FOTOFRIDAY: Ice Fishing BreakAways?

Posted on: Friday, January 3rd, 2020
Posted in: SoulTrain, Unplugging, FOTOFRIDAY | Leave a comment

Throughout the past week, a friend has been sending me pics of his Florida beach vacation. He knows my love of all things warm, watery and beachy. He also knows I am mostly stuck in Minnesota during this holiday season, despite years of winter escapes for as long as 355 days. Or 4 months. Or 69 days. The longer, the better!

Things change. While I cherish those memories and pine for long winter getaways, I could do no better than to reply to my friend with this view from my desk—no need for 1,000 words.

Ice fishing BreakAways? Well, why not? For that guy, sitting on a frozen lake and hoping to land something fishy feels like a fun escape. A break from the grind. Some moments of peace and meditation, perhaps. Who needs surf, sun, sand?

I do. Yet I also know some are happy just to ice-fish. And that savvy, sane people pursue BreakAways wherever, whenever, and however.

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FOTOFRIDAY: ‘Tis the Season to be Musical

Posted on: Friday, December 20th, 2019
Posted in: SoulTrain, Unplugging, FOTOFRIDAY | Leave a comment

See those angels on my piano? I hardly ever see them—because they are hidden inside the upright and only show up when the piano tuner opens up the instrument. It’s always a pleasure. But this time, I learned they’re not. Not angels. They’re flowers! Hand-painted inside this artisanal beauty. Imagine my disappointment—and during the holiday season, even!

Christmas takes a lot of knocks, deservedly so, since commercialism has taken over and drowned out the more celestial messages. So I listen instead to the music, since great Christmas music is abundant and timeless—whether from long-gone composers, Americana crooners, or contemporary creations.

I also enjoy playing Christmas music (especially when no one is listening). Few diversions offer such a complete, if temporary, BreakAway vibe.

One of my musical toys is this here Schimmel piano, hand-made in Faribault, MN. A German maker dating back to 1885, mine was crafted circa 1893, when the Schimmel family expanded to America for a short while and made only about 3,000 instruments. I am lucky to own one. And my Schimmel is lucky to have me—since old pianos often can’t find compassionate caretakers these days.

Got music? Play it. You’ll feel better, and fill your surroundings with angelic sounds.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and may the peace be with you.

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FOTOFRIDAY: Sunrise, Sunset

Posted on: Friday, November 15th, 2019
Posted in: SoulTrain, FOTOFRIDAY | Leave a comment

Which is it? One rarely knows at first glimpse (of a photo). And frankly, most of us can tire of looking at other people’s sunrise/set pics, right? So you need not look—or read—for long. It’s just that this is what I saw when I reluctantly got out of bed and faced the first snow on the water today. Winter’s battle of restful versus dreadful has begun.

The ice and lake water will also battle like this for, oh, weeks, maybe a month, maybe more. The beauty can almost—almost!—compete with a lush summer day. That opposing season’s warmth and light will return, or so we’re told.

Meanwhile, we’re now officially on thin ice. So be careful. And try to enjoy.

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A Farewell For the Cat Who Cured Cancer

Posted on: Wednesday, July 24th, 2019
Posted in: SoulTrain | 4 comments

Daisy came from a farm way outside of town run by a hard-working married couple, both vets. They raised Arabian horses, Corgi dogs, and Ragdoll cats on a sprawling but hidden acreage that would make English bluebloods jealous. Daisy was the tiniest creature there—the runt of the bunch who could barely muster a “Meow.”

“Oh, you won’t need that cage,” announced the lady of the estate, “She won’t prowl around or bother the driver.” And sure enough, within a few miles and a few meek “Meows,” as if finding her voice, she was freed from the cage and asleep on one of my offspring’s laps. My son immediately dubbed her Daisy. Gatsby would be proud.

She remained as gentle as a kitty until her time here ended, not long ago.

  • The Comfort Cat

When a disaster like cancer hits, you may feel and be alone. But Daisy, the Cat, was always there. Always. She feared no ills and knew her place: Atop my recliner, curled into my shoulders, and purring until the cows came home. She was a good kitty, and I often told her so. “You’re a good kitty, Daisy,” I’d say. She liked to tell me she was my “comfort cat.”

She was beautiful, and she knew it. I occasionally suggested she should become an Instagram star, but just rolled her eyes. “Look what happened to Grumpy Cat…” she’d reply, “She got grumpy—and then she died.” “Well, we’re all going to die, Daisy,” I reasoned. But she didn’t like that idea at all, “Speak for yourself, pretty boy. I’ve got 9 lives, you know.”

Ragdolls were invented in California in the 60s—designed to be gentle, smart, and dog-like (though she resented the comparison). She was the ideal pet for the years of raising my rambunctious children, comfortable in her own fur. The kids would drag her around like a, well, ragdoll. And best of all, she never, ever, bit or scratched anyone.

Except for me, that one time. And I deserved it.

  • Talking With the Animals

Do you talk to your pets? Of course you do. Do they talk back? Of course they do. So you know I’m not crazy when I say that Daisy and I chatted routinely, solved the world’s problems, and occasionally fought like cat and dog. She spoke perfect English, except when other humans were around. I accepted her shyness; she welcomed my wit. 

She always knew when you were talking about her, of course. She’d look at you, then look away with a slow neck roll, perk back her ears in embarrassment, and then maybe saunter out of the room like Nancy Sinatra in stunning little white boots—as if to remind you that Mother Nature remains the best designer of all time.

I often yelled playfully at her, “HERE, KITTY KITTY KITTY!!!” like Grandma did on the South Dakota farm. Daisy would come running, like a good kitty, or, in her later years, lazily stare me down. (She won all stare-downs.) If she’d had a long day, she’d just say, “That’s enough, Horse.” (She called me Horse.) “I’m trying to get some rest here.” She liked to rest. Who doesn’t?

  • Where Does the Time Go?

The years passed. The kids grew up shamelessly. More and more, they came and went, mostly went, and increasingly found Daisy to be less fascinating than, say, a gaggle of friends or a shattered cell-phone screen. But she rarely complained so long as she had food, water, and a clean litter box. Smart, no?

I became her favorite house pet as the crib shrank from 4 to 1.5. She never strayed.

She wasn’t afraid to ask candid questions, like, “Where’d everybody go, Horse? Where did the time go? You said Prince said, ‘Ain’t nuthin’ but a party y’all!’”

“I know, right?” was my sometimes come-back when stymied, as reality gradually looted my intellect while she became evermore savvy and sassy. She hated human patter that made no sense. “I know right? Seriously?” she scolded me one night some years ago, “You people can barely communicate—just emojis and bickering. And by the way, thanks for ruining our planet.”

“I know, right?” I snapped back in lame defense. Yet she was probably right when she replied, “That’s not funny, Horse.” Perhaps she could foresee the Earth’s cancer, not to mention my own. The animals know.

When my lymphoma hit, Daisy showed me how to arch my back, stand tall, and stare down. She became my lead cheerleader, “Cancer? Schmancer! You got this, Horse—and you can use that phrase in your writing; you’re welcome!” she asserted. I barked back, “What do you mean, ‘I got this?’ I got cancer? I got a cure? That makes no sense, Daisy. You animals can barely communicate!”

“I know right?” she snapped back, and slapped her tail with a thwack that would make any beaver jealous. And such was the nature of our conversations, for years on end. Until the end.

  • The Darkest Night

On the night I thought my 9th life might be at risk, she was there, thank God. I’d skated through 5 chemos, tackled more steroids than the NFL, endured enough spinal taps to join The Band, devoured all the full-on full-head radiation modern medicine will allow, and then basked in a triumphant celebration.

Then it all got to me. I got sick. Very sick. Just like they said I would. For a long, long time. On the darkest night, the fever/chills cycle became so horrible I could only pray. Stay strong. Carry on. Just make morning. You got this.

Daisy was praying too. But in a quiet, Lutheran-Ragdoll sort of way. “You doin’ alright, Horse?” she asked more than once. “Never better, Dr. Daisy; shall we do shots?” I babbled in my stupor. She said no more, and knew better than to start a snark-fight at a time like this.

As that night’s sweat-freeze cycle kept repeating, I fell into bed and eventually discovered a brilliant idea: Take searing hot baths in the deep Jacuzzi when quaking with cold. So I’d boil a while, flail myself out, and then stumble back to bed. Then would come the shivering again—so violent I thought my bones might break. So I’d crawl back to the hot bath. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I lost count how many times I went back and forth.

And so it went for hours. Until. Until such time as I found myself in the tub, steaming like a teabag, too weak to get out, and hallucinating.

I saw demons. Junior high bullies. Screeching giant bats, scorching fire and ice, and spinning walls. There was a certain sick bliss about almost passing out, maybe going under. Might be nice, the hereafter. They say drowning is quite peaceful. And after all, there are only so many options. Bring it on. We got this…

Then I realized something: I must get out. NOW. Or, this might be the end. THE end. Of the story. Which sounded great, except… Really? I mean, it’s one thing to succumb to a valiant fight with cancer. But…drowning in a bathtub? That’s just stupid rock star choke. Embarrassing, really. Daisy would not be pleased.

  • Stay Still

Somehow, I got out. But in my near-coma frailty, I fell forward and took the shower curtain with me. So I fought it like a drunken sailor until I became untangled in the hallway, crawled my way back to bed, and climbed up. My head was reeling and my body quaking. But I swore to myself I would not go anywhere. No matter what.

My cell phone was there, so I grabbed it in desperation. I almost dialed friends-on-call, but what could they do? I started pressing 911, but—No! The endless questions. The bright lights. The body yanking, to say nothing of those nasty EKG stickers that rip your flesh off when they finally set you free.

  • Cats Worry Too

Once back in bed, the hallucinations and spins intensified—until the most twisted illusion of all happened: Daisy came to the door. She sat down and stared. And then you know what she said? You won’t believe this. Daisy said…“Meow.” I ignored it—assuming I’d simply lost my mind. But then she said it again: “Meow.”

I screamed—and fought with fists against the dark air. I could handle hissing snakes and dessert blizzards, but to see my cat unable to speak English? The horror! The horror! Slowly, and meekly, she just kept saying it, “Meow…meow…meow…”

People say you can’t train cats. But that’s not true, at least in Daisy’s case. And the most important thing she had learned is that the Kitty is not allowed on the bed. Never! Call me fastidious, call me hard-ass, but that’s the kind of guy I am.

Yet that night, everything was different. I could tell she was scared, worried. And it’s one thing to suffer yourself, but to drag others along? It ain’t right. So I gave in. I found my speaking voice and gurgled, “It’s okay Daisy. Come here…” and tapped the bed three times.

She jumped up. She cuddled in happily. I draped my wet arm on her velvet fur, and she started to purr. She didn’t care that I was dripping and the bed was drenched. In fact, she thought the whole situation was just swell.

Neither of us moved, except for my occasional shivers. We never slept. We never spoke. She just purred calmly, with a million heartbeats of hope.

When the daylight finally broke, such as it does (or doesn’t) roundabout in the dead of winter, my fever had also broken mostly. So I weakly uttered. “Well, that was fun, right, Daisy?” “I know right?” she head-butted back and then hopped off the bed, no doubt relieved to move on.

When I fumbled my way into the hallway, a flooded carpet and splayed shower curtain were in my way. “Did you do this, Daisy? You better clean it up?” I tried to shout. But she heard nothing, and had likely already trotted off to the utility room to check out her beloved food dish.

  • The Final Daze

Fast-forward to 2019. As this year’s winter dragged on, like a war, and a stubborn spring stayed away, Daisy and I again logged ample time on the recliner. A few years ago, she was there because she knew I was sick. Of late, she was there because she became the sick one, and sensed our time together was ending. We savored our final conversations.

“I gotta warn ya, Horse,” she yawned one night not long ago, “I’m feeling awfully tired, and I’m not sure you can save me like I did you. Geez, I wish cats got 10.” “Me too, Daisy,” I agreed softly, “Me too…”

“I think you mean, meowtoo, Horse,” she countered, ever the comedian. “You win, Daisy,” I laughed and we high-fived. After a pause, I continued, “It’s been a good life, Daisy, but you need some rest. Some peace…” She thought about it as I stroked the softest fur in the world.

“I see where you’re going with this. Rest? Peace? You’ve still got it, Horse!” she snorted. “I know right?” was all I could say, staying stoic. She smirked, and then reflected, “It’s going to be awfully quiet around here, Horse; you’re really gonna miss me…” I was speechless, until I whispered a strained, “I know. And thanks for everything, Daisy” with a kiss on her neck. And so we hung out, not wanting this particular night to end, half-watching late shows until our eyes slid shut.

  • Pushing Up Daisies

The house is indeed quieter now. I still expect her to meet me at the door, or at least open one eye when I enter the house. I try to resist talking to myself, but sometimes imagine her clever replies from the recliner. Occasionally, I sense a gentle, faint “Meow,” as if to remind me that everything’s going to be alright.

Daisy didn’t really cure my cancer, of course. But she got me through my longest night, which may have saved my life.

Thankfully, my daughter said yes when I asked her if she’d like to accompany me on a very challenging errand. And so Daisy passed peacefully, surrounded by her two loved ones.

Afterward, the skies cried. We weren’t ready to go home to an empty house, so we dined at the neighborhood supper club, where the good people served us complimentary beverages, a huge slice of chocolate cake, and some heartfelt compassion.

A small terra-cotta plaque imprinted with DAISY and her paw-prints now rests on the mantle, overlooking her favorite place atop our recliner.

Good kitty.

Daisy the Cat, 2006 – 2019
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A Cancer-Free, Happy New Year!

Posted on: Wednesday, January 16th, 2019
Posted in: SoulTrain | 4 comments

NOTE TO READERS: This is the 25th cancer-related essay on BreakAway since announcing 2+ years ago. Your reading and support marks this milestone and has helped this Survivor get this far. THANK YOU!

  • After the party

HNY! While others were making the rounds of holiday parties, I was making my medical rounds with Mr. Monkey. Santa skipped me this year, I can’t imagine why. But I got the best-est gift of all: NO SIGN OF DISEASE. My doctors grinned. Mr. Monkey wept. And into the arms of The Future I leapt.

  • Test jitters   

I keep thinking the test cycle will change and become more breezy. But instead, this time brought a blizzard of jitters. Maybe it’s the season—the holidays usher in ghosts of Christmases past and the dismal darkness of December. Maybe it’s cancer flashbacks—the clinics trigger gloomy memories and forever feature real, live cancer sufferers. Maybe Mr. Monkey was the wrong companion—as comedy sidekicks go, he didn’t exactly kill it with impatient patients and frazzled staffers.

But hey, he was a hit with mychildren—back in the day. Tastes change, I guess.

I brought Mr. Monkey because I’ve grown weary of one question medical humans often ask: “Are you alone?” I suppose they ask because, if they deliver bad news, they want someone to sneak you out ASAP so they can stay on schedule, obscure the drama, and save on Kleenex. But it gets annoying anyhow.

So this time, I had my snappy one-liners ready. “I’m NOT alone, obviously. I’m with Mr. Monkey!” Or, “No, my caravan of immigrants is on the way.” Or, “No, my evil twin is right behind you…don’t look!”

  • Beware of Kirk imposters

One thing that won’t change: Waiting rooms remain strange. I have my rituals. Like, bring many diversions, choose a window view, and sit away from the masses. This time, that was a bad idea. You see, the door that takes you into the scanning suite is high-security. So when the nurse opened Oz and called, “Kirk? Kirk?” I waved and gathered up my stuff. BUT—imagine this—the elderly gentleman right by the door popped up and beamed “That’s me!” And away they went.

Who ever heard of such a thing? I mean, typically a guy isn’t all that eager to visit Scan City, have an IV jackhammered into the arm, and be given 32 ounces of blech® to drink in an hour (“sip it like a martini!” said this cycle’s clearly lush-y orderly). But…things change. I suddenly found myself pounding on the door shouting, “Hey! That guy stole my spot! What if you confuse our cancers and give me his chemo?”

The check-in clerk watched me from afar with that look that says, “What is wrong with you?

Eventually, they corrected the situation. When they returned the jolly old man, the nurse explained, “He’s hard of hearing. That’s why he sits by the door. His name is Bert. HE THOUGHT I SAID BERT!” she shouted at him. So they laughed and bobbed their heads as though this were the best joke on open-stage night. I slapped my knee and bobbed along.

“Hi, I’m Bert!” said my new friend. So I replied, “Hi Bert, I’m Ernie” with swift wit. The nurse frowned. And Bert automatically blurted, “What’s that? You’re who? I can’t really hear you…” And we left him there to steal other people’s scans.

  • When dread goes dozy

On the next day, when the oncology reckoning came with Dr. Zen, the unusually packed waiting room meant wait…wait…and waiting room. So I took one of the remaining seats—and was overcome by a rare, omnipotent need to nap.

Maybe when the stress maxes out, you pass out.

I became like that guy who can’t stay awake in church. I tried the position with your head hanging—and eventually toppled over like a tree. Then I slept with my head in my hands—until they gave out and I tipped onto the nice lady next to me. Then I slid my body forward so I could put my head on the back of the chair. This worked until I began to snore and sleep-slide further forward such that no one could walk around my legs. I awoke to see the cancer crowd staring at me with irked expressions, while one group was trying to wheel Grandma around or over me. I’m pretty sure she thwacked me with her cane.

“Sorry,” I said, “I guess I’m pretty tired.” “We’re ALL tired,” said someone (who was not a monkey) from Grandma’s entourage. “Get a room!” snarled Grandma as she wheeled by, perhaps not aware of what that expression typically means. I was tempted to “accidentally” flick her wig off, but then was overcome by a slap of compassion.

  • “Do you realize…”

I look forward to when this routine becomes humdrum. But maybe that will never change. And maybe that’s okay, because it offers fresh adventures for my cancer journey and updated inspirations for my cancer comedy career. Not to mention…these scenes force new opportunities to work on grace, grit, and gratitude—survival virtues that can always use a tune-up.

When the appointments subside and the good news settles in, the gray grass seems a little greener. Stepping in frozen dog poop elicits a shrug, not a curse. The crusty lake ice seems perfect for a sundown skate, after all, and the sky rewards with a brilliant explosion of colors.

(Do you realize the sun never really goes down. Stay tuned…)

Mr. Monkey survived his cancer scare and has returned to hibernating in the ever-shrinking bin of my children’s memorabilia. I’ve returned to the (almost) flashback-free reality that is life between Testing Time. And blessings like friends, family, and music remain the vital remedies to weather life’s storms and to heal life’s ills.

As the Flaming Lips so sagely sing,

“Do you realize that life goes fast,
It’s hard to make the good things last,
You realize the sun doesn’t go down,
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.”

Change. It’s the only constant in life. I got this.

Thanks for listening…

PS Got 4m? Please click that Lips’ lyric/vid link. You’ll be glad you did.

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About Angels, Infusions & Test Anxiety

Posted on: Saturday, June 16th, 2018
Posted in: SoulTrain | Leave a comment

One-plus year ago, I received the blessed news that my Care Crew and their amazing arsenal had won the cancer war inside of me. Of course, the journey carries on anyway, like a long, lost cruise. Still, I’m pleased to note every little cancer-versary, even though I keep mostly mum and celebrate with nary a sliver of chocolate cake.

In this transition into the After-Life, I wonder: Should I continue writing about this topic? Usually I decide, Heck no, move on! But the appointments and occasional complication continue. And funny or forehead-slapping scenes persist. So then I figure, How can I let this stuff go? After all, my Cancer Comedy career is still emerging—and can a comedian ever have too much material?

  • Testing, testing

The good news is the bad news: When you ask anyone who has to endure thorough check-ups, they will say It’s not just you; it’s genuinely stressful and anxiety-inducing. I mean, just look at the guy in that picture. Does he look like he’s having fun? Has he lost that can-do attitude? Would he rather, say, be undergoing root canal? I think his kindergarten teacher would be ashamed.

I happen to know he’s trying, and he’s tough. But the process is also trying and tough, and the cheerleaders have left the building. Most staffers are kind enough and remember me; one saw me at a track meet recently while another had seen me biking. So those singing dollies at Disneyland got it right: Cancer is a small world—a world of laughter, a world of tears, a world of hope, and a world of fears.

  • Doing shots

A Disney dolly is not what I resembled today when the pain went to 11 as they shot some of Kim Jong Un’s ordinance into my veins as part of a scan. For some reason, it burned like hell. “F**KING A!” I screamed as I shot up from the plank. They apologized and offered an explanation (that made no sense to me) of what went wrong. I resisted the urge to run away and blow off the test.

When enduring this particular scan, a recorded Voice of God tells you what to do: “Breathe. Hold it in.” That’s when they shoot the high-octane gas into your veins and the machine makes extra-terrestrial sounds—echo-y little pings and pongs and the faraway crunch of bones and brains smashing. And then, 5 minutes later, Voice of God says “Exhale.” It can seem like forever, but I find my flesh looks surprisingly good in blue. Matches my eyes.

After a pause, Voice of God gets all tricky and says, “Exhale. Don’t breathe.” And the flush of molten asphalt flows again. In my mind, I’m fantasizing that I take the microphone from Voice of God and say things like, Please rise and bow your heads or Stand up! Sit down! Fight Fight Fight!

Now, about those infusions: They do a nice job of describing what you will experience, stuff like…A hot sensation…flows into your whole body…a bad taste will fill your mouth…and you’ll have to pee…then you’ll think you ARE peeing…but you’re not.

Of course, when those sensations happen, no one is in the room, since they don’t want to undergo the toxic radiation they’re putting you through. That’s probably a good thing—so they don’t hear us patients yelling, GAWD, this sh*t tastes like sh*t! and Stop! I have to pee! and Help! I think I’m peeing! I swear, when Voice of God tells me it’s over and I can sit up, I stare straight at my crotch and wonder, How DO they DO that!?!

  • “You have really nice veins”

The blood-thirsty nurses always say that to me. I don’t know what it means, and even though they’re usually women, I doubt it’s a come-on. But they are honest, because they don’t ever say, “This will be easy.” Or “This won’t hurt a bit.” And then comes the ice pick in the arm.

Blood. They take blood, lots of blood. I usually turn the other way and read the paper (upside down). If it’s not going well (some are more on-point than others), I try out some new material, like Are you part vampire? Or Shouldn’t I get paid for all that? Or Where’s the dang cookies and Kool-Aid? They cart the blood away like milk cartons. Days go by before they reveal what emoji face they might apply to the specimens.

  • The Rasta Angel appears

I’m unsure about spirits and angels and things. But they do make great literary devices. And sometimes, when you’re lost in the deep, dark woods of your thoughts, a perfect stranger can show up with a message of miracles and hope. So I was not surprised yesterday when a Caribbean dude with dapper dreads sat at the table next to me under the scalding sun at Chipotle. We were the only ones who could handle the heat and eat outside.

With that patois that instantly takes me to my don’t-worry-be-happy place, he lit up and went off loudly like only an Islander can: If you ees bone een America, you nevva tink life ees guud enough. Always be want-in’ mo’. Da people who get to come to dees country, DEY WANT to be hee-yah! Ass wha’ I’m say-een to you! We got to stop all da figh-TIN and fear-INN an’ com-plain-INN. We got to bring back da gra-ti-TUDE, mon!

We had a long chat, naturally. He told me lots of things, including that he is in love with a woman who lives in Norway. He wants to marry her, he says, And just teenk of datt! Den I might could gitt to leeve in No-o-o-rway, mon! he beamed.

I told him I’d been there, that it’s magnificent, and that it’s one country where the people actually like and care for each other. He bobbed while singing out Ya mon! Ya mon! and squeezing some lime. Then, with the timing of a master comedian, I asked, “Does your girlfriend have a sister?”

He bellowed out a large, life-loving Island laugh and guffawed, I Iike you! I like YOU! You eess faaaaah-NEE!

I don’t know if he really was an angel. Or if I’m really funny. But that really did happen. And since I must admit that these advanced-class tests can bring out the inner snark and angst, he really did remind me to be grateful. And that I must pass these tests, for I want to see Norway (and the Caribbean) again.

Gratitude. I got this, mon.

Thanks for listening.

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“Great News! You Don’t Have Cancer!”

Posted on: Monday, February 12th, 2018
Posted in: SoulTrain | 6 comments

So said Dr. Finger when he burst into the room as he flipped me a print-out of test results that had otherwise been kept secret. “Get-T-F-Outa-Here!” I shouted in awe as I threw a Town & Country magazine across the room. For 6 weeks, they had directed me through a new regimen of tests, scans, and procedures chasing 2 kinds of possible cancer that have nothing to do with the previous one. Not all clues along the way suggested we were headed toward this happy conclusion.

I know what you’re wondering. Why was Kirk reading Town & Country? Well, just to set the record straight, I hadn’t seen one in years, and it carried my shaky mind away to memories of comfortable homes and splendid dinners (or at least coffee tables). That said, the magazine may have been upside-down for all I know—although I did notice the models keep getting younger.

  • “Cancer Again: The Sucky Sequel”

I was prepared enough for bad news that the above headline was already mosh-pitting in my head. And I’d reverted to the ABCs of considering scenarios. Like, I alerted Support Squad A. Obligations and travel arrangements had a Plan B. And if drafted, I was ready to jump back into the C zone, like a soldier re-enlisting for battle, in hopes that we might mop this sucker up by the 4th of July in time to move on to the important things, like floating.

Now, some might dub that pessimism. But PCSD does that to you. So does the pursuit of fearlessness, which features rigorous workouts in realism: Seeing and accepting all possibilities, even the ones you don’t like. It’s quite empowering, really—moreso than well-meaning sideliners who chirp, “Just stay positive!”

  • Pains in the ass

Women worry about breast cancer. Men fear the prostate. Both are common, and the male problem runs in my gene pool like good looks. So when my “blood work” in December showed some new, elevated numbers—perhaps caused by friendly fire from all the treatments—I had to board the P Train toward exams and destinations unknown.

Along the way, the search thickened when one scan unexpectedly discovered something concerning in my sacrum. I’ve learned to become concerned when doctors say concerning (though I’d never heard concerning and sacrum used in the same sentence before). Prostate is bad enough. But can’t we leave my sacred sacrum out of this? It didn’t help that a friend of mine, as we speak, has both prostate and spinal cancer. Stage 4. He put off seeing a doctor. The Bad Thing spread. He’s going to make it—I believe. But first he’ll go through hell and back again.

In my case, I was fairly fearless about bone cancer. There are many reasons, but the most intuitive one is that my back suffers from a condition that, if I were a noted doctor, I’d name “BackF*ck.”I achieved this condition through a lifetime of combative sports, risky activities, nasty accidents, gardening abuse, and of course, genetics. (When all else fails, blame your kinfolk.) Like many of us, I live with this annoyance well enough and work to keep it in check.

Fortunately, my hunch was right. (!!!) So when Dr. Finger explained that the back  issue was not cancer but asked, “Hey, did you know you broke your tailbone?,” I could only shrug. “No, but I’m not surprised. But, may I ask, is it…concerning?” “Naaah,” he answered, “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Fun fact: When you’re dealing with doctors about cancer, you could come in carrying the arm you just severed off and they’d say, “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

  • “This might sting a little bit…”

That’s another phrase doctors like. It’s code for, “This might make you scream.” Nonetheless, when it came time to strategize the prostate biopsy, I chose to be awake. How could a stupid, short procedure I’d been afraid of all my life be a bigger pain in the ass than what I’ve been through? And the protracted process of knock-out surgery? S0 tedious (a different kind of pain in the ass).

Now, my guess is that very few writers have gotten rich and fabulous writing about prostate biopsies. And most folks probably don’t want to hear about it. So instead, let’s talk about animals. Everyone loves animals, right? Like, the remarkable porcupine. If I had to choose an animal that the procedure reminded me of, I’d definitely go with porcupine.

So if a porcupine should cross your path and need to enter your body, take my advice: Take valium. Scarf them like Sweet Tarts. You won’t scream as loud and you’ll enjoy a nice nap later—at about the time the porcupine retreats back to his proper hole, wherever that is.

  • Staring at the ants

Throughout these weeks, I kept the Zen poem, Hokasai Says, close-at-hand. It states:

He says it doesn’t matter if you draw,
or write books. It doesn’t matter
if you saw wood or catch fish.
It doesn’t matter if you sit at home
and stare at the ants on your veranda…

(Spoiler alert: The stanza ends with, “It matters that you care.”) Funnily enough, a Minnesota-dystopian thing happened: Disgusting, nuisance, winter ants left the veranda and moved into my house. This I learned when I awoke one morning and they had carried me down the stairs and were trying to shove me into their little ant-hole.

They’ve also invaded the cat’s food (no matter where you move it). The trail mix. The kitchen counter. The sink. And yes, even the Triscuits. So I’m like, screw the war on cancer: I’m at war with the ants! Hokasai might disapprove. But he’s been dead for centuries. And if he’d had a chance to snack on Rye and Caraway Seed Triscuits with avocado, smoked salmon, sweet-hot mustard and capers, I think he’d understand.

I must confess: Sometimes, I smash them. With my fist. It takes effort; they’re fierce, tough buggers. Earlier today, one blew me away. He (I’m pretty sure it was a he) was carrying another ant, a dead one. At full speed. I pounded him anyway. But it only half-worked. So you know what this half-smashed ant did? Smashed Ant just flipped me off and kept right on carrying his dead cousin toward Mount Triscuit.

Now that is fearlessness! Now that is strength! Now that is a desperate metaphor for what a guy must do when, not nine months after kicking cancer’s ass, the healthcare team decides we need to run six weeks of new tests for two other kinds of cancer.

  • The comedy continues

Dr. Fingers was a riot. Doctors are so much funnier when they bring good news. “We’ll need to see you occasionally,” he said, “about every six months.” “Bummer,” I responded as we shook on it, “You have such damn big hands.” He slayed me with a ready comeback: “Well, if you’re really lucky, I won’t order a second opinion” as he held up two fingers.

Oh, this guy is good. I’m definitely considering taking him on my cancer comedy tour as a warm-up act.

Hokasai says,

Every one of us is frightened.
He says every one of us has to find
a way to live with fear.

Wise man, that Hokasai. Fearlessness don’t come easy, but, like so many intentions, maybe it becomes easier with practice. And perspective. Like this: I had lunch with a friend last week who showed up uncharacteristically out of sorts. So I asked about it.

Turns out that, right before our meeting, she had visited a close friend who’s son had taken his own life the day before. At age 20. I have no idea, no idea, how one carries on after that.

In comparison, going through some unpleasant tests and a health scare is a blessing.

Fearlessness. I got this. (Right, Hokasai?)

Thanks for caring…


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Waiting, Waiting

Posted on: Monday, January 1st, 2018
Posted in: SoulTrain | 2 comments

Returning for scans and tests brings a memory flood that’s like a dam breaking in the brain. A dam one’s worked damn hard to build. Revisionist history morphs into Fake Truths. It wasn’t so bad becomes OMG! THIS! AGAIN! 

  • Hurry up and hack

Test day(s) and the prep before can max the nerves. This time, fresh snow turned roads and knuckles white—and ensured that everything everywhere ran late. This made everyone stressed. They were already sick (beyond their job angst and infirmities) and hacking like suffering ducks, everyone: Staffers, nurses, patients, relatives, and the omnipresent Waiting Room Nomads who have no obvious reason for being there.

So I must ask: Why so some patients bring a family reunion to their appointments? God only knows. But they do.

The check-in line? Gridlock. After all, one kindly lady can only do so much. And it’s hard to collect info from folks having hack attacks. Language interpretations take time, too. And then there are the irrelevant questions they ask, like, “What’s the temperature in Moscow?” and “What was Richard Nixon’s sperm count when impeached?” Some patients just don’t have the answers. In any language.

“When did you retire?” the  receptionist asked one fossilized man attached to various machines. After much consideration, he answered, “Two thousand seventy.”  The clerk cocked her head and replied, “Okay, just have a chair, honey. It’ll be a while, honey.” He didn’t move. Time passed. So, this being the era of #metoo caution and all, she asked, “Does it bother you when I call you ‘Honey?’” That perked him way up, “Who doesn’t like being called ‘Honey?’” And they laughed—loud, and long, and clear! I actually thought they might dance a little jig. The sound was so out-of-place that the waiting room went silent for a moment.

Finally, my turn! “Hi. Name’s Horsted. But you can call me honey. That sounds really good right about now.” Awkward pause, irked stare. “Okay, hon. Let’s just slow down here.” “Hon?” I replied, half insulted. “Just ‘Hon?’ Please! I want pure “Honey!” “Okay, fine; you’re honey. You need some scans. Right? You know we’re running late here on acccounta the snow and half the staff is out sick as dogs. I don’t feel so good myself. Have a seat, hon. Please. Now.”

Thus ended our brief romance. But it was sweet while it lasted.

  • The comforting sound of your own name

While awaiting my tests from infectious technicians, I read three papers, fought off flying phlegm, and scowled at the omnipresent gang of way-fare youth that skip school so they can hang out in waiting rooms playing screen (scream?) games at full volume. I watched a rambling parade of delusional VIPs shamelessly pacing and squawking into their phones.

Decades later, my turn came when a nurse appeared like the Ghost of Christmas Future and brayed, “MR. HO-O-O-RST-E-E-E-D?” I regained consciousness and approached her. “Welcome to the machine,” she stated with no irony, and not, unfortunately, to make a Pink Floyd connection that might melt some ice.

  • A quart of “a fine wine”

Today’s scans would first involve swilling two 16-oz bottles of tainted sugar-water in 60 minutes. An orderly took me to a men’s dressing room (so I could participate in a procession of other patients changing into hospital jammies while their entourages watched me warily). Mr. Orderly soon served as my bartender and told me to sip my toxic elixir “like a fine wine.” Except he said it like, “A fahn wahn.”

This time, having lived this movie before, I actually brought my own wine glass. The cheesy, cheapo kind that you can drop on cement and it won’t break but that I thought might break some ice on this long day. He was unimpressed. And just plain icy.

My poise was running low, as was my energy (since one must fast). And by now I was impatient as the hottest boy at homecoming. So I pushed back. “Fine wine? Really? I know a few things about wine. And I’ve never pounded a quart of fine wine in 60 minutes.” He was still unimpressed. I asked a few irrelevant questions of my own, trying to at least chip ice.

“Mr. Rheostat, Good Lor’, just drink the shi’. I’ll be back in an hour. And it betta be all gone, awright?” He gave a little eye-rolling chortle and shuffled off. Like I said, everyone was feeling stressed and testy. “Not a problem! I can drink like the best of them!” I shouted. He remained unimpressed and waved me off under distant fluorescent light.

Did I mention it was Friday. While normally a good thing, avoid major medical on Fridays. The staff is fried. Fry Day. Just sayin’.

  • Passing the tests?

The scan tests themselves were pleasant enough. Meditation training removes most fear of being stuck inside a large, noisy tube while The Voice of God tells you when you can and cannot breathe, move, etc. Heck, I’ve even fallen asleep in there—if they provide enough warm blankets—much to the dismay of the harried crew. “Mr. Horsted! Wake up! You’re twitching!” (“Oh, sorry, I was dreaming about an erotic party on a pontoon in an Iowa corn field…”)

As for the blood work? That’s more high-risk. And can take days to produce (sometimes inconclusive) results. This time, my nurse was a newbie who clearly had failed chef school. I’ll just leave it at that, except that to say that life brings scars. Wear them with pride, I say, like others show off drunken-weekend tattoos.

The results came in multi-media form, rather like a U2 concert but without Bono presiding to make it epic and awesome. A 3-page radiologist’s report hit the mailbox forthwith, riddled with big, intimidating words. A late-in-the-evening phone message from Dr. Zen that dysfunctional phone connections failed to fully capture. Meetings alongside doctors with seemingly hours looking at charts and images of my innards from thousands of angles. They always see “things” I don’t—tell me about stuff going on in there of which I’m unaware. They’re amazing.  Although I’m pretty sure I could beat them at cribbage.

  • The journey continues…

The best news is the tumor is not back. (Rah!) After that, things get more murky. Tests revealed some “things” they don’t like. So I don’t like them either. Thus, I get to continue my research for the book chapter called, “Adventures in Waiting Rooms,” enjoy some new test procedures, and expand my network of medical friends.

I’d love to belt out like Freddy Mercury, “Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?” And have 65,000 people sing along.

But instead, for now, I can do no better than to quote Forrest Gump: “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Life, sometimes, becomes a waiting room, for every one of us (you too) as we slog through uncertainty. As Grandma always joked, “Hurry up and wait!” Mom, meanwhile, still reminds us to “Pray for patience.”

Patience. Patience. I got this.

Thanks for listening…

PS Happy New Year! Here’s to one more run around the sun…

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A Beautifully Boring Birthday

Posted on: Friday, December 1st, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 4 comments

At a certain age, one learns that the world no longer lines up to rock and revel on your special day. You may have to procure your own chocolate cake—or cupcake—or just order one at an eatery that ruins it with nuts and berries and a martini-high price-tag, yet it doesn’t compare to Mom’s (and by that I mean Betty Crocker’s).

As for surprise parties? The surprise may be having a party at all. And if so, that someone else does the planning. That a quorum shows up. And that somebody remembers the cake and gets it right. Chocolate. With chocolate frosting.

  • Whither desks, leaves, and bike rides

My birthday came and went with all the hoopla of a buffalo fart lost in dust in the wind. And I could hardly be happier. I logged some requisite desk time, yet the weak November sun strived its best to shed light on the metaphorical piles and melt away any SADness that November days can bring.

Than came raking. Leaf Mgt. With all the great labor-saving devices: The deafening leaf blower; the 16-ton mower; well-worn work gloves. Everybody hates raking. Me too. But on this day, it felt positively gratifying to send dust up my nose and strain my back.

After all, one year ago, that head was going through daily radiation and that nose barely functioned. My care team was emphatically anti-dust and, in fact, wanted me to wear a mask at all times. The body had no energy for yard-work—preferring beds, baths, and beyond. There was a fun, if spontaneous, party for me one year ago. But I suspect some folks showed up because, well, they worried I might be serving my last cake.

Exactly one year later, my kayak took me for an unseasonably warm glide featuring crashing through ice while my headphones blasted Ziggy, Phish and Mick. I sang along like nobody was listening. Because nobody was. I mean, who the hell else is lingering on an ice-laden lake on November 30?

My bike then raced through a robust westerly wind and logged its second-best timing ever on my favorite trail. The ladies who lunch-walk daily gave me that knowing smile, though I still don’t know what they think they know. The heavyset man with the old, black Lincoln was fishing again—within hours of the latest ice-out; he gave me his usual, serene nod and, as usual, looked like he was getting skunked and couldn’t care less. The mustachioed man who reads hardbacks on the bench in the woods was there too, and again resolutely ignored me as I buzzed by, still head-phoned and serenading.

The birthday’s evening festivities featured sushi with my daughter, and then time-killing in nearby bars between my two trips of chauffeuring her to and from the soccer dome. Even the bartenders didn’t give a rat’s ass that it was my birthday. Freebies? Zilch. Generous pours? Nope. Chocolate cake on the house? Not on your life.

  • The bestest gift

BUT. I got one pretty cool gift: Life. And I feel so much younger than a year ago. Oh sure, the day featured a doctor appointment, and we had to discuss my 555 upcoming tests that threaten to disturb today’s peace. But at this clinic, everybody knows my name. And Doctor Grace and I addressed the tasks at hand and then meandered amiably into wellness-reflection-personal stuff that left me feeling just great—and grateful to have relationships with savvy, kindhearted healers who say things like, “Kirk, you’re awesome!”

So heck yeah, I had an awesome birthday, never mind that the traditional booty was scanty—3 calls, 3 cards, some digital greetings, one hug, zero HB2U songs, and nary a crumb of chocolate cake. (Lest you think I’ve gone all softie on ya, that going cake-less part does sorta piss me off.)

Yet I suppose I’ve devoured dozens of cakes already. Anyway, who would have enough candles? And have I recovered enough to blow them all out?

Life goes on. LIFE! That impressively large (but, please, not yet old) number I turned today is quantifiable proof of life going on. And maybe, just maybe, as Phish (and I) sing, “I feel the feeling I forgot.

  • So let’s party?

Maybe I’ll even throw my own impromptu party again. Surprise! It’s warm this weekend, the full moon will rise over the lake, and the bonfire pit could use a warm-up. Maybe I’ll even head out to get that chocolate cake, damn it. With chocolate frosting.

Cake? We got this!

Thanks for listening…

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Happy Cancer-versary to Me!

Posted on: Tuesday, October 10th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 12 comments

What a long, strange journey it’s been! In fact, it’s been so long, so strange, that I no longer bristle when people refer to cancer as a “journey.” Or when people butcher Grateful Dead lyrics to sneak in another “journey.” My 1-year cancer-versary happened recently. Like most men celebrating an anni, I forgot.

So imagine my surprise when I came home to a mini-brownie with 1 candle at my front door. Who knew? A fine friend and fellow survivor, of course. He remembers a year ago when my head was exploding. But various things—a category-5 personal crisis, summertime seductions, brazen stupidity—kept me from seeking help.

I don’t know how I ignored the discomfort. And I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time a caregiver said, “Man, you must have a high pain threshold!”

I disagree. Yet this gross growth had shoved my weeping, red eye socket out until I was seeing double. My face looked like I’d lost a bar brawl. The tumor had strained my septum almost to the point of breakage. And it lurked 1 millimeter from my brain. No wonder I had difficulty seeing, focusing, and executing a mean-ass cannonball into lakes.

Once doctors got ahold of me, they began marinating my carcass in poisons and steroids and rays. (Oh my!) The treatments quickly spilled into other details, too: work, family, social life, stamina, sanity, POV, the medicine shelf. Even for us Cancer Comedians, such challenges can confuse your sense of humor. As Nurse Deadpan quipped to me, “We are going to almost kill you to keep you alive.”

“Is that supposed to be funny?” I asked. “Nope. It’s just true,” she answered. “Well, I think it’s kinda funny,” I chuckled. She yawned. I thought that was funny too. There was some comfort in recognizing I was not her first cowboy.

Note to self (and you too): See the doctor sooner. Sure, it’s all in your head. Right? So it’s probably just another headache, cold, or infection. Then again, it could be a  terrible tumor shaped like a smashed grapefruit that wants to eat you up.

Speaking of eating… I devoured that mini-brownie like a toddler’s first birthday cake. It was so tasty, I ran out the next morning to buy a bin of them—and have been taking mini-browning mini-communion every day since.

  • It’s about time

Time takes on new meaning when you’re staring down death threats and losing your gorgeous hair. Time aphorisms attack. Time clichés taunt. Days feel sacred, even when they suck. You take on a superhuman bullheadedness and face all medical moments with the mantra: “Bring it on.

They did. Boy, did they. So I’m ridiculously relieved that this year has passed. Yet frankly, some mysteries linger like a bad hangover.

Like: Why do Minnesotans insist on leaving their vehicles running when they’re killing time in hospital (and other) parking lots? Why do people pay the big bucks to go to music and sports events and then stare at their phones? And… Why do well-meaning people say things like, “Lymphoma, huh? I think my uncle had that! Or was it lupus? Anyway, he died.”

Here’s another timely mystery about cancer and time: When, exactly, are you cancer-free? In my case, some say never; they say lymphoma never leaves, it just goes to the bathroom (in medical-speak: “goes into remission”). {To which I say: Whatever.} Representing a common perspective, one nurse told me, “You are one-year cancer-free one year after your first treatment.” To which I say: Nonsense. Try explaining that definition to the souls who didn’t survive one year.

To me, cancer-free might should be when you’ve finished all treatments, resumed some normal activities (eating steaks, drinking beer, swearing at bad drivers) and passed your first series of tests and scans with no evidence of The Bad Thing. For me, that was in March. So I had a party. Hey, must be time to plan the real one-year anniversary party!

There’s still time.

  • “That’s not you…”

One year later, discovery-wise, I must acknowledge my first oncologist, the dapper and strapping Dr. Rock N. Roll. Dr. Roll believed in sharing the truth, the whole truth, and all the facts, man. He could kill you with info that might morph into fear. So while I sometimes hated what he said, I liked him and his blunt manner. And those first days of learning about the condition—no matter what the message or messenger’s style—weren’t sugar-coated like mini-brownies. Period.

But bless his heart, Dr. Roll. When I was leaving the clinic after several other meetings during that long day, he spotted me walking in the hallway. “You leaving?” he smiled. “The building, yes. The planet? Not yet.” “Good, he offered, “May I walk you out? I’d like to talk to you.” Sure, I said.

Dr. Roll put his arm on my shoulder, spoke softly, and reeled off a whole new slew of info, stuff like, “You know all those odds and stats I told you? You need to hear it. But that’s not you. I’m just a doctor, and I barely know you. But I firmly believe that about a year from now, all this—and your other issues too—will be fading behind you. You’ll feel healthy again. You’ll be starting a great new chapter in your life. I’m sure of it.”

He shook my hand, gave me two Kleenex, and disappeared. I never saw him again.

I drove away, still seeing double (which came in handy, since I needed four Kleenex).

Dr. Roll was right. The future is comin’ on (is comin’ on is comin’ on is comin’ on). Mysteries and quandaries remain. But that’s life.

A year of life has passed. And, God willing, many more await.

Time. I got this.

Thanks for listening…

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