Sunday, March 31, 2013

Little Lump

I can tell you now, the little things that happen in life, that you barely notice, far more often than not, turn out to be the biggest things.  John Lennon noted this as life happening while you’re busy making other plans.  There’s how you think your life is going to be, and how it is.  And hopefully the difference is, as you get older, how it is turns out to be all right.

Last weekend while grocery shopping, I leaned over to bag some onions and brushed my stomach against the rail of my cart.  In doing so, I felt a small lump just above my belly button.  I felt it with my finger.  What the hell is that, I thought.  A bruise?  I didn’t recall bumping into anything.  Some type of muscle strain?  It didn’t hurt.  It was just sort of there for no reason.  Made note of it.  Weekend went right on rolling, lifting weights that afternoon, boxing on Sunday.

But I noticed by Monday, that lump hadn’t changed, gotten any better or worse.  Long story short, I went to the doctor later in the week and learned that I had a small umbilical hernia that could be repaired through very straightforward out-patient surgery that takes less than an hour.

That’s the Readers Digest version.

The real version?  Christ, what a pile of shit I went through mentally and emotionally this week leading up to that relatively positive prognosis.  The worst thing you can do is what I did … immediately hit the web typing in stuff like “lump over belly button” and such … and coming up with all sorts of bullshit, some sensible, some demented, all geared to make my imagination run wild with dark thoughts of impending doom.  And I can guarantee you, your mind dwells on this shit leading up to actually finding out about whatever’s really going on.

In my mind, I had already homed in on the hernia explanation as it matched my symptoms: no pain, strange lump appears for no apparent reason in that exact location, disappears when the body is in a reclining position.  Or at least I was hoping it was that, given the other options would be cancerous or non-cancerous tumor or some type of contusion.

But this song pretty much describes how I felt: all alone in the center ring.  I have never felt so alone as in those two or three days when I dwelled on every possible negative outcome of this.  Self pity.  Self loathing.  Fucking up.  I spend a lot of time alone – once I got out of a small house filled with seven people, I guess the novelty of being on my own never wore off.  I’m one of those people who really don’t mind being alone.

But, man, there’s a massive difference between that sort of comfortable solitude and the truly desolate mind-fuck that you go through when faced with the prospect of something going very wrong with your body.  Next to Dad's passing, it's the bleakest emotion I've ever felt.

You have to understand, last time I required medical attention was in summer 1977 or so when a farm dog bit me on the ass while riding my bicycle on the back roads around my hometown.  I’ve pretty much gone through my adult life with the concept that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  (And I still subscribe to that.)  Your body will tell you when something is wrong.  Well, earlier this week, my body told me something was wrong, and I didn’t screw around trying to second guess or self prescribe.  I got it looked at, and thankfully it’s something that can be dealt with directly (and I’m hoping decisively).

And I’ve gone through my adult life with the attitude that you need to work out routinely, at least a few times a week, to keep your system running well.  It seems to me like not exercising is a bad idea, that people run into all sorts of shit, physically and mentally, when they become more sedentary.  Well, as I’m also figuring, this thing could have happened from working out too hard, or carrying too much body weight while routinely working out hard.  Another guy in my gym, in his late 50s, is going to need hip replacement surgery, based mainly on cartilage in his hip wearing down from years of running and biking.  (This guy worked out like a fiend leading up to this … running 4-6 miles a day, biking 3-4 times a week and taking my boxing class same number of times.)

And who knows, could just be in my genes that one day a tendon in my abdominal wall would give in just a little and give me this little lump to ponder.  Some things in your life were put into play long before you were born, and they simply open up like light and dark flowers when the time is right.

As I’ve noted before, life is blissfully unaware of whether you’re happy or sad, rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy.  It will give you good things when you least expect it, and bad things without warning.  It doesn’t care … it just happens.  Good things happen to bad people?  Bad things happen to good people?  No.  Things, good and bad, happen to all of us.  And it’s our lot in life to take the good and bad in stride and go on living.

Good’s already happening for me from this thing, although you might want to ask me about this again when I’m high as a kite and cursing God for the stitches in my abdomen.  I needed an excuse to drop weight … boy, do I have one now, it’s already happening.  I was hardly eating earlier this week with my nerves on edge, and I’ve since realized when I do get back to working out, less weight will mean less strain on my tendons.  So all that fear and darkness I felt earlier in the week has served as profound incentive to truly get my ass in shape when the time comes.  Because I don’t ever want to feel that sort of darkness again.

But I will.  That’s the downside of something like this: a glimpse into the future in terms of my body betraying me.  Because that’s old age and eventually death: your body betraying you.  That simple.  I got to gaze into the crystal ball and see this for myself.  Everyone who goes through some type of unforeseen physical shit does … and usually in situations far worse than mine.  I can also see into the light in the darkness, that the best you can do is be strong, handle whatever’s been put in front of you with grace.  I wouldn’t call this optimism.  I’d call it reality for a sane person, sizing up options and making the best possible choices.  Knowing that somewhere down the road, we’re all going to get a knockout punch that we will not get up from.

Aside from that, pretty quiet week.  Got my Roku box working again, watching the first season of Justified, enjoying the end of winter.  This stuff may sound trivial, but it feels good to think trivial thoughts, and write trivial things, the comfort level that implies, because I know life is at its best when you’re just quietly doing things like this that make you happy in some small sense, that keep you sane, that keep your mind occupied and your sense of self engaged.  It’s been 35 years between doctor visits for unforeseen bullshit, and I’m hoping it’s 35 more.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Back-Up Plan

Van Morrison recently put out an album called Born to Sing: No Plan B.  I found that title particularly odd.  At this point, in his later 60s, he’s got no financial worries.  What he chose to do with his life has paid off handsomely, surely beyond his wildest dreams.  Even if someone stole every penny he had, he’s of an age where the government would support him free of charge.  He’s reached a time in his life when Plan B is death.

But I’ll often hear of people discussing “the back-up plan” in regards to any artistic inclinations.  They’re usually idiots.  And they’re usually trying to impart their idiocy on someone much younger, and presumably more impressionable, that they should have a back-up plan just in case this rock and roll thing/acting/writing/artistic thing doesn’t pan out.  I would never tell someone starting out that, unless I was assuming their talents were so mediocre that they didn’t stand a chance of making it in any sense.

No one creates worthwhile art with a mindset that dwells on a Plan B.  It just doesn’t work that way.  Even if the art he’s creating occurs while he makes money doing something else.  We tend to forget people like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens had day jobs.  Poets, in particular, understand the bullshit of the “Plan B” mentality.  They lived “Plan B” lives and managed to create great poetry that many of us still read today.  Most novelists are on Plan B, most likely teaching at universities to judge by their bios.  Many writers you’re assuming are making a living at their craft more than likely aren’t.  A minute fraction of actors make a living at their craft.  We’re now entering an age where most musicians either now have or will have Plan B in effect, as it will be virtually impossible for them to make livings through writing, recording and performing music alone.  (And most are smart enough not to discuss the real Plan B: working spouse.)

Oddly, I’ll often hear musicians saying the best advice they’d give to young musicians would be to have a Plan B.  These are generally talented musicians who’ve had some level of success, playing in bands, recording, sometimes for years, but never quite locking into that higher level of success where their creative and financial futures were cemented.  They don’t seem to realize none of what they’ve created in their lives, none of the songs, none of the hours of great experiences playing live music, would have existed had they been rational enough to really bear down on that Masters in teaching instead of going on the road in the van in 1988.

At some point, they gave themselves completely over to the music, and did so for a long time … probably still do in some form.  Music is different from other artistic endeavors (save for movie making) in that it costs a small fortune to pursue: instruments alone costs hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands, and then there are amps, microphones, effects, vans, buses, the need to travel and play, recording costs.  (Some might say Pro Tools has changed all that … but anyone recording with Pro Tools who doesn’t have studio-level experience is pissing in the wind production wise.  I’ve heard it.  If you don’t spend a few years learning how to mike instruments and use proper recording techniques, it sounds bland.  Of course, Pro Tools does allow musicians to forego massively expensive studio costs, provided they find a good recording space.)

At some point, they realized they were going to be destitute were they to depend on music alone to make a living.  Or writing.  Or acting.  Or painting.  I crossed that bridge at various points in my 20s and 30s where I found myself unemployed for weeks or a few months at a time and thinking, now’s my big chance, all day long, all week long, to hone my craft.

Mostly what I did was fret over my shrinking banking account and feel an odd sort of creative stasis set in.  I didn’t seize the day – it was more like seizing my dick.  I just shut down, each time.  I found I couldn’t create anything when I had to dwell on losing money and potentially going broke.  It made me realize I need a financial comfort zone to create anything.  Hardly the need to be rich.  But the need to know I could afford to go out and eat every now and then, buy music, see a movie, and not get that constricted feeling of the world closing down on me as I inched closer to financial demise.

Of course, trying to balance any sort of time or urge to write while working a 9-to-5 was, is and will be a huge pain in the ass.  But it’s the only way I’ve ever known, aside from writing while at college, and if you haven’t heard the news, I consider most of that writing dogshit.  I know there will be some people reading this who fondly recall those halcyon days, but I’m telling you now, if you go back and read the archives from the campus paper, the proof is not in the pudding.  Most of it was bad, or at least reads that way to me now.  Real bad.  Sure, there was a spark there, but that’s it.  I’m forever having old college chums ask, “Why don’t you write like that anymore?”  And the answer is because we were all shitheads back then, only you haven’t gone back and actually read what I wrote to verify this like I have!

Which isn’t to discount those days.  Those were good times, and that experience invaluable.  I still remember hanging out on the steps of Carnegie, talking with a girl who worked on the paper, her dying to know what I was going to do when I graduated, surely publications were pounding down my door to have me write for them.

No one was pounding down my door.  I was writing idiosyncratic humor columns (mixed with some truly awful “serious minded liberal arts student contemplates the cruel world” think pieces) on the editorial page.  Very few humorists make it onto editorial page, and the ones who do … Dave Barry?  I’ve always found Dave Barry unfunny.  That’s the pain of humor columnists for me.  It’s hard to be full-on funny all the time.  When you’re seeing a comedian on stage, that act usually represents weeks or months of writing, often with other comedy writers, to stumble onto the funniest lines and routines to shape into a solid one-hour show.

What I wanted to do back then … I’m doing now.  Just letting it loose as much as I can and seeing where it goes.  I gather as you grow up and then age, again, it’s hard to be funny all the time.  When things like parents passing on, houses catching fire, old friends getting weird, jobs grinding down sanity, occur routinely, it often feels just as good for me to write more contemplative pieces.  I’ve been through some desperately unfunny shit in my times; we all have.  While it would be great to say, let’s just laugh all our problems away, after awhile you realize you’d be better off staring them down and gathering you can make sense of all this.  Which is to say you need to develop the capacity to interpret really dark shit in whatever way allows you to stay sane.

And this, among other things, keeps me sane.  A lot of things do, and I pursue all of them knowing this.  This is the context that I put writing in, not whether or not I make a fortune at it, or even a living.  Plan B?  Van Morrison, give me a fucking break.  Hell, it might have been better for Van if he hit a really tough spot financially and had to go back to Belfast to, I don’t know, tend bar or something, to get an idea of how real people live, as opposed to cantankerous old dudes who sit around luxury homes thinking there’s such a thing as “Plan B” when death with his cloak and scythe is spooning with you in bed every night.

But to return to that original thought, if I had a Plan B mentality, I surely wouldn’t be doing this.  I’d be doing Plan B all the time and would have tossed aside any childish thoughts of creating something like this for any reason.  I never would have written anything in my adult life.  I’d have gotten out of college, tried to make it as a writer, and I can assure you at that point, would have failed.  Not succeeded enough to realize that this whole “making a living” ruse was something I’d see with too many mediocre hacks, albeit highly-motivated self marketers, who would keep hounding on this when asked at parties and bars.  These days that implies a blitzkrieg of self promotion that would make even the most shallow narcissist want to vomit after spending all day hyping one’s self all over Twitter, Facebook and whatever else is the new hot thing to exploit for personal gain.  I’m not good at that.  Most writers aren’t.

So, I apologize for having no Plan B, other than the desire to live my life however I choose.  Probably makes me look like a horse’s ass to very responsible adults.  But I’ve always recognized very responsible adults as the ultimate horse’s asses, not people I’ve ever wanted to emulate.  Of course, that’s unavoidable – if I had kids, it would be extremely unavoidable.  But you’ll have to excuse me for recognizing the spark all those years ago and blowing on that small flame every now and then to keep things going.  It’s not all I got, but it makes life a lot more tolerable.