Cane Fu

You can tell the building where my surgeon has her office is a place where serious illnesses are treated, because there’s an artificial waterfall cascading down the height of eight or nine storeys. Medical buildings of a more general nature have to make do with aggregate planter boxes.

It’s on the campus of the local monster hospital complex, which probably has more than one zip code, and because people who have grown unidentified foot-wide space aliens in their chitterlings are sent to oncologists on principle, it is a cancer center, which makes some things about it peculiar.

For one thing, after you enter the atrium (where you now queue at a polite distance to have your temperature assessed with a hi-tech ray gun), you have to go up an escalator to reach the elevator lobby. I have to assume that there is something like a lift from underground parking for really frail people. A docent of some sort with a badge and pinafore was directing people the day I arrived for a follow-up, one customer per lift, and as I waved to her I deftly flung my sun visor (without which I am never seen in public) half way across the floor.

Accustomed to people beat-up by surgery and chemotherapy, she moved to retrieve it for me just as I winkled the tip of my walking stick under the strap, spun it up into the air and caught it.

“I am a seventh degree master of Cane Fu,” I explained as I restored it to my head. You have to cherish the little things.

So everything looked good, the nurse practitioner answered all my carefully nuanced and technically phrased medical questions in sentences that a two year old would have found condescending, and I come back at three month intervals because, well, it was a space alien and that is the rule book.

I am kind of on my own with workouts. The best Nurse Nancy could come up with was “Listen to your body.” No! Really? “Now it’s not only about the amount you can load the muscles after surgery, but when we haven’t exercised for a while, we experience a certain amount of deconditioning…” No, really? “Start with about a quarter of what you usually lift…”

“Okay, so a hundred and twenty five pounds on the sled press?”

You see the problem. I sent an e-mail to my Olympic Lifting Masters Champion who also trains elderly people and rehab patients. He might have something a bit more helpful to say.

There is always vulgar slapstick. The aide was run off her feet and puffed in just as Nurse Nancy was spelunking in the parts that are usually covered by black boxes in censored pictures, apologizing for lateness.

“It’s okay,” said Nurse Nancy, “I just started without you. I didn’t think you were going to come.”

“That’s what he said,” I commented from my supine, paper-draped position.

With luck they may decide not to let me back in there.

Now it’s just about building back up. I broke two and a half miles of hills this week, just in time for the godawful Virginia heat to settle over the landscape like the breath of six hung-over dragons. Send a truckload of crushed ice and a couple of industrial fans.

Blow Dried

So here I am on the day of Trump’s Masque Of The Orange Death rally, reclining on my bed attired solely in a burgundy-colored terrycloth spa robe, blow-drying my bush.

I suppose I should back up and explain.

I have been a very patchy blogger since the Orange F ck was elected — it’s like fighting your way through a massive depression just to keep going, I live right outside DC, the waves of evil and stupid pulsing out of the government district are like gouts of poison gas — and even more absent lately. See, what happened was, here I am almost all the way back from getting both hips Borged February was a year ago, blowing up a 500 pound sled, four miles of hills daily, and then thank you very much I start going through shall we say a repeat of puberty. The ladies can sort this out. I had been up on the rack for the customary fourteen-point check and oil change in January so this was weird. A month, an MRI and a bravura effort later, from an ultrasound technician who went medieval on my stomach with a — well, you remember the big foofaraw about states wanting women to get ultrasounds before ending a pregnancy because looks like a baby something something? The whole violation element involved? Think of someone using that dingus like a tire lever.

Actually, it looked like a water balloon.

Actually, it kind of was a water balloon, attached to my girl bits, only, not to drop a spoiler, it was more or less filled with (sorry) snot. This phenomenon shall henceforth be known as the “Ephraim McDowell Special,” or Phred for short. It is a young woman’s neoplasm, and I have no idea why it decided to set up shop in an actual Medicare subscriber. Curiously, the riveting tale of the first successful excision of one of these was a chapter in the History of Surgery that I read to tatters at age 10 before I realized I would make a shitty doctor because I actually like taking care of people.

I realize this verges on what my Albino Ex used to call “the organ recital” (he had a friend with an unfortunate habit of sharing the minute details of an annual “Millennium Scan,” before we tied him to a chair and beat him with feather pillows, until he promised to stop before he glowed in the dark). But, well, long silence bears explanation.

Apparently when you are toned and ruthless, you can plow hills with a ten-inch-across oblate thingy inside you and only notice feeling a little as if you’ve been going heavy on the beans. Well, vegetarian.

Anyway, fast forward to the local teaching hospital, a surgeon who looks about twelve, masks everywhere, temperature checkpoints, and a chirpy, excited nursing staff who didn’t even wait for me to wake up all the way before telling me on the trip back to my room: “Everyone’s saying they took like a whole turkey out of you! Wanna see the pictures?”

Bedside manner.

Really most of them were nice. There was the one who would never shut the bathroom door after herding me in there (house rules, no one walks to the can unsupervised). And then there was the Night Of The Long Blood Pressure Cuffs, when all my chitlins coming back online after a double transabdominal nerve block hurt so frickin much that my pressure unsurprisingly skyrocketed. The medical solution to this problem is to wake up the victim prisoner patient EVERY GODDAM HOUR ON THE HOUR ALL NIGHT LONG to check it again. By five a.m. I was screaming fornicatory maledictions and threatening to break the fourth floor window and go out of it.

Does not work and play well with others.

Anyway, they sprung me about 36 hours after that, and I have been chilling at home trying to decide what tattoo to get over the 44-staple zipper they had to open up to get at Phred, who apparently was not an especially hostile alien but just wanted a place to be, kind of like when  you find a raccoon has given birth in your attic. Meanwhile, now that the staples are out and it’s just got tape on it, I am supposed to ALWAYS KEEP IT DRY. Including the part where they clearly realized they were going to have to cut further than anyone expected, leaving the last three staples in an area that ought properly to have been baldicated. Phred was ambitious.

Hence the hair dryer. I like to shower a lot. Also, walking. Supposed to help. I am in the Tidewater and it’s summer. No health club in the area has a steam room because all you have to do is walk outside, never mind walking a mile, which is the current stage. Working up.

Oh, they took my appendix just while they were in there. Thieves. I have no idea what the black market price is for an intact appendix but I’m checking eBay.

The blessed Engineer saved my life with oatmeal cookies (hospital food never changes), the divine Azahar, who’s weathered a lot worse, has been my spirit guide, and I manage to have only one hysterical meltdown a day. I want a thirty pound dumbbell so bad I can taste it (currently limited to ten, which is barely worth picking up), and threw arm shots at the mandated home physical and occupational therapists (“Why did they send us here?”), after explaining that those poles were not “mobility aids,” they were Alpine walking equipment. The OT was from the Indian subcontinent, saw my “Namaste” plaque, greeted me accordingly, and settled in to talk about pranayama and daal recipes. Shame he has no need to come back.

It takes my mind off our national creeping crisis, but only intermittently.

Send animal and garden and art pictures.


Sorry, Josh

Sooner or later I was going to start melting down. Yesterday I lost it and started screeching until I couldn’t get my breath after the third try attempting to sign into my bank’s phone app so I could deposit checks that I’m afraid to take into the bank — I’ve never done this before, I can’t see, I’m not a natural techy person, did I mention I can’t see?, I spent my whole life in school being shamed to the point of abuse for what I now realize is a genuine sort of dyslexia only with numbers (I can look straight at a simple string of digits and add them the same wrong way three times), and I haven’t made it work yet.

And that was before Josh called again.

Josh has been calling a lot. He works for a company whose business model, if you read between the lines of their bullshit boilerplate, appears to be sieving up self–published authors and trying to sell them extortionate marketing schemes for books that aren’t going to sell any more with their services than without them. I’ve been through this several times since enjoying my joke back in the early oughts with a couple of silly mystery novels featuring all our local political dorks and their tender egos. I made enough on sales to pay for my fun, there were hilarious aftershocks for a couple of years, and that should have been that, but self-publishing has always been a fertile ground for entrepeneurs with a knack for emptying the wallets of people who harbor excessive ideas of their own talents. (“You just need a good PR company! Our marketing packages start at only five thousand dollars, but for ten we can make a Hollywood quality trailer of your novel.” Yeah right.)

So this is the third or fourth company to buy my original publisher’s contact list, but unarguably the most persistent. It doesn’t help that Josh sounds like the Cosmic Nasal Dweeb that even the most charitable soul wants to bitch-slap. This morning, calling from a “Name Unavailable” ID, he started to leave his rote message for the tenth time in two months: “You’ve been recommended to us as an author and we’d like very much to talk about your book…”

I snatched up the phone. “JOSH PLEASE STOP CALLING ME I AM NOT INTERESTED IN OVERPRICED MARKETING SCHEMES DO BETTER WITH YOUR LIFE HAVE A GOOD DAY!!!!” I am morally certain that actual flames emerged from the earpiece at the other end and that Josh is even now in the men’s room, smelling of scorched hair and vaporized styling mousse,  with a cold compress held against his ear and clutching a tube of  Neosporin.

I feel a little bad now — really, everything is shit and people are just trying to stay afloat — but only a little. At least the avalanches of e-mails I get from frantic retail companies are only trying to sell me clothes, patio furniture and household gadgets, not false hope. There’s already too much of that around.



Better Than A Fork In Your Eye (III)

Don’t think it’s gonna happen.

I clearly remember the reasoning behind picking the date for eye surgery 1/4. I saw the surgeon in November. December, January, February in the DC area? Prime time for the notorious “wintry mix,” an isothermic phenomenon in which zones of rain, snow, freezing rain and frank sleet waver back and forth over a region, turning the roads into an unpredictable rink full of out-of-state idiots who think nothing of going out in only a little rain don’t be a sissy I’m not staying home just for this. You see them wiped out on bridges and shoulders in their hundreds. Wait till mid March, you won’t be hiking to a surgery centre across town through the middle of DC Ice Capades.

No fear. Now we have Coronavirus. And I am not here for it.

Oh, not yet. No lock down, no surge in reported cases. Yet. But since our nation is governed by a tangerine wankmaggot who only cares about his golf properties, and policy is managed by a dead-eyed kapo who thinks all foreigners and brown people have cooties, there are hardly any tests, supplies like masks and hand sanitizer have been bought up by crisis profiteers, and the airports are jammed with people returning from overseas to get ahead of he travel ban, perfect incubators for explosive spread of the fucking thing in another week or two. Right when it would be time for my follow up appointments. Has anyone been reading the fucking social media out of fucking Italy?

Under normal conditions I would suck up the way my surgeon’s (and I’m starting to say my very tentatively) group practice is managed. There are four other doctors. I don’t know who decided to run it this way. But you come in the door, you’re in a packed waiting room full of the cheapest armless chairs, jammed in hip to hip with 1001 geezers, and they want you to sign in on a touchscreen situated right in the glare of the full-glass front wall that I can’t even see and I don’t remember seeing any hand sanitizer.

Then you sit there for two hours, punctuated by three or four ten-minute “encounters” with the staff and, finally, the surgeon, who’s always in a rush.

I hear Dulles, the nearest international hub to me — the office is half way between my house and the airport — is dirty and chaotic, and has no provisions in place to mitigate contagion.

Not on.

I’ll have to eat a fee. Maybe a hefty one, but I’m already rehearsing my speech to the office staff:

I want to live. I don’t want to have complications right when the local hospitals might be overwhelmed, and maybe lose the sight in that eye permanently. I don’t want to have to stop half way through four surgeries because the surgeon or her assistants are sick or quarantined, and walk around cockeyed for God knows how many weeks.

That’s reasonable, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, I ordered a battlerope (I’m not going back in the gym either, which is how you know I’m serious) and I’m enjoying the one upside of this: introvert paradise. The door is shut and locked and no one on my hill route wants to stop me to chat and I’m keeping the week I took off. Large stack of books by my chair, topped off by the Kindle, even if I have to read it with a jeweler’s magnifier. Updates at 11.


Better Than A Fork In Your Eye (II)

But only just. When I said that to the ophthalmic surgeon, she said “Oh yeah! I’ve taken out a few of those! Fish hooks, too.”

It’s nice to know your doctor shares your perspective.

Unlike my f**king hips, which blindsided me (every other joint in my body seems to be about half my age, but they were around eighty-seven when they got replaced with hardware last winter), my eyes have always been headed for, well, something. I have zero memory of a time when I could see anything further than a few inches from my face well enough to read (and yes, that means I have zero memory of a time when I couldn’t read). When I was still in short pants (okay, they don’t put anyone in short pants any more, but you get me) an ophthalmologist cheerfully told my parents I might go blind because I was getting more nearsighted at such a headlong clip that you could take me for a  refraction, get the glasses made and my eyes would be worse by the time they came back and we’d have to do it over again. Something about puberty arrested this, which I suppose disproves the old saw about what you’ll go blind if you don’t stop.

Everyone expects to get a little farsighted when they get past forty, so now the reading prescription at the bottom of my lenses is only about the lower limit for nearsighted legal blindness, instead of three times that. (This has led to perplexity when I show up at Costco and tell them I’ve come to pick up my reading glasses.) What I didn’t expect was, right about the time my marriage broke up (I don’t think there was any connection), to have my right eye refuse to focus even with a spanking new prescription; to start seeing double and triple images of anything luminous or contrasty (like highway signs and traffic signals), and to have my eyeball feel like it had been doing pushups.

This is something called map-dot corneal dystrophy, which is the commonest form of a rare condition apparently, and which my optometrist (who could eat all the MD opthalmologists I’ve ever had for lunch) had spotted several years before that, even though it wasn’t affecting me at the time. Now I was seeing double and I hadn’t had anything to drink that day. Yet.

What it is, is the cornea, which is sort of your window glass, doesn’t hold fluid evenly, so that you get an astigmatism (I already had the ordinary kind that comes from an irregular corneal surface, damn, forgot to mention that) which changes on a daily basis, depending on which cells are holding water. Meaning that you get a pair of glasses made, and by the time they come back, they make it worse, and instead of proper window glass you are looking through the wavy stuff they used to put in the windows of the restrooms back in high school.

Just like old times.

This left me at about 20/70. Newsprint was out. Giant movie-screen sized monitors and enlarged browser pages were in. I am typing this on a 27-inch screen in about an 18-point font. Today only some of the letters in my field of vision are double, like what you see when you turn a calcite crystal over a page of print.

It sucks, is what.

Then I got cataracts. The only way I can hold my head up here is to note that the Engineer already had his done, and he’s fifteen years younger than I am. I was so impressed at his being able to read a digital clock in the next room without glasses (which he began to do regularly, just to be snarky) that I said, “gee, I almost look forward to having that done some day.” Never wish for anything.

Last year I developed Fuchs’ corneal dystrophy, which is the other layer of the cornea. It looks like dandelion fluff is constantly floating around in front of me.

Amazingly, I can drive. I just can’t read a lot of signs, so I stick to places where I already know where I’m going.

So: first they take out the right cataract. Then after five Hellish days of no lifting and a little more recuperation, they pop some dead person’s cornea in my eye. This squicks me out even though I know it’s done all the time. Then wait for it all to heal up before doing the same thing on the left. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I could do it any time (Dr. Fishhook looked ready to do it right there in her consulting room, using an X-acto knife and with the Engineer holding a flashlight) but I am damned if someone is sticking a sharp thing in me twice in a calendar year. Shooting for March.

She does seem very confident, even though she looks about seventeen, but at this point, so does everybody. I could shot-put her, and I had to explain what I meant about working out (no, we are not talking about the cardio pump class with a pair of five pound dumbbells) but anyone who sounds that damn gleeful about tinkering sharp things out of people’s eyeballs strikes me as likely to know her stuff. I know how I sound when people come in dithering about I have this pain right here and I don’t know if I slept wrong (is there a wrong way to sleep?) and it feels funny here and maybe I’m going to have a stroke and then I feel it when I do this and when I can shut them up for two seconds I stick my finger on the spot I know is the problem, grin fiendishly when they lift three inches into the air, and shout “Eureka!”  Like that.

Nonetheless, can everyone yell the F word for me right about now? I need it.



Not Safe For Work

[If you are easily offended please skip past this. It is TMI, NSFW and WTF.]

So what happened was, we ran out of lube. Around midnight on a Monday. At that point, you’re stuck. Kind of literally.

See, here I am with these hips that were overhauled back in February and were shot to hell and back months before that. Hips with the outrageous, inexplicable, corrosive arthritis that I had are almost impossible to abduct — if they were my jaw. I’d have been on a liquid diet — and, well, you can imagine that some things just do not fucking work.

Like fucking.

It figures, I thought for all those months, depressed and bitter and pouring another hit of cinchona-laced bitters which were the only thing that really took the edge off the pain. I get this great guy and the whole wheelhouse comes to a screeching halt. God hates me.

So getting the chassis repaired meant so much for so many reasons. I can chuck weights around again. I can eat hills again. And, well, does the expression “crazed weasel” mean anything to you? “Demented mink?” (It’s something about the mustelids.) So, the ladies out there will know what I mean, you batter the blossom too hard and too often and the adjacent plumbing finally goes into revolt, and you either feel like you’re peeing wire brads or you actually do pee something that looks like motor oil.

Feature me at the Urgent Care at eleven on Tuesday morning, explaining to the layers of ancillary medical personnel that you have to go through, well I just had both hips replaced in February and everything finally works again and fifteen years younger boyfriend demented mink crazed weasel etc. etc. and I have this bladder infection.

Med tech who has just taken my blood pressure (200/110, in case you want to know what being around doctors can do to someone who can throw a perfectly normal reading at home) looks at my chart, see’s I’m sixty-four, and says almost worshipfully: “I want to be you when I grow up.”

Physician’s Assistant comes in, a nice guy I’ve met before, who turns out to be a former orthopedic PA and is yea interested in the hip story. I drop trou and show him the incisions and quote the surgical report, which I have mostly got off by heart at this point. Devoid of articular cartilage was an especially memorable line. I always enjoy it when people ask wide-eyed Both at once? Like I was going to go through that twice.

I explain the genesis of the current predicament. Too much friction. “If you have Amazon Prime they have a great selection and it’s there overnight,” he says, and writes for an antibiotic. I like this guy.

The tech comes back in to take my pressure again. It’s down to 185 over 100. For once, medical people believe me when I say being in a medical setting makes me orbit. Everything from the asshole ER doctor who had four nurses hold me down to a table by all four limbs when I was a preschooler, to the last gynecologist I saw who began shouting swears at me in the middle of the appointment (I think she had early dementia because she abruptly sold her practice less than a year later). Everyone in between has been just about as bad. They hate people who actually know something about bodies and ask questions, and it always ends up with them yelling and chewing you out and calling you names. Gets pretty goddam old, I can tell you.

I like PAs, on the other hand. They get it.

The tech looks at me reverently again. “I really want to be you when I grow up,” she says.

I think they have been selling tickets to me, HIPAA be damned, because as I leave there’s a sort of congratulatory smile on the faces I pass going out to surrender my copay. For the record, the drugs worked fine.

I didn’t even get a chance to show them my delt shot.


The Gates Of The City

David”s memorial service was yesterday. It was in the running for the Most Horrifying Experience Of My Life.

He died two weeks ago today, at home, with hospice people coming in to help and, I gather, people from his church coming in to pray with him, because David was always all about tracts and Trusting In The Lord and saying God Bless when he signed off on the phone. I don’t know why he never tried witnessing at me, other than to include with every year’s Christmas card one of those grisly Chick tracts with bad comic-book art of sinners writhing in the Lake Of  Fire. I may have an invisible neon sign over my head that says Don’t Tell Me About Your Relationship With Jesus. Or Krishna, Zoroaster or Sun Myung Moon, come to that.

If so, it wasn’t working yesterday, Everything started off innocuously enough; we got there late in the reception hour, which was in the distinctive key of Babtist church basements everywhere: linoleum, bulletin boards with construction-paper art and cheesy posters of that Lake Of Fire (again), a “dead spread” of prefabbed deli sandwiches and canned soda set out on one of the refectory tables. I only ever knew David’s wife Liliana and his brother Donnie, who is looking pretty rough by now and missing most of his teeth. Liliana’s short a few herself, I noticed. These are people who’ve never had much money, and I refuse to judge either David or Donnie for the years they spent soused and unemployable, a family habit I gather. In the richest country in the world basic dentistry is still a luxury, I guess.

Everyone was very nice and friendly. They didn’t look like people who spent a lot of time thinking about Lakes Of Fire.

The order of service was pretty unsurprising. Four hymns scattered through its length, a scripture reading, two people giving reminiscences of David that made it clear they barely knew the man. They should have asked me. I could have told them about the patiently sifted earth in the spring, the pride in his daughter who got the education  he never completed and became a teacher, the lovingly painted iron railings on my back porch (I would have of course left out the time he hammered all the flagstones loose on the one in front). The time that I saw him pick up Torvald, who was then a guest in the yard and not yet my cat, and kiss his head.

Nope, all anyone wanted to say about David was how he had accepted Jesus and wanted to bring the Good News to everybody. I thought my eyes were glazing over at the third reference to this. And then the preacher geared up.

I could be forgiven for thinking this was supposed to be about David. Fuck me. Apparently it was the springboard for a half-hour long infomercial about how Mr. Preacher would never say he was sure someone had gone to Heaven unless he really was sure, but about David he was sure, and David was now touching the Hand of God and breathing celestial air and living in Heaven which is a real place with the following engineering specifications. I kid you not, architectural details and square footage were provided. Because David had accepted Jeebus as his Lord and Savior, and brought his daughter to do the same, and he was now freed of pain (that much, I’m happy to say, was true, and I gather there was a lot of it). And we all had that same choice and everyone needed to make it or else end up in a place full of fire and darkness separated from God forever, because no matter what else  you did or how nice you were, accepting Jeebus was your only hope, and now turn to the passage in Revelations (the most drugged-out document ever preserved, I think) for more details on the great gates of the Heavenly City, each carved from a single pearl. It was unclear what people with perfect divine bodies would do all day in the City since supposedly after death we are freed from all fleshly appetites; personally if I were going to order up Heaven it would be someplace where the whisky was incredible and there was no male refractory period.

He kept referring to David as Dave. In twenty-two years I never heard him identify himself as Dave. No one called him that.

Finally, after insisting he wasn’t going to call anyone out or embarrass them, Mister Preacher enjoined all present to close their eyes so that anyone who wanted to receive Jeebus into their hearts right there in front of his very eyes could raise their hands without being put on the spot in front of the other congregants, and receive the benefit of a pastoral prayer for God’s blessing on them. At this point I was becoming slightly crazed and almost ready to fling myself into the aisle, black-church-style, and speak in tongues if it would just make this oily, poreless-complexioned, fairy-tale-spouting mountebank SHUT UP. I think only my fondness for Liliana stopped me.

We finished with another hymn. The people who write these fucking hymnals always insist on a high E that I don’t have if I haven’t been practicing. At least I’m still the dead accurate sight singer I always was. Let them wonder how the infidel could belt out all David’s faves.

As we fled left the church — which had a multicolored LED marquee in front — Mister Preacher slunk silently out of the basement (I don’t know how he got down there from the pulpit so fast) and mooched up beside us with palm extended. I shook his hand and thanked him; I have plenty of soap at home.

“Funny,” remarked the Engineer over dinner, “I’m pretty sure that in Revelations, it says the gates of the city are always open so that anyone can come in. He must have missed that part.”

I am all but morally certain that David’s daughter told him she had accepted Jesus because he was fucking dying in horrible pain and afraid he wouldn’t see her in heaven otherwise. I can see myself doing  something like that. But I assume at least some of the people in that congregation believe all this shit, and these are people who have licenses to drive and the right to vote. It scares me.

Dangerous Dancing


Possibly the most compelling thing about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the just-released Joker movie is the dancing.

Yes, I realize it’s not the first thing you associate with the character — one for which I’ve always had a fascination. If you are a comics nerd (I have been one on and off throughout my life), your notions of him are era-dependent: it could be Cesar Romero’s near-buffoon with makeup in his mustache; Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson (he did, I grant, deliver the line about dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight); the cackling killer who kept getting locked up in DC comics’ enchantingly named Arkham Asylum because he was so obviously evil in the key of Nuts; Mark Hamill’s voice performance, or Heath Ledger’s Protean and disturbing figure who had many conflicting stories about his origins, all true of course. There was also a Frank Miller version who smooched Dr. Ruth on camera during a broadcast of David Letterman. I guess it had to happen.

All I can say is that if you wanted a Joker more disquieting than Heath Ledger, there was really no choice but Joaquin Phoenix. I was practically camping out in the queue the minute i heard about the casting. Have you ever seen what I think may have been Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film, The Master? If you haven’t, well just set aside an evening when you can afford to be creeped out. Not by Stephen King riffs or Twilight Zone cantrips, but an everyday character who telegraphs deeply wrong in the head with every nuance of his manner, movement, speech pattern and even the weirdly disjointed relationship of his body parts. This is the guy sitting next to you on the bus who asks a question that tells you he’s not in the same world you are; the person who turns a polite time-of-day encounter into a crocked exegesis of his Theory Of Everything; the girl firmly certain that she has fleas that no one else can see. We’ve all felt that ripple under our own skin when people like that crossed our path. In The Master, without any frankly delusional lines, that’s Joaquin Phoenix’s character, and the performance overshadowed Hoffmann’s, which is saying something.

The new film’s Joker character starts out as the same tune in a higher octave: a just-scratching-by guy who’s been to clown school, lives home in an enmeshed relationship with Mom, is on seven different psychiatric medications and chain-smokes. He’s not the popular vote winner for supervillainy. He can’t talk to women, he’s a magnet for people who treat him like shit, his relationships with anyone other than Mom (and an overburdened therapist) exist almost entirely in his head, and his ambition to be a standup comic is… well… ambitious. But every so often, each time circumstances nudge him a little closer to becoming the Joker — when he goes off his meds, when he acquires a gun — he hears a music that other people don’t hear, and dances. And it’s riveting. Phoenix’s body, especially emaciated by losing weight for this performance (to an extent I find actually a bit frightening), inhabits the Uncanny Valley primarily occupied by androids, CGI versions of human characters, and Momo. (Don’t click on that last link if you tend to have nightmares.) When he slides into dance steps — in his own living room, in a public lavatory, on a car hood — he looks weightless, confident, ecstatic. Your mileage may vary but I envied that fluent movement, wanted to be carried along with it,  yes my man you are madder than six hatters, but move over and make room for me. I want that.

At this point a personal confession is in order. I used to have all too soft a spot for people who were that damaged. I don’t bang on about it, but I could write a few chapters about having parents who hovered too close and were not right in the head. I could write an encyclopedia about being the kid that everyone wanted to bag on (and who always got made into the Bad Guy for cleaning the little bastards’ clocks, something Nice Little Girls are not supposed to do; let’s say I lift, these days, because punching people is frowned upon). If I met someone who’d lived through the same crap, even if they were manifestly coming unwrapped while I’d managed to hang on, there was a magnetic pull. (My ex-husband probably should be included in this group.) In the unwrapped cases, it always ended with me having to change my phone number, or write a please-stay-away letter — feature Mama Sled trying to make sense of a late-night phone call from someone full of beer and Prozac and melting down unintelligibly over her three-year breakup anniversary. Eventually you learn not to get sucked in, but it takes a while.

Once upon a time, just out of college, I worked in a place where the locals tended to get their coffee, and struck up a friendship with a gangly-limbed, dilapidated, obviously bright young man about my same age, who eventually turned out to be on Methadone after developing an opioid habit. (This was long before the Purdue Pharma people had turned the things into a national scourge; you had to kind of work to get those kinds of drugs in the 1970s). By the time I knew about that, I also knew that his father, a career diplomat, had had a habit if amusing himself by kicking his teenage son down the stairs. Nobody else would talk to the guy because he reeked of his job, which was frycook at a chain restaurant; even in the coffee shop we called him the Crisco Kid.

So of course I talked to him, and offered him an old coat of my decamped father’s that wasn’t marinated in cooking fat, and predictably he crushed out on me, and predictably went bananas owing to the fact that I was already assembling the Interesting Past I now have with gentlemen I’d known long before I met him, and first he said something about how one day he was going to get a gun and finish off everyone who’d ever hurt him before taking himself out, and then took to calling and making my phone ring forty-two or fifty-seven times because he had nothing else to obsess about, and peering in the window when I was sewing, like Ophelia, not in my closet but the dining room, and leaving large ornately wrapped packages on the front step with verses from Omar Khayyam. Jesus Fuck. Every woman’s had one. And I assure you that in the 1970’s, the cops did not give a flying crap about a stalking report, even if you brought up gun threats and past residence on a mental ward. I believe they found it kind of cute.

(His best friend from high school — who described him as “the smartest guy in the whole school, possibly ever” — eventually met and married my best friend from high school, after running upstairs and banging her senseless within an hour of their meeting. They’re still married so far as I know and have a grown daughter. But I digress.)

The point being, I know all those signs that someone’s fucked in the head, and have had to outgrow, not to mention survive, an attraction to it, and it’s unbelievably unsettling when you see someone bring it to life in what’s generally minimized as a comic-book story. If you can live with some violence — not in the Quentin Tarantino class, but getting up there — you really should not miss it. The subtexts about inequality, how we as a society care for mentally injured people, and attitudes of privilege work better at some times than others, and of course Batman stuff is now in the Robin Hood territory where all the stories are true no matter how they conflict with each other. In some ways those are the best stories to work with.

The coffee shop guy. I should close that loop. About a month after I heard from him last, my best friend sent a note that her new boyfriend had told her Coffee Shop had shut himself in the closet of his rented room and taken a whole bottle of Thorazine, and they didn’t find him for three days, more or less when, in Hamlet’s words, they nosed him as they went up the stairs. As I remember, we had guests in the house.

I think they were appalled when I explained what the news was, and then began to twirl about in a grateful dance.






In The Beginning There Was A Garden

David’s wife Liliana called while we were having dinner. She wanted me to water the garden because she has to stay with him all the time now.

She’s been coming, while he was in the hospital and since they sent him home, to do what he used to do these twenty years, running the hose and leaving half-ripe tomatoes on my porch railing to suck up the sun behind the screens and away from avaricious birds.

He was home from the hospital, she said, and had had to go on oxygen — stumbling over the word, he may have been born and raised literally on the same block as I was though we wouldn’t know it for years after he came to plant his vegetables in my dirt, but she comes from fucking Venezuela and isn’t that enough trauma, most of her family is on the Colombian side now. I lost my shit and told her how I thought he deserved all the years that God could have sent him, not this, cancer and hopelessness and an oxygen tank inside an apartment with a too-expensive rent (well, I didn’t get into that last), and she said he could talk to me.

He said “Hello, Sled. I love you.”

I told him I loved him too. I had thought of saying something like that when he moved to retire to where his family lives downstate, and handing him a big check then, instead of weeks ago when he told me he was dying, pretty much.

He said he was ready for the Lord to take him and he didn’t understand the Lord’s plan but he had chosen to be at peace with it. His voice was as strong as ever, goddam amazing for someone breathing with a fork his up his nose and not much to sustain him but a credulous, naive belief that every word of the Bible is true.

I am a writer and was before I was anything else like a bodyworker or a weight lifter, which means I can bullshit half asleep and with a stone in my shoe. And I said, David, all I can think is that God needs a good gardener. Remember that the first thing God put into this world was a beautiful garden? And maybe there still is one where God is, and they need you more than I do.

He wanted to talk to the Engineer too. The Engineer is, well, an engineer and doesn’t do the emotional stuff readily but he just about fucking lost it. David kept thanking us both “for everything.”

When he rang off we put the rest of our dinner in the fridge.

Fuck cancer, and fuck the American health care system that makes people like David make do with occasional slapdash care, and the greedy screw-everything-but-profit American economy that keeps disease-causing agricultural chemicals on every other lawn in even the upscale burbs, and kind of fuck everything at the moment.

I asked the Engineer if something you say is lying if it was meant as poetry. And he said no, it’s fiction, which means it’s true.

I’m sticking with that.

Part of me really wants to believe that there is a God with a garden that needs someone as singleminded as David to turn and till and water it.




Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

It really seems goddam strange to be telling a dying man on pain meds that it is okay if he doesn’t feel up to mowing my lawn, but here we are.

Okay, so no one knows anything for sure, but when David went for more tests last week — the PET scans and whatever all else that probably ought to have been done months ago, and would have in a civilized nation that had proper health care for everyone — the answers were about what I expected, which is that the cancer he was treated for earlier this year just kept marching on. I knew that. The first symptom he described was what I recognize as an endgame development, and eight whacks of chemo beat it back, but I wasn’t sanguine. He’s got pain now, and he finally gave in to taking the drugs for it, and he and his wife still showed up this afternoon to work in the garden.

The doctors told him they wanted to start a very powerful, aggressive chemo. He recited a list of the side effects and explained he didn’t want any of those: pneumonia, for one. I think he was telling me that he would rather die of the cancer than the treatment. I hope that’s what he meant and not that he has some half-formed idea that prayer or vitamins or herbs might do it. I am all for vitamins and herbs but the right tool for the job is important. A long time ago when my late and ex was starting chemo, a radiation tech I knew from a past life gave me a little of his time and assured me that bashing the disease, even with crude weapons that break down a person’s body, could mean the difference between lots of pain and not much, even if that’s the best you get.

I told him I had a name from a client who loves her yardworker, and that if he didn’t feel up to mowing I’m covered. It’s been scorched and breathless here for weeks on end and the grass is twisting and browned in the sun, so it’s an academic question at the moment. He reminded me I still have a couple mowings left (I pay him for a dozen or so in advance) and I said that was all right, forfrigsake (which I didn’t say because he never swears), if he didn’t feel well that did. not. matter. to. me.

He thanked me. He went out back with Liliana to check the harvest. I don’t grab him by the lapels and say Fuck My Lawn because that would be like saying I know you’re done, you can go home and die. I think the life he has now comes from the smell of the hairy tomato vines, the saturating solar rays and the turned dirt.

He was always one of those people that you figured would live forever (like it or not) because he griped so much. (The more you complain, the longer God lets you live.) He’s always bitched about his health, peppers don’t like him, he got candida from all the years of drinking before the Lord took away the desire, he can’t eat this and that, for all these twenty years you would have thought he was ailing for everything to listen to him, and yet he would dig and rake and clear and sift and lever with crowbars, praying his year’s vegetables out of my dirt, brown and corded in the sun, always a little stunned-looking  but untiring. He walked everywhere (most likely his driver’s license went up in the flames of a series of DUIs decades ago). He would stand out in the yard working his three rows, weeding, watering, spraying (always with something organic, about which he discoursed at numbing length) — sometimes from nine in the morning till dinnertime. I never asked where he peed.

Liliana picks up the shovel now. He still carries his backpack.

I that in heill was and gladnesse
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He spairis no lord for his piscence,
Nae clark for his intelligence,
His awful straik may no man flee: —
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The poem was meant as a eulogy for other poets — written in the sixteenth century in broad Scots, other than the Latin tag,  which is from the Office For The Dead. David has the literary sensibilities of a Roto-Tiller but the world will be poorer without him to describe exactly how long it takes to raise a tomato from seed. Exactly. Exhaustively. My yard’s his poem, and I can’t do anything for him, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t expect to go into the Lake Of Fire that his evangelical and slightly cartoonish God has ready for Sinners and Unbelievers, because he seems vexed and unhappy in about the same octave as when he had two lawnmowers break down in a year. But not afraid.

Maybe he has something to teach the poets.