Step by Step

It’s starting out to be a good week, if nothing else but for an incredible accomplishment I made yesterday. When I went to work in the studio I took the stairs two at a time alternating left and right…pretty much the way everyone but me goes up stairs.

At first glance it doesn’t seem to be much of an accomplishment but consider the following:

  • Ever since I destroyed my left ankle I’ve taken any kind of step very carefully, moving just one level at a time. I’m building strength – which was one of the main reasons we moved the studio.
  • For the first time in my live I was able to shut the mental tape recorder and enjoy the moment. No running commentary on how fast I could run in 1983 or how many push-ups I could do in 1976. I just enjoyed the moment.

1977: Commitment and Cool-osity

There is a specific reason why I am re-running this post. During this past week I’ve ” thrown my wallet over the wall” again – we’ve moved the studio upstairs to the bonus room so I will be forced to transit the stairs several times a day and get some exercise whether I like/want it or not.  It might not seem like much, but with the inflammatory diseases I deal with any kind of exercise is simultaneously necessary AND painful and I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair.

David R. Deitrick, Designer

Making a commitment is rarely a comfortable thing to do.

I’ve got the kind of physique known as the “Cornish Coal Miner’s Build”, which means I have a long torso and relatively short legs.  With my short legs one of the hardest events on an obstacle course was the vertical wall – I could handle everything else but that wall was really hard for me to get over. There were many times when I’d just look both ways, then run around the wall if the coast was clear.

But when the coast wasn’t clear? Such was the case during a hot summer day at FT Lewis many years ago. A member of the training cadre was standing right next to the wall so I had no choice but to go over it in the proper manner. I stood there for a minute trying to think while the sergeant was “counseling”…

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Star Boy

Star BoyIt was  another one of those nights where I felt like I was breathing through a soda straw so at  2:00 AM I finally surrendered and left bed for the studio where I spent an hour or so reading a trade paperback collection of THE LEGION OF SUPERHEROES. Reprints of comics I’d read in the mid-1960s, the Legion stories are set in the 30th century and feature the wonderfully clunky art of John Forte. In my youthful estimation the Legion ran a close second to Batman because:

  •  The stories drew in both the superhero and science fiction genre
  •  The stories were about kids that I could readily identify with
  •   There was such a wide variety of both good and evil characters

 However, in some respects  that large number of characters could be a liability as well as an asset. Not only could it be difficult for an eleven-year old mind to keep up with all of the interweaving plot lines, I think that in the beginning the rush to pad out the roster gave us some fairly one-dimensional characters.

 A prime example is Star Boy, born Thom Kallor to parents living on an orbital platform about the planet Xanthu. While the character was eventually fleshed out and linked to several other notable DC heroes, in the earlier Legion stories his sole super power was the ability to make things heavy, and I’m not talking mother-in-law poundage: Heavy as in up to the weight of a planet.

 Hmmm. A superhero that can make things heavy, as in:

  • Helping  construction workers by making foundation blocks sink into the ground
  • Hiding  valuable objects by making them so heavy they’d sink into the ground
  •  Stop fleeing villains by making them so heavy they’d sink into the ground

 …and at this point I run out of ideas…Other than the “sinking into the ground” bit the main benefit to Star Boy’s power would be helping Kate Moss to get across the street on a windy day. Even as a kid I couldn’t figure out how he’s managed to stay on the Legion roster with such limitations, but as I drove past a city maintenance crew the other day I finally figured it all out.

 It was the stereotypical nine-guys-standing-around-one-guy-with-a-shovel scenario, but that mob was not what caught my interest. It was the older guy sitting sideways out of the passenger seat in the truck, doing absolutely nothing but drinking coffee. That’s when it hit me:  The Legion of Super Heroes is a union shop! Star Boy was hired early on and has so much seniority he can’t be “downsized” no matter how limited his powers may be.

Music: ” (Once Upon a Time) In Your Wildest Dreams”

 

There is a rare disease that afflicts anyone living near a theme park like Six Flags or Dollywood. It’s a painful ringing echo in your ears that comes from the endless repetition of radio advertisements for the park’s signature ride, usually a mammoth roller-coaster with a name like Avalanche, King Cobra or Hurtinator. In 1986 the signature ride for Utah’s Lagoon theme park was the Colossus rollercoaster and its radio spot was in heavy, heavy rotation on every AM and FM station along the Wasatch front. However, that commercial flood didn’t bother me much – in the spring of 1986 our life in general had become one big existential roller-coaster full of ups and downs in our income, health and quality of life.

The peaks included:

  • My career was really starting to take off. I was winning awards and making a regular income and as far as we could tell that trend would continue.
  • We moved into a larger/nicer home with the best studio space I’ve ever had.
  • I was able to fly home to Alaska for a visit to see my sister Robin graduate from college.

…while some of the valleys were:

  • Our car was broken into, resulting in a smashed window and stolen tape deck.
  • Lori suffered a miscarriage with serious complications.
  • I developed major back problems – severe pain,  spasms and lack of mobility.

At first, I assumed I’d just aggravated an old back injury1, but the pain grew daily until I woke up one Saturday morning unable to move. I dutifully put on the “captain face”, told jokes to the boys and made light of the situation but that schtick soon wore thin. A late-night phone call from  Mom2 just made the situation worse; she hinted at a grim, possibly fatal prognosis but refused to answer specific questions as she wasn’t “attending” (physically present).

The pain was unbearable, and I distinctly recall lying in bed expecting to go to sleep and never wake up again. Oddly enough that finality didn’t bother me as much as the physical pain; it may have been just the painkillers talking but I wasn’t worried about a Last Judgement – I was just sad at the thought of separation from Lori and not being around to raise my sons to adulthood.

As I started to drift off I felt more resigned than scared and was almost asleep when a song came on the radio that caught my attention. It was a simple synthesizer melody that slowly grew into a lush sound with symphonic backing to which an understated syncopated percussion joined in after a few measures. That soft cadence was in turn followed by a bass guitar – and at that point the combination of sounds was creating a slightly familiar but frustratingly unidentifiable sound…unidentifiable until the vocalist started singing and the last Lego snapped in place:

Once upon a time

Once when you were mine

I remember skies

Reflected in your eyes

It was Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, a progressive rock band that I’d been a devoted fan for decades…and when I say fan I mean dyed-in-the-wool DNA fan maintaining a complete set of their albums through two sets of vinyl and one set of cassette tapes.

(Note: We Moody blues fans are a snooty, opinionated lot comprised of three distinct camps divided by the group’s three incarnations:

1)    1964-1966: The original group featuring Denny Laine as lead vocalist, and doing mostly covers of American pop and R&B

2)    1967–1972: The “Core Seven” years when the band reigned as the premiere art progressive rock band producing one of the first concept albums “Days of Future Past”3

3)    1977-present: Now a Soft rock group recording synth-pop tunes like In Your Wildest Dreams – the tune that was currently playing)

As a staunch member of Group 2 I normally would have passed on a recent release like the song I was now hearing but for some reason I kept listening.

I wonder where you are

I wonder if you think about me

Once upon a time

In your wildest dreams

 It could have been nostalgia that kept me listening – at thirty-three you’ve lived just long enough to have something to look back at. Earlier in the summer we’d run into my former Best Friend and her family4 and since that time I’d been thinking more often about my time in Fairbanks (coincidentally the time of my peak interest in progressive rock) which brought me back to:

 Once the world was new

Our bodies felt the morning dew

That greets the brand-new day

We couldn’t tear ourselves away

I wonder if you care

I wonder if you still remember

Once upon a time

 It could have been the character of the group and their music in general. I always thought that the Moody Blues music was “stealth scripture” – necessary knowledge/ truth that would have been otherwise rejected by an audience had it been presented via traditional organized religion.

 And when the music plays

And when the words are touched with sorrow

When the music plays

And when the music plays

I hear the sound I had to follow

Once upon a time

In typical music industry fashion, the song faded out to an unheard conclusion, but it kept running through my mind for the rest of the evening. In my opinion it wasn’t even close to the quality of “The Story in Your Eyes”, “Question” or just about anything else they recorded during the Core-Seven years, but it did have a nice, reassuring feel, as if a good friend had stopped by to tell me that everything is going to be OK, mate!” That’s when I sat up in bed and realized that all the morbid thoughts I had earlier that day were gone, displaced by that new Moody Blues song and thoughts generated by it, proving again the “stealth scripture” aspect of music produced by Mr. Hayward and company.6

I wish I could say that after listening to “In Your Wildest Dreams” everything was OK and that I made a speedy recovery…but I can’t. I went through another 9 weeks of misery before the pain began to subside and while the condition5 causing the discomfort went into remission it returned with a vengeance fifteen years later and has continued unrelieved to this day.

However –  I did get to raise my sons (and a beautiful daughter) to adulthood and my beautiful Saxon Princess is still by my side. I’ve continued to create images with both paint, paper, wax and words.

…. and I am still listening to the Moody Blues.

 

 ______________________________________________________________________________________

 Notes:

1)    See 1985: Fighting Soldiers from The Sky

2)    A registered nurse

3)    For years we were told that the album was the product of collaborative magic between the Moody Blues and the London Festival Orchestra. The real story is a bit more pedestrian and starts with the group working off a hefty advance from DERAM Records…

4)    Including a spouse who bore an unnerving resemblance to the husband in the song’s official music video.

5)    Ankylosing Spondylitis: An autoimmune disease involving pain and inflammation along the vertebrae – a condition much like rheumatoid arthritis and connected in no way whatsoever to ankylosaur or any other type of large lizard.

6)    The fact that it was the Moody Blues singing the song was significant as well – I doubt I’d have listened as intently to any other musician(s) with the same intensity.

Lost Days

I can deal with most of the challenges of my life but I don’t handle “Lost Days” very well. Days that just don’t start out bad – they stay bad and I get very if anything done during the day.

 I’m told that at my age I should just slow down and enjoy life – and while I appreciate what people are trying to tell me I am hard- wired to be busy. Reading or watching the tube may seem like heaven to you but it’s hell for me.  I will be slowing down right about when the first shovel-full of dirt hits the top of my box.

 It’s very hard to “slow down” when I am:

  • ·       Goal-oriented
  • ·       Driven (to an extent)
  • ·       Competitive in that I constantly try to best my own efforts.

I woke up at 1:31 AM, then again at 4:14, 5:30 and 6:00. Each time it seemed like I was “awake for good” but each time I fell back asleep – hard. I didn’t fully wake up until 9:30 and I ended up staying awake because “distress in the lower tract” …and I am having a particularly nasty AS/RA flare that makes simple movement very painful.

 I won’t get much done – hence the term “lost day”.

 …which won’t be totally lost. I’ll call old friends and write to others. I’ll spend time with my grandson when he gets home. If I can do enough for other people it won’t feel quite so lost.   

2018: Bubble Wrap

It’s referred to as compassion overload.

Sad to say but there are times in my life when it feels like we’re so caught up in just hanging on by our fingertips – while so many dear friends are also locked in deadly combat with Life- that individual tragedies are no longer quite so upsetting. In the words of my foreman at Swanson River: “When you are up to you’re a** in alligators it is hard to remember that your original goal was to drain the swamp”

I wish I’d have ignored some of those alligators when I recently found out Janice Young had passed away.

I had called another friend to check on Jan’s phone number only to find that she had passed away almost a year ago.  I carried on with the conversation, sharing a memory or two then rang off and:

  • finished my lesson plan for the next day’s class at the college
  • checked back on the crew scheduled to remove a fallen tree
  • paid some bills on-line

… then collapsed into my chair and broke down completely.

Jan was gone.

It was the winter of 1975 when I first Jan and her family while I was serving as a missionary in Skowhegan Maine. Her husband Dale had recently retired from the Navy and friendship developed as I talked with him about his career – I was forever looking to connect with sailors that may have served with my own father during his 20 years afloat. As I would visit there were times when Jan wouldn’t move from her chair or her hands would be wrapped, actions that I first took to be unique measures to fight the legendary Down East winter temperature but later learned were therapeutic measures in her battle against the pain and limitations of advanced arthritis.

I also learned that Jan was smart. She had a highly developed insight into human behavior and consequences more commonly found in elderly people with a long lifetime of experience and knowledge to drawn upon.  More than once I found myself on the phone seeking her guidance after a “people problem” had blown up in my face.

My time in Skowhegan came to an end much too quickly but thankfully my friendship with Janice and her family stayed on. Despite too many years, too few visits and too few telephone conversations Jan and her family stayed in my life. I came to especially treasure those occasional phone calls that Janice insisted were for her benefit but were in fact my own pleas for help when once again I was drowning in a sea of human chaos and complexity.

…and now the phone calls are over.

There are too few “Jan’s” in my life now – people that maintain a measure of kindness and sanity around them.  Instead I am surrounded by bubble wrap, albeit a verbal variety of bubble wrap that emotionally insulates and does little other than clutter up my life in the same way that the tangible polyethylene version clutters up my studio after I’ve opened a package.

  • “C’mon, nothing can hurt that bad”
  • “Are you sure this isn’t a subconscious ploy to get meds?”
  • “When the going gets tough the tough get going”
  • “If you really wanted to get better you’d try to have more faith
  • “Good people don’t use pain medication

Empty useless prattle as useless as the other plastic stuff is after my grandson Jayden has popped all the bubbles. Thoughtless words that emotionally fester in my isolation just as  a splinter can fester in a finger if left unremoved.

Eliminating those toxic comments can be as difficult as disposing of or recycling the aforementioned polyethylene packing material. I am left to find relief in doing my best to not make those same kinds of thoughtless comments, but rather to have kind words for those around me who are fighting their own battles.

…just like Jan did.

Mid-morning Purgatory

Night time seems to be the popular setting for most writing about coping with depression or illness. The dark and quiet hours of the night seem to be the hardest for most people to deal with as they battle their personal demons – it seems to magnify the isolation that comes with chronic illness.

Hell comes knocking on my door at 9:00 AM every morning.

Maybe it’s because I woke up screaming at 4:30 and it’s taken me until nine to be able to walk. Maybe it’s because I just watched most of my neighbors drive off to work while I am stuck here in my home/prison cell. Maybe it’s because I’d rather be bouncing along the street with the joggers instead of hobbling around my studio with two canes

Maybe I can really get tired of living this half-life.  I’m trying to think of a punch-line or something upbeat to add in but to be honest I am so over the platitudes and the “warm fuzzys” about positive mental attitudes and forgiveness. For every kitten poster with “hang in there baby” I’ve got two other flavors to match:

  • Two buzzards perched at the edge of the desert with the caption “Patience my *ss. I’m going to kill something:
  • The guy in the swamp clambering up a tree with the caption “When you’re up to you *ss in alligators it’s hard to remember our original goal was to drain the swamp!”

Yes, I will hang on. I’ll get through the day – mostly because I have Lori to lean on but there are no magic bullets (or posters) to make all the fractures, inflammation and calcification go away. The best I can do is to tell myself at bedtime that “maybe tomorrow will be a better day” and hope that the people around me will forgive my surliness when I hit mid-morning purgatory the twelve hours later.

Another Early Frost for a Late-Bloomer

(I’m reposting this from five years ago – it’s been tweaked and added to…and seems appropriate after my fall the other day)

I was not much of an athlete as a kid. I was “adequate” until I turned fourteen at which time I turned into a total stumble-bum. My speed and coordination didn’t develop as quickly as it did in my classmates and I was always the last guy chosen for any kind of team…and even then  I would spend the game exiled to right field where I would wander around like Michael Jackson, wearing a glove for no apparent reason.  The situation got a little better as I progressed through high school, but I was never a first-string player for any sport… dreamer that I am I swore that someday – someday I would do better.

“Someday” was the summer of 1973.  I decided it was time to lose weight and get in shape…and golly-bob-howdy I did just that. Over the course of the following autumn I dropped over 35 pounds through careful diet and frequent exercise – and the results were wonderful. I could run, I developed incredible flexibility and I was strong enough to do push-ups with my girlfriend lying across my back.

How much of all that was due to diet & exercise and how much was my body finally catching up will probably never be known but it really didn’t matter. I could run without looking like I was just stumbling and catching myself over and over.  I could throw a perfect spiral with a football. I could do all sorts of things that are the norm for most young men – but for me they were miracles.

It was wonderful, and I wasn’t about to let any of it go.  As a young adult I stayed extremely careful with what I atet, constantly cycling through different types of diets to keep my weight down. As I grew older into my thirties all the normal effects of aging came on but had little effect on me because I was running, swimming or bicycling every day.

Then I hit a brick wall.

I suffered a back injury during a jump with 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (ABN) and while I worked my way back on active jump status, I was never quite the same. I had recurring back problems which I attributed to the aforementioned jump injury but in fact I was going through the first phases of Ankylosing Spondylitis, a very painful autoimmune disease of the spine. The symptoms came and went through my forties and I led a fairly average life, but by the time I reached 50 the condition was in full development and soon after was joined by rheumatoid arthritis in my hands, feet and other areas.

I thought I was crippled enough but then in July of 2014 I fractured my right ankle, and by fractured, I mean that I broke the h*ll out of it. It took an angled strip of metal secured with several screws along with two larger bolts nearby  to get it all the bone fragments put back together…and with all that extra metal in me I’ve had to make a habit of showing up an hour earlier than the recommended hour-early when catching a flight because I’ll never cleanly make it through a TSA checkpoint again.

I try not to complain about the way things are:   I had a good run at life and got to do a lot of cool things. I’ve flown a couple of different types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft. I’ve spent time on several types of naval warships and submarines. I hunted moose in Alaska, I’ve SCUBA dived off Guam and I spent several years as a competent rock climber.

I think about all of that – then I cringe when I think about the young people who contract A/S or juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and must face down 50 years or more of constant pain  – where I’ll have to deal with the discomfort for half that length of time. It breaks my heart to think about what lies ahead for them – and for what they’ll never be able to do –  and I feel thankful that I was older  when all the pain and symptoms came on. I remind myself every day to be thankful for what I was able to do at an earlier age…

…but try as I may deep inside there is still that fourteen-year-old stumble-bum, once more wandering around feeling useless, and wishing he could have had just one more good season.

Collateral Damage

( The following is the text of a letter I recently wrote to Tennessee  Governor Bill Haslam. I don’t know what good it will do, but it was extremely  therapeutic to write)

There is no denying that there is a problem with opioid medicines in our country and especially in Tennessee and that extra scrutiny and control was in order. However, you do need to know that there is a human cost involved – and I am part of that cost

I am 64 years old veteran and disabled with advanced ankylosing spondylitis complicated by old fractures in my lower back and ankles. I spent fourteen years relying on over-the counters medications to help me cope, and since 2000 I have been on controlled medication. I’ve tried every drug and treatment my doctors have recommended but in the end pain medication has been the means by which I have been able to function.

 We moved to Clarksville in 2007 and for the first eight years my treatment went smoothly but in the last year or two it has all turned into a nightmare. I’ve had to deal with major changes in treatment and prescription dosages not because my condition has changed, or I’ve gotten better, but because my doctors have been forced to make the changes by law. There’s no flexibility for change – I recently had to deal with three abscessed teeth that caused pain that far surpassed anything I have ever dealt with, and there was nothing anyone could do about it other than watch me closely to make sure I didn’t hurt myself.

 One of the saddest aspects of all this is this: I am a good man. I served as an intelligence officer in both the Army and Navy and held the highest security clearances possible. I was an adult Scout leader for over thirty years and helped countless young men earn their Eagle ranks. I have been faithfully married to my wife Lori for over 40 years – when we adopted our daughter in 1994 and had to get a local record check the desk sergeant at the Knoxville police department laughed and said that I should be investigating them instead.

 Why do I bring this up? Because in my case these new restrictions haven’t stopped a single pill from entering the black market. I’ve never been involved in any sort of illegal activity of any kind and there never was a risk of my prescriptions being diverted. In my case it’s now a matter of being in extreme pain all day / every day.

  If I was someone’s pet I’d be put down.                   

 As I said before, there is a problem with opioids in our society, but I don’t know if the state of Tennessee has come up with the right solution. Sometimes the baby gets thrown out with the bath water and a human cost is incurred…

 ….and that human cost is me.

 

My Daughter….

JaydenMickiOCT2016
Most of what I have been posting has been pretty grim lately – but this time I have something very positive to say.
Between the damage from the extensive Mohs treatment under my nose, the repeated extractions and the seemingly endless respiratory infections the simple act of eating can sometimes be a challenge. Tonight it was more than that – I just barely beat the Reaper on this one – or rather my daughter Meghan beat him for me.
I was eating some of Lori’s superb beef stroganoff when suddenly I felt a kind of scratch at the back of my throat, then again close to my windpipe. In a flash of terror I realized that if I hadn’t aspirated some rice I was dangerously close to it.
I bent over and tried to cough my windpipe free but it seemed to get more and more constricted. The terror got worse – I’ve struggled with breathing problems since infancy and I was living my worst nightmare. I bent even further over and kept coughing but it just got worse….I started to barf and figured I’d aspirate some of that too and that this was the last night of my life….
Then suddenly it got better. My throat was still very scratchy but the congestion was gone.
…and it was at that point that I realized that my daughter Meghan was pounding her fist on my back. It wasn’t a Heimlich maneuver applied with textbook-precise technique but it did the job and dislodged whatever the blockage was.  Had she not been there I would have never stayed conscious enough to take care of myself.
I wouldn’t be writing this because as of sixty minutes ago I would have been dead.
I love my “baby girl” simply because she is my “baby girl” – but when your kid saves your life….
MickiAndDaddyBoy2000