Archive for February, 2009

i dream in color

Do you?


(Photo courtesy Flickr, by chotda; click to see more photos)

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a slo-mo collision with eternity

There’s no better conversation killer than to tell someone you have cancer.

Zing. End of conversation. Awkward silence. And then, equally awkward attempt to restart the conversation:

  • Oh, my grampa had prostate cancer. He died… [unfortunate realization of what was just said]
  • You know, I have a friend who is a herbalist. Are you taking [insert name of herbal supplement]?
  • Oh, wow, I, uh … [series of single-syllable words until I step in with something more eloquent to steer the conversation elsewhere]

I do not  mean to insult anyone who has been stuck in such a conversation with me. I know they all mean well. I understand how incredibly awkward it is. It’s OK. I’m OK.

The difficult thing is to find a way back to any kind of meaningful conversation. I find that with most people I know casually, I tend to reassure them that I’m fine for now and that the worst thing about it is the treatment. And then we don’t talk about it. That’s it.

For those times that I just want to open up a little and talk about the experience, I have a support group, and I don’t mean a prostate cancer support group. Those are usually a collection of older men who talk about “it” without speaking in the first person. I’ve been lucky to find a group with a great facilitator and a core of about 15 people who are dealing with various cancers in various stages. They’ve been a lifeline to me for over a year and a half now.

But beyond that, sometimes I just need to be able to talk a little, just a little, about this experience. When I do, I’ll try not to use the D word much. I’ll try not to be morbid. Maybe I’ll start with something indirect: have you ever wondered what it’s like to be told that gradually, over a period of years, you will succumb to cancer? Not now, not in the next 3 months or even the next year or two. But some day, say, 3 to 5 years out, maybe longer, it’s going to get bad. And then, when the treatments all fail, you’ll d— well, you’ll pass on. (Must avoid D word.)

There’s really no way to describe this experience. The human mind is just not capable of conceptualizing the end of its own existence, so really, we all talk in indirect ways about an experience that we can’t understand. But to let your thoughts go in that direction, knowing that ultimately there’s no cure for this disease… well, I like to think of it as a very slow-motion scene in which you’re in a car that’s stuck on a railroad crossing. You have no way to get out of the car, and no way to get the car moving. And there in the distance, you can see the light of an oncoming train. It’s dark, maybe a little foggy, so you can’t judge just how far away the train is. But you know it’s coming, and you know there’s currently no way out.

That’s my slo-mo collision with eternity. Let’s face it, we’re all going there some day. But it’s unsettling to be seeing the whole thing happen at a relatively short distance. What am I supposed to do? Write a bucket list and live life to the fullest while I can? (Hmm, I’ll need a lot more money to do that.) Get a video camera and tape messages to my unborn children? (Well, my children are all grown up. But I could still tape things for them and the grandkids.) Maybe just go on living like there’s nothing wrong? (Done. Except when waiting for test results.) All of those, by the way, are movie solutions. I suppose they have their merits. And there are worse ways to deal with “it”.

I’ll try not to be morbid. Really. I’ll try not to whine about how isolating the experience is. But I hope that you’ll forgive me occasionally for bringing up the uncomfortable Thing That Is Awkward To Discuss. I have this fantasy that some day I’ll be able to describe the experience in a way that will neither creep out my readers nor annoy them with sentimentality. It’s just an experience. I’m not looking for pity, and I don’t need to be comforted. I just want to be able to talk about it.

In the meantime, I’ll get to work on that list. And the money thing.

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Now that most popular music doesn’t really exist physically, only as data files to be played on little computer devices, the joys of the Long-Playing Record seem quaint. I still have a motley collection of old albums and I’m always surprised when I put one on the stereo and hear the rich, high-fidelity sound that came out of that “primitive” technology. I remember the day I put on Bob Marley’s Legend album, cranked it up, and my kids came running in to see what that amazing music was. There is absolutely no comparison between a 128kb-quality data file and spinning vinyl that creates that deep, full bass sound.

Beach Boys - Summer DaysWhen I turned 6, my dad gave me the first album I ever owned: The Beach Boys’ Summer Days (and Summer Nights). I was thrilled to say that I had a record of my own, and even more excited that those exotic Beach Boys had put on record a song about Salt Lake City, my home town. Gee, they even sang about Lagoon, the amusement park that was every kid’s summer dream hangout. I guess they played there regularly from ’62 to ’65 or maybe longer, and who knows what possessed Brian Wilson to write a little memorial song to our little town.

Owning this album was the beginning of my obsession with musical objects. The thing about vinyl recordings is that you got not only the music, but an album cover, sometimes inserts or other stuff inside, and it all was something solid you can look at, read, and connect to as you’re listening to the music. It’s a complete package, and if I can borrow from something I read once (maybe by musician Peter Blegvad?) it becomes a numinous object. It is something that is “wholly other”, a transcendent object that holds a near-sacred meaning, or at least it can be invested with quasi-sacred meaning to people like me. (I am no philosopher, so anyone with any sense of what the word “numinous” really means is probably laughing out loud about now. But I’ll abuse the word anyway.)

For me, each new album or single has been an experience of discovery: opening the plastic wrap, taking out the record, reading the liner notes or looking at the cover art, hearing that music for the first time, letting it become a part of my consciousness. That’s been my inner adventure for pretty much my entire life. I could write a blog with nothing but memories and appreciations of the records that have been part of my life, but if I did that I’d turn into one of those obsessively geeky music people. I better stick with a little balance here. Still, it’s worth saying that I relate to music with as much intensity as I do with people. Music was my other reality for a long time, a place to retreat into and live another life altogether. It still is. Drives my family crazy when I put on the headphones and drift off, but they understand. It’s just where I go.

Back to the Beach Boys. That album was a cool novelty for me at the time, but now I appreciate so much more the incredible musical gifts of Brian Wilson. Sure, he wrote a dorky little ditty about Salt Lake, and the album has a goofy little blues number called “I’m Bugged at My Old Man,” but at the same time he wrote some insanely beautiful melodies with harmonies that are just stunning. The last song on the album, “And Your Dreams Come True,” is an a capella number that you just want to go on forever, so sweet and complex.

And then there’s a song that I find myself humming even today, “Girl Don’t Tell Me.” The melody weaves around a constantly shifting set of chord changes that are, well, sublime.

Close your eyes, and savor a bit of summer love.

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winter wandering

Sometimes I wonder if winter will ever end.

After the Fire (2006)

This image is from a series of miniatures, many of which are inside snow globes, by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz. More images at www.martin-munoz.com.

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a teacher I admire

After my flippant use of the phrase “joys and consolations” in my last post, I was intrigued by the daily e-mail from the Henri Nouwen Society today. Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who wrote some of the most loving, thoughtful, and spiritual books I’ve ever read. He spent his life in service, and after a career of teaching at notable seminaries and writing a number of well-received books, he was moved to spend the last decade of his life living in a community for the mentally disabled. Every day he supported the members of this community in living independently and living well, rather than living in an “institutional” setting.

I strongly recommend the e-mailed Daily Meditation that the Henri Nouwen Society sends out (www.henrinouwen.org).  Today’s thought:

Consolation is a beautiful word. It means “to be” (con-) “with the lonely one” (solus). To offer consolation is one of the most important ways to care. Life is so full of pain, sadness, and loneliness that we often wonder what we can do to alleviate the immense suffering we see. We can and must offer consolation. We can and must console the mother who lost her child, the young person with AIDS, the family whose house burned down, the soldier who was wounded, the teenager who contemplates suicide, the old man who wonders why he should stay alive.

To console does not mean to take away the pain but rather to be there and say, “You are not alone, I am with you. Together we can carry the burden. Don’t be afraid. I am here.” That is consolation. We all need to give it as well as to receive it.

Some of Nouwen’s books are written for the clergy, but many are deeply moving and are written for everyone. The Return of the Prodigal Son is probably his best known book and is a good place to start. I’ve also enjoyed The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom and Turn My Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times. Nouwen has been a good teacher to me, especially during the last two years when I’ve been actively searching for answers to some difficult questions about life and the spiritual quest.

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Ain’t the internet great? It’s like this vast collective memory, the large majority of which is completely useless and foolish. Still, it has its charms.

I’ve been a bit more reflective than usual in the last couple of years. In between moments of panic about my health and life expectancy, I tend to think back on my life. I won’t go into the value judgments I’ve made, but there are a lot of memories that have surfaced at random times, some of which mean a lot to me. Others are just curiosities.

This takes me to the days when I’d cuddle in a blanket and look out the window at the snow, or even more typically, I’d be on my bed trying to settle down for a nap. I was the fourth child in five years in my family, and by the time I came along I think my mother was fairly desperate for any kind of rest during the day. I really didn’t mind nap time, in part because we had a record player and a small collection of children’s story records and music. Disney stuff, mostly, but topping the list was a little story about a girl hero: Tina the Ballerina.

You have to understand that my next-oldest sibling was my sister, and she called the shots for a lot of things. Which probably explains why Tina the Ballerina, and Thumbelina, the other side of the record, are lodged deep in my brain. Did we even have a Davy Crockett record? I think we had Peter Pan. I don’t remember much aimed at little boys. But I do remember Tina. So at the oddest times, like in the medicated haze of recovering from surgery a couple years ago, the key chorus from that story would play in my mind: “Ti-na, the ball-er-i-na, she was the belle of gay Par-ee …” And a little less clearly, an annoying chorus of “Thumbelina, Thumbelina, Thumbelina dance! Thumbelina sing!” That one is always a bit garbled, but I’d recognize the music if I heard it again.

The other day, I got stuck on that Tina the Ballerina thing again. And I thought, maybe it’s out on the internet somewhere. And I was right. Not only the version I knew—a record with Thumbelina on one side and Tina on the other—but a couple other versions. I found a picture of one of the Tina records, but it’s not how I remember it. Our record had Tina in her pink tutu on a white background, perfect toe-pointed form and a pink rose. In this version she’s on a more garish background.


In fact, she’s dancing on a red LP in this version. Huh? We all know Tina danced on that stage in Paris. She saved the day when the lead ballerina was unable to perform.

With a little more digging, I found a poor-quality recording from a late-50s vinyl record (sorry, you can hardly hear it for the crackles and hiss). And I was pleased to find that, after well more than 40 years, my musical memory is completely intact. That final chorus hasn’t changed a bit.

So there’s another little nugget from my childhood, dug out from the vast stores of trivial memories on the ‘net. Amazingly, there are other people who have tried to track down Tina, and Thumbelina, and other childhood memories. That’s how I found this stuff. I guess at some point, we all want to hang on to a piece of what we remember, or maybe we just want to know that our memories aren’t all that confused after all.


There must have been dozens of versions of this little story. See the newest comments for a great YouTube video of someone playing a 78 rpm version on an old stereo. And here (from an Amazon listing, not currently “in stock”) may be the actual album cover I remember. The other stories listed here don’t sound familiar, and there’s no Thumbelina. But those little flowery asterisk designs look like something from my past.

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