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Sunday, April 27, 2014

The C of Heartbreak

Yes, it's also a song, sung by lots of people.

1. Cancer vs Friend

I’ve been lucky. Cancer has barely crossed my path in 40 years alive.  There’s never been much cancer in my family (none, actually, that I can think of), and growing up, most cancer news breezed by. The only story I can even think of is of this screwball woman who used to help my mom with farm work and claimed several times to have cancer. As far as we could tell, she just said that when she didn’t want to work. Then she would go back to stripping for a while, and then she would do some farm work again. She never lost any hair, never lost weight, never seemed sick. Either she had the easiest of all cancers to cope with, or she was full of shit. I’m sure at some point, my family of mostly smartasses reduced her hoaxy cancer to a joke. “She didn’t show up today? Probably got cancer again.”

Maybe that was example #1 in the realm of “Cancer brings out the worst in people.” Another example would be Steve, a college roommate, always invoking the concept of “dick cancer.” Sometimes he was gonna get it; other times he was condemning someone else to getting it. Does dick cancer even exist? Lance Armstrong had testicular cancer, and I suppose skin cancer could pop up on a penis, but I’ve never heard of “dick cancer” per se actually being a thing. Possibly just another of Steve’s obsessions. To steal another guy’s phrase, “Your dick’s too short to fuck with cancer.”

Other manifestations of cancer over the years still tended toward affecting folks at some distance from me, often people who smoked or featured this or that unhealthy characteristic. Although I’ve always known that no one is exempt, I think I became guilty of the presumably universal hubris of thinking cancer was not in my cards. We’re all gamblers in this sense—problems are abstract until they are yours, or at least a friend’s. That makes sense, since a person only has time for a short list of shit in life. I mean, wouldn’t it be weird if Michael J. Fox had dedicated himself to finding a Parkinson’s cure long before getting the disease?

Well, the run of good luck ran down, as it must with age. Several years ago, cancer killed my mom’s long-time friend, Sheila. Then it almost got my friend’s wife, Stacy, who lets me read demented stories to her 4th graders. A few years later, my grade-school buddy’s dad went down. Still pretty lucky, none in my immediate family… oops, then my mother-in-law got a bit of melanoma. Getting closer to home, but still for some reason, not threatening to me directly. There’s always a reason why it ain’t me: he’s much older than I am, she’s got family history, etc.

The point being, maybe I have a hearty dose of mortality denial, or at least a touch of dickheaded noncompliance about getting onboard the Good Ship “We’re All in this Together.” Maybe it’s a healthy hubris: if we each ran around in true empathy for the deaths of our fellow folks, we’d die a thousand sympathetic deaths and likely never accomplish anything, favoring worry, holding back the doom. But still, jerk-ass soul contents.

So, if I were a more superstitious person, more inclined to see cosmic targets on my back, I might think the cancer dice have been loading themselves the past 40 years for a big hit in my vicinity, because the friend now afflicted is certainly an unlikely choice. Aaron has always been a bit of a superman, or at least solidly outside the main columns in that ledger where we tick off the carcinogenic odds: strong guy, smart guy, clean livin’, upstanding citizen, not a prick, not a cosmic target in either the obvious way (no Evel Kneivel stuff) or the ironic way (no pumping of wheat-grass colonic smoothies from yoga positions). Mr. Solid. Mr. 435 lbs Bench Press. Mr. Reads the Books I Should Be Reading. But also not pompous. Good for jokes, pranks, foolishness. Mr. Biology Degree who hoarsely reports on the state of his organs with informed medical clarity just moments before laughing when my two-year-old quietly delivers the line, “Chickenbutt… boogernose.”

As I told him right after the bad news was delivered, “I think we all run our mortality through little scenarios, but they don’t take on much weight until you consider your kids.” At least, that’s what I think now that I’m a dad. I know it goes double for Aaron, who not only has two girls, but is the only guy I know who has always (well, since having kids) been vocally pro-fatherhood. That’s not to say he’s the only good dad around; he’s just been the opposite of the predictably dissatisfied American stereotype dad). So this paragraph’s thesis is, Should Aaron be taken by cancer, he will be sorely missed—not only by dreary old adults, but by kids who aren’t even halfway done knowing how Mr. King Dad he is.

Part 2: The Great Debates, or, When the Cure is More Disease

Tragedy strikes, and people always have to ask Why? Why us? Who did this? How can we fix it? It’s right to question, but only useful if you ask the right questions.

The “Shit Happens” theory covers much of it. Most of these questions hit the fan a couple years ago when my daughter came on the scene with her guts unpacked. The WHYs lead mostly into the cosmic maze where televangelists point fingers at hurricanes, earthquakes, and gay people. Does application of a vengeful God to irrational existential fear actually fix anything? Anyone who answers ‘Yes’ has my groans of weary exasperation, and adds to my theory that maybe people should not learn religious thinking as children for risk of having a Sunday-school worldview “that gets stuck that way.” I mean, if gods have been throwing lightning bolts, floods, and tumors for millennia, why hasn’t their aim improved any? I tend to look at things the opposite way: we all swim in a stew of bacteria, radiation, and chemical runoff on our best days. Maybe we’re all damn lucky everything works as well as it does.

“Who did this?” is a great question if you’re Erin Brockovich or your well was poisoned by big coal, or if you live in the Marvel Universe or a CSI episode, but most of the time, forget about finding the answer. I had to wonder if my daughter’s liver fell out because I handled the wrong pesticide or solvent, but the doctors gave us “no known risk factors” to choose from. Aaron’s esophageal cancer resulted, almost undoubtedly, from airborne crud ingested during 10+ years as a firefighter, but even so, there’s no tracing it. There’s no ballistics test for sabotage on the cellular level.

“How can we fix it?” would seem to be the key question. Easier asked than answered. Unfortunately, whole schools of Cancer Lore have sprouted up in the garden of doubt surrounding medical science’s failure to find a cure. It’s made worse by the brutality of the treatments: your best chance is in chemo, surgery, and radiation—three things guaranteed to make you feel awful for what may be your last days. It’s no wonder so many people reach outside the mainstream for some other cure, or at least hope. “Cancer Centers of America” comes to mind, with its long-running commercial starring Peggy, the woman whose regular doctor told her to “Go to the store” (Whatever the hell that meant). She even showed up in a sequel, riding a horse, which of course means she went to Heaven. But if you squint at those Peggy commercials, somewhere are the tiny words, “results not typical.” Plus, the sheer number of times I saw that on TV either means I am in prime cancer demographic, or that Cancer Centers is making a porky profit on desperate sick people.

Then there is prayer, which in my opinion is equivalent to speaking into a disconnected phone, but at least it’s free (as long as you’re not sending any “love gifts” to Pat Billy Jack), and it helps one gather one’s thoughts. Plus, there’s always that outside chance of activating some sort of subtle brain-centered healing razzmatazz.

Then comes the rising tide of alternative medicine. Good fuckin’ luck. On one hand, there’s my brother, ambassador from the world of marijuana miracles and herbal cure-alls. When I mentioned Aaron’s cancer, he automatically rattled off several cures that sounded hot from the voodoo store: “black waggo root” or something… maybe I would know it as the weed, Kingsfoil, Mr Frodo! I know I’m a jerk for making fun of stuff I know nothing about, but my line of reasoning goes like this: Even if Big Pharma were suppressing nature’s cures, there are plenty of doctors out there who have gotten cancer, or watched a loved one die of it. If there was a leaf or root that really mattered, doctors would know about it, or at least Chinese herbalists would. And if such natural cures begin to gather your confidence, along comes the counter-testimonial, via Marcus Howell: “My friend’s wife had cancer. She tried all that stuff—everything BUT chemotherapy. Her husband begged her to do chemo. Dead in six months!” —Dwayne Crigger  For me, that one anecdote is enough to make all the natural cures sound anecdotal.

The web, guaranteed, is loaded with rich arguments from every angle on the topic of Cancer. I’m not even gonna wade in. I spent an hour one night just scratching the surface of the question: “Should a long-haired dog be shaved in hot weather?” I don’t even have a dog, but I THINK I learned a lot about shaving one.

Life-threatening illness may be the ultimate wake-up call. It's just a Brutality Bonus that it tempts people to burn big hunks of their precious little time chasing wild medicinal geese. Maybe that's why Peggy's doctor just told her to go to the store.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Donate Your Digits to this Potato Amputee

As a bonus for the 4th graders I read to last month for Read Across America, I made this cheapskate's potato action figure. You may print it out and use it however you like. I stole everything cool about it from Brad Jones's Red Rogue Action Figure, anyway.

Print me out approximately 5" x 8" unless your fingers are ridiculous in size.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Bronies. Why?

We come to a moment in history which gives birth to the exact opposite of the cowboy.

Arriving a little late to the Bronies phenomenon, I have many questions.

I think it is almost obvious that the Bronies documentary, about boys and men who love "My Little Pony," had to cast the guys in a positive light. To attack them would be too easy, as everyone's primal, predatory instinct is to attack them. But, the light may have been a bit too forgiving. Aside from talking to two disapproving dads, the filmmakers let Bronies off easy, without much probing of their rather glorified version of reality. Sure, some of them were bullied or threatened at some point, but no one seems willing to deflate their delusional consensus fantasy, in which:

-- My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, is written with great insight, intellect, deep characters, and valuable life lessons, and series creator Lauren Faust must have been divinely inspired.

-- There is nothing psychosexually haywire about men, or even boys, being sincerely into My Little Pony.

-- The concepts in the cartoon are original, perhaps unique in all of television.

I've been a nerd since before it was cool (and trust me, people under 30, the world is vastly more forgiving of, even welcoming to, nerdy activities now more than ever), so I can discuss this crap to the max, but my wife arrived first at the crux of it: "Have these people ever seen TV?" They mentioned the stuff they loved, unique to this program—and they sounded as if they could have been talking about anything from Happy Days to Family Ties to Cheers. Ever since I've been alive, TV has pumped us all with little lessons about friendship and honesty and you-name-it.  

After all the Bronies' gushing, I watched a whole episode of Friendship is Magic. It was not insipid... unless you are older than 8. Its dialogue was clever... unless you are older than 8. It was not predictable and formulaic... unless you are a grown person. The only thing not retrograde in its execution was the background art, which I give sky-high marks. The scenery has the color-soaked seduction of a Junko Mizuno comic. In fact, the backgrounds might be subliminally responsible for the show's power over its hypnotized fans. Aside from looking away, the backgrounds are the only relief available from the vapid humor and the flat, stereotyped characters, such as the hayseed, country bumpkin pony that TAWKED LAHK THII-US.

Since it is a Hasbro-product-based show, it comes as no surprise that MLP follows the classic pattern established by G.I. Joe, Transformers, and others: every toy is a character, slapped with a symbolic name, each with a canned mentality befitting its station in life. A robot named Brawn will be very strong; a soldier code-named Snow Job will be good at skiing; and a pony named Twilight Sparkle will be... I already forgot. Something to do with night-sky colors and a star on her butt. But for some reason, people taller than me, most of them dudes, think it's brilliant--in a literary sense. Can flat characters be written into significant, impactful stories? Sure. See most of mythology. But that's not what's happening here.

The bonus round of irony is that there is a far funnier, infinitely cleverer and more nuanced study of the power of friendship running in another animated series that started around the same time as MLP:FIM—Adventure Time, a show that actually is brilliant, if not in a full-blown literary sense, then at least in unparalleled speed-of-invention, surreal conceptual blending and comedic approach.

The predictable jab at the Bronies is that they are gay. Near the top of the Google search results for "Bronies" will be "bronies are fags." Whatever. I have no big hang-ups about crossing gender lines with your tastes, and it's become obviously mainstream for girls to be into previously "guy stuff" like Star Wars or superheroes or football, but you should be aware of the line you are crossing, and understand why embarrassment might be in order. Sure, you can be postmodern or ironic or whatever, but the Bronies—the real Bronies—show NO SIGNS of irony or mockery. They view the Ponies as muses, almost as little godlings.

I planned on making an argument about some sexual deviancy in the Bronies, but the documentary gives no evidence for this, despite lurking suspicions: Bronies sometimes dress up like ponies, paralleling the "Furries" phenomenon, some Bronies wear tattoos of their favorite ponies' symbolic brands, located on the butts of the horses, the sexuality of which would be hard to avoid on a woman's anatomy, but no Bronies claim to have their tattoos on their butts.... There may be twisted psychosexual ingredients in the Bronies wacky mentalities, but thus far they remain sublimated, or at least concealed from the camera. 

I suppose that the main problem with Bronies is immaturity. Social, interpersonal, sexual, almost omni-directional immaturity. Most of us, as functional humans, have absorbed some element of social rule-enforcement that makes us want to grab guys like this by the collar and say, "Grow the fuck up!" Are they hurting anyone? No. But they are embarrassing everyone. The film's consulting psychologists claim that the Bronies are just looking for community, or meaningful ideas about life... that MLP: Friendship is Magic, just encourages grown men to be caring, emotional people. A reviewer elsewhere said, "these guys aren't much different than crazed fans of Star Wars or Harry Potter or Buffy or fill-in-the-blank." Well, then I guess there's not much difference between drinking a glass of cow's milk and being one of those men on Jerry Springer who drink breastmilk from a lactating stripper.

I could go on, but the gist of it is, I think Bronyism is a subcategory of arrested development, or possibly Aspergers. If that's a diagnosis that somehow excuses it, then oops. 

Bibo's First Standup Comedy?

Photo not current, but clownishly relevant
 In the giddy stumble up to bedtime, Penelope fumbled around with a freebie coloring book called "The Responsible Dog Owner's Coloring Book (AKC propaganda)." She blathered insistently over it, slapped it onto the couch, pointed at a long paragraph of text on the back cover, focused, and said, as if reading, "NUTS." She was already starting to laugh drunkenly. Then I started laughing.

"Is that what dogs need?" More laughing.

"Dogs... need... NUTS," she said, poking the text. "DOGS NEED NUTS."

This went on for a good while, until consciousness was lost.