Friday, March 24, 2006
Saturday, March 18, 2006
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Saturday, March 11, 2006
That was around the time the phone in the bedroom rang, and I answered it. It was Sam, and he was calling to find out how I was doing. Pretty thoughtful guy, that Sam. I'm doing all right, I told him. Being alone isn't getting to me in the least. And that was when I realized that I was talking out loud to a person I didn't know, on a phone that doesn't exist, in a room all by myself.
Shit, but I had some weird dreams last night. And now they're calling me up to see how I'm doing? I pulled the covers up and wondered if there was any point in trying to go back to sleep. Probably not. Aside from a trip to the john five hours earlier, I'd been asleep since seven the evening before.
Aside from the call from Sam, I haven't spoken to anyone since my wife called to let me know that she and the girls had arrived at my brother's house safe and sound. Doctor's orders, sort of. I'm supposed to avoid physical contact with other people for forty-eight hours, following the radiation treatment I took yesterday to wipe out what's left of my thyroid cancer.
I have loads of people I could call, but I haven't bothered yet. I expect I will this evening, before Sam calls back to check on me again.
Read the rest of the essay.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
The principles of influence generally apply the way they always have, and you can safely say about the girls, "Oh, she takes after her mother that way" or "She gets that from her father." I take great pride in Evangeline's burgeoning interest in Greek mythology, and there's no doubt that my wife appreciates the relish Rachel has for the outdoors and nature. What parents don't love it when their children emulate them?
But lately, in my own life, I've seen that sometimes the tree doesn't grow too far from where the apple falls. Every once in a while, the water flows uphill.
Evangeline displayed a flair for artistic self-expression as early as two years old. Her interest waned for a few months, but particularly after we lost Christopher, she threw herself into drawing with abandon. We enrolled her in courses at a nearby art academy after she turned five, and she had her own art exhibit there a year later.
What's curious is how this has affected the others of us. I've noticed in the last few weeks that Rachel has started displaying previously unknown levels of interest in art, particularly when it comes to painting. Tuesday night she painted herself a rainbow that had an unmistakable bow shape to it, and when she draws, she's paying more attention to detail than ever before. She's spending more time on her art, and getting better every day. She's becoming an artist.
So am I. On Monday I asked the art instructor enough questions about Evangeline's art supplies that she told me I should just start taking lessons myself. I've noticed that my knowledge of different techniques, and my level of effort, have shot well past the stick-figure level where they effectively lingered for twenty-odd years.
In order to jumpstart Evangeline on the cover for her Roald Dahl research project, I drew my own sloppy copy and was reasonably impressed with the results. I'll never show at the Guggenheim or the Museum of Modern Art, but with a little effort and some coaching, I might actually turn out to be half-decent. It's a shocker.
The real shocker, though, has been musically. All the way through high school and college, I heard from my more musically attuned friends that I should give my vocal chords and their ears a rest whenever I felt the urge to sing. I had played the tuba for six years, and had been seated ahead of the all-state honors band player, but the general consensus of my friends was that I would do everyone a favor if I just left music to the musicians.
Generally speaking, I have. Even setting aside the question of vocals, there's not much demand for tubists in any sort of small-band capacity, I don't think I even remember half the valve combinations anymore, and I've always considered the time requirements for learning to play a new instrument to be too unwieldy at this point in my life.
As fate would have it, about two weeks ago, Evangeline started pleading for piano lessons. I had been trying to teach her piano from a music book during kindergarten, with mixed success, since I had no idea how to play it myself, and homeschooling texts are notorious for claiming how easy it is to teach a children a language or knowledge base that you haven't mastered yourself. (Mind, it's not impossible, but it is a lot of work, and it requires humility since you have to learn alongside your child, instead of imparting things from your own experience.)
But Evangeline was persistent, so I asked a friend who plays keyboards for his church if he would be willing to give it a shot. Rob, who is trained in elementary music education, took a different approach from the theory-scales-songs progression I recall from school. It's more like getting the kids to "think musically," and letting everything else follow. Professor Harold Hill may have been a con man with his "76 Trombones" and "Trouble in River City," but I have to say, I like Rob's approach just fine.
He taught Evangeline exactly one note, C natural, and told her to use that as the starting point for any song she wants to sing. After she matches her voice to that note, she then finds the next corresponding note on the keyboard, and then the next, and so on, until she has learned to play the whole song, entirely by ear. She undoubtedly will rearrange the song from its more familiar key in the process, but she's training her ears and fingers to match the notes she plays with what she sings.
Once she has learned to play two or three songs, we're supposed to call Rob for her second lesson. Practice, in the meantime, is at her pace and set by her level of interest, although we encourage her to practice and try to redirect her when she starts wandering off. (Forcing the issue with regimented daily practice times of 30 minutes a piece, I'll attest, leads to resentment, frustration, and not picking up the bloody instrument again once you graduate, so it's safe to consider it counterproductive.)
Rob insisted up front that he would not accept payment of any sort, since he simply enjoys seeing others learn to play, and is not trying to turn her into a concert pianist. That's a lucky thing for us, since Evangeline has already lost most of her interest in the piano, despite her initial enthusiasm.
But if Evangeline has lost interest, I've gained it. I already have figured out how to play some fairly simple children's songs like "Mary had a Little Lamb" and "Twinkle Little Star," which Rachel loves to hear me play; and "Majesty," a praise-and-worship chorus popular in charismatic churches in the late 1980s. I'm now working on "Holy, Holy, Holy," a more complicated and theologically deeper song that has been a church mainstay for ages.
I'm doing a decent job and one day soon may even be able to play our keyboard for our family devotions time, at least for one or two songs. I doubt I'll ever lead worship at church, and I'll certainly never play at Carnegie Hall, but I'm experiencing a renaissance in an area of artistry I never knew I had, and that alone makes it worth the price of admission.
And since both Rachel and Evangeline see my renewed interest and enthusiasm for the piano and drawing, I've a feeling these things will be a part of our family for years to come. If the water continues to run uphill and the trees keep growing near where the apples fall, we're going to have quite a tidy little orchard before long.
Last Thursday of course was the birthday of Dr. Seuss and the official kickoff date for Read Across America, the annual program aimed at getting more students reading books. As someone who has loved to read ever since he was a child, and who loves to read with his own children, it was a given that I was going to volunteer.
My choice of reading material was the usual sort of sedition you would expect from someone who encourages his elder daughter's interest in Spider-man. We read Robert Munsch's "The Paper Bag Princess," a book I love because it turns the whole Disney notion of a princess on its vacuous ear and has the girl not only save the prince from the dragon by her quick thinking, but saves her from marrying a dull and boorish prince.
Of course, this is me we're talking about. Why stop with a little sedition when you can go a lot further?
One of the staple activities of Read Across America is getting the kids to make green eggs and ham, and then somehow convincing them actually to eat them. Since this involves heating a skillet to 350 or 400 degrees and cooking the eggs, it's generally a good idea to have someone around to help, particularly when you have a bunch of kindergartners through second-graders doing the cooking.
As I manned the skillet, I heard one of the boys scoff that cooking is "for girls." It wasn't enough for me just to point out that I'm no girl, nor was it enough for me call another of the boys muchacha (i.e., "girl") when he called me "Old Lady." No, I had to encourage the boys -- each of them, one at a time, as they gave me their eggs to cook -- to remember that they were free to choose their own paths in life.
"Remember," I told them, "there's nothing a girl can do that a boy can't do just as well if he wants to."
One of the sharper girls picked up on the ironic message of empowerment inherent in that and pointed out to one of her friends, but one of the boys wasn't convinced that girls and boys are all that much alike. He pointed out that boys can't like dolls.
"Sure they can," I said. "Don't you like action figures?"
The poor kid froze, his eyes as wide and as helpless as a deer's when it sees a car barreling down on it but it doesn't know where to go. He turned to the teacher for help.
"Miss Zoë!" he called. "Are action figures dolls?"
I saw the wheels turn rapidly in her head as she figured out what was going on. And then, scarcely a beat missed, she said, "Of course they are."
Thus does the revolution continue.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
All that remains is for the doctor to mistake radioactive iodine for another radioactive material, like say, uranium, and give me a large enough pill that it proves to be fissile. Failing that, I expect to spend much of Friday and the weekend all alone with hundreds of books, the complete "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy, and my computer. (Now it may be that my wife expects me to be home alone all weekend with a stack of dirty laundry, messy rooms, a pile of dirty dishes, and a can of paint or two, but I think we can all agree that she doesn't appreciate the serious and potentially life-threatening nature of cancer.)
Today's visit to the hospital was much like yesterday's. The pale green paint remains in place on the equipment, in clear defiance of international law. Homer still manned the controls, but did nothing with my brain, apparently having found nothing when he checked yesterday. I still nearly fell asleep and almost fell off the examining table when they had finished with the gamma camera, and I still needed to be shown the way out of the radiology department.
On the bright side, when I followed a friend's suggestion of looking for patterns in the water stains on the ceiling tiles, like kids do with clouds in the sky, I saw Don Knotts smiling and waving back at me. He reached down from the ceiling, and when he touched me on the throat, I felt a warm, heavenly glow spread across my body.
I don't know how to say this, but I think I've been healed.
Before I close this entry, I just wanted to note that I've heard from some friends that my cancer-related correspondence has left them in an awkward position or two over the last few months. A teacher was undone while administering a test at the thought of a butt-scratching surgeon, a news editor had to explain to her staff what was so funny that she kept laughing for twenty minutes, my brother nearly lost it during a business meeting when he checked his e-mail and read my description of yesterday's checkup, and a college student is disconsolate that she probably will not get to add my hypothetical armpit thyroid to her collection. And as a business editor wrote me, "I hope you get this treatment done and over with soon. You sound like you're having too much fun -- and it's quite annoying."
Personally, all I've been able to glean from the experience myself are some maudlin thoughts about mortality. I'd like to apologize for any difficulty my getting cancer has caused you.
Monday, March 06, 2006
I just got back from the hospital about thirty minutes ago, following one of those harrowing ordeals you can find only at a medical establishment. In this case, the doctor was barely involved, though; it was the nuclear medicine technician. Kind of sounds like I'm under Homer Simpson's medical care, doesn't it?
Yes, it was the "Stand here and don't move a muscle drill," followed by the "Lie here and don't move a muscle for the next forty minutes" drill. I never knew that holding still could be so draining, but perhaps that's why I always got more exhausted at my desk jobs as a news editor than I did as a reporter on the go, at The Packet.
The first drill involved standing with my throat up against a long metal tube painted the sort of color green that was outlawed in 1950 because of the mental cruelty it inflicted upon hospital patients. This was to measure the exact amounts of radiation being emited by the thyroid tissues left after my Dec. 8 surgery, as some tissues always are left behind. The low-dosage radiation, you no doubt remember, came from the radioactive iodine pill I was given Friday morning.
For the second examination, the technician, whom for simplicity's sake I will call "Homer," had me lie down on a narrow bunk before strapping my arms to my sides and telling me to hold still during the rest of the exam. This was performed with a gamma camera; alas, judging by the number of people wandering in and out of the room, casually eating doughnuts and talking about whatever it is they were talking about, all without the benefits of Hazmat suits or radiation protection, I can only assume that no gamma rays were released during this portion of my exam. I have even less chance of becoming the Incredible Hulk than previously expected. Similarly, my chances of making the evolutionary leap from custodian to supergenius (a trail blazed by Samuel Stern, aka The Leader, one of the Hulk's nemeses in the comics) also are unlikely. I can only assume the gamma camera measured the radiation coming from my neck.
The chief recollection I have from this period, which I believe lasted more than 40 minutes and possibly longer than an hour involved noticing that the ceiling tiles had hideous brown stains. These in turn reminded me of my old job and the fastidious care our employers took of the building to ensure an aesthetically pleasing and mold-free workplace. Such pleasant associations combined with a maddening itch on my chin while my arms were strapped to my side helped to make this a thoroughly pleasant and painless experience. It was rather like being able to visit a 1950s mad scientist lab, from inside the movie. Any moment, I thought, Dr. Frankenstein will send his hunchbacked little assistant in here to remove my brain, and I'll break free and end his reign of terror over the village.
Igor never showed up, but the gamma camera was painted the same hideous green as the telescope-looking metal tube I'd had to stand next to earlier. I'm sure there is a law against that color, there has to be.
After it was all over, Homer released me from the gamma camera, unstrapped my arms and told me I could get up and wait in the waiting room. In truth, I had nearly fallen asleep after closing my eyes to avoid staring directly into the ceiling light, so I almost fell onto the floor. And then I got lost on my way to the waiting room. I'm sure it was only my imagination that led me to hear Homer say, "His brain was too small, master, but look, I found you one that belonged to Abby Normal."
Afterward, the doctor showed me the gamma pictures of my throat and the rest of my body. There was a blackish star-shaped mess where my thyroid used to be, which as noted before, was the remaining thyroid and presumably some cancer tissue. I'll be going back on Friday for the iodine dosage that will destroy the thyroid cells, while my wife and the girls are safely off to visit relatives to avoid incidental radiation.
During that time, I'm supposed to drink a lot of fluids, flush three times whenever I go to the bathroom, and have the option of wearing disposable gloves if I think I'm going to sweat a lot, since sweat and other bodily fluids are how the iodine will be secreted from my body. Sweat seems unlikely this time of year, especially when I'm cold all the time without a thyroid. All the same, I'll wash the bed covers thoroughly before my wife comes home.
And of course, I'm due to return to the hospital tomorrow at the same time for more picture-taking excitement with green equipment.
Betcha this time they concentrate on my brain.
Sunday, March 05, 2006
At this point, I am about five days away from the iodine treatment that is supposed to leave my remaining cancer cells in smoldering, radioactive ruin.
Two days ago, on Friday, I went to the hospital for the initial radioiodine treatment. Despite the lead case and warning label that screamed "DANGER! RADIATION! PROLONGED EXPOSURE MAY CAUSE SICKNESS AND THE GROWTH OF EXTRA LIMBS," the radiation contained in this dose was quite low -- only 2 millicules (sorry, I have no idea how to spell that).
That, however, is supposed to be enough to make whatever thyroid tissue not removed by the surgery, cancer cells included, light up under an X-ray when I get a bioscan on Monday morning. Based on the pictures they take at this appointment, the doctors will give me a more radioactive dose this coming week to destroy what is left, including
any metastasized cancer cells.
If I have been growing a new thyroid in my armpit, as some have hoped, the chances are high indeed that it will not survive the ensuing devastation. (As if anything can long survive in or near my armpit during the summer, anyway.)
This treatment will have the downside of turning me radioactive (cue The Simpsons' "Radioactive Man" theme music) for about four days. My wife and children will be visiting relatives over the weekend, while I wander the house in isolation, even less fit for the company of pregnant women and small children than before. (No, my wife is not pregnant.)
We still must work out the logistics of getting me home from the hospital, since my wife and younger daughter will drop me off there, hen take the car to fetch the elder child from school before leaving the state. It's doubtful I can walk home from the hospital, as living without thyroid hormone the last few weeks -- a prerequisite for this sort of chemotherapy -- has left me weary beyond description, and feeling like roadkill. It has led to some meditations on my own mortality, though.
Much thanks for your support during this period, even if it has been just to wonder who would be tasteless enough actually to blog about having cancer, for long enough to scratch your head in confusion and visit a more interesting site.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
I love my library.
"Gotham Central" is part of that relatively new genre of comic books set in the world of superheroes, but with superheroes and their colorful sparring partners used as backdrops rather than as the star attraction. The main story is the human drama of the people who inhabit the same world as the capes.
The art is incredible. For the bulk of "Half a Life," which incorporates relevant single issues from other Batman titles, the art makes good use of light and shadow, smooth lines, rugged lines, and color. It's got a gritty feel to it, which is appropriate, since it's about Gotham City, the seedy underside of DC's urban world.
But good as the art is, it's the story itself is what makes the collection a must-have. It starts out with an issue printed just after "Cataclysm," the Batman-event earthquake that rocked Gotham City in 1999. Montoya is out working with emergency crews trying to locate and rescue quake survivors trapped beneath rubble, and finds herself working with Two-Face.
Two-Face is former District Attorney Harvey Dent, horribly scarred on half his face and given to a pathology that leads him to cede major decisions to the flip of a coin, one side of which is defaced. If the coin comes up heads, he's your friend; if the defaced side comes up, he probably will kill you. Whatever he does do, it won't be pleasant.
Every time someone asks for help, Two-Face flips the coin. To Batman, the risk of the coin landing wrong would be too high, and he would take Two-Face down rather than face that risk. But Montaya is not Batman. She is a cop who finds needs Two-Face to help with the rescue effort. She has one bullet in her gun, and she is prepared to use it, but every time Two-Face flips the coin, it comes up heads and he helps. It's impossible but it keeps happening.
Montoya realizes that she understands the coin, and when Batman appears and tries to stop Two Face, she uses that understanding to keep Two-Face focused on the rescue effort and to keep Batman from interfering. That understanding reaches Two-Face in a way I don't think I've ever seen him reached before, and he wants to reach back.
Unfortunately, the only way he knows how to do that is through his coin, and the law of averages dictates that it has to come up tails the same number of times it comes up heads.
As "Half a Life" progresses, the story becomes about Montoya's own personal duality, an identity that she keeps secret, and the way that Two Face's reliance on the coin forces the two halves of her life out in the open and utterly destroys them both. It's a brutal process, and you can see the toll it exacts on Montoya's family, her friends, and her partners at the department, but especially on her. It hurt to read this comic, it was that well written.
I'm not going to reveal the nature of Montoya's secret, except to say that it's handled well. The only complaints I have are that the secret is a little stereotypical, given her career; and that I think Batman, while he makes a great part of the background, makes a lousy deux ex machina. But the story is handled extremely well and honestly.
It's no wonder this received the 2004 Eisner Award for Best Story. It is fantastic.
My library has saved us a small fortune in books and videos over the past year, and trips like this one have let me read about $60 worth of graphic novels and determine that I'd really like to own only $15 worth of them. The comic shop isn't nearly that understanding.
The other comics I borrowed from the library this trip include a collection from Mark Waid's run on "Fantastic Four" where they visit God, best skipped; and his series "JLA: Year One." That one at least is a decent, fast-paced comic with some real character development of the classic Silver Age characters and team, but it's worth reading only once, and will go back to the library today.
"Half a Life" stays until its due date, and then it goes on my list of must-haves.
Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.