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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Yellow Lamborghini

When I was nine years old our family lived in Caracas, Venezuela. There was a small shop on a corner a few blocks down the road from our house. It was more of a hut than anything. A trap door flipped up and there was a mean lady in there. She sold candy, magazines and cigarettes. When I rode my bike to my friend’s house we would ride over to the mean lady’s hut to buy gum. There were only two flavors of gum in Venezuela, bubble gum or banana. They came in a rope. You tore off some to chew and saved the rest for later. I didn’t chew gum but my friend did so we went to the hut every few days.

Poverty dictated rules of how to coexist in Caracas. You were rarely hassled but you had to watch your things. Leave something unattended and it was up for grabs. We knew this so we locked our bikes, even if they were parked in our own driveway.

One day at the hut we set our bikes down for a moment. A yellow Lamborghini veered off the busy street and rolled onto the sidewalk in front of the hut. Pneumatic valves hissed and the top opened like a clamshell. A hale young man in disco clothes jumped out and bought a pack of cigarettes from the mean lady. He climbed back in, the pneumatic valves hissed as the top shut and he tore up more of the sidewalk as the yellow roar disappeared into the flow of traffic.

We looked back at our bikes. My friend’s was missing.

“There!” he shouted, pointing down the street at a ragamuffin riding away. “Go after him!”

I scrambled onto my bike and pedaled quickly. The little thief knew I was in pursuit so he cut across traffic to the other side of the freeway. I was not allowed to ride in the street but still I followed him into the fast lanes of oncoming traffic. Tires screeched and horns honked. I felt a strange burst of energy as I pedaled for my life across the freeway. When we lived in Mexico a car struck me and I almost died. I had a broken leg and a fractured skull from that. Now I was doing the same stupid thing. Hit a car and I was dead. Lose my balance and I was dead. Cars swerved, their tires squealing.

I made it to the other side. The little boy on my friend’s bike was a short way ahead, racing up a hill.

I knew the hill.

It was part of the route I took every day. As I would tire I would climb this hill, just making it to the top. The rest of the ride was reward, mostly downhill back to home. I could see the boy begin to struggle on the incline and I knew I could catch him. At school I was a terrible athlete, the last picked for any team. I had a gentle disposition and I was uncoordinated. But on a bike, by myself, I had skills.

I tapped into my reserve and pedaled up the hill with everything I had. It was no contest. The little boy could barely move another few feet before he was teetering. I pumped hard on my pedals a few more times. Then I was there. I grabbed the handlebar of my friend’s bike. I had caught the thief.

The boy looked at me. I looked at him.

Nothing happened.

The boy didn’t get off the bike and run away. He sat. I held the handlebar firmly but he didn’t wrestle away. Stalemate. I didn’t want to fight him. I had never fought anyone. I wanted him to be afraid of police or something.

Older boys emerged from the weeds next to the hill. The little boy hopped off my friend’s bike and an older one climbed on in his place. With a gentle tug he pulled the handlebar free of my grip. No one threatened me but I was confused. I felt I had won this particular contest, like in school where you received a blue ribbon and teachers wrote your name at the top of a list. I wanted to walk away with both bikes.

But the oldest boy rode away while the others crowded around me. I felt my chest cave as I watched my friend’s bike disappear around a corner.

“Ay,” one of the boys lamented, gesturing to the top of the hill.

I turned my bike around to leave. I wanted to go home.

“No,” another boy said and pointed up the hill.

They didn’t block me from leaving but they pleaded with me. I spoke enough Spanish to hear what they were saying but I feigned ignorance. They told me they felt bad about the oldest boy riding away. They wanted fetch my friend’s bike. They wanted to help me.

But I would need to loan them my bike.

I knew they were lying. I also knew the boys could have overpowered me, yet they didn’t. They only pled, telling me how much they wanted to help, to fix this injustice. If only they could use my bike to chase the thief, they would catch him and bring both bikes back to me.

I pretended not to understand. “No hablo espaƱol,” I told them many times.

The fattest of the boys gestured up the hill. He was shirtless and had dirty cutoff jeans. His round potbelly jiggled with his every move. He mimicked pedaling. He brought his arms together as if he were snatching someone. Then he mimicked pedaling back to me.

Please, please believe we want to help.

I stepped off my bike and the fat boy got on. He tapped his heart and pointed up the hill. He gestured for me to wait. The boys disappeared with him.

I sat there for a while, in the weeds on the side of the road. I knew they would never come back. I watched the cars whiz by on the freeway at the bottom of the hill. I came up with the story I would tell my parents at home: I chased the little boy on sidewalks and never sped across the freeway. The boy led me into a trap where I fought valiantly with a brutal gang. The oldest boy—no, a man—had a knife and yet I still fought for the bikes. When the knife was at my throat I released my grip on the handlebars. After going through the story a few more times I rubbed dirt on my cheeks, squeezed my eyes shut so it looked like I had been crying and walked home.

Many years later, when retelling the true version of events to MJ, I asked her opinion why I did what I did, because I still didn’t know. The boys never threatened me. We were about the same age and I could have ridden away. They didn’t have bikes and I did. My friend’s bike would have been stolen but I would have kept my own. I loved that bike.

“You didn’t want them to know you thought that little of them,” MJ said.

It was true. The boys lied to me about their intentions. They weren’t asking for my bike because they were poor and I was rich. For that, they might have had a case. Instead, they tried to deceive me and lied about what they wanted to do with my bike. I knew they were lying, and they also knew that I knew this. They sensed in me the weakness that I could not tell this to them. I could not say to their face I believed in my heart it was their intention to steal. I was always taught compassion and understanding for the underprivileged and they smelled this. The lady in the hut was poor and I never wondered why she was mean. I thought she had a terrible life and she had a right to be mean. I bought gum from her even though I didn’t want any.

When my mother saw me stagger into our house that day I burst into tears and told her the whole story—the fake one—about the gang with the knife. She called my friend’s mother and they talked for a long time while I deflated into the couch in our music room. My mother hung up the phone and told me she was impressed with how I had handled the whole situation.

“Like a mature adult,” she said many times that day. A knife’s twist in my heart, those words.

My father took me to a store the next weekend to buy a new bike. My old one was of simple design with yellow handlebars. The new one was sleeker, black, and it had wavy lines decorating the sides. Emblazoned across the front of the handlebars, in fiery capital letters: BANDIT.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Power Off

I have been home for a week now, and I need to write down what the past few days have been like. I don't have a lot of energy, but in a few words here it is: I must have been on some kind of adrenaline high through two weeks of Cabrillo and now I'm on the other side of it, crashing every few hours.

I haven't felt this way in over a year, but at dinner a few nights ago I felt the sensation of my whole body shutting down.

Power off. Sofa.

Nothing like an emergency situation, but it was a familiar way to go for a few months after the surgeries when I was convalescing. Back then I would try to do a few things around the house, then when I felt the OFF I went to the couch and stayed horizontal until it passed. Body was still healing and I didn't fight it. It's been a long time since I felt this need to SHUT DOWN.

When we arrived at Cabrillo a few weeks ago, I wondered if I would be up against this phenomenon. A few days in, I did come up against the "marathon wall" and I pushed through it instead of backing off as usual. Much to my surprise I didn't pay for it the next day. Instead, I felt more and more "normal" in energy level than perhaps I ever have since the surgeries. (There were a lot of bear claws and espressos in the mix too.) It was a rush, and I rode the wave all the way through our last notes at the festival.

Since we came home, I have felt my body "relax into" moments. If I had to guess, my body latched onto this idea of letting go for a while and it just shuts down. It's hard to describe exactly, because it's not the same as "I'm so dog tired ... give me the remote and a glass of wine." No, this is—quite seriously—horizontal shut-down mode. No reading, no TV, no sleep (surprisingly) but just ... well ... SHUT DOWN. That's the best I can describe it.

I'll end with some good news: On Friday I have a follow-up with the retinal specialist about the red dot. Since Cabrillo the red dot is gone, and I don't think this is a coincidence. There is a faint ghostly image still in my right eye, but for the most part it is gone. There is nothing like making great music with friends to take away anxiety in your life.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Thoughts after Cabrillo

I was humbled by the way I was welcomed back to Cabrillo this year. There are no other words for this. People treated me like a war hero making a triumphant return. I have been “normal” in appearance for a while now, but most of my Cabrillo friends had not seen me since before the brain surgeries. I’m sure they wondered all the obvious things. Was I going to look or act weird? Talk funny? Be dead weight? I’m sure these things went through everyone’s mind. It’s only natural. But as the festival went on I knew I belonged there, craniopharyngioma or not. I belong at Cabrillo as long as I can nail it the way everyone else there does. We all earn our spots year after year.

As I write this I am flying on an airplane so my mind turns to another person—a pilot—who gets the “hero” treatment.

Captain Sully.

Everyone loves this person. He landed a plane full of passengers on a body of water and everyone survived. The Miracle on the Hudson, they call it, and he was the kind of reluctant storybook hero we all needed when times were darkest. In his interviews following the miracle he looked like a DNA mashup of Chuck Yeager and Fozzy Bear. While he wowed us with statistics about gliding airspeeds and density altitudes we wanted to hug this man and feel the scratch of his mustache against our cheeks to let us know everything was all right. The plane crashing into the Hudson was a metaphor for the recession and Captain Sully was the numbers guru with the heart of gold.

I wonder how I might stack up to Sully. The reason I consider this is I still work. See, he doesn’t fly anymore, yet everywhere he shows up—on Thanksgiving floats, talk shows—people weep when he walks in the room. I have to work to get the same treatment. Every day I battle small issues and overcome them so I can stay at a high level.

Imagine if Sully had to do that.

Imagine a David Letterman stunt. Sully walks in the room. Everyone’s heart melts with fuzzy feelings. Letterman pulls the curtain and tells Sully he wants to see it again. He has an airplane ready for taxi at La Guardia. With a SullyCam we watch him pre-flight, file a flight plan, listen to the ATIS, call for clearance, contact ground control, taxi to the departure runway, radio the control tower, pull the throttle out, roll down the runway, hand off throttle at V1, pull back at Vr, adjust for Vx, retract landing gear, adjust for Vy, switch radio frequencies between tower and departure, level off, trim, kill the engines, adjust for best glide speed, cross fingers and crash into the Hudson.

This is how I feel every day. If I don’t demonstrate my ability to land the plane—every day—I wouldn't be a hero to anyone. I would be just a lucky patient who survived (with very good odds to begin with, don’t forget). I’ll get flak for writing this, but it is such a big part of me it would be disingenuous to omit. The reward for getting past this hurdle in my life is not the celebration of what I did (looking back) but the return to what I was before (looking forward).
This has been the driving force within me since the moment I woke up from my first brain surgery. I had a painful spinal tap, gauze stuffed up my nose, a hole in my skull, oxygen tubes in my mouth, machines beeping every time I moved (see picture below) … and all I thought was how my first goal was to get to where I was five minutes before this freight train hit me. I’ve done that now. It took me two years. Now the next step is mine.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Halfway through Cabrillo

One week down, one week to go at Cabrillo. The first week of concerts was—in the opinion of many—one of the best in memory. The most exciting part about Cabrillo is the presence of so much artistic excellence everywhere I look. Santa Cruz is small, and the streets have a way of tumbling people into one another. It’s hard to hide and everyone is literally rubbing shoulders with everyone else. As I lean across the breakfast table to grab another bear claw I brush past a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer just idling there, deep in thought as he sips on a cup of coffee. I never mention names in my blog, but the talent out here is on some other astral plane, let me tell you. The orchestra musicians, the soloists, the music direction, the composers and the audiences are all fantastic and we feed off each other’s zeal, passion and energy. Four hundred people attended our first rehearsal. The concerts, featuring some of the most difficult new music imaginable, are sold out. Cabrillo is a special place in my heart, a unique part of music history that rewrites music history every year.

On to my health. Two minor brain shocks last week. I am stressing they were MINOR (only 3 on a scale of 1-10) but they are notable because this is the first recurrence of this phenomenon since May. The image I get (I wrote about this before) is of an alien ray gun pointed at the left side of my head. For a second it feels like my brain melts away and then pops with a painful jolt. A half-note downward glissando with a percussion hit at the end. Before I know what has hit me it is over. I never know when the next one will come. It could be minutes or months. When the two brain shocks hit last week I was deep into playing technical passagework, losing myself in the music.

I try to be careful about this but it’s harder when the musicianship around me is full of fire. In the back of my sinus cavity there is only tissue now where there used to be skull. The hole is about the size of a dime. I have a slice mark on my belly to remind me where they extracted this tissue to plug this hole in my head. Common sense tells me bone is solid and tissue has “give.” With the high air pressure of playing the oboe I wonder if the tissue plug bounces in and out when I play and rest. It’s a little gruesome to think about things like this, but I’m starting to wonder if slight on-off pressure changes in the area of the brain behind my sinuses could be responsible for this intermittent brain shock phenomenon.

When I returned to playing a few months after recovery, I took things easily. I played on the easiest reeds and my orchestra’s management accommodated me with anything I needed for gradually working back to a full schedule, never pressuring me to push it any farther than I wanted to. I was determined every week to be one step farther along while maintaining constant vigilance about watching for leaking spinal fluid again.

Because I took things slowly and carefully, I didn’t suffer setbacks during rehab. I have now tested the tissue plug with the heaviest levels of playing I know and it’s staying put. But I wonder if the plug still moves or bounces a millimeter or two with the pressure changes. Once again, I ask myself how many professional oboists have had two craniopharyngioma resection neurosurgeries and then made it back to their previous level of playing? If I make it through the rest of Cabrillo, I could be the first.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Back at Cabrillo

Now that my blog is homing in on its two-year anniversary, I know its most useful trait lies in the archives. I can judge where I am and how far I have come (or slipped back) based on the content and tone of my earlier entries. I do plead guilty to being a good writer and I turn that to my advantage by—in so many words—being myself as much as possible when I write. A few times I stray, but for the most part my goal is to write exactly what I feel compelled to write at any moment, nothing more and nothing less. What we feel compelled to do tells us most of what we need to know about ourselves.

I am writing this from Santa Cruz where I am playing in the Cabrillo Music Festival for the next two weeks. It’s good to be back here. I’ve had a few days to take in everything again. My last memories are blurry. Two years ago I was not home from Santa Cruz more than a few weeks before my life went into a tailspin. In the years before that I could smell salty air and roasting coffee for months, but two years ago everything cut jarringly to the sterile textures of hospitals, syringes and ICUs before I knew what had hit me. I had no time to reflect so I set things in a corner of my mind, not gone, not forgotten, just idling there abstractly.

The coffee. It’s the coffee, and now I understand. We drove the twisty CA-17 down from San Francisco Sunday morning and, like Odysseus beckoned by the Sirens, we wanted coffee. The barista was as pierced as she was opinionated. She must have pulled four or five shots of espresso before she thought one was good enough. It was worth the wait. $2.65.

The salt. It’s the salt in the air. Cars are crusted with it. Plants are hearty or they would never survive this. Even up in the mountains you don’t feel very far from the sea. The salt is everywhere. This is why the coffee needs to be so strong.

The grunge. This is unmistakable in Santa Cruz. There are isolated elements of it all over the place but it has a way of peacefully coexisting. Don’t mess with it and it won’t mess with you. I looked down one street and I knew we were in Santa Cruz again. A young woman on a bicycle riding away from us sported long dreadlocks, the kind you get from never washing your hair. I watched her curiously as she turned the corner and—wait!—that was a dude. [Slaps forehead.] Another man riding the other way balanced himself between two dirty plastic bags. He sat atop his creaky old bike and hunched, the two bags pulling him to one side and then the other. A gray wool cap with a pompom covered his head.

The sanddabs. I dream of these little flatfish in the dead of winter. When I run into a fellow Cabrillo musician out of season, the conversation takes a detour to sanddabs every time. “Ooooh, we gonna have us some sanddabs!” he always says. Sanddabs are to Santa Cruz what razor clams are to Oregon and Washington.

The music. And this is why we are here, no question. No coffee, salt, grunge or plate of sanddabs could lure us here year after year without the music. In two weeks of tightly packed rehearsals and concerts we play more new orchestral music than we would in five years with our regular orchestras. There is a white-hot energy that permeates the playing here. Every piece is a world premiere, a U.S. premiere, or a West Coast premiere. Everything is new, brand new, and we are right at the source. You can’t get closer to new music than this without getting inside the heads of the composers themselves.

Bad image. As for me, I’m doing all right after a few days of playing here. I’ve been conservative about how far to push it, and if I feel anything strange I just stop playing until it goes away. For the record, I’ve backed off from blowing about three times so far. Three times in three days is nothing serious for me. I’m going to bed and waking up in one piece.

The red dot in my right eye is SMALLER now, half the size it was when we left Grand Rapids. Since the partial retina detachment is caused by stress and anxiety, I wonder if I was more anxious about my return here than I will admit to myself? I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I wonder. Cabrillo was the last place I felt free as a non-patient before my apple cart upended suddenly. I wonder if I was afraid to find out what it was going to be like to be back, to be caught off guard with the knowledge that I couldn’t do it anymore. Maybe I was anxious about that. Again, I don’t know, but so far I feel like I’m keeping up with everyone and not—my worst fear as a professional—holding anyone back. I didn’t play last summer because of this very reason: too many variables with my fragile condition. This summer I still wrestle with medical issues but I know what they are. I know my limits and I know how to pace myself, now proudly back at the highest level I know.