The Ultimate Conspiracy

Something horrible has happened to me.

I was raised in the Catholic church. The Catholic church is what the religious community would call fundamentalist. What the H-E-C-K is that?

Let’s go GOOOOOOOOGLE it!

The All-Seeing-All-Knowing-Great-and-Powerful voice of the Internet defines a fundamentalist as a person who believes in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture in a religion.

Yeah, that was me. Certain ideas that come along with fundamentalism are:

  1. Creationism. The Earth was created in a literal six days.
  2. There was a literal Adam and Eve, real people in a real garden.
  3. Noah put two of each animal onto an ark.

The facts of the story are the facts of the story and the facts of the story are literal.

When I was in high school, in ninth grade, I have a very powerful memory of sitting in my Biology classroom while my teacher, a hulking football coach with the body of a line-backer, explained what evolution was.

Any questions? he asked.

No hands go up except mine. The truth is, I don’t have a question. I have a statement and I’m about to drop a Knowledge Bomb on this entire class. Get ready for this treat.

“Johnny?” he calls on me and I can almost hear in his voice that he doesn’t expect much to roll out of my mouth. Why would he? I fail nearly every class I’m in and spend every single Saturday in detention. I had a track record of being a brilliant rock-star and I’m about to back it up even further.

“Mr. Bailey. Today is April 1st. Happy Evolutionist Day.”

What a joker I was. What a cocky, thoughtless, sub-human, unconscious animal I was. A chimpanzee wearing Vans and a crucifix around my neck. A WWJD bracelet adorning my wrist.

He cocks a beefy eyebrow at me. My extremely clever joke has gone over his great gorilla head, it seems. I try to speak on his level.

“Today is April 1st. Today is April Fools Day. Happy Evolutionist Day.” Because only a fool could believe in evolution.

Everyone sitting in my class was being fed some laughable story about evolution from this brain-washed academic messenger. Goodness. His tale about man from monkey (not to mention amoeba) was insanely laughable. It was crazy. It was koo-koo-bananas.

Mr. Bailey takes a deep breath. “Please enlighten us, Mr. Brookbank.”

“God created us. God made us.” I recite.

“When?”

“Recently. About six or seven thousand years ago.”

“How do you know?”

“The Bible told me so.”

“And the Bible was written by?”

“God. Man. Man inspired by God.”

He tries another angle but I block him. “John. Do you believe that Noah put all those animals on the ark?” “Yes.” “Two of each?” “Yes.” “How did he feed them?”

Shit. I hadn’t thought about this. Thankfully, I had an answer for things I hadn’t thought about. “God made it okay. God can do anything.” Ah, yes. That’s a clever one. The Wild Card. The Get-Out-Of-Jail free card. Works every time.

The rest of the class is mostly disengaged, happy that they’ve escaped talk of DNA and the process of natural selection for at least a short amount of time.

“If Adam and Eve were the first humans, wouldn’t their children be bred by incest?”

Dang it. He’s caught me off guard again. It’s okay, though. I’ve got an answer for it.

“God made it okay. God can do anything.” Wild card!

“So God is okay with incest?”

“No. Incest is an abomination but it was okay then.” I kind of start to panic. I blurt out my red button phase that rockets me into the untouchable zone. “God is mysterious and his powers are not understood by man.”

The conversation ultimately ends with me raising an eyebrow and balking at his idiocy. I walked out of the class, absolutely shocked and appalled that such a person would be allowed to teach the youth. What a complete moron.

I was so proud of myself when this happened. I had stood up for my personal beliefs. I had bravely confronted psychological evil in the world. I knew my ideas were different but I was okay with being the black sheep. I did it for Jesus. I couldn’t stand down and let these guys get the best of my homie. He had died for me. The least I could do is get his back in Biology 101. How would I ever be a Warrior for Christ in The Real World if I couldn’t even verbally defend my faith within the confines of a classroom?

You want to get in shape? Create a habit of going to the gym. You want a clean house? Create a habit of cleaning your house. You want to be confident? Create a habit of telling yourself that you’re confident. You want to hold a belief, any belief, create a habit of telling it to yourself every single day.

I think, therefore I am.

You want to be a fundamentalist, go to a church where they reinforce that idea. Have your family and friends reinforce the idea. And if you’re born into it, even better. You don’t ever have to think that maybe there is another option. When I was a kid, I was so thankful that my parents had raised me in the one single correct religion. Thank God! Literally.

What would have happened to me, I often thought to myself, if I had been born in some filthy country where they worshipped Allah? My uncle was a Muslim and I think he might be going to Hell. His kids too. And probably his wife. Which was a shame because I kind of liked them. If I had been born into that land, amongst those people, I would have had to go out, find Jesus on my own, leave my native faith, commit to Christ and then be saved. That seemed like a lot of work and also that country and the people seemed kind of dirty and so I was really thankful to be where I was. They were hell-bound blasphemers who believed in a silly invisible God that told them what was right and wrong. And they prayed to him, hahahahaha. Idiots.

April 1st was also Happy Muslim Day, it would seem.

I thought to myself, Thank God that I was born into the greatest place on earth. Thank God I was born into the correct religion. Thank God…..”

….that I didn’t have to think for myself.

Thank God that I had been raised to be thoughtless. Thank God I had been raised to disavow the use of my own human logic in favor of a faceless and fact-less belief system that told me everything I thought was right and everything everyone else thought was wrong.

Thy ego is starving. Let us feed it with self-righteousness. YUUUUUUUMMY. It is bitter with ignorance but sweet with self-satisfaction.

I was so right, in fact, that I didn’t even have to read a book to know I was right. I didn’t need to read the biology books because they were full of lies. Science was always trying to “explain everything” and that we should just trust in God more.

Carbon dating was a joke because, didn’t my teacher know, that someone in my church told me that scientists somewhere had carbon dated a living turtle and the results said it was 10,000 years old? But the reality was that there was no study. It was just a guy at my church.

It was just a willfully ignorant, brain-dead drone repeating mindless drivel that the other lemmings had been mumbling to themselves. And I digested it and I repeated it. And it felt good to be right.

But then something interesting happened to me later in life. It was life-changing. It, quite literally, quite fundamentally, rocked my entire world.

I read a book.

Nothing in particular. I just read a book.

looked at what was presented and for the first time in my life I realized that I only believed what I believed because I had been told to not look at the other side. Stand by your faith. Be strong. There is no value to their opinions. You have the truth. You have the answer. You don’t even need to consider another side. And when you are tempted to look and consider, just remember that The Dark One is tempting you. Come back to safety, my little sheep.

But when I looked, when I read, when I ingested, when I saw, when I thought, when I took the bite of the Apple from the Tree of Knowledge, my eyes and my mind opened and I saw.

I Saw.

I saw that the idea of the world being created in seven thousand years was not only preposterous but one that was borderline absolutely insane. And I don’t use that lightly. I use it like mental ward, asylum, existing outside of reality insane.

It was Insane what I had believed for the past TWENTY-FIVE YEARS. That is a fucking long time to be, by any standard, super-stupid.

And then… The Internet. We were no longer living in caves. We were no longer illiterate. We were no longer sourcing our facts from distant philosophers and great thinkers. We didn’t even have to go to the library to get a book anymore. We didn’t even have to get it from our teachers. The Internet – it was a portal into the purest knowledge and it sits inside of our back pocket. With a few quick key-strokes, you could have a nearly unending supply of information from any and all sides of any and all topics.

There are two kinds of people, in my opinion, that are allowed to be Creationists. The first are the elderly. Many of them don’t have access to the internet. Bad eyes. Tired. Etc. The other group are children who can’t read.

Everyone in between those two groups no longer has any excuse for not taking the time to properly educate themselves on their own biological history. Pure ignorance is no longer acceptable with Time Warner. The internet has taken every single other reasonable option completely off the table. If you don’t know, you aren’t looking.

Reminds me of my kids. “I can’t find my shoes!

“Then you aren’t looking. They’re sitting right by the door.”

“Oh.”

There is an amazing amount of anger and contempt that exists inside of me for having ever been told that all of this – our world – was made recently. It infuriates me that I was encouraged to be ignorant. It upsets me – truly – that I was taught such wild and inconceivable tales.

I like to tell myself that it was different for me when I was younger. The Internet was picking up but wasn’t nearly as ingrained in our daily lives as it is today. Today, I tell myself, if you believe the world was created less than ten thousand years ago, you are committing the greatest sin of all.

You are choosing to intentionally remain willfully ignorant in the face of facts and endless amounts of evidence.

Carbon dating doesn’t work because–

Because you don’t understand it. That’s why. And you don’t understand it because you refuse to try to understand it. And that’s just lazy.

In the age of YouTube, you can learn about how carbon dating works in a four minute video.

Today I sit down and I look at two options and I say to myself…

OPTION 1

Slowly, slowly, slowly, over the course of great amounts of time, life developed on this planet, growing from a small force, to a Force to be Reckoned with. We see this drama of life play out over and over again with plants, animals and even the cycles of the seasons. It is repeatable and predictable.

OPTION 2

God farted everything out in six days and humanity in one. Nothing like this has ever happened before or since. No one was there. No one saw it. There is no evidence of it except for a book with no author. A glove that doesn’t fit.

 

Now, if I’m sitting in a courtroom and I have to decide which of these I’m choosing…. I mean, Option 2 feels like a story a kid would write. It feels objectively silly when you stack it against the other and A//B them like that.

It is laughable (but also horrifying) to think there are people (adults) who select OPTION B. Who are these people? What makes them select something that is so entirely and clearly wrong? You can have a vacation on the beautiful beaches of Hawaii or we can send you to Guantanamo Bay, where you will be tortured for weeks on end! The choice is yours!

I don’t know, Bob…. OPTION….B?

Here’s another multiple choice, this one a little closer to reality.

OPTION A

Particles in the clouds create electric charge, build up and cause lightening.

OPTION B

God is throwing lightening bolts.

One of them has facts and things we can observe and read about and replicate. One of them is a fortune cookie that was written by people before people knew what science was. It’s crazy how easy this test is. It’s crazy how many people fail.

It is tremendously disturbing to me when I have conversations with people who are Fundamental Creationists and I realize that they vote.

Individuals – and quite a large group of them – who are unable to review information from both sides and make a rational decision on their own are able to vote and craft the voice of our country. It is terrifying to me. They aren’t listening to themselves. They aren’t reading. So how do they decide? They just wait for someone to tell them what to do, where to stand, how to think. In the game of chess, these are called Pawns and they are disposable because there are so many of them. In real life we call these Pawns soldiers and we send them to die for some purpose. I think it has to do with protecting our fence or our oil or our God – or is it our freedom? I can’t keep up with it.

 

More than bashing on the population base of Creationists (which I’m also doing because it really does deeply upset me at my core level), I am writing to say that I am so thankful that I have been broken from the bondage of faith. Faith is the enemy of intelligence. And lack of intelligence is the enemy of Man. And Willful Ignorance is Evil Incarnate.

The question that was posed to me during a church class echoes back through my mind. Why does science have to try and EXPLAIN everything?

Today I understand that the answer is not the problem. That is just a crazy-stupid question. CRAZY stupid.

Because if we lived in a world where we didn’t try to explain things, we wouldn’t progress, we would still be living in caves yelling at Kronk to just put down that fucking wheel. Listen, Kronk! If God wanted us to have fire, he would have given it to us! Quit dabbling in The Dark Arts!

 

In 2018, Fundamentalism is not fun. But it is mental. Like crazy. Like fucking bonkers. Like the chicken from Moana seeing the wall but just walking directly into it over and over again.

Evidence of the wall does not matter. Keep marching. Keep marching. Keep marching. Evidence does not matter. Evidence not matter. Evidence does not matter. I am right. I am right. I am right. I sleep at night. God loves me. Amen.

I hope I’ve adequately offended you enough to at least go YouTube something. SOMETHING. Challenge your beliefs. Challenge yourself. Open yourself to the idea that you actually may be stupid like I was, marching around publicly proclaiming how under-developed my brain was.

Larger than 9-11. Larger than Area-51. Larger than Crop Circles. The idea that millions and millions and millions of people believe, without evidence, that the Earth is 7,000 years young is The Ultimate Conspiracy Theory. At that point you might as well believe that the Earth is flat and that the Sun commits to doing large circles around us.

Open the trap-door. Look into the darkness. Then jump down into it.

What if I’ve spent my whole life believing a lie?

No! Your brain immediately shrieks in response. It’s too insane to even consider. The Dark One again, tempting you with knowledge.

Better to be what God desires me to be – an ostrich with my head shoved down into the sand, listening to the gentle hum of my own heartbeat, ensuring me that I and I alone, am saved.

I think back on my Biology Classroom Experience and I shutter with embarrassment. How much patience that teacher had with me, I’ll perhaps never know. How much empathy he had for me, I’ll never know either but I look back at myself and I look out at people I know who still believe these things and it feels like my heart breaks for them. I’m so sad that they live such shallow, unsaturated, lives with boring belief systems that shrink down the magnanimous beauty of our ever-expanding universe into a novelty trinket that can be contained in four words and be mindlessly repeated by any child old enough to mimic.

God can do anything.

You could probably even teach it to a parrot.

God can do anything.

Including make a race of apes that know how to pull a trigger but not read, it seems.

God can do anything.

Including encouraging you to believe an enormous story with zero evidence. Heads up, that happens anywhere else in life and you would be called a raving lunatic.

Water does not come out of my sink through the pipes. I turn on my God-faucet and Jesus juice pours out. It looks like it comes from the pipes. But it doesn’t. It comes from the … Jesus Juice place….

Are you a raving lunatic?

Perhaps.

I was. Shrieking outlandish and incoherent thoughts in my biology class. There was no reason to learn.

I already knew everything.

What a sad, pathetic little creature I was. So wrapped up in my own absolute certainty that I left no room for exploration.

I am so thankful for the internet and books and knowledge and science and academics and philosophers and people who think and inspire us all to think and to lead mentally active life-styles. I am so thankful that I live in a world wherein I am not just allowed but encouraged, to learn and expand my intellectual horizons.

I’m going to wrap this up with my own personal beliefs, which are an opinion and which, like the rest of this post, is probably pretty offensive.

If you take your children to church, but don’t watch BBC Planet Earth with them, you are doing our society a great disservice. You are harming mankind by intentionally closing malleable minds off from information that would make them Greater Than. You are intentionally stunting their growth and handicapping their ability to problem solve and use critical thinking skills.

But my faith is important to me!

Well, ignorance is bliss. And you look very blissful.

Very blissful.

Also, you can teach your child about love and forgiveness and compassion without teaching them about impossible magic that fucks with their heads and leaves them with a gap between imagination and reality for the rest of their lives.

I shudder, thinking to myself again that these people with wildly low IQs not only vote, but own guns.

In the most ironic tone I can muster, I end with, God help us.

And if God can’t, Science help us.

albert-einstein-god

 

 

 

 

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EPILOGUE

PART 5

“Woo-Hoo!”

-Blur

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The Cancer was gone but—as far as I could tell—nothing had changed. When I got in the car, I still felt sick and we had to pull over twice on the way home for me to throw up. Upon arriving back at the house, I sat in My Yellow Chair and slept wearing my heavy green parka (with a smile on my face).

My wife set the celebratory chocolate cake on the counter with plans to stick it in the freezer, but while I was asleep and while Jade was in the shower and while my mother was outside, my dog pulled it down and ate two-thirds of it.

I never got to taste the cake that I suffered so much for, but my dog looked very happy and slept very well that night.

Slowly, over the course of the next few weeks, my appetite did begin to return and I found myself slowly eating more and more, slowly scooping larger and larger portions onto my place, slowly starting to say things like, “In-N-Out for dinner? Steak? Chicken sounds good,” although I refused to touch any type of alcohol, and for years afterward, was terrified to put anything in my body that wasn’t for purely nutritional value. In fact, I became so entirely hyperconscious of the state and condition of my food that I insisted we get rid of the microwave.

My wife approaches me one night and says that a friend of ours from high school who was now living in Oregon had given us an open invitation to visit her. We jointly decided that this was an ideal point to begin our If Not Now, When? Adventures.

My mother agreed to stay at our home for an additional week to watch our dogs and we hit the road. It was a beautiful and memorable journey up the coast. I look back at photos from that particular road trip and it amazes me to see that it literally looks like my wife was traveling with another man; someone who smiled and laughed but was emaciated and pale. While I was eating better, the weight simply wasn’t pouring back on. Even after gaining ten pounds I was still six feet tall and weighing in at a buck forty.

On our journey we began to talk about baby names and, when we got back, it was that conversation that finally led us to take the paternal plunge. After speaking with the fertility clinic, they informed us that we had eleven completely fertilized eggs that were frozen and ready to implant. I stare at the phone as a single phrase that I’d heard from a woman at church months and months ago echoes through my mind. “I see babies. Lots and lots of babies.”

In February 2010 we began the initial stages of in vitro fertilization and three months later we found out we were pregnant.

With twins.

The pregnancy and delivery were both textbook. Jade went full term and on January 6, 2011, Quinn Marie was born two minutes before her brother, Rory James.

Becoming a father and raising twins has been an adventure in its own right that could (and maybe will?) fill a book. My children are wild and savage and inquisitive beings. Their personalities could not be further apart and every day with them is living life in a full, bright spectrum of color.

Every single day with them has been completely insane in the best way possible, and I have Cancer to thank. Without Cancer I never would have banked. Without Cancer we never would have done IVF. Without Cancer we never would have implanted two eggs.

And now, knowing the life I have, knowing what Cancer brought me, I would roll through it all again if it meant being given the opportunity to raise the two of them together.

Just after the Twinkies turned two, we decided to revisit the fertility clinic and walk through the process again. This time, out of fear that we would become the parents of two sets of twins we only implanted a single egg, which stuck temporarily before we suffered a miscarriage several weeks later.

Tragedies cannot be compared and I can’t tell you that a miscarriage is worse than cancer is worse than my grandfather passing. They are not better or worse, they are simply different perspectives of loss. Each tragedy a unique experience that calls out to us and seems to embed itself in the very threads of our DNA, forcing us to carry it around for the rest of our time on the planet.

A few months later we tried a second time for a third child, again with only a single egg. The results came back positive and for the next nine months we held our baited breaths nervously until October 7, 2013, when Bryce Alison entered the universe.

And then, four years later, we went back for one more family upgrade. On Nov. 14, 2017 Beau Natalie arrived with ten fingers, ten toes, and an opinion about everything.

Every day I have on this Earth, with my wife, with my children, with my family, with myself, is an absolute gift and it’s something that I’ll never take for granted. Everything is beautiful and every day is an adventure. I have had the rare gift to glimpse death in the face, see what my life is worth to me, and then stand up from the table and walk away.

Thoughts of cancer follow me everywhere and the reminders are constant; every time I hear The Ice-Cream truck drive down the street, every time I see the reality show about the family with all the kids, every time I drive past the Wiltern in LA where we saw Ben Folds Five, every time I hear the music of Ben Folds Five, every time someone says the word Arcadia, every time someone mentions Las Vegas or Kings of Leon or the words saline solution or ninjas or George Harrison or the word flood. These things and many, many more are all instant triggers and not a day goes by that something doesn’t drop a red flag and send me back to It. And I’d have it no other way. My baggage is a constant reminder that every day is not a good day to die. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t my day to die. Because it just might be. Death opens its arms wide and simply pulls in what it can, like an enormous whale consuming krill.

Every day I hug my children. Every day I say “Yes” to opportunity. Every day I embrace the unknown. Everyday I contemplate and cast wonder at the magnificent and magical world around me, the good and the evil, all wrapped up together, living in all things around us, breathing, eating and existing in beautiful and marvelous complexity.

I look at my life—I look at what has come before cancer and I see all the things I wanted to do. When I was in high school I had hoped to someday buy a van and just head out, to drive without direction or purpose. I wanted to write things and create things and live a life that pushed my boundaries of experience and culture and . . . then I got a job that locked up my time and helped to strangle my ambitions.

I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I was looking down the barrel of a gun and pleading for my life and swearing that, yes, when I came through the other end, things would be different and I wouldn’t be so complacent about my life and I wouldn’t be bored or boring and I would do all the things that needed to be done and say the things that needed to be said and if I died with a list of regrets when I was ninety or eighty or seventy or thirty-five, that list would be incredibly short and pathetic and would contain only random and asinine things like “Eat a pizza from the inside out” because I planned to live the rest of my days chasing daily adventure.

I told myself that I would start a family. And I have. I told myself I would pursue directing. And I have. I’ve directed short films and music videos and have worked with musicians whose work inspires me and have gotten my work into film festivals and my music videos featured on Rolling Stone. I’ve started a production company and created commercial spots that air nationally on broadcast television. I chased that dream and I caught it. I told myself I would read Moby Dick. And I have. And it was the worst thing ever but I finished it and can say with utter confidence that you should never pick it up. I told myself I would read Grapes of Wrath. And I have. And it’s one of the best things ever and I can say with utter confidence that you should pick it up. I told myself I would start camping. And I have. I’ve taken my family on meandering, aimless, vacations in a minivan and I can finally high five that teenage version of myself.

I’ve written television pilots and recorded podcasts and learned to cook and had ’80s-themed parties and made new friends that have become my family and have started a blog and am learning to play the guitar and the ukulele and I play hide and seek at least once a week. I’ve started playing Frisbee golf and hiking and I just got a membership to a gun range where I have learned that I prefer a revolver to a pistol but my accuracy is superior with a rifle. I recently killed and cleaned my first fish and by the light of three headlamps, I gutted and cooked it with my bare hands before feeding it to my tribe. I flew to Nicaragua, slept at the base of a volcano, went zip lining, and helped a woman who was being mugged.

I read. Every day. Sometimes out loud with my wife. I write. Almost every day. I keep a journal but I almost never read it. I go to concerts and the theater and I say yes to any strange food that happens across my plate, which is how I ended up eating blood sausage and frog meat. I started a financial budget with my wife and we’ve done a pretty decent job of sticking to it. I love those around me every day because I almost lost each and every one of them.

My mantra has become Year of the Yes. Whenever someone asks me to do something that I’ve never done the answer is yes, yes, yes, always yes. I want to live strong and loud and uncomfortable. I want to find my boundaries and push past them and expand my culture and thoughts and experiences and love for all of humanity and the energy of life itself.

I never want to say that I am too old or too tired or too busy to go attempt something or to succeed at something or to fail at something. Too old and too tired and too busy are excuses invented by lazy people with no personal ambition. Age is relative. Time is relative. Even success is relative. But what we do with our time is not. Every move counts.

Life is too short to be stagnant and The End already comes too swiftly. When Death finally knocks on my front door, beckoning me home, I want to smile broadly, look at my to-do list and I want the last words I see to be, “Embrace Death. You did everything.”

 

 

And here is the beautiful lady herself.

Jade, thank you so much for standing by me through the most difficult time of my life. You are amazing and brave and kind and incredible and I can never pay you back.

I can never pay you back. And I hope that the opportunity to do so never arises.

Thank you for supporting me through this entire insane book. Thank you for continuing to support my wild ideas, dreams and goals over the last 15 years. We have gone to the ends of the earth together and I could not have done any of this alone.

Your spirit is beautiful.

Thank you for standing next to me.

-Johnny

 

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THE FINAL DAY | CHAPTER 40

I wake up in a dark room. I am seven years old. I look out the window and there is snow covering the ground. It’s fresh. Strange ice patterns have crawled up the glass panels, trying to creep into my home, into my house. I run to the bed next to mine and shake my sister awake. She snorts and sits up, pushing me away. I stand back and say nothing. I just watch her. And then I see the realization dawn on her face. She knows. She’s been waiting. And now it’s here. It’s finally here.

The two of us bound down the stairs together, two at a time, nearly tripping over each other’s feet. We each grab the banister and rocket ourselves into the living room where we lay our eyes upon one of the sweetest things an American child will ever see:

A Christmas tree pregnant with gifts.

Oh . . . try to remember, try to remember. The full tree, the red globes. The lights. The stockings. The presents. I am seven and this is my currency. These are my diamonds. There are so many boxes of so many shapes and sizes in so many varying brands and designs of wrapping paper. Where to start?!

The night before was torture; lying awake in bed, in the dark, staring at the ceiling. You must sleep! I tell myself. Shut your eyes! But my desperation for what tomorrow brings is too great. I lie in bed until exhaustion overpowers me and, like a robot, my body simply shuts down.

I tentatively reach out and touch the first present, the second present. What’s in the big box? A Super Nintendo? A go-kart? A time machine?! I begin to tear and shred; paper is raining down upon my sister and me as we are swallowed up into a complete endorphin high. Neither of us can hear the other squealing with glee.

All is good. All is happy. Everything is perfect.

This is not a story meant to pluck your heartstrings in a way that says, “Ah, but the seven-year-old did not know what awaited him in twenty years.” This story has a bigger purpose than mere parallel emotional trite.

There is a magic in Christmas morning for children. It is something we have all felt and experienced but have lost having grown up. Certainly, Christmas is still fun and warm and inviting as adults but there is something unique about the quality in the air as a child that, once gone, can never be recaptured.

But here and now I tell you that, as a twenty-six-year-old man, lying in my bed on the fifth floor of the Arcadia Methodist Hospital on January 15, 2009, I feel like a seven-year-old on Christmas morning. That magic was back.

My time, my journey, my experience, my nightmare was finally coming to an end. The light at the end of the tunnel was not only in sight. It was here. Today. From my initial diagnosis to the final drip-drop of chemotherapy, my grand total was 163 days under the gun—3,912 hours of fire-refining damage control.

I wish I could tell you that there was one single moment where I simply crossed a line or walked out the door and then it was over with a bang, finished like a race. But that’s not the case.

This is how Cancer ends.

Not with a bang but a whimper.

A nurse enters, and looking at my final chemo bag, unceremoniously states, “All done.”

I shut my eyes and I pull in breath and I sob in happiness for the first time since my brain cancer came back negative. After so much distress and tragedy and bad news piled on top of us, here it is. Tears roll down my cheeks and onto my pillow and my wife squeezes my hand and my mother squeezes my other hand and the three of us have made it through alive.

We. Have. Survived.

The nurse pulls out my IV for the last time, and just like that, I am free. While I’d love to tell you that it ends there, it doesn’t. Because the reality is I’m still very sick. I still have gasoline and particles of nuclear fusion soaring through my veins and it will be weeks before they’re out and it will be months before I feel like an actual living human again. Who knows how long it will take for my eyebrows to come back . . . .

Sue leads my entire nursing staff into the room, six of them total. It is this group of complete strangers that have made me feel as much at home as I possibly could have over the course of the last six months. They’ve given of their time and energy to help me keep my attitude highest when it wanted to live in the depths of oblivion. They were my cheerleaders, my team, my friends, my family in a time when I needed all of those things. These people went above and beyond their duty to bring me safely to The Other Side. They guided me back across the river Styx.

Sue sets a chocolate cake in front of me and says, “For when you get appetite back.” The cake is the most delicious and unappetizing thing I’ve ever seen and it turns my stomach but I value the personal token of friendship deeply.

I remember the first hospital we’d visited where they’d forgotten my paperwork and I try to imagine what six months under the care of The Careless would have been like. I shudder.

I stand up slowly and individually hug each of them, staining the shoulders of their smocks with my tears. I embrace Sue last, our special mother-nurse and I whisper, “Thank you,” in her ear. Her body is small and frail and I realize that I currently have the same physical build.

She says, “Mike will take you outside. Sit down,” and she signals to a wheelchair. The Wheelchair. The Final Wheelchair. Mike steps behind me, grabs the handles and pushes me into the hallway where my wife snaps a photo of me with the group of them. It will become something that I cherish deeply.

Mike begins to push me forward, and Sue says, “See you later,” and I turn around and say to her, “Sue, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea but . . . I hope I never see you again.” She smiles and laughs and says, “Yes . . . . Yes, I hope I never see you again either. Be healthy. Be well!” and then she turns and disappears into another room, with another patient, to change another life.

Mike pushes me to the front door where my mother is waiting for me with the car. I stand up, turn, and shake Mike’s hand. He’s always been a man of very few words and so he just says, “Good luck,” and I say, “Thank you for everything.”

I turn and walk out of the hospital and into the light.

 

 

 

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FINAL ROUND: CHAPTER 39

 

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At this point I believe that there is nothing that can be said that hasn’t already been said before. You, reader, are just as familiar with the routine as I am. Even though this is the last round and the celebratory party hats should, at the very least, be brought out and dusted off, I can’t help but feel a strange mourning and lingering.

Even though my mother keeps saying, “This is it, this is it! That’s the last time we’ll drive through those gates. That’s the last time we’ll enter these doors. That’s the last time you’ll check in. That’s your last IV. How does it feel?” I can’t help but think that this is not The Last. This is just Another. This is just Another Stop that takes me on and on and on. I’m so mentally broken and physically destroyed that the idea of getting off this ride makes no sense to me. I’m so brainwashed by procedure and routine that the idea of the Long Spoken of and Prophesized, Great and Powerful END could not really be here.

Over the last few weeks I’ve developed a sore throat that stings like rug burn, a side effect I blame fully on the vaporizer. And so, having recently become so conscious of the health of my body, I’ve decided to give up smoking weed completely in lieu of my own well-being. I don’t want any more drugs in my system. I want them all gone and out of me. Everything.

The nausea has been stronger than usual but I fight through it (as though I have a choice), spending days with my eyes closed while focusing on my breathing. Time has lost all relevancy and the clock is just a geographical readout that happens to tell me where the sun is in the sky. I feel every second and am given the chance to stare at it and mull it over, dissect it, assess it, pass it on, examine the next one.

I try to imagine everything that I’ve missed—the six months of the world that has been existing without me—and I realize in a very sobering way that I do not matter. I am very insignificant in, not only the greater scheme of things, but in the most absolute minutia of life. I am replaceable, interchangeable and forgotten.

No matter what I do or what happens to me, the world will continue to spin, the glaciers will continue to melt, and Coca-Cola will still have bubbles.

I am not invincible.

But I can do anything and there is no longer anything to fear.

 

 

 

 

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TWO FRIENDS, part 1 & 2: CHAPTER 38

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PART 1: ROB

 During the summer between my eighth- and ninth-grade years, I ended up meeting a boy my same age named Rob who lived across town from me. He is a mental fixture in my childhood and was a very important part of my adolescence, and although I wrack my brain over and over, I can’t seem to recall how the two of us first met. Presently, as a thirty-year-old man, this makes me very sad as I know that things I hold dear to me are beginning to slowly evaporate while I’m not looking.

His parents had divorced long before I knew him, and he was mostly left alone throughout the day during summer break. His mom’s small house became our kingdom; its four walls were ours. We could crank the stereo and listen to our music as loud as we wanted. It was that summer that Rob introduced me to Jack Kerouac, Neil Gaiman, and rock and roll.

He would date a girl, I would date a girl, we’d break up with them and date each other’s ex-girlfriends; once we even made out with the same girl at the same time, both of us feeling her up while awkwardly trying to avoid each other’s hands. That encounter finally ended with the three of us all giving a collective, “This is weird, yeah?” and then driving to Burger King for lunch.

A few years later, Rob and I began to change and grow apart (as people do). He began spending countless hours at the library (pre Internet) researching Buddhism and Hinduism and various forms of monkhood. He claimed to spend hours each day in his room meditating on nothing but clearing his mind and disconnecting from the world.

We’d spend endless hours bickering wildly over the existence and nature of God, me with all of my “hard facts” he was ignorantly overlooking. I would point and condemn, using fear as a weapon. It makes me grimace to remember the things I’d say; the way I’d try to shove a very specific brand of American Christianity down his throat like a horse pill. “Just take two of these and you’ll be fine!”

Religion was a drug to me. It lifted me up and made me feel good and certain and right. I couldn’t get enough – I mean, who doesn’t want to feel absolute certainty in the unknown? Certainty gives us a sense of superiority. And superiority damages relationships. And eventually, as most drugs do, it devoured me and alienated my friend. It’s funny how religion – a supposedly cosmic belief system based in love, unity and the divine – can separate and isolate human beings so harshly if we allow it to.

Years passed and Rob and I grew further and further apart, only seeing each other randomly in the high-school parking lots. We became involved with different groups of friends but still nodded silently to each other when we passed by happenstance in the halls.

Then, sometime during our junior year, I heard from a mutual friend that he had suddenly taken a bus to California. It wasn’t until years and years later that the two of us would meet again, this time at his new home, a Hare Krishna community in Santa Monica he’d been living in since he left South Dakota. We were different people—both of us half a country away from our hometown, both of us half a decade older, me a bit balder from genetics, he with a purposefully shaved head save for a sprout of hair in the back. I wear a T-shirt and ripped jeans, he an orange robe.

We’ve both matured as men and are able to discuss our cosmic curiosities in a more social manner, taking the time to learn from one another rather than attempting merely to teach and talk. He asks me to stay for lunch and we walk through a veritable buffet of vegetarian Indian cuisine and he purchases my meal for me. We say grace together and dig in, reminiscing about people we once knew.

He tells me that he had discovered this temple during one of his various faith studies, contacted them, and they’d sent him an invite along with the bus fare. At seventeen years old he had packed a single bag, got on the Greyhound, and never returned.

Once I was diagnosed with cancer, he and his new wife were one of the very first and very few to come visit us in the hospital. Then, six months later, toward the end of my treatment, he invited my family to his temple for a small lunch. It could not have come at a better time as I was truly feeling as though I needed to unload a minivan of emotional baggage. There were dark things happening deep down in my soul and they were going to come out; Pandora’s box was going to crack open. I was feeling very bad things and I needed to say them. I needed to get them into the air around me and I needed someone I trusted to hit them all like Whack-A-Moles when they appeared.

Looking back, I hope to God that these emotions were simply my renegade hormones speaking; my lack of AndroGel and imbalance of testosterone. But even today, years later, I can’t say with any absolute clarity. I can’t say for certain that I wasn’t on the brink of something darker.

Rob, who was now going by the name of Haladhara, and I sat down at a small table while, at my request, our wives and my mother sat down separately. We both say our customary blessing and then I thank him for buying me lunch yet again. He says, “Dude . . . dude . . . c’mon. It’s the least I can do.”

I look at my large plate with my meager portions and remember the last time I ate here—I had heaping stacks of food. He asks, “How is everything? How are you doing?” and I reach out and pick up a biscuit that might be made out of potatoes and spinach and I take a bite. I say, “I’m not very good, man. I’m not doing very good,” and my voice cracks on that last word and he says, “What’s wrong?”

I look around the restaurant and see people seated at different tables. My initial fear when we walked in the door had been that I would throw up and make a scene. My new fear is that I was about to start crying uncontrollably with an audience.

I say, “I’m . . . so . . . I don’t know. Just inside. Everything feels all weird. It feels all sick,” and he says, “But it’s gone, yeah? It’s all—you’re out of it?” and I say, “The cancer is gone . . . but the cancer—it’s never been the problem. It’s the chemo. The chemotherapy is the monster, and I’ve got one round left. I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I have it in me,” and Rob, or Haladhara, puts down his food and puts his fingertips together and just listens to me talk. I ramble.

“It hurts so much. I can’t walk. I can’t talk. I’m . . . pain . . . everything is fuzzy. The ice-cream truck made me cry. Jade is giving me baths. I can’t take care of myself. Can’t walk. Can barely think, talk . . . . I can’t eat. I don’t know. If I had to do this again, I can’t say, I can’t say, I don’t know that I wouldn’t just . . . kill myself. I don’t think I can do it again.”

These are the darkest words I’ve ever spoken and I consider this moment to be my darkest hour. I glance around the small room and find that no one is looking at me but everyone is paying attention. I try to stifle my gasps but I have no control over anything. I put my face into my hands and try to hold back visceral wails that seem to be clawing their way out of my very soul. Thinking these monstrous and loathing thoughts is evil and poisonous toxicity—thinking about suicide. Speaking the words out loud feels so much more tangible and dangerous. It feels as though I’m speaking some kind of taboo truth into them that I hate, bringing it to life or somehow birthing it into our world. I don’t want to say it, don’t want to admit it but I want to get in front of the problem, get it into the air, out in the open; murder it before it murders me.

I am broken.

Rob reaches across the table and puts his hand on mine and says, “You’re going to be all right. You’re so strong. Everything you’re going through is difficult. But you will get through it. You are inspiring.”

This moment between two people. This compassion. This empathy. This kindness. This is what God looks like.

 

PART 2: LUCY

At some point in the early 2000s, my brother-in-law, Jarod, moved to Bozeman, Montana, where he began work as a bartender while attending college. It was at this bar he met a girl and fellow employee named Lucy.

The two hit it off well enough, and when Jarod discovered that she was moving to Los Angeles, he volunteered to connect her with my wife and myself.

So one extremely windy day, we all met at a Starbucks and drank overpriced burnt coffee and chatted about our plans to “take over this town.” She was one of the nicest people I’d ever met; she wore a constant smile, made well-timed jokes, and laughed when expected. All that aside, we were living in different parts of the city, and the three of us were simply too preoccupied with other things to navigate a new and strange friendship.

It would be years before either Jade or I saw her again.

Fast forward several tax seasons until I’d finally found myself working as the lead editor at a start-up post-production company in Studio City. The owner, an enormously tall Dutchman named Radu, had a weakness for cheeses, Entourage, and loose women. He had a constant interest in “The Dakotas,” a cowboy land filled with bars, gunfights, and no electricity that I had apparently somehow escaped, presumably on the back of a wild stallion.

He’d wander around the office, ducking through doorways, moving from edit bay to edit bay proclaiming, “Rah-DO-IT!” if he agreed with something you were creating.

A year into my job there, he decided to bring on our very first assistant editor; a young lady named Amber who had just finished college up north and was now trying to get her foot into some steady work.

One Wednesday, Radu called a meeting (which usually just entailed Amber and I sitting at a table in the front lobby while he showed us his favorite moments from Entourage and splurged on exotic cheeses) to tell us about a new client we had coming in; some foreign documentary that needed editing. “I know neither of you speaks Spanish—hell, Brookbank barely speaks English—but we’re going to just Rah-do-it. You got it?” Honestly, he was like a character out of a TV show.

I reach out for a piece of cheese, and he slaps my hand away. “This ain’t no soup kitchen! You pay for that cheese? Were you born in a barn, Dakota? You probably were born in a barn—go buy your own Velveeta cheddar slices, whatever. This is good cheese. Fine, here’s one piece, just to try. Savor it because you’ll probably not get anymore again. How much you think this cheese platter cost? Forty bucks.”

I say, “This cheese tastes like a jock strap,” and Radu says, “You have the etiquette of a possum. Shut your mouth when you eat, you rat bastard. Now, listen, the client is Such and Such—” except he actually names the client and doesn’t say such and such and Amber says, “Such and Such on Miracle Mile?” and Radu says, “Yes; you know them?” and Amber says, “Yeah, my best friend Lucy works there—we graduated from Bozeman together,” and I say, “You went to Bozeman? Lucy who?” and Amber says, “Lucy Such and Such!” and I say, “Black hair? Thin? Laughs when she’s supposed to?” and Amber says, “Yes!” and I say, “My brother-in-law is Jarod. Do you know him?” and she says, “I know Jarod!” and Radu says, “I ain’t got time for this. I’m going to take a shit. Nobody touch my cheese,” and then he leaves the room.

This is how I met Lucy for the second time.

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There are people that you meet from time to time and you can just tell that karma is out to get them, or is, at the very least, lying dormant and waiting for the perfect time to strike. Then there are people who, conversely, you meet and you just think that even their dandruff should be considered good luck powder in most circles.

Lucy was one of these latter. Although, it should be stated that she does not, so far as I am aware, have dandruff. When you meet her, you immediately think to yourself, “You’re a wonderful person. You’re happy and you know what happiness is and I can simply tell that you are a good friend with a trustworthy personality.”

Over the course of the following years, Lucy and my wife and myself all keep up, fighting through the weirdness that is LA friendships in order to get together for the odd and random dinner. Our friendship matures and Lucy ultimately becomes a close friend of both my wife and myself.

Then, one day, years later, I’m sitting in My Yellow Chair with my blanket when my phone rings and it’s Lucy and she’s asking if she can come over to visit. Of course, we say and when my wife shouts, “Come in!” a few hours later, Lucy hobbles into my living room wearing a full blown please-sign-here leg cast.

After the initial, “What-the-what?!” and “Is that fer real?!” questions out of the way, she regales us with her tale of woe.

Two nights ago, she says, she was coming home with her roommate. It was about 11 p.m. and she had to park about a block away from her house. “It’s a good neighborhood though so not a big deal.”

She and her roommate exit the car, begin the track back up the block and—someone punches her in the back of the head, knocking her 110-pound frame to the ground. She rolls over in time to see two young men begin to stomp, literally stomp on her leg until it is cracked and broken, only stopping when porch lights begin to turn on from her wretched screaming. The two boys take her purse and disappeared into the darkness while her roommate fumbles with 911.

I say, “They . . . stomped . . . on your leg . . . until it snapped?” and she says, “Yes, with their feet. They just jumped up and down on it. They shattered my leg. And, yes, I’m moving to New York City.”

There is silence between us when my wife says, “New York? Isn’t that dangerous?” and Lucy says, “I don’t know. Probably. Maybe. Certain neighborhoods. I just can’t—every day I think they’ll be there. Every day, no matter where I am, I’m afraid they’ll be there. If I’m in a parking garage at nine p.m. or a Target parking lot at eleven a.m. I think they’re following me—I mean, I know they’re not following me, but I’m waiting for them to come back. I was mugged and I’m afraid it’s going to happen again. I’m afraid of them returning. Do you know what I mean?”

I look at her and I say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” I know what it’s like to have them return again and again and again. Mine doesn’t come in the form of two cowardly men; mine comes in the form of bad news over and over and over. Testicular cancer, surgery, heart cancer, lung cancer, grand mal seizure, fainting, puking, RLS, blood vomiting, insomnia, constipation, atrophy, platelets, blood transfusions, lockjaw.

The process has a way of getting under your skin, into your soul and making you not trust The Good News. Cancer wasn’t done with me; it was going to come and find me in some parking lot and finish the job. Lately I’d just been spending my days waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I say, “New York will be awesome. Be safe,” and Lucy leaves for her new life where she will find success in producing. I love Lucy’s story because it shows that goodness and opportunity can come from anywhere. Two bottom feeders break your leg, steal your purse, and re-route your train for New York where you find more happiness and success than you ever had in Los Angeles. It’s a high price to pay, but the even higher price is a life lived in mediocrity.

Feeling suddenly inspired to make moves and to get out there and to feel the hustle that I heard Lucy talking about, I decide to e-mail my boss. I’ve been in correspondence with him over the last few months, and he, to his great credit, has been nothing short of compassionate. When I had to leave he said, “Go, take as much time as you want. Whatever you need. We’ll work with you,” and for an employee, that inspires comfort and safety. In an industry where everyone is flaky, it was a breath of fresh air; while dealing with a disease that was unpredictable, it was wonderful to have predictability. It was nice to know that, at the end, my job was there.

I’d hit him up every three to four weeks just to touch base and say hi, let him know I was still alive. He writes back with, “No problem! Just beat that cancer! Quit worrying about the job! It’s here! It’s yours! Just get better! Good luck!”

So it is upon this day that I write him one final time to give him the good news, “My cancer is gone and it looks like I’m going to wander the Earth for a few more years after all. I should be able to return in about six weeks and I just want to say thank you so much for keeping it open for me.”

Our medical bills were now into the hundreds of thousands and we needed a financial Band-Aid soon. This job was the only rope I could see that would pull us to safety.

I send the e-mail and I hear the whoosh indicating that the digital file is flying through cyber space and I imagine Phil’s e-mail giving him a little bing notification. I imagine him reading it and smiling and feeling warm and fuzzy that he is such a huge part in helping me to gather the shattered pieces of my life and glue them back together. He can sleep easy tonight knowing that he and he alone was the boat that sailed my job through the storm. He was the captain at sea while I was in the infirmary. I stare at my blank computer monitor and I think, “I hope he knows how much that means to me. I hope I was articulate enough.”

BING.

I receive an email. From Phil. Wonderful! I quickly open it up, excited for the warm words of encouragement from o captain, my captain. I smile and begin to read, paraphrased as, “Johnny. I’m so glad to hear you’re better. Unfortunately, I gave your job away two weeks after you left and didn’t have the heart to tell you. I’ll put out a couple feelers. Be well. Phil.”

I reach over and sip my hot tea, fold my hands and purse my lips as I try to decide what my emotional response should be to this terse letter.

I look toward the door and, nodding, I see our collection of footwear. It appears the other shoe has finally fallen.

 

 

 

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The Monkey

Colombia Animals

A monkey is born in captivity.

It’s a teenie, tiny little monkey with big monkey eyes that make you go, “Ohhhhh,” and, “Aaaaaahhhh,” in all of the most wonderful ways.

The monkey’s parents were also born in captivity. They’ve lived their entire lives inside of a cage. It’s a large cage and they can walk around and do a little swinging and there’s a place to sleep but it’s still a cage. A great big cage with bars. And it’s very unlikely that the monkey – any of them – will ever get out.

There are zoo keepers at this place and they tend the monkeys. Every day they give them food and they give them water and they change their bedding and they encourage them to breed and the monkeys think it’s a pretty darn good fit, getting pampered like this.

But the monkeys don’t know that they’re living in a cage.

They are ignorant.

They think they are free because the zoo keepers have made them believe that their caged world is the real world. They’ve put in trees and grass and everything. And because the monkeys (and their parents and grand-parents) were born into this cage as well, they believe and trust the zoo keepers because they believe their parents and all the other monkeys that say the same thing. This is the way it is. The zoo keepers have our interest at heart. They are good.

And this is how the zoo keepers like it.

Because ignorant monkeys are easy to control. No surprise our academic system is so poor. If we can keep the kids stupid early, there’s a good chance we’ll have a room full of pliable adults that can be guided by religion and hocus-pocus instead of critical thinking.

Who knows what would happen if the monkeys understood that they were living inside of a cage that were a sad fraction of the size of true reality? How displeased would the monkeys become, knowing that they’ve been shafted from Life’s True Experience?

How would the monkeys feel, knowing they’d been bamboozled by the powers that be?

How would the monkeys feel, finding out they’d spent decades and decades, wasting their lives in tiny cages and everything they thought they knew was misunderstood at best and an outright lie at the worst. If they understood they were in a cage, would they try to get out? Or would they remain complacent because maybe being in a cage isn’t so bad. At least you don’t have to think and all of your base needs are taken care of for you. Sure, they have to blindly pay taxes and social security for which they’ll never receive the funds back but at least they get the food from The Keepers.

Poor monkeys don’t realize that they’re slaves being controlled by creatures that are smarter than they are, running laps around their simple simeon brains. The zoo keepers make lots and lots and lots of money keeping the monkeys in a cage. The zoo makes lots and lots of money. Everyone is happy. Even the monkeys, who continue to think they’re free because the zoo keepers tell them so.

The moment the little baby monkey arrived in captivity, the zoo keepers forced an identity on it, giving it a name, a label. They also give it a number. They tell it where it was born and give it a national identity. They explain that other monkeys from other places aren’t as great. And monkeys who believe in other gods aren’t as great. And monkeys who are controlled by other zoo keepers aren’t as wonderful. And these zoo keepers are the best, so says these zoo keepers. And the monkeys don’t read international news and so they don’t know the difference between a truth and a lie. The zoo keepers feed the monkey ideas of religion and politics but they only tell the story that they want the monkey to hear. They don’t tell the whole story. Only the good bits that cast the zoo keepers in a positive light.

And the monkeys stay in the cage.

The cage is a psychological one that we have each been placed within. It is only by recognition of this psychological cage that we are able to step outside of it. Religion makes good people do evil things in the name of Imagination. Politics uses religion to bend the will of the masses. Banks control the world. You work three months a year in order to pay the government in taxes, which in turn go to pay off a national debt that can never be fully paid back.

They have us running on an infinite hamster wheel, voting in the next fool who is paid to do as the banks request.

Government workers are not bought by the banks. The banks are the government and they pay their employees, the political figures of our nation, to follow their orders.

Gotta find the key to get out of the cage or they’ll keep us in here until we die. And once we get out we can begin to ask ourselves who is paying the zoo keepers? Who owns the zoo?

 

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(A)ND (I)F I (D)ON’T (S)IGN? CHAPTER 37

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I can’t believe that the emergency room has a waiting room. I mean, I get it but . . . you just would not believe the lines in the Los Angeles E.R. It rivals the DMV. It truly does.

After two predictable hours of mentally dissecting Georgia O’Keeffe paintings (How did she get a corner on the medical market??) we’re finally called into a private room where they deduce that I need another blood transfusion, “But,” the nurse tells me far too casually, “Before we can get to that, we’re going to need you to sign these contracts here, here, here, and here, Mr. Brookbank.” I grab the pen and say, “Oh . . . kay . . . . What is this for? What am I signing?” and the nurse says, “Just in case you get AIDS from this blood you can’t sue us,” and I say, “EXCUSE ME?” The nurse laughs and says, “The chances are very small—I mean, less than one percent,” and I say, “Nothing to do with you but, honestly, my luck has been pretty shady lately so, just to abate my own curiosity, would you mind walking me through your screening process before potentially pumping me chock full of AIDS blood?”

The nurse says, “Someone comes in and gives blood—small vial. We test that blood. If it’s clear, we ask them to come back—typically a day or two later—and this is when we’ll take several bags of it.”

I say, “OK, go on.”

And the nurse says, “Well, it’s possible that they contracted AIDS in those two days.”

And I say, “That’s not the end of your screening process? You test the blood again, yes?”

And she says, “Yes, we do but . . . there is always room for human error and that’s where this—” and her finger pokes the contract, “comes in.”

I say, “I see,” and look at my wife who says, “If he gets AIDS—I mean, if you give him AIDS—what does that mean?”

And the nurse says, “Well, he will have AIDS.”

And my wife says, “Yes, I’m clear on that but . . . we have no follow through? He just has AIDS? You’re not held responsible?”

And the nurse says, “Not if you sign that contract.”

And so I say, “And what if I don’t sign the contract?”

And the nurse says, “Then you can’t have any of our blood.”

And I say, “Any of your AIDS blood?”

And she says, “Any of our blood at all, AIDS or otherwise.”

And I say, “Cold move.”

And the nurse says, “I know. I just work here.”

So I sign the paperwork and the nurse says, “Good choice. I’ll be back to get you in a bit,” and then she leaves us.

In the waiting area where we’re all staged sits a robust African American woman with a cast on her foot. I see her all by herself looking nervous and so I direct my chauffer to the given target and Theresa begins to slowly wheel me over to her. I say, “You waiting to get your blood drawn?” and she nods and I say, “What happened to your foot?” and she says she slipped and fell and broke it. I grimace and say, “Could be worse,” and she says, “Oh, not being able to walk is pretty bad enough,” and I laugh and say, “But it could be worse so you’re pretty lucky,” and then I say, “Hey, I’m afraid of needles. How about you go in there before me and when you come out, you tell me if the nurse is any good. If she’s shoddy I’ll request someone new.” The woman nods and agrees and laughs.

She says, “Are you getting your blood drawn, too?” and I say, “Yeah,” and she says, “I hate them needles,” and I say, “I know. That’s why you need to be the guinea pig. I don’t want to get jabbed a bunch. You gotta take one for the team,” and she laughs and says, “Why you here?” which is a pretty invasive question and so I cough a couple times, really hard, into my fist and say, “I’ve got this really contagious disease that they’re still trying to figure out. It’s like the bird flu but with no remedy. It’s airborne.” I sniff really loudly and then cough into my sleeve and say, “Sorry.” The woman slowly pushes her wheelchair back and says, “Maybe you . . . should have one of those masks or . . . ” and I say, “Yeah, I basically live in a bubble at my house – like a little plastic tent. But once in a while I get to come out. I’m just not supposed to be very close to people. You should be fine,” and then I cough into my hand again and simply look at the floor, in silence.

Behind me, I can feel my sister touch my shoulder. She’s not very good at this sort of game so I’m sure she’s very uncomfortable right now. I look up at the woman and smile and she smiles back with a mouth full of fear and weirdly friendly eyes that seem to say, “Act natural. Act naturaaaaal . . . . ” And then I start to laugh and I say, “I’m just kidding!” and she laughs as well and my sister releases a burst of awkward laughter and then I say, “I was actually at church—that’s my family over there. We were over at church this morning and I was standing in the lobby and suddenly everything just went dark. I passed out. When I woke up, my tongue was white.” I stick it out and she pulls her lips back in open disgust and says, “Ick.” I say, “Thank you, yes, I know,” and she starts to laugh again and says, “You passed out in church?” and I say, “Yeah, right there,” and she says, “Boy, I bet they all thought you were having a gen-u-wine religious experience!” and then she has a mock seizure. She says, “Why do you think that happened?” and I say, “Well . . . I have cancer,” and she says, “Oh, OK. Yes. CANCER. I get it. You’re like Mr. Funny Guy, huh? Do they keep you in a cancer bubble at home?” and my sister and I both stare at her dead pan and I say, “There is no such thing as a cancer bubble.”

A long moment passes before the woman says, “Oh, dear,” and then I laugh and say, “It’s OK. I actually don’t have cancer anymore but I’m still in chemotherapy,” and then a nurse enters and calls the woman’s name. The two of them disappear into a back room and reappear moments later, tape now stitched around the woman’s arm joint. I say, “How is she?” and she says, “It was fast,” and I say, “Good.”

The black woman looks at me and says, “God bless you,” and I say, “Didn’t you hear me? I said I don’t have cancer anymore.”

 

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Two floors up I’m getting another blood transfusion; the platelets are draining back into my body like a soggy hourglass. My wife clicks through the TV. Nothing is on and we watch all of it.

This is the first time that cancer has proven to me that, just because it’s gone, it’s not vanquished. Just because it’s out of sight, doesn’t mean it’s out of mind. Cancer is the king who, once dead, you realize has booby-trapped the whole palace.

I stick out my tongue and say, “What color is it?” My sister looks up from her phone and says, “Pink,” and I know I’ve won another battle and I’m also certain that the war is coming to an end. I just have to wonder how much PTSD is going to come along with it.

A few days later everything is back to “normal.” My dad is clicking away on his laptop, my sister is nowhere to be found, my wife is at work for the day, and my mother is making random notes on napkins, a habit she’s exhibited my entire life. On every vacation she takes she’ll find herself a pen along with a napkin or some form of old scrap paper and begin jotting down short-hand journal entries. I can only assume it’s some form of coping mechanism.

As I walk past her I look down at the paper and read: dad & t arrive / movie / popcorn w caramel / enchilada / Harry Potter / church / faint / blood-plates / butterfly needle and then there’s a picture of a smiley face and a series of numbers. I say, “Mother?” and she looks up. I say, “Have you ever seen A Beautiful Mind?” and she says, “I don’t know. Who’s in it?”

I look over at my dad, who’s staring at me, the clicking stopped. “That’s her, yes. YES. Hahaha,” and then click-click-click. My mom writes down A Beautiful Mine onto the paper and asks if it’s about coal or something. I say, “Yes,” and walk out the back door to sit in the sun for a bit.

Growing up, my grandparents lived right down the street from me and it seemed that, without fail, any time I drove by, the two of them would be resting on their front porch. When I was a child and full of enough energy to power a small village, I thought this was strange, the idea of people sitting and doing nothing, but today . . . something is going on inside of me. I’ve been given a gift. Cancer has been a crystal ball into my future and it has said, “Look! Behold! Observe! Here is a glimpse into your life! THIS is what it feels like to grow old! Your energies will be sapped and your motivations will run dry! Thank me! Thank me for showing you this!” and in my head I say, “Thank you, Cancer. Thank you for showing this to me. I’ll never be the same after this . . . . Thank you.”

But today I am the same. Today I have no energy and today I am an old person. I find my sister sitting outside and smoking cigarettes while texting her boyfriend. I sit down next to her but don’t say anything. I just push my face into the sky and shut my eyes. The sunlight is as tangible as a warm washcloth.

My sister says, “I love you,” and I open my eyes and find her crying. Tears are rolling down her checks like broken faucets and her hands are shaking. I say, “I love you too, Trees—what’s—what’s wrong? Did you and Jes break up?” and she laughs and makes a noise that sounds like it means, “No.” She shakes her head and stares at her feet.

She says, “I saw pictures of you that mom had sent over on her phone and you . . . . I’m sorry . . . . You didn’t look very good. You looked sick, you know,” and I say, “Yeah, OK. I mean, I am sick,” and she says, “You’re not sick! You have CANCER,” and I say, “Had . . . not have.”

She looks at me and says, “I showed up and I wasn’t expecting my big brother to look like this. In real life you look— I’m sorry . . . so much worse,” and I say, “It’s my lack of eyebrows that freak you out, huh?” and she laughs a snorty-pig laugh and shakes her head.

“You look really, really terrible and you’re my big brother and it’s scaring me,” and then she just breaks down. Meanwhile, my stomach rolls over unexpectedly and I bend over and vomit at my feet, spattering spittle onto my socks.

I say, “Sorry,” but my sister just stands up and walks away. Away from the picnic table. Away from me. Away from the backyard, around the house . . . .

. . . And then she’s back and I say, “What was that?” and she says, “That was my last cigarette. I’m not—I can’t—I’m not smoking anymore, ever again,” and I smile, thankful that Cancer is changing the lives of those around me in powerful and positive ways.

 

 

 

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TONGUE: CHAPTER 36

 

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When I open my eyes, moonlight is still shining through my windows and my wife’s breathing is still soft and rhythmic. I know I won’t get back to sleep so I just Imagine. When there is nothing to do, it’s all there is. When everything is gone outside, when your body has been reduced to rubble, when your emotions are running rampant and every thought clouds your brain with fog, all you can do is Imagine.

I focus in on one single thing, one detail, one moment, one idea and I circle around it, staring at it, examining it and dissecting it. The thought this morning is My Fourth Round. I try to Imagine what one level deeper will look like; I Imagine it as a deep sub-basement. A cellar. There aren’t many people here and those who shuffle around in the darkness are pale and sinewy. I Imagine a nurse in the not-too-distant future pulling an IV out of my arm and saying, “All right, you’re done,” and then I Imagine walking out of the hospital and entering into the sunlight and feeling alive and free and while I lie there in the darkness, in my True Reality, everything still seems far away and unattainable.

People say to me, “One more round! Just one more round! The light is at the end of the tunnel!” and I see the light but it doesn’t look like it’s getting any closer. I understand that time is passing but why does it have to happen in Matrix bullet time?

I push my blankets back and drape my legs over the edge of the bed. I need to pee. I stand up and take a deep breath and my wife turns over and says, “Are you OK?” She’s like a mother with a new baby, sensing every movement in the silence. I say, “Yeah. Just gotta pee, ” and I smile and she says, “Shout if you need something,” and I smile again, open the bedroom door and exit.

Walking through the darkened house, I hear a faint click-click-click of computer keys and round a corner where I find my dad sitting at our dining-room table doing work remotely on his laptop, a twice filled bowl of Cocoa Puffs next to him. He looks up and smiles but doesn’t say anything. I say, “Hi,” and, “What time is it?” and he says, “Seven a.m. my time. I’ve been up for two hours,” and I nod, and doing the simple math, figure it must be around 5 a.m. here. I pee and walk into the kitchen and he keeps typing without looking up.

I want to sit down at the table and speak to him and ask him what he’s doing or ask him how he’s doing or ask something, anything that will fill the silence in the kitchen. Click-click-click.

I open up the cabinets and the fridge, searching for food that I won’t eat; some repressed muscle memory pushing me on, not wanting to face the fact that I don’t fully know the man sitting in my dining room even though I’ve lived in the same house with him my entire life. I open up a cupboard filled with frying pans and just stare at them, trying to look busy. I say, “What are you working on?” and he says, “Building my website,” and I say, “Ah.” I pull out a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and a bowl before putting them both away. I consider going back to the bedroom but the darkness in there is just too heavy and I know I’ll drown in it. I end up sitting down at the table and staring at the back of his laptop, at the glowing logo. I say, “What’s your website about?” and he says, “Cars I’m working on . . . building stuff.” Click-click-click.

I am dealing with complete anarchy in my personal life and pushing forward every single day, one step further, one step further, one step further and here I am, sitting at a table in an empty house with my biological father and I have no idea how to confront this situation. I have no idea what to say, what to do. I try to make a joke but neither of us laughs. I start to feel funny (strange, not haha) and just lie my head in my hands. He asks if I’m OK and I say, “Sometimes.”

My sister enters the room. My mother enters the room. My wife enters the room. Cereal is made. Oatmeal is made. Toast is made. Orange juice is poured. My sister sits down next to me and says, “What are you doing?” and I say, “What am I doing-what? What do you mean?” and she says, “Your tongue is kind of a weird color,” and when I examine myself in the mirror I see that it is indeed the same shade as raw beef that’s been left in the sun for too long. My wife says, “Do we need to go to the hospital?” and I turn on her like a corner and say, “No, no, no. No hospitals. No emergency rooms. No nothing,” and my dad says, “If we need to take you to the hospital, you will go. I will overpower you. I can overpower you,” and I understand now, today, what he meant, but at the time it inflamed my emotions. Even though it sounds like a joke, he wasn’t messing around. He wasn’t being coy. He genuinely meant what he said. He would bear hug me and drag me kicking and screaming to the E.R. if it’s what my wife said I needed.

I turn on him next and say, with as much acidity as I can muster, “You touch me and I will fight you.” At first glance this looks like the eternal power struggle between father and son, a story as old as time, but on second glance it’s just my struggle. To control something. Anything. He raises an eyebrow and looks at Jade, who looks at me and so I say, “The E.R. is a waste of time. We’re going to show up, sit in a waiting room for two hours. They’re going to draw some blood and tell me to hydrate. I don’t need a replay of The Adventures of Blood Vomit. I don’t need Christmas Eve take two. I don’t need to stay another night there. What I need is to relax and take it easy. I did it your way last time and it was a total bust and now we’re doing it my way. This time it’s my turn.”

Grasping at control.

Jade never answers. Instead she just exhales deeply and turns away. My dad turns back to his laptop. My sister’s phone buzzes and she reads a text. I say, “Who’s that?” and she says, “None of yer bizzznus,” and I say, “Is it your boyfriend? Is it that guy I met? Is it Jes?” and she glances at my dad—click-click-click—and makes wide eyes at me that seem to say, Shut up! So I do. She texts something back and I say, “What did you just text him back? Was that Jes you were texting? That guy you were dating? The guy I met?” and she says, “I told you to shut up,” and then she walks outside.

I met Jes about a year previous and we’d only spoken on two separate occasions. He was a nice enough fellow but had recently, I guess, gotten involved in and charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and was going to be doing some prison time. No one was really sure which members of our family knew or did not know so my sister was very sensitive about the subject being broached at all. My extended family is full of strange secrets and double-crosses and so most things, regardless of how lacking in logic, are just taken with a grain of salt.

I stand up and move to My Yellow Chair before closing my eyes. I’ve been up for about two hours and it’s starting to make me feel strange, light headed. I say, “Church this morning?” and my mother says, “Yes,” and my wife says, “If you’re OK,” and my sister is outside, and my dad goes click-click-click.

I shut my eyes and nap.

When I wake up there is an electric movement in the air that says something is happening. Grab your things, c’mon, let’s go! It’s time! I slide my feet into a pair of old yellow sneakers and stand up. “I’m ready.”

My mother spruces her hair up. My wife spritzes herself with perfume. My sister changes shirts and jeans and shoes and then shirts again and then ties her hair back and then lets it down. I feel strange again but, since feeling strange has become a complete recurring theme in my life, I simply ignore it and soldier on.

We all gather by the front door and my mother says, “Mike, are you ready to go?” and my dad looks up from his computer and says, “Huh?” and my mother says, “To church? We’re leaving,” and he goes click-click-click . . . CLICK, and then shuts his laptop and we all walk out the door.

In the car I lay my head against the glass and feel the bumps in the road gyrate my skull and shake my brain. Next to me I can hear my sister click-click-clicking on her BlackBerry, every button a stapler to the temple. The problem with those phones is that even if you silence the “clicking sound” feature, those buttons are just built to click. Click-click-click! CLICK-CLICK-CLICK! CLLIIICCCKK!! Click-click-click.

I turn to my sister and say, “How is work?” and she starts to tell me about her job and about how she thinks her boss doesn’t like her and how she’s thinking about quitting and all the scandalous things that happen there and I nod politely and ask questions and in the front seat my dad says, “These billboards are all in Spanish. I can’t read Spanish. Wait, I think that one says something about the number three… and maybe something about a burrito.” I say, “That’s El Pollo Loco.”

My sister says, “So what are you going to do when you go back? Back to work? Are you going to have the same job or what?” and truly, truly, it’s a fear that has weighed on my heart since this first happened, since this all began. What next?

Will I be able to just jump back into my career, back into my job? Will I be able to sit in an edit bay for ten hours a day after knowing that death is imminent? Will I be able to commute an hour each way and wile away in a cube while my life escapes through me one moment at a time? I don’t know.

I don’t think so.

When I am released back into the world I want to break the social norms and destroy the constraints and I want to live by a set of guidelines that work for me because, quite frankly, the ones I’ve been using aren’t really blowing my hair back. I don’t think humans were meant to live like caged chickens and . . . .

. . . I begin to speak; to relay these thoughts to Theresa. I begin to pour my heart out, wearing my fear on my sleeve like a patch. I turn my head and glance back out the window but continue to talk. The words are coming easier and easier, the fears becoming easier to speak about. It feels good to get it off my chest and then, suddenly, my sister just blurts out, in the loudest voice I’ve ever heard, the word, “HOLA!”

That’s what she says. She says, “HOLA!” and she nearly shouts it, like she’s welcoming the Chilean soccer team back to their home country after winning a major victory. “HOLA!”

I turn my head to put this interruption into context and I see her . . . on her phone. It was on silent so I didn’t hear it ring. Apparently I had just been talking to myself. I look into the front seat and see my mom and dad both staring straight ahead in silence.

I am pouring out my heart to the world passing by. I say, “Are you kidding me?!” and my sister says, “What?” and I say, “I’m sitting here talking to you and—“ she just holds a finger up over her lips and says, “Shhh.”

How dare you shush me! My brain explodes in rage and indignation and I raise my fist in the air, but my sister merely mocks me. I whisper-shout, “You think the cancer kid can’t beat you up?! You think I can’t take you down?! Well, you’re probably right but I’m going to remember this! All of this! HOLA, indeed!” and then she puts her finger to her mouth and shushes me again, violently, truly wanting me to hush.

I say, “Who are you talking to?” and she mouths, “Shut up! Jes,” and I say, “Jes? Jes, your boyfriend? Jes, the guy you’re dating? Jes, the guy I met?” I pause and then say, “Give me the phone . . . . ”

Theresa glares at me, unsure how to accept this challenge. She knows we’d met before (twice) and she knows that we got along all right (twice) but she has no idea why it is I would want to talk to this man after having not seen him for close to a year.

She says, into the phone, “My brother . . . wants to talk to you . . . . I don’t know . . . . I don’t know . . . . Is that OK? OK.” And then she holds out the phone and I reach out for it but she pulls it away at the last minute, leaving me grasping at air. I say, “What?” and she just raises her fist in the air, mocking me again and says, “I’m serious.”

I push the mobile device to my ear and say, “Hello. Jes?” And he mumbles something, sounding unsure, unsure of our conversation, unsure of himself, unsure of everything. I say, “What’s going on?” and he says, “You know, not much, uh . . . . ”

We sit in silence for a moment and then I say, “So, you’re going away for a bit?” and he agrees and my sister slaps the palm of her hand against her face. I turn my head and look out the window and I say, “I just wanted to say that I think we’re both going through something very unusual and I hope that when we come out the other end we can be very different people. I hope these things change us for the better and uh . . . keep it together, man,” and he says, “Oh . . . uh . . . thanks. Thank you,” and I say, “See ya,” and hand the phone back to my sister who just stares at me for a moment before speaking into it and saying, “Hello . . . hi. Yeah . . . I don’t . . . know . . . . ”

Years later, the two of them will be married and I’ll stand up for them at their wedding, not simply because they asked me to but because I believe in their marriage. Prison will affect and change Jes in fantastic ways and when he comes out of the darkness, he will be a new man, ready to embrace life for himself. Today he’s one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know and I would put my personal reputation on the line for him at any turn.

Life has a very funny way of changing us.

We take the Highland exit and I mentally take note of the spot where I slipped into my grand mal seizure. I don’t know it then, but I’ll red flag it for the rest of my life. A mile up and I take another mental note of the spot where I woke up. I mark the trees, the light poles, the bus stop. I sigh and everything swims in front of me for a moment but then is gone. A few miles later we hang a right on Wilshire and pull into the parking lot of the church.

My family shuffles down the sidewalk, I leading the way for a change. I turn around, perhaps too quickly, and say, “Remember to silence your cell phones,” and everyone reaches into their pockets to do so. When I turn back around I feel something in the very furthest recess of my brain, a white mist. Then I feel something in my toes.

We enter the lobby and find ourselves standing in a throng of individuals. I’ve just walked a block and am feeling extremely exhausted . . . far more tired than I have any right to be, even in my present state. I think, “Something is not right. I need . . . to sit . . . down.”

I take two steps toward a support column in the center of the room and that white mist suddenly makes a lunging maneuver from the back of my brain and circles around to the front. The feeling in my toes shoots up my legs and into my thighs and everything is becoming a strange water-color painting.

My wife says, “Are you all—”

And then I feel my knees buckle and the weight of the world is on my shoulders—every screaming child, every warring nation, every lusting adult. Every prayer is being shoveled on top of me and I’m slowly drowning. God reaches down, grabs the room and spins it like a top (or perhaps a dreidel, depending on your religious orientation) and my right foot shoots out to establish my balance and my left foot shoots forward to counter.

Someone says something else and I’m trying to stand up but it’s all so heavy and spinning and then the words are just electrical motor engines and the darkness on my brain consumes my eyeballs and the world around me fades . . . to . . . black.

 

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When I open my eyes it takes a few moments for my reality to click on but when it does, it’s just like a light; everything is illuminated. I’m here, the church, the people, the embarrassment. Don’t be embarrassed! But I am, I’m lying on a floor in a room filled with strangers who are all staring at me. Drink this! A cup of water. Great. I would love to throw this up in front of you all when I’m nice and ready. Don’t stand up! Great, I’ll just hang out down here. Just lay down! No. Absolutely not. I will not look as though I’m taking a nap in the center of the floor. I understand what happened here was a little weird and everyone is a little freaked out but I don’t need to lie down. I am a grown-ass man.

I sit up cross-legged and say, “Jade, please help me up,” and my dad says, “Just hang on, John,” and I say, “Help me . . . up,” and they do because, unless they’re going to pin me down, I’m not lying here like Lieutenant Dan.

My sister says, “Whoa. Your tongue is . . . really white,” and I say, “What do you mean, white?” and the rest of the my family suddenly makes a noise like a vampire seeing a cross and even a couple of people standing next to me take a small step back. My wife snaps a photo on her phone and shows it to me.

Oh, I think, they meant white. Like paper. Or snow. Or a ghost. My tongue had been drained of all color and now it just looked like someone had shoved one of those weird albino dog turds between my lips.

I clap my hands together and say, “Well . . . so . . . to the hospital then?” and without any verbal agreement, we all just turn and start walking back to the car.

 

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MY BLOODY VALENTINE: CHAPTER 35

 

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Days pass like kidney stones. Dr. Oz is playing and so I think it must be around noon. I want to push the TV off the shelf. I hate how standardized it is. I hate how scheduled it is. I hate how predictable the entire process is. I hate that everyone on the TV is so happy and falsely charming and plastic. I hate them gazing out at me, into my house, not seeing me but trying to talk to me, give me advice, counsel me, imagining that they, the daytime teevees, know everything what the world is going through; the details, the minutia, the process.

My hormones are going off the wall and through the roof. My testicle (both my testicles) are missing and I’m angry and then I’m sad. I tell my mom that I love her and then I want to break a vase but only one that’s owned by a person that pronounces it vozz. I cover my head with a blanket and just want to be left alone in the silence. I want to paint my nails black, embrace death, and write gothic poetry about moonbeams, dark angels, and religious sacrifices. I shut my eyes and try to logically explain to myself that I’m not upset or happy or sad, it’s all hormones. It’s all just a chemical reaction in my brain and your brain is misfiring left and right. I would see a piece of vanilla cake and want to cut it with a knife . . . but not to eat it. I just want to hurt it because it’s pretty.

I begin to feel as though my emotions (like everything else) are outside of my control. Imagine you’re at your workplace and you’re doing a phenomenal job and you have been doing a phenomenal job for a year or two. You’re at the absolute top of your game, proud of your achievements and when raise time comes around, you go into your boss’s office and he fires you on the spot for not performing at company standards.

So, of course, you’re really mad. You’re furious at him and at the company. And that’s fine because those feelings are totally normal for that circumstance.

Now imagine you’re sitting on a beach and you’ve got the place totally to yourself, with nice weather, good food, a special someone. You sit back, pull out a beer, and then you feel that horrible flood of emotions mentioned above. They’re not tied to anything; there is no event, past or present. They just show up randomly and you want to hiss and fight.

When you lose control of your hormones, you lose control of yourself. You become a slave to their chemical whims and it’s very scary because it all happens at a moment’s notice.

So I stand up and coast slowly into the bathroom where I remove my shirt, pull out my AndroGel-steroid-hormone-medication pump (or, My New Testicles) and apply two full squirts of the gel onto my shoulder blades. It quickly dissipates into a sticky residue that I have to let dry on my skin, covering me in a thin sheen that “no one is allowed to touch under any circumstances. Doctor’s orders.”

I hobble back into the dining room just as Dr. Oz is ending and I stare at him with his chiseled features and his piercing eyes and his charming smile and voice like buttered bread and I say, “If I ever meet you, I’m going to bite your ear off,” and then it’s 12:30 and he’s gone and something else comes on and the television is just as predictable as—something unexpectedly moves past the living room window in a dark blur. It’s outside and it was quick but I saw it, whatever it was. I say, “Uh . . . Jade,” and she says, “Yeah?” and I look over at my mom and she says, very sheepishly, “What? What? Whaaaaaat?” and I say, “Who is here?” and Jade says, “Someone is here? I need to pick up the house!” and then I hear footsteps whose tone, weight, and cadence immediately harkens me back to my childhood. There’s a sudden knock on the door. It’s brief but with a level of force that I recognize.

When I see that both Jade and my mother are waiting for me to get up and answer the door, I simply do so vocally. “Come in!” The doorknob twists and in walk my sister and dad.

I stand up in a state of shock, my nipples hard from the cold air, my frame an old flannel on a wire hanger. My sister and dad approach me, both smiling, knowing they’ve surprised me. My sister reaches me first and throws out her arms but I jerk backward and throw up my hands as though I were fending off a mugger, screaming something that sounds like, “I-wahh-kooo!” which is not so much a word as it is a guttural noise that translates roughly to, “Don’t touch me, I’m wearing AndroGel Man Poison.”

I tell my sister that if she were to touch me she’d grow a mustache and so I instead stick out my arm, shaking hands with her. She stares at me and grips my hand and tears suddenly fill her eyes and I say, “Thanks for coming,” and she, never good with words but always full of emotions, croaks out, “Yes, yes, of course. Always. Anything. Wouldn’t miss it.” I release her hand and step around her to my father, who I’ve never seen eye to eye with. I stick out my hand and he embraces me and I say, “Thank you for coming,” and he says, “How do you feel?” and I say, “Good . . . . That’s a lie. I’m sick.” He releases me and I wander back to My Yellow Chair, slip down into it, cover myself up with a blanket and shut my eyes while my dad speaks, always in his precise and succinct military fashion.

“We drove all day yesterday and then all night. Stopped in a Kmart parking lot and slept for two and a half hours and then kept going. Made it from South Dakota to California in record time; twenty-one and a half hours!”

This is my dad. These are his passions. Personal time trials.

He asks what we want to do today and I shut my eyes and say, “This is it,” and he says, “You guys wanna go to the beach?” and I say, “No,” and he says, “Car museum?” and I say, “I can’t walk.” He purses his lips and I say, “Welcome to the suck.”

My dad sits down next to me, unfolds a newspaper, and begins to read. My sister sits at the table and texts her boyfriend. And so goes the rest of the day.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

Cancer made me into an agoraphobic. I was afraid to go anywhere, everywhere, because, and I know I’ve probably mentioned this to death, my sudden trigger vomiting was so powerful and out of control that I was afraid I would be caught in public without access to a restroom. My home was my comfort zone and I didn’t want to leave it for fear of being caught in the open.

My home was my sanctuary.

The following day we go out for Mexican food and then to an early show of My Bloody Valentine in 3-D. For ninety minutes, I sit between my dad and sister and watch naked chicks get hacked to pieces. The movie was my choice and I regretted every minute of it. As the credits begin to roll I feel my stomach turn over and I stand up and say, “I think . . . I’m going to be sick,” and my mom says, “OK, we’re leaving,” and I say, “No . . . I’m going to be sick right now,” and people are sort of just shuffling in the aisles like lost sheep stupidly grazing and I’m about to heave and puke and when it happens I know, I can just feel it, that it’s not going to stop, it’s going to roll and wave and heave and push and pour and nothing within a 15-foot radius will be safe from my spray and so I shout the word, “MOVE!” and everyone does. Everyone in the entire row sits down or steps aside and I run with the undiscovered fusion energy of an atom bomb. I leap over laps, hurdle seats, lunge down stairs, race up the inclined aisle, marathon down the halls, find the restrooms, kick open the doors, push pass a group of people in line, shove past a man just entering the stall and just as I say, “Excuse m—“ it all comes up, red and yellow and brown and lumpy like potatoes, again and again and again, spittle and saliva and bile hanging from my lips and pouring from my nose. My hands clutch the handicap rails and I hate everything about this. I’m angry at myself for puking, for vomiting, for not being able to keep it together.

There’s a very internal struggle happening wherein I start to get very angry at myself and pick and peck and poke and say, “You pussy. You pussy. Get your shit together. Pull it together,” and I puke again and it’s cherry red and I don’t know what I’ve eaten but it just looks like more blood. I wish more than anything that I were just at home, back in the comforts of my four walls, my territory, my familiar space; back in My Yellow Chair, under my jacket; back on the couch, under a blanket; in my bed. Somewhere where “making a scene” is not considered “making a scene.”

You know you’re amongst close family when you can puke in front of them and they all just keep eating dinner like nothing happened.

I heave again and a tear runs down my face, dropping into the toilet. My stomach feels like it’s tearing open and I push my knuckles against the cold tile wall. My legs shake and I bend down, proposing to Queen Porcelain, my knees instantly soaking with the piss of strangers.

I hate what I’ve become.

I hear a door open and I dry heave and cough and dry heave and cover my hand over my mouth and wipe my lips on my sleeve and push my face into my shoulder and I just want to weep. I hate being such a convalescent. I am twenty-six years old. I should be in peak health!

There’s a tap on the bathroom stall and my dad says, “Are you OK?” and I say, “No . . . but . . . yeah. I’ll be out in just a minute,” and he says, “OK,” and then I hear him take a few steps away from the door and wait.

My father and I have never been emotionally close and so I anticipate him waiting for me in the hallway, taking the extra ten steps and giving me that “casual privacy” you would offer to someone who is sick. But instead he sits on the sink and waits and suddenly the bathroom isn’t so bad.

 

 

 

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Star Wars: The Last Jihad

 

3j20nabarpsy

 

What is a story? What value do stories play in our culture? Do they contain any value? Are they simply the things we use to pass the time? A good book, a fine film, a tall tale before bed.

Or can stories be something greater than that? Are stories the DNA of our culture, the history of our people – both where we’re from and where we’re heading. “Our people” being whatever culture class you happen to belong to; race, religion, sexual preference, generation, geographic location, political affiliation, economic status, etc.

What happens when stories – fictitious fantasy tales – become something a little more real? What happens when the story begins writing the people and not the other way around?

A story writing people!? That’s insane!

I agree. But the world is filled with insane people with even more insane ideas. So even though it’s weird and wild, maybe it isn’t unbelievable.

If you’re anything like me, perhaps the story that was told to you sounds something like this…

“America is the best country on Earth and you should be honored to live here, Johnny. Brave and courageous people have sacrificed their lives so that you could be free. God, The God, The One-And-Only Jesus Christ made manifest, name above all names, is for the USA. We are cowboys and good guys and we’re rebels but we have the faith of Christ and He shall guide us to thwart Evil, in all of its heinous forms. Things that are evil include, but are not limited to: pedophiles, homosexuals and Mormons.”

That’s one version of the Midwest-Conservative-Christian story. Maybe you didn’t get that one. You might have gotten something else that sounded more like this…

“I pledge allegiance to the flag.”

That’s a powerful story told in one sentence. Only six words long. But the story it tells…

PLEDGE: a solemn promise or agreement.

ALLEGIANCE: loyalty or devotion to some person, group or cause.

FLAG: Symbol of person, group or cause.

My children are seven but, since they were five, the public school system has had them reciting this story to themselves. I go to their school functions and I listen to my children make a solemn promise to ally their loyalty to a government and country which they don’t understand.

A solemn promise to remain loyal. On repeat. Everyday. For a seven year old.

One more definition before we continue.

Mind control (also known as brainwashing, coercive persuasion, mind abuse, thought control, or thought reform) refers to a process in which a group or individual “systematically uses unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the person.

I guess we could further define “unethically manipulative” if we wanted to, but I’d define it as “having a child repeat something every day of his or her life in the hopes that they grow up willing to voluntarily murder another human being for you.”

Just my opinion.

 

So I have to wonder if that story begins to write the person. If that small sentence begins to write the story for my children instead of the other way around. Instead of my children witnessing the greatness of a fantastic culture and being swayed by it’s awesome power and empathy towards the hurting and hungry, which would then in turn cause authentic loyalty, we instead tell them a story over. And over. And over. And over. Until the story is true and there is no choice but to believe the lie.

And the story starts to write the person, making “truths” into “reality”.

If we tell ourselves everyday that we are stupid and ugly and unworthy of success and human kindness, we will see the world watching us and judging us as stupid and ugly and unworthy of success and human kindness.

Because we don’t see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.

And the things we tell ourselves make us who we are.

I pledge allegiance to the flag.

Do you? Really?

 

This isn’t a post about the Pledge of Allegiance and how I think it’s brainwashing all of us. I do think that and I don’t recite it but that is neither here nor there. I do love America. But I also love Cuba and France and Iraq. Because I love Earth and people, not people defined by a piece of land they live on or a god they worship or who is putting their D* where.

*dick

This is a post about stories and the power they have over us.

Here’s another story. Maybe you’ve seen this one.

“The Empire is wreaking galactic havoc. The Dark Lord is taking control. Only one small group of Rebels can save us.” That’s a very old story. One that’s been told over and over and over as well. From the twelve disciples to Harry Potter to the founding of our very own country, The Rebel Rising Story has been told. And we love it.

But most recently it’s been portrayed in Star Wars: The Last Jedi a film in which, after two viewings I still have mixed feelings about it. But I say that in a good way. It was a film that made me step out of the theater and think for a bit. Ponder perplexing proposals.

Not only does the film ask us to redefine The Force, it also asks us to redefine how we perceive Good and Evil – the forces that pull us in our own lives. It’s been so easy for so long to point at something and say Black or White. Good or Evil. Harry Potter or Lord Voldemort. Christian or Other. American or Other. Rebel or Empire. Jedi or Sith. Yin or Yang. This or That.

But what happens when, through the usage of technology, the internet and social media, our world begins to shrink and people we thought we knew and understood as evil, suddenly begin to seem a little less strange? What happens when we uncover the gray area that surrounds all of us and see that we have more in common than we have apart? What happens when we stop looking at life as a Black-or-White-This-or-That switch and instead begin looking at it as a 4-Dimensional spectrum of rotating color. More a piece of art and less a technical analysis.

Suddenly, things look a little different.

What happens when the way we see the world doesn’t line up with the story we’ve been told?

What happens when I’ve pledged my allegiance to a country, flag, organization because they are the best the world has, both in power and morality, but then you learn that your heroes are flawed. What happens if you find out they’re not just flawed by amoral? What happens when you discover that the group you’ve pledged to – made that solemn vow since you were five – were not only amoral, but what happens when you decide that they don’t have your best interests at heart at all and that they are only manipulating you with lies to keep you as ignorant and passive as possible so that you continue to recite your story and pay your taxes and keep your head down and pull the trigger to kill The Enemy.

Here’s another story, this one is from The Last Jedi.

The film opens up and there’s this fantastic space battle happening. The Empire has cornered the Rebels and they’re getting ready to finally 86 them. But by God, there’s one last hope. There’s this Rebel-ship that is strapped with explosives. Some kind of cruiser hits the Rebel Ship and the soldier in charge of hitting The Big Red Button that drops these bombs onto the enemy ship, has been thrown to the ground and can’t get up. Maybe her back is broken. I don’t totally know. They don’t really get into that.

But what I do know is that she can still kick. Really hard. So she kicks this ladder. Over and over and over again. Because at the top of the ladder is The Big Red Button. And if she can get The Big Red Button, she can drop the bombs on the Empire ship and blow shit up. Another win for the good guys.

So she’s kicking this ladder and the music is building up, as it does. And she reaches up and she grabs this medallion around her neck. It looks like some kind of crescent with runic notations on it.

The Force. The symbol of The Force, their great religion. For which to fight. For which to die. For which to kill.

It’s her sign of hope. Her prayer. Her flag. Her cross. She holds her symbol and kicks one more time. The Big Red Button drops, she catches it and the bombs fall. Mission successful. The Empire takes a big hit.

Here’s another scene from the same movie. Towards the end the Rebels have gotten cornered in a kind of mine on a salt planet. The last of our heroes are tucked into this little bunker and right outside is Death.

But Rebels never say die.

Here come our rebels. They fly out of the mine in their shitty little cruisers flip-flopping all over the place. The floors are falling out. They’re wobbling about. These guys are really boot-strapping the war effort but this is it.

Main Character Finn, a storm trooper who deserted his post to join the Rebels finds himself hurtling towards some kind of Important Empire Vehicle that is resting on the ground. It’s a big machine that is blowing out heat and is going to kill everyone. Finn’s plan, albeit a last minute plan, is to save his team by flying his ship directly up the heat stream, into the engine turbine, effectively destroying The Important Empire Vehicle, killing himself and allowing The Rebels, the good guys, to live another day.

I have never experienced a theater of Americans emotionally cheering so hard for a suicide bomber.

But that’s the power of story.

That’s the power of narrative.

Story is a powerful tool that allows us to see the same thing from two different sides.

Here’s one more story…

“You are from a poor land but it’s because God favors the meek. Our people have been chosen by The Great One. All others only desire evil. Evil must be eradicated because it is against God, pure GOOD. Rebels, join me. Rebels, rise up. Rebels, come together. Rebels, come to fight. Rebels, here is a plan. Rebels, let us take these planes and Rebels, let us fly them into the World Trade Center in the United States, that land of The Empire. Guide us o’ Great Religion! Let us come out of our caves and cobble together whatever plan we can in order to make peace. In order to save the world. In order to bring peace… through destroying our enemies.”

I have to wonder how many times those men in those planes reached up to touch their symbol hanging from their neck to draw encouragement and bravery. I have to wonder how many times those men, as young men, were asked to recite a Pledge to their Higher Power.

How many licks does it take to get to the center of a lollipop?

How many repetitions does it take to get to the center of your brain? A prayer. A pledge. Once a day your entire childhood and developmental years should do the trick.

Do you know why Star Wars: The Last Jedi and 911 are not the same thing? Beyond, one is real and one is not? They’re not the same thing because of where we happen to be sitting when the event occurred. And our personal position in the process is what makes all the difference.

It is not good or evil.

It is good. To us.

And evil. To us.

And because we are thoughtless, tiny, self-centered, idiotic beasts, filled with self-importance, we often times can’t see that we cheer and recoil from the exact same things. Because, while we tell ourselves a story that we are smart and educated and self-aware and “woke”, we are truly nothing more than advanced mushrooms reacting to the simple emotional stimuli of our environment as pre-programmed into us by our culture.

Simple life forms who’s self-awareness only gives them the illusion of complexity.

“If they are not like us, we must devour them. Destroy them. Conform or you will be conquered.” This is the mantra of the Radical Islamist Terrorists that attacked America on 911.

And because of that, it was evil.

However, this was also the mantra of the Europeans when they arrived on the scene and found To-Be America crowded with Indians // Native Americans // Indigenous People.

This will never do. No shirts, no shoes, no civilization.

“Conform or you will be conquered.”

After all, if we’re to compare apples to apples, around 3000 people were killed on 911 but I have to wonder how many Indigenous People found themselves shot before having their infants get their brains bashed in by the boot-heels of hungry American settlers.

Die, savage.

Also, why don’t they just get over it? Why don’t the Indians just get over that genocide thing? Chin up, buckaroo! Why don’t the blacks just get over slavery? C’mon, chief! It was only human trafficking, rape and torture! Get over it already! Why ya gotta be such a cry-baby!

Shrugs. Why don’t we just get over 911?

Why don’t we just get over an absolutely horrendous human atrocity that was committed directly against our “group”, in which we / I / you felt the personal emotional attack of?

We don’t get over it because the story we tell ourselves regarding 911 is that there are good guys and there are bad guys and we for sure know the difference. We for sure know where everyone is standing and who is who because we have the script. We have the story.

But our sons and daughters!

But everyone’s sons and daughters.

As an outsider not from this Earth, I see it and say this is a true tragedy.

I’m just talking about the power of story. Just as an observation.

We’re interesting creatures, aren’t we? We love to define everything in our world. We love to say if something is good or evil and, by God, if something is evil, it cannot exist in our world. Our reality. Our version of reality.

Indigenous People on our land. Gay couples and wedding cakes. Black folk in our schools and a goddamn atheist living right down the street from me in my Christian nation! How is a person supposed to live in a world filled with so much diversity?

How is a person to function in a culture filled with so many people that are nothing like me?

How do we listen instead of judge? How do we remove judgement entirely and replace it with a calm sense of understanding? Jesus tried this and it got him hooked to a tree. Martin Luther King tried it and it got him the long goodnight.

We don’t want peace! We want blood! Because we are cavemen in suits and we are only feigning being civilized.

I believe we must ask ourselves if the stories we’ve been telling ourselves… are even true. Even the ones that seem the truest. Even the ones closest and most dearest to us.

My God, could it be that the very story I’m telling myself is as insane as the ones that everyone else is telling themselves? Could it be? Could it be that I am… wrong? That is a very uncomfortable feeling to face.

Being raised in a Christian home, I was raised to believe that my beliefs were authentic and real and everyone else had imposter relations with an improper God that was basically Satan masquerading himself.

But not my beliefs. Not my stories. Not our stories. Our stories were real. Everything else was a lie.

Our God was real. He was the only one that was real. All other religious experiences that any single person throughout history on the face of the Earth outside of my very specific belief system were merely… false. Lies. They were being misled by The Evil One.

Our country was the greatest. The biggest, baddest mother-fucker on the block and we’ll kick your ass if you fuck with us. We were also the kindest.

Wait just a minute! That doesn’t make sense. Are we kind and we take in the poor and feed the hungry or are we a bully who shows up to a knife fight?

I guess it just depends who’s telling you the story and where you happen to be sitting.

What stories have been told to you?

What stories are you telling yourself?

Maybe your story is that you aren’t good enough. That you aren’t talented enough. Smart enough. Savvy enough. Maybe the story you tell yourself is that you don’t deserve That Job. That Spouse. That Money. That Opportunity.

Maybe you tell yourself a personal story that puts you automatically in second place because you don’t think you have what it takes to be in first. Or maybe you’re like me and told yourself a story your entire life where you put yourself in last place over and over again, thinking that you didn’t deserve something, anything, because you weren’t good enough for it. Those things were for other people.

And if that’s the story you tell yourself, you’re probably right. In fact, you definitely are.

Because our stories craft our realities.

If we don’t write our own stories, if we don’t craft our own truths and our own realities, if we don’t tell ourselves who we are and decide for ourselves, then our stories – a random collection of gathered information passed down arbitrarily from one ape mouth to the next, completely unquestioned – write us.

Maybe you’ve allowed someone else in your life to write your story. Maybe it wasn’t Mother Culture for you. Maybe it was a close person or close people. Your family. Your parents. Your spouse. Your roommate. Perhaps you’ve given them the pen and allowed them to tell you that you don’t deserve something or are unworthy of something. Perhaps you keep reading the story they write for you. Those people are terrible authors. Throw away their book. Don’t ask for your pen back. Just take it back.

I wonder what happens if we all begin telling ourselves a new story. A story that doesn’t need a God or a Government to direct us. A story that says, “I am compassionate to all living things, including myself. When I make a mistake, I forgive myself and I try again. When another makes a mistake and harms me, I will forgive them and allow them to try again. But I also won’t put up with bullshit. Because life is too short to be crowded by ignorant assholes trying to ruin the show. I am going to do my best because that is all I have. I am going to believe in myself. I am going to give others, regardless of who or what they align with, nothing but understanding and sympathy because I don’t know what it’s like to be anyone except me. I acknowledge that my field of vision is very narrow. But I’m working on scoping it out.

I don’t know what it’s like to be gay or black or Mormon or female or a senior citizen or deaf or, gasp, Harvey Weinstein. I only know what it’s like to be me. That’s all I can really be certain of. And even that seems to be changing day to day.

I understand that conflict occurs. It’s inevitable because we tell ourselves a story that it is inevitable and so we live in a world wherein war is acceptable.

Rape: unacceptable.

Murder: unacceptable

Murder if the President asks you to: HONOR!

Sure, you have to be brainwashed first and give up your right to think but at the end you might just get the little purple heart on your shirt that makes you feel important. My kids get something similar when they do something kind in school. I’m not minimizing. I’m drawing parallels. Because it’s the same logic and neurologically it affects the human brain in the same way. Rewards. It’s the same reason we like getting comments and likes on our social media feeds.

They’re playing us. They’re using our emotions against us. Playing our biology against us. They know this.

God, it’s tragic. The value we place on such horrific acts. Quickly, reward the unquestioning soldier for he is a great tool to us! If we throw him some meat and praise him, he will most certainly do the violent act again!

I believe the quote is, “Forgive them, Father. For they know not what they do.”

Social media. A place to exchange ideas! I have never ever seen so many people talking to themselves before. It’s like a room full of schizophrenics. Everyone talking. Nobody listening.

We can be the Rebels. Being a rebel is cool. I get the appeal. But let’s be the Rebels in real life that stand apart from Herd Mentality.

Why do I believe… what I believe?

What story… is being told to me?

Serious question for the Star Wars junkies out there. Has anyone even bothered to ask what Snoke’s policies look like? Does anyone know what General Hux is trying to accomplish? Or do we judge them because they dress in black and look evil and speak in accents.

We can listen but do we hear?

The African American community screams, “We are being treated unfairly and shot dead in the streets!” and a crowd of decidedly un-black people shout back, “Shut the fuck up and sit down! Stop talking! Stop complaining! Don’t you know this is America! The greatest nation on Earth! Where opportunity is galore for anyone that tries to succeed!”

Never-mind the fantastic poverty rate.

Are we listening or are we hearing?

Can we hear someone of a different faith when we walk into the conversation believing them to be fundamentally wrong? Can we listen to a Republican or a Democrat or a Socialist if we already believe that we are right and they are wrong and we know and they do not? Can we hear someone of a different race or sexual preference if we think that all races and people experience the world exactly like we do, therefore, we are right.

If they only had my information! If they only saw things like I saw things! Then they’d know! If they could only be just like me, this would all be better.

How do we hear a different opinion if we are right.

And how smug do you think a person has to be in order to believe that they have figured out everything? To think that they were able to get an A+ on the Life Test wherein they pegged the correct God amongst thousands, the proper political party amongst several in their country, and also happened to be born in the greatest nation this planet has to offer.

I’ve heard a lot of stories.

And that last one is pretty unbelievable.

A person with nothing left to learn is a person who doesn’t realize how uneducated they are. And an uneducated person is the most dangerous thing of all.

Rebel against that. Rebel against ignorance. Rebel against your own ignorance by first understanding that it is camouflaged into your “truths”. Rebel by learning. Rebel by rising above The Empire and, instead of crushing our enemies beneath our boot-heels like Kylo Ren spraying Luke with the AT-AT blasters, we simply close our eyes and listen and understand that nothing is good nor bad.

Only we are, as viewers of the greatest play on Earth.

 

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