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Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: My Transformation

This year started terrible and gradually improved.  Most years, there are plenty of ups and downs.  If you were to graph how I felt in 2011 and how happy I was, it would look like this:

I had cancer when 2011 began.  January 3rd I had a chemo treatment followed by a PET scan.  This meant I couldn’t eat for several hours beforehand.  My appetite was almost non-existent anyway.  I’d dropped some weight.  They told me the scan would show the cancer as lighted areas.  I imagined a space photo of the U.S. at night, with the urban areas lighted blobs on a black background.  What I hoped for was no lighted blobs in me.

The room was cold, I took off my shirt and lay down on a cold table and they did the scan.  After getting dressed, I never warmed up again.  By the time my parents drove me to their home over an hour away, I was shivering so much I could barely walk.  I kicked off my shoes and crawled into bed.  A flannel sheet, blanket, and bedspread couldn’t keep me warm.  My mother threw on a few more blankets and my heavy coat.  I still couldn’t stop shaking.

Then I started throwing up.  All I could do was turn my head to the side and throw up into a plastic container she held.  After a while that eased up.  The shivering eased up.  One by one, I shed the layers of covers. 

I went to the den, feeling better, and watched TV.  Then I started getting hot.  We called the clinic to let them know I had a fever of 103.  I pulled off my shirt and dabbed my forehead, neck, and chest with a cold, wet washcloth.  And I made myself drink several tall glasses of water.  I was too frail to get it myself, so I kept my parents going back and forth to the kitchen.  Between that and the medication I had on hand in case of fever, it finally passed several hours later.

Happy New Year to me.

My last chemo treatment was January 25th.  February was a blur of fatigue, severe mouth sores, and lack of concentration.  A friend mine, herself a 15-year cancer survivor, told me about “chemo brain,” so I knew I wasn’t going crazy. 

There were times when I was so frail my legs literally gave out from under me.

By March, my strength was returning.  The mouth sores finally cleared up and I could eat again, though I still didn’t have much appetite.  I felt strong enough to be on my own at my home.  My parents worried about me going up and down the stairs in this two-story house.  I knew the stairs would help me regain strength faster.  By the end of my second day back, I was able to walk up and down them almost as fast as before the diagnosis.

I tried to get back to writing, but my mind was still too foggy.  Sometimes I was easily distracted by news stories popping up on my e-mail sign-in page to get around to checking e-mail.  I remember thinking, “So this is what it’s like not to have any ambition.”  I’d seen others with an obvious lack of it and wondered what it must be like.

As spring brought new life back to the world around me, I came back to life, too.  I made my first forays back to the gym, which increased my appetite, which helped me put on weight.  Unlike recovering from other health issues in the past, my appetite, weight, and energy level returned in lockstep with each other.

My hair and beard made a comeback as well.  After a few weeks, I didn’t cringe when I saw myself in the mirror.  The bottom half of my face no longer looked like a twelve-year old boy while the top half looked like an old man.  The hair that returned to my head was soft as a baby’s—until the first time it was cut.  All the stories I heard about hair growing back a different color or more/less curly didn’t happen to me.

By July, I had gained back all but a couple of pounds of the weight I lost, but this time it was leaner.  I could lift almost as much weight and my appetite was like it had been in my late teens/early twenties—and so was my metabolism.  I ate all I wanted and none of it went to my gut.  One afternoon, I stood in front of a mirror and laughed because, at 47, I was in the best shape of my life and only a few months after cancer.

And by July, I was able to write again.  In fact, I did some of my best writing in the summer and with more focus than I’d had in a few years.

That cancer was a gift.  It knocked me down and let me build myself back better—at a slow, manageable pace.  It didn’t kill me, and it definitely made me stronger.

In September, I observed my 20th “blindaversary.”  I thought about my life in Austin in 1991 and wondered, as I’ve often done, about what life would have been like if my health hadn’t forced me to move.  Back then, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, but knew it was about time to decide.  Then I thought about all I’ve done since then. 

It blew my mind.

If only I’d known back then that all the moving and false starts were giving me the variety of experiences I needed to write about all kinds of characters in all kinds of situations.

If only I’d known back then what I was capable of. 

I took stock of myself this summer and realized that, somehow, I’d turned out to be a much better man than I aspired to be twenty years ago.  That really blew my mind.

A fun vacation in Philadelphia in November was a nice breather before diving back into the strange reality show/sitcom/Discovery Channel rollercoaster that is my life.  All the lab tests report that I’m cancer-free and the transplanted organs are doing great.

After struggling to get a couple of web sites up and going, I finally decided to hire some with computer and internet expertise surpassing my own (which could be just about anybody, really).  It’s exciting to see one of them taking shape, on the verge of promoting and with luck, generating income.  I also get to write and this site will help me sell the offbeat humor I write.

The other site will be ready early in 2012.  I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s my purpose in life.  It will help people, inspire people, and build a sense of community among people who have also been through some intense, life-altering events.  I’m improving my public speaking skills so I can tell my story and promote that site.  It’s exciting to be on the verge of all this at the end of one of the most intense, life-changing years of my life.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mister Magoo Goes to Philadelphia Pt. 2

World CafĂ© Live is a restaurant and live music venue in the same building as an NPR station.  It’s an interesting way to showcase talent and combines two of my favorite things: eating and live music.  I ordered a sandwich with a side of eggplant fries.  They were good and tasted kind of like sweet potato fries.  Now I’m wondering how many other vegetables would taste good cut into thin strips and fried like that.

The first band was Zydeco-A-Go-Go.  Alan happened across an authentic Zydeco bar in LaFayette, Louisiana last summer while on vacation—one of those places tourists don’t usually know about.  I like anything Cajun.  Laissez les bon temps roullez!

Next, a blues band named The Dukes of Destiny took the stage.  The harmonica is my favorite blues instrument and they had a great harmonica player.  The lead singer sounded like a big black girl, which is never a bad thing when it comes to blues.  Alan informed me she was white.  It took a while, but I finally could see he was right.

It was interesting to see a blues band up North.  I know it’s popular in Chicago, but it was born in the South.  It occured to me that jazz, zydeco, country, gospel, and rock-n-roll were also invented in the South.  We’ve exported more culture to the rest of the country than they care to think about.  You’re welcome, y’all.

During a break, the harmonica player came around with a clipboard to get e-mail addresses.  I bought a couple of CDs from him.  The zydeco band and blues band each did another set before we left around midnight. 

Sunday we visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It’s a big place and we saw only a small part of it.  My favorite part was the medieval armor.  It would have made me claustrophobic to wear that stuff.  Alan was good about reading the information to me next to pieces I wanted to know more about.  Lucky for me, I could get pretty close to most of the paintings and see the detail.  I’m glad I can still see well enough to do that.

There were some impressive old stained glass works, colonial furniture, and old Japanese, Chinese, and Korean art.  It had been too long, I realized, since I’d had a culture fix.

Stained glass at Philadelphia Museum of Art

On the way out, I had my “Rocky pose” photo made on the steps.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask someone or rent the movie.

On Monday, we took a walk in Valley Green at Wissahickon Park where Alan rides his bike.  There’s an old inn from the 1850s still in operation.  The hills made it seem like it wasn’t in the middle of a big city.

My time in Philly was drawing to a close, but there was still one thing I had to do before leaving: try an authentic Philly Cheese Steak sandwich.  I love a good Philly.  It’s my default order when I go to a restaurant with a long list of sandwiches on the menu and nothing jumps out at me.

We went to Pat‘s King of Steaks, which is a well-known Philly place.  Up to this point, everyone I encountered had been very polite to me.  Alan said it must be because of my disability, because that’s not how everyone there acts.  At Pat‘s, there was an impatient, East Coast, big-city kinda guy working at the window who barked at people to order and keep moving.  Finally!  I got treated just like a local and, for once, I enjoyed being served attitude with my food.  It was all outdoor seating, which would have been great if it had been about ten degrees warmer.  The cheese on our sandwiches wasn’t even melted.  I told Alan he needed to try a Philly in Arkansas, where it’s served on a buttered, toasted bun.  In this part of the country we find a way to make everything more fattening and better tasting.

After eating, we drove around the working-class Italian neighborhood near Pat’s.  Alan pointed out where a Mafioso was gunned down several years ago.  Then it was time to go to the airport.

The same guy who escorted me when I arrived took me to security on my return.  On the plane between Philadelphia and O’Hare, I thought about how I need to get out more.  In some ways, I had dreaded the trip, thinking it would tire me out, that flying with my vision as it is now would be stressful.  But, I had gotten a healthy dose of the city—the kind of life I’ve missed since having to leave Austin in 1991 when my vision and kidneys started failing.  It was good to be reminded that I’m not as cut-off from the world as I think I am.  I’ll probably never have the fast-paced urban life I had in Dallas, when all I had to do was show up at the airport, flash my airline ID, and hop on a plane.  But, there are still plenty of things to experience, places to see, and people willing to assist me with all of it.

At O’Hare, I got to ride on one of those motorized carts.  The driver had to beep the horn at distracted people in the concourse, oblivious to us behind them.  That would be a fun job—a nice combination of people-watching and power.  Then I was on a much smaller jet back to XNA.  I overheard the familiar accent of Northwest Arkansas.  Shortly after landing, I found out this part of the state had been shaken by an earthquake centered near Oklahoma City.

It was a well-timed vacation in more ways than one.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mister Magoo Goes to Philadelphia

OK, it’s a catchy headline, but I don’t want it for a new nickname.  Recently, I took a vacation to Philly.  It was the first time I flew alone since before my vision decreased in 2003.  That time, I went to Chicago.  In 2008 I flew with a friend to Boston.  I like going to big cities.  I’m developing a fondness for the Northeast.

Not seeing well enough to watch the movie or read on the flight gives me time to think.  I realized how much happier and healthier I am this fall than last fall, when the cancer was diagnosed.  Then I flipped back through the fall of ’09, ’08, etc. and discovered that this is the happiest fall I’ve had in quite a while.  It set the tone for the next few days.

Who says re-circulated air is bad for the brain?

I’ll admit I was nervous about flying alone.  But I notified United Airlines of my visual limitations and they had some meet and assist me to the gate I needed.  When I changed planes in O’Hare, a young man was there with a wheelchair.  There’s nothing wrong with my legs and pride almost made me tell him I would just walk beside him.

Then I remembered how big O’Hare is and all the times I changed planes in big airports when I worked for airlines.  A ride would have been nice back then.  So I rode for about twenty minutes.  The concourse was a blur of moving people, passing waiting areas, and brightly-lit shops and restaurants.  The aroma of different kinds of food rose and fell away.  Seafood.  Italian.  Hamburgers.

Near my gate, I ordered a small pizza from a man with an accent like John Belushi’s character in the Saturday Night Live sketch who said “Cheeburger, cheeburger.”  One big difference was this guy was extremely helpful and took me to the last available table where I had plenty of time to relax and eat. 

At Philadelphia I was met by another airline employee with a wheelchair.  This one told me he had MS and I almost offered to push him if he would tell me where to turn.  That would have stressed us both out more than it was worth.  My friend, Alan, drove me to his home in a suburb in the rush hour traffic.  We ate at a diner where they have me a huge sandwich.  The fries and a cup of Manhattan Clam Chowder were standard sides that went with it.  It's a Philly thing.  I was stuffed.

I should point out that, for me, any trip out of town means sampling the local cuisine—or at least food I can’t get here.  A big part of my travel budget includes food—anything from street vendors to fine dining.  I don’t leave my stomach and taste buds at home, so they should enjoy the trip too.

Saturday was the busiest day.  We went to Center City (their term for downtown) and stopped by Reading Terminal Market (or as I call it, Food Hog Heaven).  It’s like a mall food court on steroids, but with A LOT more choices and without the annoying mall.  I tried a Pennsylvania Dutch turkey sausage on a bun, known in many parts as a hot dog.  It tasted better than the average hot dog, though.
I could have spent a few hours there, but we had a 1:00 appointment to see Independence Hall and were told to be there early.  Alan guided me through the bustling big city streets and I wished I could see more of it.  He pointed out a few things along the way and I squinted in the bright sunlight to make them out.  It’s a National Park, so a funny park ranger with an encyclopedic knowledge of history quizzed us and kept us laughing. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize sighted friends with digital cameras come in handy at times like this. 
     “Can you see the design on the ceiling?” Alan asked.
     I squinted up at it, “Nope.  Take a picture of it.”  I knew I could probably see it with the magnifier program on my computer.  My only regret is not being more aggressive and elbowing my way to the front of the crowd.  My cane was unfolded, so they would have given me right of way.  If they wouldn’t have, the cane doubles as a weapon.

The Liberty Bell is next door.  It’s in front of some tall windows, so the light in my face kept me from seeing the famous crack very well.  But, it’s much bigger than I thought it was, so that made the rest of it easy to see.  We could walk all the way around it.  With the light shining from behind me, I saw the back of it much better.

On the way to Betsy Ross’ house, we stopped at an old cemetery where Ben Franklin is buried.  It was frustrating not to be able to read the headstones.  Alan told me some of them were worn too smooth to read.  It was easy enough to make out the size and shape of all those tall headstones, though.  Really old cemeteries have always fascinated me.

Later that afternoon, we found ourselves back at (surprise!) Reading Terminal Market.  I was hungry and wanted to sample new things.  One such item was from the Middle Eastern food stand.  It was ground lamb and beef with pine nuts in a thin dough shell that was fried.  I could taste spices like the ones used in pumpkin pie.  All I remember about the name is that it started with a K.  It was the best tasting thing I ate all weekend!

After that, we stopped at the Jewish deli, where I tried a kanish.  Let’s just say it had a tough act to follow.  I was hoping for something spicier.  Alan told them I’m from Arkansas, so they felt sorry for me and let me sample a bite of lox.  It’s very salty smoked salmon.

Somewhere along the way I had gourmet coffee from Central America and a shrimp eggroll.  It was good, but I’ve had Chinese food too many times to count. 

The last stop on my gastronomic world tour was the Italian bakery.  It was almost closing time and the line was pretty long.  It was worth the wait.  We both ordered cannoli and watched the woman behind the counter fill the pastries with cream filling from a hose hanging from the ceiling.  It tasted incredible!  If you ever get a chance to eat fresh cannoli, DO IT.  Life is just too short not to.

Alan pointed out certain buildings while we walked around Center City.  The sidewalks were so well lit I could see better after dark than during the day.  I was happy to watch the last glow of orange, red, and purple light of the sunset contrasted against the tall dark buildings on both sides of a street.  They were the same colors I’ve seen in sunsets here, but in an urban landscape.  Whenever I get a chance to see stuff like that without having to strain, I savor it.

That concludes Part 1 of my Philly trip.  Next: A live zydeco and blues show, eggplant fries, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and an authentic Philly Cheese Steak sandwich.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Year Since I Met Cancer

Last night, a friend of mine said, “It’s almost winter again.  Seem like it was just last week.”

Most years I agree with that sentiment.  This one has been much different.  This time last year, I found out I had cancer.  At various times, time has slowed to a crawl and (most recently) sped to a dizzying pace.

It had stalked me for seven months.  But, like most stalkers, it wouldn’t be able to keep its identity a secret.  I never associated the on again off again pain in my back with the anything serious, let alone cancer

The chemotherapy loomed in front of me for nearly four weeks.  There were the combined emotions of dread and anxiety to get it over with.

Then I was in the thick of it, having to be hospitalized when my body had a worse than typical reaction to the toxic drugs that fought the grapefruit-sized tumor near my lower spine.  A few days later, my beard and most of the hair on my head fell out—just in time for one of the coldest winters on record.  The cancer provided the perfect excuse to stay inside.

The last chemo treatment was in late January.  February was a blur of mouth sores that kept me from eating or speaking and fatigue that kept me from walking more than a few feet.  I dropped 25 pounds and looked like a stick figure, but was reacquainted with my abs.

In March, I was able to be on my own again, after several weeks of being cared for by my parents at their home over an hour away.  After being frailer than at any other time in my life, being on my own again scared the hell out of me, but I knew it was the only way I would fully regain my strength.

Appetite, weight, strength—they all came back gradually, in lock step with each other.  This was unlike an organ transplant, when the medications caused my appetite and weight to increase faster than any other time in my life.  Maybe that’s why this time all the weight came back lean.  By mid-July, I had regained all that I lost, but my pants have been loose since then.

I don’t recommend the cancer diet plan, so don’t envy me.  But it’s ironic that I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in.  After a couple or organ transplants and cancer.  At 47.  I have to laugh every time I think about it.

This was more brief but more intense than anything else I’ve had to face.  All that other stuff helped prepare me for this.  Just before I got out on my own again, my dad told me, “As determined as you are, I know it won’t be long before you get your strength back.  You’ll do what you have to do to make sure of that.”

It meant going to the gym again, something I’ve liked to do for 25 years.  It meant not being self-conscious about how thin and weak I was when I first went back.  It meant getting to watch the man in the mirror become less pitiful and more familiar.

This summer, I got to meet the latest version of myself.  He’s much more confident than the previous one.  The chemo left the hair thinner over his ears (of all the weird places for that to happen) so he wears a slightly shorter haircut to keep it from standing out.  He has to wear a belt more often.  He has a more intense side that he allows to come out and play (and write) once in a while.  Most things just seem easier for him now.  He’s much more driven to succeed.  And he looks older, too.  But, he’s quite comfortable in his skin, even if it has a few more wrinkles. 

Most important, he has a better sense of what he’s capable of.

In many ways, the cancer was a gift.  Even though I lost valuable time moving the writing career ball down the field, I just wouldn’t be the same man today without the experience.

This is my latest dance with “What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.”  I know it by heart, but I wish the band would learn a new song.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m flying to Philadelphia this weekend to visit my friend, Alan, a fellow cancer survivor.  It’s the first time I’ve flown alone in almost ten years—since before my vision worsened.  I remember an old Elton John song from the 70s, Philadelphia Freedom.  The lab numbers from a few weeks confirmed that I am free of cancer.  Flying doesn’t make me nervous.  Once I’m past airport security and high above the clouds, I might feel even freer than I do on the ground these days.

Hard to imagine, but possible.  After the past year, I don’t put limits on my imagination or the possibilities.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

401K . . . Bikers

Sorry for the absence the past few weeks.  I thought I had made the following post, which I wrote a week or two ago.  I could blame it on adjusting to the new, much larger computer monitor—the first flat panel one I’ve ever owned.  Or I could blame it on the extended-wear contact lens I got the same day, which also took some getting used to.  Maybe I’ll blame it on being frazzled from having at least 401,000 bikers and others (conservative estimates put the figure much higher) riding around downtown and keeping me awake.  Yeah, that’s it.  I’ll go with that one.

Is it over yet?  Two weeks ago hundreds of thousands of bikers rode around for several days, all over town but mostly within blocks of my home.  I finally took a strong sleep aid and did a Rip Van Winkle.  It may have been overkill, but I slept under the bed to muffle the sound even more.  Now here I am, bleary-eyed and covered in dust bunnies, trying to remember my lost week.

Monday, September 26  The official start date of Bikes, Blues, and BBQ is still two days away, but there’s a noticeable increase in the number of motorcycles around town.  The perfect weather (75 degrees, cloudless blue sky) has no doubt lured them here early.  The significance of this doesn’t hit me until well after midnight, when the swarm of bees over on
Dickson Street
still buzzes.  Instead of sheep, I count Hogs.

Tuesday  It’s too nice to stay in.  I walk to
Dickson Street
to eat lunch outside on the patio at U.S. Pizza.  It’s rather peaceful back there and I can overhear people at other tables. 
     “After a few of these things, they all seem the same.”
     “Yeah.  If I was a big bike enthusiast, I might stick around for it, but I’m going to the (Razorback) game this weekend in Dallas.”
     “I’m stocking up on beer, DVDs, and food so I won’t have to leave the house.”
     It’s a pretty common sentiment among locals.  It’s like when there’s a Razorback football game at the stadium times ten.  Most of us hunker down and wait it out until all the out-of-towners are gone. 

From there, I attempt to run a couple more errands down the street.  The sidewalks are blocked with unassembled tents and canopies for the vendors.  After stumbling over a few, I give up and go home.  It can wait until next week.

Wednesday  The official beginning of Bikes, Blues, and BBQ—the third largest motorcycle event in the nation and the largest held for charity.  It’s the charity part that keeps me from complaining too much about it.  That, and the fact it pumps a gazillion dollars into the local economy every year.  That helps the city pay for stuff without raising my taxes.  I chant this to myself over and over like a mantra as I try to fall asleep.

Thursday:  Funnel cake.  I know they have funnel cake for sale over there.  Last year, I ventured as far as the funnel cake stand (after giving up on having bratwurst first because it was two blocks and 20,000 people away).  This time, not even the sweat, high-carb memory of my favorite carnival food is enough to draw me into the crowded, noisy streets.  I will go funnel cake-less until a smaller festival or street fair comes to town.

Friday:  The beehive has become a giant hornet’s nest.  The non-stop buzzing has caused a persistent headache.  After a hotter’n hell summer, the weather is flawless.  I want to sit outside on my patio, but it’s even louder out there.  I’m only a couple blocks from Ground Zero—
Dickson Street
—where Arkansas (and parts of surrounding states) comes to party and cut loose.

Of course, I knew about all of that before I moved here from another part of town.  I like the convenience of being able to walk to places where I can eat, drink, hear live music, send mail, get a prescription filled, shop at a farmers market, buy all kinds of other stuff, and people-watch (to the extent that I can still do that).  

I refuse to become one of those people who whine about the event.  Living in a fun, interesting place means sharing it from time to time.  I chant this to myself as I try once again to fall asleep.

Saturday:  The final day of the event.  Writing is impossible.  The noise and lack of sleep (caused by the noise) keep me from concentrating.  Like a fool, I scheduled a book signing this afternoon.  I actually left early.  The store was dead and I could hardly stay awake. 

Next year, I’ll go out of town.  It’s what thousands of New Orleanians do during Mardi Gras.  I have plenty of time to plan.  Wherever I go, there’s one thing I’m sure of—there won’t be any motorcycles there.  They’ll all be in Fayetteville.

Anybody want to take in a legally blind, middle-aged biker rally refugee?  You can offer now or feel guilty when you see the commercial I make with Sarah McLaughlin singing.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


September 25, 1991
I’d been in Austin since the beginning of June, working as an outside sales rep.  My territory was southwest Austin--everything south of the Colorado River and west of I-35.  That was the part of town where the Hill Country begins to rise up from the more flat Texas terrain.

“You have diabetic retinopathy,” a retina specialist’s nurse told me on the phone.  “If you don’t get laser treatment right away you could lose all your vision.”

It was what I half expected to hear and what I feared hearing the most.  It knocked the wind out of me.  I stammered out a few questions.  Around me, co-workers buzzed around on what was a typical Wednesday for them.

Air.  I needed air.  The news propelled me from my office to the alley behind the building.  The glaring sun, the tears in my eyes, and what turned out to be a serious problem all conspired to turn my surroundings into a runny watercolor painting.

I needed to be alone with this news.  I needed to get home.  It wasn’t far to my truck and I drove home on autopilot, wondering if I would be able to drive in the months ahead.  Once I was home, I called the retina specialist’s office again and asked the nurse more questions.  She was kind and compassionate.  She spoke in the perfect tone of voice for someone in obvious despair.

“I don’t know what to do,” I told her.  “WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?”

“I can’t answer that for you,” she said gently and I knew she wished she could tell me the right thing to do.

Next, I called my parents in Arkansas, who were waiting to hear what the report was.  By this point, my brave face was history.  Nothing had ever terrified me so much.  My mother wanted to reach through the phone and hug me.  Her little (well, twenty-seven year old) boy was hundreds of miles away and in trouble.

“Maybe you should come back here and we’ll face this together,” she finally said.

It was the thing I needed most.  It was the thing I feared most.  The prospect of losing my independence, possibly my sight, my income, and facing God-only-knew what kind of gruesome eye treatments loomed in front of me like an 18-wheeler out of control on an icy road.

Over the next several days, I packed, sold things, threw things away, tried to do a few final fun things in Austin, and worked my final days at what would end up being my last full-time job until 2004.

“They’re doing some great things with eye stuff down in San Antonio,” my boss told me.  “You should check into that.”  She was trying to be encouraging, trying to help me find a solution without rearranging my whole life.

But I needed my family.  It would mean leaving a city that I absolutely loved—a bigger version of the funky college town where I grew up, but in Texas.  It would mean going from calling on corporate accounts most of the day, talking to dozens of people in person or on the phone.  It would mean giving up the freedom of driving around without anyone looking over my shoulder while I did what I was good at—sales.  It would mean staying with my parents at the edge of a small town and having to rely on them for everything.

I was optimistic.  The laser treatments would fix the problem.  I might lose some vision but I’d figure out a way to survive, maybe even thrive.  It was a good thing I didn’t know exactly how bad things would get before stabilizing.  The eye hemorrhages.  The surgeries to clear the blood out of my eye.  The frustration that crossed over into rage.

My vision was stable for several years, with acuity of barely legally blind.  I started receiving Social Security and Medicare.  My sight was stable for the next several years while I faced other health issues.  Life-threatening situations at times complicated by my reduced vision.  Other times, having been toughened up by the experience, it might have helped me deal with what lay ahead.  By the time those scarier situations came along, I’d already learned how to make things work for myself.  It was just a matter of figuring out a new method of going about things.

My sight worsened in 2003.  It wasn’t supposed to happen, but that’s another story.  It’s been more of a struggle since then.  A contact lens in my right eye and tinted prescription glasses for my left have improved how well I see to a level it hasn’t been in over eight years.

Now I look ahead the next twenty years.  I pay attention to all the news about medical breakthroughs regarding vision, especially the retina.  I’m encouraged by stem cell therapy and the development of a bionic retina.  After all my eyes have been through, I’m not afraid to try something promising that might help.

I don’t know what the world in 2031 will look like—but I suspect I’ll be able to see it even more clearly than I do today.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Eight Years With Her Kidney

This post is a couple of weeks late.  I was in a funk for a few weeks, feeling pretty overwhelmed by how fast the publishing industry is changing and all the stuff a writer has to do these days to self-promote.  You’d think someone with a degree in advertising wouldn’t be bothered by this, but it’s all online these days.  A visually-impaired, right-brained artistic type can be intimidated pretty quickly by it all.  Worst of all, it can make me feel pretty stupid and inadequate.

But, I’m coming to terms (again) with all that and moving forward (again) at the pace of a snail—one that can’t see where it’s going.

I was also overwhelmed by life in general.  Who?  Me?  If that surprises you, carefully read the subtitle of my blog again.  Just saying it is a mouthful.  Living it is a bit more challenging than that.  I try not to complain about it, but there are times when it’s every bit as hard to do as it sounds.  The problem was, I allowed myself to focus more on how hard it is for me and ended up throwing myself a big ol’ pity party--complete with balloons, a live band (playing only sad songs, of course), a sad clown, and games like Pin the Fail On the Writer.

The other day, I located the Live Strong bracelet my Aunt Judy got for me when I had cancer and have started wearing it again.  Not only does it remind me of how much of stronger I am after surviving that, but it serves as a rubber band I can use to snap my wrist when a negative thought overstays its welcome.  It’s working and I don’t have welts on my wrist, either.

Part of the blues was due to September being a minefield of unpleasant anniversaries.  I’ll spare you the list of disappointments and traumatic events.  Even as a kid, I used to get wistful in September, missing summer and already discontent with the still-new school year.

But, there is one very happy even that took place in this otherwise intense month.  On the 4th I celebrated eight years with my kidney Connie gave me.  This was one of the rare years when I got to actually spend part of the day with her.  I took her and my parents to lunch at Red Lobster.  I had the coconut shrimp—two great tastes that go great together.  Whoever came up with coconut shrimp is a genius.

As you can imagine, having a live donor is a very different experience than a transplant from a deceased donor.  I know this because my pancreas and first kidney came from a young man who died in a car accident.  There are so many questions about him I wish I could have answered.  That isn’t the case with Connie, who had us laughing at stories about her granddaughter born last year, now at a very cute and sometimes challenging age.  I hope she’s proud of her grandma someday.  She has plenty of reason to be.

Most people who have known me for the past several years will tell you I’m a survivor.  That I’m at times feisty, stubborn, sassy, tenacious, optimistic, driven, ambitious, and creative.  It was that way before 2003.  I may have received a boost in those qualities when I got Connie’s kidney, because all those terms can be used to describe her as well.  Unlike with the pancreas and first kidney transplant, I never had to wonder if part of the donor’s personality was asserting itself in my behavior.

Thank you, Connie.  I’m doing all I can to make you proud of me.  (Not that it was ever a condition of the gift).  I need to remember God wanted you to give me this kidney.  If it’s God’s will, my memoir will be published.

Seeing Connie again has given me the nudge (shove, fire lit under my butt . . . ) to renew my efforts at getting my memoir published.  I have an unusual and inspiring story to tell.  I’ve lived with my odd situation for so long now that I sometimes forget that.  Sometimes I forget (and other times I’m only too aware) that not everyone is a legally blind former diabetic writer with a transplanted kidney and pancreas (from two different people) living in a quirky college town.  Oh yeah, and now I can say cancer survivor, too.  One or two people might be interested in hearing me speak about it.  With any luck, a few more will be interested in reading about it, too.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My YouTube Debut

Last year, I joined Toastmasters as suggested by a book on how to write a non-fiction book proposal.  The manuscript for my memoir has been complete for quite some time, but it takes an impressive proposal to impress agents and editors—especially the ones in New York.  Part of that means building a platform.  One way to do that is public speaking. 

Back in 1998, I discovered I no longer feared speaking in front of a live audience when people started doing fund-raising events to raise money for my kidney/pancreas transplant.  I found myself thanking those in attendance, or speaking to the congregation at the Methodist church my parents attend, and even doing a brief interview on Channel 5 News.  Like it or not, I was in the public eye and had to sound intelligent.  It turned out to be easier than I ever imagined it would be.

When the cancer let itself be known and I started chemo, I had to stop doing everything I once enjoyed, including Toastmasters.  Several weeks ago, I decided it was time to get back to it and wanted to start out with a speech explaining my long absence.  So, here it is: my YouTube debut.  In the speech I mention how the chemo changed my voice, but it doesn’t sound different in the video.  I’m not sure how that happened, because it is more raspy and hoarse-sounding.  I’ve grown accustomed to it and even like it now.

Remember, I’m still polishing my speaking skills.  Listening to myself, I hear a bit more of a Southern accent than I’d like to have.  Overall, it’s not bad for someone who had been away from speaking for several months.
JimFairbanks July 20, 2011 Toastmasters

Monday, August 1, 2011

Life of the Party

Last Friday I attended a party at a local bar for people who went to high school here.  My family moved away midway through my junior year, but someone I knew from the local high school is a friend on Facebook.  She invited me and I decided to force myself to get out of the house and go, heat wave or no heat wave.

The bar is on Dickson Street, only a few blocks from where I live.  It was somewhat easier to see where I was going with my new glasses, but I took my folded up cane just in case.  I was anxious to find out how much better I could navigate a crowded bar—and to see a few people I haven’t seen in 25-30 years.

But they would have to see me first.

The ones I’ve reconnected with on Facebook would probably be able to recognize me from my photo on there.  There’s no trace left of the skinny, wide-eyed boy with shaggy, wavy blond hair in the helmet-head style of the late 70s and early 80s.  Of course, there would be people from several different eras there, not just my class.  It occurred to me that I might be one of the oldest ones there, which might make me feel even older than being there visually impaired with a cane would.

So, I was prepared for the possibility of not knowing most of the others.  But, we’d have a bond—we’re “natives” in a booming city where transplants easily outnumber hometown folk.  Just having a few dozen of us in one place is noteworthy in itself.

After buying a bottle of Michelob, I made my way to the back patio, where we were supposed to gather.  Instantly, my self-confidence vanished.  Poof!  Just like that.  It was gone faster than an ice cube on the hot pavement in front of the bar.

Groups of people laughed and talked in small groups all around me.  Now and then, women squealed upon recognizing old classmates.  I overheard a cluster of women near me and it turned out they were from the Class of ’75.  This bolstered my confidence a bit, knowing I was probably somewhere in the middle, age-wise.

I stood there, looking around and listening intently to more than one conversation at once and hoping someone would recognize me and speak to me.  It wasn’t as if they all knew each other.  People who graduated in 2008 are old enough to drink now.  There could have been at least a forty year span of former FHSers there.

Standing there in the middle of all that social flow, like a rock in a stream, made me self-conscious.  I moved to the edge of the crowd and discovered some plastic patio chairs.  Perfect.  I could sit there, relax, be out of the way, and observe without being too conspicuous.  I reminded myself I wasn’t as invisible as I felt and that everyone else could see me better than I could see them—something I’ve grown accustomed to, but may never be entirely comfortable with.

One thing I had to keep in mind was that I only went to school a year and a half with the kids who were from the other junior high across town, which decreased the odds of being recognized.  I had four and a half years with kids from my junior high from different elementary schools.  That wasn’t a very big window of opportunity.

“You have the right idea,” a female voice said.  I followed the direction it came from, not sure if she was talking to me.  She must have seen the confused look on my face.  “The chair,” she continued. 

“Oh, yeah,” I said.  “Pull up a chair.”

Her name was Patty, from the Class of ’77.

“Class of ’82,” I said, not bothering to explain the last part of my high school experience was a few counties away.

“You’re just a baby.”

Sure, I knew better than that, but I liked hearing it.  It was nice having someone to chat with.  I dropped a few names of older kids from my old neighborhood she might have known.  None were familiar to her.  It was a fairly large school even back in the 70s.

Now and then, she commented on people around us and I explained I don’t see well.  The cane was folded up in my lap, but I leaned over it like it might try to fly away.

“The men just get more handsome with age,” she said.  OK, she could keep talking like that and it would suit me just fine.  No doubt she was referring mostly to the men she’d known in high school.  Or maybe she was referring to men in general.

At one point, she indicated everyone else wore name tags with the school colors of the junior high they’d attended prior to high school. 

“Where are they handing them out?” I asked.

She described a woman in the distance, but I couldn’t see her.  Maybe a name tag would have helped people recognize me.  There just had to be someone else there from “my” era.  My beer was almost gone and I wasn’t sure how much longer I was going to stay.  The heat had made me sweat it out as fast as I’d been drinking it, so I didn’t get help in the self-assurance department I would have gotten on a cooler day.  Because I have a transplanted pancreas, I’m limited to one drink a week.

Patty excused herself and went on her way.  Either she was leaving, saw someone she knew, or was totally bored by me.  Stop it, Jim!  I wish I didn’t beat myself up like that.

I finished my beer and made my way back to the front door.  Even though I was headed east, away from the sun, it was harder for me to see than when I’d arrived.  Everything was bathed in yellow-orange glare, which made it all look flat and two-dimensional, like a photograph.  It’s ironic that the worst time of day for my vision is just before the best time.  At dusk, when the sun slips behind the hills, I see with amazing clarity.  This time of year, it stays light quite a while after the sun makes an exit.  It’s why I gladly endure the heat.

After bumping into a pole just outside the bar, I unfolded the cane and used it to help me get home.  People offered help when I crossed a street with a traffic light, thinking I had no vision at all.  As much as this town has grown since I went to high school here, it still has the polite feel of a smaller place.

On the way home, I thought of how little credit I’d given the other people at the patio.  This was at George’s Majestic Lounge, the oldest—and maybe the friendliest—bar in Arkansas.  They would have spoken to me if I’d spoken first, especially if I had remembered to smile.

Then I remembered how much more self-confident I was when I moved back from Florida twenty-four years ago.  After being around so many Northeasterners who’d landed there, I had a tougher skin.  If I tried to talk to someone at a party or a bar and encountered “attitude,” I almost always let it roll off my back, not letting it affect my evening or how I felt about myself the least bit.

Of course, I could see fine then.

Still, I need to get back to that level of confidence.  People can’t just glance at me and have any idea of what I’ve been through.  There are few who aren’t fascinated and in awe of it.  This isn’t a place where people are callous and rude to strangers, especially the disabled ones.

There may not be a trace of that skinny, wide-eyed high school boy left, but the more athletic, sophisticated one from 1987 is there just beneath the surface—but with more maturity and a story to tell.