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Saturday, October 31, 2009


I hate needles.

When my mother would take me to the doctor and I needed to be poked, I would recoil from needles in such a way she would say, "Alexander! Thank goodness you will never go into the military. If you were captured you would reveal all the secrets to the enemy if they tortured you."

Feeling shame in front of the nurse holding the syringe, I would bite my lower lip, stare at the anatomy chart taped to the wall, suffer through the needle prick and ride home in silence.

Once, in Australia (I was six or seven), my whole family needed to get yellow fever shots in advance of our trip to Africa. I threw such a fit the doctor could not get close to me. My father picked me up and walked me around outside for a while, speaking in soothing tones.

He said, "Everyone needs to get these shots to protect us from a deadly disease. If we want to go on this family trip we all need to get the shot. If you decide you don't want the shot—and this is your choice—we'll just cancel the big trip to Africa and stay home instead, missing out on all the fun safaris, missing out on the zebras, the lions, the cheetahs, the hyenas and the impalas."

"Sounds reasonable," I said. "We'll stay home then."

I'm not sure how, but I found myself back in the injection chamber. My mother was next up, and I remember everyone in the room laughing, pretending that getting a shot was this fun, exciting new experience. The doctor laughed ("I poke you now! Pokey, pokey!") and my mother laughed when the needle went into her flesh. The doctor took his hands away and let the syringe flap up and down as it hung out of my mother's arm. She laughed at it and jiggled her arm to make the needle move in funny directions. I was not amused.

The doctor said to me, "You want to push the plunger in?"

I did not.

My mother said, "See? This doesn't hurt!" She laughed and jigged her arm again. "You can push the plunger in if you want. It will be funny!"

I failed to see the humor.

I don't remember past that point.  I only have a vague memory of a flash of bright lights, a flood of tears, leather straps (I could be imagining that part) and an unspeakable, searing pain so unbearable I'm sure I let half the city of Melbourne know just what I was feeling.

As I have grown up, nothing has changed.

But I have noticed that nurses at least appreciate the honesty of a grown man admitting displeasure with injections. I say the same thing every time: "Aaargh. I HATE needles." Then I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I think male nurses in particular admire that I don't act macho in front of them, that I don't pretend to "take it like a man" or whatever male bonding ("Yo!") thing you are supposed to do. (To this day, I have never understood that.) The nurses, I figure, have given thousands of injections or blood draws and have seen every reaction. If they see my honesty and my vulnerability, they try harder to make mine perfect.

For my most recent MRI, I was so tired of the recent parade of needles the tech knew this intuitively. Before I could even utter my first words, he calmed me with, "Don't worry, don't worry. I'm good." And—true to his word—he was. I could barely feel the needle going into my vein. It was so subtle I wasn't even sure he had done it. The only way I knew for sure was when he untied the rubber tubing cutting off the circulation to my arm.

"Wait, is that IT?" I asked.

"That's it," he said. "Easy, huh?"

"Wow. You are good."

"Men are easy," he said. "Little old ladies are hard. If you miss a vein they whack you."

When I was in the critical care unit following my first neurosurgery, the doctors needed a fresh blood sample every day for tests. One morning, a young nurse staggered into my room at the end of her shift. I woke up to the sound of her peeling the sterile paper away from the syringe. I was groggy and it startled me when she jabbed the needle deep into my hand.  ("AAArrrrrgggghh!")  She pulled the stopper back quickly, jerked the needle out, and walked away without a word. My automatic blood pressure cuff inflated shortly thereafter and my blood pressure was so high an alarm went off.

On another morning, a trim young man approached me. He didn't look like the other nurses. All I can say is he looked quite focussed, as if he were on an important secret mission.

"How are you?" he asked softly.

"I'm okay," I replied. "Are you here to draw blood?"


"I hate needles," I said.

"Everyone hates needles."

"I guess so. I never thought of it that way."

"Don't worry. I'm good," he said. He paused, as if considering whether he should say the next sentence, then simply said, "I just got back from Iraq."

"Wow," I said. I didn't know how else to respond, so I added, "God bless you."  (I think that's the correct response.)

He gave me a neutral look, a simple acknowledgement that I had spoken without any clue of what he felt about it. He stood and gathered his things.

"Wait, are we done?" I asked.

"That's it," he said.

I had not felt a thing, not even the tiniest prick. As he turned to leave I wanted to speak to him some more, but I didn't know what to say.  I just asked, "Army?"

He replied softly, "Yes," then opened the door.  My room had been dark, and the hard light from the corridor burst in, turning him at once into a dark outline with a fiery aura.

Friday, October 30, 2009

How to Fly an Airplane (Part I)

The notion that someday I could fly an airplane was something I ranked behind my chances of mastering trapeze or dancing a good disco. I just wasn’t the type. But three years ago MJ gave me a gift certificate for one pilot lesson, worth forty-nine dollars. I called the number on the card and made an appointment with someone named Nick.

The morning of my first flight, MJ brought down her old aviation textbooks. She had earned a pilot license herself several years ago (actually called a private pilot certificate), but her first husband crashed their plane into a cornfield and she hasn’t flown since. She hopes I will have better luck.

Looking over the books, I could tell there were a lot of new things: charts, graphs and terms like angle of attack, dihedral and longitudinal axis.  All of this was foreign to me. I was an excellent math and science student in high school, but that was twenty years ago. By the time I was a senior it was clear I was going to pursue a career in music and I turned my focus to humanities and literature. I remember walking out of the final pre-calculus exam the end of my junior year thinking, “I’ll never have to know this stuff again. Woo-hoo!” Yet now I warily eyed my wife’s E6B flight computer, a slide rule which calculated things like fuel burn, density altitude and wind correction angle.  I knew I was back in that hell again.

I drove to the airport, but instead of going to the main terminal I turned right and parked at Northern Air, which services everything from personal airplanes to private jets. I found the suite number, knocked on the door, and met Nick, who surprised me with his youthful appearance. I guess I assumed that—like in other fields—the role of “instructor” would be reserved for older, distinguished people coming from storied careers who were ready to impart their wisdom. Honestly, I thought Nick would look like Chuck Yeager. But I soon learned flight instructors make thirteen dollars an hour with no benefits.  It is an entry-level job.

I walked out on the tarmac with Nick, and he showed me our training airplane, a Diamond Star DA-40, which resembles a wasp. After a preliminary explanation of the flight instruments Nick told me to hop in the cockpit. I did. He got in the other seat, closed the Plexiglas bubble around us and started the engine. The propeller noise stunned me. As a professional musician I have developed sensitive ears and the noise was intrusive and constant. We put on some headsets, and that helped things a little. Nick made a few calls on the radio—one to check the weather, one to get clearance, one to ground control—and before I knew it we were taxiing to runway 26 Left.

Nick said the number of the runway told you the direction you were pointed. All you had to do was add a zero and that was your compass heading. Easy. Hence, runway 26 pointed us to 260 degrees on the compass, which was ten degrees shy of west. So far, things made sense. Then Nick said the headings were actually to magnetic north—not true north—so when planning a trip you had to adjust the numbers for "isogonic lines of magnetic variation." I told Nick that was enough information for now.

Once we arrived at the end of the runway, Nick changed radio frequencies and informed the control tower we were ready to go. They told us we were clear for take-off. Nick taxied onto the runway, added full power, and the airplane rolled straight down the centerline, gaining speed. In such a tiny plane, this was a rush. I noticed the airspeed indicator needle quiver and come alive. It steadily climbed past forty, then fifty. Once it hit sixty, Nick said, “And now we pull back just a bit on the stick.” In one gentle motion, the airplane seemed to lose all its weight and the wheels no longer touched the ground.

We were flying.

Up until this day I had been having a tough time dealing with the death of my mother. She was sixty-eight when she began mixing up words and the doctors found an incurable brain tumor. Shortly after that I watched her casket go into the cremation chamber where I personally activated the button that turned the flames on. At that moment all I could think was someday I was going to be in there. Right then I began making a list of the things I had yet to do with my life.

Professionally, I couldn’t complain. I had set out to have a career as an orchestral oboist and I was doing just that, holding a tenured spot in one of the best regional orchestras in the country. I had also set a goal to be a composer that people cared about. I was sort of doing that too. The year before my mother died, she watched me walk to center stage at Carnegie Hall and take a bow after a performance of my composition “Fireworks.” That was a really good moment for me. It’s hard to top that.

My personal life was even better. I was blessed with a fantastic partner in MJ.  We also had Noah, the best dog in the world. My first marriage, where I dived in young and stupid, had been a mistake, but I had things right now. And MJ had made a mistake the first time around, too. Her first husband survived the cornfield crash without a scratch but they later divorced. My marriage with MJ feels like two people who have seen the worst and are so grateful to have each other they would simply die before they let anything get between them.

So I was happy at work and happy at home. Yet the finality of turning the flames on your own mother reached deep inside me as nothing had before. When I pressed the red button, I could feel what I was missing in life. And the plain truth was despite all the goodness and security I had around me, I had fallen into a pattern of playing it safe. I had a cozy job with a union to protect me, a marriage with a wife to protect me, and a family with resources to protect me.

But I hadn’t proved myself to a room full of strangers in a long time.

As the Diamond Star lifted off runway 26 Left, I was surprised how quickly my thoughts turned to my mother like that. Even though I think she lived a full life, it still bothered me that she had been cheated out of her golden years, that she would now miss experiences she had earned the right to enjoy. It was like living in part of a television series that had no final episode to tie everything up. One day, the episodes just stopped. This weighed heavily on me, and for the months leading up to this I literally felt the sensation of being pressed into the ground, like a big thumb from the sky was stuffing me into the dirt and I didn’t know how to escape it.

Until now.

Once we were 500 feet above the ground, Nick retracted the take-off flaps, adjusted the propeller and power settings, and climbed to 3,000 feet. “Your airplane,” he said.

I had known this was coming, and I replied, “My airplane.”

“The controls are yours,” he confirmed.

Flying an airplane is different from driving a car, and the basics of flying straight and level require some getting used to. In a car you steer, and the car goes where you point the wheel. In an airplane, you are balancing three things, not one. Pitch is where you point the nose, either up or down. Roll is the angle the wings are tilted one way or the other. And yaw is the third axis, whether the nose is pointed left or right as you fly straight ahead (controlled via a rudder on the tail). So you have to constantly balance pitch, roll, and yaw just to fly in a straight line, and these also need to be balanced with the power setting. I thought I had things under control until Nick pointed out I had lost 500 feet of altitude. I climbed back up to 3,000 feet only to find myself more than two miles to the left of my desired course. I rolled the wings right to correct this, but I yawed the airplane too far into a skidding turn. And I also didn’t notice that I had continued climbing all the way to 3,500 feet. This was above the altitude the control tower had cleared us, and we were now in danger of colliding with commercial air traffic. This all happened in a few minutes.

After I stabilized, I asked Nick, “You said to keep my speed around 100 miles an hour?”

“100 knots, actually,” Nick corrected me. “In aviation we do things in knots.”

“What’s a knot?” I asked.

He paused, then said, “It’s . . . like a mile.”

By now I have logged over 50 hours of flight time, and I have learned that one knot equals 1.15 miles. But that exchange with Nick was my first clue he was not the best pilot. For example, he would demonstrate a steep turn, where you roll the airplane to 45 degrees of bank and fly in a circle while maintaining a constant altitude. Nick would say, “And then you add a little power here. Wait, no you add it here, oops.” The plane would plummet a quick 300 feet and he would say, “Okay, that was a terrible example. Now you try it.”

Shortly after that Nick got a job with a regional airline and I moved on to my next instructor. (I have had five different ones by now.) Brad, the next in line, was even younger than Nick but was an excellent pilot, very precise with the numbers. He had freckles and was awkward and geeky, but once he got the headset on he was in control. He is the type that will fly private jets someday.

After Brad there was Ryan. He was the oldest instructor I have had, 28, and he had some kind of military background. During my private ground school with him he drilled me on knowledge questions.

“What class of airspace begins at 18,000 feet?” he barked.

“Sir, Class A, SIR!”

“How high does that go?”

“Sir, 60,000 feet, SIR!”

“And above that?”

“Sir, it becomes Class E, SIR!”

He would study me for a moment and coolly say, “Excellent.”

I grew to like Ryan, and over time he softened. We became friends, and on his last day I gave him a bottle of rare olive oil along with one of my CDs. He was heading off for two weeks of training so he could fly for a freight company.

Alex was my most recent instructor, youthful, motivated and full of surprises. Many a lesson with Alex began with one goal, then suddenly he would idle the propeller and shout, “Engine failure! Engine failure!” leaving you scrambling. Once, he popped the circuit breaker for the alternator, which powers the electrical equipment in the cockpit. I consulted the emergency checklist and switched off all non-essential electrical elements, which buys you time with the backup battery. The radio—an important tool for emergency landings—stopped working, though. After the drill was over, Alex flicked the radio with his finger, and said, “Hmm, it’s supposed to work in a real emergency.”

Before Alex, Angie was an instructor I had for only one, memorable lesson. Angie had piercings in her face and she wore black make-up. Up in the air, she asked me to do a stall, where you intentionally force the airplane into a position where it will not fly anymore. You would never do this with passengers, but as a pilot it is important to practice stalling so you can recognize the signs leading up to it.

I slowed the Diamond Star down, pulled back on the stick, and pushed the power all the way in. The nose tipped up, the airspeed needle quivered down, and the plane shook. This is called a buffet, and it happens right before a stall. The controls get mushy and it is hard to keep the tail level.

But the airplane would not stall. I kept pulling back on the stick as we buffeted and the airspeed dropped to zero. At this point the twisting motion of the propeller torqued the airplane violently in the opposite direction so the right wing flipped down and the rest of the airplane went with it like a rag doll.

We stalled with the nose pointing straight at the ground. I had done stalls before, but I had never seen or even heard of a nose-down stall. One false move and we would go into a spin, which is commonly (and incorrectly) called a tailspin. In other words, we were about to be a statistic.

During symphony rehearsals, I get scolded by my colleague Ellen, who thinks I am insane for learning to fly. She is certain I am going to die. She always yells at me, “If you die in that airplane I’m going to kill you!”

I reassure Ellen by emailing her links to news stories about small planes crashing. But I always hide their content, typing the message, “Hey Ellen, check out this article about Tosca at the Met Opera.” When she clicks on the link, a web page opens and a headline reads, “Cessna 182 Crashes in Ozarks, Killing 2,” along with a picture of crumpled metal hanging from a tree. I know these jokes are in horrible taste. But my hope is that by eliciting an outrageous reaction it will force her to laugh, and then she will stop worrying.

But now in a nose-down stall, suddenly all those emails to Ellen don’t seem so funny. Those news items were about real people who died. Now I can see that in sending the emails to Ellen I wasn’t trying to calm her worries. I was calming my own. But it was a little late to realize this.

In this unusual attitude for the first time I panicked and did exactly the wrong thing by pulling the power all the way out. The airplane’s turn coordinator rolled to one side, signifying the beginning of a spin. I froze up. Had Angie not been in the copilot seat, I am certain this would have been the end of me.

“No, no, full power,” Angie said plainly. Her calm tone was lost on me, and as moments go this was terror beyond anything I had ever known. We were making a beeline for the ground. I was truly frozen, unable to think or do anything.

“FULL POWER!” she shouted.

I snapped out of it. I opened the throttle frantically and slammed on the rudder pedal opposite the spin. In an instant the airplane realigned itself, the propeller gave thrust, I leveled the wings, and the plane climbed. The whole episode took no more than a few seconds.

I was soaked in sweat and my face must have lost all its color because Angie asked me, “Are you okay to continue?”

“I’m fine,” I lied. I glanced at her. She looked like the Angel of Death. I had just relied on a stranger with Goth makeup to save my life.

“Okay, let’s do that again,” she said.

And we repeated the whole thing. But this time I was ready for it when the right wing whipped down after the plane refused to stall. I pushed the power in, leveled the wings, stabilized the rudder, and we recovered. What was a terrifying experience the first time became a predictable, almost boring lesson in aerodynamics. Engineers had designed the airplane so stall or spin recovery was just another event, like stepping on the brakes in your car. The airplane was fine. Pilots that panicked were the problem.

I cut the lesson short and asked to land. On the ground, I called MJ, something I do after every flight. I tried to tell her what happened, but no words came out. I cried openly for only the second time since my mother’s death.

After my mother died I cried only once, a few days after her cremation.  But since then it had felt like my tear ducts were stopped with beeswax. A terrible pain festered behind my eyes. “I feel like there’s an ocean of tears inside me,” I would tell MJ from time to time. Considering how many tears I have shed so freely since my neurosurgery, I wonder how much my tumor was acting as a stopper, and how much sadness was really trapped inside me the past three years. That is something science or medicine will never be able to quantify.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I Could Do That

Once again, I find myself compelled to write about something I never thought I would discuss publicly. Today, amidst massive headaches and looking for a way to fall asleep, I asked a friend to give me an image to focus on, something to make me feel good about myself. She advised:

"Try to remember something from your early childhood when you had to summon up incredible courage to do something and ended up triumphant. An oral report? Water skiing? Finding your way home?"

I am surprised at how little I can come up with. From a very early age, I wouldn't say I had a big ego (as many probably assume), but rather I had created a public version of myself that never failed. This "safe me" was supremely confident while my private self knew I was basically worthless. So, at once I knew I was never going to be good at anything but at the same time I knew I would never fail. In other words, there was never a time where I felt like a challenge lay "in between" where anything was at stake. If I succeeded, the public version of me was right, beaming and sarcastic. If I failed, the private version of me was right, futile once again. I had very few moments where anything was at risk.

I can think of only one time, and I have never spoken of this.

Ninth grade. Michigan. I sat in our living room, discussing my latest (good) report card with my father. There was a crystal decanter in our bar containing a dark liqueur. My father got up and poured some of this into a small stemmed liqueur glass and sipped it as we discussed my success. The way he savored the liqueur (he almost never drank, only a single beer once in a while) made it seem like this was a special way to reward oneself.

I wanted to try it.

I knew this was wrong, that I was underage. Nevertheless, I took a sip from his unfinished glass once our discussion was over. It was sweet, like cough syrup, and it made me sleepy. I liked it, but I also knew I was done with homework for the night. I went to bed early and slept like a baby.

Every time I went in the living room after that I saw the crystal decanter. I didn't crave it terribly, but on the other hand I wanted to try it just one more time. But I also knew if I sipped from it my parents might see the level go down.

I asked my father something vague about addiction, under the guise that I had a school project to do. He told me about smoking a cigarette once in a movie theater, how his own father had seen him do this, and how his father never brought it up (which, to him, was the worst punishment). I went to my mother and asked her something vague about addiction too. She (as always) was more blunt. She was watching a TV movie, tears in her eyes (a "mommy movie" as she called them). She lifted her cocktail off the counter and jiggled the crystal glass at me, the ice cubes inside jangling like a chorus of handbells.

"What do you think this is?" she asked.

I went straight to the living room, took the top off the decanter, and took a swig. I felt ill for a while, and I slept all night. The next morning my head hurt and I was groggy for my fist few classes. I didn't think about the decanter for another week.

The next time I passed by the decanter, I knew I was at a crossroads. I wanted to try it "just one more time" again. I thought hard. There was no spirit animal to guide me, no "sign from above." The sun didn't shine in right then, cutting through the clouds in such a way that it spelled "Don't do it" on the bar. It was just me, a promising ninth grade student with everything in front of him, staring at a crystal decanter containing sweet liquid that made me feel good for a few minutes. I imagined the moment like a showdown in a cowboy movie, just me at one end of a dusty street and the decanter at the other, both of us waiting to draw our guns.

There are few times in my early life where I had to go that deep in order to make the right choice. In so many words, I told myself right then, "This decanter will always be there. Always. Wherever you go. For the rest of your life. Everywhere you turn, a decanter will be available to you. Either stop this right now, or you will be throwing everything away. Alexander Miller, STOP THIS RIGHT NOW AND DON'T LOOK BACK."

So I did.

And that was that. I was surprised with how strong I was, and how completely I shut the door with such inner confidence, never looking back once as a high schooler (or even that much in college). I have failed a few times as an adult, on and off, I would say, nothing too serious, but the purity of my resolve as a ninth grader has forever given me the inner strength I need when I really do need it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Planning New Surgery - MEDICAL

The results of my MRI two nights ago leave me no alternative. I must pursue another surgery. I cannot "wait weeks" to decide. It must happen quickly. The MRI aside, I just know this intuitively. My headaches are terrible, and my vision—back to 100% one week ago—is deteriorating fast. My left eye (my "dominant" or "aiming" eye) is dimmed out so much it is difficult to write this blog without zooming in on individual words. Now I understand why there are whole sections in bookstores with large print editions.

I assume my phone will be ringing off the hook today, because a lot of things have been set in motion. But (and this is important) I have not yet committed to anything. The first thing everyone seems to agree on is to get a full vision test in order to quantify where I am. So that will probably happen today.

Next, I need to sort out exactly what procedure is best for me. My first neurosurgeon referred me to a second neurosurgeon who specializes in "skull-based" surgeries, thinking a craniotomy is the procedure I now need. However, the second surgeon (whom I instinctively "like" better than the first, MJ too) consulted with the neurology department at U of M, looked over my entire case file, my pathology report and both my MRIs and surprised me with his recommendation. He advises a second transsphenoidal approach ("up the nose with a rubber hose"), though being more aggressive with it.

Let me explain. In my first surgery, they went in my nose to "retrieve" the tumor, but what they really did was "drain" it, sucking out the icky middle and leaving the walls intact. (Sorry for the gross-out, but that is basically it.) This is the safest way to take pressure off my optical nerves and not damage any surrounding brain tissue. It usually works. It didn't.

In a more aggressive approach—simply put—more will be taken out, including portions of the wall. There is more risk (and the second surgeon explained these risks clearly), but it looks like I will have to take the risk. The risks include damage to surrounding brain tissue, damage to the optic nerves, or damage to my pituitary gland. Let me be quick to point out that NONE of this is life-threatening, and if I could spin the wheel of fortune to pick any kind of tumor within the confines of my head, I would be hoping, hoping, hoping and then jumping for joy when Pat Sajak told me the needle had rested on "Pituitary Area Adenoma." Compared to any other kind of brain surgery, mine is the safest and easiest. So, despite how serious things are, it is good to keep things in perspective too. A few years ago my mother died within months of being diagnosed with an incurable brain cancer. My tumor is as far from that as a common cold is from a deadly pneumonia. I am grateful.

Don't think for one moment that I have been dealt a bum hand in life, because I have not. I am blessed. If there is one thing I am taking away from this experience (and it is not even half over, or a quarter over), it is the confidence that I matter in this world, that I matter to the people around me, that I am worth something, and—most of all—that I am loved by the people I feel love for. I suppose I knew this before on some intellectual level, but for once in my life I am allowing myself to feel this love deeply, to let it touch my heart on a profound level, to not deflect any love coming my way because I am afraid of being hurt again.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Australian Outback Memory

When I was in first thru third grades, we were living in Melbourne. We also traveled extensively FROM this new location, reinforcing my awareness that the world was a big place. Our home in Melbourne was—I determined—the best in the city. It was on a busy street corner. It felt like the world was coming to us so I didn't need to go anywhere else to keep track of things. A tram stop was literally outside our gate. A brick wall surrounded our front yard, protecting us, and in the middle of the yard grew the largest tree I had ever seen. A short walk up the street let to a "milk bar" where I would buy packets of Australian Football cards (go Hawthorn Hawks!) and a news stand I scoured every day—mostly in vain—for a new issue of Mad Magazine.

It was nice having everything at your disposal. School was easy, and my brother and I spent a lot of time dreaming up things, drawing pictures and sitting in beanbags reading from my oldest brother's (now at boarding school) stack of comic books—Conan, Archie, Donald Duck, Richie Rich, Superman, Spiderman and Mad. There were more bedrooms in the house than we needed, so one of the rooms upstairs became a makeshift office for my father, one was the beanbag / comic room, and one was a room I thought of simply as our "dreaming" room, where a large, flat table was set up (always cleaned, always empty, never cluttered) where my brother and I could do projects or draw. My mother was insistent on having big, open work spaces for us as young children so we could think openly and draw on big pieces of paper, our minds free of constraints or boundaries.

Our minds felt free, but we were also protected inside our house most of the time. When my father proposed taking just my brother and me on a car trip deep into the Australian outback to look for opals in the hot desert, we knew our free-thinking minds would be put to the test. We would now see if we had stamina to back up our big ideas. I had read about how horrible things were once you were trapped in the outback, away from the cities near the coast—crocodiles (this was before the "Dundee" movies), bugs, hot sand, limited water, killer kangaroos.

Even though I already felt by then like an adult pretending to be a child, I sensed this was going to be the part where I would pretend that I went into a strange land a boy and came out a man for the sake of everyone else. I made a mental note to "say" something meaningful when we got back, to confirm to my parents that they had succeeded at this.

"It's rough in the outback," I might say, then look with guilt at the nice things in our house—the books, the artifacts, the soft furniture. I wasn't sure about tears, because that might be too much, but I would probably choke up just enough and say, "It's just nice to be home," before running up to the safety of my beanbag room to read more comics.

So I had the outback plan down: act excited before leaving, act a little shaken coming back. An easy one to pull off, because I knew the variables. There was nothing to derail me in the middle, the substance where I went to the actual outback. Just me, me, me and more me. Against nothing. Easy.

My memory, however, of this week-long car trip is surprisingly limited, considering how well I remember so many other things in Australia. In a nutshell, these are the few things I do recall:

The towns we visited were named Andamooka and Arkaroola.

We bought a new tool for the trip, an opal digger, which looked like a hammer (except one end was a sharp point and the other end was more blunt).

My brother and I climbed a gravel hill with this new tool, digging at the gravel, thinking we might find an opal. (We did not.)

The motel turned all electricity off—lights, outlets, everything—at a certain time each night.

Our car broke down or had a flat tire, leaving us wandering in the hot desert for several hours while we waited for another car to pass by.

In fact, the only vivid memory I have of the entire week is one long stretch driving in the car. The road was straight, and there was nothing to look at out the window but desert. It was hot, but we had air conditioning. We listened to tapes, mostly ABBA, Neil Diamond, and "oldies" my father liked. In particular, he loved two songs: "Leader of the Pack," where he would look at us when the motorcycle growled between verses ("Did you hear the motorcycle roar right there?"), and especially "Secret Agent Man."

Whenever "Secret Agent Man" would play in the car my father would get this kid-like smile, and we all loved it. We knew about the James Bond movies, but I'm not sure if we had actually seen any until a year or two later in Venezuela. Nonetheless, we all liked the song and we would put on sunglasses (if we had them) and pretend to be secret agents as the song played out of the car speakers.

My father turned to us and said (he couldn't sing), "They give-a you a number, and take away your name! What do you think of that?"

"I like it!" I said.

Still grinning, he said, "You'd like to be a secret agent when you grow up?"


"Why is that?"

"Because you could kill anybody you wanted and no one would know it was you who did it."

My father switched off the radio. I remember a lot of driving in silence after I said that.

After a while, my father said to my brother and me, completely out of the blue, "What do you think you will do with my body once I die?"

We didn't know what to say, so we said nothing. In fact, it was the first time it ever occurred to me that my father would die someday.

He continued, "Some people get buried. Some people get 'cremated' where you get burned up so you are just ashes."

I said, "Why would you want to be burned up AFTER you die? Sounds excessive."

"Well, if they bury your body as is, some worry about worms getting into the coffin. Some people don't like the worms, so they want to be cremated. If you become ashes, you can be 'scattered' so you're not just in one spot in the dirt with the worms. You can be thrown out of an airplane so you're flying with the wind forever after that."

I remember I was in the front seat, and my brother—in the back—was not saying a word. I don't know how much more we spoke on this subject, but that is the one thing I remember clearly about our whole trip to the Australian outback.

At the point when our car broke down (I don't know if it was before or after that conversation) my brother and I wandered in the desert (not far from the car) and found a ram's skeleton. Earlier, in Mexico, my mother had unearthed an entire human skeleton, saving the skull. I never liked that skull in our house, and it always spooked me. But the ram's skull, with its curled horns, comforted me somehow. It was an animal, and I liked how the bones were a soft white color as opposed to the dark shellac on our human artifact.

My brother and I asked our father if we could take the ram's skull home as a memento of the trip. I don't know if this was wise (if the ram had died of a disease, for example) but something released inside me when he let us keep it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Update - MEDICAL

Quick update because I'm going straight to sleep. Went to the Crumb concert this afternoon, played my two notes on the harmonica. Only missed one note.

Going to call to see the surgeon tomorrow morning. My headaches are killing me, just awful, almost excruciating. I have a lot of pain meds I can take, and they barely help. Something is way worse than a week ago.

Ringing in my ears is back and, most worrisome, my left eye is "dimmed" again. 50% color and light loss, when it had been all the way back to 100% after surgery. Very discouraging.

Maybe it is the effect of tapering off the steroids. Maybe I need more. We'll see.

My head hurts too much to blog.

Will have nice dreams about sharks tonight.

I like sharks. Have I mentioned that yet?

Shark / Analysis

I have a short, extraordinary discovery (for me, I guess) I want to share right now. My brother has emailed me some old photos and a few of them I do not remember. One in particular has popped. Here it is, taken in 1977 at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. I was eight. I am the boy on the right, without the cap. Take a good look at my pose and my facial expression (you may be able to click on the image to make it bigger):

The timeliness of this image is stunning. If you have not read my earlier blog entry "Creativity" (click on it on the left side of this web page) please do so first.

As I have said, anything in this blog is something I write spontaneously, with a sudden urgency that I MUST write about it. I don't know why I felt the urge to write about "my favorite piece of art right now", which is the Damien Hirst "shark piece," but I did. (Seems quite odd. Why did I title it "Creativity"?)

The blogs after that, my Mexico memories, were extremely emotional days. I wrote about the two defining moments of my early life—until now unspoken and completely private—which ended my "innocence":

1) Witnessing the graphic shooting of a dog from a very close vantage point.
2) Learning of the death of my nanny, and—in so many words—misinterpreting an already miscalculated explanation where I came away with the impression her death was "my fault."

The more I go through my own thoughts, the more I meditate during my period of convalescence following the tumor removal on my own private memories, my own private feelings, my own private reasoning of things, stripping away what the outside world kept telling me I was "supposed to" be thinking and feeling, I am now sure of this: I can safely (and now openly on this blog) make the statement that my childhood ended when I was either 3, 4 or 5 years old, depending on when I heard the news about Eloy, my nanny.

From the moment I heard about Eloy I considered myself tainted, forever altered by that trauma. I never thought of myself as innocent at different ages growing up after that, and what I perceived at 10, 11, 12, 13 seems about the same to me as what I perceived at 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. Ages 4-13 feels, in essence, like one long awkward year in the life of an adult.

Take a look at the picture again. If you can, zoom in on my whole body, my pose, my face, and compare that to what I am posing next to, an enormous shark. Stepping outside myself, I can tell you this is an eight-year-old boy who, about five years ago, wanted to help a dog struggling out of a ditch but a "policeman" (an authority figure who "protects" people from being "hurt") stepped in and shot the dog instead, right in front of this 2-year old. This 8-year-old in the photo thinks of this image all the time, every day, doesn't "know" what it is and never asks anyone—("I wanted to help that dog, but the 'people who protect me' did the unthinkable"). Also, this 8-year-old feels he is the reason behind his beloved nanny's death about four years before this photo, and he thinks of that "event" all the time too, every day, but never tells anyone—("I made her want to make someone like me because she loved me, and therefore because of me she is dead.")

Graphically violent trauma caused by a presupposed "protector" (policeman). Immeasurable guilt caused by a miscalculated explanation by a "nurturer" (which I now remember was two separate explanations by both my mother and my paternal grandmother).

Violent trauma where this boy thought he would be protected. Unthinkable guilt where this boy thought he would be nurtured.

Trauma. Guilt. Right at this boy's most vulnerable moments.

This 8-year-old boy has known for a while he needs to fend for himself. This is a picture of a little adult, pretending to be a child in order to blend in with the world around him.

Though a little silly, take a close look again. My brother is just standing there, but I am leaning against the comically oversized shark, taking full credit for the kill. Left hand confidently on my hips, right hand doing an "aw, shucks" way of patting myself on my back. My face is smiling, confident, triumphant, but I also see a hint of something else (and only because I know myself so well). I am indeed beaming with pride, but there is also the awareness that my photo is being taken and that it is critical I get this photo just right. It looks to me that perhaps I had been holding that smile—holding, holding, holding, c'mon Dad!—determined to hold it just like that as my father snapped the photo. I saw the shark, probably ran up to it ("Dad! Take my picture here please, PLEASE!") My brother is less certain, but there is no mistaking that I wanted to be IN THAT PICTURE, to show the world, and that I was already plotting how to get it as the official family photo for our Christmas card. (I failed.)

The one quick thing I want to add is this:

THE DOG. The "holy terror" which apparently I was at 2 or 3 in Mexico—the boy prone to extremely violent temper-tantrums (that I have no memory of myself)—is possibly me "play-acting" a reaction to seeing the rabid dog running around violently. I don't remember SEEING the dog doing this, but my father confirms I was THERE. So I don't recall the temper-tantrums and I don't recall the dog going beserk. Both are true yet I have no memory of either.

But I clearly remember the SHOOTING of the dog (standing next to it as the dog took bullets, came back, took more bullets, came back again using only front legs, and took more bullets). That is crystal clear. So . . . perhaps . . . I became "the dog" on these violent temper-tantrums, trying to make myself into the dog, trying to bring him back to life since I felt guilty that I could not stop the dog from being shot when he wanted ME—and no one else around me—to help.

How am I doing, Dr. Freud?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Setback - MEDICAL

I've had my first official "setback" today. Until now, it seemed to be a clear cut from Caring Bridge where those posts were more related to my physical recovery and Husband Amused is more for my psychological recovery. But today I experienced a scare, directly related to my recovery as a patient of neurosurgery. So I am back to using this blog as a simple way to inform the people who care about me how I am doing with my recovery.

Last night I saw one act of Cosi Fan Tutte with Opera Grand Rapids. I did okay and went down to the pit to say hi to my friends (I guess I mean hug everyone because I was so happy). It was probably too much to do, but I was okay.

Today I went to the Public Museum, just to "do" another normal thing out. Again, I felt as if I were overdoing it slightly. I had lunch at the museum, and there I noticed a few things:

My left eye (originally the problem eye, which has been 100% cured for 10 days now), is now 30% diminished in its light and color saturation. Also, I have ringing in my ears again, and I started experiencing some headaches again.


I was driven home, got on the couch with some ice on my head, and dialed the neurosurgeon's emergency answering service. I spoke to the neurosurgeon on call (not my own, it is Saturday) and fully discussed my case and my current symptoms. To make a long story short, I am going to wait until Monday morning to go in first thing and get the once-over regarding those symptoms.

Now the good part starts.

After I was on the couch, I felt a little more tired. So I went up to bed (4pm I guess). I wrote a little bit, then got VERY tired. So I closed the laptop and put my head down with some ice on my head.


I tried to call MJ. "Aaaaaaahhhhhhhh . . ."

Nothing. I could have reached for my phone, but I forgot to bring it up with me. She was downstairs in the kitchen.

I tried to call for her again. "AaaaaaaaAAAAAHHHHH!"

Nothing. I felt lucid, not mentally slow. But my body was slow. If I had needed to jump out of bed to save my life, I probably could have, but for some reason I really, really didn't want to. I felt the need to remain extremely still, not moving once inch. Since I was lucid, I kept trying to call for MJ and, in the meantime, I tried to think what had happened. Overall, the past two days I have been "pushing it" regarding my recovery, trying to do some basic "normal things" outside of the house, but with supervision. (Never alone.) So I thought. What was I feeling? I COULD move if I really had to, but I didn't feel like it would be the right thing to do. What else was I feeling?


Fast heat beat. I was completely still, and had been for a while, completely relaxed. So what was happening?


Now, I love MJ. I love her with all my heart, and every day is like the best honeymoon ever (yeah, baby!!), filled with an explosion of love and tenderness, excitement and intrigue . . . but even MJ could not conjure this kind of urgency in my blood. Something was just plain wrong.

Blood pressure. [Pardon me for saying this, but . . .] Ess-Aitch-Eye-Tee.

My blood pressure HAS been a huge problem recently. Even WITH my current meds, when I get totally stressed it can read 170/115, way too high, and my docs know and we are working on it.

But I forgot—totally forgot this morning with all the excitement last night and today—to take my three different blood pressure pills. (Also, the first time I had the "spiral" episode in my head - see "The Head Crash" blog - I had also forgotten to take them too.)


Nothing. I was not in mortal danger, and on some level I knew this for sure. But I conserved energy, staying very relaxed, and kept calling.

She came in. To make a long story short, she saw my condition (which I guess looked horrible), called work to cancel her appearance tonight, then with my blood pressure meds and a lot of ice, I was okay in about two hours, but with one heck of a "hangover"-type headache, which some pain pills took care of.

MJ says I was talking "baby-talk" to her when she came in, speaking slow, softly, and sort of slurring my (carefully chosen and few) words as I remained exactly still. We almost called an ambulance, etc., but once my blood pressure came down (we did not measure it, but I could feel it) my speech got better, more wordy and "regular conversational" and I felt better.

My vision, ringing in the ears, and headaches are still hanging around tonight, but I feel okay if I simply rest.

So I will stop typing and will fill everyone in tomorrow.


After yesterday's rambling entry, I have a short one today. But I want to make a brief comment about yesterday's blog, and the few just before it. In general, I haven't gone back to read what I have written, but yesterday I did take a "bird's eye" view of this whole site, just to see what it looks like overall, what I am writing about. (As I have said, I never know WHAT I am going to write only that—and this is being 100% honest—that I simply MUST write that particular thing at that particular moment, with the inner drive that my life has somehow depended on it.

The one brief thing I would say about yesterday's blog is that it looks to me like some kind of "legal document" in my own mind. It reads like a rambling, unnecessarily wordy definition of what this blog is, laying the ground rules very clearly, defining the borders and boundaries of who gets to do and say what (mainly me). I am not a lawyer, and I don't know how to construct a real legal document, but my brother and my father are, and I've read and signed enough legal documents with their rambling, wordy texts to get a general sense of what they are.

I could have written this: "This blog is a safe place for me to write down my private memories, where no one can refute what I say. If you care what I think, please read. I want to recover from neurosurgery a stronger person than I was before, made up of the same memories, but perhaps with them prioritized differently. Thank you for reading."

That is all yesterday's blog really says, but I'm letting it stand because it just seems so oddly worded, so incredibly over-the-top in its brute force. As someone who considers himself a good writer, I view its writing style as foreign legalese.

But today I wanted to share one brief memory—a happy one—and one of those extremely lucid ones.

I know this took place on my first day of kindergarten (or soon after that). I was standing at the front door, about to leave the house, and my mother was teaching me a word. I was having trouble getting it, but she would not let me out until I could pronounce the word correctly, and I was having trouble.

"Kyger," she said.


"No . . . Kiiiiiiie-Grrrrrrr," she said very slowly. (If you think about it, saying "Kyger" is a bit of a tongue-twister for a little boy. The "K" and the "G" are difficult to say in quick succession. You open you mouth all the way to say the "I" sound, then clench down to make the "grrrr" sound. Kyger.

It was my mother's maiden name.

"Kyger," she repeated. "This is what mommy is. Kyger. You are a Kyger too. Say it—Kyger."


"Kie. Kuh-kuh-kuh."


"Alexander! Stop it! You are not a tiger."

"I am a tiger! Grrrrrr!"

"No. Say 'KAH.'"


"Say 'KIE.'"


"Say 'GRRRRR!'"


"Say 'Kie-Grrrr.'"


She breathed a sigh of relief. I can still hear that exhale. She said, 'Now say, "I am a Kyger.'"

I could not resist, so I instead tricked her with, "I am a TIGER!"


When she raised her voice, I knew I my life was always hanging in the balance, so I straightened up and immediately replied, "I am a Kyger."

"Good!" she said, and she was suddenly happy again, and I remember being let out the door so I could begin my first day of kindergarten.

That memory is quite vivid, and though not a traumatic memory, it still has that feel like it doesn't quite fit in with a lot of my other memories. It floats around, not really connected to anything else, and I don't group it in with anything or think, "This is one of THOSE kind of memories." It just floats around on its own. I suppose the unusual thing is my mother's urgency. Simply put, I was not going to get out that door until I got the word right, and perhaps in the "real" version of events that episode was quite a bit longer, hence the reason it stands out in my memory. So I know this happened, that I felt an unusual urgency from my mother, and it was somehow critical right then that I learn the word, that I knew this before I was let out into the world for my first time.

For me, I didn't really care what a "Kyger" was. That day was exciting because it made me think of myself as a tiger. Something clicked in my head.

Winnie-the-Pooh was a favorite in our house, but the reason I did not like it was because both my brothers had names which associate with the boy character, the only human amongst all the animals. I was left out. I may have this wrong, but my mother spoke often about the boy character in Winnie-the-Pooh and how both my older brothers (I am the youngest) had names associated with him. But she never said anything about me.

So when I said, "I am a tiger," I made the association to, "I am a Tigger," and all day I felt that—finally—I was not left out in the cold, "cast aside" as the ONLY one of my brothers who didn't have a rightful place in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. They could be the boy, but I could be Tigger. From that day on, I imagined myself as not an outsider in my family, but finally part of the club. I had a role. I was Tigger. Every Winnie-the-Pooh story after that was a good one, and I always hated them before that.  I simply put myself in Tigger's body and did and thought everything Tigger did.

The Wikipedia article on Tigger says this about his personality traits:

"Tigger's personality in the cartoons is much like his personality in the book. He is very confident and has quite an ego, he often thinks of himself as being handsome, and some of his other comments suggest he has a high opinion of himself. Also, he often undertakes tasks with gusto, only to later realize they were not as easy as he had originally imagined. As in the books, Tigger never refers to himself as a tiger, just as a "Tigger". When Tigger introduces himself, he often says the proper way to spell his name is: "T-I-double-guh-err (T,i,gg,e,r) , which spells Tigger."

"Another of Tigger's notable personality traits is his habit of mispronouncing various words, or stressing wrong syllables in them. Examples of this include him pronouncing "villain" as "villy-un"; "ridiculous" as "ridicarus"; and "recognize" as "re-coga-nize". "

Much later, my girlfriend at Juilliard was also a Tigger, I found out. One of our favorite things to do (when we were 20-22 years old, mind you) was to go into the Disney Store when we were at the mall and play-act with the Tigger stuffed animals at each other. For her birthday once, I bought her a very large stuffed Tigger. It was not a "joke" gift. It was a real gift, coming from me and to her, and it as given and received with the same serious appreciation as any more meaningful "adult" gift.

Car trips with her, almost every one, she would sing, and I would sing along:

A wonderful thing is a Tigger;
A Tigger's a wonderful thing.
Their tops are made out of rubber,
their bottoms are made out of spring
They're bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, bouncy,
fun, fun, fun, fun, fun,
The most wonderful thing
about Tiggers is:
I'm the only one!

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Outline

One thing I can say for certain about this blog is, after the last two days, it has made me feel like—as clich├ęd as this sounds—a new person. That I am told by many people in private messages that it may stand someday as an interesting document for me to look back on is not something that concerns me right now. I have felt this unbelievable compulsion to write, write, write since my tumor removal—like my existence quite literally depends on it—a kind of crazed, reptilian determination just to open my laptop, find a public website, and write down my thoughts. The overhwelming compulsion stems from the idea that, from the “privacy and safety” of my couch, feeling completely alone and at peace with myself, I can write down one record of everything I feel compelled to say. And also I have the general awareness (on some level) that the contradicting people in my life could all have the option to read the same exact words, the same “official record” of my thoughts. For some reason unknown to me now, this why I feel compelled to write at this juncture—to put it out there in the Universe as an official record of what only I have been thinking all my life, and that if anyone wants to read it, fine. I don’t want to throw it in people’s faces—no, it’s not that at all, and I don’t want people to cry for me and I’m not soliciting sympathy—I just have this overwhelming desire that my thoughts are “available” in long form if you are interested. If you don’t care to read this, don’t read it. I don’t really care if you do or don’t and I won’t wonder why.

Any time I have written anything in my blog, it has been with this almost maniacal drive to write about what I feel like I want to write about, just at that moment. I have had no plan, and no idea where this was going to take me. No ulterior motive, no timeline, no “goals to achieve”, just an open forum where—at any given moment—I can spring up from the couch (MJ’s surprise: “What’s wrong!?” Me: “Nothing, I’m fine. I just need to write.” MJ: “OK.”) and feel this incredible urge that I simply must write one particular thing, right at that moment, be it an old memory, a dream, a silly vignette, or something else. The only thing I can say for certain is I just “knew” in every instance what I have “had” to write for every entry, going back to the Caring Bridge entries (which I guess I should copy at one point and bring over here to have it all in one spot; I’ll make a note to do that).

Husband Amused is therapy for my frazzled, disoriented mind just as My Couch is therapy for my frazzled, disoriented cells, brain tissue and spinal fluid. The important thing to me about Husband Amused is that I am not conceiving of it in terms of having an “end point.” I don’t know, going into it, for example, that I have only ten sessions with a therapist that my insurance will pay for. I’m too smart for myself, too much of a planner in that I have gone into those ten sessions knowing exactly how I was going to come out of them. I have sized up therapists at the first session and figured out that, just like in a good movie plot, on the second or third session, I would “discover” the unconscious reason why I really was there, the “hidden” motive really driving me to seek help for the first issue that was bugging me. On the fifth session I would bravely look at the therapist and say, “I’ve reached the point of no return, and I choose now to go forward. I can’t turn back if I take this next step, but here I go.” [Deep breath, step.] Then on the seventh or eighth session I “therapize” myself down, down, down into the deepest, darkest hole, so desperate, nowhere to turn, so afraid of the dark, then on the eighth and ninth sessions I break through new barriers, crying, slaying demons, avowing how I now have power over those things, then the tenth session is for wrapping things up and rolling the end credits.

I’ve done that, convincingly, three separate times as an adult, supposedly trying to heal the pain of my childhood. One therapist once said to me, at the end of the tenth session, standing at the door, “You know, sometimes I wonder about whether I’m really helping people, whether I’m doing any good in this world with my chosen career. But then there are patients that come along like you and I know everything is worth it.” I’ve heard a therapist say those exact words to me, and I have also been fully aware that I’ve been faking the whole thing. Not with the issues, mind you—I don’t lie to a therapist about anything that has happened in my life, and I don’t make anything up—nothing like that, and I have never “invented” some kind of phony trauma that didn’t actually happen for the sake of a therapist. I have always worked within the guidelines of my real life, talking about real things that have happened to me. Rather, I have gone into therapy already knowing and having personally “worked through” these private issues on my own, then re-enacted them in front of a therapist, kind of like a “performance” after I have done all the work myself. The point is that it has made me feel good to help the therapist, that I have created a kind of “safe, predictible” version of myself to go into the therapist with the goal of helping the therapist. That has always been my goal going into therapy—not to help myself, but to size up a therapist, find out what they need in their life, and try to give it to them so they feel better about themselves. I am so good at that.

Even though I have worked with “real, true” issues in therapies before, I know I have never once spoken to a therapist about witnessing the brutal shooting of a dog, or even once mentioned my nanny Eloy and everything she meant to me. Those things never even occurred to me. With the open-ended and limitless boundaries of what Husband Amused has represented to me, I know right from the start I have achieved more with my writing post-op than I have with a lifetime of self-scrutiny.

So—to begin—with Husband Amused it has been vitally important to me to embrace the concept that there are no “end points” associated with it. “End points” is simply a term I hear myself constantly referring to since the surgery. I don’t know what I mean by that, but I hear myself using the term “end points” as a negative term I can’t deal with. Any abstract thought that gives me a headache—physical pain, seriously—has been something I define as having an “end point.” When I felt good enough a few days after coming home from the hospital to get up from the couch and go downstairs to my office for an hour, catching up on a few bills and correspondeces, I came back upstairs for lunch frazzled and blabbing to MJ about how “my office is all end points, all things to do and put in folders, to end them, go onto the next thing, put that in a folder, end that. It’s all numbers, quantities, and end points.” I heard myself say that, saw MJ’s puzzled look, and took note of it.

The thought of an “end point” as an abstract idea has made me so sick so I feel physical pain in my brain. Only pain medication and an ice bag sitting on my head will take away the pain I feel from the concept of an “end point” anywhere in my life right now. I need everything to be open, limitless, without a particular direction, and I need the ability to act and think suddenly, and WRITE at the key moments I need, and this drive is primal. I have my family and friends rallying around me, picking up all the slack as I do this to go on healing. I have no concept of what anyone else needs right now, none (and this is way it is supposed to be for people coming out of brain surgery). I am relying on the people close to me for everything, and they are providing it to me because they love me.

So I have no idea, literally as I write this sentence, where I am going to go from here. I only know Husband Amused is not associated with any concept of an “end point” anywhere, and therefore it is the only safe place in the Universe Alexander Miller can write anything Alexander Miller wants, with complete protection and anonymity. Paradoxycally, I am simultaneously aware that as I do this anyone in the world—even people I know who want to hurt me—can have access to these words as well. I know both these things are true at the same time, and I readily admit that these things contradict each other.

And—most importantly—I know that everything I write in Husband Amused is coming from the perspective of a strong adult and not a weak adult. Perhaps also a confused adult, but nonetheless a strong one, because I have never envisioned myself as a “strong” person, not once in my life. From my earliest years, I have approached every situation from the perspective that I am the weakest person in the room, the one with the least reason to ask for anything because everyone else’s needs must come first. So I decided anything I write (and, in fact, any single word I have so far written, right from the start) is me writing from the perspective of a “New Me, Version 2.0”, a regular, normal, average, real and strong adult. I don’t mean “strong-er” in terms of overpowering others and putting others beneath me, but rather “strong” in a more abstract sense, meaning strong within myself and knowing I have some kind of value in the world.

So far, this New Me v2.0 is someone I would define exactly as this:

“The Outline.”

The Outline, simply, is what I envision as the parameters of a fully strong, adult male, 41 years old. In the area OUTSIDE OF this outline I envision all my memories, strewn about, floating around in the space around me, available to me, but NOT inside The Outline. Not yet. The memories are ALL there, every single one of them—happy, traumatic, silly, horrifying, innocuous, shameful, stupid, lame, insane, ebulliant, serene, melancholy, wistful, “invented”—but they are now all there in equal portions, nothing hidden away or stashed, nothing “conveniently forgotten”, nothing elaborated, with the same amount of light shining on all of them for me to inspect, take a good measure of before “The Outline of the Fully Strong 41-year-old Male” decides how to put everything back inside of The Outline and how to prioritize and embrace these familiar or forgotten memories. They all need to go back in there, even the ones I don’t like, but The Outline of the Fully Strong 41-year-old Adult Male will be overseeing this whole reconstruction, and no one else can have a say. The Outline will make every hard decision, down to every nuance.

As I write this, I know that is the only thing I can say I know about myself for certain as I embark on the second half of my life, the half that doesn’t have the tumor stuck in the middle of my brain. This is the one and only thing I now know about me. I know outside of myself I have people protecting me, allowing me to do this, but that is something that is not inside The Outline. I will have to put all the memories back, but I will do it in only the way I choose, and it will be done in my own time, with no concept of an end point. And I promise to do everything in writing, right here on my daily blog I have aptly titled Husband Amused.

So I guess it is two things I know for sure about myself: 1) the above, and 2) I got the title right.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

More Mexico Memories

I need to keep writing about Mexico. I spent all of yesterday writing and crying uncontrollably, almost non-stop. I wanted to rest but I could not stop writing. Once, I turned around to see MJ just staring at me with a very strange look on her face, because I was fighting the tears which kept clouding my vision and preventing me from seeing what I was writing. I was summoning my earliest memories—the very first emotions I ever felt, the images, the sights, the smells, the sounds—but (and this was the key) ONLY the ones I could say came 100% from within my own head and were not put there by someone else.

As my method of categorizing memories and life experiences has been completely blasted apart following my tumor removal, I am simply picking up the pieces and wondering if I should put them back just as they were or stack them back up differently for the second half of my life. But the important part was to get the memories RIGHT, regardless of what they were, so I know what I am dealing with, completely unadorned. I want to be rebuilt stronger than I was before, and nothing is stronger than truth.

When I am often asked what is was like to grow up in a lot of foreign countries, I give the standard reply that it was great: I was exposed to a lot of different things, different cultures and had all sorts of amazing experiences most normal children would not have had an opportunity to take a part in. I knew from an early age that the world was a big, varied, wonderful place, and, with the foresight of my parents, I got to embrace all these things. I never felt "caged up" during my childhood, and I never felt like I needed to "get out and spread my wings" once I was old enough. I already got to see every part of the world. I got to travel everywhere, go on African safaris, conduct kangaroos in Australia, see the pyramids of ancient Egypt, ride a camel, take a boat to the highest waterfall in the world in the middle of Venezuela, climb to the top of Masada in Israel, see the little gold houses in people's yards in Bangkok, the Sydney Opera house, the Australian outback, and travel everywhere in the first class cabins of 747s when first class had a spiral stairway to take you up to an open room with a standing cheese board to snack on while you relaxed at a table and played cards to pass the time in the air. From any perspective I could possibly imagine, I had it all. My parents did everything "correct," everything they possibly could have done to give me an amazing array of experiences. This blog is not about my parents.

I thought after yesterday I was over and done with anything I would need to say about my time in Mexico when I was two or three, but having slept on it, read my blog this morning, (then re-read it several times after to let it sink in), I realize I am looking at what is, in essence, something like a physician's clinical report simply listing my memories, just as they are. It reads as a "this is what we have to work with" starting point if I want to rebuild myself in a different way following the removal of my tumor. You cannot CHANGE your first memories, or erase them, or alter them. They are your starting point, no matter what. You do not try to black them out because they simply ARE. You build yourself up using them.

So, regardless of what anything means, I can say with a lot of certainty that I can look at yesterday's blog like a list of myself at age 2 and 3, the experiences that—for whatever reason—made an impression on me. And now I must ask myself if I took a new "tabula rasa" and etched these memories onto it, where would a 2 or 3-year-old boy go from there, having these as the first concepts he could grasp?"

I can tell you, most of my perception regarding my childhood in Mexico—the way I have thought of it most of my life—is a retroactive "memory" I have inserted into myself based on what I have been told by others. Roughly, here it is:

I was a "holy terror" as my mother often recounted. I had constant temper-tantrums and threw fits of such extreme violence she had never seen other children act that way. I was told I was a bad kid who threw these horrible, bizarre, and extremely violent fits. I took a black magic marker once and ran through the house, screaming and yelling at the top of my lungs, scribbling on the walls, the lampshades, anything I could scribble black on as violently as I could, wanting to destroy the nice house we lived in, ripping it to shreds. These were frequent, not just a "normal" kid's crying or whining, but something of particular note. This was recounted over and over again to me for years after that—I was a "holy terror" right from the seed. Stories at the dinner table of "Oh, and there was the time Alexander did THIS in Mexico, remember that time? . . ." were good, funny stories to talk about at the dinner table as I grew up. My brothers had other issues that were "their" issues and not mine (as does every child), but for me the big problem from the start was the extremely violent temper-tantrums those two years in Mexico, and how I was the "holy terror."

But I have not a single memory myself of any of this—not even the memory of being unhappy, or angry, or displeased, or uneasy about anything at all—only that people have told me I was this way. Believe me, I tried yesterday (and tried, and tried) but I simply have nothing I can come up with to recall a single one of my temper-tantrums which are apparently the stuff of legend. I can't even recall being mildly upset even once, and my memories of that time are plentiful.

When I turn my attention back inside the confines of my own head, when I flash on the concept of "childhood in Mexico" it is always the same image that pops in front which I have become accustomed to setting aside all my life: the shooting of the dog by the policeman, which I witnessed from a perspective standing right next to the policeman, so close I could have reached out and touched his gun.

My thoughts are always as such: Remember Mexico? [Dog shooting.] Fun things we did. Remember that other thing we did? [Dog shooting.] Oh yeah, that was great too.

I have done this all my life, every single time, very clinically removing that image from the top of the deck when I recall something we did in Mexico. I have never spoken of it because the image from the start is so odd, so out of place it just doesn't belong with anything else. As a 2 or 3-year-old I was in a nurturing family, I had all the wonderful things around me in my house, and we went on fun adventures (I quite enjoyed digging in the dirt, looking for artifacts with my mother.) In general, you would have to say it was a good time.

But every time I think of Mexico, I do stop for a private millisecond and think about that dog getting shot. And I have no idea where this vivid memory is from. I don't know where it took place, when it took place, why it took place, why I was there, how an unsupervised 2 or 3-year old got there to witness this, or what happened before or after this memory. And I don't remember thinking or feeling much about it. It is just an abstract memory that sits in the middle of all the other nice things. I have never spoken of it because it does not fit or connect to anything, but I am 100% certain this was a real thing that happened and that I saw this while we were in Mexico.

All I know was I was outside, standing right next to a policeman, looking into a ditch. The dog clung to the top of the ditch with its front paws, and it yelped, looking directly at me for help. We had our own little black dog at home ("Cutie") who looked in my eyes all the time, asking to be petted, to have food, etc., and this dog in the ditch was looking at me with the same pleading eyes, only it was more desperate. I wanted to help it. I was standing right there, so close I could have knelt down and pulled this dog out of the ditch. The moment was slow and tender. A dog wanted me to help it, and I could see the dog's beautiful eyes. But a policeman was standing next to me, and the policeman drew his gun, shot the dog, and the dog disappeared. I leaned in to look and saw the dog climb up again to cling over the edge and yelp and plead to me again, a little more loudly, and now his eyes blinked oddly. The policeman shot again and the dog disappeared. I looked over again and now saw the dog use only its front legs to climb its way back to the top of the ditch again, clinging with its front paws just over the top edge once again, yelping some more, this time more quickly but also more softly, looking straight at me for help. Then the policeman fired several more times ("puff, puff, puff" as the bullets were dispensed), and then the dog disappeared for good. I never saw any blood, and the dog's head did not take any bullets. That memory is so crystal clear, it is perhaps the one thing in my life I can say for certain happened EXACTLY the way I write it, and I have never told anyone about this.

The other memory about Mexico I flash on privately every single time is more complicated, because it deals with Eloy, our maid and nanny, who died. I have nothing but great, personal memories of the actual time we spent together playing. The traumatic memory has to do with an image I conjured in my own mind when it was explained to me that Eloy had died in childbirth (which was the first time I found out it was possible to die in childbirth).

A memory, an image or a concept that makes an impression on you can come from within, and even though it may be a complete fabrication (i.e. it didn't "happen") it is still a "memory" in the sense that it is real within the confines of your own head. Since this is etched there permanently in mine, I must simply decide how to work with it and not how to black it out. In so many words, the mental image I have stored in my head from an extremely young age is this:

Eloy was the person I shared the most joy with, from my earliest memories. She was perfect, and everything I remember about her makes up the closest thing I can think of when I think of the abstract idea of "my innocence." I knew she was not my mother, but I wanted her to be my mother instead because everything with her was funny and exciting. When I was told she had died, it was explained (at one point, maybe right then) that "because she loved you so much" was the reason she made the decision to be a mother in the first place. I was the reason she put herself in harm's way—because we had such a great time playing together and she wanted someone to replace me when we moved back to the United States.

So when I was told she had died in childbirth and it was explained to me that she decided to be a mother because "she loved me so much," I instantly conjured an image (I was either 3 years old, 4, or 5) which remains with me to this day, and—though very private—it is always the same, familiar (and now even comforting) scene. In this scene, she is lying on a table, straining horribly, thinking of how much she wants to make a person just like me, trying to give birth, straining her neck muscles—just like the dog in the ditch—and then she almost dies. Then she looks right into my eyes and finds one more ounce of strength to try straining one more time. Her face then contorts horribly out of shape and I watch her die because the whole thing is just too painful for her. This scene plays out the same way every time in my head, in exactly the same fashion, from the first time I dreamed it up as a little boy.

It is not hard to say that, actually, to just spell it out like that, because that image is so familiar as a recurring thing I can simply write down what I have seen play out thousands of times in my head. It's always the same, and that "memory" is as old and familiar an image to me as a snapshot of my family gathering by the Christmas tree. It's just in my head along with all the other things I associate with being a child.

In essence, I always felt that by being so special I convinced Eloy to become a mother herself. She then tried to do it, and because I convinced her to do it is the reason she died. This has sat on my shoulders all my life, and whether it is "true" or whether I made it "become true" in my own mind is irrelevant. It is simply part of who I am.  It is a private thing I share only between myself and Eloy, and I have always felt, out of respect for what she gave up for me, I should go on to do something extraordinary with my life, something different, something where I'm not just another person like anyone else.  I feel like my innocence was lost at a very young age (despite what others think about my pampered life) and that I knew very early on that I had a heavy burden on my shoulders to shine for two people instead of just one.

As I finish this blog for today, still convalescing on the couch, still getting better, the phone rang right now. It was my father calling, just a routine call saying hello. He was returning from one of his board meetings, just saying hello on his new iPhone, seeing how I was doing with my recovery.

"Great!" I just replied. "I am putting myself back together, like all the pieces of me have fallen to the ground after the tumor removal, and now I'm building myself back up from the bottom, but now I am choosing how to do it."

"Terrific," he said.

"I need to ask you something," I said. "Something I've never spoken about, something about Mexico, and I just need to ask. This may sound weird, but I need to ask you this."

"About Mexico? Well, sure. What?"

"Did I see a dog get shot?"


"So I did, then."

"Yes.  Boy, that was . . . jeez haven't thought of that in, like, about 40 years? Anyway, it was complete mayhem, so fast. It was a German Shepherd. It was a rabid dog, foaming at the mouth, completely rabid, going crazy, just crazy, running like 100 miles an hour in circles on our lawn all of a sudden. We were already out there, all kinds of people, neighborhood kids running and screaming, everything moving so fast, people running around."

"I was right there. I know I was extremely close, like right next to it."

"The dog was all over the place, here, there, across the street, right next to me, running and running so fast, so it might have gotten close to you at one point. Everything was fast, complete mayhem. One of the neighbors had a gun and shot it because it was in danger of biting one of kids, who were all running around and screaming outside. Everything happened fast."

"I thought it was a policeman who shot it."

"Yeah, maybe it was a policeman. Or there were also the security guards from the club area who had guns on them. Someone had a gun, probably someone in a uniform."

"But I still think I was right next to it when it was shot. I was right there."

"Could be.  Again, everything was so fast, so sudden and chaotic no one could tell what was happening or where anyone was. We heard the shots and we got everyone inside to safety as fast as we could."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mexico Memories

The purpose of my blog is still unclear to me.  However, in the process of trying to make sense of my head in the weeks following the procedure to remove my tumor, this blog (and the one which preceded it on Caring Bridge) has felt like the only safe place to put my thoughts. I realize there is a paradox about this—a blog is open to all, and therefore it is not a safe place. Yet my instinct and my moments of clarity compel me to write at this crossroads in my life for all the people who care to read about me.  I truly feel I have no choice, that I simply must write if I am to go on living as my new brain rewires itself and finds its bearings in the world.  The feeling is that strong—if I don't get this right, with the support of people around me—I'll be living the first half of my life all over again, not having grown one bit.

Perhaps the public nature of a blog is necessary for me because I'm too smart for my own good.  I know if I write only for myself (as in a traditional diary, pencil and paper) I would somehow find a way to lie, to convince myself I am healing—complete with a good performance of crocodile tears at a therapist's office, diary in hand—when in fact all I have done is trick myself with clever prose.

My head is still a clutter of memories and the bulk of my rehabilitation—mentally—is still being spent trying to "get a grip."  Things seem so in flux, so full of endless realities it is hard to simply stand up, walk somewhere, say hello to someone, sit down, and pretend like it was all nothing.  It takes a lot to do that, post-neurosurgery, and I'm getting better.

One thing I have always known is—compared to others—I have a good memory. Not only can I remember long stretches of things (for example, an entire symphony once when I forgot to bring my music to a concert) but my memory stretches way back to a time when I literally remember being inside a crib and wanting to get out.

When I was two years old, we moved to Mexico City.  I have a few memories before this in Michigan (running down the three steps into our sunken living room, crying in a crib, a planter box filled with kittens) but most of my narrative memory begins in Mexico when I was two and older.  A lot of it is a blur, but there are many memories that—since the removal of my tumor—have popped out vividly, almost like a "whack-a-mole."  Some of them are so frightening I cannot believe they were stored in the memory bank of a two or three-year-old—myself.  Some of these memories have literally come back to me in the past few hours, and I have never spoken of them, but I know with absolute certainty these are real.  With no particular rhyme nor reason, I can clearly recall these random flashes of being two or three years old in Mexico:

My brother balancing between two chairs, then falling off and splitting open his chin;

My insistence one time at the dinner table to have three glasses in front of me—milk, water and orange juice, the only three liquids I thought existed. (The request was granted.)

We had a small black dog named "Cutie" the whole time as well as two "sausage dogs" named "Sebastian" and "Poindexter" for a while;

The song "American Pie" was a big hit on the radio, and I repeated the words, "While the king was looking down, the jester stole his phony crown," many times to myself;

An earthquake one morning;

The empty lot next door to us—usually dry, caked dirt with patches of green grass—was one day suddenly all charred, black, and smoking;

The house next to that lot was dark and cavernous on the inside;

Screaming for my mother (I was in the kitchen and she was in another room), telling her I wanted chocolate sauce—just the sauce by itself—in a bowl, and being yelled back at. (The request was denied);

Watching a rabid dog that was loose in the neighborhood struggle to get out of a ditch;

Watching a policeman walk up to the pleading dog, draw a gun and shoot it so the dog fell back into the ditch (I was only a few feet away);

Watching the dog crawl up to the edge of the ditch again using only its front legs, yelping and pleading once again;

Watching the policeman shoot several more times (the shots sounded like "puffs" or "pops") until the dog disappeared into the ditch and I could not see it.

I have other memories of my time in Mexico too.  I remember my brother started pre-school (so now he was not with me all the time), my father was at work, and my mother was usually off at an archaeology dig during the day.  Many times I would go with her to these digs, playing in the hot, dry dirt with her, sorting pieces of broken pots into piles.  Once, on my own, I found a small clay bear digging in the dirt.  It was my first and only archaeological find, about an inch tall but definitely a bear.  It sits on a lucite stand in the center of my living room today.

Once my mother found a whole human skeleton, thousands of years old, at her dig.  We brought the bones back, sorted them in our yard, and I remember playing with the bones.  I played a silly game of peek-a-boo behind the ribcage, everything hot and dry and dusty.  And I remember my mother turning on the hose to wash away all the dirt.  My mother saved the skull, dipped it in shellac, and displayed it under a square lucite box on a wood base in our living room.  My oldest brother has the skull now.

I remember a cheerful young Mexican woman named Eloy was around the house a lot.  She was our maid, and she also acted as a nanny.  (I have since looked it up, and "Eloy" is more common as a man's name, but Eloy was indeed a woman.)  There were many times when it was just the two of us playing together.  I would get a bath sometimes.  I would blow on the soap bubbles and she would splash me with the water.

Time to come out of the bath!
Not yet, I'm going to put my head underwater to see the fish.
Did you see any fish?
No you didn't! There aren't fish in a bathtub.
You're right! I was only pretending!

(I am not "dramatizing" the above; that is a precise, extremely lucid memory.)  Eloy and I played Christmas together when we were alone. We wrapped my wood blocks with the same pieces of paper every day. I would then open them up to reveal the blocks inside, showing her a glee so pure I have never felt it since. We did this every single day, every time we were alone together when my brother was at pre-school, my father was at work, and my mother was digging in the hot, dry dust looking for pieces of pots.

I remember the Christmas before that—our first in Mexico—which got me so excited in the first place. It was the most perfect day.  A big tree was inside with lights.  Something under the tree was wrapped in a shiny paper and I had to know what was inside.  But I knew I had to wait to open it.  It was a large flat thing that had round bumps on the corners.

"What do you think that is?" my father asked me. He was sitting in his chair by the tree, reading a newspaper.
"A car!" I said, showing him the round bumps. "These are the wheels."
"But cars aren't flat," he said.
"Then it's a crazy car!" I remember saying back.
(In fact, it was a toy pinball machine and the bumps on the corners were little rounded legs.)

The major event everyone remembers about me those two years in Mexico—that I ran into the road, was hit by a car, broke one leg and fractured my skull—I have no memory of.  I do remember being driven away in someone's car (probably the person who hit me), lying on my back in the back seat, being driven to the hospital as the driver (a woman) asked me questions about myself, like how old I was.  I knew something had happened, but I was not in any pain.  That's all I remember about the whole episode.

My next memory (shortly after that, maybe the next day) was being at the dinner table, surrounded by my family, and being told that "the president" had asked my father how I was doing.  I think "the president" was probably the president of his company, or president of a division, but it could also have been the president of Mexico visiting his company that day too.  I'm not sure.  In any event, this was something I then repeated to dinner guests for a while after that: I would recount how I was hit by a car, and how "the president" had especially asked my father how I was doing.  I didn't know what "president" meant before that, but I knew from then on it was some kind of special person.  It made me feel good that a special person I didn't even know wanted to find out how I was feeling.

Eloy was here during all of this.  In fact, Eloy, my brother and I had been alone in the front yard (I think) when I wandered out of her supervision into the street.  Our street wasn't a busy street with a lot of cars.  It was quiet, as best as I can recall.  Every once in a while a car would go by, but there were never lots of cars at the same time.  As everyone dealt with the mayhem of my being hit by a car and taken to the hospital, no one told my brother what was happening, so he drew his own conclusions.  When my mother came home (I think she was at the grocery store), she knew something was not right.  Neighbors approached her, crying.  My brother simply told her, "Alexander is dead.  He just died and they took him away."

Though I don't remember any of this, my mother told me when I woke up in the hospital, the first thing I did was ask her if—considering everything that had just happened to me—I could finally get that toy I wanted.  I don't recall saying this, but I have no doubt this is accurate, and that I did get the toy I wanted.

When we moved back to the United States briefly (and before we moved to Australia, I think) my mother sat me down to tell me something about Eloy, the young woman who had spent all that time with me.  Though I knew Eloy was not my real mother, she filled that quality time with me perfectly for those many hours every afternoon where just the two of us played together while my brother was at pre-school, my father was at work and my mother dug in the dirt looking for old relics.  Every day it was the same, always the same, wrapping and opening wood blocks to make every day like Christmas, playing in the bath together, dunking my head underwater looking for fish, staying safe inside the house with her in the hot and dusty land where you saw dogs shot if you dared to go outside.

My mother told me Eloy was dead.  She explained it to me, the best way she could.

"Eloy loved you.  She loved you so much she wanted a child of her own."
"But then why is she dead?"
"She died giving birth."

"She wanted someone just like you.  You're the one who made her want to have children."

There is no way to be certain of the exact words my mother said on that day, or how exactly she did explain it to me, but that is about as precise as I can be with the many, many, many times I have replayed that conversation in my head ever since.  I can't say for sure where this conversation happened, or if it happened on different occasions, or if I simply heard about her death, asked my mother about it, and then invented the conversation entirely.  This part of my memory is more emotional and is not vivid like the time I saw the policeman shoot the dog.  I doubt anyone ever knew what I felt right away about hearing of Eloy's death and the guilt I felt, because I always like to hear bad news, pretend like it is nothing and walk away so I can figure out how I am going to feel about it later.

In any event, these are the personal things I think about when I think of our family's time in Mexico.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I Can Do This

I am calling today's blog "I Can Do This" because—more than anything—this is what I have been telling myself from the moment I was strapped in for my MRI.  As I disappeared inside that enormous machine just past midnight a few weeks ago—knowing I would not be coming out for another four hours—I breathed out and opened my eyes.  A mirror just above my face was supposed to be angled so my view would refract into the open room, taking away the anxiety of claustrophobia.  Something was not set correctly (I guess) and the only thing I could see were my own eyes looking straight back at me.  I was trapped deep in the recesses of a million-dollar piece of medical equipment.  No way out.  I had a buzzer to press anytime I wanted out (which would mean starting all over) but I didn't use it.

I looked into the eyes looking back at me and said, "I can do this."

One tumor and one emergency surgery later, I now find myself with a rebooted brain. It's the same mind I have always had with the same memories, but everything is different. At first I was physically disoriented—dizzy to a point where I could not stand up—but now my challenges are purely mental.

My entire life before my surgery I felt like a little person inhabiting the space inside my skull.  The little alien from "Men In Black" or the rat in "Ratatouille" are good metaphors. I was my mind only, and the rest of my body I trained to do things and feel things to look real. From an early age I remember that sensation of teaching my body to follow instructions as I picked up clues from other people —

This is where you make a joke.
This is where you cry.

This is where you high-five someone.
This is where you throw yourself down in frustration.
This is where you kiss the girl.

By reading how others reacted to me, I used my intellect to construct a way to fit in seamlessly. I felt like a fax copy of a person the whole time, being clever enough to act a split-second ahead of things so as to pass by unnoticed amongst the flesh-and-bloods.

Now that my tumor is gone, I feel real, and it is overwhelming. Whereas things before seemed like a series of corridors and familiar doors I had set up, now it is like swimming in an open ocean with possibilities in every direction.

"Are you ready for this?" MJ asked me this morning. She had been keeping a keen eye on me for weeks, and she already knew the answer.

"Yes, I can do this," I said.

She put me in the car and drove me to rehearsal. I am many weeks, perhaps even months, away from returning to my life as a performing classical musician, but my new music group (who has replaced me in the meantime) thought it would be helpful if I play two notes on a harmonica for a modern piece coming up in a while. Just being on a stage with musicians—something old and familiar—might be a good thing for healing, a reminder that there are other safe places in the world besides the security of my couch.

On the way to rehearsal, MJ encountered a maze of detours as unexpected road construction pushed us farther and farther off course.  For a mind like mine so dependent on rational order and symmetry, the experience of not being able to take a straight, familiar path from point A to point B was jarring.  I got suddenly irritated and anxious.  I was trapped in a car, far from home, with no back-up plan.  We were doomed.

We pulled to a stop. If MJ and I were the type of couple who ever fought, this is where it would have taken place.  But we don't ever fight, so we didn't.  But I was frustrated and disoriented.  I closed my eyes.  I wanted to shout that we should take the car straight home, go right back to the beginning, and try a new route.  But I didn't say this.  I breathed in and out and just waited while the car idled.

I said to myself, "I can do this," and relaxed again.

I opened my eyes and looked at the house on the corner.  It had a couple of lawn ornaments—life-sized wild turkeys—adorning their front yard.  Seasonal, I thought.

Then the wild turkeys moved.  They were not lawn ornaments.  They were real pair of wild turkeys wandering in the middle of East Grand Rapids.  The male looked right at me—I could feel this—then he turned his attention to the female. He ruffled his feathers at her and splayed his tail apart, effectively doubling his size.  The female was nonplussed and wandered into the street.  The male followed behind her steps methodically, like a stalker.

"They should get out of the road!" MJ said as we pulled away, now having figured out our new route.  "They're going to get hit."

She dropped me at the rehearsal.  I would just walk in, sit for minute with some friends, blow into a harmonica, then come back out.  Therapy.

"You'll be okay?" she asked, knowing the answer.


I left the car, waved at her, walked around the corner on my own, and went inside.  Everything outside my house seems big and open, and this was no different.  I walked inside to see some familiar faces and answered the usual questions where I said how well things are going for me.  I took out my harmonica and sat between the oboist who is filling in for me and the harpist.

More questions about how I am doing.  ("Fine." "It's different." "Coming along slowly, but I'll get there," etc.)  But I was overwhelmed and had that feeling I was in an open sea with no corridors or familiar doors. My words were normal, but the harpist could see the water in my eyes.  I sat still in the chair, looking at the ground for a moment, trying to compose myself.  I was either going to faint, bolt or I had to find another way to deal.  I saw a hand—a woman's hand—the only anchor I could possibly conceive of right then, and I grabbed it.  The harpist stood suddenly and embraced me warmly while I shook it off.  I looked at her and said, "It's okay. I can do this. I'll be fine."  And right then I knew it too.

I sat through the piece, sitting amongst the musicians, listening to this gorgeous music around me, more beautiful than I had ever felt before—more real—and by the time my note came up I was feeling completely normal. I blew the chord on the harmonica and I guess it sounded like a harmonica.  I left and went back outside, where MJ was waiting in the car, now back from a quick errand.

"How did it go?" she asked.

"Good!" I said.

She drove me home and made lunch.  After lunch it was time for Noah, our 9-year-old Newfoundland, to get his walk.  Until now it has not been part of my rehab to stray too far from the couch so MJ has done this part alone.  But I felt energized from my earlier success—spry, perhaps—and also I felt a casual stroll might do me some good.

"It'll be nice to have you with us on the walk, then.  I'll get my coat," MJ said.

"I want to do it alone," I said.

She was not so sure.

"Seriously," I insisted. "I have a phone. It's just to the end of the block and back."  I thought some more and then said, "I can do this."


I got Noah's leash and a few plastic bags for another purpose. I hitched him up and opened the front door of our house.  Noah went down the steps and in no time we were halfway down the street, just the two of us.  It felt strange, kind of open.  In the past I would think of a dog walk as a straight line, a simple equation where you take your pet to a certain point, wait for him to do something, then come back.  But this felt very airy and open, very real for once.  I liked it, and the crisp autumn air and colored leaves added an ambience I could simply feel for once instead of having a theoretical appreciation for.  I felt so normal I took out my iPhone and posted a status update on Facebook: "Alexander Miller is walking his dog for the first time since neurosurgery (big step!) and it is beyond therapeutic."

Noah turned the corner and we went to the bottom of the hill on the next street. We crossed to the other side and began the return portion of the walk. Something about this made everything feel wrong, just plain wrong.  Things were upside-down and I couldn't get a handle on how everything corresponded to everything else.  I never felt in danger (like I would freak out or anything like that), just a general sense of malaise that the world was not ordered.  I was once again floating in the ocean.  I closed my eyes and tried to focus.  All I can say is I reached deep within myself and said, "I can do this," and opened my eyes again.

Noah didn't know.  He plodded along as he does every single time, expressing interest in the same trees, doing his "opera conductor" moments of "marking, marking, marking" (one of those musician jokes).  Noah pulled me forward, guiding me, not knowing my face was suddenly so flush I could feel wetness running down my cheeks.  He kept going forward as he does every time.

I was still overwhelmed.  I had no hand to grab onto, but I had a leash.  I thought to myself, "This is the part where Noah goes to the next tree."  And Noah did that.  Then I said (aloud), "And this is the part where Noah goes to another tree."  Noah did that too.

When we got to the corner, Noah looked at me.  I was still very disoriented.  I said to him, "This is where Noah turns the corner."  Noah turned the corner, guiding me on a ninety degree turn to the left down our street.  I felt better, and I said, "This is where Noah walks forward down our street," and Noah walked forward.  I said, "This is where Noah takes me all the way home."  And Noah led me straight to the front door.  I was crying openly by this time, not out of panic or disorientation anymore but rather simple joy that I could find my way home, using my own methods.

To someone watching me, they might not have noticed a thing out of the ordinary, but my mind continues to surpass these large hurdles as I continue my rehabilitation.