CHOICES

West-SideShe says to me, “oh, I think that everyone has a choice.”

We were talking casually, as if at a cocktail party, about the poor folks who live in downtown’s Skid Row. I don’t remember what started this conversation but I knew she didn’t want any people sleeping in cars on her street or in her neighborhood, for that matter. So whatever I had said to elicit this remark, I knew I was trying to hit a nerve. But her response was devoid of anger and flush with a divine certainty, as if she knew that God was on her side. It made me angry. This woman was…well, let’s just say that I hoped she would have developed a broader view of the issue.

Compassion. One hopes for it, tho empathy is even better.

Walk a mile (or two) in my moccasins before you judge me.

How many steps would it take to become a bum?

An addiction – name your poison.

A relationship ending.

A divorce.

A missed car payment.

Depression. Paranoia. Listening to the voices in the walls.

Losing a job.

An eviction notice.

A binge – name your poison.

Listening to the voices in your head. Having a conversation with them.  Believing that everyone can hear the conversations, too.

A mind unhinged.

A squad car. A trip downtown…to Skid Row. Dropped off at 5th and San Pedro St. Wandering through this mess amped up on Adrenalin and fear.

A mugging. Sleeping in a doorway. Feeling useless.

Twelve steps (like AA), can it be so easy?

Thirty-two years ago this month I spent almost a year living on the streets of the South Bay (Redondo Beach, primarily). I had built a camper on the bed of my ’54 Chevy 3/4 ton truck and I lived out of that. This was before computers and cell phones, tho if there had been these options back then, I might still be living out of my truck. It was a very spartan life, so much so that it makes my life now seem almost luxurious.

But it’s what led up to my “big adventure” that’s important for this piece.

My ex and I had split up and I had lost the sweet deal of a place in South Redondo, I knew I’d never find a place like that for the price I was paying. The school I worked at for nine years had closed down. Generally I was depressed (later I was tempted by suicide but never acted on it, tho I did write a humorous poem about a call to the Suicide Hotline — I think it’s in book one of Fire and Rain – Selected Poems from 1993 to 2007). So, some solution had to occur. I had a truck already, so it was relatively easy to build something on it. I had the tools and a plan, so I went for it! One thing I have to mention here, the thing that made building a house on a truck seem like a practical solution to my problems…I was an alcoholic. It was my alcoholic self that just knew that this was the solution, plus it opened the door to all sorts of adventure! Huck Finn here I come!

Now, perhaps, if I had been sober I would have come up with a better solution, tho I can’t think of what that might have been (it’s hard to see that far back in time — I mean we’re talking about half of my lifetime here). But I do remember what it was like to go to bed drunk and wake up drunk and that little bit of clarity from say nine to three before I’d find some excuse to open a bottle of beer and light up a cigarette.

It’s embarrassing to remember that cycle. To be that out of control…it’s a wonder that my gal stayed with me as long as she did. In fact, it’s a wonder that I put up with it as long as I did!

I think I knew how ugly I’d become. And knowing that made it easier to assume that no one would take me in, not my family nor any friends that I could think of (half of my friends were high-tailing it to Seattle and I wasn’t ready to go that far out on the limb). I wanted to be independent and boy, did I get that.

Now. what kept me from sliding any further over the edge, you ask? Dumb luck. For eight years I had been supplementing my meager salary as a  teacher’s aid at a small private school in Manhattan Beach with side jobs as a handyman, jack-of-all-trades. I had a curious mind and liked being able to build things from scratch. So, even tho I floated across the landscape in a 20th century Prairie Schooner, I still had work. My landlady was kind enough to let me use her office phone and answering machine, so clients could reach me. With a job, comes self esteem and with self esteem comes the desire to move up, away from the edge. Also, during this stint I was able to quit drinking which went a long way towards improving my life. That lasted for about 20 years, then I slipped up for 4 and now I’m almost 8 years back on the wagon.

Had I not had work, I would, most likely, have fallen closer to the edge, if not over it (and who knows if I’d ever have embarked down this road in the first place).

RD Armstrong

 

The Illusion of Poetry

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs an editor, I am privy to a veritable flood of ideas and stories. Some are told well, some are not and most are somewhere between so-so and oh yeah! Writers come to me with their “brilliance” and expect me to publish their work, no questions asked and of these there are the ones who have become famous and they become furious if they don’t get the respect that they believe they are due. I must admit that I’ve fallen prey to the trap of vanity, myself on occasion. But like the stock market, there is always a “correction”… at least that’s what happens to me. Somebody is always ready to remind me that I’m not all that.

It surprises me when someone (usually someone I think I know) turns on me and strikes a blow to my ego, out of the blue. Mostly, It’s a glancing blow and not a direct hit, but the idea that they think they can do this with impunity astounds me. it’s too bad that these little spats can’t be settled mano y mano, perhaps in a boxing ring before a poetry reading; or a wrestling match – yeah, that would be even better! It would make poetry a contact sport that might draw greater crowds than the piddly groups of people that turn out for the events that Lummox Press hosts! Plus it could be televised via the internet…Now there’s an idea! Duking it out!

I recently had an experience with a guy, previously unknown to me, who got me involved in a lengthy email exchange which ended with him saying to me, essentially, “if you weren’t a cripple, I’d come down there and kick your ass!”

Now bear in mind that I normally don’t let an exchange last longer than 3 responses (I find that it becomes counter productive the longer one trades barbs and, in all honesty, if you can’t resolve your differences with the other party in 3 exchanges…well it’s just not worth it). This exchange that I mentioned took about 3 hours to play out.

It began when I was invited to come to a reading in support of a new anthology. In the small press world there are many such readings (I host them myself for the Lummox, as well as for the local authors I publish, so I know what goes into such a reading). I looked over the readers they listed and there was an array of talented poets. I thought, why am I not in this group? Of course the answer was easy, I don’t promote myself  as a writer nearly as much as I promote other people (via the Lummox Press or the annual Lummox Poetry Anthology), and it’s true!

I decided that I couldn’t afford to go to this reading, thinking I could go to another reading that was closer (and cheaper) and so I bowed out. Everything was fine until I suggested that perhaps I could be considered for one of the future readings…and this was where it began to go wrong! I was informed that I would not be invited to read because I wasn’t an “A-lister”…the guy who told me this, wasn’t an A-lister either, but he was reading!

I’m pretty sure that the A-lister comment was designed to hurt and I have to admit that it stung a little bit. It was also kind of humorous because, really, none of the other readers were A-listers either (I was informed by Suzanne Lummis that there are very few A-listers in the small press, she said that poets like WS Merwin, Sharon Olds, Billy Collins and Louise Gluck are A-listers), in other words, poets who have been published by BIG publishers, or who have been Poet Laureates of the United States. Last I checked there were no poet laureates in this list.

By now we were well into our 9th exchange, each side believing that they had a mandate from somewhere! My opponent felt that he represented all those down-trodden and crushed under my BIG boots as I slashed my way across the “friendly landscape that is the L.A. poetry scene.” I was amazed at this fellows ideas about what I’m about — God! The picture he painted of me, it’s a wonder I was accepted into his anthology! Actually it does beg the question, Why was I included…oh wait, the anthology was created by someone else, now I remember…

For my part, I was trying to hang on to the reputation that I had developed as a craftsman, my craft being my ability to put out a book when I said I was going to and not 3 years after the fact. Well really, I always struggle for recognition…it’s hard to come by and usually is hard fought for. With this guy, I felt like I was one person against a horde of accusations.

Under this dark cloud the whole thing degenerated into name calling and name dropping, of sarcasms cast about  and with hatred dredged up from a ready supply of “done-me-wrongs”.

But I digress.

I wanted to address the psyche of the poet mind. This may not be a universal truth but from what I’ve seen over the past 20 years or so, I’d say most poets are broken individuals who carry an all purpose grudge with them which they use at anytime to vent onto their “enemy du jour.” These poets are usually somewhat successful in their endeavors, tho they can’t become truly successful because they are cracked! Flawed. They’ve got a screw loose. They’re one brick shy of a full load. They’ve bought into their own hype…I know how dangerous this can be because this has happened to me in the past.

Just when I thought things might finally be going my way: the Lummox Press was enjoying some successes, the income trickle had become a stream, titles were selling, there was an increase in interest in the third issue of  LUMMOX…things were looking up for me as well. I was being hailed as the man of the minute. But I should have known better, should have seen that it was too good to be true. But you know how it goes, dear reader, nothing ever changes that fast. Not overnight.

Let me just say this one thing and then we’ll be done here…poetry is not life. It may be a reflection of life, but that’s all it is. Too often people get caught up in the illusion of the reflection and forget that it is exactly that, an illusion. I have to say that if we weren’t cracked or broken, there wouldn’t even be a need for the illusion!

But we are broken and therefore we are, all of us, doomed!

 

Side Effects

West-SideI’m losing my mind.

Yeah, your thinking so what’s new, right? But seriously, and more to the point, I’m losing my memory. It scares the shit out of me! I’ve always had a problem with names, but now I’m losing the names of people I know, or knew (past friends and lovers), their faces fading like lights dimming in the theater of the mind. The names and faces of the dead becoming a generic John or Jane doe…an anonymous toe tag that I can barely make out (there are no reading glasses in my mind).

My dad, now just ashes waiting for a scattering, lost his memory before he slipped away like a poorly tied up boat slips away in the receding tide, disappearing into the fog of an early January morn. Is this the fate that lies in wait for me? My doctor says I’m just getting old, as if it’s a given, as if this is the natural order of things. But I’m not buying it. Perhaps this is what happens when you pour every sort of alcohol down the throat (which I did for 6 years before I quit in ’08, not to mention the 7 years of pain meds since (that can’t be good in the long run). I know in my heart of hearts that there’s something amiss here…

However, that said, one can look at this as a “get out of jail” card because, since I have a hard time remembering what I did 5 minutes ago, I’m in a constant state of near grace, of zen perfection, in other words I’m achieving detachment. Great news for those concerned with my spiritual development, not so great news for the poor poet waiting for me to publish his/her immortal words.

Which is more important? My soul or my word? Beats the hell out of me. My rambling thoughts are the collapsing bricks of my personal civilization, as my world crumbles into ruin…someday my boat will slip it’s cleat and drift off with the receding tide, and if anyone notices, it won’t matter to me…

But for now, there is Richard Thompson singing out his Irish angst (in advance of St. Pat’s Day) and I’ve got laundry to take care of, that is if I don’t forget, here in my state of fucking zen perfection!

Letting Go

bar doorWhen my dad passed away, it wasn’t a terrible thing…the earth didn’t stop, life didn’t lose its meaning, I didn’t start dressing in all-black. In short, it was business as usual (well, except that it wasn’t).

I received a lot of notes of concern about my outlook and condolences for my loss; these came on Facebook and in emails…I even got a few cards in the mail. Frankly, I was surprised by the turnout. People from all over the place, some of whom I knew, some I didn’t, were wishing me well in my time of mourning.

I feel a little guilty about this because, when I saw him last, he was very much a vegetable, not my dad. It was heart-breaking to see him like that. So death, was a release from the suffering of this life. I wish he could have written a poem or even an observation about his final days, but that was not his style. We are very different, my dad and I.

Many people told me that he was watching me (from some vantage point in the nether-world) and he must be so proud! I appreciated that for what it was worth…aside from the obvious projected  imagery…the sentiment was nice. People were concerned about my mental state, but, really, I’m in relative good spirits these days. It’s just that every now and then for some reason, I’ll drift into a memory and depending on the significance of it, I’ll sadly remember something I was going to tell him or I’ll recall a moment in time that makes me chuckle to myself…but trust me, I believe that he’s no longer suffering, and THAT is what matters.

None of this, “oh he’s in a better place now,” BS! The man is dead! He’s been cremated and only God and my Step-mom knows where he is now.

But here’s a poem that tries to explain how I was feeling last week.

Poem for My Father

If he was a tree
He’d be an oak
With gnarled branches
And many rings

If he was mythic
He’d be Odin
An ancient god
With many a tale to tell

If he was a sea
He’d be the Sargasso
A kelp filled pocket
Of unexplained
Mysteries

But he was a man
Bent with age
No longer plunging
Headlong into the darkness
Forging his own way

And as such his last days
Were spent lost in a
Chaotic storm filled night
Alone and frightened

He was at last
A black rabbit*
Trembling in my arms
Waiting for Morpheus
To gather him up
And carry him from
The field of valor

 
*The rabbit mentioned here, refers to a dream I had  a few days after his death. In the dream my dad appears in a wooded area behind “his” house during a storm and gives me a jet black rabbit. I mentioned this dream in my last post and it stirred the imagination of quite a few of the readers to offer their own interpretations.

Until next time…
RD

 

 

THE DREADED PHONE CALL

sky-with-linesIt came early on Tuesday morning. I was walking to my car. The caller ID informed me that my brother was calling…Chris never calls me before 8 a.m. so I knew it was trouble. In a choked voice, through tears, he said;

“Dad’s gone.”

I vaguely heard the facts that followed, something about 3 a.m. and cremation and not to call my step-mother for a few days. It was as if my mind was shutting down so as not to hear this unwanted news. This in spite of the fact that when I had seen him less than a month ago, I wanted to smother him with a pillow, so desperate was his circumstance. Now, in the cold hard light of this January morning, knowing that his time of suffering was at an end I was steeling myself against the news of his passing.

I told myself that this was a good thing; that his spirit was free to do whatever it was that spirits do. I didn’t really believe that, but I needed something “tangible” to believe in, to hang my heart/hat on while I came to terms with this fact…

Dad’s gone.

When I had seen him less than a month ago, it was one of those heart-wrenching moments when I realized that the man I had struggled so hard to see eye to eye with, to come to terms with, this man, my father was gone; hiding somewhere inside those dead eyes. Eyes in this caricature of a face, once familiar, that now stared straight ahead, as if looking elsewhere would add to the terror that that seemed to lurk there. My step-mother kept encouraging me to ask him questions or tell him about what I had been up to but I had nothing. What could I say? Everything paled against the cold hard fact that his sun was setting. What could I say that would carry any weight? I just sat there, observing behind eyes that gave little away (two could play at this game). It was all too sad.

Dad’s gone.

I knew that behind this facade I installed where my face used to be lurked a twisted, screwed up face of anguish…or at least I hoped so, otherwise what was the point? I didn’t mind if my eyes leaked a bit, that is normal for aging poets…just ask guys like Dan Fante or Steve Griffin. Those guys can unleash the waterworks, seemingly at will. What I didn’t know was that just below the boards we trod upon in our daily lives was a vast lake of tears waiting to be shed. Mine come at the strangest times, particularly when I’m watching T.V. Whenever I see a family reunited, especially if it’s with the father, I can’t help but shed a few tears. There is a longing to be accepted, certainly with the father. It won’t happen with my mother, who goes out of her way to make me, or tries to make me feel bad. And now it won’t happen with my dad either.

Dad’s gone.

Last night I had a dream about my dad. It took place at his house, but it wasn’t like any house he had ever lived in. maybe it was a conglomeration of all the houses I knew of. Anyway, it was at night. The wind was blowing pretty fiercely and I could hear it crashing against the house. I was standing with him outside when suddenly he handed me a jet black rabbit. I knew it was a rabbit because I could see its buck teeth. It was so dark that I could only see its big, white teeth and the whites of its eyeballs. It was warm and its fur was fluffy. Suddenly it jumped out of my arms and ran off into this wild night. I wanted to chase after it, but it was too dark and windy and my dad grabbed my arm. Then, just as suddenly as it had run off, it jumped back into my arms…then I woke up. I have no idea what this dream meant, but I’m sure it meant something.

Dad’s gone.

But not forgotten.

Good bye dad.

Blues for the Old Man

just dadTonight there are two songs in my head, repeating themselves over and over: “I can’t stand the rain, against my window” and “my father always promised us that we would live in France, we’d go boating on the Seine and I would learn to dance…”

Those of you who have followed my irregular blog attempts will know that the rain figures prominently in my writing, especially these days out here in California where it has been raining every other day, it seems like.

But the other song, by Judy Collins, has a different meaning, at least to me; a meaning of sadness and longing for things that were promised but not delivered. I had this song in my head last week when I drove up to Grass Valley, a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, east of Sacramento, where my father and his third wife live.

My dad has Vascular Dementia and he was put into some sort of a ‘board and care’ facility as a result of a Urinary Tract infection (I think his current situation was triggered by this infection – apparently it can cause hallucinations in dementia patients and, like my dad, these can lead to combative behavior). I guess I’m not being a very good son because I don’t know what his current condition is, his prognosis or even what kind of care he’s receiving…I mean, it looks like a nice enough place, probably a lot nicer than the place I’ll end my days in, but still, one wonders.

I saw my dad in late February of this year, so it’s been 10 months since I saw him last and OH MY GOD has he changed! In Feb. my fellow traveler Murray Thomas and I had lunch with him and my step-mother on a quick whip up there and back. He greeted us at the door, we chatted about the weather and other things that I don’t remember and then we sat down to lunch. My dad was a little goofy but I didn’t think much about it. He ate his meal, unassisted and was generally congenial. My step-mother was pretty much her usual self so I didn’t really think much about our short visit. It was nice to see them and that was about it.

But move the timeline forward 10 months…as we entered the facility I was greeted by that ‘sanitized for your comfort’ smell of disinfectant. It was faint, but having just spent time in a hospital recently, you don’t forget it (even if you don’t know that you remember it, either). It was a nice looking place with potted plants and nurses scurrying about looking efficient etc. And, of course there were the residents (the old people). Some were all smiles, greeting everyone that walked by, whether they knew them or not, just happy to be vertical I guess…plucky in spite of their situation. The others were quiet, staring blankly out at the world, perhaps dreaming of another time or just marking the days/daze; who really knows what goes on in there…makes me wonder what it is like, slipping away from this world as if one was sifting grains of sand through one’s fingers, each grain, a memory, lost, until the box (your brain) is empty and then…what? The cool embrace of the earth, or the whoosh of the crematorium?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I mentioned the disinfectant because that smell of questionable hygiene, what some people call the ‘old people’ smell, was missing. It was for me, one of those “where’s Waldo” moments. But we moved quickly through the lobby, turned right and entered the day/lunch room and there was this old man sitting amid a bunch of old ladies. He was sleeping in his rolling chair facing a TV set. “There he is;” my step-mother said, as we entered the area where he sat. I was shocked to see him…he had aged as if overnight. He had become a feeble old man! Can it really happen that fast? Granted, he just turned 87, but he was 86 when I saw him 10 months ago and he still looked hale. I guess I’m in denial.

So, he was wheeled into his room on the locked ward (because somewhere between that infection and now, he’d been labeled “violent” though if you saw him now you’d know he is about as violent as a wet noodle…but such is the nature of labeling and believe me I know because I have been labeled too) and we began our visit in earnest. I’m not sure that he knew me, but I was prepared for that, or so I thought. I mean I’ve spent most of my life being a mystery to him and it wasn’t until recently that I was able to come to some sort of understanding with him, a negotiated peace of sorts. I guess I’m lucky to have gotten six years out of the deal.

Anyway, this old man was what was left of my dad. He didn’t say much and he never seemed to notice that I was there. Frankly, I wished I wasn’t there, either. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to see him like that! It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen anyone like that before…I sometimes think I’ve seen more than my fair share of the lost and the damned. I’ve been assured that those with Dementia don’t feel regret or sorrow for much of anything, but I say, c’mon! There has to be more going on than just the basic bodily functions!

Sorry for stringing this out, but it’s still hard to write about this stuff. The old guy would mutter something, then cry a little, then my step-mother would tell him to quit (probably to avoid us all joining in) but I wished she would leave him be. But I didn’t say anything because this was her show; I only paid my quarter to see it. But I’ve got to give her credit, this was the most affectionate I had ever seen her be with him. She practically doted over him the entire time we were there.

Seeing him like this made me wish I had a big, fluffy pillow, but there were no such pillows handy, for that exact reason I suppose. So all I could do was sit there for the hour we were allotted. I spoke to him when she asked a question…frankly I was so taken aback by this version of him that I didn’t have the words to describe what I was thinking. I just wanted to go and put as many miles behind me as I could. It just about broke my heart to see him like this, but I felt I needed to be strong…for what reason escapes me now.

Before I went up to visit my dad, I had this image pop into my head: I saw him walking down a road, when he stopped suddenly, looked at his watch and sat down. I said to him, “what are you doing dad?” And he said, “I’m waiting on my destiny.” He was so matter-of-fact about it. It was as if all those days after he retired had led up to this point; all those days of staring out the windows…was he searching for this, this mess?

At first I didn’t understand, this staring out the window. But now I find myself staring blankly out of my own windows, staring down my own long road, searching for some explanation for all this….this mess. And I just have to think of my old man to understand why. My father is once again farther from me, almost completely out of reach and this time there ain’t nothing to be done about it.

So I kinda stumbled through the next couple of days, putting on a brave face as the images of him and that hour tumbled through my mind. It was a long drive up and back and I’m grateful to my friends MP and Claudia and Brother Bill who put up with my eccentricities and still fed me and put a roof over my head. I had to use part of my monthly food budget to pay for the gas, but I felt I had to go see my old man, even if I wasn’t too happy to see him…this way.

And when I got home, I found this in my email. It’s a poem of mine, written about 18 years ago; set to music by Brad Webster (that’s him playing and singing it).

I’m still so sad.

 

Working on my PHD

Joe HillI recently entered a poetry contest, the Joe Hill Poetry Award. Joe Hill was a martyr for the early 20th century labor movement…a union organizer who was executed by a firing squad in Utah after a bogus conviction for murder. His message to mourners, “Don’t mourn me, organize!” Anyway, I won! So this Labor day, nearly a century since his execution, I will be reading my poem PHD to the assembled masses at the annual Labor Day Picnic, here in Wilmington, CA.

Here is the poem: Post  Hole  Digger  (PHD)

 

I’ve dug a few holes in my day

I’ve sunk hundreds of postholes

Run thousands of feet of fencing

Laid thousands of feet of decking

Built, repaired, remodeled, demolished,

painted, hauled, moved and

refinished furniture, doors, moldings.

Gotten a score of splinters

Gouged and scraped my limbs

smashed fingers and thumbs

taken the tips off fingers

using table saws and belt sanders

Inhaled enough solvent to stay

high for several lifetimes.

 

Worked in a machine shop

as a gas jockey

a crossing guard

an undercoater of RV’s

a teaching assistant

doorman/bouncer

carpenter

painter

counselor in a psych clinic

managed a coffeehouse

clerked in a bookstore

bummed around

never got around to college

 

Always kept it simple

didn’t strive to become “financially secure”

never had much money —

no “golden parachute” for me —

but I can’t say I was poor

Sure, I’ve regretted decisions that I’ve made

but never enough to drastically alter

my chosen path.

Came from a well-off

middle class family

but chose a path that led to the

other side of the tracks.

 

Poverty is a mindset

 

These tired hands –

that have worn the fingers off of dozens of work gloves

These tired knees –

ruined by hard rock and concrete

These tired eyes –

fading from too much sadness

This ruined hulk of a body –

with it’s aches and pains

life nearly escaping from it

three or four times

This body –

older than it should be in many ways

younger in others

this body

this vessel

this vehicle of a greater consciousness.

 

We are more than we think we are.

We cannot know what we are

capable of without a test.

And we cannot choose the test

that will tell us.

We are chosen.

We do not choose.

 

We

are

chosen

 

PHD — Part 2

 

I never understood

all this glorification

of blue collar work.

 

The whole Holy Blue

Collar thing escapes me.

 

Sure, there’s nobility

in a job well done but

that’s as far as it goes.

 

After nearly thirty years

of being a member of the

working poor, the whole

mystique of being “good

with your hands” is kind

of lost on me.

 

It has become fashionable

once again to trot out the

blue collar ethic and tout

the benefits of work experience.

 

But, friend, unless you have

a fondness for the low road,

I suggest you leave now while

you can do it gracefully and

don’t trip on that bucket of

tools on your way out .

 

PHD – Part 3

 

Half of my life

has been spent

with either a hammer

or a paint brush in

my hand.  It was all

I needed for a

while.  But then

I added a beer can

to the equation

and things got out

of hand; and they didn’t

get better until I got

that thing out of

my hand. Once I

got past that

I tried putting

other things in

my hands

things that go boing! in

the night or things that

make you feel so good

that you want to take out

a full page ad or

things that start in

your head and become

real at your fingertips.

I knew then that I

didn’t want to die with

a hammer in my hand that I

wanted more that I

desired the creative path

that led beyond

my immediate  locale.

Ten years later I am

nearer to but not

close enough to cease

my explorations.

 

With

out desire or passion

there is only the clatter

of automation.

Without a means of expression

there is only silence.

 

Without the poetry of ideas

there would be no point

in picking up that paint

brush or hammer.

 

A head without hands is

a novelty

But hands without a head

that’s death

if you’re lucky!

 

RD Armstrong

 

Robin Williams and I

wounded boyTHOUGHTS ON SURVIVING DEPRESSION

When I heard about Robin Williams killing himself I was surprised and saddened…but when I found out that he and I were the same age,  I was shocked! How was it possible that we could be so similar and yet so different?

I had first heard of him via Ed cook, back in the 70’s. Ed claimed that this guy was the comic of the year, if not of the century! Ed had seen him at some club up in L.A. (maybe it was the Laugh Factory or The Comedy Club) and had been completely blown away by this young guy. We had planned to go see him, but it didn’t happen (probably didn’t have the dough).

In any case, Robin was someone to watch, and watch I did: Mork and Mindy, The Fisher King, The world According to Garp, Moscow on the Hudson, Hook…on and on; the guy was a work-horse and a wise-ass! Always “on,” his comedic brilliance and improvisational skills were only equaled by one other comedian: Jonathon Winters (who was an inspiration for Robin, as it turned out).

I just learned that he also was in the first stages of Parkinson’s Disease, which I suppose was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back (though having his first T.V. show in something like twenty-five years canceled after only one season, was perhaps the real last straw). I imagine the drugs that one must take to function are debilitating in their own right, probably affecting the ability to make those colossal segues that he was famous for…come to think of it, if he was taking anti-depressants he could well have lost some of the edge that he’d enjoyed for all those years, too.

(I remember back about 15 years ago when Scott Wannberg was suffering from Insomnia, his doctor prescribed him with some anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, which helped Scott sleep, but at a price. The price was Scott’s metaphorically rich life and poetic stylings became… “normal” — he almost became an average Joe! But all that changed when Scott got off the meds and returned to his old self. But for about 6 months, we had a view of what Scott might be like as a “normie”. It was freaky…)

I think I have explored some of my depression in my postings here, but let me elaborate on that theme. I have ‘suffered’ with depression for most of my life, starting when I was a teen. In my senior year of high school it was really bad to the point that some of my teachers were concerned about me (but nothing was ever done except to note that I was ‘borderline’ – there was no infrastructure for dealing with anything smacking of emotional problems back in 1968 – 69). But somehow I muddled through.

You know what got me through? Same thing as Robin, well besides the liquor and drugs…humor. But he went somewhere with his comedy and I took my comedy with me wherever I went. And even tho he became famous and rich, in the end it was the war between the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other…the war between our lower selves and our higher selves. On this day, the demons one out.

People wonder how a guy who had a whole lot of everything could end up offing himself. One thing I’ve learned over the  years is that having a lot of everything doesn’t make you the sharpest tool in the tool box. Having a big house, a fine car or three, a beautiful wife and kids and a successful career and all the accolades and positive vibes, not to mention the “love” of millions, that any one man could possibly hope for…all that can come crashing down when the walls start closing in and all those little voices in your head start in on you, predicting your doom, your downfall and your demise. FAILURE, FAILYOU’RE, FAILYOU’RE!!! It’s a tough act to follow.

For whatever reason, Robin couldn’t do it this time.

Status Report

I’ve been lost in a blizzard of words.  Words and worries.  Since May 1st, I’ve been reading submissions for the next LUMMOX Poetry Anthology (#3) and the first annual poetry contest… I’m discovering that it is hard reading poetry subs and then trying to “keep a weather eye out for” the occasional gem that wafts through. Here’s how it works:

read submissions, #1
look for gems while doing #1
solicit patrons to help offset costs
solicit ads during reading period
solicit ads after reading period is done.
solicit essays and reviews
write reviews when no one steps up
collect $$ for poetry contest
deal with bruised egos when rejecting subs
make sure all addresses are correct
make sure books are correct
prepare poem order (desire section & road kill section)
insert essays, reviews and interviews

And while all this is going on, there are books to be dealt with too: THE BRENTWOOD ANTHOLOGY, A TREE ON THE RIFT (short story collection by Bruce Colbert), CORVIDAE by B.J. Buckley, a collection of poems about Crows, Ravens, and  Magpies; plus Lummox #3.

To top it all off, there are hundreds of emails to deal with, this website requires constant up-keep (something that I’m having more and more trouble doing because of my  CRS).

It would really be nice if I could form a PATRON’S CIRCLE to help me finance these book projects. I used to have one back when I was publishing the Lummox Journal (a monthly Lit-Arts zine I put out once a month from Oct. 1995 to Dec. 2006). Back then, it was more a hobby than anything else, paying for itself but not for me. But now, I need this operation to pull some of the weight… about a third of the monthly budget. So far I have been successful, that is, unless something comes along unexpectedly, then I’m screwed. Car trouble? Screwed! Old tickets? Screwed! Fall in love (not likely)? Screwed! Busted for possession? You guessed it.

 

One Year On and Counting…

picture000“It was 20 years ago today, Sargent Pepper taught the band to play…”

Well, I don’t know about that or what I was doing in May of ’94 but I do know that at this time, 4:54 PM, a year ago, I slid down the rabbit hole into my current situation and started down the yellow brick road in search of life before, during and after “modern” medicine. I thought I already knew about this subject matter because, back in ’08, I’d gone through 14 days of life among the mangled…But that was child’s play compared to what happens in a “modern” hospital, with a private room and a private TV and a private Doctor with his own personal ax to grind.

Here’s an excerpt from a journal entry that gives a taste of what it was like for the novice, Raindog, upon entering the modern world of medicine back in ’08:

You Have Two Options …an excerpt

It all began rather innocently; at least that’s how I saw it in my befuddled brain. I had a blister on my foot which, for some reason, was taking its own sweet time healing. In actuality, the blister was more like a crater, a quarter inch deep and a little bit bigger across than a quarter. It kept oozing pus and blood, no matter how much Neosporin I put on it. As I was working on a job, and couldn’t afford to stop, I just kept changing the dressing and hobbled around on my toes, hoping it would get better.

This, my friends, is what we call the Stupid White Man’s Disease .

After about a week of this foolish behavior, I noticed my foot had started to swell up. It began to look like one of those Pickled Pig’s Feet you see in the soul food section of your neighborhood market. This was followed by my lower leg swelling to about double the size of my other leg; and then my knee, which became so swollen it resembled a reddish brown grapefruit half. And still I hobbled on, thinking that it would go away (perhaps by magic). Finally when my knee began to get dime sized purple and greenish splotches on it, I knew I had to go see the Doc.

At the walk-in place on Willow, the Doc looked at my foot and said it looked funky but was fixable. He kept asking me if I was diabetic and I kept saying I didn’t know. But when I showed him my knee he kinda freaked out and said I was gonna have to go to the ER. I told him I didn’t have that kind of money or insurance and he said I’d have to go to the dreaded Harbor/UCLA or Harbor General, as I knew it in my youth (the place where all the po’ folks go…where you could catch more diseases in the waiting room than you could just about anywhere else + there was a 12 hour wait to see a doctor).

So I screwed up my courage and drove myself over to Torrance to HG. I think I still thought they’d check me out and give me some antibiotics and some anti-inflammatorys and send me home. I had a bad case of SWMD. I got there at 3:30 PM on 11/24. It wasn’t until 6:30 AM the following morning that I finally got someone to tell me what was going on. I was cranky from lack of sleep and food and (what seemed to me to be a lack of) follow thru by the staff. I practically pinned a Dr. against the wall and said, “Either you tell me what’s going on or I’m out of here!” That’s when he dropped the bomb on my white ass… he said; “You’re a raging diabetic with a blood sugar count of 320 (out of a possible 400 – normal is around 110); your blood pressure is 189 over 90 (now its 121 over 60); you’ve got a septic infection in your knee; there might be a blood clot in your leg; and there’s a distinct possibility that you might lose your foot!”

 
The treatment I got at Rancho Los Amigos was certainly adequate, but they didn’t have nearly the bells and whistles that Memorial had/has.  It’s a very modern operation with a helpful, mostly, staff and only the tiniest hint that all was not right in room 451.  The main difference between pre- ’08 and pre-’13 was that I had been under a doctor’s care for the last five years, whereas I had avoided docs like the plague before ’08. Before then I hadn’t been in a hospital since I was born, hadn’t had a physical or any kind of diagnostic care either.

I know, you’re probably thinking, “My god! It’s a wonder he’s still alive!” And you’re probably right, except that oddly, in spite of doing all the crazy stuff that an adventurous cuss could do (oh the stupidity!), I never broke anything! I dunno, maybe there’s too much reliance on the medical cats or maybe I just had really strong bones?

Anywho. After ’08, I became a card carrying member  of the “hurts so good” crowd. And this membership was accelerated when I got SSI and MediCal (some ignorant friends of mine assured me that this was strictly ‘top shelf’ and now I could get the ‘good stuff’). That was in late ’12. By spring of ’13, I had tried two different PCP’s and had switched from one HMO to another. I was feeling pretty cocky and, ironically, was working against a deadline to finish a job helping out a friend when I developed another ulcer in the bottom of my right foot, this time below my 3rd, 4th and 5th toes. It was a tear-drop shaped horror that would lead to the amputation of my baby toe.

I was amazed at my bravado when they put me into my room, joking with the orderlies  about whether or not I’d be walking out of there or not…in one piece or not! I was scared, but I still clung to that damned magical thinking = “maybe this won’t be so bad after all. Maybe I’ll be able to pull this off in one impossible, crazy pirouette defying all known philosophies!”

Well, it’s a year later and I’m still waiting for that magical moment to occur…don’t get me wrong, I’ve bull-dogged my way through a lot of crazy-assed stuff (including dealing with the fact that the ax-grinding doctor didn’t do the operation correctly, requiring another doc to go back in an correct it – oh I was mad about that for months on end) and a lot of pain for which I’m getting little or no  relief — look out street drugs here I come!

But really? A pirouette?! What was I thinking? This ain’t Fantasia and I’m no pink elephant in a tutu…just a nine toed poet looking for that pivot point for my next leap of faith!

recovery 2 months in