Dreaming

My dream catcher is an erratic gatherer of small notations, marginal acquaintances, and surreal oddities. It aggregates these things and restages them in settings of long ago. Somehow, interesting stories emerge.  There is an unruly cohesiveness.

Dream experts would say that I’m not good at finishing things. Many dreams involve musical instruments that I can’t play or being underdressed in front of large crowds. It is true. I put things off until the pressure becomes unrelenting. And then I put it off further.  This story is being written while I am supposed to be producing content for a program under construction and behind schedule.

Another oddity is a longish news cycle. My dreams don’t include events of the day. Content is more likely to be mined from previous days. It is akin to eating leftovers.  It takes extra days for the flavors to blossom. I run behind in life and in dreams.

My dream catcher is kindly. It chooses not to recognize a life with ALS. I run, swim, and bike. There may be some weird distortions. But I am out there moving about even if I am occasionally bare-assed in front of a crowd.

Some guy with a Leadville 100 T-shirt boarded a flight that I was on. Dream catcher took note.  In that subsequent dream, I was a race leader. Not the wheelchair division, either. On my bike, riding with the swiftness that could only have been a dream.

There is never a disappointment when I awaken to a different reality.  I lived the life of strong and accomplished movement. It is all relative and I still have a few moves. On a good day, I get out of bed without awakening Allison and asking for a nudge. My dream catcher observes. Exiting the bed with a bit of grace will be in my dreams someday. It will a pleasant memory.

A New Set of Wheels

Within the archives of male mythology there lives a notion that men spend most waking hours thinking only about two or three topics. One topic is cars. Not long ago, my master plan included a Dodge Pro-Master high-top work van. It would be diesel powered and have a very functional camper configuration. Most importantly, it would be stealthy and enable a bit of sleep almost anywhere. Time not spent in the Pro-Master would be in a Volkswagen Golf R. The R is an inconspicuous hatchback coupe with a 300 hp motor. Even the insurance company wouldn’t know the difference.

A fellow can dream, can’t he?

Attention density is a stubborn characteristic. Even with an accelerating understanding of ALS, I nurtured these car dreams. Multiple falls and the surrender of small dignities eventually built a case for new strategies. I do now have a van. Instead of a clever camper configuration it has a wheelchair lift.  But it is stealthy.  My need for speed is appeased by a power wheelchair having a top speed of 7 mph. It is simply a different contemplation of fast lane. I will probably affix an inconspicuous “R” name badge. Irony is the root of humor. I can still have some fun.

The need for mobility is resounding.  Perhaps it started with the Sunday drives of my childhood. Each week the family shared some ritualized windshield time. My father’s good intentions waning as three boys squabbled in the backseat. Mom lit up a Kent while imploring Dad to relax. And the next Sunday we all piled back into the Chevy wagon. Perhaps this was the precursor to screen time. Passive viewing of the mid-century landscape evolved into passive viewing of some crazy ass-hole in a YouTube video.  But Dad was better than YouTube. He would swear at lesser drivers, slow down to moo at small herds of cows, and allow us to throw small bits of litter out the window.  It was even fun when he would threaten to beat his restless backseat tribe.   His humor always returned when a dairy bar arose on the horizon.

I am thrilled when Allison is setting out for errands and invites me to come along. Loading and unloading is chore and Allison does it with grace and generosity. I have become the faithful dog, encoded with an entitlement to forever ride along.  I keep my head inside the car for the most part. And I’ve noticed that strangers are loathe to scratch my ears and comment on my good behavior while awaiting Allison’s return.

And then we drive away, and I gulp in the scenery like it is water and I am stranded in a desert. It is definitely about the journey and not the destination. After all, I have the ending figured out. Until then, it is all about wheels in motion. I can even re-imagine my ten-year old self rolling through the Pennsylvania country-side. An aggrieved voice from the front seat asking, “do you kids want me to pull this car over?” I imagine my forever reply, “No, Dad. Let’s keep rolling”.

Tool Time

 June 28, 2019  I was always all-in on tool acquisition, supported by a belief that good tools meant good work. The restoration and mastery of obscure hand tools reshaped my identity. Slicks, froes, and augers. Mallets made from tree trunks. Restoring a corner chisel with a blade as jagged as a cave man’s teeth. It was an endless cycle of search, acquire, and restore. Hours were spent crafting keen edges. More hours spent turning ash handles.

Fine tools fostered a deep, and at times, misplaced independence. They also provided a comfortable solitude.  Alone time became an easy habit. Old steel was quietly guided by kinesthetic wisdom. Visions born in quiet obsession guided resolute hands.

Last year this collection ended up in a box, sold to an earnest young fellow for modest dollars. His battered truck and the assurances of a good home sealed a sweet deal. Now I hire people.

With loss of tactile fluency words become the new tool set. But the forms of expression don’t have the restorable character of steel or wood.  Both writing and typing are soon slipping beyond the horizon. My voice is relatively clear but I notice slurring and I trip on certain letters.  This feels like a precursor to loss of speech. Now there is an urgency to maximize words while I can. I journal and blog.  Relationships have taken on new importance. There is a growing comfort in asking for things. (Allison has craftily noted that a sentence starting with “we” really means “you”. For example, “we need to take this garbage out.”)

I am aware that the river of words will turn rocky and then dessert dry.  The tool cycle will come full circle. Once again I will be in solitude, lost in thoughts and quiet obsessions. There is one significant difference. During the steel era, I escaped to my tools. In this new era, I will turn to the secure comfort of those around me. They will become tools by proxy. No need for keen edges. Love and understanding will do just fine.

Morning Stretch

June 5, 2019   I’m laid out on the cool floor, taking deep meditative breathes.  The river, just outback, is in early summer flow. It is just a trickle over mossy rocks. A restorative and time killing nap is a possibility. There are not a lot of options. The fall was sudden and I’m wriggling around checking for breaks and blood. An effort to rise creates a staccato beat of tremors in my left arm and leg. A moon landing is more likely than a kneeling position. I’m an industrial-sized sack of flower with a beating heart.

I hear downstairs neighbors moving about. My mobile phone rings from another room. Could they be curious about my crash? I go back to deep breathing and muscle relaxation. Slowly, very slowly, I push myself backwards, sliding along the floor.  It is really just something to do. Regardless of the endpoint, I’m not getting up. My intermediate concern is wrecking a new Syracuse University sweatshirt. These things aren’t cheap.

I have crossed an ALS divide.  For the first time, there is no workaround, no plan B.  Not a single quadrant of my body can contribute to the cause. Still, there is a mite of humor.  My underwear are relatively clean. I’ve had breakfast so not likely to starve. And the dogs demonstrate their worthlessness with a “nothing to see here” attitude. I need Lassie, not these worthless curs.

For the first time, reality replaces the hypothetical.  A cavalier attitude about handrails and medical alerts, is combined with an overall underestimation of all that can go wrong. And that list is pretty fucking long. I lie there on the floor scrolling through these considerations. The hopelessness of the situation sparks a proactive resolve. Isn’t that the normal reaction? We become encased in a predictably nasty situation before considering preventive measures.

These contemplations are interrupted by the sound of my name. Gary, my good friend and downstairs neighbor has arrived. He is a thoughtful problem solver.  Ethan, our 18-year-old also arrives on the scene. Together they get me to my feet, restore the elemental bond with my walker, and determine that all is right. With head and feet in proper alignment, I head for the refrigerator. It’s lunchtime.  All that other stuff can wait. Until next time.

Get A Grip

May 28, 2019   In the life of a boy, the age-span of 9 to 11 is the entry point to the ass-hole years. It is too early for self-reflection and too late for parental influence. The mind is developed enough to run the reward versus consequence algorithm. Threats no longer matter. Our posse understood this new calculus and applied a quiet and imaginative resolve to bad behaviors. Only our football coach could reign us in. Unlike normal suburban dad/coaches, Mr. Z was a man not to be messed with. A shift worker at Roebling Cable, he was unshaven, chain-smoking, and heavily accented. He smelled of factory air, raw-onions, and stale tobacco. We were simultaneously in awe and in terror. His coaching tool-kit included a ray-gun stare and strings of guttural threats. (It took us a while to interpret “vuchan yeshalls”.) We won most of our games.

On multiple occasions, I coached boys of this age. Words alone could assert control. Channeling Mr. Z, I developed the grip of death. A hard squeeze of a bicep or collarbone could divert a misbehavior. I was good at it, but recognize jail-time as a consequence for this practice today. More than one young adult has pointed me out to his own child recalling the legend of “the grip”.

Now I’ve lost my grip. Glasses are dropped. Scissors veer off course. Socks droop around my ankles. Driving is a mystery due to an uncertain grip on the steering wheel. Yesterday I tried to open a bottle of seltzer. By the time I found channel lock pliers a canned beer became a better choice. Allison comes home to a debris field. I can’t bend over either.

I’ve also lost my un-grip. This I discovered disembarking from the 6 Train at Union Sq. in Manhattan.  Closer to home, this means a bad release point while tossing apple cores towards the trashcan. There is an odd dance while undressing. Clothing remains in my grip while limbs flail, trying to facilitate an exit. Letting go is a problem.

But letting go is what this new life is all about. Ruing the past, and mourning the undoable only accrues sadness and anger. And who needs that shit? Change is simply a process and there’s always a transition zone between what was and what lies ahead.  Letting go buys the ticket to the transition zone. A bit of resolve, good humor, and a solid plan gets you to the future. It is no longer independent work. This requires a fierce grip on the people you love. There is no letting go of these loyal and loving shepherds.

Headlines

May 15, 2019   I know I am not alone in producing headline-ready narrative when confronted with physical crisis. For example, Canoeist Perishes in Idaho Whitewater. Or, Incoherent Hiker Found Wandering the Grand Canyon. Among the more plausible, Local Father Electrocuted During Illegal Home Repairs. You get the point. Our inner narrative can be distracting while exploring the dark cave of “in over my head”.

Yesterday, I was making the perilous journey from the kitchen counter to the kitchen island. The distance is about 2 inches greater than my wingspan. This means that part of the trip takes place without support. I immediately saw the headline, Peterborough Man Takes Final Step.  It is headline note-worthy only to me. Another passage, among many as my physical life reverses its arc.

At a seafood restaurant in Maine we observed a newborn. The room was lit by his smiles and tiny movements. We observed the opening passage of a long physical journey. We think of this as a forward progression but forget that it can also reverse.  Slowly the motor neurons can quit lighting up. Steps aren’t taken, forks aren’t lifted, and pages aren’t turned.

But the motor neurons allow a bright inner narrative. Insights are still conjured, kindnesses still noted, and spring still returns.  At times, it will be headline worthy. And as in times past, the headlines will have an audience of one. I’m no longer in over my head. But I’m alive with a rollicking inner-story.  The headlines will tell a different tale; of a man at peace.

The Pill Rodeo

May 2, 2019   Tuesday is pill day, the vexing 20 minutes when I wrangle dozens of meds into a clever little pillbox marked with days of the week. Much of my dexterity is gone. I see fingers resembling Vienna sausages picking up small pebbles and placing them in tiny little compartments. My mantra, “what else would I be doing?”

There are a lot of pills. First there is Riluzole, a treatment for ALS. It is widely acknowledged to do very little. The retail price is $2000 a month. It is a tiny pill that I sometimes drop. Our ever-lurking Labrador Retriever quickly gobbles it up. It doesn’t do anything for her either. I also take baclofen, the spaghetti pill. It’s a muscle relaxant that prevents spasms. It also prevents walking because your muscles turn into linguine. EH 301 is an anti-aging supplement that apparently reversed ALS for some guy in Portugal. It is a FYITT, (Fuck yeah, I’ll Try That).  There is also turmeric for inflammation. Unlike all the expensive shit, I am convinced it actually works. I throw in ibuprofen for chronic back aches and to knock down the pain from the most recent broken rib. And a statin for my bad heart. (Like that matters anymore.)

My neurologist, a learned guy and noted researcher, suggests a stew of meds, supplements, and diet. Nothing specific, it’s a biology project. I am both the experiment and the control group.  In the name of science, I’ve also thrown Lifesavers into my stew. Cherry, lime, and orange. I vary the order hoping for the big breakthrough. Expectations are tempered to say the least. But I never miss a dose.  As the great Gretzky once said, “you can’t score on the shot you don’t take”.

A Realization

April 26, 2019  At some point, all men have the, “oh my God, I’m becoming just like my father” experience. This was always a reach for me as my dad was a handsome, assertive, gregarious, big-boned fella. He brimmed with confidence and thrived on the attention that he catalyzed. Compared to me, a real stretch on all counts.

Dad lived to 90 and his last couple years were not easy for those around him. He was an only child and the product of the male-centric 40s and 50s. Demanding shit was simply a cultural reflex, as natural as breathing. And it seemingly occurred as often. I was frequently the demandee.

It was tough to observe his physical decline. He became both skeletal and bloated at the same time. Rapid movement was never his forte. But now, in decline, every movement became ponderous.  As his reluctant hand servant, my patience was tested. Inner dialog skewed towards: “Damn, I don’t have all day”. “Com’n lift your feet”. “Geez, you can’t open a storm window?”

And justice is served once again. Now I’m the human glacier. Muscles recede and bones become prominent. Feet swell and take on strange hues.  It is easier to shiver then get to my feet and close a window.  I’m light on the spiritual divide but awake to the possibilities of divine retribution. What goes around, comes around. It feels like a flock of crows pecking at my unworthy soul.  I could have been nicer.

Yeah, I’ve evolved. At 66 years old I’m comparable to my father at 90. Turning into my dad is not all bad. He maintained his high good humor. And he was courageous in confronting endings. His rearview mirror focused on a life lived well. There was nothing but high notes.  He was always optimistic while assessing his covey of very average children. We were viewed through a prism of notable achievement.  And he loved his wife, our mother, dearly and without reservation. He used this anchor point to navigate painful currents. And most of all, no regrets.

Alright then, turning into my dad might just work out. Ultimately, he was simply a nice guy – the bringer of jokes, the provider of a good word, and completely in love with those around him. Perhaps I can flip the script. It is not too late to navigate by the compass points of grace, kindness, optimism, and humor. I might even learn to ask for a little help.

Walkin’

Jan. 28, 2019  In baseball, I was the walk master, a profane runt with an oversized uniform held up with safety pins. The coach’s pack of Chesterfields was larger than my strike zone. My strategy was simple. Grip the oversized Eddie Matthews bat, crouch down and wait for the inevitable walk. My teammates would be chanting, “walks as good as it hit, walks as good as it hit”. The opposition would scream, “Swing batter batter, batter, batter, batter. Swing batterbatterbatterbatter”. They got into it. I once heard an opposing coach say “swing the fucking bat”. I didn’t care. A free pass got me on base where I could antagonize all the infielders as I scuffled around to eventually score.

I started walking sometime in 1953. My mother was understated with the accolades. There weren’t miniature caps, gowns and Instagrams in those days. Mom realized that my mobility was not a good thing for her household.

I walked everywhere. We lived on a looping drive. Neighbors were visited on a candy begging route. There was a small commerce strip nearby. By six years old I was nicking quarters and heading over to the Mario’s Bakery for crème doughnuts.   At 4:00 one morning, I walked to the A&P store and stole a watermelon from the pile kept outside.  Just a 10-year-old lugging a stolen melon in the dawning of the day.

I ran away at eleven. Actually, I walked away. With my mom’s oversight, I loaded a small suitcase with some socks. I walked into the woods, sat on the suitcase and waited to be retrieved. Darkness arrived and I walked home. There was no warm welcome.

I walked to Trenton, New Jersey to buy a pair of Converse All-Stars when I was twelve. Ten miles round-trip through neighborhoods where you only dared look at the gum stuck to the sidewalk. Why ask permission when you can just give yourself a free pass?

Life has been defined by great walks. I walked the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River four times. I walked down the aisle with Allison and I would do it again every day. On a frigid January weekend, I walked up Mount Jefferson with my friend Tim. The ice was thick and blue, dotted with scarlet bits of moss. We used crampons and ice axes for grip and stability. Walking on steep ice was the most improbable and liberating experience of my life.

When my car wouldn’t start I walked. When I was troubled or angry I walked. When snow fell like a hissing blanket I walked. I walked with backpacks, suitcases, and torn shopping bags. I once walked a mile across a sagebrush flat with three 10 foot sections of drilling rod on my shoulder. Gnats bombed my face and filled my ears and nostrils. I never put that hot iron down.

I’m walking less. And it’s not really walking. It’s a hybrid, clawing at chairs and countertops; leaning on walls; and holding on for dear life.  I refer to my walker as “the trusty steed”, like I’m the fucking Lone Ranger.  Others have a three drink limit. I have a three step limit. Assistance is needed beyond that. Within four weeks it will be zero steps. I just know these things. But I have walked enough and seen enough to have little regret. I’m kinda glad I never swung at the pitch. A walk’s as good as a hit.

Dogs and Baseball Heroes Die Too Soon

Nov. 28, 2018  My older brother, normally mean-spirited in the older sibling sort of way, once let me wear his Milwaukee Braves hat. In the style of the day, it had baseball cards stiffening the crown. The bill was folded into a box-like configuration. The older brother wasn’t much of a ballplayer but was particular about style. For a seven-year-old boy, living in a world where baseball was the one and only king, I had an immediate affiliation with the Braves. The wearing of the hat connected me to the world of Spahn, Aaron, Mathews, and Adcock.

Back then, baseball danced across three mediums, radio, television, and imagination. And within our family’s modest lifestyle, television was notably bad. Still, powerful memories formed. Maz circling the bases after hitting the home run that beat the Yankees in 1960. Willie McCovey coming oh-so-close to beating the hated Yankees in the 1962 series. Even in defeat, McCovey was an early hero. Perhaps it was the nickname, “Stretch”. It helped that he also hit a lot of home runs and was generally pictured with Willie Mays. It seemed as though nicknames of this era inspired a level of sub-visual stickiness. You can visualize “Stretch”, “Hammerin’ Hank”, or “Stan the Man”. These pictures were plausible pieces of real estate in a kid’s mind.

In the realm of heroes, much of the messaging was locally controlled. Our knowledge was built from baseball cards, box scores from The Trenton Times, and the arguments of young boys. Celebrity dating, growth hormones, contract disputes, and advanced statistics were not part of the conversation. Our love was pure. There was nothing that could over-ride our imagery.

In life, reality and imagination never really square. The actuarial tables rule with an iron fist and ballplayers age and pass. And so, Willie “Stretch” McCovey died this week. This ignites a contemplation. Is it the passing of the person or the reconnection to the long-dormant memory that force the pause? Perhaps I block the memories of my pre-ALS self. There was a time when I ran, caught, threw, and hit. And in my eleven-year-old mind, I could scoop the low throw just like Stretch McCovey. But I could never hit the long ball. That was the province of heroes. Nov. 1, 2018