Monday, August 27, 2018

It Never Rains, But It Pours...

For those of you keeping up: thank you for your interest and your support in helping us navigate Cathy's cancer diagnosis. This post is not about that. She's hanging in there, and we're just working toward getting her chemo done so we can do a scan and see how much the tumors have shrunk. It's a waiting game, and we both suck at it.

This post is about me, and a recent diagnosis I received, because, apparently, Cathy's cancer was not enough drama and excitement for us. I wanted to talk about what has been going on with me since October of last year for a while, and was planning on doing so, but Cathy's diagnosis has taken priority for obvious reasons. I can't do that any longer, as my situation has come to something of a head.

What follows is personal and dark and kinda gross. If you bail out right now, you won't have to read it and I'll completely understand. This is deep dive stuff and it may be more than you want to absorb. We're living in weird times right now. You do what works best for you.

If you're still with me, read on. It's a little longer than I've been posting lately, but I wanted to get it all out in one fell swoop.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Cancer: Cannabis

On the Road Again. 

Pueblo, Colorado, was certainly putting its marijuana money to good use, upgrading their roads and bridges and trying to economically develop their abandoned industrial areas. I wish them well, because it’ll take at least a decade to get the city not looking like a cut scene from Fallout 4. After that, the artists and the creatives will get pushed back out as the speculators and investors pour back in and jack up the real estate and the cycle of boom and bust begins anew.

All thanks to marijuana. Pretty interesting when you see it with your own eyes. I don’t know where you come down on the issue, but I’m ready to legalize it and tax the hell out of it and make a zillion dollars with it. Also, it’ll cut out a lot of the violence and crime at the border. Finally, it’ll help people. It might negatively impact some other industries, such as For-Profit Prisons, but I have to say, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We need less prisons, and less people in them. There’s my politics on the subject. Moving on.

Colorado has a tax rate of over twenty percent on recreational marijuana. That’s high. Pun intended. But right now, it’s a license to print money, because we visited a number of dispensaries in two days, mostly to get the lay of the land and scope it all out, and I noticed a few things that they all had in common.

There was tight security at these shops, involving a doorman checking IDs of everyone entering, which was logged into a computer and returned with apologetic smiles and thanks. Once inside, the dispensaries were all decorated as some percentage of head shop and vape store, depending on the name of the place. Everything was clean and neat, and d├ęcor tended to run to the upscale and innocuous rather than counter-cultural. I didn’t see a single Bob Marley poster, nor an issue of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers anywhere. Having been in several head shops before, where these would have been signifiers that this was one of the good head shops, this was disconcerting. I was out of my element.

None of these guys were working at the shops. They were,
however, all in line waiting to buy stuff...
I was also used to a certain, shall we say, kind of person working in these establishments. And while every single employee I encountered over the weekend was indeed what the squares would call “alternative” in some way—white-guy dreads, aggressive tattoos, lip discs and spacers, or looking like an extra from the movie Dazed and Confused—they were all happy, friendly, knowledgeable, and patient with every customer. They were literally living their dream job, talking about the different kinds of strains and what the effects were. There was a lot of jargon and vocabulary, and I tried to absorb it, but the only thing that stuck was the term “flower,” which is what the dispensaries were calling the actual plant itself. In still illegal states, it’s called “bud.” When your state makes it alright, you get the vocabulary upgrade at no additional cost.

Everyone buying these products were happy. No one was in a bad mood. And there was a strange defiance in their eyes; all of them made eye contact for far longer than necessary. I suspect this is an over-reaction from years of having to skulk around. It’s almost as if, having legalized it, everyone stopped making a big deal about it.

Legal marijuana is still pretty expensive, and not just because of the high tax rate. The cheapest thing you could buy is pre-rolled joints, but most people were buying flowers or edibles. The gummies and the chocolates ran $20-$35 bucks each. Topical lotion was more. A full flower was over $100 after taxes. Compare that with, say, a six pack of Shiner Bock at $9.95 and you can see where the earning potential is.

I’m not a heavy drinker, and I can count the number of times I’ve done mushrooms and/or pot on one hand in forty-mumblemumble years. I’ve done it just enough times to know that it’s not my thing. Not really. In every prior instance, I didn’t have a lot of control over what was going on; nor did I really enjoy the effect it had on me. I’m just too uptight; or rather, if I’m going to be spontaneous, there’s a time and a place for that.

Still, when in Rome...

That’s how we ended up sitting in the hotel room, eating paleo-friendly tortilla chips and guacamole and watching Bridesmaids, while pleasantly relaxed and not at all freaking out. I slept like a hibernating grizzly bear that night. You couldn’t have woken me up with dynamite. The gummies Cathy bought certainly helped her with her nausea. It was a nice mental vacation, as well a physical vacation. Not really viable for the long-term, since there’s sixteen hours’ worth of driving just to buy the stuff. But it wasn’t the freakout experience I’m used to. More like what it feels like to drink one more than your usual amount at the bar.

There was a side-effect that no one has mentioned in any of the think-pieces I’ve seen. There was a killer-diller Classic Rock Station in Pueblo, the likes of which I’ve not heard since first moving to Austin, Texas, in 1990. It was a great mix of prog rock, proto-metal like Zeppelin, and some of the fake-punk crunchy stuff from the early 1980s. I was jamming out everywhere we went. I’m certain that station exists solely to serve the Green Nation of Pueblo, Colorado.

Colorado was great. I’m no skier, but Cathy and I are making plans again to find a place to hole up in Manitou Springs for a few days and just drift away. She will be finished with Chemo at the end of September. We may be able to make it an anniversary trip. Cross your fingers.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Cancer: Colorado

Visit Colorado! Now with Scenery! Also: Weather!
I’ve never been to Colorado before. I’ve been through it several times; the Denver airport is a lovely stopover to points west and is remarkably uncomplicated to navigate. That’s all I know about Denver. Cathy, on the other hand, nearly moved to Colorado, having been there several times as a teenager. She loves it. We’d been planning a trip there for four or more years; a return to our road trips of yore, where we would find a nice bed and breakfast and hole up for a few days, and maybe sightsee. We even had our spot for Colorado all picked out: Manitou Springs, at the base of Pike’s Peak. Lots of little shops, cafes, and so forth to serve the tourist trade. Or if you want, you can just stare at the mountains. Or both.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Cancer: Pear-Shaped Day

Between pictures, the photographer told us to just
"Be Ourselves" for a minute. This is what we did.

I’ve been mindful of my new agency in Cathy’s life as not only a caregiver but also as a cheerleader, emotional coach, court jester, and intellectual backup. It’s not that those things haven’t been part of the deal in the implicit marriage contract to begin with, but now they are up front, twenty-four seven. And I’ve also been reminded, encouraged, and flat-out told that I have to take care of myself, as well. I’m no good to Cathy if I’m short circuiting, myself.

And yet, we still have shit to do. A business to run. Day-to-day activities to attend to. I recently turned to bullet journaling, with better results than I anticipated. It’s helping me keep up with the day-to-day so that I can handle the unexpected things that crop up. Or so I thought.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Cancer: Hair

The other night, I used clippers to cut my wife’s hair.

Hair! What a crappy movie.
Like so many women past, present, and future, Cathy places a lot of encoded meaning on her appearance. She’s not traditional in the sense of always needing to wear make-up and a pressed frock to do the chores, but she takes rigorous care of her skin, is very particular about what kinds of make-ups and soaps she uses, and so forth. This includes her shampoo. She’s got a delicate ecosystem going on, and is a lifetime user of moisturizer and other similar salves and unguents, all of which has managed to delay her aging process by five to ten years. Of course, she’s colored her hair for as long as I’ve known her.

Now it’s falling out, and she’s really upset about it. She’s intellectually aware that this is a temporary thing and for the past few weeks, she’s been gradually working up to the idea that at some point, her hair was going to fall out. With that would be the need to either cut it or shave it down to the scalp, and of course, what to do about covering it, because society can’t stand the idea of a bald-headed woman for any reason whatsoever.

We discussed wigs briefly. The actress side of Cathy toyed with the idea of getting several, one for each mood she might be in. But the economic impracticality soon shot that idea down. She hasn’t entirely given up on the idea that she might want a purple wig. You know, just ‘cause. But she settled pretty quickly on the idea of various hats and scarves and turbans. I told her, if she wanted to, we could go full-on Eryka Badu. She hasn’t said no to that idea, either.

Badu's turban-fu is extraordinary. 
I am certainly sympathetic; as someone who had thinning hair so bad that, by the time I
was twenty-three, I was clipping my hair in what Bruce Willis called “the nineties combover,” I know how that feels. I also know this, intellectually and otherwise: it grows back. In the case of chemotherapy, the prevailing wisdom is that her hair will grow back thicker and fuller and maybe even curly. I’m sure there’s reasons for this, but I don’t feel like googling them at the moment.

Cathy understands all of that. But it did not lessen the impact of her running her hand over her hair to get it out of her eyes and catching a tuft in her fingers. It’s scary; one more reminder that her body, the thing she’s tried so hard to take care of all these years, is in open revolt, and the medicine she’s taking is designed to kill part of it off. That’s terrifying if you let it bounce around in your head like pachinko balls. And Cathy is a champion and playing pachinko.

She told me she wanted me to shave her head three days ago, but she said it in passing, like how you’d have someone put eggs and milk on the grocery list. She asked me about the plastic blade guards that go on clippers to make the hair a uniform length. She asked me if shaving my head hurt. She went and found my bag of clipper accessories and asked me which one was the shortest one. She sidled up to the idea gradually, until I could see it was freaking her out to keep talking about it.

“Get a towel,” I said. “We’re doing this.”

She seemed relieved that I made the call. I told her what I was going to do. I even showed her on my own hair. I was very gentle and checked in on her often to make sure she was okay. As soon as it was done, she hopped up and went to the mirror. She opted for really short instead of stubbly. She couldn’t go that far, and my suggestion to match her in a gesture of solidarity did not amuse as intended.

Little Steven, of the E Street Band.
I tried my best to be as gentle and upbeat as I could be while pushing down the idea that I never thought in a million years I’d be doing this for my wife.

As soon as I was finished, she jumped up and ran for the mirror. “It feels so much better,” she said. She spent the rest of the night trying on her various wraps and scarves and turbans. I was proud of how brave she was being. It bothered her to have it cut, but it bothered her more to have it falling out. This way, she kept a little control over her appearance, even if it’s temporary.

Now she’s digging the turban/scarf combos. A couple of them make her look like Lawrence of Arabia. Or Little Steven Van Zandt. I’m still holding out that she’ll want a big-ass purple turban or something.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Cancer: Overwhelmed

Running the theater is hard enough, when we have to deal with the vagaries of the market, seasonal fluctuations, the indifference of our consumer base, and keeping the lights on in a depressed economy. Then you add a debilitating illness on top of it, the treatment for which is to make the person sicker and more debilitated, and suddenly, things look grimmer and grimmer.

Every August for the past eleven years, we’ve watched as everyone in Vernon turns out for the big weekend car cruising event, Summer’s Last Blast. Cookouts abound, as do adult beverages, and fleets of classic and muscle cars and trucks (and a few oddballs) cruise up and down the main thoroughfare. Vernon, for one weekend, returns to its former glory and the scene is like something out of American Graffiti, which is exactly the point.

On the following Monday, football practice starts. Two-a-Days. The next weekend, it’s tax free weekend, and people drive one to three hours out of town to save 8.25% on clothes for the kids. It’s a zero-sum event when you factor in gas, food, and travel time, but that’s irrelevant because it’s a good excuse for folks to leave town. The week after that, band practice starts. And the last week in August is the final stretch as everyone hunkers down for school. It’s a busy time for everyone, except us. Our attendance drops 75-85%. We don’t just hit the brakes. We hit the embankment and jackknife.

In the past, this is the time of year where people see a lot of just me and Cathy, because we can’t afford to pay anyone else. These last few years, it’s been all Cathy, as I drive to Dallas to moonlight at Heritage Auctions. This has kept us afloat for the past few years. Until this year. I can’t leave Cathy alone, especially during the days following her chemo treatments; namely the weekdays. Never mind the surgery that will follow in October or November.

I’ve gotten offers from a lot of people who have volunteered to work for us during this time. And it’s appreciated, but frankly, I don’t know where to begin or how to even start bringing folks in. Everyone has said to me, “I can pop popcorn. I can make drinks.” And that’s because that is all that they see. There’s obviously more to it than that, and it’s the hours of work beforehand that make those two hours we’re open, selling tickets and concessions, look so easy by comparison. Most adults have jobs and are busy during the weekdays with their own lives. The last thing anyone wants to do is come clean this place for two hours and then hang for another two to three with four in the audience watching two movies, as is so often the case in August and September.

What makes it worse is that I can’t even really talk about it in town. They will turn it into “Mark hates high school football! He said so!” About seven years ago at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, I brought up the idea that not every business benefits from Summer’s Last Blast—us, for instance, and it would be great if we could get some actual data on the economic impact of the event. All anyone heard at that meeting was, “Summer’s Last Blast is bad for Vernon.” The guys at the car club still don’t talk to me, to this very day. It’s not enough to simply mishear a statement; you’ve also got to mishear it in the most horrible and negative way possible.

Every year, since we’ve been open, at least three times in a calendar year, someone will come up to me in public and say, “I heard a rumor that y’all were closing.” I always ask, “Who did you hear that from?” They never can tell me, or won’t. I think it’s probably just one person (the same person every time) who doesn’t like us because I told them to hang up their cell phone during Spider-Man 3 ten years ago.

It’s sure not the vibe we’re putting out. I always tell people, “we’re hanging in there.” I don’t want folks to think we’re going out of business, but I don’t want them to think we’re doing spectacularly, either. Vernon hates winners almost as much as Vernon hates losers. I have tried to indicate, through my verbal inferences over the years, that we really need the community’s help if we’re going to be successful. This is both 100% true, and also designed to keep the gawkers from playing a game of telephone with any statements I may make that end up ballooning into, “Someone told me that y’all was going to turn the theater into school for the gifted and such.”

“No, what I said was, ‘We’re showing the new X-Men movie next week.’”

They look puzzled. “That’s not what they told me at all.”

Well, who’s right? Some guy you were talking to at the Wal-Mart who works in Bait and Tackle, or the person who actually owns the movie theater?

During the Summer and Winter, I shrug it all off. Everyone’s out of school, in a good mood, and the movies are big and flashy and dumb and bright and make you feel good. During the Fall and Spring, Cathy and I have learned over the years not to take it personally. Football is stronger than the Baptist church in Texas, and especially here.

It was easier when there was two of us. We could, at least, weather high school football together. I have no idea what we’re going to do this year.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Cancer: Bedside Manner

We saw two oncologists, a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, and seven or eight nurses of various levels of competency since the diagnosis. Not counting the local doc and his nurse who first put us on this path.

House and Wilson. Whatever you do, DO NOT
Google their fanfic. Trust me on this. 
We have also watched 8 seasons of House, starring Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard as Gregory House and his oncologist colleague, James Wilson. Here’s what our take-away is: the pretend doctors, even the made-up, grouchy-pants ones that are written so as to be assholes, still have better bedside manners than most real doctors.

There’s a reason for this: in fiction (or more specifically in this case, in TV shows and movies), it’s necessary for the audience to understand what the plucky schoolteacher or the recently widowed father of a really bright little girl is going to have to face in fighting this terrible disease. So the pretend doctor outlines in very simple language what’s going to happen in act two (and maybe act three or act four, depending on the narrative structure). This is also done to introduce conflict and tension into the story, which will be ratcheted up, stair-step style, as the story progresses. We get the blow by blow from one or more of the supporting characters; “She’s having a seizure! That can only mean... it’s spread to her brain!”

We get all of this to draw us into the story, and by the end of it, when House or whomever gives the patient, now wrapped like a mummy and suspended from wires to keep from bursting into flame, jams a hypodermic into their arm and injects them with Plot Device Cure #23, and the symptoms immediately go away, and the young teacher opens her eyes and asks if her students passed the midterm test, we all breathe a sigh of relief and then we change the channel.

Yeah, none of that happens in real life.

I always feel like I'm doing it wrong. Thankfully, we
haven't run into Nurse Ratchet...yet...
Someone walks into the room, usually a nurse, and starts speaking in media res, “ you’re going to want to wear gloves and socks with grips on the bottom, since you’re going to be so woozy. You may lose your balance. Also: do you have band-aids?”

Excuse me? Do you have the right room? We tell her we don’t know what she’s talking about. The nurse looks confused. “Haven’t they gone over the protocol with you?”

“No. We just found out it’s some sort of cancer in the ladybusiness.”

The nurse scowls. “They were supposed to go over this with you. Have you been scheduled for chemo yet?”

“No, again, we just found out today. Like, fifteen minutes ago. The doctor is making phone calls.”

Now the doctor comes in and tells the nurse in the room to make the calls he was going to make when he left. He turns to us and says, “Okay, so we’re going to do 9 to 12 weeks of chemo, followed by surgery, and then more chemo as a follow up. Sound good?”

What? Do we have a choice? And why are you speaking as if we’ve been having this conversation for weeks?

I am only exaggerating a little. Mostly. I’m not unsympathetic to their side of things. After all, we are just one patient among the ten thousand they have to deal with. And cancer treatment is so documented, so regimented, so “by the numbers” now that it’s like stepping on a conveyor belt. So, when you want to get off of the belt and ask where the machine is taking us, they get confused, and a little put-out. After all, they’ve done this a ba-jillion times before. I joked with more than one nurse, “Please forgive us if we are asking a lot of questions. It’s our first cancer.”

They don’t laugh. They never laugh.

This admittedly impressive and exceedingly professional machine needs one extra cog in the mix: someone to sit us down in a room and say, “Okay, what do you want to know?” Our final doctor, the gyno-oncologist, did that, but everyone else has acted like Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction. And I felt a lot like Vincent Vega (do I even have to say this is NSFW?):

Time is of the essence, and the sooner the better. But we needed thirty minutes to an hour to just sit with this and think about questions and ask for timelines and basically get our heads around our lives now being centered on these weekly treatments. Oh, and paying for all of it, too. This isn’t cheap. The first part of this three-step plan has blown through our deductible, but we’re on the hook for a few grand. All before the surgery. You’d think they would want us calm and collected when they hand this dump truck of information over.

I wonder if it’s too late to ask for Dr. House and Dr. Wilson?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Cancer: The Fog of War

Chemo-Head is not the name of a super hero, either intentionally- or ironically-named. It’s the condition one develops from having your body go from a regimen of no pharmaceutical drugs in your body to weekly bags of poison designed to target and kill aberrant cells in your body, chased with a handful of daily drugs to keep you from throwing up the poison, and ending with drugs to offset those drugs. That shit messes with your head, and renders you largely insensible. This is made all the worse if your default setting was “Slighty Goofy” to begin with.

I am one of those people that, if you tell me your nose itches, I’ll scratch mine. When I live with you, we sync up. And if I’m married to you, well, your problems become my problems. They tell cancer patients to avoid driving and operating heavy machinery, but what about the spouses?

I am walking around like a corn-fed moron, trying to figure out what happened to my pants and my shoes, and Cathy’s in the bedroom going, “She’s not in the Marines, but she may have been in the Navy,” and that cuts right across my bow, because (A) I didn’t know I was having a conversation with Cathy, and (B) I have no idea what my role in the conversation is.

So I say, from the other room, “What’s that? Do you need help?”

And she replies, “Noooo.”

I say, “Then who’s in the Navy?”


“Who’s in the Navy? ‘She’s not in the marines?’”

Cathy comes tottering out of the bedroom. “What are you saying to me?”

I stop looking for my shoes. “I thought you were talking to me?”

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

I throw up my hands. “Then who were you talking to? The dog?”

Cathy hears the tone in my voice and is now on the defensive. “I might have been.”

“About joining the Navy?” I’m not even attempting to be understanding. I just want to get out of this conversation.

“Well, I don’t know. If she wants to join, we’re not going to hold her back!” Cathy snaps.

I throw up my hands in surrender. “Okay, never mind, I’m sorry. She can sign up if she wants to.”

“And do what? Sniff bombs? Why would you send our precious baby off to war?” Cathy asks, and then she stops and looks me up and down and says, “Do you need help finding your pants? We’ve got to go or we’ll be late.”

This is who we are, now. Two confused, shambling people that meander around the house. She’s groaning with each third step and I walk into every room and ask myself, “Okay, what did I come in here for?” We have conversations with ourselves because we don’t understand what the other person is saying.

Ten Weeks to go. This part of the treatment can’t be over soon enough.