I would never pretend to be what you would call a “religious person” at all. I’ve known too many people who would legitimately fit that description to ever apply it to myself. That list is long, and starts with my parents, both of whom are now dead. They raised their five kids in the Catholic faith with varying degrees of success. My “Irish twin brother” Brian is 11 months older than I am, and we were both very comfortable being part of a group of boys with a bit of a reputation as hellraisers as we were growing up in the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Independence, Mo. On more than one occasion, parish priests had to visit our home for conferences with our parents to sort through trouble we’d made in either the church youth group or the boy scout troop. (I’ll leave out the particulars, as I’m sure Brian’s three kids would have an unhealthy interest in such details.)
I was educated in public schools until I went to college at Rockhurst College in Kansas City. That experience did very little to deepen whatever faith I had. The Jesuit priests who ran Rockhurst actually trained us to be skeptical and probing about everything, not to take life at face value and certainly not to organize our world view according to any intellectually untested set of platitudes. (So much of religion gets reduced to that “intellectually untested” level, which is why so many Jesuits get in hot water with Rome). Anyway, the best Jesuit professors I had taught me philosophy, political science and English literature. I don’t remember much about the theology classes we were required to complete.
As an adult, I didn’t go to church regularly. When I visited my folks from out of town — especially as they grew old and frail — I did enjoy taking them to Mass either at Nativity or to one of the bigger churches in the city. It was a way of feeling more connected to them by experiencing something with them that was deeply meaningful to them and which had nurtured them for their entire lives. And as they approached death, I from time to time would attend Mass in Orlando in order to pray for them and maintain that sense of connection with them and the church I grew up in from far away. They were both buried out of the Nativity church less than a year apart in 2006 and 2007. My most vivid memory from each of their funerals was the assembly of women of the Nativity Altar Society attending in large numbers. These white-haired women lined the center aisle like sentries at both funerals to say a final goodbye as we made our way out of the church and headed for the cemetery. In the context of my parents’ faith, that was almost equivalent to having a host of angels send them off to heaven.
The church I attend in Orlando (as something of an interloper) is called St. John Vianney Catholic Church. It is an oasis in the middle of one the rattiest stretches of road in town — an infamous corridor of high-crime, strip clubs and prostitution called South Orange Blossom Trail. But the congregation of St. John Vianney is something special. It is a diverse mix of people from across the economic spectrum and with origins from all over the world. There are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Jamaicans, South Americans, Africans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders with plenty more longtime Orlando white folks like me thrown in, and lots of tourists from out of town. The church orchestra and choir are first rate. Everyone dresses up in their finest, but it is not to show off or be on parade. It is because they respect the community they have built in this 50-year-old parish. St. John Vianney is what it is not because of the hierarchy and the rules of the Roman Catholic Church. It is what it is because of the spirit of its congregation. You can tell these are people who want to be in church, and who are not there because they feel they are required to be there or have some other ulterior motive. During Mass, there are few, if any, “thousand yard stares” of boredom, or people checking their wristwatches.
But as much as I love this church’s community, my favorite thing about St. John Vianney is its pastor: Rev. Paul J. Henry. He is an Irishman from the county of Derry in the north (just don’t call it “Londonderry” in the Protestant fashion, or you’re liable to get a punch in the nose from Father Paul). But he is not exactly the stereotypical Irish priest from central casting. He has neither the thicker-than-the-sod brogue of a Barry Fitzgerald nor the jaunty “let’s-teach-the-kids-how-to-box” mentality of Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley in Going My Way. Father Paul’s thoughtful demeanor and diction are more suggestive of the actor Liam Neeson, and he exhibits the kind of mind that can recognize and accommodate (if not sign on to) the world view of a James Joyce. He has a terrific sense of humor, and when he speaks he commands everyone’s attention. He talks to his parishoners, not at them. He gives sermons about life, not about rules or laws or the dance steps of angels on the heads of liturgical pins. The first time I heard Father Paul give a sermon a couple years ago, he included a variant of a famous quotation: “This church, the Catholic Church, is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Well to hear such a quote spoken from the Sunday pulpit at that point, as way more of a sinner than a saint for most of my life, I felt pretty welcome. I was sold on Father Paul and his church. So…he pretty much had me at ‘hello’.
I’m still not even sure whether I believe in God. It almost doesn’t matter to me whether He exists or not, or whether Heaven or Hell exist. (In the hospital, I even joked to a priest visiting my room that if he could bump me up to an aisle seat at center court in Purgatory, he’d have done a good day’s work). I’m more interested in the present life than the afterlife, anyway. And after a lifetime of attending (and not attending) various churches, I still believe there is one Christian teaching for living life here on Earth that is the single most important. And the essence of that teaching is: If you are able identify the weakest, ugliest, smelliest, worst-dressed, poorest, least articulate and most ignored or ridiculed person in any given room and then treat that person as if they will be the one who gets to decide whether you go to Heaven or Hell when you die, you’ll probably turn out to be a pretty decent human being.
For me, simply being in the presence of people who live their lives that way is a good enough reason to go to church on Sundays at St. John Vianney.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: I would like to thank the ladies of the Nativity of Mary Altar Society in Independence, Mo., and the women of the Ladies Bible Training Class at Maretburg Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky for sending me their cards and prayers. I also would like to thank my Mom’s “Holy Rollers” Daily Mass prayer group for their great card. With the Catholics and Baptists on my team, I’m thinking it’s going to be a pretty good season.
Global history is driven forward by ever-shifting currents of fundamental conflict that pit entire civilizations against one another. During the Cold War it was East vs. West. Then after the Soviet Union collapsed our planet seemed more divided along lines of North vs. South. Lately, as we’ve been led to believe, the future will be even more sharply defined by the outcome of the struggle between Radical Islam and The Rest Of The World.
But now I see showdowns looming that will dwarf them all. First up: Dietitians vs. Dermatologists. And after that: Dietitians vs. Everybody Else. And when the smoke has cleared from that one, and I the only man left standing, the final conflict: Dietitians vs. Me.
My first inkling of this came in my consultation session with a registered oncology dietitian named Lenore at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. I went to see her on my first day of radiation treatment, because I wanted to know about the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of nutrition that I should be following over the course of my six-week treatment.
One of the first things Lenore told me immediately set off alarm bells. She said I should spend about 15 minutes each day in full sunlight wearing only shorts. The reason is that I need to build up my Vitamin D reserves to help keep my immune system strong during the oncoming onslaught of chemotherapy and radiation. Exposure to sunlight will do that. So I told her I walk my dogs twice a day, putt around in the yard quite a bit, and was also planning to walk or ride my bike to and from radiation treatments each day. That should be enough sun, shouldn’t it?
“Will you be doing all of that with your shirt off?” Lenore asked sharply. “Because unless your shirt is off, you won’t be getting enough sun.”
Now, anyone who lives in Florida would probably fall over dead upon hearing any medical professional tell them they needed to get MORE sun. We’re constantly being told by dermatologists that we should only venture out of our homes after suiting up in NASA-approved spacewalking gear to avoid the harsh effects of the intense sunlight here. And we’re programmed to reinforce that message with one another on a daily basis. Some of my friends practically put on 50 SPF sunblock just to step out in the driveway to get the morning paper. My friend Robyn, who was the medical writer at my former newspaper and as such is an expert on the ravages of skin cancer, somehow manages to live in Florida year round without ever letting so much as a single photon of sunlight touch her skin. She even took an extended vacation to Hawaii recently and come back without a hint of a tan, let alone a sunburn. She’ll have a lifetime with perfect, lily-white skin as a reward for her diligence. Decades from now, when the rest of us are wrinkled up prunes in nursing homes, Robyn will still be sitting on a beach somewhere with her luminous skin, sprawled under an umbrella in a big, floppy hat and fully protective white clothing, sipping pina coladas and fending off Hollywood casting agents as she laughs at the flash-fried idiots prancing around in speedos and string bikinis.
I, on the other hand, am an expert at ignoring most medical advice. I lather up with sunblock if I’m doing something like going to the beach or playing golf, but the rest of the time I figure it’s just too much trouble. I’ve paid the price with a rough and ruddy complexion that I blame on having cheap Irish skin. But that’s just an excuse. Most of it is really my fault. Shortly before being diagnosed with a brain tumor, in fact, I had been ordered to see a dermatologist who promptly dug a bunch of freckles out of my body and sent them off to a lab to be analyzed. All clear, thank goodness, but the sticker price for that information was about $600.
Anyway, being the health scofflaw that I am, I was kind of happy to hear Lenore’s advice about the sun. She did say that I shouldn’t spend a minute more than 15 minutes in the sun. But she repeatedly hammered home the importance of making that part of my routine, particularly during the period of chemotherapy. Okay, I’m sold. Thanks Lenore.
Then she moved on into a lifestyle area that is a bit more touchy for me: Grilling meat. She asked me if I engaged in that sordid, primitive activity. When I informed her that my gas grill is basically my kitchen for cooking daily meals, year around, she wrinkled up her nose. “You must know,” she said, “that when fat from meat you are cooking drips down into the heat source, and the resulting smoke from that burning fat rises back up and touches the meat, it has a carcinogenic effect.” Lenore suggested I ditch my grilling habits altogether, or at the very least wrap everything I cook in aluminum foil so as to keep said fat from ever falling into said fire. At that point, I wanted to interrupt the meeting so I could step outside and place an emergency phone call to Kansas City, Missouri, in order to inform all of my best buddies there that…Soylent Green Is People! And my buddies would laugh at me just like everyone laughed at Charlton Heston. In Kansas City, you learn how to eat and cook barbecued food just a few months after you are weaned from mother’s milk. So if Kansas City suddenly had to drop everything and follow Lenore the Dietitian’s grilling tips, it would be worse than any terrorist attack imaginable, worse even than having a suitcase nuke go off in the middle of downtown. Kansas City as we know it would cease to exist without barbecue. So I knew that, as a proud son of Kansas City, there was no way I would be following that dietary advice from Lenore. Next subject, please.
Alcohol: Okay, here’s another touchy one for an Irish guy. My main oncologist had informed me that it might be beneficial for me to drink a glass of merlot each evening to relax and soak up whatever anti-oxidant properties red wine supposedly has. I kind of liked where he was headed with that, but I’m not much a wine drinking type. So I asked Lenore if I could substitute the word “Budweiser” for “merlot” and enjoy the same health benefit. And maybe even could I occasionally slip in a nice, chilly “Martini”? I knew deep down that the answer would be no, but I thought it was worth a shot. Then Lenore made it even worse. She just wrinkled up her nose again and told me I shouldn’t be drinking any alcohol, not even merlot, really, and said she might have to have a little talk with the oncologist who had led me to believe otherwise. Wow, I thought, I’m setting off all kinds of wars between medical disciplines here. But whatever. I’ll be ignoring that tip too. Next subject, please.
Caloric intake: Now me and Lenore got to be friends again. Because she said the most important goal of my cancer-treatment diet was to keep my appetite up and maximize my caloric intake so that I didn’t lose a bunch of weight and shrivel up like a boiled green bean. Anyone who knows me would laugh at the possibility of such an outcome. But I was pumped, because Lenore’s advice basically green-lighted me to eat all kinds of things I normally wouldn’t be eating even before I found out I had a brain tumor: Ice cream. Milkshakes. Mashed potatoes made with real butter. Steak and eggs for breakfast….on, and on, and on.
Okay, now we’re talking. I’m on board with the cancer diet now. I might even sell my house and move in next door to a Dairy Queen. But everyone keeps telling me that this brain-cancer stuff is all about cultivating a “one-day-at-a-time” mentality. So in that spirit, the timing couldn’t have been better. My brother Brian is here for a visit this weekend. On Saturday, he whipped up some delicious cheeseburgers on the grill for lunch. For dinner, we fired up the Weber again to make some savory baby back ribs.
In a nod to my changing lifestyle, I saved all the carcinogenic meat drippings from both meals and have set them aside in a small, sealed container. My plan is to gargle with these drippings each night after I finish brushing my teeth with a cold beer.
Then I will put on some sunblock and go straight to bed.
In 1997, I quit work for 12 weeks to ride my bicycle from coast to coast on a 5,100-mile journey that took me through more than a dozen states and a couple of Canadian provinces. The trip began June 8 in Bellingham, Wash., where 17 of us in the “Cycle America” group dipped the back tires of our bicycles in the Pacific at Bellingham Bay. The trip ended Aug. 29 in Gloucester, Mass., where the same 17 celebrated by dousing our front tires in the Atlantic at Gloucester Harbor.
Today is the 12th anniversary of riding that “last mile.”
That mile was definitely the goal we had all worked for and dreamed about as we trained separately in the months leading up to the trip. We’d all built it up in our minds sort of as this Rocky Balboa moment where we’d reach the ocean and raise our hands over our heads in triumph. But in the end, and even now looking back on it years later, it turned out not to be the most important mile at all. It was everything that came before that mattered most. That’s where I learned the lessons that stick with me today.
I learned that the toughest people in life aren’t the ones that look tough or pretend to be tough. Our core group was kind of a gang of mismatched misfits. Only two of the members of our group even knew each other before the trip began — Jeff Hochbaum and Marty Siegel, a couple of weekend cycling buddies from New Jersey. The rest of us had arrived from 15 other places and we ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-60s. It took a couple of weeks for us “coast-to-coasters” to even sort one another out and get to know each other amid the ebb and flow of larger groups of cyclists that joined us for a week at a time to travel across a single state. Some of us were in better shape than others. One rider was an anesthesiologist from Chicago named Bill Zimmerman who made it a point of pride to say he had only ridden 40 miles total on his brand new bike in preparation for a trip that would take us over three major mountain ranges, hundreds of miles of desert, open flatlands and rolling hills. Bill about died every day the first three weeks of the trip, but he never got off the bike and eventually he got into shape. A couple of the other guys — Gordon Whittaker and Paul Chaikowski — were experienced touring cyclists who had taken long solo or group trips in various locales all over the world. They were both very generous in sharing their experiences and helping the rest of us through rough patches. Then there was Brian Wimer, an Accu-Weather meteorologist from State College, Pa., who would become our official trip weatherman. There was a kid from New York named Thomas O’Brien who was legally blind with macular degeneration, but who was still able to make the trip. Another younger guy named Mike Bredehoeft hardly ever said a word. I just called him “Quiet Mike.” Another cheerful fellow who tended to keep to himself but laughed alot was Will LaJack. There was a group of “old guys” approaching or over 60 — Jerry Hassemer, Ed Krimmer, Don Brenner and Dick Avery — who’d always be the first to pack up their tents each morning and get on the road, often by daybreak. Then there were the only two women along, both good Irish girls: Katie O’Connor from Chicago and Cathy O’Brien from New York City. The strongest cyclist in the group was a fiftyish man named Richard McAteer, from New Hampshire, who generally was the first to finish each leg of the trip. But he was very humble and quiet, and never once pointed out that he was the first to finish.
What made the main coast-to-coast group most special was that nobody in it turned out to be a blowhard or a showoff. Imagine that. Maybe it was because we were all there as individuals on equal footing. There were no pre-formed cliques. Nobody was out there trying to pretend they were Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong riding in the Tour de France to outrace everyone. And we even made a point of talking about and avoiding the undesirable outcome of allowing ourselves to develop into a clique as we covered more ground together over time. Even deep into the trip, after reaching Ohio and Pennsylvania, we’d make sure each week to reach out to the newcomers for that week, introduce ourselves and develop bonds with them and include them in our fun. And we were rewarded. Some of them turned out to be the most memorable characters of the journey.
Every once in awhile, though, certain people deserved to be ignored. There were a few groups of those Type-A cycling types I call “hammerheads” who would show up for a week and try to take over the whole tour. The rest of us would just laugh at them. They’d have these brightly colored racing team jerseys and matching shorts, they’d get in their little pacelines with their shaved legs and hi-tech bikes outfitted with the latest gizmos such as aerodynamic disc wheels and tapered helmets, and they’d constantly be checking their aerobic performance on their heart rate monitors. They were the standard loud, insufferable Alpha Males (and some Alpha Females) that you might find in the pace line on a typical weekend cycling club ride back home, but out here they just looked silly. Meanwhile, the glorious and timeless vistas of a Glacier National Park or a Yellowstone National Park would elude the hammerheads because they were too busy riding wheel to wheel, literally with their noses up each other’s butts as they tried to maintain some ridiculous pace. And for what? They totally missed the point of what touring cycling is all about. They were too fried at the end of each day to take in the small towns with their county fairs and arcades and little-league baseball games and pig races where the rest of us would go to relax and unwind after a day on the bike. Based on their demeanor, I’m not sure the hammerheads were even having fun. Too often in life, we allow people with this type of personality to assert themselves as “leaders” and give them the power to shape our everyday existence — whether it’s in politics, at work or even in our social lives. But we should ignore people like this. They are not leaders. They are all about bluster papering over insecurity, and they don’t know how to live.
I learned that the worst headwinds are much harder to ride through than the highest mountains are to ride over. And the thing about wind is that it doesn’t show up on a map like mountain ranges do. You can plan for the mountain ranges and study them over and over again in advance and visualize yourself “conquering” them. But the wind just hits you when it decides to hit you. In the same way, life’s toughest challenges and obstacles are probably going to be the ones you never gave much thought to in advance. So even when you’re hit by the unexpected things, you should at least know enough not to be surprised.
I learned that you should never count down the miles. That’s a surefire way to make a bad ride seem twice as long. Even if it’s too hot and you have a 25 m.p.h. wind in your face, just ride. Don’t keep checking your odometer. Don’t keep counting telephone poles. And while you’re at it, stop looking up the value of your 401(k) at the close of each day of trading, and stop checking zillow.com to see what your house is worth today. It will all still be there tomorrow.
I learned something from a corny banner hung up over a row of lockers at a high school where we camped for the night in Holland, Michigan: “It is good to have an end to journey toward,” the banner said, “But it is the journey that matters in the end.”
I learned that even when you think you’ve “conquered” or “kicked the ass” of something big, like a continent, there’s always something even bigger out there that can kick your ass right back, like an ocean. This lesson was driven home to me right in the middle of our Rocky Balboa moment at Gloucester Harbor. We were gathered on the waterfront around the city’s Fisherman’s Memorial, which was dedicated in 1923 to all the fishermen who had died plying their trade from that port in the three preceding centuries. The memorial depicts a fisherman struggling at the wheel of a listing ship in the midst of a fearsome storm. The inscription on the memorial is simple and stark. It just says: “They That Go Down To The Sea In Ships.”
I remember feeling a big lump in my throat when I read that inscription.
I have thought back alot to that summer of 1997 in recent weeks as I’ve started another journey through the treatment of my brain cancer. Much of what I learned on that trip is helping to shape my attitude for this one. I’m not really thinking much about what the last mile of this journey will look like or be like, whether it’s good or bad. I’m just enjoying all of the miles that I know will come between now and then. I take comfort in that knowledge each weekday, when I hop on my bicycle and ride from my house to my radiation treatments at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
The distance is exactly one mile.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms lately. They can be very interesting places. Here’s what reader Leslie had to say about her son’s own experience with them during his journey through brain-cancer treatment:
“My son traveled the same road you’re on–mask and all. He was first diagnosed in 2001 and was treated with surgery and chemo. He had a recurrence in 2006 — this time treated with surgery and radiation. He currently has MRI’s every 6 months We trekked to Yale New Haven Hospital 5 days a week for 6 weeks for John’s treatments. I found the waiting area in the radiation center to be a place where all ‘masks’ were removed. I listened to the hard core biker giving tips to the high school Spanish teacher on how to keep his 12-year-old vehicle running for another 10 years. I watched the wife of a business executive who was being treated, dressed in her usual designer duds, hold an infant who had vomited all over himself while the mom, who was on Medicaid, (everyone discussed their insurance plan openly) went to the parking lot to get clean clothes for the baby. And there was the Yale Professor and the woman who worked cleaning offices in New Haven for the last 35 years doing the crossword puzzle together every day. These are all people that probably would have never crossed paths and would have not had the opportunity to view life through the eyes of someone who would have otherwise been foreign to them. Hospital waiting rooms are the great equalizer.”
I don’t think I could describe that phenomenon any better than Leslie did. I can only say that it is consistent with my past few weeks in waiting-room settings where people share emotions and talk about the common experience of fighting for their lives.
But way before now, I had already been paying some attention to what’s been going on with waiting rooms in general. I had taken note of the overall decline of the old-fashioned idea of the waiting room. It used to be a fairly common experience to have to sit in a relatively confined space with total strangers awaiting some mutual unpleasantness with no way to pass the time but to find interest in one another’s company. Even when lives were not at stake, you might strike up worthwhile conversations with people you’d otherwise never have occasion to meet. You’d get to know those people a little bit, if only to talk about jobs, politics, sports, traffic or some other superficial subject. Some types of waiting rooms — such as the small holding areas outside medical offices or driver’s license bureaus or in auto-repair shops — tended to be more intimate and conducive to this type of random interaction than others. And even in larger, more impersonal areas –such as an airports or train terminals — you might not start a conversation but at least you could sit there in silence, reading a book or a newspaper and consciously sharing a common physical space for a little while.
In today’s society, for better or worse, changing technology has turned space for random, in-person human interaction into a endangered habitat. Opportunities for flesh-and-blood togetherness, even it its most unremarkable forms, are growing more rare.
The first encroachment came a long time ago, when blaring television sets routinely began to be mounted on brackets high on the walls of small waiting rooms. Sure, providing a television seemed like a nice thing to do to help people pass the time. But is it really that nice when there are lots of people and only one screen that is dominating the entire room? I’ve been in relatively small spaces where groups of up to two dozen people have suddenly been taken hostage by the tastes of someone who had decided earlier to tune the channel to something like Judge Judy or COPS or Bill Cosby Show reruns. When the TV is blaring, most conversation stops — unless it is to react as a group to something outrageous or hilarious that has just unfolded on the screen. Few people ever have the nerve to get up in front of such a group and change the channel, let alone turn off the TV.
But the real death blow to waiting rooms was dealt more recently — by cell phones, e-mail, texting, and laptop computers. Now people in waiting rooms don’t even have to acknowledge one another’s presence or pretend to share the same physical reality at all. They can just stay lost in their own, remote cyber-worlds. Even the shared experience of sitting at an airport-terminal gate area and waiting to board the plane has completely changed. It no longer exists, really. It’s just like any other place to park your body while your mind and the rest of your life are somewhere else. The idea of the common social context of a public waiting room — however mundane — has been blasted away.
I don’t know if that’s really such a horrible thing, especially considering what we have realized in return: Instant and constant communication with people we love, global connectivity, more speed and efficiency in conducting personal and business matters, new support networks (such as the one that has popped up here for me) that transcend physical boundaries, the works. I just think the disappearance of the old waiting-room experience is something worth noting. And without passing judgment, we should at least be obliged to consider what we lost at each step in exchange for what we gained.
The old-style waiting room experience was based on what database and communications experts would call the “one-to-one” relationship: One person talking and listening to one other person and both sides deriving pretty much equal value from the exchange. Pretty homey, but also pretty primitive.
When we traded up from that to the blaring TV on the wall-bracket, we ventured into “one-to-many” territory: One central source of information (the blaring TV set) transmitting to several receivers (the people in the waiting room). Very efficient in terms of transmission and reception of a single message, but very little value in the way of exchange. Was that trade-off worth it? Who is in charge of the message?
Today’s waiting room full of cell phones and handheld computers is a model of the “many-to-many” relationship: Many transmitters and receivers of data, many messages, all coming and going at once, no physical boundaries, communications value piling up faster than you are able to even measure it. The immediate environment matters no more than the brand names of the computers being used to transmit the messages. The specific waiting room you happen to be in is irrelevant because you have escaped its confines. The entire world is now one big waiting room. We’re all waiting for our next e-mail, our next phone call or voicemail, the next post on our favorite blog. So is that a good thing? Is that how we really want to live?
A couple years ago while waiting in the gate area to board a plane at Kansas City International Airport, I was watching all the other passengers lost in their fragmented cyber-worlds. Then I started thinking about all the people on the other ends of all those cell phone conversations and text-messaging sessions emanating from my waiting room at that precise moment. I thought it would be an interesting idea to bring those remote participants together as characters in a play. They’d be even be more alien than total strangers, they would be strangers to the second power. Not only would they have never met before, but they would have no reason even to be sharing the same physical space until the curtain was raised on the play. It would be only through the artifice of drama that they would have been brought together from all over the world into one windowless room with no television set and no other means of communicating with the outside. They would have comfortable chairs and refreshments and they would be able to interact with one another. But what would they talk about? Would they understand why they were all there? What would they think they were waiting for? How long would it take them to figure out that their only common link was that in the instant before coming together in that room, each of them had been communicating with someone who was at that moment waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight from Kansas City to Orlando? Would they ever figure it out? If not, would they be able to find that they had anything in common? In the hands of a good playwright, I think it could make a pretty decent story. Maybe someone has already written it — or some variant of it, perhaps as a Twilight Zone episode.
I wouldn’t know how to do it, which is why I’m just throwing the idea out there. Meanwhile, I will continue to savor my time in real hospital waiting rooms, sitting with other cancer patients, one-to-one, talking about what it is like to be alive. Right now.
Each day, thousands of commuters drive past the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at 1400 S. Orange Avenue in Orlando, FL, without giving a second thought to the amazing things that go on in there. Just a few decades ago, simply getting access to such a bustling hub of cutting-edge technology would have required the derring-do of James Bond. You would have had to strip to your underwear, put on a facemask and snorkel, then dive into a forbidden pool of water before swimming underwater into a mountain hideout with Ursula Andress at your side. Once inside, you would then have been required to deliver a couple of judo chops to the neck of a clueless, clipboard-carrying worker drone, drag his unconscious body from view, quickly change into his gray coveralls and white hardhat and grab the keys to his evil, golfcart-like transporter. Oh…and then you’d have to knock out some other worker drone to get some duds for Ursula.
Now imagine doing all that with cancer. But at M.D. Anderson, you don’t have to judo-chop anyone. These are the good guys. You just walk right in through some automatic doors, walk past a player-piano that’s filling the lobby with soothing jazz and then scan your very own “I’m-A-Cancer-Patient” card through a barcode reader at the front desk. Then you head down polished hallways straight past all the smiling workers and technicians to your personal radiation machine. It’s waiting there for you each day at your own appointed time, as if it were nothing more complicated than a dryer at the laundromat. Mine is called the Novalis BrainLab, and it’s an instrument designed to treat brain tumors with minimally invasive technology that kills all the bad stuff without harming the surrounding good brain tissue. It does this by aiming several precisely shaped beams of radiation from various directions so they intersect one another right at the targeted point of treatment. Each beam by itself wouldn’t be strong enough to hurt anything (which is why it can safely travel through all the healthy stuff). But at the point where two or more beams intersect, it creates enough energy to fry the cancer cells. In my case, the doctors are zapping an area that extends about 2 centimeters outward from the area where the tumor was surgically removed. The idea is that the powerful radiation in conjunction with my chemotherapy medicine will destroy the gazillions of microscopic cancer cells in that area as if they were expendable worker drones fleeing the exploding mountain lair in the climactic finale of that James Bond movie.
The man who programmed Novalis to perform my specific treatment is Dr. Naren Ramakrishna, who is my radiation oncologist and who also happens to be M.D Anderson’s Director of Neurologic and Pediatric Radiation Oncology. His resume is pretty impressive, even if you leave out all the stuff about his training at Cornell University, Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York and The Johns Hopkins Hospital Oncology Center. Because after that:
“Dr. Ramakrishna served for eight years on the faculty of Harvard Medical School where he was an Instructor in Radiation Oncology. He was also the Chief of Central Nervous System Radiation Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Director of the CNS Radiation Oncology fellowship program. He is a diplomat of both the United States Medical licensing Examination and the American Board of Radiology. Dr. Ramakrishna’s extensive research is published in numerous medical journals and textbooks and he is often invited as a guest speaker to conferences and universities.”
Those are some of the most prestigious cancer-fighting credentials one can have. So I’m figuring that getting Dr. Ramakrishna to M.D. Anderson was somehow part of the same deal that sent Shaquille O’Neal to Cleveland, and may even be part of the reason the Orlando Magic no longer have star forward Hedo Turkoglu on their team anymore. Whatever the case, even though I’m a major Magic fan, I don’t care. I’m just glad he’s the guy in charge of zapping my head.
The title of this post (“A Beam Of Pure Intelligence”) is as much about Dr. Ramakrishna as it is about all the fancy Novalis hardware. Because when you sit in a room and talk to him, his calming presence and total command of what he is doing make you feel as if you are in the presence of such a beam. He also pulls no punches. When I met with him Wednesday at the completion of my first week of treatments, for example, he gently reminded me that there is no such thing as “curing” a glioblastoma tumor and being declared “cancer free.” That’s never happened with GBM, despite the way some patients might have interpreted their own cases. Rather, the goal of my treatment is to manage my cancer so I can enjoy life for as long as is possible — possibly for many years. I get the distinction.
Now back to BrainLab, which is where I walked again today right after my meeting with Dr. R. For the machine to physically accomplish all of Dr. Ramakrishna’s intricate orders requires some maneuvers that owe more to The Matrix than to James Bond. Wearing my street clothes, I lie flat on my back on a steel slab while the cheerful radiation therapists lock my head into position with a plastic mask that has been molded to fit me perfectly. Then the steel slab slides onto a 360-degree turntable, which lifts me up so that my face is positioned just under the main eye of the yellow-and-white Novalis machine. It’s a giant machine, but it can pivot, twist and turn in any direction in order to get the radiation-beam angles just right. I just lie there quietly as the nice therapists lock me up, line me up, chat me up and finally ask me what kind of music I’d like to listen to during the session. I always say whatever is playing is fine (mostly light rock and oldies). Then comes the only really scary part, when the therapists say “Okay, we’re ready to go. See you later!” Then they head for the cover of the control room, pulling a six-inch thick solid steel door closed behind them. The machinery whirs to life and my little Matrix turntable starts spinning me around in this or that direction while the Novalis spins over, under and around me like a massive potato-masher-shaped break dancer. I just close my eyes, because all the music and movement makes me a little dizzy. (I’m such an old man.) When the radiation beams are actually administered, all I see are green flashes lighting up the outside of my eyelids. It’s sort of like sleeping in a tent during a bad lightning storm.
But hey, it’s all over in less than 15 minutes. And it’s sure alot better than what I’m told was the old technology, which was more akin to having your head shoved like a Pop Tart into a giant toaster oven that heats up everything in hopes of killing something. One of my techs told me it might take an hour just to get your hearing back after just one session of that stuff.
Instead, after my date with the BrainLab is over, I just say goodbye to the therapists, walk back across those polished floors and out the front door of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Then I hop on my bicycle and ride home.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Anyone who wants to watch a 4-minute video of the Novalis machine in action can click this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqTKsCzbrBY. The surgical procedure described in the video is not the same thing as my radiation treatment, but the machine, the technology and its movements are pretty much the same and will give you a good idea of how it works.
My first major mistake as a cancer patient: Thinking I was bigger than my medicine.
It happened last weekend. In conjunction with taking the daily Temodar capsule for my chemotherapy, I’m supposed to take an anti-nausea pill (Zofran generic equivalent, which we’ll just call ‘Z’) to counter any potential adverse effects in that direction. One of the nurses at the special dispensing pharmacy told me I would probably get used to the medication after about a week or so and could gradually wean myself off the Z pill. I was glad to hear that, because side effects of Z include drowsiness and (how do I say this delicately?) slowing your intestinal tract down to the equivalent of the Holland Tunnel during a rush-hour bomb threat.
Last Thursday — my first day of treatment — I took both pills as instructed, precisely two hours before my radiation therapy. Everything went great. My stomach didn’t even flutter once. The blue-and-white 140mg Temodar capsule looked as innocent as an Extra-Strength Tylenol. Maybe, I thought, I don’t even need the stupid anti-nausea medication. La-di-dah.
So on Friday I went commando. I took the Temodar but not the Zofran. Two hours later, on the radiation turntable, I started to feel the tiniest bit of queasiness. Three hours later, while shopping for a piece of salmon at the Publix fish counter, I started to feel downright woozy. So when I got home I immediately wussed out, popped a Zofran and took a nap. A few hours later I felt fine; good enough, in fact, to eat that tasty piece of salmon.
Saturday was a different story. Since there was no radiation that day, I didn’t have to take the Temodar until bedtime — around 11 p.m. I’d eaten a fairly light meal a few hours earlier, so I thought I’d be fine without the Zofran tab. I mean, I’m the same guy who just a few posts back was bragging about getting sick to his stomach only once in the past two decades.
Well, consider the streak over. At 2 a.m., I woke up staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. I felt as if my stomach had suddenly been transformed into Carnegie Hall at the close of a famous 1938 Benny Goodman big-band performance that’s still talked about today. (Why am I using another New York City landmark to describe a digestive-system malfunction? Is there a pattern here?) Anyway, the first subtle stirrings of Goodman’s final clarinet solo on the band’s classic performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” were just starting to tickle the walls of my gut. I would never hold myself out to be a disciplined jazz aficianado, but I do happen to own the live album of this legendary concert and I knew exactly what was coming next: The thermonuclear, full-orchestral finish powered by Gene Krupa’s mighty drumkit. So I knew it was time to roll out of the sack and head for the bathroom. When I got there, let’s just say I wasn’t sing-sing-singing at all. But the crowd in my stomach was roar-roar-roaring and demanding an encore after that. The Goodman band played two encores that night in 1938. By daybreak on Sunday, I had played three.
By then, only my dog Chopper was left in the audience and all he wanted was to be taken for his morning walk. He sat quietly at attention on the bathroom threshhold and watched me (in what I took to be utter dog disgust) as I lay curled up on the rug and daylight filtered in through the window. All I could think about was how stupid I had been. I had treated a powerful, modern, cancer-fighting drug as casually as one might treat a cold tablet. There’s a reason this stuff can kill brain-cancer cells. There’s a reason 42 pills cost $12,000. It’s basically one of the most sophisticated poisons ever made: Probably powerful enough to kill rats but calibrated enough to go after only the rogue DNA in my brain that turns polite, well-behaved cells into freedom-hating (or me-hating) terrorist, cancer cells. One does not screw around with the U.S. Department of Defense, or with this kind of medicine.
So starting Sunday night, Zofran became my best buddy. I slept really well, stayed away from Carnegie Hall, and felt great Monday morning.
I also learned an important lesson, something my Mom already taught me along with wash your hands, brush your teeth, eat your vegetables and look both ways before you cross the street: ALWAYS FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS.
In the cancer treatment system, brain tumors can be found in two equally important groups: The dog owners who get them and the canines who cause them. These are their stories.
So, shortly after my diagnosis with a glioblastoma multiforme tumor, I did what any self-respecting (former) journalist would do: I tried to keep my eyes from glazing over during conversations with the medical professionals who are actually treating me, then went home and Googled the term “glioblastoma” to educate myself with totally unsourced but easy-to-read research aimed at no one in particular. Imagine my dismay when the second paragraph of the Wikipedia article on GBM whacks me over the head with this little factoid that my doctors had carefully kept hidden:
“Glioblastomas are also an important brain tumor of the canine, and research is ongoing to use this as a model for developing treatments in humans.”
So, deciding that the time had come for some heavy postdoctoral-level research, I clicked the hyperlink taking me to another page called “Canine Brain Tumors” and this is what it said (dog owners, pay attention):
“Cancer of the nervous system is common in domestic canids to include primary neoplasia of the peripheral nervous system, primary neoplasia of the central nervous system and various metastatic cancers. Some of the most common of the central nervous system tumors are several types of primary (originating from brain tissue) canine brain tumors. Examples of these include: meningiomas, astrocytomas, glioblastomas, oligodendriomas, choroid plexus papillomas, and pituitary adenomas. Breeds predisposed to brain tumors include: Boxer Dog, Pug, English Bull Dog, Boston Terrier, and Golden Retrievers.”
Because I am an extremely thorough investigator, I read that entire paragraph. I was somewhat encouraged to learn that my dogs are not on that list of breeds. They are both Jack Russell Terriers that I found through rescue groups in 2008. Chopper is a 2-year-old black and white male with probably a bit of rat terrier mixed in. He was turned in at a pet shelter near Inverness, Fla., by a young woman who thought he was so adorable she couldn’t stand to live with him. (That happens a lot with feisty, high-energy Jack Russells like Chopper, especially after the TV Show Frasier went into syndication. It also happens a lot with humans in general in rural Citrus County, where women regularly adopt adorable but ultimately unbearable males and later kick them out of the house). Kaley is the brown-and-white female whose age is somewhat in question. She was a stray dog taken into the pound in Miami-Dade County and saved by an organization called Russell Rescue Inc., which is how I adopted her. She’s supposedly just two or three years old, based on a veterinary exam. But everyone who sees her believes she is definitely many years older than Chopper. She has a very sweet disposition and is not nearly as rambunctious as Chopper.
Chopper does stuff like unreel whole rolls of toilet paper and root through wastebaskets to pull items out and then spirit them away to his Supersecret Dog Hiding Place That No One Else In The Cosmos Knows About (under my bed). Kaley, on the other hand, sleeps. But when Chopper finally gets on her last nerve, she puts the hammer down and lets him know who’s boss. If she gets pissed off at him, sometimes she’ll stand in the doorway and not let him come into the house. Kaley is afraid of no dog, no matter what its size. A couple months ago, she stood her ground against a young female Doberman in the park where we all go walk twice a day. The Doberman ran away, but only after taking a chomp out of Kaley’s hindquarters that cost $300 to stitch up. Then just last weekend, in the same park, both Chopper and Kaley shot out with the speed of a couple of heat-seeking torpedos to meet a huge Mastiff-Weimaranar mix that was surging toward us like a Los Angeles class nuclear-powered submarine. When the Mastiff part of the big dog simply growled and barked, Chopper veered off as if anti-torpedo chaff had been deployed. But Kaley dug in and started barking back and scratching at the ground, getting right in the huge hound’s face. He returned the courtesy by taking her entire wriggling body between his jaws and pinning her to the ground on her back. Thank God for the gentle Weimaranar half of him. He didn’t even break any skin, just held her there firmly until his owner and I reached the scene. When I took Kaley into my arms, she was trembling with her eyes ablaze, ears swept back, heart racing at about 200 beats a minute and coat soaked all over with Big Dog Spit. It took about 10 minutes to calm her down. I’m still not sure she’s learned her lesson about mixing it up with big dogs, though.
Anyway, both Chopper and Kaley are good enough dogs to be left loose in the house whenever I go out. Still, when I’ve been out for a couple hours and come back to find that any mischief has been made (such as papers strewn on the floor, a sock in the middle of the kitchen or a chair leg chewed on) I automatically blame Chopper. And he usually goes along with that storyline by looking guilty as hell and skulking away while I pet Kaley. This is yet another example of how dysfunctional families are so much more organizationally efficient than healthy families that waste so much time tracing problems to their roots, talking things through and arriving at solutions that lead to personal growth for everyone involved.
So in that spirit, I’m just blaming Chopper for causing my brain tumor. Might as well. Between the 10 minutes of solid-gold, unassailable Wikipedia research I did and his crazy and mischievous behavior in general, I’m developing a theory that brain tumors can leap from canines to humans, and that that’s exactly what happened here. By the way, my real name is District Attorney Jack McCoy, and I still say my hottest assistant was Claire Kincaid and no, we were NOT having a steamy affair during her years on the show. Now I just need to send Briscoe and Logan to do some follow-up detective work and then we’ll just tidy this whole mess up after the next commercial break.
I believe I have a pretty good case against Chopper, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Don’t you?
I’ve been thinking lately about why the idea of the individual case of terminal cancer commands such enduring dramatic interest in our society. There are plenty of other life-ending cards people are dealt that are just as horrible and way more tragic in the end. People can be struck dead in a random instant in all kinds of ways — by lightning, in a car or airplane crash, in a shooting or fire, in an accidental fall from a great height. There are other incurable diseases that are equally or more debilitating over the long haul — those who suffer from multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis come right to mind. People have heart attacks and die on the sidewalk all the time. They get hit by buses. Or they suffer from mental illnesses that lead to suicide or fatal substance abuse. Or they waste away with Alzheimer’s disease. And let’s not even get ourselves started on the tragedy of the individual deaths that pour forth from wars, genocides and natural disasters.
Right now, I’d rather be dealing with my terminal but potentially manageable brain cancer than to be in any of the situations I just listed. In that twisted sense, I feel lucky.
So what is it about terminal cancer, then, that seems to set it apart and get people so wound up, so personally invested, time after time? How is it that there is this ready-made narrative that people seem to know by heart and are able to latch onto so instinctively? I think it’s because people naturally respond to drama, and lots of cancer cases have all the classic elements that make for the best drama. At the core of the cancer drama is that it is viewed paradoxically as “incurable” but at the same time is known to be “beatable.” There is sadness, yet it is mixed with hope. From that essential conflict, you can just cue up the basic, five-act narrative structure that has been a bankable formula for packing cinema multiplexes and theater houses since Shakespeare made it so popular in Elizabethan England, and going back even further than that to when it was perfected by the ancient Greeks. Act One unfolds by introducing us to both the too-young-to-die protagonist and the evil villain that is the devastating diagnosis. Then Act Two carries things forward by bringing in more complexity and texture, more medical details, the rallying of doctors, family and friends, the wearing of yellow bracelets and bandanas or the shaving of heads in solidarity. In Act Three, we get the marshalling of all available scientific resources to confront the dark force as we approach the climax of the uphill battle against all odds to “beat” the “unbeatable” disease. But dramatic tension is preserved because the final outcome is still unknown (this is crucial). Acts Four and Five take us through either the heroic recovery of the protagonist or his tragic death and the resulting fallout from either outcome. And either ending does make for a good story in a strictly dramaturgical sense. So that’s that.
Now let’s look at the other examples I mentioned of how death commonly expresses itself in individual human stories and consider how they fail on the level of sustainable drama:
1. Sudden accidental death of any kind. Failing: The play is over before it can begin.
2. Wasting incurable, diseases of all sorts. Failing: The outcome is known from the start, there’s not a lot of action to follow and the movie runs too long.
3. Mental illness, substance abuse and suicide. Failing: Too dark. People don’t like talking about it, and they just turn away. Nobody’s going to buy tickets for that.
4. Alzheimer’s and old age: See #2 and #3.
5. Wars and natural disasters. Failing: These make good action movies, but individual human lives are mere props here. (See Joe Stalin: “An individual death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”)
I don’t go into all of this to be blithe about the nature of my specific illness, nor to minimize the real human pain that cancer doles out to its individual victims and their loved ones. But all of those other manifestations of individual death and disability I mentioned deal out equally intense human pain at all of the very same levels. I saw a slice of this myself when I was coming out of my fog in the intensive care unit after the surgery to remove my tumor. Whole families would file past my door and down the hall, wide-eyed and wondering what they would find when they stepped past a curtain into their loved-one’s room — a loved one who most likely had suffered a sudden, unexpected heart attack or been mortally wounded in a common accident or shooting. And often I would see those families going back the other direction a few minutes later in tears, adults and kids devastated and crying, holding up each other for support as they walked away. Chances are, I thought, there is to be no further drama in those sad stories. The outcomes have already been written. No one will be shaving their heads in solidarity with those people. They’ll just be going to a funeral in the next day or two and scattering some ashes or shoveling dirt on a grave.
People ask me how I can remain so positive and upbeat about my situation in the face of such uncertainty. Part of the reason is that I don’t see my cancer diagnosis as a drama. I don’t conceive of it as an uphill battle against all odds to beat something that is unbeatable. As a 49-year-old man who already has experienced a lot to be grateful for and who has no immediate dependents, I’m not really interested in that kind of story right now anyway. Right now I see my diagnosis as something else entirely. It is a gift that will give me the opportunity to learn more than I thought I would ever know about the mysterious line between life and death. In the meantime, it will teach me to love the people I love even more, and to hold them more closely than ever. It will bring me incredible amounts of life-giving strength from the support of friends, past acquaintances and even total strangers. Many people don’t ever get that chance. They either just live, or they just die, and they never get to see what’s in between. But my diagnosis puts the idea of death in slow motion. It lets me pick up death in my hand and turn it over again and again to study it in its every small detail. I can hold it up to the sunlight each precious day that I remain alive and see it illuminated from any angle I choose.
It is as if Death has softly perched itself on my shoulder in the form of a wild and rare bird. In this form it will neither kill me immediately nor has it yet chosen to kill me slowly and inevitably — as it routinely does to so many people in its so many other, more fearsome forms. Instead, it will allow me to hold it for awhile and to look it calmly in the eye. It may even talk to me. After that, of course, the Death Bird may decide to burrow itself into my head and build another nest to lay a second egg-shaped tumor in my brain — and so kill me in that fashion. Or it may just fly away from me as unexpectedly as it landed, never to visit again until the time comes for it to return to me years or even decades from now; not as a bird, but in another of its myriad forms.
I hope the bird does fly away one day, and I think there is a pretty good chance it might. I guess then I will be able to say I have “beaten” cancer. But I will not gloat, because I will not have beaten Death. No one ever does.
The digital image “Bird of Death” is by the artist Judith Barath, more of whose work can be found at: http://www.judithbarathart.com
Sometime after my career and I decided to get married, we learned that we would be unable to have children together. So we ended up adopting. That’s how I wound up with an extended family full of newspaper people.
I always knew deep down that I could not do newspaper work at the level I hungered to do it without pouring every ounce of my life, ego and mental energy into it. In other words, I didn’t think I was good enough to be as good as I really wanted to be and still have enough of my soul left over for too many other things, especially time to properly attend to a family. That sounds like a pretty lazy and selfish attitude, I realize. And I envied those who could do both. But short of that, newspaper people make pretty good family. It’s not like we literally have to live together under the same roof, or even talk on the phone more than once or twice a year. It’s just more like we’re part of a tribe that sticks together forever.
Friends that I made, was mentored by and whom I mentored during more than 25 years working in newspapers have reached out to me from everywhere since learning of my sudden hospitilization, surgery and follow-up treatment for brain cancer. Many are still among my closest friends. But even people from way back — folks that I’d lost touch with — made the effort to contact me and express their concern and support. In every case, all time and distance vanished the moment I heard their voices on my phone or answering machine, or read their e-mails or opened my mailbox to find their cards written in handwriting I still instantly recognized without even having to look at the return address.
The newsroom at the Orlando Sentinel — a place I have not set foot in since I left it more than two years ago — took up a collection and bought me an Amazon Kindle and a nice gift certificate to go with it. A big group stopped by to deliver it to me personally a couple days after I got home from the hospital. Other friends and colleagues from my newsroom days have trooped over to my house to check in on me, bring me food, take me or meet me for lunch or just come sit and talk for a couple hours. They’ve offered to give me rides to and from treatments. I am extremely grateful.
I have already written about my appreciation for the level of care and attention that I received from paramedics, nurses and other health-care workers while I was in the hospital. All of them belong to the so-called “giving” professions, hence their generosity. Newspaper people, though, would never pretend to be part of a giving profession.
Generally speaking, newspaper people belong to more of a “taking” profession (ie., taking money from readers, taking money from advertisers and taking a lot of crap from pretty much everyone else). But when one of their own needs help — even a member of the tribe who has wandered off — newspaper people can give, too.
Be careful what you mock in your youth, because what goes around comes around and the target of your mockery will often get the last laugh. A long time ago, my target was something called The Mask, and now it is finally getting its revenge.
In 1991, I moved from the Orlando Sentinel newsroom to its Washington DC bureau to be a national correspondent. One of my colleagues in the bureau at that time was Craig Crawford, who is now a successful blogger and cable TV news pundit on the Washington scene. But in those days, both Craig and I were just a couple more faces in the countless ranks of “regional newspaper reporters” in the nation’s capital. That meant we were essentially nobodies in the pecking order of Washington politics and journalism. In that city, then as always, the acceptably polite greeting at social events was not “How do you do?” but “What do you do?” And if what you did wasn’t important or impressive enough in the inquistor’s eyes, the conversation was over before it could begin. You got the X-Ray stare as they looked right through you or over your shoulder for someone with a better answer.
Craig and I dealt with this in a fairly predictable and juvenile fashion: Through mockery. Sure, we did our jobs, covering our local congressional delegation and the specialized beats and issues that were important to our readers. You could do decent and rewarding work that way, finding good stories on your beat, developing sources within your limited sphere of influence, getting people to return your phone calls to flesh out good stories and keeping the editors at the home office happy. I even managed to school myself in the growing discipline of computer-assisted reporting, which at that time had cast off the shackles of clunky mainframes and was leaping forward on the backs of ever-more-powerful desktop computers. But on the bigger stories, forget it. Even if you were by chance able to get through to an important newsmaker, you often spent half the conversation just spelling the word Sentinel before he or she gave you the bum’s rush and hung up on you.
So in our court of two judges, anyone who was adept at playing “the Washington game” — be they powerful politician or famous journalist or merely a pretender in either profession — was guilty of having fallen under the spell of what we called The Mask. In our minds, The Mask had the power to cast those who wore it into an eternal fog of self-importance, pomposity, pretentiousness, arrogance, insincerity and phoniness; eradicating their common-sense, clouding their judgment, undermining their integrity and making them not worthy of further serious consideration or respect from regular, sane folks like us. It didn’t matter if you were President George H.W. Bush or Ben Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor and pooh-bah of insider journalism, who was always publicly proclaiming his tough-guy desire to “give my left nut” for one story after another (‘How many of those can one guy have to give?’ I always wondered. ‘Is he walking around with a sack of marbles in his pants?’). Anyway, no one was immune to the powers of The Mask nor exempt from our derision. We even theorized that The Mask was extending its ominous reach from the confines of Washington into broader American society, as evidenced by regular warnings from airline flight attendants that adult passengers “put the mask on yourselves” before coming to the aid of their own children in the event of an in-flight emergency. So, we thought, oxygen-starved kids on commercial flights would be the final barrier of resistance in the relentless onslaught of The Mask.
Had it been 2009 instead of 1991, Craig and I could have just started up a blog to vent our professional frustrations and publish our insane theories. But the World Wide Web was still a couple years away, and the concept of blogs trailed several more years behind that. I’m not even sure if the word “snark” had been coined yet, but that’s what we were practicing. Our court was in session most often during Friday happy hours at an excellent bar on 17th Street called Boss Shepherd’s, which got its name from a corrupt, 19th Century Washington political boss. The only audience for our proclamations was a gigantic collection of liquor bottles, which in my memory stood like spectators in a magnificent stadium stretching across the entire 25-foot length of the bar. The bottles were lined up side-by-side and bottom-to-top on backlit, bleacher-like shelves that rose up toward the ceiling in six, maybe eight, or maybe even ten levels. We’d sit there and smoke Marlboro Lights and sample many of the delights from those glowing bottles. Every once in awhile we’d order a beer, as Craig joked, just to settle our stomachs. The bartender took our money and ignored our political theorizing, but we didn’t care.
During one such session, Craig happened to look up and notice a bottle we’d never seen before. It was an oddly shaped bottle positioned high on the top shelf, and almost at the center of the bar. The bottle was a dull black, and seemed to be carved in a strange shape. We asked the bartender to hand it down so we could study it more closely. It was a 90-proof Peruvian brandy called ‘Inca Pisco.’ Normally we would have asked for a taste, but Craig’s eyes grew wide and a smile lit up his face as he brushed layers of dust from the bottle to study it more closely, as if he were a barstool archaeologist. The front of the bottle was carved in the shape of a face — the face of what looked to be a smiling Inca with half-closed eyes. “Look! It’s the Mask!” Craig cried out. “The Mask!” He hurriedly pushed the bottle away as if were a relic from a forbidden tomb and told the bartender to take it back and return it to its place on the shelf immediately. We had a good laugh at our discovery, and pretended we had narrowly missed falling drunkenly into the snakepit of Washington insiderdom.
Well, of course, the bottle and the bar then became legendary in our eyes. Every time we went into Boss Shepherd’s after that, we looked up in mock fear at The Mask sitting high up on its shelf and imagined that it was now the one holding court — trying to cast us, too, under its spell. But for a long time, we never asked again to handle it, let alone drink from it. Our abstinence only heightened its power and mystery as the source of all that was evil and unfair and phony about Washington. We vowed that we would never become wearers of The Mask.
Then one happy hour we decided, what the hell. Let’s have a pour. So the bartender pulled the bottle down, yanked out its crumbly cork and dribbled out what turned out to be its last few ounces of Inca Pisco into our waiting shot glasses. We each took a sip, and thought it tasted awful and sour. That bottle must have been sitting up there for years without anyone ordering a drink from it. But we made much of the fact that we had finally taken on The Mask directly and beaten it on its own turf, draining the last drops of life from it. I even asked the bartender if I could take the empty bottle home with me so I could display it on my bookshelf like some sort of war trophy. He was more than happy to play his part in our little game. Otherwise, he would have just tossed it into the trash barrel.
But The Mask was not finished with either of us, not by a long shot. Drinking its final drops may have led us each to surrender to it later, in two entirely different ways.
Not long after that episode, Craig and I moved on to other jobs. He was hired to be the editor of The Hotline, a low-tech but brilliantly conceived aggregator of political news from sources all over the country that was the precursor to today’s ubiquitous array of political websites and blogs. One of a kind in those days, The Hotline was invented by a very down-to-earth and unassuming man named Doug Bailey. It was produced each day from political news scissor-clipped from papers around the country, pasted up, printed up and hand-delivered by noon to its many subscribers around Washington. One of Craig’s first big headaches after being hired there in 1997 was completing the transition to a “fax edition”, but lots of the old-time subscribers resisted — clinging to their addiction to the more handsomely printed hand-delivered edition. How funny to think about such a delivery-system controversy these days. But considered a must-read among the cognoscente, The Hotline propelled Craig to a higher profile in Washington that enabled him to take his first real steps toward the success he enjoys today. Suddenly, people at parties in DC weren’t looking through Craig with X-ray eyes anymore. He was the same old Craig, but now they wanted to actually talk to him. The Post even did a big splash on him in its Style section. He was getting included in events we once made fun of, like the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. Craig to this day still chafes a bit about going to such boring affairs. But he admits that, in more than just a teensy-tinsy way, he had himself become a wearer of The Mask out of pure practicality. But I like to think that Craig really became its master, since his unique insights about Washington have survived and are expressed on his blog, TV appearances and places like the Don Imus show. His take on the day’s news is still driven by the spirit of our crazy ranting at those happy hour sessions at Boss Shepherd’s.
I moved back to Orlando in 1999 to become Projects Editor In Charge Of Investigations That Typically Take Months To Complete and a couple years later was pulled onto an obscure, uphill and soul-killing stretch of the upper-management track into a job called Associate Managing Editor In Charge Of Getting Hit Over The Head By One Hundred Baseball Bats A Day. In that post, I oversaw a deeply talented staff of about 90 reporters and editors covering local and state news. Washington became a distant memory to me over those years as my hair fell out and my waistline grew under the stress of working late each night actually having to put out a daily newspaper instead of just heading to the bar after work to crack wise. Today, I’m out of the business and all the cuts that have been made to newspaper newsrooms across the country have shrunk my dear old metro staff to probably half its former size. The cuts also have sadly reduced the once-swollen and striving ranks of “regional reporters” in the capital city. Even the major papers that were once the masters of the Beltway now find themselves beleagured and challenged for scoops and relevance by new startup websites and bloggers. I’m sure the daily texture of the world of journalism in that city is entirely different than it was when Craig and I sat on our barstools and howled unpublishable inanities at our happy audience of bottles. But I hope that today’s no-name reporters, whatever their medium, are still finding time to cook up crazy Friday-night-happy-hour theories about imaginary dark forces such as The Mask.
Meanwhile, I still have my favorite souvenir from those days: That empty bottle of Inca Pisco from Boss Shepherd’s, once the dark ruler over all of Washington, now sits in retirement up on the highest shelf in my kitchen in Orlando, lord of my pots and pans and anything else that falls under its half-closed eyes. And now I have a new Mask to go with it. This one is made of a white, plastic mesh that was heated like soft wax and molded to fit my head perfectly like a custom, whole-head goalie’s mask. It’s sole purpose is to lock my head into place with bolts and hold it absolutely still on a steel table so that precisely aimed beams of radiation (way more powerful than any DC diss-ray) can zap the remnants of my brain tumor into smithereens day after day for the next six weeks. I did my first two doses on Thursday and Friday, but will get a break on weekends. So I, too, am now a wearer of The Mask. I kind of like it, even though it makes me look like the psycho terrorizing a teen summer camp in a slasher flick. It fits quite comfortably, and it may even help save my life.
So maybe some day after I get through this ordeal, I will take my new Mask with me on a trip to DC and wear it to a boring party of insiders. Craig would easily be able to sneak me in past the door. I’m sure I would scare the shit out of everyone.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Thanks for all the great comments. I’ve read every one of them. I had no idea so many people I don’t even know would reach out in such a supportive way. Since this blog was initially intended just to keep family and friends up to date on my progress, I didn’t include a lot of the basic background information about who the hell I am. But I’ll try to add more of that as we go along.