Wednesday, November 30, 2011


It's been five months since I've posted an entry to this blog. Granted, I've never figured out how to blog to my best advantage; the act seems secondary to my writing and multimedia work. For the most part, I've used it to announce updates on my publications to those who stumble into this part of the cyberspace gulag. Moreover, I don't have a strong incentive to post opinions on matters I have no strong opinions about. But this delay came about for a more fundamental reason:

I've been sick.

Since July 2010 my body has undergone a number of changes that have kept me riding a medical merry-go-round. No doubt the visits cost me a fair amount of writing time, but I didn't feel well enough physically to write consistently, either. In the past, when my sleep disorders left me floating through the day with all the verve of a Caribbean zombie, I nevertheless managed to write. I even gave my wife instructions: if I die, prop my body in the chair and put my fingers on the keyboard, and I'll produce a voluminous body of posthumous work.

This past year I couldn't even begin my pre-posthumous work. My mind felt flat. It wasn't a terrible feeling, in and of itself. But I've always run on an inner fire, a desire that overcame inertia and many subsequent obstacles. Now I could barely start my inner kindling wood. The urge to work out, especially on the heavy bag that tightens my focus, seemed less appealing than lying on the couch with the morning paper. Matters that I handled routinely now confused me. On a good day, when I'd slept well and my newly-acquired reflux hadn't made indigestion a three-day adventure, I felt like what I imagined a typical retiree felt like. I'd get through the day with some reading, some literary activity, some TV and a noodle float in the pool. Since I wasn't writing a lot of new material, I used those days to publish a large backlog of material I'd written since the late nineties. On my bad days I felt like an old man slowly dying.

Around March, with no diagnosis, I decided I was in a “malaise.” After fifty years, I'd written myself against a wall. My work received praise when people paid attention to it, but I'd never received the level of recognition I'd hoped for. The way the game worked, the next literary superstar would be half my age. Why go through all the hoops one more time for a predictable result? Conducting literary workshops and teaching special classes didn't interest me the way they did when I was younger; the pension from my job allowed me to live modestly without working. Only a MacArthur Foundation grant would make a difference in my personal and creative life, and my ears weren't burning with their whispered nominations. It was time to smell the flowers, live the quiet life I enjoyed, and let posterity keep or not keep my work alive.

But my slow fade into the sunset wasn't always so comfortably blasé. Whether I felt good or bad on a given day, I still had medical problems to address: a chest X-ray revealed calcium buildup in my cardiac arteries, a surprise since nobody on either side of my family experienced heart problems before their late seventies. Finding the source of the calcium was the biggest of a half-dozen problems that had surfaced the previous summer. I had places to see and people to meet: doctor's offices and doctors.

Riding the Medicare merry-go-round of specialists for over a year proved debilitating. Eventually, tests indicated my body's calcium level was too high and that my parathyroid glands were causing the problem. A little online research told me calcium controlled the signals my central nervous system received. The excess calcium was making my existing problems worse and triggering new ones.

The site that offered me the most information ( explained my problem and how it had affected the past twenty-one years of my life.

In 1969, I received cobalt therapy to treat Hodgkins lymphoma in the left side of my neck. A number of people who received this treatment later developed benign tumors in one of their parathyroid glands. The tumor prevented the other glands from working. The list of symptoms related to the condition chronicled my life of the past twenty years, starting with the fatigue problem that began in 1990. By summer 1991 I found myself experiencing fatigue two hours after I woke up; a few months earlier I'd been working 15-hour days at my full-time job, writing, practicing bass and running my poetry band. On my job I began to make mistakes that threatened to undermine my reputation for producing accurate work. When I could barely stand to perform with my poetry band on community access TV, I knew I needed a leave of absence to rest. Despite three months off, I never fully recovered. Instead of being the last person to leave a jazz club, I now settled on my sofa in front of the TV when the first set started. I only went out at night to perform with my poetry band, my duo with Thomas Chapin, or as a solo poet-bassist about twice a month.

In short, I could trace my parathyroid symptoms back twenty years. In turn, I had to revise my personal history. In 1993, I'd broken up my poetry band and stopped performing because I'd come to hate the business aspect of the performing arts. The exhaustion I felt when I practiced for engagements in Southern New England and Manhattan seemed to result from my frustrating relations with presenters after the long hours I put in. Now I realize the exhaustion I was fighting when I practiced came from my parathyroid, not the presenters. Even with 20-20 hindsight and good health, I'm not sure how long I would have kept the band going, even though I viewed it as my most significant artistic achievement. I never enjoyed pitching myself to presenters. Fortunately, the work I've done since I broke up the band has made me revise my opinion of what I consider my most significant work to date.

Eventually, my team of physicians determined that I had a mildly hyperactive parathyroid gland. Treating it was another matter. According to NIH standards, my calcium levels weren't high enough to warrant attention. The site insisted the calcium level should be lower. My team couldn't decide what to do, even though I was growing less capable by the day. In their opinion, it was a minor condition---until a bone density scan revealed osteoporosis in my left hip. The surgeon I selected determined the condition had gone undiagnosed and untreated for at least eight years. I say twenty, but my oncologist in the eighties and nineties never tested my calcium levels according to records I received, so I can only judge by the way my body has felt.

Since my surgery, I've returned to writing regularly. My wife hears a vitality that's been missing from my voice. Not only have I noticed a spring return to my step, but even my relaxed pace seems to have picked up some speed it hasn't shown in many years. Physically, this past year I've grown so out of shape that I've had to exercise to get into the kind of shape that will allow me to do teh exercises th atwill help me drop the weight I've gained. I'm making progress on all fronts, but have to remind myself I'm recovering and have to pace myself while all the pieces come together.

Next time I post I'll try to update my publications and performances.