Monday, October 27, 2008

Standing at the Mailbox

I don't recall a more perfect fall, slipping slowly by degrees to winter. Usually, or has been the case over the last years , it's 98 degrees on Wednesday and by Friday there's snow on the ground. Summer ends and winter starts. Maybe its all the rain we had that sets the trees on fire. I know, I know.. waxing poetic about the switch of seasons is cheesy. I have cancer, ha! I shall muse as I damn well please.
I haven't really thought about cancer lately. It comes in flashes now, which means one of two things; I've learned to reckon with it or I have a wicked case of denial. I can't help but think about it when the damned bills come. I now know why the insurance industry is so expensive. Everything they do involves an envelope and paper. The overhead for mailings alone must reach into the bajillions of dollars. And its not even the bills, it's the lead-up to the bills. I have received a piece of paper that tells me "Hang on we're just looking to see if you need to pay us" every day (cept Sundays of course) for four months. Everyday. Now, lets do the math. I've been rolling in and out of Dr.'s offices pretty steadily since July 22nd. If we assume a mailing once a day (and that's a low assumption) at .35 each for 84 days I'm running the company about $30 in paper so far. This is only the beginning. I'm going to cost them, baseline, one hundred dollars a year in paper THAT DOESN'T SAY ANYTHING! I am excluding from my equations and calculations the paper that actually does say something, like "You owe us $16,457.09". (I love the .09 part). And I can't be the only one getting these letters of nothingness. Even if there were, say, 8 of us (and I believe more cancer-folks than that are under insured by my insurance company), that would be $800 a year in paper that says nothing. That's like half a bag of Herceptin, 2 scripts for Oxycodone, an eighth of an MRI. I'm just know, man on the moon craziness here, but maybe insurance giants could learn how to cut a few corners. Those of us on the receiving end most certainly do. These are hard times.

Its a funny thing when items show up in your mailbox asking you for three quarters of the money you've made over the last year. It pulls into question yr chosen career path. A typical day at the mailbox often includes a quick review of the moments in my life where I could have made the decision to be a millionaire. "Hmmmm, if I had taken Advanced Economics or Computer Programming in college instead of Girlhood in America or Advanced Creative Writing would I be looking down the barrel of the same gun?" Considering the state of the economy the answer is likely yes. But this whole episode, this whole cancer bit, has got me thinking about art and artists and songs and poems and their real validity versus their perceived validity as a major component in culture.
On several "music" message boards in the area there seems to be a standing belief that pursuing music or songwriting as a viable career is misguided to say the least. There is a feeling that those of us who have tried and achieved varying degrees of success in music are living out some adolescent fantasy and why don't we just go get "real jobs"? Real jobs? The implication here is if I had a "real job" than I wouldn't have to worry about health coverage, financial stability, the future. Some of the nastier inferences seem to suggest that if I'd just shaped up maybe I wouldn't even have cancer. Wowsers!
A group of people are stepping up to help me, the folks from Apocalypse Meow. I have played benefits for musicians, too, as a way of offering support when they've been faced with the financial harpship of a medical emergency. We are a benefit having people. I have always believed musicians as important as HVAC folk or programmers or schoolteachers. I beleived that before I got cancer. I believed that before I ever got on a stage or strung a guitar. Songs make up memory. What played at yr wedding? What played at yr first kiss? What played when you lost yr first love? Songs did. The people who made them are important. As far as I'm concerned, writing the soundtrack of the world is a pretty "real" job.

"But yr not making money off it!" "But yr not doing a stadium tour!" "Yr not really a musician because you don't have a video on MTV! " "Are you on the radio??" Ahhhhhh!!
Perhaps it is because I am the daughter of a working actress that all that malarkey drives me to drink. My mother was an actress who never starred in a major motion picture. She never dated Colin Farrell or made the cover on InTouch magazine. She quietly worked hard and made enough money to keep a (Manhattan, and not Kansas) roof over our heads and send me to the best school she could afford. As an actress. Her union is taking care of her now. Working musicians are worth the same respect, deserving of the same securities as any other performing folk. And I'm not just talking about the chamber music people or the orchestra lovelies. The people making music night after night in bars across the country, across this city, are worthy of respect and security. If they are out there, night after night, year after year, with little return on their investment of time, they did not choose it, it chose them. There is nothing romantic or glamorous about sleeping in the van, living with your band mates, eating beans and rice, or working 3 part-time jobs to support yr full-time job. Their work is worth preserving and they are worth protecting. If no one else will do it, damn it, I will.

I was reminded last week that music is a game of attrition by someone who knows a thing or two about all that. A career is not hits or videos or money. All those things are nice. (Especially when standing at the mailbox with a $16,000 bill in yr hand). Staying in the game long enough to make great records and sell a few, put on good shows, sell a couple songs, and not give up. That's a job. Not a fucking J-O-B, but a life's work. That's worth pursuing, sacrificing, and believing in.

It's worth kicking cancer in the motherscratching teeth so I can get back to figuring it out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Go S-P-O-R-T-S!

In a fourth floor office on July 22 a game plan was formulated with the distinguished CAPTAIN and myself along with my offensive line. A methodology was set forth. There were charts, visual aids, Sharpies. A plan of attack was conceived, a playbook issued. We got uniforms. I showed up for the first quarter and there were cheerleaders....a lot of bad ass cheerleaders! I am not quite sure why I'm using a sports analogy except to declare that we've reached HALFTIME folks! Snacks!!

As my mode of treatment was explained to me I was to have eight rounds of delightful and invigorating chemotherapy followed by surgery (Superbowl) and then radiation (post-season nonsense). I got through the fourth round on Thursday. Its time for the halftime show. Why aren't Bob Seger and Beyonce doing a confusing duet in my living room?

July seems like a hundred years ago. I halfway expected to be some sad shell of myself at this point, having to be carried in and out of cars wrapped in an old checkered blanket, sipping Ensure out of a straw, having adopted some post-Dickensian mode of speech ("Thanks Gov'nr. R'membr you 'n 'Eaven, they will.."). No. All has changed and every thing's the same....

I have a super militant haircut, but I was super-militant anyway.

I still scream at the television, loudly! Just because I have cancer does not change the fact that I am a super political fringy "elitist" lefty, who, if left to my own devices would not only nationalize health care but also put kittens in every airport. Cancer did not bring on some toned-down, even-handed, deeply contemplative version of myself. Not so much. Loud and confrontational is sort of in my blood. Cancer did not make Sarah Palin anything less than insulting.

Cancer did not make me a grudge less individual. I wish it had. Maybe it will. I'm still one of these black or white sorts of folks. If someone wrongs my family my friends or my band, forget it. Its not intentional. I come from hot-under-the-collar people. I have a memory long as an elephants. Cancer won't fix that, time will.

I have read a lot about this disease and a lot from people dealing with this disease. Having reached halftime I feel I can report on my findings. Cancer-talk still deals in a language of quiet desperation, of resignation, of "the end". Even the stuff that's supposed to be inspirational is rather, shall we say, down at the mouth. The word is so imbued with fear and loss and awfulness, a certain end-of-the-worldness. I am not making light of its severity. Please don't misunderstand. But language has power. Words have power. They represent things, concepts, identities. Spoon. Rascal. Kitten. Cancer. No one is deathly afraid of spoon. Spoons don't kill you. Well, cancer doesn't have to either!! That seems ridiculously simple and naive and immature but I say the word everyday now. I say the word and the whole shebang it entails pops up and floats about, shedding its nastiness in drifts like dog hair all over the room. I'm over it. Good lord I'm over it!!

Cancer is not my guru, my teacher, my defining moment. I am no better or worse for it, stronger or weaker or smarter or more psycologically scarred in its wake. It does not allow me to wear sweatpants to the grocery store or to become an anti-smoking Nazi. It does not excuse bad behavior, nor does it automatically turn me into some Mother Theresa sort who gives up all her worldly goods to sit in silence on a mountaintop. It just needs to have its ass kicked to the curb so I might endeavor to worry about something more important and, may I venture to say, more interesting!

It has, however, put a fire under me, an urgency, a this-won't-wait-anymore-Abigail sort of thing. I am sort of a high strung person, depending on who you talk to, so what may be the end for cancer may very well be the beginning of hypertension but that is another blog entirely. The world, no matter what you believe about later, is, at the moment, finite. It is this moment-full of love or chemo or cocaine or stress or buttercups or breakups or any number of finite, accountable, real life things. We are not existing in some existentialist Oliver Stone version of our own lives. No one's gonna make a fucking movie, sweetheart.

So that concludes this halftime show...the second half starts now.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Tiny Amish Ponies Cure Cancer

I had forgotten how good it felt to sleep on the ground. I had forgotten how uncomplicated time is when the only thing governing it is the sun. It rises, you rise. It sets, you fall to sleep without strange lights or meddling ringtones to tell you otherwise. A fire is infinitely more interesting to watch than Hardball.

We went camping this weekend in northern Missouri in an area called the Green Hills, a collection of glacial deposits that are uncharacteristically hilly and beautiful for that part of the state. We were also in close proximity to Jamesport, an Amish community established in the 50's if I remember correctly. It had been a small forever since I had left the J-O-B and the city behind for an excursion beyond the state line that didn't require an amplifier. The winter is bound to get complicated and this trip was to be a little vacation before the cold and the medical B.S. hemmed me in to town for a good long while. It could not have been more perfect. I was half prepared to come back to KC having someone in my party gored by the last living Grizzly in Missouri (I've been so lucky lately), but we all returned unscathed.
The most dangerous thing that happened the whole weekend was the continual menagerie of cute and small animals that kept turning up; several kittens, a puppy, a small collection of doe-eyed calves, a precocious Jack Russell, a pack of stray hound dogs, and to top it all off, a pair of miniature Amish ponies pulling a cart. Really, miniature ponies? Does the universe just revel in fucking with me? The fact that I am not harboring the puppy, the kittens, the pack of hounds, the Jack Russell, the miniature ponies and their tiny little cart are testament to my rock-like inner strength. Or it could very well have been my husband, unmoved by my pleas, shaking his head and laying down an unsympathetic "NO". He apparently does not believe that tiny Amish ponies cure cancer.
I lived in a tent for awhile, what seems a hundred years ago, while I was getting ready to go Buddha school in Colorado. It was an incredible and uncomplicated time. There were no high-flung-back-to-nature-Gary-Snyder-on-a-mountaintop reasons for it. I just didn't have any money so I lived in the woods. My telephone was a quarter operated affair at a four way stop in Nederland, a four mile walk. Forget the Internet, TV, a coffee maker. We cooked outside on greasy stones and hung our wood smoked clothes and snacks in trees to keep the real live bears away. There were no walls.
I look back now and remember it being perfect but it was also full of difficulties, and if memory serves me a food poisoning episode without a bathroom finally moved me from the woods into a cabin I could afford. But worries were basic then; will it rain, will it snow, will there be enough wood to keep us warm? I did a lot of walking in the woods alone and the silence of that was an incredible listening tool. Away from the noise and chatter and general electrical hum of the life we know as normal is another life, another way of knowing and thinking that is sharpened only when the layers of all of this "civilized living" are shrugged away. Now that sounds ridiculous coming from a bourbon-swilling expletive-spewing CNN devotee such as myself. Hippie bullshit, right? But we've all lived strange lives to get to where we are now.
So the dog and I left our napping cohorts this weekend for a walk alone in the woods. After about ten minutes of manic snuffling she settled into walking on ahead of me at a measured pace. The woods were not as dense as up in Colorado. They've been cleared, tilled, and reclaimed several times since the Oto Indians were run out west, but the Missouri parks folks are trying to restore them to their native state. Billie and I half ran down a rocky hillside and across a dry creekbed where we poked around in the dirt, turning over rocks to see what was underneath. We moved on to a clearing and out of the right side of my peripheral vision came a white tailed deer bounding across the trail and on up the hillside. The dog and I both stopped and watched it disappear. It was like some sort of Disney movie and I half expected the birds to start talking and dwarfs to start marching out of the shadows. Billie didn't run. She just sort of looked back at me and then back to the hill where the really big and bouncy dog went. We kept walking.
We build walls and put things inside them, build fences around them, and call them our own. We surround ourselves with distractions, levels of technology that can keep us from interacting with people for days at a time, and then we wonder why we're lonely. I don't know why camping this weekend (at a relatively well-appointed campsite mind you) got me thinking about all this stuff. Things just seem more precious now. Laughing with four of my favorite people around a fire seemed surreal, stolen from time. The dog almost getting hit by a deer on a trail in the woods goes completely against my seemingly normal ways of thinking. Not being on a 24-hour-news-cycle schedule punctuated by electric light and important incoming messages for just 48 hours righted me a little bit, snapped the bigger picture into focus and steeled me for the bullshit fixing to rain down soon. I wasn't sick this weekend. I was just some anonymous piece of a bigger thing spinning from sunset to sunset, unencumbered by appointments and second opinions, diagnoses or projected outcomes of treatment. No one stuck me with a needle or measured a damned thing and there were no mirrors to remind me that I don't look the way I feel. There were no walls to hide in.