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Monday, July 25, 2011

Junkies Say the Darndest Things

When I was in the 10th grade, classes were canceled one day so we could talk about drugs. There were maybe fifteen of us in one of the rooms sitting in a semicircle, facing a teacher and an ex-junkie who likely was court-ordered to do this. The ex-junkie had long blonde hair in a ponytail and he moved with the boneless demeanor of a novice surfer. The teacher was in every way his opposite: balding, angular and reserved. They passed out sheets with columns titled, “Ages 11-13, Ages 14-16, Ages 17-21.” We were supposed to write our feelings in the blank spots.

The junkie spoke, “See, we’re gonna talk about this from like what the different ages would be affected like.”

The teacher stole a sideways glance at the junkie and added, “We will go around the room and talk freely about our experiences. You are safe to speak here.”

The kid on the far end raised his hand. “We can say anything?”


“11 to 13,” the junkie started. “Like, how do you feel about drug use at that age? Good? Bad? How would it like affect an 11-year-old, you know?”

The first kid shook his head, “That’s real bad for someone so young.”

“Bad,” the next kid said.



When it was my turn I said the same thing: “Bad.”

So did everyone after me.

Until the kid on the end: “This friend of my brother’s? We went to his house and he lit a joint and blew pot smoke in a dog’s face and the dog walked wobbly and could only stand if it leaned against a wall.” A crooked grin crisscrossed the lower half of his face and he blurted this with the alacrity of a stand-up comic. His eyes widened while his eyebrows arched crazily. “The dog was like, ‘Oooor, roooor, oooooorr,’” he howled while swaying back and forth.

“Uh,” the teacher said. “Thank, uh, next age group.”

“14-16. What about drug use at that age?” the junkie asked us. “That age group is trying for Varsity.” He tapped two fingers to his head. “Think what effect using drugs would have on those chances moving up from J.V.”

The first kid shook his head again. “It’s really bad at that age.”

“Bad,” the next kid said, as did the next few.

“It’s bad,” I offered. “But also sad.”

“Bad and sad,” the teacher said. “Interesting.”

“Bad and sad,” the next kid said.

“Bad and sad.”

“Bad and sad.”

The kid on the end: “This friend of my brother’s? We went to his house this other time? He has a parakeet and he covered the cage with a sheet and blew pot smoke in there and the bird hung upside-down from its perch and tweeted crazy stuff.”

The teacher expectorated a staccato snort and then banged his chest with his fist. He tried to recreate another cough to sound like the previous bark of laughter but it wasn’t even close. The junkie adjusted his tie and stared at his loafers.

Later in the seminar they handed us another sheet with multiple-choice questions. One asked:

What is the best antidote for taking drugs?
A) Other drugs
B) Alcohol
C) Coffee
D) Lots of rest

“Coffee,” said one kid when prodded for an answer.

“No way,” blurted the kid on the end. “You use coffee for a downer, not for coke. You don’t freebase and then gargle Folgers Crystals unless you want to blow up like Richard Pryor, you doofbag.” He flicked his finger on the back of the other kid’s head.

The junkie smiled wryly, clapped his hands once and pointed at the kid on the end.

The teacher jumped in, “Look, uh”—he set the paper down—“let’s um, let’s talk for a minute.” He turned to the junkie and said, “Just tell them the truth. All of it. About drugs.” The teacher turned one palm up and made a sweeping gesture to us.

“The truth?” The junkie set his paper down as well. “The truth is drugs are great. Yeah.”

I have never seen a more panicked look on a teacher’s face.

The junkie said, “If they weren’t great they wouldn’t be a problem, right? But they’re great … until they’re not. And when they’re not they ruin your life. But—honestly—if I could do drugs again without problems, I would do it. But now I know problems come later and I won’t ruin my life twice.”

The teacher’s face eased only slightly.

“That’s the truth,” the junkie said. “You asked me for it.”

When we lived in Caracas, Venezuela I was in the 3rd through 6th grades. Our house had iron bars on the windows. A steel door separated our backyard from the world outside. The one time we didn’t lock our car someone tried to steal it. We were allowed to ride bikes to friends’ houses but we knew to be careful.

One afternoon my mother took us to the park. A scrawny Venezuelan boy about my age played around the bushes so I joined him. His clothes were dirty and torn but I didn’t mind. He was nice. In his cupped hands was a small bird. This interested me because we had pet birds too.

“¿Como se llama tu pájaro?” I asked him.

“No se,” he replied.

“¿Es un canario?”


The boy opened his hands and showed me. It was a sparrow.

He wandered away and I watched him curiously. With his back turned, I saw one arm work in a whittling motion into the other. Downy feathers flew into the air and fell to the ground. My mother yanked me away when she pieced together what was happening. The boy was hungry. She gave him some money and we didn’t go to that park again.

Another time in Venezuela, a gang of children stopped my bike on the sidewalk. The boys parted and the oldest of them approached. He laughed at the streamers dangling from my bike’s handlebars.

“¿Sabes que es ‘marijuana’?” he asked me.


He pretended to inhale slowly while holding his index finger and thumb to his lips. “Ma-ri-jua-naaaaaaa…” he said dreamily.

“¿Es un cigarillo?” I asked.

All the boys laughed and the oldest said, “Es un TIPO de cigarillo.” The boys laughed harder. “Es un tipo muy … especial.”

I pushed hard on my pedal and the boy stopped me easily. He flicked the streamer on my handlebar and sneered, “Adios, niña. Adios, muchacha.”

He stepped aside and I sped home.

Another day I saw a man stumble into the street with his arms flailing. In no time he was down on the asphalt in the middle of the road. One of his arms moved in a circular motion that reminded me of “yummy in my tummy,” but the way he did it was odd and mechanical. There were no cars on the street so I pedaled to him and stepped off my bike. The man’s face was frozen tight. An adult who had seen this now ran in the road with me. The man lay on his side with his neck curled tightly to one shoulder and the top of his head pressing into the pavement. The circular motion of his arms stopped, leaving his whole body awkwardly contorted.

I touched him. He was stiff.

The adult next to me touched him also. He shook his head.

“¿Muerto?” I asked.

“No,” the adult said. “Cocaína. Heroína. ¿Sabes que es ‘cocaína’ y ‘heroína’?”


The adult waggled his finger at me. “Drogas. No drogas para usted. No, no.”

The man on the ground exhaled hard and white foam ejected from his mouth. With every labored breath the foamy saliva spread over his inverted face, oozing up his nostrils and into his eyes. I swallowed and took a step back.

“Ay,” the adult said and looked around for someone. He put his hand on the man’s arm and shook it back and forth. The body rocked stiffly in unison.

“Ay,” the adult said again.

The teacher dimmed the lights and showed us a filmstrip about peer pressure.

When the lights came back up the junkie asked, “So like you’re at a party and your friends are doing drugs? Do you do them too? Yes? No?”

The kid on the end singled me out by blurting, “Not if Ale threw a party. All you’d get is milk and cookies!”

The room erupted in laughter. I reddened, and as a retort for being lampooned I said something demeaning about anyone who would try drugs in the first place. In no time the room turned on me.

The teacher held his hands up and the junkie took me in for the first time. He tilted his head and squinted coolly. I’ll never forget this. He said, “Good kid, huh? Yeah, that’s okay.” He moseyed up to me. It was only a few steps, but I felt intimidated. All day this guy had been a bit of a loose cannon. He said, “Nice house, probably? Nice neighbors? Let me tell you something. Drugs’ll bite anyone and they’ll do it anywhere. So don’t think you’re above this. Shit happens, my friend.”

He gave me a knowing glare, suggesting one day I would see the very things I had seen up close as a little boy.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Inside the Sand

When my family moved back to Michigan in 1979 after a few years each in Mexico, Australia and Venezuela, we took up residence in my first house again. It was the best house I ever knew, on a dirt road that led to the top of a hill that was perfect for sledding in the winter. All the children in the neighborhood sledded at our house.

In the summers, our house gave us automatic membership in the Walnut Lake Beach Association. It was a short walk over there, maybe half a mile along Inkster Road, which ran alongside a stream bustling with fish and cattails. The beach was a short strip of sand leading into the lake, protected from the road by a wire fence. On one end of the beach was a grassy area with picnic tables, grills, swing sets, seesaws and a horseshoe court. On the other end were various small boats stowed upside-down on racks. There was a dock, too, but every slip was taken and our boat was on a waitlist. In the entire time I lived there, we moved up two spots on that list.

The first summer we were back in Michigan, I had just finished 6th grade. I went to the beach every day with either my brother or my friend Richard from across the street. July 4th was the biggest day at the beach with the most activities. After dark, fireworks exploded over the lake and during the day there was a pie-eating contest, a steeplechase and some kind of splash-fest featuring a greased watermelon.

And a sand sculpture competition.

“Want to enter together?” Richard asked me.

“Sure. What are we going to make?”

“A strong man,” he said. “What could be better?”

We pushed mounds of sand with our hands until we had enough for a torso, two legs and two arms. Then we scooped more sand together to make a head.

Richard’s brother Zach—older by a few years—came by to see how we were doing.

“What is it?” Zach asked.

“A strong man,” Richard said. “We’re still adding the arm muscles.”

Zach stood back and rubbed his thumb on his chin thoughtfully. He said, “You need to cut in a little below the ribcage so the waist is smaller and the chest is bigger.”

“Okay,” we said.

Zach also told us to add sand on the abdomen and to carve it into six individual bumps, simulating a six-pack. Our strong man was ripped.

The face didn’t look good, though. The eyes were holes punched with our thumbs. The mouth was a line drawn by a finger. We forgot to make a nose, too. But all the muscles were good.

We won a 2nd place ribbon for the youngest age group.

A few summers later, Andrew joined us.

“What are we going to make?” Andrew asked me.

“A giant telephone,” I told him. “What could be better?”

I unhooked the phone in our living room and put it in my bag. At the beach, I put the phone on the sand and laid the receiver uncradled at the side, the curly cord a tangle leading back to the base.

I told everyone, “Make it look exactly like that. Only really huge.”

After an hour we still didn’t have enough sand.

“We need shovels,” Andrew said, wiping sweat from his brow.

My brother ran home and came back with tools from my mother’s gardening shed. As the deadline for the judging drew near, we encountered a second problem: the sun. Even though we carefully had molded the individual number buttons, they dried out in the sun and eroded. After that, one person’s job was to run continuously back and forth from the lake, scooping up water and drizzling it over the top of our giant telephone. But when it was done it was an eye-catcher. Everyone at the beach wanted to see the telephone. It didn’t win, but we earned 2nd place ribbons again, now as young contestants in the older age group.

The next few summers I was gone at Interlochen for music camp, but every July 4th I would think about what sand sculpture I would make if I could have been there. After my senior year of high school, I left for a summer in Rome, Italy, to play a music festival before I would move to New York to begin my studies at Juilliard.

The flight to Rome left on the evening of July 4th. The morning and afternoon were free.

I called Andrew on the same phone that had been the model for our last entry. My brother had left the year before so it was just the two of us. I declared, “Let’s win the sand castle competition once and for all. We can do it! What do we need to build?”

Andrew thought about this for a long time. He said, “If we want to win, we need to go bigger. In size, in scope. But also timeless.”

He was right. Most phones didn’t even have cords anymore.

“What should we build?” I asked him.

“A Mayan temple,” he said. “What could be better?”

He met me at my house at 6am on July 4th. We threw shovels in the car along with trowels, butter knives, buckets and water misters. The gate to the beach was locked this early, so Andrew climbed over the fence. I threw all the tools over and then climbed in after him. Andrew drew a giant square in the sand.

“This is our base,” he said, walking the perimeter. “We need a lot of sand.”

The first three hours were pure shoveling, building up the pyramid as tall as we were. When the gate opened and people began filing in we could feel the buzz.

“Pack it in tight!” Andrew ordered me. “We don’t want this crumbling when we carve in details.”

Once the pyramid took shape, we used the trowels to cut away giant steps, working from top to bottom. Then we added narrow staircases going up the middle of each side, one person carving little steps with a butter knife while the other gently misted dry spots with the water bottle. People gathered as the mammoth construction appeared before their eyes. Andrew added a small construction on top, crowning our creation.

We won 1st place. Andrew and I posed for a photo in front of it, proudly waving our blue ribbons. Then—as was tradition—all the younger children jumped on it and destroyed it enthusiastically in mere seconds.

Three years later, I happened to be back home for a July 4th, visiting with my girlfriend from New York. My brother happened to be home, too. I called Andrew’s house and found out he was home.

I said, “Let’s enter the sand competition again. For old time’s sake.”

My parents had since moved to a new house they had built a few miles away. It was bigger, but it was okay. We could get into the beach for a day if we paid at the gate.

“What are we going to make?” Andrew asked.

“I’ll show you when we get there,” I replied cryptically.

See, I had learned things about the world now that I was a New Yorker. I had read books in my Liberal Arts classes. Old books. Foreign books translated into English. I took one look at the couples lighting the barbecues, carrying in bags of hot dogs and fourpacks of Bartles & James wine coolers and I knew I needed to make a statement. These suburban philistines needed to be educated.

“I’ll start shoveling,” Andrew offered.

“Wait a second, the prime spot is over there,” I pointed. There was a little boy in my spot already, digging innocently with a plastic shovel and pail. I shooed the little boy away and he started to cry.

“Oh, Jesus …” my girlfriend said to me, disgusted. She wandered off to tan for the afternoon.

“Come on, let’s get started!” I declared.

An hour later, we were getting weird looks from passersby.

“What’s it supposed to be?” someone asked.

“The working title is ‘The Plurality of Consciousness,’” I told them. “The different shapes represent states of ourselves as we compensate for society as it inflicts its will upon us. We’re using sand as our medium because it symbolizes the transient state of all things in nature.”

“Looks stupid,” the person said and wandered off.

I followed him.

“Stupid? STUPID?” I shouted. “That’s not stupid. YOU’RE stupid. I don’t suppose someone like you would be able to comprehend anything profound. I don’t suppose you’ve read ‘The Tale of Genji’ but I have, so I know. So maybe you should go play on the swing, you ignoramus!”

The nerve of these people, I thought. As I stormed back to our work area, I passed my tanning girlfriend who tipped her head up and hissed, “Do you know how almost-broken-up we are?”

After several more hours of this, our pretentious magnum opus was ready for previews. The judge was a lifeguard with mirrored sunglasses, zinc oxide on his nose and a floppy sun hat. He lifted the hat, scratched his head and stared off somewhere, hoping someone would rescue him. No one did. I think he gave us a 2nd place ribbon for it, but honestly I can’t remember.

I drove by my old house a few weeks ago, now twenty-five years later, and it’s safe to say I have grown up a bit. The neighborhood feels about the same, but the trees are now large and mature. The dirt road was paved long ago, and some of the houses I remembered have been torn down and replaced with grander structures. It’s a very nice neighborhood, but when I was growing up it was just my house, the house on the hill where all the children came to go sledding in the winter.

The cottage where we spend our summers now also has lake privileges, and often I go down there and kick my feet through the sand, thinking about those July 4th competitions. What strikes me now is how much of what we made out of simple sand was such a transparent attempt to express who we wanted to be at the time. The other children made castles, unicorns, baseball diamonds, winking pigs or dragons, and the subject always agreed with the creator.

I haven’t made something out of sand in a long time—music has since replaced that compulsion within me—but when I walk along the beach I wonder what I would make now. I take these walks because they are good for me, though now I wear sunglasses or an eye patch to account for my central serous chorioretinopathy. Sometimes I need to turn back home sooner because my old hernia repair scar aches or my legs bloat from the drug used to counteract diabetes insipidus. Sometimes I start coughing from allergies or a sudden asthma attack. Sometimes I feel a brain shock coming on. Sometimes I worry about the craniopharyngioma. When I have to sit in the sand for a few minutes and rest, I wonder what I would make today. I wouldn’t make an incomprehensible surrealist mess. I wouldn’t make a grand Mayan temple. I wouldn’t make a telephone.

I would make a strong man.  What could be better?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Electric Neon Kool-Aid Urine

I see so many doctors and specialists now that sometimes I forget the next appointment could change the direction of my life. Yesterday morning that happened.

It was my first visit with a retinal specialist. The red dot that has been plaguing the vision in my right eye for the past month has developed into something more translucent (and therefore more bearable) but I had to see this specialist to be sure nothing more serious was going on.

“Any conditions besides the red dot?” the technician asked after summoning me from the waiting room.

“Not much. Just diabetes insipidus, coughing asthma, panhypopituitarism, high blood pressure and brain tumor.”


I spelled everything.


“Just check all the boxes.”


I read her the list I keep in my pocket. The edges are frayed from the number of times I have had to consult this piece of paper. I need to get it laminated.

For the next ninety minutes, I lost count of the number of tests. Most were uncomfortable because I am more sensitive to flashing lights. (“Hold your eye wide open. Stare at this bright light and wait for a huge flash, etc.). This went on for an hour, but I held together just fine.

Until the needle.

I texted MJ when the technician left the room: “think im get a needle in the eye. wtf.”

She texted back various emoticons: a frowning face with a furled brow followed by a row of hearts. I could barely read the screen on my phone because my pupils were dilated.

The technician came back and picked up the syringe.

“Left or right?” she asked.


“Arm. I need a vein.”

I had never been more relieved. I wanted to kiss her.

This test, the most crucial, determined whether any of the fluid accumulating behind my right eye was leaking. Leaking is bad. She took a series of photos. I followed a white light and the technician captured images of the backs of my eyeballs. It felt like being sucker-punched by blinding light flashes every time. Then she pumped yellow dye into my vein and took all the same images again at specifically timed intervals, snapping flash photos at precise moments when the dye would be coming through the blood vessels in my eyes.

“You’re all done,” the technician said. She added, “You will feel nauseous, and your urine will be yellow for a while."

"It's always yellow."

"Well, an electric neon yellow, like Kool-Aid. For the next 36 hours. Try to urinate a lot and it will all come out.”

She left the room.

Shortly after this, the retinal specialist came in to change my life.

“You definitely have a case of central serous chorioretinopathy, no question,” he told me. “Fluid is building up behind your right eye, partially detaching the retina and creating the image of the red dot in your vision. The good news is the fluid is NOT leaking. Leaking is bad.”

I exhaled. Then he showed me in great detail how the photographs proved that. It was fascinating.

“Great,” I said. “Just wait it out and it will go away, right?”

“Not really.” He gave me a rundown of his experience diagnosing and treating this. There is a common thread in most if not all the cases.

His first question blinked oddly on my radar: “How is your life right now?”

“Uh, fine…” I answered, a little defensively.

“How is your wife?”


“You like your job?”

“Yeah. It’s fine…”

“Under a lot of stress or anxiety?”

I thought for a few seconds. “Maybe,” I finally said.

He paused for a few seconds himself. “Let me list off what patients who have had this have told me over the years, because it is remarkably consistent. Either it’s, ‘I’m getting a divorce,’ or ‘I just found out my business partner has been embezzling millions of dollars from me,’ or ‘I can’t take the stress of my job anymore,’ or ‘I’m losing my home to foreclosure,’ or ‘I have this big thing at stake with too many loose ends’ … you see a pattern here? Anxiety. Over and over again, this is a very common theme. Every patient. Retinas do not partially detach for no reason. The body responds to anxiety or stress by producing too much of something to counteract the anxiety, and as a result you can be in danger of losing some vision in your eye. Make no mistake; this can get worse. Or permanent. If this happened now for you, it could happen again with your dominant eye, especially if you don’t look within yourself and find the root cause of this. Your body is reacting to what your mind tells it to do.”

My life did change right then.

Everyone deals with anxiety, certainly. But throughout my life it has been drilled into me about how blessed I am (and I am, no question). The way I have tended to take this life lesson—that I am more fortunate than others—is to put myself last when it comes to addressing my own needs in terms of how they compete with others’. I don’t think I am weak-willed, but rather I have a natural inclination to find out and satisfy what others need first before even considering that my own needs could rank evenly. I tend to “let others win,” in so many words, because I have already had so many wonderful opportunities given to me. This may be why I find such comfort in my chosen field as a classical musician (and why I am fighting like mad to stay healthy enough to continue at it). So much of excelling at music relates to internal struggles within yourself, where you are competing with yourself for some level of excellence of which you know you are capable, like a golfer who designs his own course and then is the only one to play on it for his whole life. Especially with composing, the comfort I take in that kind of artistry has to do with the solitude of the creative process, where the journey of the creation all by myself is undiluted from day-to-day competition with others. When I finish a piece, people play it and talk about it (and it gets judged in the reviews), but by then that part of me is almost an afterthought, already gone from my own mind (in a way) as I am usually on to the next thing.

So I have a protected inner circle that is just “me,” proving again and again what it takes to compete with myself. But when my needs compete with others, I tend to shy away and let others go first. As always, there are cases where some people know how to pick up on this and take advantage, even brazenly so, and I know this is the source of my anxiety right now. It’s not every day you decide to make a change in your life. Sometimes it has been too long since the last time you looked inside and made sure things were right. Our bodies have a way of telling us when it is that time.