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Monday, June 28, 2010

Vision Changes

It has been a while since I have posted an update because there has not been much to report. I did have yet another brain shock yesterday of medium intensity but my condition in that regard is nothing like the 20 per day I had been experiencing.

My eyesight, however, is changing. I will not be tested until we get back to Grand Rapids in another week but up here in the woods I have found myself squinting a lot to make things out. My new Walgreen's dorky reading glasses—a fun curiosity I wasn't sure I needed just a few weeks ago—are now a necessity. And the vision loss in my right eye (blurry in the distance) is even worse.

This is not necessarily bad news. Light or color loss (not blurriness) is what the doctors are really concerned about and my vision is okay in that regard. My eyes are just getting older. I'm over 40 now (but only thiiiiiis much) and everybody starts losing some vision around that time. It's probably just a strange coincidence.

The other thing I have been dealing with is harder to measure. My sense of disorientation (and perhaps dizziness) is back. Following the first tumor resection I experienced a significant amount of dizziness and disorientation for several months. Even when I made it back on stage I had to grasp the music stand when standing for bows. Sudden changes in direction—both physical and mental—bothered me. For a while it went away as I healed but now it seems to have returned. It could be many things including allergies or the unfamiliarity of my brain processing images not pristinely in focus anymore. Still, it is unnerving to feel like a pilot flying in the clouds trying to keep the wings level by staring out the window. Even if a lot of me feels like it is healing there are other parts that are out of sync.

In another bit of news, I read with interest that Scott Hamilton underwent brain surgery recently to remove a craniopharyngioma tumor just like mine. One thing I have discovered about adult craniopharyngioma patients is—because of their extreme rarity—we all find one another on the Internet to read each other's blogs, compare notes and discuss symptoms. Assuming my theory is correct, let me say this to a new reader of mine:

Hello, Scott Hamilton! Welcome to my blog, God bless you, and—from one craniopharyngioma patient to another—I wish you a speedy recovery!

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Songbird from Hell

The symphony season ended in late May and does not resume until July. I have cleaned everything off my plate and I am focusing on one thing: HEAL. Tumor, tumor, go away and don’t ever come back! We are doing everything possible to keep stress down and we have been spending all our time in the peace and quiet of the woods surrounding our cottage.

But how does one live in peace? Anytime my brain has free space I fill it with something. Sometimes I can’t even sleep because my head is full. MJ told me to fall asleep by counting sheep. I have never done this so I tried it. Before I got to ten, one of my sheep tripped and did a YouTube-worthy face plant in the mud. I burst out laughing.

“Stop it!” MJ said. “It should be peaceful. One sheep hops over the fence, then another, then another. Just one sheep after the other, all the same. Peaceful.”

Hmm, peace. I tried again. One sheep cleared the fence. Yay for the sheep. The second one turned to look at me before jumping. It had Groucho Marx glasses on its face and it smoked a cigar. I held back the laughing but MJ knew something was up.

“Last warning,” she said.

I shook it off. I exhaled and stilled myself.

“Do I have to start counting back at one?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.

I closed my eyes to count more sheep. But when I looked at the fence all the sheep were gone. In my imagination I turned 180 degrees to look behind me. All the sheep had stacked themselves into the kind of cheerleading pyramid that wins competitions and is shown on local newscasts. The one on top wore dark sunglasses and spoke: “I’ll be baa-ack.”

Welcome to my mind. It never rests even when I want it to. I try to live in peace but the hamster wheel up there is always spinning. I’ve never been diagnosed but I am certain I have some kind of obsessive or compulsive streak. If my mind is normal the human race really is screwed.

Yet compulsive streaks can be a good thing. I have known all my life the central struggle within my own mind revolves around figuring out how to set myself loose in the right direction. More than anything this is why I have a love-hate relationship with composing. Once I begin writing a piece it is a maddening and tortuous process I cannot stop.

So how do I live in peace and take a month off to heal? How is there peace if I live in the woods and dream of music that won’t stop once I start it? As Bukowski writes, “Hey, Tully baby, nobody who could write worth a damn could ever write in peace.”

My best ideas come as I wake up. I lie in bed, thinking of musical phrases, repeating them until they are right and then turning them upside down and backwards as a fun mental exercise.

“Go back to sleep,” MJ says when I realize I am not just dreaming but outwardly conducting five beats in one hand against four in the other. I have been shaking the bed without knowing it. This can suggest all sorts of things to a partner half asleep on the other side of a king mattress. But MJ knows me well enough to know when the bed shakes it is because of a polyrhythm.

I put my arms down, lie still and think through the phrase several more times. If I don’t firmly seal the idea in my head it won’t be there after I let Noah out, let Noah in, give Noah his Kong toy smeared with peanut butter, give Noah his morning pills, take my own pills, nasal sprays and gels, start the coffee, feed Noah, print out the morning New York Times crossword puzzle for me and the New York Times 6x6 KenKen puzzle for MJ . . . where was I? If I don’t seal the idea with my eyes closed in bed it is gone by the time I am fully awake.

It is quiet in the woods before the sun rises. A few mornings ago I thought through more musical ideas until they were set. Genius? Of course! I was ready to rise from bed.

Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE.

“What the . . .” I thought. I opened my eyes and looked out the window. I couldn’t see anything but obviously a small bird was chirping its morning call.

Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE.

It wouldn’t shut up. I finally saw the outline of a tiny bird perched on the branch of an old oak. It was smaller than the palm of my hand yet it sang with the willpower and fortitude of a heldentenor.

Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE.

I scrambled to find a sheet of manuscript paper because my computer would take too long to boot up. I scribbled a few notes with one hand while plugging one ear with the other.

Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE.

It was no use.

“Shit,” I thought. I looked at what I had written: Do-Mi-Sol-Fa. That was it. “Great job, Ludwig,” I thought. “Four more notes and I’m on my way to a piano etude.” I had also scratched out, “Str fast scales / tbns muted < > / ww’s syncopat.” Wow. Genius indeed. Not.

Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE.

The little bird chirped the same four notes all morning. I tried composing with earplugs but it was no use. One little bird was killing an idea that would win me a Pulitzer someday. Not.

By noon the chirpenator had stopped all of a sudden and once again I could appreciate the balance of sounds in the woods. The wind rustled the leaves in the trees. The seagulls and loons called in the distance.


“Hey, want to have lunch on the porch?” MJ asked. “It’s nice out.”


I laid two placemats on the slatted table and found some napkins and silverware. MJ reheated and sliced a roasted lemon-rosemary chicken breast from the previous night’s supper. She mixed together arugula and other spring greens from a local grower and mixed these with sherry vinegar and olive oil. She plated the salads, arranged the chicken slices along the side and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top. She ground fresh pepper over the plates and sprinkled crystals of fleur de sel over it all. As if adding an exclamation point to her creation she leaned two slices of triangular homemade sourdough toasts against one another to form a kind of teepee rising up from the plate. During this time I had done my one job of filling two glasses with ice water. We carried everything outside and Noah followed us.

“Cheers!” we said and clinked water glasses. “To healing in peace!”

I stabbed my fork into the salad and took a bite. It was delicious. I sat back and watched the sun glisten over the lake. Beautiful. Peace. I felt at peace, my brain and my body healing again, in peace.

The little bird flitted across my line of sight and landed on a branch nearby.

Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE.

“I’m gonna KILL THAT THING!” I blurted as I leapt from my seat. My knee hit the table’s leg and water spilled into the salad plates.

“Hey, easy!” MJ countered.

“It’s driving me insane!”

“It’s just a bird.”

I pointed up to the tree. “No, he KNOWS he’s doing this to me. He WANTS to torture me.” I looked into the tree with fiery eyes. “And a little bird’s gonna PAY! That’s right you seed-ass mutha-FEATHER! I’m gonna kick you off this property if it’s the last thing I do!”

Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE.


I sat back down and ate the rest of the salad, fuming while MJ rubbed my shoulder.

Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE.

“He’s gonna pay,” I growled.

After lunch I booted up my laptop and went to a website that featured audio samples of birdcalls.

“What are you doing?” MJ asked.

“Trying to identify him,” I said. “I’ve narrowed the search to just birds of the Great Lakes.”

“How many is that?”

“Three hundred and forty-five.”

“And how long does it take to download each birdcall at dial-up speed?”

“Three minutes.”

She paused. “What are you going to do once you identify him?”

I tapped my index finger to my temple. “I’m going to THINK like him. Find out his natural predators. Then I’ll download sounds of his natural predators, transfer that to the iPod and play that through the outdoor speakers day and night until he flies away.”

“Why don’t you just play loud music to shoo him off?”

“Because I want to mess with his head and”—I rubbed my hands together—“make him question some of the choices he has made.”

The bird returned.

Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE.

“There he is again!” I said.

The little bird flew up to a branch, landed and a moment later flew around the back of the cottage.

“Get the binoculars!” I shouted. “I want to see what he looks like up close.” I ran around the corner.

“Up there,” MJ pointed.

I could see the outline of what looked like a chihuahua turd perched on a low branch. He flitted his wings suddenly and flew quickly under the side deck.

UNDER the deck. Hmm.

“Is he under there?” MJ asked.

“That’s where he went,” I replied.

We walked back through the cottage, went out the front door and walked around the outside where we could see under the deck.

“I’ll be darned,” MJ said.

It was a nest.

Game, set, match to the bird. I have no problem with setting boundaries between humans and wildlife—putting up fences to keep deer out, humanely trapping and relocating raccoons and rabbits, etc.—but a baby bird killer I am not. I don’t touch nests.

The bird flew back onto the nearby branch to sing a victory song.

Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE. Ree-raa. Ree-REE.

We went back in the house.

MJ said, “Why don’t you take a break? Run to the post office for a minute?”

“All right.”

I hopped in the car and drove to the little post office that sits upon one corner of our peaceful little town. After retrieving the mail, the girl behind the counter asked me, “You’re new here?”

“Yup. The little antique box right there. How do you get the mail in there, by the way. Are you a jeweler?”

She laughed.

“Anyway,” I said, turning to leave, “have a nice day.”

“My first boyfriend is moving back here,” she said.


“I’m divorced, see. So I saw my first boyfriend on FaceBook and I was like, ‘No way, is that totally you?’ and he was like, ‘Way.’”

“Wow, that’s so interesting,” I said, side-shuffling to the door.

“So anyway, I called him? And we, like, talked for HOURS! And the next day he calls and I tell him, ‘You are totally moving back here,’ and he was like, ‘I am?’ and I was like, ‘Way.’ Isn’t that awesome? He just has to wait for his unemployment to kick in and then he can come. He travels light and all he needs to take is his bike and his aquarium.”


“What do you do?”

It was the same as it was with the little bird. I gave up. I set the mail on the counter and talked. “I play in an orchestra. I compose music too.”

“No . . . WAY!”


She blurted, “I’m totally a poet!”

“Published?” I asked.

“No, you have to know people for that.”

“Do you have some of your poems with you?”

“No, but I’ll bring them next week. I’m only here filling in ‘cause I’m kind of low on the totem pole.” She mimed slipping her hand under a pile of dirty laundry. “Hey, maybe you can set my poems to music!”


I returned home, explaining to MJ about my new friend and why it took fifty minutes to retrieve the mail. I took out a sheet of manuscript paper and began writing a new piece. Though I haven’t read one word of our local poet’s work yet, my direction is clear.

Living in peace so deep in the woods, in harmony with nature, I know the music will begin:

Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE! Ree-raa. Ree-REE!