Saturday, December 31, 2005
I wish you a Happy New Year, and may 2006 be a year of peace, happiness and prosperity for you and yours.
I spent the day Friday (a rare weekday off from work) in Philadelphia with my former karate teacher. We drank, played cards and chess (I was beaten badly in both), and reflected on the past year, and on the more than 12 years of our friendship.
I vividly remember that day in May 1993 when I first walked into his dojo.
I knew absolutely nothing about karate, nor about the culture that gave birth to it and the successive cultures that shaped it and honed it into what it is today.
I walked into his dojo because it was around the corner from my house and I had recently gotten out of the hospital and was looking for an activity to get me in shape. It was a question of convenience born of ignorance. And happenstance.
With a chip on my shoulder (I get like that when I'm unsure of myself), I asked him what he would teach me.
"I'll teach you Shotokan karate," he said, looking me square in the eyes. "But I don't know what you're prepared to learn."
From this tenuous beginning, a lifetime friendship was formed.
And a way of life was formed. I became increasingly interested in India and China, the parents of the martial arts. Then my attention focused on Japan and I wound up moving there, immersing myself in its religions, history and culture.
And all this began through a chance meeting between a defensive and clueless prospective student and an extraordinarily perceptive and gifted teacher.
A chance meeting? Perhaps not.
Evening and the sunset bell,
whose every voicing
vibrates with a message sad to hear:
"Today, too, is over, dusk has come."
--Wakan roeishin #585
I have always known
that at last I would take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.
--by Ariwara no Norihira
Say I'm out
Say no one's here
In five hundred million years
I'll come home.
--by Takahashi Shinkichi
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
It sounds silly because I think it overstates the obvious, yet the fact that it's obvious makes it no less a source of wonder to me.
Lately, I see the line between myself and other people growing increasingly blurry.
I notice more and more how identical to others I am, in good ways and bad. It goes beyond mere similarity most of the time.
There's this woman I know who I can't stand because I think she's arrogant. Haughty. Sanctimonious. But lately, as I look at her and silently make this evaluation to myself, I see the same traits in me. And I also see the same self-doubt manifested in my actions that I notice in hers.
I see how people react to stress, and as I mentally take them to task for losing their cool, I'm reminded of my own frequent inability to deal with difficulties in constructive ways.
I criticize someone for craving attention, and remember my own ego and its quest for praise.
I harbor resentment against a friend for pointing out my faults. Then I recall the many times I've done the same to others, and how hurt I felt when they harbored resentment against me.
But this mirror also reflects positive images.
In karate class, I see someone execute a technique effortlessly and with fluidity and say to myself, "I think I can do that, if not now, then eventually."
My best friend told me a long time ago that if we see something we admire in others, it's only because we see that same potential in ourselves.
Lately, I've also seen the other side of that coin, that if I see something in others I don't like, I often need only look just under the surface to see that same weed growing in my own garden.
Yes, I think I'm overstating the obvious. I suppose it's like marveling that water is wet.
But I marvel just the same.
Monday, December 26, 2005
Well, here they are, for better or worse.
I realize that many writers of haiku and senryu in English tend to dispense with the traditional 5-7-5 syllable structure. I like it, though, because it forces me to express whatever I have to say within very strict confines. You be the judge as to whether it works.
Plus, as a newspaperman, I find it very good practice for writing headlines, which have their own set of strict parameters.
So, here goes:
Miracle of creation
becomes clear to me.
Alone with my thoughts
Haunted by the bitter things
I shouldn't have said.
Gray hairs on my head
Each one a mocking witness
to empty worries.
For Gerald "Ski" Evans-sensei
A friendship grown old
You don't have to say a word,
Thinking of Japan
Ripened rice a golden green
Autumn in the air.
"How is your dessert?"
"Fine," she says, fully sated
Now, awkward silence.
A thought arises
I try to chase it away
but like it too much.
Don't let anger rise:
One more precept I can't keep
The list grows longer.
Cat sleeps in my lap
Too old to do much but purr
Just wants to stay warm.
Sakura City, Japan 1997
Cute girl on a train
Smiling, offers me a plum
Alas, it's my stop.
Forgot my cellphone
Finally, blissfully free
of prying voices.
Sun is a blood spot
in a searing summer sky
Not a hint of breeze.
And just who am I?
Particles of shit and spit
Exactly like you.
Here are photos of some wall hangings in my apartment.
The first two are Tibetan thangkas that I think look pretty neat. From a practice standpoint, I'm not really "into" Tibetan Buddhism, but I love the iconography.
At bottom is a Japanese wall scroll depicting Kanzan and Jittoku (Han-shan and Shih-te), two enlightened Zen vagabonds who lived in T'ang Dynasty China. These two wild characters are a favorite subject in Chinese and Japanese art.
They're also two of my favorites. There's a famous painting of these blissfully grinning "Zen lunatics" ripping pages out of sutra books and casting them to the wind.
The implicit message is that all the books in the world -- and all the opinions in the world and all the blog entries in the world -- can never get to the heart of Buddhism. In short, words are just words.
It's direct experience that cuts through all the crap.
Sunday, December 25, 2005
I enjoy days like this -- they provide the perfect excuse for relaxation -- but something more seasonal would have been nice.
I spent Christmas Eve and part of today indulging a habit I picked up while living in Japan: end-of-year cleaning.
In Japan, there are essentially two kinds of cleaning. There's soji, which is garden variety housework (and schoolwork, too; schools in Japan don't have janitorial staffs. The cleaning is done at a set time every day by the kids and teachers).
And then there's o-soji, the "o" prefix meaning "big." O-soji is what you do at the end of the year in preparation for New Year's Day, and also when the seasons change.
I wasn't always conscientious about this year-end housecleaning in my small apartment in rural Japan. I was an o-soji slacker some of the time (and my batting average in plain old soji was none too high, either).
But at the karate dojo where I trained, I have fond memories of year-end cleaning, which was a communal event full of symbolism: Out with the old, in with the new. I remember helping to scrub the wooden floor till it gleamed, and cleaning dust and dirt from places I never knew it could gather.
And so, this habit has carried over, and with greater consistency, in my post-Japan life. I want everything to be spic and span for the new year, everything in its place -- even if this dedication to neatness and efficiency may last only a week or two. Hopefully, regular soji will kick in at intervals more frequent than in 2005.
I also want to do spiritual o-soji, going through the heap of ideas and notions I accumulated this year and neatly filing those that worked in the proper mental cupboards and consigning the rest to the dust heap.
It seems like just yesterday when I was making such preparations for 2005.
Time moves too quickly these days.
I once heard a very clever saying that sums things up: Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end, the faster it goes.
Friday, December 23, 2005
If none of the above applies, then may you enjoy being snug and warm with the beverage of your choice on these cold winter days.
I was launched into the holiday spirit this morning through the incomparable voice of gospel great Mahalia Jackson. Every year at this time, one of the interview shows on the local National Public Radio station (WNYC-AM) switches format and plays Christmas music sung by famous and lesser-known gospel singers.
I love this time of year, though I don't celebrate any of the holidays that occur around now (but I have a fondness for the winter solstice and mark it in my own way). But hearing Mother Jackson sing "Go Tell It on the Mountain" would soften the heart and warm the soul of even the meanest Scrooge. The emotion of her rendition literally makes my spine tingle. I wind up believing in spite of myself.
There was something about hearing this gospel broadcast, cup of tea in hand, on my small transistor radio that put me in mind of what Christmases past must have been like, when radio was king and people were creatures of greater imagination and were more easily, innocently and simply entertained.
It's funny, but I felt a nostalgia for a time well before my time.
Somehow, I got the feeling that I knew just what it must've been like back then. With my eyes closed and my ears open, you couldn't tell me that this wasn't 1940s Memphis and that I wasn't listening to Mother Jackson in a live broadcast.
I think this is what people mean when they say something is timeless.
Peace, joy, hope, health and happiness to you all.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Toshiyo lives in Kyoto and was my home-stay host in 1996 while I was studying Japanese at a language school in the city during a summer break from my teaching job in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo. I was matched with her completely at random. But, as I've come to believe, nothing in this existence is ever completely random.
From the time we first met that summer, she has been one of my closest friends and mentors, and Kyoto has been my second home. She is a woman possessed of immeasureable wisdom that is unsettling in its simplicity. I consider her another of my elder sisters.
Nature sometimes conspires against my sense of timing.
My September 2004 visit to Toshiyo coincided with the arrival of a powerful typhoon that was raking Japan from south to north, taking a considerable toll in lives and property.
Returning to her apartment after stepping out for some dinner, I closed my sopping umbrella and leaned it outside her door, not wanting to get her foyer wet. Later that night, I noticed she had hung the umbrella, still dripping, on the doorknob inside the foyer.
I had returned to Japan bearing gifts for Toshiyo and other friends I hadn't seen in years. Toshiyo's gift was a beautiful (and expensive) ceramic pendant whose colors were in the earth tones she so loves. Toshiyo, a refreshingly frank and utterly sincere woman, seemed taken aback at this extravagance.
The next morning, whatever we were talking about somehow led to a discussion of people's actions, and how their intentions can be interpreted in unintended ways.
She reminded me that Japanese people of an earlier age sought to simplify their lives once they turned 60 -- having completed five 12-year cycles of the old lunar calendar, one for each of the five elements that make up the world: water, fire, earth, metal and wood. Toshiyo, then 62 and very traditional in her ways, saw this process as well under way in her own life.
She was slowly and methodically giving away all of her material possessions, save for those that were absolutely necessary to live in this day and age.
And here I was, giving her one more thing that she felt she no longer needed.
She loved the thought behind the pendant, but made me promise her -- made me look straight into her eyes and swear -- that I would never again bring gifts with me when I come to visit her.
Then she glanced over at my umbrella, and took my hand in hers.
"You put the umbrella outside my door because you thought it was the helpful thing to do -- you didn't want to make a puddle in my foyer," she said gently. "All I saw was the inconvenience you caused my neighbors, who had to step around the puddle you created outside."
Sunday, December 18, 2005
The sight that greets me every time I walk into Manhattan: The George Washington Bridge, completed in 1931, the busiest bridge in the world (you could look it up!).
Gruff but gentle.
A friend I met in some hole in the wall.
The GWB, yet again.
This and the following two photos show ruins of piers along the New York bank of the Hudson River. The piers carried railroad tracks on which train cars offloaded their goods onto waiting barges, which carried them upriver or downriver. I don't know exactly how old these ruins are, but they're very old and have been declared a historic site.
Heading across the River Styx to the underworld. Actually, this is the pedestrian path across the Manhattan Bridge over the East River, which links Manhattan and Brooklyn.
More Manhattan Bridge. My isolation was exquisite, but a little spooky.
Another beautiful Sunday, another excellent walk into Manhattan.
This time, though, I walked clear south and east to Brooklyn, the City of Churches, one of the Five Boros of Manhattan and the fourth (or is it now fifth?) largest city in the United States in its own right.
If you read my blog entry for last Sunday, then you know the route I take into Manhattan and down to my friend's Japanese restaurant at First Avenue and St. Mark's Place in the East Village.
The only difference today was that I walked south down, down into Chinatown, past Houston Street, and Delancey and Broome and Hester streets, past the ghosts of generations of Jewish families whose first stake in the New World was right here on the Lower East Side, down to Canal Street and across the East River over the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn.
I got to the Manhattan Bridge (which is overshadowed, and unfairly so, by its close neighbor, da Brooklyn Bridge) at about 6 p.m. Darkness had long since fallen. I had the bridge all to myself the whole way to Brooklyn. Heading back to Manhattan, four phantom cyclists rode out of the night and zoomed past, the only other traffic on the pedestrian path.
I covered a total distance of about 17 miles on foot today. I finished with energy to spare and was only a bit footsore.
Not a bad day's work.
Saturday, December 17, 2005
I changed my avatar, the picture of "me" that I use to illustrate my profile (which appears to your right).
It's a wooden netsuke of a monkey.
Monkeys are very important to me. Though I was born in the Year of the Tiger, I made my debut in this world during the Hours of the Monkey, which are from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. (I was born at 4:12).
The monkey's influence on a tiger is to inject a little humor, mischief and moxey into someone who might otherwise be insufferably strong-willed and self-important (not that I can't be both).
Pictured above is another wooden netsuke, one of my favorite representations of a tiger because it sums up a key aspect of my personality.
You'll notice that he's roaring fearfully and seems spring-loaded to pounce. But he also fits nicely in the palm of that benevolent hand.
I, too, can be full of piss and vinegar, but am easily contained by a few kind words.
Today, I didn't get as caught up in thinking about what my opponent was about to do. Rather, I allowed myself to react more to what was being done. As a result I didn't take as many hits and scored a few points of my own.
But Sensei pointed out that I move in a linear style, rather than attack from different angles. He compared me to a Redcoat, a British soldier during the American Revolution: Advance inexorably forward, stand tall and unflinching, and be peppered by potshots.
If I were 6 foot 3 and 250 pounds, perhaps I'd be formidable in this approach (at least for a few seconds). But at 5 foot 7 and 142 pounds, it ain't gonna work.
A very close friend of mine once told me that we manifest ourselves in everything we do, from the way we play chess to the way we cook dinner to the way we practice karate.
Taken to its logical conclusion, I would say that in my case, linear thinking leads to linear sparring in karate.
Just one more thing I need to work on. Where to begin?
After class, I felt physically as if I had run into a brick wall and could go no farther. All I wanted to do was go home and take a nap (which I did, having gotten up about a half-hour ago).
Yes, the class was pretty intense, but I've had even tougher classes and have felt full of energy after them.
Fatigue is a symptom of high calcium levels in the blood, one of the calling cards of my parathyroid cancer. Other symptoms include depression, lack of appetite and forgetfulness.
Yet those are also symptomatic of a score of other conditions. So, I'm never quite sure what my body is trying to tell me.
I think the lesson in linear thinking may apply here, too.
Thursday, December 15, 2005
The gist of his reply, if I'm understanding him correctly, is that such flashes invariably prove to be flashes in the pan rather than lightning bolts of clarity, at least in his experience.
I understand. And I also understand the dangers of clinging to supposed insights (though that doesn't stop me from doing so anyway).
Almost every time I feel that I've finally "gotten it," time proves that I actually got nothing. The jury is still out, so to speak, on some of my other "a-ha!" moments.
Often, I let my enthusiasm get the better of me. (But I'm reminded of something a good friend once told me: "He who builds no castles in the air, builds no castles anywhere.")
Through my blog, I have chosen to make a private journey public. Some visitors read my posts and agree, more or less, with my observations and can chart my progress (or its opposite) in a linear way. Others read those same posts and see a train wreck they believe is impending.
Whatever the case, I'm really thankful for all the comments and feedback I have received, and I hope it continues.
I have no idea where I'm headed, but I thank you for sharing in my "travelogue."
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
The setting for this afternoon's insight was the karate dojo.
I'm a brown belt in Okinawan Goju-ryu karate. At this level, I'm expected to have a fair foundation in the basics -- stances, punches, kicks, forms and so on.
This afternoon, we worked on those basics, with focus on stances.
In this style of karate, there is a basic stance called sanchin, which means "three battles." The toes of the forward foot are pointed slightly inward, the knee is bent over the big toe, the heel of the forward foot is on the same line as the toes of the rear foot, legs are shoulder-width apart and the knees are squeezed slightly toward each other. The idea is that this stance protects the groin if done correctly.
In the couple of years that I've been studying with this instructor, he always tells us to scoop our hips and butt slightly upward when doing this stance, which gets the body in the proper alignment to stand correctly in sanchin.
"Scoop the hips and butt slightly upward."
I've heard this instruction literally hundreds of times.
And literally hundreds of times, I thought I was doing sanchin correctly. My feet and toes were positioned in the right way, my knees were squeezed slightly together. There I was, in what I thought was acceptable sanchin.
Except that today, I realized that from Day One, I wasn't scooping my hips and butt slightly upward.
I was hearing sensei's words, but I wasn't listening.
He used the most descriptive and simplest language possible to help us learn this stance and he reinforced this simple instruction with his own textbook example of how to stand in sanchin. But until today, I didn't get it, and until today, I didn't realize that I wasn't getting it. In fact, I thought that I had already gotten it.
Despite his simple words and his own example, I had to arrive at the insight myself.
I don't know what led me to it. All I know is, one second I was standing in sanchin with a droopy butt and lazy hips, and the next second I felt as solid and immovable as a boulder. (If I'm still struggling with basic stances, you can imagine how much work lies before me, brown belt or not.)
This leads me to my point, which I state here not as "wisdom" I'm proudly trying to share, but as a reminder to my very forgetful self.
I read a lot of Buddhism-related blogs and books, and no matter how much the writers break down and simplify what they regard as their own flashes of insight into "what is," I'm left with the clear impression that I have to experience it directly and in its entirety. Otherwise, I feel like a blind man trying to describe an elephant.
I was reminded today that in the dojo and in life, I really don't know, despite what I may think I know, thanks to my stubborn ego.
But, when I feel I know -- I mean palpably feel this knowledge to the marrow of my bones -- then it seems as if it has been a part of me for 10,000 years.
"Scoop the hips and butt slightly upward."
What do those words mean? I don't know, because evidently I was interpreting (or misinterpreting) them several ways. Therein lies the limitation of language.
But I know what it feels like to be in that physical posture. The thing is, I can't describe it for you. Not because sanchin is so esoteric a stance that it requires decades of practice (though many would argue it does). In fact, I think it's just the opposite: It's so simple that I can never muster the eloquence to describe it. It has to be felt.
A former karate instructor of mine who is still a mentor and one of my dearest friends used to tell me that insight can happen in an instant, like a bolt of lightning.
Neat description, I thought.
But now I truly feel what he was telling me.
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
I have big trouble with pronouns.
My Zen teacher at the time pointed this out to me last year.
Whenever we spoke in dokusan, a formal, private, one-on-one interview to check my understanding (or lack of it), she would stop me before I could get more than a few words out of my mouth.
Every time I answered her questions about why I felt a certain way or what I thought was motivating me, I would use the pronouns "you" (in the generic sense) or "we," when I really should have been saying "I."
It would go something like this:
Sensei: Michael, what do you think it means to express compassion?
Me: Well, when you act ...
Sensei: You mean, "When I act ... "
Me: Yes, when I act ...
What she was trying to get me to learn is that taking responsibility for my actions begins with using the right pronouns to reflect MY behaviors, observations and motivations, not yours or anybody else's.
Her point was that when I use generic terms to refer to things associated with myself, I separate myself from my actions, and the cycle of dualistic thinking continues unbroken and with all the consequences associated with it. In other words, it's a subconscious way of foisting responsibility for my actions on someone or something else through subtle disassociation.
Thus, I need to speak for myself, and from my heart, when I'm talking about me.
Just semantics? Maybe.
I know that in conversation, I use the generic "you" all the time. It's simply a matter of convenience.
But I'm trying to catch myself when I do this, and to be extra vigilant in my writings, which don't usually require the spontaneity of conversation and allow more time for reflection.
Of course, a primer in pronouns and a change in vocabulary isn't going to stop my dualistic thinking.
But by being more mindful of how I represent myself, I can then begin to see the me in you and the you in me, and how there really is no "I" after all.
Monday, December 12, 2005
So, here it is, my first doctored photo.
Now, if only there was an equivalent of Photoshop that would let us erase life's anomalies, soften the jagged edges and accentuate the important elements...
Sunday, December 11, 2005
A glance back on the path I traveled, with the GWB barely visible in the distance
Fishing on the New York side of the Hudson, in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge
Too cold for these pigeons to fly
Getting ready to step off the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River and into upper Manhattan, and with time to spare for a cheesy self-portrait
Me at 125th Street and 12th Avenue in Harlem, underneath the elevated Riverside Drive.
Sunset on the Hudson River trail. I have no idea what the green dot is. Damned digital cameras...
The reward: Chicken teriyaki and some tasty trimmings at my destination, Shiki Kitchen in the East Village
Today I took my first 15-mile walk in several weeks, and now, safely back home, I feel like a new man.
Above are some photos I took along the way.
I walked from Fort Lee, N.J., to the East Village in New York City and then part of the way back.
For those of you familiar with the area, I walked across the George Washington Bridge to the Hudson River path, then down to 67th Street in midtown Manhattan. I left the river path, walked down West End Avenue to 59th Street, headed crosstown (passing the southern end of Central Park), turned right at First Avenue, and then headed to my friend's Japanese restaurant at First Avenue and St. Mark's Place.
After dinner, I walked west to Third Avenue, uptown to 59th Street, crosstown to Broadway, and took the A train (thank you, Duke Ellington) from Columbus Circle back up to the GWB, which I crossed on foot once again to Fort Lee.
For those of you unfamiliar with the route, my path took me through the heart of a metropolis of 8 million people and
8 million tales of success
8 million tales of woe
8 million memories of babies' first steps
8 million heartaches of saying goodbye forever
8 million Buddhas
8 million delusions
8 million neuroses
8 million missed opportunities
8 million heroes
8 million dreams
and me, alone, walking in the middle of it all...
It was a brisk day with a stiff breeze coming from the south. I don't think the thermometer topped 40 all day and if it did, it wasn't by much.
Walking under such conditions is heaven for me. I rode a natural high all the way down to the Village, and got a beer-and-warm-sake assist back up to the bridge after dinner.
Any further attempts at describing the joy of this walk are destined to fail miserably.
So, enough said.
Saturday, December 10, 2005
"Your blog is your public persona, but it is not the you I know from your years of grousing at work, your angry outbursts, etc. I am sure your blog is therapeutic, but you need real therapy -- someone to talk to and help you work out all the dysfunctional aspects of your life -- from your finances to your pathetic diet."
This is true. I have a public persona, as reflected in my blog. And among those people I see and interact with on a frequent basis, I reveal more of myself -- or maybe not necessarily more, but a different side. It isn't always pretty. But it's me.
I call this being human.
I can be judgmental, temperamental, stubborn, mean-spirited, impatient, critical, and a bunch of other downright nasty things. I can also be the exact opposite of each of these traits.
But who can't?
My response to my friend (a very honest, perceptive person and my closest friend at work) included my observation that "dysfunctional" is one of the most abused and overused words in our language. I don't like this word when it is applied to people (and I'm guilty of that myself) because it implies that there's a perfect state of being against which everything else is compared. It's very easy to bandy this dismissive term. I think its message is that a behavior is EITHER normal OR abnormal, functional OR dysfunctional -- one or the other, instead of recognizing the behavior and its opposite as different aspects of the same thing.
If this is true and if I'm not full of shit, then how can I be anything but dysfunctional, because in a battle with perfection (if it exists), imperfection always loses. Maybe I'm just rationalizing and justifying and trying to deflect a very well-aimed arrow. Some of that surely is going on.
I want to bathe in my many imperfections, accept that I have them and deal with those that I can. When I know better, I'll do better.
Meanwhile, I think we all act as mirrors for one another. The trick is in being able to see the reflection, the same potential for perfection and imperfection in ourselves that we often see more easily in others.
To put it another way: I know I am, but what are you?
To put it still another way, "If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where do you expect to find it?"
Friday, December 09, 2005
My blood test shows that my serum calcium level is the same as it was in November, the last time I was tested. This is very good news. My doctors are very happy. I'm very happy.
To put it another way: No gain, no pain.
Sitting menacingly in my refrigerator is a vial of medication that lowers blood calcium levels should the need arise. It's administered intravenously, which, given my aversion to needles, is not a pleasant prospect.
So for now, I get to open the refigerator and stick my tongue out at that small cardboard box with the vial inside. Or the vile inside, depending on one's perspective.
Thank you all for your good wishes and kind thoughts.
Moment to moment, breathe in, breathe out.
Thursday, December 08, 2005
Cold fact: A normal blood calcium level hovers in the 9 to 9.5 range, sometimes slightly lower or higher, depending on the quirks of a person's biochemistry. Mine has gone as high as 14.3. When I was checked last a few weeks ago, it was 11.7.
A difference of one or two points may not seem like much. But that would be like looking at a map of the United States and saying, "Gee, New York and North Carolina are only a few inches apart."
Ah, the magic of numbers.
Blood tests are particularly unpleasant for me because I hate needles. The irony is that this is a cancer whose progress, good or bad, is measured by blood tests. This is what my enemies would call my comeuppance. This is what I call "why me." This is what fate calls tough shit.
I haven't done so -- yet -- but I think I'd faint at the sight of my own blood being taken. Another irony: My first newspaper job was as a sportswriter, and one of my beats was professional boxing. I could sit ringside and watch two men pound each other into ground chuck, and I'd be transfixed. On several occasions, sweat and blood actually spattered the laptop computer on which I was typing my story. My clinical detachment would've made a doctor proud.
But when I go for a blood test, a room has to be reserved for me because I have to lie on my back, take off my glasses to ensure I don't see anything, and cover my eyes with my free hand to make doubly sure. I have to be told to take a deep breath just before the needle enters, and to remember to breathe regularly during the course of the test, all 30 seconds of it.
The woman who takes my blood is a queen among women. By title, she's a phlebotomist. But I would never refer to her by such a cold, ugly word. She's an angel of mercy because she has been putting up with my squeamishness for a few years now. Not only does she not protest, she actually tells me it's OK to react the way I do. This, this is compassion.
So now, the waiting begins. Because the test is done at the hospital as opposed to an outside lab, the results should be ready by tomorrow, maybe even by late this afternoon.
In the past, I've surrendered to the interminable waiting by calling my doctor with anxiety in my voice, and sometimes far too soon, and then sweating bullets while she either looked up the results on the computer or told me that they weren't ready yet.
She and I had a nice talk today (she is another example of compassion incarnate), and I told her that this time I'm not going to call. This time, I'll wait for her to call me.
It's not as if my anxiety is going to change the test result one whit. I can make all sorts of promises to God and mankind about what I'll do if given a good result, but the number is the number.
I want to worry less about those things over which I have little or no control.
Reality's a bitch, but the lessons are priceless.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Hopefully, the results will show that the medication I'm taking is keeping my calcium level steady.
A couple of years ago, one of my surgeons told me that a patient of his with the same cancer described going in for these tests as never knowing whether to expect a click or a bang.
The allusion to Russian roulette is fitting.
Let's hope for a click this time.
Top: My favorite tetsubin (iron teapot). I bought it at a Japanese shop right here in good ol' New Joisey.
Above: My favorite chawan (tea mug), which I brought back from Japan. The kanji (Chinese character) says chikara ("power"), the name of the sushi shop whose owner gave it to me. The shop was in the town next to the one in which I lived.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
A visitor to my blog points out that I mention tea in several of my postings, and asks what role, ceremonial or otherwise, tea plays in my life.
When I was in college, I used to drink gallons of tea so that I could pull all-nighters studying for tests. My favorite blends were Twining's Earl Grey and Tetley's, both taken with enough sugar to trigger diabetic shock.
When college ended, so did the tea orgies.
And then I moved to Japan.
For many Japanese, tea isn't just a drink. It's a way of life called Sado (or Chado), the Way of Tea. At the center of this art is the Japanese tea ceremony, steeped in Zen and requiring a lifetime to understand. I don't know much about Sado, so I won't delve blindly into it here.
But I can tell you that on a more mundane level, tea infuses most every aspect of Japanese life. It's a token of hospitality and friendship, a cue to relax and take a break from your office work. For me, it was always a subtle reminder that I was a guest in someone's house or workplace, a formality that officially marked the start of a visit.
When I first got to Japan, I thought green tea was green tea. But I quickly learned that that's like saying the "Mona Lisa" is just a painting.
I discovered the differences between common-grade bancha and higher-grade sencha. I grew fond of the nutty taste of hojicha, so inexpensive and so comforting on a cold winter's night. I loved the strong, slightly bitter matcha, that staple of the tea ceremony, so expensive that it was only an occasional treat. I liked the woody taste of kukicha, the subtle hint of puffed brown rice in genmaicha.
And above all, I savored that ambrosia of the gods, gyokuro, as if it were the very breath of life itself.
I've been back from Japan for nearly eight years now, but my green tea habit is as strong as ever. Lately, I've added Quan Yin tea, an inexpensive import from China, to my stash.
When I drink tea, time melts away, the pace of my life slows. Nothing assumes greater importance than enjoying the warmth of the cup in my hand and the warmth of the tea that spreads like a down comforter across my chest.
This is my tea ceremony.
I never got into the coffee habit. I never cared for the taste. I equate coffee, probably unfairly, with morning rush hour, stress, a caffeine fix, high blood pressure, lives of quiet desperation, cheesy Folger's TV commercials and Joe DiMaggio ("Mr. Coffee").
Ironically, coffee has become more popular in Japan than tea among younger people. But then, I've always bucked trends (or at least I like to think so).
So there you have it.
Tea is my heroin, my obsession, my savior, my teacher, my excuse to procrastinate (as if I need one).
It was wonderful to feel the same familiar muscle tautness, the same painful yet strangely pleasureable aches, the same feelings of challenge and uncertainty followed by the same sense of accomplishment. Muscle memory, indeed.
Tomorrow I'm probably going to ache like hell, but I look forward to it.
I've been reading some recent postings on three blogs on Zen Buddhism to which I subscribe (thank you and deep bows to Mike, Brad and Nishijima-sensei) that address the mental and physical aspects of existence. The gist of the postings is, if I understood them correctly, that we get into trouble when we try to seperate two things that are inherently one -- that is, when we try to consider our physical aspect without taking into account our mental (and spiritual) ones, and vice versa.
As much as I love to read about Zen and other paths to awakening and discovery, today's trip to the gym hammered that point home better than words. Sitting here sipping tea and typing this, I feel very much at peace, yet also very much ready to jump into just about any physical activity I can think of.
I had been feeling depressed and sorry for myself lately, but not now, not at this very moment, and I know why.
Through negligence, I tried to separate the inseparable.
I guess I missed going to the gym more than I ever knew.
This is Yasashi (Japanese for gentle). A prince among tomcats. The very embodiment of gentleness.
Like Sasayaku (see below), he takes after his owner. Because of the abnormally high level of calcium in my bloodstream, I frequently develop kidney stones. Yasashi once had a bad case of bladder stones. So, he's on a special diet. I, too, have to watch what I eat. Milk, cheese and other foods rich in calcium are occasional indulgences at best.
More equal blog time for the kitties. Meet Sasayaku. That's Japanese for whisper.
See, when Sasayaku opens her mouth to meow, no sound comes out.
They say that pets take after their owners (or is it vice versa?). During one of the surgeries to my neck, one of the two nerves controlling my vocal chords needed to be severed. This left me sounding permanently like Don Corleone from "The Godfather," but without the Sicilian accent.
One of my friends, a big fan of "The Sopranos" TV show, started calling me "Mikey Whispers."
And then I made him an offer he couldn't refuse: Call me "Mikey Whispers" one more time, and I break your legs. And then I make you sleep with the fishes.
Now, he calls me just plain Michael again.
Sasayaku, she understands.
Monday, December 05, 2005
Zen mistress Tara, the all-seeing one, alpha cat extraordinaire
Hope you don't mind the gratuitous kitty pic. Actually, my three cats demand equal blog time. So, this is Tara. Not Tara as in "Gone With The Wind." Tara as in the Tibetan Buddhist emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, peaceful version (for now, anyway).
OK, Tara, you've had your equal time. Now scram. It's my turn.
I really appreciate and am humbled by those of you who have said that I'm brave to share with you the details of my battle with parathyroid cancer. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Truth is, I'm not brave at all. I'm really scared. Terrified.
This blog is partly a manifestation of that fear. Part of me feels that if I can share with enough people, Fate will stop and say, "Gee, he seems like a really nice, sincere guy," rethink what he (or she) has in store for me, and cut me a huge karmic break. The wand will be waved, and I'll be all better.
Of course, I know this is pure fantasy.
Sometimes, I look upon this disease as a blessing because it has forced me to appreciate things in my life I used to take for granted. Simple things.
I still take these things -- time, friends, the physical ability to pursue my livelihood, interests and hobbies -- for granted. But now, I often catch myself in the act, slow down a bit, and appreciate more. I see the joy in just being able to enjoy a cup of tea. Or having an especially rewarding workout in karate class. Or not feeling guilty about doing absolutely nothing on a Saturday afternoon, even though there's so much I could be doing.
If I had to state a single goal through all that has come, and through all that is to come, it would be to learn to take the good with the bad. To enjoy the beautiful, and to embrace the ugly like water flowing around a rock.
To learn, as I once heard someone say, that life is a bitch. But that some of her puppies are cute.
Sunday, December 04, 2005
Top: George Washington Bridge pedestrian path. Middle: Looking north up the Hudson from the GWB. Bottom: Tunnel leading to the Hudson path on the New York side of the river, around 170th Street in Manhattan.
I awoke this morning to the first measureable snowfall of the season -- about 2 inches here in my part of northern New Jersey.
After putzing around my apartment waiting for Mother Nature to cease the light drizzle that ended the storm, I decided to take a long walk, something I hadn't done in a couple of weeks. The cold weather would be just right for a brisk, sweat-free pace. The cloudy sky would provide just the right level of brightness and contrast to view the beautiful blanket of white covering Manhattan.
I love to walk. I live to walk.
I've walked halfway around Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands, on a Buddhist temple-visiting pilgrimage. I hope to complete the pilgrimage in 2006.
I love walking from North Jersey to Brooklyn, the City of Churches, seeing some of the same sights and walking some of the same ground as that most poetic of inveterate walkers, Walt Whitman.
I got off to a late start today because I indulged my other passion: drinking cup after cup of good, strong tea. If China and Japan had given us nothing else, tea would have been enough.
It was 1:45 by the time I set out. I had wanted to walk to Brooklyn, but there wouldn't be enough daylight to get there and part of the way back home before darkness fell.
So, I walked as far as I could in the time I had.
It was a sublime pleasure having the footpath of the George Washington Bridge, which spans the mighty Hudson, to myself. Once across the bridge, the foot/bicycle path that hugs the Hudson southward to the tip of Manhattan Island appeared nearly untrodden this day, with just a few footprints in the fresh snow to indicate anyone had passed this way. I think I ran into six people the whole time.
When the weather is nice, it seems all of humanity is on this path. You have to be constantly vigilant for hotshot cyclists in their designer attire, some of whom come justthisclose to knocking you on your ass and who seem genuinely bitter at having to share the road.
And then there are the novice inline skaters who, with arms flailing and shouts of "Coming through!," threaten to knock down those walkers who the cyclists miss.
But today, I was nearly alone, and it was paradise.
I got as far as 100th Street and the Hudson River before calling a friend to meet for -- what else? -- tea at a popular Columbia University student hangout at 110th and Broadway.
So, my epic jaunt became a five-mile stroll. But it felt so good to have that path to myself. The chill in the air made me keenly aware of my pace and my surroundings.
It was five miles geographically, but 10,000 leagues spiritually.
Friday, December 02, 2005
Meanwhile, today I filled prescriptions for my three medications before my old insurance runs out.
My eldest sister will come with me for the consultation to ask any questions and take down any information I might miss. I've been through these consultations before, and they're harrowing because literal life-and-death issues are being discussed. So, an extra pair of eyes and ears and a fairly objective viewpoint will be most welcome.
Ironically, I got the confirmation call from Sloan-Kettering yesterday afternoon during the funeral of my favorite uncle, a veteran of World War II's Battle of the Bulge who died last week at 90. (Luckily, the phone rang while we were waiting for attendees to arrive, and not during the service.)
I know that sometimes I can be maudlin and too wrapped up in the negative aspects of any given situation, but the timing of this call was exquisite, no?
Thursday, December 01, 2005
I collect antique photographs.
Sometimes I know the names of their subjects. Most of the time, the people's identities are lost to the ages.
What trials did they face in their lives? What milestones -- personal, perhaps global -- did they witness? What were their hopes and fears?
My friends sometimes tell me that I was born in the wrong century, given my passion for the past. I like things that the Japanese dismiss as "furukusai" -- literally, things that stink of the old.
I disagree with my friends. I'm glad I was born exactly when I was.
For one thing, given my medical history, I likely wouldn't have survived these nearly 44 years had I lived during a time whose state-of-the-art medical practices are today's quaint, and sometimes chilling, curiosities.
So, who were these people in the photographs? Who am I?
Most people covet posterity. That explains graffiti. And wars. And diaries. And monuments. And blogs.
One cultural belief -- I wish I could remember which culture -- holds that a person isn't truly dead until there's nobody left who remembers his name. That's a beautiful thought, and a powerful one.
But when I look at these photographs, these moments frozen in time, they put me in mind of a Jack Kerouac poem:
The stars are words ...
Who succeeded? Who failed?
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Monday, November 28, 2005
I'm at the stage where my records are being faxed to him, and presumably he'll make a preliminary evaluation before proceeding. He'll be gone for a month beginning Friday, so I may not get to speak to him for a while.
In any event, neither he nor the hospital accept my health insurance. Luckily, I have out-of-network benefits, which should cover 80 percent of the cost of the consultation and whatever surgical option he may recommend, if I get to see him before this insurance plan ends.
Complicating things is my employer's decision to drop the health coverage I now have, and provide a similar plan through a different carrier. Three carriers had contracts with the newspaper, but now we'll have just one choice: Aetna.
Makes little difference, though, because Sloan-Kettering doesn't accept Aetna, either. I'll still have out-of-network benefits, but at a rate 10 percent less than what I was getting.
I think it's unconscionable that getting sick in the United States carries with it what amounts to a penalty. That is, unless you're wealthy.
Altruism and the sharing of one's bounty are commendable, but it seems to me that instead of spending billions on countries and regimes that could care less about us, part of that money should be spent on solving problems here at home. I think the health-care situation is near the top of that list.
What's that saying about charity beginning at home?
OK, I'm off my soapbox.
Saturday, November 26, 2005
I collect old wind-up clocks. I find the tick-tock comforting. I love the mellow ring of the chimes. It gets noisy in my apartment at the top of the hour.
Antique clocks are temperamental. They have idiosyncracies, such as always running so many minutes fast or slow no matter how you adjust the movement. Or having an occasionally irregular beat, just as the heart sometimes is arrythmic.
One of my favorite clocks is a Japanese wall clock made around 1900.
When I received the clock (I bought it through an online auction site), I couldn't get it to work for more than five minutes at a time. I'd set the pendulum swinging and invariably it would stop. I lost count of the number of times I tried to get it going.
I didn't want to return it because I fell in love with this clock, with its square, polished cherrywood case and its dial with big Roman numerals. I figured I'd have it repaired someday.
So I let it hang on my wall for a couple of months, frozen in time, undisturbed.
One day shortly after my August surgery, on a whim I set the pendulum in motion. Five minutes passed, and the pendulum was still swinging. An hour passed, and it was keeping decent time -- a little fast, but accurate enough.
The next day, the next week, the next month and a half, it was still ticking, needing only to be wound every eight days.
And then, on that day a few weeks ago when I got the blood test results that showed my surgery was unsuccessful, the clock stopped. I tried repeatedly but to no avail to get the pendulum going.
I left the clock alone for about two weeks.
Yesterday I tried again. Today as I write this, it's still ticking.
My elder sister thinks I'm full of shit to link my medical situation to a temperamental, old Japanese wall clock.
I think she's right. This isn't "The Twilight Zone." This is real life.
But this clock reminds me of things I've known all along. Fate is capricious. Life hangs on a gossamer strand. We walk a razor's edge between being and not being. Trying to figure out why is pointless.
Things go well only to fall apart.
And then, inexplicably, things go well again.
Thursday, November 24, 2005
Thanksgiving morning here on the East Coast of the U.S. My family -- mom, two elder sisters and an elder brother -- are getting together at the house of my eldest sister's sister-in-law (that's quite a mouthful, especially with the turkey).
I'm looking forward to this get-together with special zest because of all the medical uncertainty in my life. Minus the traffic on the roads, it should be lots of fun!
Some more photos for you, from top: Autumn field, Chatham, Columbia County, N.Y.; Jersey City, N.J., October 2004; New York City, October 2004; McSorley's, billed as the oldest bar in New York City, 2005. Click on a photo to see a larger version, if you like.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Nothing new with my health situation today, and I don't expect to hear any news until after Thanksgiving. I hope to meet for a consultation within the next few weeks with a surgical oncologist recommended by one of my doctors. Right now, my primary worry is whether my health insurance will cover the cost, or at least the lion's share. For any of you who have dealt with a major illness, I don't need to describe this fear. For those of you who haven't, well, don't get sick. ;)
In the absence of news, I'd like to share with you this photograph taken last fall. It's of a cemetery in Jersey City, N.J. Enjoy!
Monday, November 21, 2005
Here's a beautiful photo sent to me by my friend Jake in Shimane Prefecture, Japan. It's of today's sunrise as seen from a peak in the Kitayama range in Shimane, looking down on the Hi River. Pretty inspiring, eh? When I see views like this, I can almost believe that everything is right with the world. But from atop this peak, everything is.
Jake's Web site has more great photos and details of walks and pilgrimages in Japan.
Because my latest surgery was so recent -- Aug. 31 -- she said no surgeon would freely decide to open me back up so soon. On a heartening note, she added that my calcium level was fairly stable now thanks to the study drug, so there's no urgency just yet.
Sunday, November 20, 2005
When I revisited Japan last year, I went to a temple called Eihei-ji (see my Web site, http://www.sliceofjapan.com/, for photos). It's one of two head temples of a Zen Buddhist denomination called Soto-shu, which was brought to Japan from China in the 13th century by a man named Dogen Zenji. Above is a photo I took at Eihei-ji.
The key practice of Soto-shu Zen is called zazen, which consists of sitting on a cushion (usually in the full lotus or half-lotus position, if you can manage it) and being mindful of thoughts as they arise, and then letting them go without dwelling on them. The idea is to be present in THIS VERY MOMENT, not the one that just passed or the one that follows. Sounds easy. It's not. Try it sometime.
Anyway, I'm oversimplifying what zazen is about, and I'm not using just the right words to describe it. But zazen isn't the point of this entry.
At Eihei-ji, I saw a wonderful quotation posted on a wall, a quotation that thoroughly cut through all the many layers of nonsense in which we usually wrap ourselves and got right to the essence of life.
Paraphrased, it goes like this:
Regretting the fact that you likely won't have a long life isn't Buddhism. Giving thanks for a long life isn't Buddhism, either.
Buddhism is living in the moment and making the most of the life you have.
What more is there to say?
Saturday, November 19, 2005
Physically, I feel just fine. And mentally, I can hold it together most of the time. I don't think I'm in the end-game, so to speak, insofar as this illness is concerned, and my doctors haven't led me to believe that I am (though they're concerned about my string of setbacks).
Anyway, life goes on, and I with it.
Now, I'm planning a return visit to Japan next September, my first since September 2004. Japan has four main islands, and I'm in the process of walking a Buddhist pilgrimage that goes around the perimeter of the smallest of the four, Shikoku.
The island is a little smaller (and infinitely prettier) than New Jersey. The walk is around 800 miles and visits 88 temples. I've been to 30 of the temples (a journey begun in 1997; see my Web site, www.sliceofjapan.com) and have walked a little less than half the distance. Next year, I'd like to finish it.
Friday, November 18, 2005
This blog was created Nov. 18, 2005.
I want to use it to open a window on my life and my many interests -- chief among them a passion for Japan. I lived there from 1995-98, teaching English in a rural junior high school and immersing myself in the study of Japanese religions and culture. (Visit my Web site, http://www.sliceofjapan.com/)
I also want to share my experience of living with parathyroid cancer, an extremely rare and often incurable disease, and how this constant reminder of my own mortality shapes my life and colors my perspective.
First, let me share my medical situation with you in a nutshell. I'll keep it brief, because there are plenty of Web sites you can visit to learn what parathyroid cancer is and what it does. Personally, I stay away from those Web sites because they scare the shit out of me. They deal in statistics and talk about things in gloom-and-doom terms. I'm not a statistic, and this blog is my effort to personalize my struggle.
In 2001, I was a healthy 39-year-old man awaiting the results of a blood test, part of a routine physical.
And then God threw a dart.
The test results showed a disturbing increase in my serum calcium -- the level of calcium in my blood.
This calcium is drawn from the bones, increasing the likelihood of osteoporosis. When there's too much calcium in the blood, organ systems begin to shut down. Seizures and coma can occur. Fatigue and loss of appetite are common, as is impaired memory. Mood swings can occur.
In short, you often feel like shit, and there's nothing you can do about it.
The cancer cells aren't what kill you. It's the catastrophic effect of massive amounts of calcium on your organs that does the job.
Our bodies control calcium levels with four (more in some people) parathyroid glands, pea-size structures in the front of the neck that are attached to each lobe of our bowtie-shaped thyroid gland.
In 1991, I was operated on for a parathyroid adenoma, meaning that one of these glands was overactive. It was producing too much PTH (parathyroid hormone), which regulates the amount of calcium in the body. I was awash in calcium, but this wayward parathyroid gland was fooling my body into thinking that I wasn't getting enough, and was leaching it from my bones.
Surgery removed this overactive gland, and all was well for 10 years. For the vast majority of people with parathyroid disease, one surgery, nowadays performed under local anesthetic in an outpatient procedure, does the trick.
Then came that fateful blood test in 2001.
My internist sent me to an endocrinologist, who did more tests. He thought another parathyroid gland had become overactive.
Surgery in March 2002 removed the suspected gland, and frequent blood tests thereafter monitored my serum calcium.
By that fall, my calcium levels started to rise again, and sharply.
A series of specialized scans of my neck couldn't pinpoint what was wrong, though by now the surgeon who had operated on me in March began to suspect that what was thought to be an abnormal parathyroid, which is not uncommon, was parathyroid cancer, which is extremely rare. Only a few hundred cases each year are diagnosed worldwide.
You're more likely to win the lottery than to develop this illness.
More extensive surgery of my neck was scheduled for February 2003, during which tissue from the part of my neck where the surgeon believed the cancerous cells were located was removed, along with more than 40 lymph nodes.
My blood calcium dipped for a couple of hours, then returned to its dangerously high level.
It was decided that I would wait five weeks for the scar to heal, and then my neck would be reopened to remove more tissue. This time, one of my jugular veins was removed (don't worry, nature equipped us with two).
The surgery had no effect. I asked the surgeon if I was dying, and his carfully worded answer was that if my calcium level couldn't be controlled, then yes, I was dying.
Then I caught a lucky break.
My surgeon heard about a study being conducted to test an experimental drug developed for another illness, but that showed promise in treating people like me. The study was open to people for whom there was no viable surgical option.
The drug manufacturer hoped to find something like 250 people in the United States in circumstances similar to mine.
Thirty were found.
Thirty people out of 280 million.
They even went overseas to fill out our numbers. At the New York hospital at which my group of about eight people was treated, one person came from Brazil, another from Italy. I was the only one who lived in the New York area. I think two of the participants have since died. The person from Brazil dropped out of the study, presumably because of the tremendous expense of having to find housing here so as to be available for a couple of months of weekly blood tests, and monthly follow-up tests after that. The drug company was adamant that those participating in the study had to have all tests connected with the trial performed in the United States, and at only a few selected hospitals nationwide.
When I joined the study in mid-2003 (if memory serves), the drug didn't even have a name. It was called AMG-073. My doctors and I referred to it as "the study drug" in conversation, and we still do, even though it recently was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It's now sold under the brand name Sensipar.
It costs $3,500 a month, though I pay $10 under my medical insurance.
The drug succeeded in lowering my calcium levels, which were still high. If you were to suddenly develop the same calcium levels as mine, your body would go into shock and you probably would quickly go into a coma and die.
But because my calcium has risen steadily, but gradually, over the course of a couple of years, my body has somehow adjusted to it, which speaks volumes for our physical resilience.
All this time, I was undergoing regular, very specialized scans that looked for evidence of tumor growth. My calcium continued in the same range, fluctuating between blood tests but remaining relatively steady.
And then, beginning around Christmas 2004, they started rising.
Scans began to show evidence of tumor growth in my chest, which is where parathyroid cancer commonly spreads.
In August 2005, I had my fourth surgery in three years, and my fifth surgery overall. Whereas the others were to my neck, this one was to focus on the very center of my chest.
The surgeon, a different one this time but assisted by the same man who had done the three prior operations, had to saw my breastbone in half. The tumor was located in the back of my chest, near my aorta and up against my esophagus. It was in what is probably the most difficult part of the body to reach for surgery, I was told. It would be akin to working on the engine of a foreign car that requires you to take the whole thing apart just to reach the carburetor.
After the surgery, my calcium level returned to normal for the first time in years. This lasted about eight weeks.
I learned just a few weeks ago that it shot up to its presurgery level.
Because of the difficult location of the tumor, it wasn't possible to remove too much surrounding tissue because it would involve possibly damaging vital structures, such as my aorta.
Thus, enough cancerous tissue was left inside me to wreak havoc on my blood calcium.
I was put back on the study drug, which I had discontinued the day of the surgery. I'm on a lower dose now (twice a day instead of four times), and my serum calcium level has gone down.
Now, I'm waiting to discuss other surgical options with a doctor at an affiliated hospital. My endocrinologists are also investigating immune therapy, which has helped in the two patients on which it was tried.
And that's where I'm at now.
This disease is so rare that there's no protocol, no procedure, for what to do next. There is no book to consult. I and a few other people with this cancer are helping to write the book as we go.
I don't blame my doctors for my bad luck. In fact, I'm eternally grateful to them for doing everything they can, and then some, to try to help me.
We've become very, very close friends, in the process doing away with the clinical detachment that typifies doctor-patient relationships. It almost has to be this way, I think, because this situation is so rare and, in the case of some of my doctors, completely without precedent in their experience. Everyone in the hospital's unit in which I'm treated knows me, if not by name then by face. Same thing in the nuclear medicine department, where I go for scans. I'm kept abreast of personal relationships that are formed, those that end, vacations taken, latest books read. I've been discussed at medical conferences here and abroad, my name replaced by initials and a number. Even the attendants in the hospital parking garage know me. They always have a prime spot for me whenever I pull up.
It's almost as if everyone is trying to compensate for the fact that they're at a loss to cure me.
The thing is, this disease is so rare that it literally doesn't pay for the big drug companies and hospitals to do much research on it. Fair enough.
Physically, I feel fine, thank God. I go to karate class three times a week and routinely take walks of 15 miles or more in the New York City area. Up until my latest surgery, I worked out regularly at the gym (and really need to start going back).
People who know about my situation -- I freely discuss it -- invariably say, "But you look so healthy." This disease is strictly an internal affair. You'd never know what was going on inside me unless I told you.
My doctors and I are sure that my keeping in relatively good physical shape has helped me tremendously. I was let out of the hospital just five days after my August surgery, and was taking a brisk walk the following day. I was back at karate (I'm a brown belt) in two weeks.
It's keeping my spirit in good shape that I have to focus on now.
Remember I said that I went to Japan to study religion? I have a deep interest in and respect for Zen Buddhism. Certain tenets -- ones you really have to feel, because they can't be rationalized or intellectualized -- have been of tremendous comfort to me these past few years. Which reminds me that I really must restart my lapsed meditation practice. (What is done in Zen isn't really meditation, strictly speaking, but that's another topic.)
Hopefully, this blog will offer catharsis for me, and I thank you for reading along.
I look forward to updating it regularly, and I hope you'll stick with me.