Saturday, May 10, 2014

Today’s Depressing Thought

Back in February when we had summery weather in the Bay Area, I was walking home with my trusty bicycle. It was a sunshiny afternoon. Temperatures were in the low 70s in Oakland. I was wearing shorts and a light sweater. As I approached a cross street, a honeybee hovered past my head about a foot from me. It floated in front of me as I pushed my bicycle up the hill. With the sun out, a cheery tune playing through my headphones, a bee chillingly cruising past me, unafraid of my presence, I couldn’t help but smile. Maybe this unseasonable warmth wasn’t so bad? (While a few of my Bay Area Facebook peeps embraced the summer-like weather in February, I found it troubling. Droughts aren’t something to celebrate.)

And then, as I was about to step off the curb, I saw the bee descend lower and lower until it fell to the crosswalk.
I stopped to stand over it. Its wings lay on the concrete, its legs wiggling in the air. Oh no I thought, that smile wiped off my face. I hesitated, ready to put out my bike’s kickstand to step over to a nearby patch of shrubs to try to find a fallen leaf so I could scoop the little guy off the street and rest him on the grass where he could hopefully recuperate instead of get run over or stepped on. (I guess it’s worthwhile to mention that by default, although I catch myself now, I automatically think of most bugs and critters as dudes.) But then I thought: what’s the point? You can try to save one but there are so many others you can’t save. Just weeks before I had seen four dead honeybees lying on the sidewalk of one residential block in Fremont, something I had never witnessed in my childhood. Mass bee die-off, a.k.a. Colony Collapse Disorder, is in our modern lexicon. I kept walking up the hill, leaving the bee to die though it didn’t feel right. (It’s worthwhile to mention that the one time I have been stung by a bee is when I was a boy, swimming in a pool. I noticed a bee floating atop the chlorinated water so I cupped my hands beneath it to lift it out of the pool when the bee stung me.)

As I cycled home, I had a fleeting thought: what if our newest generation of parents—several of whom are my friends or colleagues—will become the last generation of grandparents on Planet Earth?

The future is far from bright and promising. Personally, I think you either have to be in complete denial or utterly foolish to hedge your bet on humanity surviving and thriving past this century with our 21st Century way of living. I think you have to be an idiot to believe that humanity can concoct and manufacture high technology solutions to solve the predicaments we face. That form of thinking—that we can somehow outsmart Mother Nature—is one of the principle reasons why our species has arrived to the dire state we find ourselves in.

Our planet is an organism that will continue on long after we peace out and join the extinction list (which we’ve done a bang-up job of populating in our cameo on this planet). Western Civilization has expanded and lasted too long with a core belief that nature is supposed to be this entity we are in opposition with instead of truly understanding that we’re merely a part of it.

There’s too many of us. Too many of us sucking up and depleting the world’s resources, which is basically what humans do. (I’ve been reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and it’s been sobering to read that this has been characteristic of our species for thousands of years at practically every corner of the world we’ve inhabited.) At our current global growth rate, how can we possibly attain enough freshwater to sustain all 7 billion-plus-of-us-and counting especially when corporations, mining companies, and nuclear power plants continue to pollute our freshwater sources with their money-grubbing endeavors? We can't even do that now; according to UNICEF, over 768 million people lack access to clean water. And sure, the United States can keep its gas prices down by waging illegal wars with petroleum-rich countries, 1 but who will we bomb for water? Warfare over the attainment of power and influence in petroleum-rich regions has been rather serious, but can you imagine what it’s going to be like when humans are fighting over a natural resource we actually need to subsist? That’s gonna be ugly.

From Colony Collapse Syndrome to receding glaciers 2 to higher mean temperatures at the global level to a dearth of originality in the arts (from music to visual art, it seems like humans are stuck in a constant feedback loop where what we’re mostly producing is recycled art or creating shit that has no heart because we’re afraid of being emotionally vulnerable at the most vulnerable juncture in our collective history), Mother Nature is providing us with signs that there is something terribly awry with our way of living. Our bodies do the same, providing us with signals of pain and discomfort to warn us that something is wrong.

Too many of us still aren’t paying attention, lost in the fog of the interwebs and our modern technologies, and it’s probably too late now.

1 Back in 1850, there were an estimated 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park in Montana. Today, there are only 25 glaciers in the park according to this U.S. Geological Research Survey webpage.

2 In May 2014, according to , Americans pay .97 cents per liter. In Australia the price is $1.41 per liter, $1.62 in Chile. The European country with the cheapest fuel prices is Poland which pays $1.78 per liter.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

My Cancer Playlist

American Boy
Estelle Featuring Kanye West

On April 27, 2009, the day of my mediastinoscopy, this song looped in my head when I awoke in the early morning dark. I’d been fixated on the song in the days and weeks leading up to the surgery. It’s so catchy it’s disgusting. And it’s upbeat. Not sad. Not desperate. It’s wallpaper music.

By then, the cancer whispers were blaring: first, a swollen lymph node popped up by my left clavicle in June 2008. Weeks later, a CT scan revealed an “abnormal mass of lymph nodes” between my lungs. Then my left calf became itchy months later, unresponsive to anti-itch creams. In November 2008 a biopsy of the swollen lymph node yielded a negative response but then three months later two swollen lymph nodes sprouted around the area where the previous one had been snipped out. All along, my doctor feared lymphoma was causing the swollen lymph nodes. Every other possibility had been exhausted.

There were a lot of things I didn’t want to think about then.

Emotion Sickness

During the weeks and days leading up to chemotherapy, I became obsessed with this song; it is Silverchair’s masterpiece—a startling, harrowing, epic rock-opera-like song complete with dramatic strings. When I first heard it ten years before, I was impressed by how thoroughly depressing the song was. (Daniel Johns—then only 20 years old—wrote the song while suffering from severe anorexia and depression. Years after he wrote the songs on Neon Ballroom, once he recovered from his eating disorder, Johns did an interview in which he confessed that he had contemplated suicide during that period.) But once my 30-year-old body became host to a Life-Threatening Disease in Residence, I felt like I truly understood the numb sorrow, the pleading, the desperation in Johns’ howls during the song’s climax in a way I couldn’t before.

One night, I closed my bedroom door and sat in front of my computer to watch the song’s music video. By then, the recycling basket beside my desk was filled with empty beer bottles. (I drank that night in hopes of peeling through the numbness that had enveloped me since I was diagnosed.) When the song reached its peak, the drums beating, the strings building, it felt like I was socked in the gut when Johns screamed “GET UP! GET UP!”—which I thought was “GET OUT!” Tears filled my eyes as I sat at my desk with this horrible thing sprouting inside of me.

This was the only song that ever cut through that shell.

Someday You’ll Be Sorry
Louis Armstrong


Dressed in a black suit with red tie and head shaved, I imagined myself striding into a large ballroom. The couples dancing in the middle of the room are elegantly dressed as though they were from the Roaring ‘20s. The room is softly lit by crystal chandeliers.

A jazz band plays at one end of the ballroom. The pianist plays the high, twinkly intro notes to Louis Armstrong’s “Someday You’ll Be Sorry.” Standing front and center beside a vintage microphone, Louis Armstrong blows his trumpet.

I make my way around the tables toward the Art Deco-style bar where several gentleman puff on cigars. Leaning my elbow against the bar, I face Mr. Hodgkins—my corporeal adversary—who sits on a stool. He wears a white button-down shirt, black bowtie, and vest beneath his black tuxedo jacket. His derby hat rests on the bar as he stares into an empty martini glass.

Let’s dance.

Without turning to him, Mr. Hodgkins acknowledges Juan by shifting in his stool.

Must we?

But of course. It’s our song.

Your song.

No, it’s our song. If you hadn’t come into my life, it wouldn’t have meant what it does to me now.

I put an arm around Mr. Hodgkins and lead him to the dance floor. Hip to hip, we dance beneath a chandelier that makes the smoke around us look like a swirling veil. When Armstrong finishes his trumpet solo and steps to the microphone, I lean my cheek against Mr. Hodgkins’. I sing into his ear while Armstrong croons.

“Someday, you'll be sorry. The way you treated me was wrong.”

Teary-eyed, I caress Mr. Hodgkins’ face.

“I was the one who taught you all you know.”

We continue to dance to the light tempo while Armstrong flashes a toothy smile to the crowd.

“There won't be another to treat you like a brother. Someday, you'll be sorry dear.”

In the Light
Led Zeppelin

Monday morning, during the week leading up to my second infusion, sweat poured down my face and moistened my bare arms as I cycled up a long hill toward USF’s Lone Mountain campus to attend a weeklong writing workshop. Led Zeppelin’s “In the Light” played through my headphones. Plant was singing the chorus before the song’s outro (Light, light, light…in the light). Page accompanied the vocals with ascending notes on his guitar, bringing the song to a peak as I neared the top of the hill. With not one cloud in the summer sky, sunlight pouring over me, I closed my eyes. My eyelids became warm blankets of bright orange. I imagined myself grasping that sunlight, imagined it to be like water seeping to my roots, my very core. I imagined myself becoming one with the sun’s light (which we are an extension of)—its warmth, its energy healing and nourishing me as I pedaled on.

I knew I needed this joy and love like never before.

Of Wolf and Man

Friday mornings, before almost every single one of my twelve chemotherapy infusions, this song blared from my headphones as I marched out of my flat on Dolores Street to San Francisco General Hospital. My spirit roared to the nasty staccato riff that sound like dragon breaths, the thundering snare, the opening verse: Off through the new day’s mist I run / Out from the new day’s mist I have come / I hunt, therefore I am / Harvest the land, taking of the fallen lamb. I was the wolf. My corporeal nemesis, Mr. Hodgkins, was my prey.

I was so pissed off to live.

The Judas Kiss

While racing my bicycle to and from grad school, or along the city streets, I would sometimes imagine myself hurtling toward Mr. Hodgkins in a motorcycle armed with machine guns by its handles, the city lights blurring past like flares shot into the sky. I was dressed in black—like death incarnate. Mr. Hodgkins stood in an enclosed parking lot in the heart of the city, waiting for me. His cackles echoed off the brick walls, daring me on. I would press hard on the pedal and sneer as the motor roared, the wind howling as I sliced through it, 80, 90, 100 miles per hour. You shouldn’t have fucked with me, I would say, my eyes fixed on him, pupils opening like pools of black.

After I mowed Mr. Hodgkins down, his derby hat flipping high up into the air, I would pounce on him and pound his skull, fist to face, fist to face against the pavement, his dark blood splattering over my knuckles, pouring out of his mouth and nose before I would bite and tear off his bloodied face, chomp by chomp, chunk by chunk, until he was a faceless pulp, and then I would stand and lean over his mangled corpse and scream and scream and scream (AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!) until the concrete around him would splinter like broken glass.

“Raindrop” Prelude, Op 28, No. 15
Frédéric Chopin

December 4, 2009. A reprieve arrived: chemotherapy was over. Four weeks of radiation treatment awaited. I was saddened to leave my angels, my mothers, my 4C nurses, but I hoped I would never have to see them ever again.

Moonlight Serenade
Glenn Miller & His Orchestra

There I am, in focus, in the middle of the wide-angle frame, donning a black pea coat, gray slacks, the loafers I wore to work. It’s 5 o’clock, Thursday evening, first month of 2010. Downtown San Francisco, corner of Market and Montgomery. Watch as I part through the crowd funneling past me into the underground tunnels. Now see them through my vantage: a mass of silhouetted figures bathed in golden light, the sun setting behind them past the hills. This is my life, I think to myself while I listen to the timeless, lilting melody from Glenn Miller and his big band orchestra through my headphones. This is the world I’m still a part of. Now switch to a close-up of my clean-shaven face as the camera tracks backwards. My hair, in its rebirth, is growing.

On most occasions, I would have felt annoyed to walk against wave upon wave of humanity, hurrying to pile into crowded trains from their tiny cubicles. But I feel graced to be among them as they brush past me: chirping into their phones. Texting while walking. Marching with expressionless faces.

In my world, in my head, curious thoughts begin to dawn as the sunlight fades. I think to myself: someday I want to play and pass this song along to my children, fill our home with its peaceful rhythm. I think to myself: I want this song to play at my wedding reception. I want to play this song when I leave this town. And someday, when my sun is setting, I want to sit and close my eyes and listen to this song fill my heart like the sound of the ocean’s waves.

As I walk down the sidewalk, I play the song again and again—stirring those images, stirring those emotions. This is new for me—the desire to imagine a future.

I play the song, again and again and again.

I’m Still Standing
Elton John

Outside the oncology clinic, beneath a sweet drizzle I call my mother and father to share The Best News Ever: Mr. Hodgkins is officially dead. It is March 2, 2010. I have longed for this moment for almost one year. Throughout that time, I daydreamt of dedicating this song to Mr. Hodgkins, particularly the chorus:

Don't you know I'm still standing, better than I ever did
Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid
I'm still standing, after all this time
Picking up the pieces of my life without you on my mind.

Pa' Llegar A Tu Lado
Lhasa de Sela

Back in 2009, less than two months before I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, I began to date a bright, cute, and mildly nerdy Latina. We were both attending graduate school for creative writing. When we sat together at cafes in San Francisco, reading and writing like homework buddies, we often asked each other’s opinion on a line, paragraph, or word in the pieces we were penning. I felt at peace beside her. I fell in love with this dream of us being a brainy, driven duo of writers—like a Latino version of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.

That honeymoon phase new couples experience?: it was cut short by my dis-ease. Take it from me, it was the worst time to begin a relationship. And god knows my anger and drinking didn’t help either. Despite all that, we stayed together, off and on, for a tumultuous year and a half.

Near our end, I gave her a mix of music dedicated to her. This song made the cut. It should never be a song you dedicate to a lover. Never. In retrospect, it was our requiem:

Gracias a tus manos doy
Por haberme aguantado
Tuve que quemarme
Pa'llegar hasta tu lado

Nutshell (from their MTV Unplugged album)
Alice in Chains

Rejoining “the kingdom of the well”—as Sontag called it—was deliriously great at first but there was fallout to deal with. Fallout from lowering my head and pushing through grad school and that shitstorm in my life for over a year and a half and never relenting. Staley’s lyrics and wearied voice in this recording sounded like that feeling locked inside:

And yet I fight
And yet I fight
This battle all alone
No one to cry to
No place to call home.

I’ll Fly Away
Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch

Winter 2011. I was in Taos, New Mexico for an artist residency. On the day I rented a neo-hippie white Volkswagen Bug to cruise out of Taos, past the Rio Grande Gorge, I saw the land and gray sky open before me, nestled by the surrounding mountains. This song came up on random play from my iPod. It was all so piercingly beautiful—being alive, listening to this immaculate song in a land that felt like home. I cried. It was a great day to die.

The Rain Song
Led Zeppelin

This is the springtime of my loving
The second season I am to know

I can close my eyes and listen to this song and feel myself float through the sky like a singsong leaf descending in the wind. Jones’ mellotron, coupled with sliding notes from Page’s Danelectro literally sound like a melody orchestrated by a quiet torrent of raindrops. There is something about the song’s peak; it feels triumphant with Bonzo’s crashing cymbals and Plant’s invigorated vocals. It feels like a spiritual cleansing—as though the band attained a long-sought freedom. And that’s what making it through that trying period in my life and being alive feels like for me.

Ventura Highway

May 21, 2013. A regular oncology check-up, except this time I’m bringing someone along to visit that part of my past, that part of my life I have kept to myself and few others: my girlfriend, Maria. I didn’t beg her to come. She wanted to come, and it’s weird but glorious to have someone beside me—to show the tranquil, tucked-away garden next to Ward 86; to meet my kick-ass oncologist, Terry, who teaches us “the oncologist handshake” (This is when the patient lifts his arm to rest his hand on the oncologist’s shoulder while the oncologist probes the patient’s axillas (a.k.a. the armpit) for any swollen lymph nodes.); and to have another person hear the yippee-skippee news that my good health remains. After the appointment, Mari and I became grown-up kids at The Exploratorium. All the while, step in step con mi compañera, I feel like this song—free and full with bliss from this exalted day that I have been blessed with, a day I could have never known awaited me when I sat in the reclining chair at the infusion ward four years before, staring out over the Bernal Hillside with chemo flowing through the IV pricked into my arm.

Mystery Train
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Train arrive, it’s sixteen coaches long,
Train arrive, it’s sixteen coaches long,
Well that long black train, take my baby and gone.

Mystery train, rolling down the track,
Mystery train, rolling down the track…