers and the expectations you have told me you have.

As part of my journey through cancer, I have, and continue to, look closely at just about every aspect of my life. I've picked up a lot of rocks and turned them over. By looking at this whole writing thing at least partially through your eyes, I've come to be okay with being considered a writer, even if I still don't fully understand how it works.

On a completely different topic, I wanted to update you on my serious stomach issues. It looks like stopping the bone densifier may have been the solution we've been searching for for over a year! Since we canceled the last infusion, I've had quite a few nights (in a row!) where I have not succumbed to nausea during the course of the evening. We are cautiously optimistic about this and ask that you continue to pray for us as we thank you for what you've done already.

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