Being One’s Own Doctor

A flower along the trail at Watson Lake’s Riparian Preserve. It is without judgment. It loves. This flower is my rabbi, even as I see my nation descend into madness and ignorance … a blight from which we might be ready to awaken.

 

A good friend of mine, a guy I used to teach with, was worried after my last blog post, the one about maddening dog gates, that my lifestyle threatened my blood pressure. Said I should trade my dog in for a hamster, something low stress. He was half joking. If you’re reading, Dan, this one’s for you.

You’re right to be concerned, and I appreciate it. Know, then, first of all, I have a primary care physician. I need an actual doctor. I’ve had fainting episodes. And some crazy nose operation once left me unable to pee. The urologist said I’d better get a doctor to orchestrate the big mess I’d become.

“Just try finding one in this town.”

“I know,” he said. “But you’d better.” I’d been seen by nurse practitioners, physicians’ aides who seem to be taking over direct general health care. “Look harder,” said the urologist.

I did, and I finally found a new doctor.

Actually, an old one. This kind, elderly gentleman is with a little practice named, with disarming simplicity, The Doctor’s Office. They’re off of Willow Creek Road here in Prescott.

He listened with interest to my history.

Six years ago, I fainted in my bedroom and spent the night in the hospital. Barb told me Rosa had, upon the dog gate’s removal, run in ahead of the EMTs and licked me before they could slap my face or brandish smelling salts or whatever they did before piling my ass onto a stretcher for the ride to Yavapai Regional Medical Center — where no doctor had a clue. I was running on the treadmill next morning (un-caffeinated!) like Drago in Rocky IV. The staff shrugged, perplexed, at the paragon of fitness. No murmur. No nothing. A male nurse who hung out with me before my discharge said I must have been holding my breath. Huh.

I know now it was a panic attack, purely psychosomatic. “Teaching” had become a horror show. I lived in fear of what I thought I had to go do to make a living.

And yet I kept at it, after a fashion.

After a hiatus I got another, final teaching job, at Mayer High School, where I fainted just outside the Music Room while giving blood, half a year ago, during my last semester there. I knew upon waking I’d drifted off, but didn’t know till later I’d jackknifed and spasmed in the chair. Dan’s wife, who’d come in to give blood, had seen and she told me when I visited her and Dan for coffee. I was beyond embarrassed. I was quietly shocked. I mean that’s weird.

I even fainted outside the auspices of anxiety-plagued pedagogy. A senescent, preternaturally vigorous stock boy at Walmart now, I mashed my hand in a metal cart on the dock, felt faint and nauseous … and woke up to two guys calling my name like some loony movie.

I’ve been obsessed with this unmanly fainting business. It didn’t help that a friend, who grew up to be a doctor, decreed I had a condition in which pain caused fainting. He said it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. But it bothered me. Made me sound like a sissy, some nerd who goes into a swoon after he stubs his toe.

I left the editorializing out of my report to the new doctor. Reviewing my history, and the latest lab tests, he said my blood sugar could be a problem. He began seeing me every three months to examine results of blood draws, trying to get me out of the prediabetic range.

But then I got on the case my own self.

Two months ago, I got to wondering if the second pill prescribed by my last doctor for hypertension might be causing the fainting. Worried at my continual showings along the 155 over 85 blood pressure range, this guy’d put me on 20 milligrams a day of Benazepril, then added 20 mg of hydrochlorothiazide. I had a hunch the HCL, a blood thinner, was the culprit. I quit the little white pill, just on my own.

Last week, when I prepared to see my doctor for the inevitable discussion about blood sugar, I feared I’d score high on blood pressure.

And I worried about what he was worried about. I still ate bacon, nitrate-choked deli meats, desserts, white bread. He’d given me a Weight Watchers diet with the caveat I add calories, working as I did at a warehouse job. But I’m here to tell you, half a banana and an unbuttered slice of scratchy wheat bread never became my habit.

But hallelujah, come the day, not only had my blood sugar dropped from 6.0 to 5.7 — a tenth of a degree lower and I’m not even prediabetic anymore — but my blood pressure read 117 over 76. Last time it was that low was 40 years ago, I ran 25 miles a week, weighed 138 pounds, and was 110 over 70.

Grinning ear to ear, the doc said I could come see him the next time in six months, not three. He congratulated me on my pill hunch.

“I guess the blood thinner, by lowering your blood pressure, caused the dizziness. Just take your blood pressure every day. Let’s keep our eye on it.”

Hmm, wonder where I put that blood pressure meter …

Today, a day off, I walked the dog at dawn, a little better than a mile and a half through country lanes full of cool, waking autumn smells. It was gratifying seeing her snuffle and zigzag along the roadside, intoxicated with smells beyond my human ken, as the world awoke.

When we got back, I threw bacon on the pan. Her tail wagged, standing nearby, anticipating her favorite breakfast, kibble with bacon.

I’m healthy.

I’m happy.

The big challenge is whether being happy provides fodder for this silly blog.

And you know what? I don’t care.

Gates of Hell

Negotiating the !&*%$#@ gate into the bedroom. Aaaaarrrrrgggggh!

What most agonizes us are not Big Failures but niggling inconveniences that pile up.

I can live without understanding how America elected Donald Trump. But give me a box of cereal whose cellophane bag won’t open at the ministrations of two strong sets of fingers, or a soggy display carton at my job that won’t tear loose along the perforations, and I’m ready to scream.

Dog gates are my main hell.

Barb decrees we must keep the dog nearby, but segregated. Hence, gates at every portal, blocking access and egress – human as well as canine.

This is not a dog that languishes all day in a crate in a remote room, some benign imprisonment from which we might release her at times to walk or eat. She must have more freedom. The crate is there, but never locked; she may go in there if she likes for that nice den feel.

I have learned giving a dog too much freedom is mistake number one in dog training. So what to do?

Barb set up collapsible gates all about the house to keep the dog from wandering into rooms we want her out of. Doors must stay open, per Barb.

Thus, Barb and I sleep with our bedroom door open. Should Rosa need to pee or shit in the middle of the night, she pokes her long muzzle over the gate and whimpers. If it’s my turn, I get into flip-flops or slippers to step over or pull aside the gate, then leash her and lead her blearily outside, into “her going area,” a sloping lot mined with root hooks, tufts, and toe-jamming rocks. Sometimes it’s a sham; the dog heard or sensed some animal out there and that’s why she woke me up. She damn near tears my arm off straining and barking at three in the morning to get free and tangle with coyotes, javelinas, or mule deer. But mostly she does have to go, and then I shuffle back into the house with her, unleash her, and – after getting past that gate — try to go back to sleep. If I can.

When Barb turned the house into an obstacle course, I tried to step over the gates but knocked them down with the shin or big toe of the second leg, the bent leg across the hurdle.

“Just reach down and lift it out of the way,” Barb said.

I find this annoying, though I do it at times. I’m more top heavy; she’s shorter, it’s easier for her.

Barb put a gate up at my office door, my sanctum. This door I must never close now. Barb says it has as much to do with house ventilation as giving Rosa the feeling of not being left out.

“But she eats snot rags!”

“That’s why the gate.”

Don’t ask; you can’t win.

Yes, the dog will fish used facial tissues from this allergy sufferer’s wastebasket and eat them. Sometimes you wonder how you can love your dog. I’ve seen Rosa take a gourmet’s interest in drying mounds of equine foeces along hiking trails that double as bridle paths.

Allow me to proffer an instructive scenario that dramatizes my objection to this gate thing.

“Bob, will you get my purse! It’s in the bedroom.”

Barb’s in the guest room, currently doubling as her office. I’m next door, in my man-cave of an office, web surfing or writing.

Her purse is thirty feet from where I sit. It becomes twice that because of gates.

I get up, step over the gate at my office door (it’s a not very tall one) and walk down the little hall, yearning to slant right for the beeline to the bedroom, but the crate blocks that. So I continue straight up into the living room and bend around in a loose right hairpin through the dining room and into the kitchen. Here, I may have to lift aside a big gate we use to block her off when there’s food to filch. I slant up left into “her area,” shift left again, and, at the threshold of the bedroom, either lift a foot up to clear that gate or reach down and lift aside the gate, replacing it behind me as I enter the bedroom to get the purse, lest the dog, if she’s following me around, run in. There’s a wastebasket in the master bathroom too.

I must deal with all these gates in reverse on the way back to the guest bedroom, where Barb waits. And, to get to her, I have to get past the gate that now spans that entrance, unless, out of kindness, and not wanting to hear me bitch, she gets off the little chair behind the kneehole desk and her Mac, and takes the purse from me over the gate.

“How come we don’t just close doors?” I plead.

“That’s mean. I don’t like the tone that sets. She should feel the house is her house.”

“It damn sure is! I’m living in a fucking torture chamber! It’s so frustrating getting around! At least a door, you got a knob, you –”

“You need to work on your anger.”

Sometimes when Barb’s not in the house and I’m full of anxiety, tension, and impatience, and I need to go get something across the house, I’ll stub my toe on a gate and find myself flinging it aside with violence. I’ll even let loose a karate yell, fists clenched, emptying all the air out of my lungs and abdomen.

I guess I need to work on my anger.

What a Real Singer Does

Top: Sasha Allen, who sang with the Stones on the No Filter Tour and did justice to “Gimme Shelter.” Above: another real singer.

One of the things that drives me nuts at Walmart is “Walmart Radio,” a broadcast that’s always playing, Monday through Friday, with “live” (canned) DJs and call-ins from company employees across retail land, requesting songs. I mean, gag me with a spoon. Right. We’re one big family, enfolded in community by His Benevolence Himself, Holy Ghost Sam, may he rest in peace chewing straw in his big barn in the sky. And some of the music makes me puke. Bad commercial country, the same bullshit patriotic statement sung the same dumb-ass way by some no-talent schlub about his gal and gun rack and six-pack at quittin’ tahm and who cares. Or insipid religious music (I think the Jews have done the best Christian music: Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”). Or chick singers so into showing off their lungs and octave span you get a headache.

The music plays all hours. Graveyard shifts. All the time.

The best Walmart Radio music is at five thirty a.m., when the station format nervously slides into aesthetic coherency. You’ll hear a Canned Heat or an Eric Clapton or a Linda Ronstadt and it’ll put you back together as you’re using a carton knife to liberate twelve boxes of Lucky Charms, and all is forgiven.

But it’s got me thinking about singing and how one attains chops as a real singer. Someone with an iconic voice, a voice that has urgency, that must be heard.

Janis Joplin, raspy and raw, was a bona fide singer. Cyndi Lauper, with that almost-joke of a voice — that was a real singer. Chrissie Hynde said she wished she could sing like Karen Carpenter, but Chrissie, with that shaky, earthy, ethereal voice, is a singer.

I’m not living in the past. I heard a song on Walmart Radio, and I’d heard it elsewhere, called “Begging for Mercy” by a Welsh woman, Duffy, a true singer, a rocker who sings from the hips, a performer who’s sexual without trying to be cute. Quirky Amy Winehouse, channeling Billie Holliday, was a magnificent talent and is a painful loss. Joni Mitchell, whose voice alternated between sexy barroom nymph and witchy vibrato, grabs you, to some extent because her words are poetry. Joan Baez is one example of a meaningful, urgent singer who possessed, technically, remarkable pipes. But technical proficiency alone, hopping the scales, delivering pop clichés, fails to inspire. Joan inspired. Listen again to “Joe Hill” the old union song or the a cappella marvel “Amazing Grace” off the Woodstock album. I’ve got her greatest hits CD, and I’m here to tell you, there is no female singing performance more full of love and ache and exquisite irony than “Diamonds and Rust,” which I still think is about Bob Dylan.

Ah. Good segue.

Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger are not known as great vocalists in any kind of technical sense. I mean, they’re not Caruso, or Tom Jones for that matter. But it’s worth studying what they did to become the legends they are. They went into a room and when they came out they were Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger.

Bob Dylan was an adenoidal nerd with a fixation on American folk music. He was looked on as weird when he dropped out of school and went to New York like some damn fool. He was laughed at. But he went into a room and listened to Woody Guthrie and old blues and other inspirations … and came out Bob Dylan. Cosmic, ruminative now, he faintly recalls the explosive punk Jeremiah of yesteryear, with his uncanny superannuated wisdom. This is a reedy, at times hoarse, even damn near garbled excuse for a voice – and John Prine is right when he says “Dylan is a great singer.” He delivers poetic statements, for which he rightly received a Nobel Prize.

I posted about the Stones concert, which threw me out of my intellectual mind-traps and into an ecstatic experience. And I’ve been following up by playing over again my Stones CDs. You can hear Wilson Picket and James Brown in every one of those yawps and wildcat yowls of Mick’s. He stole from everybody; he truly was the Monkey Man, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. He once said (he’d heard this from, I think, Fats Domino) one should never sing the words too clearly, and, if you listen to the “lyrics” to so many of his songs – even “Gimme Shelter,” which I partly reproduced in my post, copying from online — you wonder if they’re right. Listen to the crazy vocalizing on “Slave” off of Tattoo You, or when Mick comes to Keith’s rescue at the end of “Happy” off of Exile. The words are subservient to the sound, the feel. They may be downright unintelligible. Jagger is channeling black soul and R&B singers, scatting really; he’s in a zone of his own. This is true singing. Many have commented he can’t sing for shit – he probably would agree. But he is a singer, par excellence.

Dwight Yoakam, with his unabashedly high, lonesome sound, is a true singer, and a host of more commercially successful products of the Nashville establishment are not.

I like to think I’m being myself when I’m writing this blog. If I’m imitating someone – as, I think, all writers do – I cannot but deliver an authentic statement if I’m being honest. And being honest is more important than craft in the final reckoning.

Maybe I thought this blog up because I went to an AA meeting last night where we talked about humility. I think it safe to say that Dylan and Jagger have egos the size of Texas, but I also know in my heart that each studied at the altar of genius before his own meteoric fame. I believe they must feel they are keeping alive something sacred to them, something they were humble enough to learn from artists who were their betters, at the crucial threshold of their own trajectory across the firmament of world culture.

What Ram Dass Means to Me

Ram Dass’s stroke slowed his speech, but he’s still articulating a message we need to hear, and I still love him.

 

I read a smart-alecky profile on Richard Alpert in the New York Times September 1.

You remember him. The Harvard psychology professor run out of his job by administrators appalled at his advocacy of mind-expanding drugs. The scion of a railroad tycoon who, after his ejection from academia, went to India and found a guru, and a scholarship beyond anything he — or Harvard — could have imagined. Richard Alpert found a career as an awakened man, a tsaddik, a guiding light. Alpert became Ram Dass.

The Times piece was headed, “Ram Dass Is Ready to Die.”

Anti-euphemism as I lean, I nonetheless discerned a slight, a dig, in the starkness of this, maybe even a form of sarcasm.

The reporter called Ram Dass’s classic spiritual text Be Here Now a “mash-up” of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Clever. But it’s also a “bracing synthesis.”

Angling for hot ink, the reporter asked what he’d say to Donald Trump. Rather than invective, he got unbroken compassion. Trump groans under the weight of “heavy karma.” Ram Dass would not play the hate game.

It’s not what he does. I learned this first hand.

I remember so vividly how he paced the stage of The Civic on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights when I saw him the first time. It had to be thirty years ago. The venue had once housed Temple on the Heights. “I was bar mitzvahed in a place like this,” he mused, striding around on the wood boards, barefoot, in his dashiki.

There was something deeply Jewish about him that was, for me, the way in. He was a tummler, a sage in the best storytelling tradition, using Jewish inflection and humor, though his spiritual influences drew from exotic wells.

He wasn’t the first Jew to find spiritual nurturing outside the tribe. Theodor Gaster, a famous scholar whose World of Myth course I sat stoned through at Columbia, had taken his anxiety about whether God existed all the way to Japan, where a monk, intuiting his angst, waddled up to him and straightened him out. “Don’t you see? There is no you.”

Ram Dass’s oral dissertations, well before Ted Talks, were more standup routine than somber lecture. You could order tapes, for a small fee, from Seva Foundation, who were involved in helping Third World people going blind from not having a simple operation get that operation. Things like that.

The central revelation Ram Dass came to had to do with the fallacy of ego, how it led to separateness.

“We really think we’re somebody,” he said on one of my cherished tapes.We walk around continually manifesting our somebodyness without knowing it.” Ever stand on a street corner and watch people walk around, see into the rapturous self-delusion implicit in their faces and gestures? “And we enter into these conspiracies. You make believe I’m what I think I am, and I’ll make believe you’re what you think you are.” Pause. “We call them relationships.”

I don’t remember if it was that time or the next time I saw him, which might have been ten years after, that I stuck my foot in my mouth in front of a lot of people.

Ram Dass forged into a rap about social concern, helping the hungry, but I was focused on me and my shitty life, and even thought in my egotism there might be some reward in brandishing a cheerless, minority opinion.

And so, when it came time for questions and comments from the crowd, I got up and asked what to do with one’s annoyance at bums hitting you up for change on the street.

“I mean, here I am out here working for a living, busting ass. Why should he get a free ride?” Something like that.

The crowd lowed. I thought I heard a few hisses.

Ram Dass tried to quiet the boos with a calming voice and lowering palm.

“I get what you’re saying,” he said. “This person seems to you not to be ‘playing the game’.” Tenderness infused the voice even as it became pedagogical. “You realize a lot of these panhandlers are street people, discharged from mental institutions?” I nodded, already regretting this.

“Here’s my advice,” he said. “Next time you have such an encounter and you wonder whether to give, use your intuitive faculty and not your intellect.” He saw into me, how my fear-driven mind had forced me into this embarrassment to begin with.

As I sat down, he stayed with me all the way.

“Did you hear what I said?”

“Yes. Thank you,” I croaked, contemplating whether I was a masochist or just flat-out insane.

I was, months later, home scanning Seva Foundation’s catalog of Ram Dass talking tapes, and saw “Panhandling Ethics” as a thread on one of the ones I could order. I didn’t get it. Didn’t figure I could handle it.

The second time I heard him was in downtown Cleveland, at the old Arena. At the end I stood in line with a lot of audience members to hug him.

It was my turn; I took a step up onto the stage, and approached.

He took one look at me and broke out laughing.

“Don’t worry!”

That was like telling a skunk not to stink. I was always worried.

He hugged me and I felt better. Immediately.

I had imbibed all he’d ever had to say. All the stuff about the astral plane and how the Bible was for real. All the mysticism, the stuff about how there are many incarnations. But at this moment I was hugging my zeide. I was folded in the arms of unblinking love. I felt his soul and through it knew my own.

Anyone who’s dedicated his life to offering himself as an exemplar of psychic and spiritual renewal merits more than disingenuous coverage in the nation’s best newspaper.

Hey David Marchese, I learned my lesson.

Not too late to learn yours.