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Living with Buster, Kosmo, and *

Posted on: Monday, June 26th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | Leave a comment

I’m happy to report that the recent tests show I remain cancer-free*. There appears to be no sign of The Bad Thing, which is swell.

Of course, there’s always a *  in life. And in my case, that * means infections in sinus areas where the cancer festered—and where they radiated me back to the stone age. So I’m eating antibiotics. And probiotics. And hoping those oxymoronic remedies flush it out and flesh it out back to “normal.” We’ll find out pretty soon via more look-see scans.

If the infection survives the horsey pills, then we’ll expunge it surgically with an instrument called The Claw. (“Oooooooh!”) And then do biopsies on the scrapings. Because good tumor treatment these days is conservative and aggressive. I know: more oxymorons. But one learns to live with that whole yin-yang, red-blue, dog-and–tail thing. Am I right?

  • The New Normal

People still ask, “So how are you feeling?” And I’m glad they do. “Great again!” is the answer, especially compared to the days of whine and ill noses. But “how do you feel” can be complicated. Because at this point, I’m not sure I know what “normal” feels like. All to say, I was not stunned that scans detected snags.

Neither was Buster—one of the voices that lives in my head. He can be a schmuck, but he suspected something was amuck. So he was barking things like, “Yo, Lump-Head…What’s up with those yucky side effects? Ish!”

Fortunately, Kozmo (the syrupy voice of uber-optimism) also lives in my head and has my other ear—and he he’s been singing, “Not to worry, my dear Kirk…cancer cures take sweet time to work. Tra-la-la …”

  • Partisan rancor in my head

The sparring continues. Sometimes day and night. Buster and Kozmo rarely reach consensus, and are not opposed to secret, closed-door sessions, filibusters, fake news, or snot-slinging. Here are just a few more examples of their recent spats…

  • About a possible encounter with The Claw

Buster: Oh that is so freaking cool! Up your nose with a rubber hose stuffed with a jackhammer, a camera and a Hoover all at once. O-o-o-pen wi-i-i-de!

Kozmo: Piece of cake, Kirkiepoo. It’s rather like a nice colon cleansing, but without all the unsavory prep and mess!

  • About the biopsy

Buster: Yeah, baby. This is better than Vegas! Bring on the fear, loathing, and poker faces. Place your bets!

Kozmo: Worry not, Yoda-Boy. The Zennies say enlightenment awaits at the end of the suffering path…along with rainbows and unicorns! And dollies and llamas!

  • About living with *

Buster: Say sayonara to certainty, Mushroom-Brain. You’re becoming a walking roulette table that’s losing its marbles!

Kozmo: Hark! What’s that bell I hear? Yes! It’s the alarm clock of courage awakening you to your divine, manifest destinies!

  • Executing a gag order

Good thing I have both parenting and teaching experience. Because these characters rarely rattle me. For long, anyway. I know de-escalation lines like, “Okay. Let’s just join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’” Or, “Am I going to have to separate you two?” Or if all else fails, “That’s it. I’m going to drown you both in craft beer with stupid names.”

  • But seriously…

Other updates. My cancer comedy career gets ever-closer to open-mic night. My rock&roll revival continues its practice when no one is watching. And I focus on summer fun and the advice of one 28-year-survivor Cancer Club friend who reminded me, “You never know how many days you have left, so don’t f*ck this one up!”

Being in the Club has, I hope, made me more sensitive and sympathetic to others’ ordeals. So I must note and send healing vibes to a dear friend “summering at the Mayo,” which is our code for his undergoing stem-cell transplants for bone cancer. To a dear relative recovering from major back surgery. To another about to undergo eye surgery again. And to one of my families who are grieving the loss of a 27-year-old jewel who passed in peace this month after a five-year fight with cancer.

I hope your health and wellness (and wealth and what-the-hellness) are doing well. And if you are living with Buster, Kozmo, and *, I trust you are making peace with them. Because summer is short, and, as Saint Neil sings, life is like a Frisbee: “This old world keeps spinnin’ ‘round; it’s a wonder tall trees aren’t layin’ down…”

Infections, voices, and songs in my head: I got this.

Thanks for listening…

5.5 Songs that Cure Cancer, Part 1

Posted on: Saturday, June 10th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 2 comments

My Harpo-Meets-Eraserhead era has ended, or at least gone to the bathroom. It’s too hot for such. And despite some good coaching from curly women, I had a hard time mastering Kinky Management. My lovely stylist, CJ, laughed at my high-rise and went straight for the chain saw.

I’m a handful of haircuts (and a barrel-full of hair) past my chemo chapter. That can mean only one thing: It’s testing week. Yes, my esteemed care team will soon be filling me with nuclear fluids, inserting me into tubes, and sending cameras down my proboscis, among other not-cheap thrills. So I again reach out to you, my dear readers and friends, after what turned into an unplanned Blogging BreakAway.

This first clinical curtain call is new to me, and produces uptight stage fright. I’ve discussed my pre-testing anxiety with some of my team and other AdvisorZ. And they all had this advice: Yep. When I said to one, “I’m still learning to breathe again—I have no idea what I’d do if they told me bad news.” Sagely, he enquired, “What do you imagine you’d do.” I wiped my eyes, paused, and stated, “I suppose I’d put on my tough-guy, Iowa helmet and shout,

Let’s do this!’”

“Yep,” he replied. Is it any wonder we pay these pros the big bucks? So may I offer that same guidance to you for whatever might be freaking you out: Yep.

Meanwhile, this has become a most challenging post to write. Ain’t enough stool softener in Wal-Mart to make it come out. I began it in January—when on an island vacation. Now, the weather’s turned tropical here. In fact, the heat index may hit 110° (not %) this weekend, just in time for my daughter’s soccer tournament in sunny, progressive Wisconsin. Yep, we complain about the cold and the heat around here. It’s our MN Constitutional Right. And yes, we live in extreme, and may I add, anxious, times.

  • So let’s get right to the point, shall we?

Music saved my life. Countless times—and that was before I got sick. I really can’t imagine going through cancer without music. Oh, and grapes. I ate a lot of grapes.

So I share these songs because they brought vital light during the darkest of daze. And BTW, I know you’re not really going to listen. And that’s okay. It’s not your fault; it’s what the internets have done to listening and overall info overload since the days of, say, the 45, the LP, the sacred mix tape. We’re now so hyper and burnt out on stimuli that even a friend’s, nay—a master’s!—music recommendations become just more noise.

To that I can only say…Covfefe!

  • What were we talking about?

I must confess one rather embarrassing reason I’ve been unable to finish this bastard: Every time try to write, I watch these (and other) videos and become mesmerized. This, in short, is why I almost never watch my music. The coma hits like Cabernet+codeine. And then I lose whatever I’d imagined in my head—which was much more pure, more musical, more…magical. It’s just too easy to…watch.

Still, these are worth watching.

  • So let’s get right to the point, shall we?

Yes. Let’s dance.

If you can watch this and not smile, you need “a whiskey drink, a vodka drink, a lager drink, and a cider drink.” It’s got everything you need from a timeless, yet 20-year-old, Brit-kitsch hit, including booze idolatry and silly karaoke capers. If you had the profound pleasure of stopping by my Survivor Sing-Along party at Honey, the nightclub, you know I opened by playing along with this recording. In my mind, I was gigging with Chumbawamba. And you were my groupies.

Killer Lyric: I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down…

Justin Vernon, a local boy with humble and loyal roots from Eau Claire (where I am right now, though I can’t find him no matter how many bars I go to) fronts this brilliant band. He’s been internationally adored forever. And his come-out show some years back in Minneapolis had people weeping and raving. This hard-ass, wanna-be critic agreed, yet believed Dude had growing pains to endure and then much more to say.

Now he’s saying it. Mr. Vernon has been open about the demons and dramas that have caused him to seek family-cabin seclusion and cancel tours. That makes his shows even more extraordinary, and has also matured his material. Bless.

This performance comes courtesy of Jimmy Fallon. Can you believe they make this sound live? For 3m in a TV studio? And…20-some musicians. (No wonder the tours are intimidating!) Note how the band looks like a bunch of high school mates, because, well, many of them are. I love the reassuring little hug he gives a blown-away Jimmy at the end.

If I had $1 for every time I listened to this album during treatments, we could all go out for steaks and Napa Cab. In my new Porsche.

Killer lyric: I’m standing in the street now… And I carry his guitar…

Let’s go retro. After years of forgetting them and sniffing at their many reunion tours (dumb mistake), I dialed these guys up in the heat of last summer, just when the fan was hitting the shit. I felt like I was back in high school and fell in love again, Give me layers of guitars and huge harmonies any day—two things sadly shunned by today’s pop stars.

This 4.5 minutes of music is so excellent it makes me want to smash my instruments.

Killer Lyric: I have a ship and all her flags are a’flyin’… She is all that I have left, and music is her name…

Best. Breakup. Song. Ever? And—who needs chemo—how ‘bout about that hair!?! This NoCare boy is awesome, suave, and just plain prolific. 17 albums in as many years? More moods than Garbo and Brando and all the Greats? His choruses can keep you awake at night, while his voice makes anyone singing along deserve a slap.

Ryan was divorcing sexy star Mandy Moore when he made this powerful album —which only adds to the tension. So when he asks, “Do you still love me, babe?” We know her answer is, “Hmm, nah.” Hey, Mandy: Your loss.

Killer lyric: Why can’t I feel your love? Heart must be blind…

Beck. A man of mystery, hilarity, and exquisite irony. His following is cult-like, and I’m definitely snorting the Kool-Aid. He finally recently gave us a new song, with an album to follow, and then a hot-ticket tour in smaller venues at laughably low ticket prices. This vid shows that his ever-ready Hollywood posse makes sure we still get twisted characters, freeway dancing, and girls shaking booties. It’s like…Wow!

Killer lyric: Giddyup!

My cancer posts have featured one link at the end—always to a song that, if I may say so mice elf, fit the arc perfectly. I know you didn’t take the link bait. So I’m giving you another chance at this one. This video (a studio performance with gospel singers that will make you believe) was unquestionably the most inspirational song for me. Over and over.

I know I was blessed with great medical care. Yet I’m pretty certain it was music that cured my cancer.

  • So let’s get right to the point, shall we?

Music to wow the ears and cool the soul? We got this!

If you listen to these songs, and I so hope you do, well then,

Thanks for listening…

Keep on Rockin’ in the Cancer-free World!

Posted on: Thursday, May 4th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 4 comments

In this cancer Afterworld, life is sometimes a b*tch, but often bliss. Blissy vibes happened the night I threw a spontaneous “Survivor Party & Sing-Along” at Honey, a pal’s suave nightclub. Scores of friends showed up. (They had to, or I’d kill them.) Honey’s sound system rocks, so I brought along guitars and did a short show of songs and stories and snickers and endeavored not to make a fool of myself. Friends sang (and played) along. It felt great.

As I wrote in my first cancer post, I’m the luckiest man in the world…because I have so many friends. 1,000 thanks, folks!

  • Reality, what a rush…

As one emerges from the blur and body slam of treatment, you peel back the fried & dried skin and open the burnt eyeballs and sense the neglected wreckage awaiting. Things like: Responsibilities. Relationships. Metaphysical laundry. The treatments stop and, ready or not, an impatient waiter presents a Reality checklist. The C card was wild for a while. But even the luckiest cardholder learns it won’t settle these tabs.

  • Survivor’s guilt and change

Atop the list sits a common psycho-cogitation: What did I do to deserve to win? I know several people suffering with cancer now, and acquaintances still tell stories daily of loved ones they’ve lost. Well, try not to think too much about survivor’s guilt, fear, or remorse. Don’t google it. Don’t google anything: It will just say you have cancer. But there’s some serious conditioning in order when transitioning from fight-fight-fight to taking victory laps.

Perhaps the Afterworld has parallels to post- 9-11, when everyone kept saying—with fervent voices and furrowed eyebrows—“Everything changed!” I was stymied then. And I’m baffled now. What, exactly, changed again? “Everything, man!”  Whoa. That’s heavy. I don’t even know what “everything” is. So, I’m working on that. I’m working on everything. It changed.

  • The “pristine” sinus report

The appointment agenda changed for sure, but it’s still jammy. Dr. Nostril’s camera still goes up the nose and we discuss that mysterious ecosystem. Last time, he loved what he saw—more than ever. “Pristine!” he proclaimed. He was probably ready to scoot me out of the exam room and move on to messier cases.

But being the journalist that I am who increasingly cares about his body’s adventure, I peppered him with a lightning round of Afterworld Q&A: “Doc, what about these dang headaches?” “Perfectly normal!” “My eyelid gets stuck and people think I’m winking.” “Might work wonders for your love life!” “The nagging cough?” “Common. Did you like steroids? We can set you up…” “No-o-o-! Just let me cough!” “As you wish, but it’d be a much smaller dose and you might enjoy mopping the carpet at 2 in the morning.” “About my nose. When I blow it, I still get…” “OF COURSE you do. Give it time. It’s like a fine wine…

Before departing, I mean signing off, we do need to talk about my hair. But it’s probably best saved for another post. Or thriller novel. For now, please know that it…changed. Really changed. It now redefines kinky. I mean, I wake up in the morning with a hair-ache. Mother Wren is back from Mar-a-Lago and checking me out nonstop.

Even Dr. Zen was shocked. Last time we met, he entered the room with his usual beaming smile, which abruptly fell into a painful frown. And—not in his usual, soothing voice—he muttered, “Oh my, your hair came back, but, but…it really…changed. I did not expect this.” He turned away and started rubbing his forehead. Nurse Parrot bolted from the room, perhaps to get him a stiff cocktail.

Not to worry, I’m seeking professional hair help. I’d show you a recent picture but, well, I doubt it would pass the new internet politeness protocols. So stay tuned…

Until then, get back to your mess, your lists, and your songs. And remember…We got this!

Thanks for listening…

*kh

Conclusion: “NO EVIDENCE OF DISEASE”

Posted on: Thursday, March 23rd, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 2 comments

I had The Tests of a Lifetime on Monday morning—ones that could determine your future and test your innermost commitment to cancer comedy. Did all those months of medical genius work…or not? They had said results might take a few days; the doctors would tell me all during upcoming appointments.

But instead, the call came early that very afternoon. In fact, I’d barely gotten home and hunkered down to start my stare-down with the clock.

So I was startled when the clinic number flashed on my cell. And yet, they never call with bad news, right? So I answered. And sure enough, it was Nurse Parrot. (I call her this because she delivers her statement, and if you ask a question, she repeats your question, and then repeats her statement and little more. That’s her role, and I’m always delighted to chat with her and challenge the protocol.)

Her line this time was, “Great news! No evidence of disease! Braaaaawk!” By now I should know better than to ask for more detail. Yet in my joy, I blurted something irrelevant, like, “Fantastic! But what’s your take on all this Russia hoo-ha?” And so she repeated, “Russia hoo-ha? Squawk. No evidence of disease! Brkaw-tooky-tooky!” We carried on like this for a few minutes—just so I could hear the news again.

When I hung up, I was alone and had no idea how to react. So I stared at the frozen lake and then did what any self-respecting, rugged survivor would do: I sobbed like a baby. Then I trudged to bed and collapsed in a fetal position under the covers and let physical and emotional exhaustion wash over me like a warm stream.

  • Doctors, doctors, give me the news

Over the next days, I met with 3 doctors and sought the information I had resolutely refused before—even when that had meant covering my ears and screaming like a mad monkey. I’m ready now. And as usual, the answers are complicated. They vary. The biggest bet of the week, naturally, was: What are the odds of a crappy sequel?

The first doctor gave one of those answers that makes you bang your head on the wall. She offered, “Good question. But I don’t have the numbers for your specific case.” Fair enough. Then, “Aw, what the heckers. Let’s just say, oh, hmmm, approximately…” And then she rolled some dice and stated a rather enigmatic range.

Dr. Zen, in the next meeting, uncharacteristically shouted a precise answer before I’d finished my question. I liked that number better. So I’m sticking with that one for now. And begging the Fates that Be to skip any sequels to this wretched movie.

  • Cosmic calm and ill winds

These experts are smart. And their body of research and information are staggering. Intimidating. Yet when you go through stuff like this—and we and our loved ones all will—you become at-one with a cosmic calm that C Club comrades often talk about. A peace that passeth all understanding. You also accept that there are moments, even weeks, when peace passeth like gas and turns into ill wind. Just plug your nose and hope, someday, for a sweet call. I get it, and I got that call.

Still, this news will take some time to set in. I half expect the phone to ring and Nurse Parrot to say, “More news: I was kidding! Kirky want a cracker? Kraaaawwwk!

With this rapturous report now in hand, what about the future? Now there’s a question for ya. Do I plan on decades or hold tight to the lessons of “Live for today?” I honestly don’t know. But I have…time…to figure it all out. Inasmuch as such is possible.

So meantime, I say Let’s Party! like it’s 2017 with whatever tomorrows remain. And may they be ridiculously, indulgently, absurdly, inexplicably, shamelessly, redundantly, and profoundly plentiful and pleasant. Yet may we also embrace the shrewd poetry of Professor Seger, “We’ve got tonight; who needs tomorrow?”

  • One page at a time…

Lest I get too cheeky, I must acknowledge the occasional starkness of this journey, which again hit me in clinics this week and reminded me to internalize the compassion lessons. At some point, I’d closed my eyes to the hairlessness. The emaciation. The wheelchairs. The heads in helmets. The families gathered around hating every minute yet praying for more. But for the grace of God…I could only say to myself, as I had from the start.

Truth is, I still need that grace. I’ve still got healing to do. Some numbers aren’t right yet. And my care crew will be monitoring me like a just-freed felon. I’m not sure I know “normal.” (Does anyone?) And this effing boomerang crud-virus comes and goes like the ice on the lake that thawed, refroze, and is now thawing again.

But as a friend said upon hearing my good news, “DUDE! Shut up! Crud? Schmud!?! You just kicked cancer’s ass!

Well, yes, I did. They did. WE did. (Thank you.)

I have a big, blank page that, every day, I’ll write things on with disappearing ink.

The future. I got this.

Thanks for listening…

*kh

About Sickness, Nightmares, and Sleep…

Posted on: Thursday, March 2nd, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | Leave a comment

Today my heart is anywhere warm and sunny. My body is stuck in Minnesota. And my ass is on the nearest horizontal surface. Because I’ve been hit with that fatigue everyone’s been warning me about since last August when I got a C on a bunch of tests.

  • What’s there to say about sleep?

What to write about this phase? That’s a tough one. Just looking at the keyboard makes me groggy.

I suppose I could admit that I didn’t much succumb to the lethargy that my care team and other victims warned me about during chemo and radiation. Oh no, I fought through it and got up most mornings and, after getting my daughter off to school, walked a mile or two in subzero temps like some wacko health nut. I rode my torture (bike) machine. I ran errands that could have waited and showed up early for every appointment.

I did the work that crossed my desk, chased the cat, and shoveled snow and chipped away at ice like the characters in Fargo. I ate fruits and vegetables until I wanted to puke. If Dr. Zen told me to take it easy, I made a big project of trying to figure out what that means and then cleaned it up and started all over again. Adrenaline became my addiction.

So maybe it’s just my time. After all, I apparently did catch the flu (or some similarly yucky bug) 3+ weeks ago. And Dr. Walk-in said, “Sorry, but this may drag on for some weeks. Good luck with that!”

  • The full-on, full-body flu, ew!

That first week brought all the usual symptoms: Clogged nose, worsened by the fact that my breathing machinery remains fried by radiation, so my head just explodes rather than, say, make snot. There were chills that sent me to fill the Jacuzzi for hot, hot, hot. Then would come sweats. My appetite got up and left, yet my stomach would growl like a mad dog. Hallucinations happened. So nights became horror movies.

Hello, nightmares! Every teacher, cop, and animal I’ve ever offended stopped by to wish me hell. One long-lost friend—who used to be funny and a great host—would not shut up or go away for one whole night. And his apparition turned him into a puffy blowhard bore-ass. I could read, pee, get Gatorade, and re-arrange my sweaty blankets. But as soon as I got half-asleep, he’d shuffle back in and say, “Really has been a lovely winter, hasn’t it, Old Sport?” and pick away at his new lame-ass goatee. I still fear he’s lurking somewhere.

  • Sleeping anywhere, everywhere

Most days featured 1-3 naps. I slept on my office floor. I slept on my other office floor. One unseasonably warm day, I slept for hours on the deck with a towel over my head while a murder of crows, bald eagles, chain saws, airplanes, neighbors’ kids, and tipsy ice fishermen held court and wondered if they should call me an ambulance. (“Okay, you’re an ambulance!” BUH-DUM-BUM!)

I’d start a book and realize 5 pages in that I was completely lost. I’d channel-surf basketball games for hours and think it was all one game. I’d willingly get ready for bed at 7 and lament that I should stay up for another 3 hours. I’d skip that morning walk and instead fall back into bed as if in college and some ravenous lover awaited.

  • Sleep: literary imagery for: sleep

Speaking of college, a favorite (and long passed) English professor also visited one night and resumed his lectures about the main character in All the King’s Men, a book he adored as he’d worked with author Robert Penn Warren when getting his Ph.D. “The Great Sleep” happened now and then to protagonist Jack. But of course, that “Great Sleep” was symbolism for things. I wish my Big Fat Great Sleep were a metaphor for something profound—but I think it was just symbolism for being pooped.

I’m feeling better now mostly. The strange angels and ghosties have left the building. I’m making my body take walks, picking up the mess that somehow happened, and leaving the house routinely. Feeling so sluggish drove me crazy. But this body’s been though enough to warrant some rest, I guess.

I’d tell you more about all that. But I’m going to nap now.

Sleep: I got this.

Thanks for listening and good night…

*kh

Finally: The BreakAway/Cancer Connection Revealed

Posted on: Monday, February 13th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 2 comments

Time moseys on, though never fast enough in Minnesota winter. I’ve been “healing” from chemo and radiation for about two months, though the first few weeks were more “hell” than “heal.” I’ve been “home” from my island BreakAway (where locals provide the comedy rather than cancer) for nearly one month. Though “home” in winter can occasionally feel like a cold day in hell. I’ve also been avoiding my blog for one month, which is hell on my devoted followers. I apologize—to both of you.

“These things take patience,” said Dr. Nostril when we gathered recently for our ongoing camera-up-the-nose routine. “Easy for you to say,” I replied, “you’re a doctor; those patients bought your Jag.” He fought back, “Nonsense. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Jag…but I love my convertible in Boca.” I could only nod my agreement. He got back to business, “Now open wide. Geronimo!”

  • “So how do you feel?”

I get asked this question quite often. When I feel good, I say so. When I feel not so good, I sometimes offer alternative facts: “Terrific! Beautiful! Great again!” Because that’s what people want to hear. Many look puzzled if I say, “Not so good today, but thanks for asking.” Perhaps empathy is a dying art. Is there an emoji for that?

Anyway, let’s just call it a good sign; Dude’s got awareness. Attitude. A little sass.You’d have be a blind optometrist, I think, to believe that healing from chemo and radiation is just a chair of bowlies. It’s not. So there. But we march on—in warmie undergarments and big boots and pray that the earth tips to the sunny side someday soon. Like it did, daily, on St. John.

  • “So how was your Caribbean cancer BreakAway?”

This is the question I long to hear. Because, of course, I’ve been blogging and preaching for years about BreakAways—the idea of taking temporary retirement throughout one’s life rather than waiting until the end when you could be decrepit or, worse, dead. (Heck, Americans leave 658 million vacation days unused annually.) Extended breaks ideally include planning and travel, but also could happen spontaneously due to job loss, family breakup, or health issues of your own or a loved one.

Be prepared. Because extraordinary memories are priceless and rare. Just ask your kids. And because if you don’t schedule your own sabbatical, it’s possible the Gods will arrange one for you. Likely less fun, too.

  • Back to dee ie-lunn…

The BreakAway on St. John (USVI) worked wonders. It’s a blur mistier than sea spray now. But a few encounters stand out as proof that vacations are a great way to put your problems in the background and focus on a change of scenery, schedules, and faces.

Sadly, the natives are fading away on St. John. I miss them, but those who remain stand out even more. Like the cab (van) driver at the airport (on St Thomas). There was NOT enough time to make the 5:00 ferry. And that’s a bummer. Because if you miss that ferry, you may miss getting your rental car, and things can get very complicated. Especially since we stay on the other side of the St. John, where Johnnie cabs refuse to go. Just cuz.

  • It’s time to relax…later

Back at the airport, I challenged the driver to make the 5:00 ferry on the other side of St. Thomas, even though some drivers move only on island time and some passengers may turn white(r) twisting through the steep roads and sudden switchbacks. The East Indies patois is beautiful, by the way, and they like to accentuate every syllable of every word. Emphatically.

Our driver was unmoved by the request. “5:00 FEH-REE? HA! 5:00? NONONONONO. DASS NOT TIME E-NUFF. I CAN NOT PRAH-MISS DAT,” she scowled as she packed the endless luggage of three families. But then came the twinkle… “BUT…I…CON…TRY! GEET EEN! LESS GO!”

She drove as if to rescue her mom. When she’d hit a snarl, she’d veer off into narrow side-streets, run down chickens, and honk relentlessly at the omnipresent old men strolling in the middle of road. When a crusty Jeep with a Rasta mon at the wheel got in our way, she rode his ass and beeped at every turn. He loved it, and merely waved his left hand out the window like a beauty queen until he could finally pull over—and then smirked and smoked as he watched us race by.

We got to the ferry dock in record time. But then came the requisite parking lot chaos. “SAY-TUN! SAY-TUN, SA-A-A-AY-TUN!” the driver bellowed out her window with bulging eyes when a fancy hotel van blocked our path. Then another. “SEV-UN-TWEN-TI-WON!” she screamed while laying on the horn as that van (license plate #721) moved slower than a hermit crab. “ACCHHH! STOO-PID HO-TEL VANS TINK DEY OWN DA WORL!”

When she maneuvered us to an unloading spot with one minute to spare, she commanded my (young and strong) son, “GIT OUT AND UNLOAD DA LUGGAGE! GO! GO! GO! CATCH DAT BOAT!” So about 15 people scrambled—and she chased us through the modest terminal to double-check that she’d collected the fares. And, by golly, we made the boat, which is remarkable, since the bored uniforms who run things will sometimes close the velvet rope right in front of you with a semi-evil smirk on their face.

  • Be polite…or else!

Once on St. John, we had to scamper a few blocks while pulling and schlepping much luggage to get our reserved Jeep before that little, local rental shop closed—something they might happily do when they see you coming. In our panic, we walked through a gaggle of women gathered at Nature’s Nook, a (barely) covered stand where you can pick up local produce (when they’re open).

Scurrying through island ladies without stopping to buy a cassava or breadfruit was not the best strategy. As the last in our line, I received their scolding chorus. “I NEVA DID SEE SO MANY NOSES HIT DA ROOF!” … “EESS AT CHORE DOH-TA? LUCKY SHE. SHE GOT YO’ PRITTEE BLUE EYES BUT NOT DA RESS OF YO FACE!” … “I TINK SHE LOOSE A WHEEL OFF HA SUIT CASE. YOU BETTA GIT ON DA DUTT AND FINE EET!”

Unafraid (and even somewhat charmed) and trained from many visits, I stopped and faced my chastening, “Excuse me, did we do something wrong?” This invited more taunting, “WE-E-E-L-L-L, SOME-BUSSY CUUD OT LEES SAY GUUD AFTA-NOON!”

I slapped my forehead. “Right! I’m so sorry.” (Appropriate pause.) “Good afternoon.” I turned to bolt away, but immediately my luggage and I got stuck between two tightly parked cars. This sent all of them into hysterics, some of them into dancing, and a few of them into making exotic bird calls.

Just don’t look back,” I said to myself once I finally found a way out of their tourist trap.

  • Getting cured by the fruit mon

Days later, I definitely had to escape The Fruit Mon in Coral Bay, where we stay. He had a modest but lovely display of fruits and vegetables that, probably, he had grown himself. But he was really selling story. Preaching. And not cheaply. First, he announced that his one and only soursop (a bizarre fruit that tastes like SweeTart and has the texture of cactus) was perfectly ripe. And free! For us! Today!

Delighted, we selected other items, each of which brought a mini-sermon as he’d fondle it, “YOU MUSS NEVVA, EVVA PEEL DA CU-CUM-BAH!” And then came the inevitable bush-tea/eat local /nevva-geet-seek sermon. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 55 times. Good for them (though I’ve seen a few die from cancer while refusing healthcare). But right about now, it’s more difficult for me to digest.

“I DOAN DREENK WAH-TAH. ONLY BOOSH TEA AND BOOSH WATAH. ALL DAY LONG. EET CLEAN YOU OUT! EET CURE EV-A-RY TING! I HAD DEE CAN-SAH TREE TIME! TREE-E-E-E TIME DEE CAN-SAH! AND LUUK OT ME NOW! PAH-FECK HEALT AND NOT ONCE DO I SEE DA DOCK-TAH!”

Okay, great. Just wait till I tell Dr. Zen, Dr. Ray, and Dr. Nostril. They may quit their practices and move to the islands to make bush tea.

When he stepped back to do “DEE A-DEESH-UN” in his head, the tab was more outrageous than the sky-high grocery stores; stories (and bush-doctor advice) are expensive. As for the soursop? “FO YOU TODAY—BECAUSE YOU BUY SO MINN-EE TING…OWN-LEE WON DOLL-AH. WELCOME TO DEE IE-LUNN!” And he smiled and laughed like the 7-Up man.

  • Gas-station soul seestah

But my favorite, and final, native encounter came at the (one and only) St. John gas station while filling up before returning the rental Jeep and leaving the island. This place is bizz-ee. And you do things their way. Which includes parking at a pump, getting in line at the kiosk, and handing over your credit card and driver’s license before even thinking of touching a gas pump. Two uniformed ladies—one outside and one inside—run the payment kiosk. They’ve been there for years, and, frankly, do a great (if unorthodox) job.

Reminder again: Be polite and don’t be in a hurry. When your turn comes to hand over cards to the lady in the kiosk, for God’s sake, say “Good afternoon.” Wait for her to repeat that. And then ask, “So how are you doin’ today?” Otherwise, you may stand there, ignored, forever, a dozen harried drivers lined up behind you.

Play your part, and the response is worth it. She leans her head back and answers resoundingly, “I…AM…WELL. PAH-RAISE GOD!!!” You suddenly feel quite touched and humbled by her spirit, and wonder how it’s possible to be so elated working at a gas station. Then she’ll study your cards (and occasionally refuse them), note your name, and slowly reply, “AND HOW AH YOU TO-DAY MEESS-TAH COCK!?!” (I’ve gotten used to that name, which is also what they call me in Italy.) And so it goes. Eventually, you are given permission to fill up. Then you get back in line to settle up.

When back at the window to pay, she stood up and started yelling at me, “MEES-TAH COCK! MEESTAH COCK! LUUK OT DEES!” And she handed me her driver’s license. I had no idea what this was about, so simply smiled and said, “Yes! Very nice!” She beamed excitedly, “LUUK! LUUK! WE WAS BONE ONLY 11 DAYS UH-POTT! JUSS 11 DAYS! GOD SEND US TO DEE EART AT ALL-MOSE EGG-ZACK-LEE DA SAME TIME!!!” She was right. What are the odds? She grabbed my hands and laughed from deep down in her soul, as though she’d found a long-lost twin. I was worried about missing the ferry. Yet I bobbed and babbled back and wondered, Why can’t we be more like this in Minnesota?

The echoes of “I…AM…WELL. PAH-RAISE GOD!!!” continued as she scrutinized every new customer and we left that station—and the island—with a head spinning with sun-soaked memories, a heart hurting from immediate withdrawal, and a brain afraid of returning to America.

  • There’s no place like away

Back home, people turn to strange activities—like walking Fido in sweaters and boots, bar bingo, and ice-fishing—to pass the wintertime. The daily news—which doesn’t exist on the island—indeed has literally everyone thinking, I’m Afraid of Americans (watch Bowie shred it, dammit). I stay busy in a purgatory that is part bliss and part stress before follow-up tests and scans.

“That’s perfectly natural, everyone worries some before those tests,” my case manager, Nurse Cosmos, said on the phone today. Then she sent me straight to the clinic because I’m sick. Who ain’t? This crap never hits me. Only when my body’s already been through hell, I guess.

But that’s fine. I am not afraid of bugs; bugs come and go, like flakes of snow. Cancer too, right? Meantime, I look forward to the warm season ahead and my next adventure. And I grin at all my BreakAway photos, stories, and souvenirs.

BreakAway memories. I got this. Hope you do too. PAH-RAISE GOD!

Thanks for listening…

5 Confessions from a Cancer Novice

Posted on: Sunday, January 8th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 14 comments

Yep, that’s a selfie. One of maybe 5 I’ve taken of myselfie. Ish. But my kids take lousy pics (of their dad) and still don’t do what they’re told, so what’s a guy to do? Anyway, it’s now 4 weeks since that final radiation with bells on. Sometimes, I can even breathe again. Hair is growing back–more salty-dog than I remember. But it’s nice to play with shampoo again.

I’m sure there are some good jokes in all that (a women would dye for this!) once my comedy writers gather and get their snark on. But my own joking has turned rather reflective. Shock and awe. Which is so boring, really. Dude: Could you be almost normal again? (Doubtful.)

The Gods took me to the Virgin Islands to heal. My virgin body says snorkel; my fried head says, “Not yet, idiot.” Still, the vitamin D is jamming like the Mr. Marley don’t-worry-’bout-a-thing songs that still play nonstop down yonder. I try to focus on the sand in my shorts. But as I move on, I’d like to get some things off my unhairy chest.  So may I submit my 5 Confessions…

1. I avoided the C Club. If you haven’t noticed—and if you haven’t, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention—the C Club is one of the most cocky, most exclusive, yet most unfettered cults around. Imagine hopelessly-hooked fishermen swapping tales with terrific time-share sales reptiles at a Trump University reunion mixer at closing time. Let’s just say I quickly felt out of my league and forfeited any and all rights to freedom of speech.

Survivors, when cued, will gleefully chirp about their 55 radiations of the tongue while hosting needles stuck in their belly. Or their seven months of blowing chunks out of various orifices while hallucinating Arianna Grande performing the complete suite of all German opera composers. They tend to offer unequaled encouragement and support, which is priceless, but at a cost.

For me, that cost was often too dear. What would start with ginormous hugs of empathy would sometimes end abruptly with me running for the nearest bathroom. And not because of the usual side effects. It’s possible I’ve passed the initiation (or is it hazing?) and earned my C Club rights. But in this case, W.C Fields may be right: “I wouldn’t want to be in a club that would have me as a member.”

2. I played the C card.

C Club cred aside… People mean well. And no one knows what to say (or write or post). So you get dozens of… “If there’s anything I can do…” “I’m there for you.” And “Just let me know how I can help.” I know I’ve done the same thing, whether or not I ultimately delivered any goods.

In most cases, you really do travel this journey alone. In my case, that turned out to be especially true. I was lucky enough to be able to handle nearly all tasks by myself, although the healthcare professionals didn’t like it and sometimes insisted I have assistance. (They’d even ask for names and numbers, geez…)

Yet I’ll confess to manipulating my way to some things I wanted, some things wicked, and some things lazy more than once—rather like my grandma who thought nothing of shooting unwelcome critters from her farm porch in her 90s but wanted help taking out the trash.

Tickets to shows? Yep, and thanks, old friends in high places. Rides to events? Heck, yeah (and the driving-while-texting crowd is grateful, cuz I was in no mood). But my favorite? Definitely calling the chit on about 20 people with those three words every man longs to bellow: Rake my leaves! And boy, did they, one lovely Sunday afternoon in November. I provided beer, brats, and bossiness, and smiled from root to canopy. “You know, this is almost fun!” said one sweaty friend. For me it was. For me it was!

3. I frittered away my education. Some of the smartest people alive are in the cancer business. And the body of information is morbidly obese. But I wanted nothing of it. How tall is the printed homework they assigned me throughout the process? Kareem would squint. How many people wanted to connect me with someone who’s “been through this?” I could start the next LinkedIn. How many support groups did I fail to show up at? I lost count, but it easily surpasses the number of weddings I’ve managed to miss.

Oh sure, I took on info my way, and at times was a voracious learner. Like, during the otherwise tedious all-day chemo day when my excellent (and cute) nurse asked me, “Has anyone had the sex-during-cancer talk with you?” I’d paid not attention to the hand-outs. Had skipped the group sessions. So, not faking it, I replied, “Uh, no. What’s up?” And we had a long, hard chat. Who knew? When your body is being pumped with poisons… Oh, never mind.

4. I sought the answers I preferred. While I’ll admit to shunning information overload, I did ask a lot of questions. I drove my care team nuts. I made schedules run amok. I made a loquacious and precocious three-year-old look mute.

With healthcare issues, that’s always been my easiest route to understanding. But in this case, it became a little game. Because you rarely get the same answer twice. So the best result, really, came by asking, say, five people the same question—and then running an average. Or when that math was too hard (and it usually was), just going with the answer you liked best.

Case in point: Right away, just for yucks, after finding out I’d be on several chemos for several weeks, I asked the highest (no pun intended) professionals just this: “May I ask you something off the record?” “Yes! Of course,” they’d reply. So then came my one-word query: “Marijuana?” After all, I hear it’s prescribed in some states.

You’d think I’d brought up that whole Don/Hill argument again.

The first very high expert practically cut me off while jumping up and down and grabbing a four-foot bong: “YES! Absolutely! And we can put that on the record!” The next one, obviously from a different party, gripped his forehead painfully and nearly started to weep and share secret Betty Ford stories: “Oh. Umm. Oh. Hmmmm. Well, I don’t think we’ll be needing any…marijuana…for this chemotherapy.”

5. I used my condition as an excuse. Only a few times. Or maybe more. But usually, I’m the go-to guy. I try to show up. I’ll host the party if ain’t party lately and everybody be getting antsy. I endeavor to attend the game, the recital, the funeral (if it comes to that, and it always does eventually).

But in this chapter, I often became the curmudgeon who says, “I don’t feel like it.” Because I could. And in truth, sometimes I didn’t feel like doing much of anything. Which is too bad, because after diagnosis, I had this delusional vision of organizing my 49,555 photos. Of binge-watching those TV shows everyone talks about. And of playing guitar and piano daily.

But as my wise, not-yet-old dad (who practices music daily and performs often) said when we discussed this at Christmas, “Yeah, when you don’t feel good, you don’t really feel like playing music.”

True dat. But not to worry: I’m playing now. Music and otherwise. Could you be getting over this? Could you be comin’ in from the cold?  Could you be jammin’?

Sand. It’s everywhere. Jam: We got this too.

Thanks for listening…

*kh

The Radiation Sessions

Posted on: Wednesday, December 21st, 2016
Posted in: SoulTrain | Leave a comment

Feeling pretty okay mostly! Radiation recovery takes time, but I got this.

Please enjoy this preview of the forthcoming photo exhibition, Behind the Mask/Behind the Mayhem.

The full exhibit and artist statement will appear soon on the BreakAway blog, as will the back-biting backstories, incisive curatorial insights, and early reviews from the rich and fabulous.

PS: The Artist apologizes in advance for any offense taken by the Radiation Graduation Celebration cake and denies any responsibility for its existence…but will concede that said cake was delicious!

How Root Canal Became Cool

Posted on: Friday, December 9th, 2016
Posted in: SoulTrain | 4 comments

Radiation feels a marathon. Side effects are in full bloom and making breathing an experiment in pharmaceuticals. Yet I’m staggering toward the finish line—sometimes even smug about my endurance. That’s a clue, right on cue, that a stumble lies ahead. Like, perhaps, a gruesome toothache? One hit me like a hammer Friday afternoon.

  • How many healthcare pros does it take…

So on Saturday, I tracked down my dentist, only to hear him say, “I’d love to help, but isn’t that molar right by where your sinus tumor was? I think your cancer team might want to have a look-see.”

I’d been thinking (but denying) the same thing. It’s just that my cancer crew is in absentia on Saturday afternoons. Why, exactly, most healthcare shuts down for the weekend on Friday at 4:55 still baffles me. Yet, for a mere 18% of GDP, I suppose we should be satisfied with bankers’ hours. But I digress.

I called the cancer-care weekend line and (after much muzak and lots of Q&A from lots of people) was told to report to ER ASAP.

Naturally, this news and the whole process riled me up. So when I arrived at ER, I left my belongings in the car. When I raced back to get them, I thwacked my forehead on the door and thus created an instant gash and goose-egg. This prompted a memorable check-in at the front desk: “Did you hit your head?” “Yes, but I’m here for a toothache.” “Maybe you should call your dentist.” “I did. But he sent me here. Because of the cancer.” “Your dentist thinks your tooth has cancer?…” Thank goodness they had no psych wing.

In no time flat (and by that I mean several hours), my BP shot to Venus, various professionals hammered on the aching tooth, I had my millionth scans and tests, and the ER doctor conferred with the on-call oncologist and other -ologists only to determine: What you got there is a toothache! I was to tend to it immediately—or at least after healthcare hibernation ended on Monday morning. After all, this deep-dental infection could quickly turn critical for a guy in my condition.

I’ve never been so happy to have major-league molar pain. And best of all, a favorite restaurant kindly held the reservation for a dear, visiting friend and me. She’d been patiently on-hold while I went through ER drama and trauma, so she thought I’d gone bonkers when I suddenly texted “Dinner in 15!” But it’s amazing how a warmhearted conversation (plus about 16 Advil and a SuperTuscan) can make sense of things.

  • Come Monday

Sunday was painful, dreadful, and endless—nothing a few opioids can’t cure. So come Monday, after another radiation/photo shoot, I visited my dentist, whereupon three (3!) people took turns hammering the bad tooth only to conclude that, Yep, that there’s a toothache! Better get yourself an ER root canal PDQ! So they set me up with an emergency endodontist—a word I didn’t know and refused to believe was real. Nevertheless, I drove like an Earnhardt to an endodontist in friendly, progressive Maplewood.

  • Meet Dr. Hauser

More exams, more x-rays, and heaps o’ hammers later, I was told, yet again, that, Yep, you sure as heckers need a root canal! Now, at a certain age—perhaps exacerbated by when you’ve lost your hair—you begin to notice that many professionals are, oh, young. Quite. But when my endodontist walked in and had less peach-fuzz than my recovering noggin, I just had to comment, “Sir! Are you 13? I’d call you Doogie Hauser but you’re too young to know who that is!”

“Ha ha ha,” he allowed in that endodontist-y way, “So let’s get started,” and then mentioned that they might not be able to finish, since the office closes at 4:30. I’ll be honest: I had a cow. I may have even grabbed a couple hammers when screaming, “Half a root canal? Are you kidding me? Please, Dr. Hauser, have mercy and just finish me off!”

He did. Along with a gracious nurse who was in charge of the music—which I had them turn (way) up. Along with the laughing gas. Did you know that laughing gas is not covered by insurance? This proves that healthcare has no sense of humor. Did you know that root canal is not covered by health insurance—even when seemingly caused by radiation treatments? Ours is not to reason why: I learned about such boundaries back in Sioux City, where kids of a certain age could buy liquor just across the state line to Nebraska or South Dakota, but not in Iowa. (Not that I ever crossed that line!)

  • Root canal gets a bad rap

Most people fear root canal and compare it to unfathomable things. But I maintain it’s more mellow than, for example, spinal taps and bone marrow pulls. And really, if you kick back and get past the first five minutes of horrors and engage your team in Name That Tune (at which I’m an expert) {and sing along}, it’s really quite tolerable. I’ll never forget when I took the game to a higher level by shouting Frank Sinatra’s arranger: “Thih sah is ah-ray by Neh-suh Rih-ro!”

Dr. Hauser, who rarely stopped to chat during our two-hour procedure (since I had threatened, I mean challenged, him to finish in one day), was genuinely impressed. He even stopped the jackhammer and said, “Was the arranger’s name really Nelson Riddle? That’s so funny; ha ha ha” in that endodontist-y way. And I must say, I was impressed by his ability to translate root-canal-speak.

  • Keeping the faith

$1700 later, I was shivering in my frozen car in a dark and empty parking lot in Maplewood wondering, Did that just happen? when Leonard Cohen’s post-mortem hit, You Want It Darker, came on the radio. I love Leonard, and will miss him. But this song couldn’t be…darker. Not even in a Minnesota December.

Laughing gas don’t last. So although I hesitate to admit it, I started feeling, shall we say, dark. Defeated. And sorry for myself. A nearby Menard’s sign glowed like an evil steeple in the distance. I was so delirious I asked myself, Do I need anything at Menard’s? (Some hammers, maybe?) I came to and realized I better get moving before I got kidnapped or something.

I called my pal-since-college and neighbor Dave, who’s been there like an angel through my cancer journey. And in 10 minutes, twinkle lights were aglow and bartender Robyn was serving me all-pains-numbing Summit EPA in Roseville VFW Post 7555 while I told Dave my latest tale. “Dude, I just had root canal.”

Dave toasted our mugs nonchalantly and replied, “Root canal? Cool.” And this time I meant it when I said, “This is the best beer I’ve ever had in my life.”

Root canal. I got this too.

Thanks for listening.

*kh

The Serious Side of Cancer & Comedy

Posted on: Tuesday, November 29th, 2016
Posted in: SoulTrain | 8 comments

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I’m pleased to report that radiation is now half over. Some caregivers whispered, “You’ll sail right through this,” while Dr. Ray and others warned of breathing difficulties, nasal-sludge discharge, and other side effects too rude for this family blog. So far, everyone’s right. I’m sailing through—in that way that some sailing days go south. And as for EFX? Don’t axe. Meantime, my personal laugh track has gone mostly mute. The gales of November have gone serious. 

To amuse myself—and potentially my legions of readers—I created the photo-comedy concept, “Weird Things to Do During Radiation.” I’m not sure it’s working, but you know what they say about desperate times. At the Radiation Ward, the Rayettes are willing to accommodate and snap the pics. But they, too, are serious. They don’t really get the irony. And then they often tell me about the side-splitting cut-up who always wore a sombrero to his treatments.

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I’m like, “What’s so funny about a sombrero?” But they can’t explain; they just cackle away and high-five each other, leaving me to hold my stupid prop and scratch my now-fuzzy noggin. If only they had humor critiques and scores for me to scrutinize. Their intellectual indifference and this deplorable climate change both make me want to Hit the Road, Jack.

About those critiques and scores: Some time ago, when I was Somebody, a comedy club invited me to judge a contest between 3 up-&-comers. The attention was glamorous; the comedy hilarious; and the drinks bounteous. Genius Joel Hodgson ran away with the match, and then off to a star-studded-enough career that’s included sitting at the right hand of Seinfeld and the cult, satire series MST3K (which, all these years later, recently raised $6 million via Kickstarter for a revival). And to think I discovered him!

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What struck me that night, though, was the intense seriousness of the comedians. When the show was over, we judges got to meet them—and some giggling groupies also gathered around. But the comedians’ obliviousness knew no bounds; they cared only about our critiques and score sheets, which they nabbed and studied as if for a life-or-death engagement.

I know the feeling now. It’s true, I have myriad manic notes and half-witty jokes that await the light of day. But perhaps that’s the problem. There is no light—no day—these days. We’ve entered the Dark Daze. The outlook for as far as weathermavens dare forecast: Cloudy. Even uppity people feel down.

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So be it: All master comedians have ups and downs. Woody Allen. Chelsea Handler. Bill Cosby (bah-dum-PUM!). Now that I think of it, Joel Hodgson’s shtick was quintessential dead-pan. And yet, he made me laugh till I cried. Which sounds like just another day at the Radiation Ward. Or could that be fresh-fried scar tissue squeezing my tear ducts? 

Oh, whatever. Better use radiation for inspiration while I still can. It’s half over. Darkness can’t last forever. MST3K is coming back. And there’s got to be a sombrero around here somewhere.

I got this. Seriously.

Thanks for listening…

*kh

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