Friday, April 27, 2018

Recalled to life: or, where did my last six months go?

On August 26 of last year, I was just sitting down to appetizers with my wife at a local restaurant when I passed out. Six months and two hospital stays later I am not only recovered but have what in essence is a second opportunity to live fully. Was it a stroke? A nervous breakdown? Adrenal insufficiency? A road-to-Damascus moment? What happened?

I had just returned from a long trip, driving home alone for 1,200 miles after dropping our son off at college for his sophomore year. I was sleeping rough in the car, eating catch as catch can . . . overdoing it. I was tired, more profoundly sleep-deprived than I could imagine.

Still, it was quite a surprise to pass out for the very first time in my life, especially in a public place. Though I was only out for 30 seconds or so, my thoughtful wife summoned an ambulance immediately. I found myself being loaded onto a gurney, cannulated, and shipped off to the nearest hospital. (Here's how awesome the restaurant was -- they boxed up our dinner to go!)

I was floundering. I shook with tremors, and numbness and tingling plagued my hands and feet. I was dizzy, but not in the classic sense of the room turning about me. Instead, I felt as though I were tumbling forward, end over end, uncontrollably. I was flushed and sweating, alternating with bouts of chills. My heart raced and my breath caught in my throat. My ears rang, and my throat was swollen and painful. I couldn’t bear light or noise. I was curled in on myself like a fetus.

I was drifting in and out of consciousness, and unconsciousness would have been my first choice. Above all, I was in an absolute and helpless panic. It felt like the floor had opened beneath me and I was plunging hopelessly into a never-ending nothing. You know how you miss a step in the darkness and suddenly stumble, grasping helplessly for something to steady you? This was my state, lying stock-still and wired up to all the diagnostic machines.

After two days and no diagnosis, they sent me home. I hung on for a month, hoping the problem would cure itself. Finally, in early October, I was seized with another spell so severe that I packed myself off to a second institution. Once again, they examined me — nothing. Fortunately, my wife had made an appointment at the adjacent cardiologist’s office. He took one listen to my thuddering chest and ordered a coronary angiogram (this is when they slip a tube up your vein and take a gander at your ticker with the help of x-rays and dye).

That test proved negative — as did many others. In fact, they tested every part of me over six days, through MRIs, CT scans, bloodwork, you name it. The doctors examined everything but my taint (look it up). No abnormalities were found. They were very apologetic. (One thing I did note is that many medical specialists simply cannot think, can’t extrapolate outside the bowling-lane boundaries of their unique disciplines. This clinical modesty results in the reduction of errors — and liability — but it doesn’t go far in solving a complex problem.)

An inevitable round of visits to specialists turned up nothing. Meanwhile, I was still living a very provisional existence. I was trapped at home, still victimized by the same symptoms, unable to sit up for very long periods, much less travel, and exercise, do the chores and run the errands. I couldn’t go to shul or to school functions. Initially, I was largely unable to talk for a couple of weeks, and the ability to write a coherent sentence took about a month. I was sleeping 12 to 14 hours a day, with naps of 2 to 4 hours in between. I was vanishing.

Finally, somewhere between the endocrinologist and the neurotologist, I got help. The diagnostic prize goes to ENT-otolaryngologist Carol Foster at the University of Colorado Hospital. “It’s SLEEP APNEA,” she pronounced with confident finality.


It still astonishes me that such a prosaic problem should be life-threatening. However, with me the problem was far worse than imagined. I went to a sleep clinic and had a study done — the kind where they wire you up and monitor you all night. (Again, my prescient wife noticed a problem years before, and I had been tested no fewer than three times by three different clinics, with inconclusive results.) It turns out I was experiencing an AHI (Apnea-hypopnea index) of 52 — meaning I was coming out of a sleep state nearly once a minute, all night long.

Not only had this produced the symptoms outlined above, but I learned that perhaps for as long as a decade, I had been sleep-deprived like this. My neural and cardiac functions, my cognitive skills, my focus, my immune system, even my glandular output and the amount of gray matter in my head, had atrophied to the point that my life was in danger.

By this point, I was sweating through three T-shirts a night, and beginning to feel uncontrollable hallucinations creeping in at the corners of my consciousness. I hunkered down and hung on. Thanks to the efficacy of my health insurance, I waited FOUR MONTHS for the CPAP machine that saved my life.

Finally, I started healing. I craved and drank cup after cup of green tea. It felt as though within me, stark against a field of deep red, was a small system of black branches, growing outward, with painful slowness. It was my nerves regenerating, my senses widening.

Now, I know that for many sleep apnea is the flavor of the month and that hordes are clamoring for the little bedside “breathing machines” that regulate one’s airflow during sleep. However, mine is a link back to health and sanity. After five months flat on my back, vegetating, I finally felt alive again. Gradually, I could do more — drive to the store, the library, my daughter’s school. Hit the gym. Take out the trash.

I started to read again. Trapped at home, I finally finished Don Quixote, Nicholas Nickleby, Tristram Shandy, The Odyssey. I read over a book I had finished writing — and discovered that it wasn’t finished. My mental deterioration was obvious over the latter half of the manuscript’s pages. I set to making the book over again.

And to making my life over again. I could now tell that the incremental damages to my body had severely circumscribed my ability to deal with people, stress, and various professional and personal challenges. I was noted for not being able to go out at night, to attend social functions, to even pass the time of day with someone without falling into an irrevocable panic. Now I find myself capable of all these things, social again, able and eager to travel, not consumed with anxiety. I am becoming a new and different person, hopefully a better and more authentic version of myself.

This carries anxieties as well. My wife is getting used to someone who is now much more capable, centered, and present than the old curmudgeonly me. Is this a good thing? To me it seems equivalent to getting used to a spouse who’s been overseas, or in a coma, or both, for years. My alert exuberance can be quite irritating. And what about the return of a vanished libido? We are working on it.

Of course, all this illness led me, as the least thing usually does, to bouts of pretentious and self-pitying thinking. Not knowing if you are going to have a life is sobering enough. Now I thought: well, here I am now. What am I doing here? What am I good for?

The short answer is, just what I was before. These mental belches come and go. However, I did stubbornly pull a few precepts out of the experience. 
  1. The body has primacy. I’ve never had a comfortable existence inside of mine, being the kind of person who lives for and within the confines of his head by and large. However, I am manifested in my body, must greet the world with it, and now I must nurse it along. It told me in no uncertain terms that I can do, say, think nothing without its consent. I am finally listening to my body. The payoff is, in taking it seriously, I now find myself at the gym every day, eating better, and losing weight. It’s a miracle to regain years of dimmed vitality, especially when I am still capable of using them.
  2. I don’t have time, or rather it’s all I have. My children are almost all grown, I’ve had two or three careers, a couple of marriages. Due to age, my demographic value is now nil. Biologically speaking, I’ve done my part and am no longer needed. Whatever else is true, I have no time to waste. I get to live my life, love my loved ones, and have a few more laughs. So if you were about to ask me to get involved with something stupid, I can’t. I have to hurry.
  3. I need to be here now. My recovery means that I have not only better health and function, but that I have a broader bandwidth — emotionally, and dare I say spiritually (ssh don’t tell). My senses grow sharper and more comprehensive, my boundaries widen, and it can all be a little overwhelming as I am used to being shut up in the closet of my limitations, walled off even from perceptions, new sensory input. But I hang in there. We owe the world the gift of our attention.
  4. As usual, I am not in charge. My AA experiences continue to teach me humility. I keep Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning next to my religious texts and consult it often. “Everything can be taken from a man,” he writes, “but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” At my worst, the absolute nadir of despair, the deity was still there and the architecture of the cosmos hung together. I almost lost it all, and came through with a second chance at a better, fuller life. None of it is my doing. I am grateful.

For me there is just today, and the older I get the more I am at peace with that approach. One of my favorite prayers states that “We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.” That is precisely what I intend to do.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

NRR 42: William Jennings Bryan's 'Cross of Gold' speech

‘Cross of Gold’ speech
Speaker: William Jennings Bryan
Recorded: 1921

William Jennings Bryan was known as “The Great Commoner,” but it is more apt to think of him as America’s first great demagogue. He was the ultimate orator, with a booming voice, expressive body, and a mellifluous approach to speechwriting that swept listeners into a rapt state, and sometimes rapture itself. He could command a crowd, but not the electorate — he ran for president three times, and lost each time.

Fate deigned to make him an early success. At the politically young age of 36, he reached his zenith in the American consciousness on July 9, 1896 at the Democratic convention in Chicago — his celebrated “Cross of Gold” speech.

Robert Cherny’s essay on the speech is invaluable for making clear the then-burning issue of the “gold standard” versus the “free silver” factions in U.S. politics. In essence, big business and the moneyed interests, what Teddy Roosevelt was soon to term “the trusts,” preferred the low prices caused by accepting only gold as legal tender. Meanwhile, the farmers of the country, still a substantial majority, wanted the coinage of silver in order to ease the debts they could not pay due to lower prices for their goods.

“The Boy Orator of the Platte” was a champion of the people (something disputed by historians such as Irving Stone, who considered him a fatuous blowhard). Devoutly religious, he had a Messianic sense about him that was quite compelling. The Democratic Convention was made for his purposes.

The speech itself was a mishmash of invective, sentiment, and rhetoric, much of it audience-tested in prior speeches for maximum effect. “The humblest citizen in the land when clad in the armor of a righteous cause is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty — the cause of humanity.” He excoriated the “Atlantic coast” (aka big business) and apotheosized the common man —

“Ah. my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic Coast; but those hardy pioneers who braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose—those pioneers away out there, rearing their children near to nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds—out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead—are as deserving of the consideration of this party as any people in this country.

“It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came.

“We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!”

He aligned himself with populism, that great uprising at the end of the 19th century that pitted the farmers and the labor movement against bank, railroads, monopolies, and the bigwigs of high finance. This progressive and socially responsible outline of action would be co-opted by the major parties and become a significant thread in American political thinking.

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

“You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

Finally, Bryan wound up with a killer finish. Gesturing dramatically, he concluded with, “. . . you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

The convention went wild, applauding and parading Bryan on their shoulders for 25 minutes. “The Silver Knight of the West” won his party’s nomination, but lost to McKinley.

Bryan was a large political figure, but never an effective leader. He was a great candidate (he invented the election strategy of canvassing the country, speechmaking incessantly as he went to rally his supporters) but he was destined to be an ever-more-marginal player. Finally, he wound up as a kind of “fundamentalist pope” (according to H.L. Mencken) who fought the teaching of science in schools, most notably in connection with the Scopes trial of 1925.

Still, he articulated the feelings of a large mass of the American public. More than that, he worked a kind of rhetorical magic. In the days before media’s rise (in fact, this recording is a 1921 recreation by Bryan of his epic speech), the compelling individual had to prove their mettle live, in public, in front of hundreds or thousands. This kind of magnetism can only be hinted at in Bryan’s recorded commemoration.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Fanny Brice sings ‘My Man/Second Hand Rose.’

Monday, December 11, 2017

Dear Fred: Reading ‘Good Things Happen Slowly’

Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz
Fred Hersch
Crown Archetype

Dear Fred:

I was going to write this to you directly, but I thought if I published it, that it might lead more people to read your new autobiography. It certainly is good!

I have loved your music, both as a player and as a composer, for a long time. (Readers, in case you didn’t know it, Fred is an award-winning, killer jazz pianist and composer. You should listen to him. He has released solo work, and played with ensembles of varying size; he has also composed a lot of fully notated music that is -- well, you could say that’s art music or whatever, the main thing is, it’s GOOD.)

You are a little older than me, and we have some things in common. For instance, we both got to New York around the same time – although you stayed and I didn’t. It was great to read that your impressions of that nasty, smelly, rough, dangerous NYC of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s align with mine – and that we both loved it. Like you, I sat on the curbs outside the clubs I couldn’t afford to get into and listened, blown away, to the music inside.

Unlike you, I am not gay, but I lost my best friend to the first wave of AIDS, along with many other good and talented friends. Reading about your life with the diagnosis for going on 30 years now helps me immensely in understanding what he went through. It was very painful to bring all those memories back up again, but in a way good too.

Like you, and like many folks that I think will like this book, I have always felt ill at ease and different, yearning for acclaim and acceptance. Me? I performed comedy for years – now I write. Your writing here is great, too – clear and concise and straightforward, but evocative. I didn’t realize until I got to a certain point in the book that David Hajdu helped you out with it. He is one of my favorite non-fiction writers, someone I read and re-read to remind myself how to communicate on the page effectively. (Don’t worry – you do not sound like him, you sound like you. The best writing mentors help their pupils sound like themselves.)

Jazz really sustains me as a writer, the idea that you just have to swing with what you’ve got. And then you write: “In jazz, it’s individuality, not adherence to a standard conception of excellence, that matters most. . . . Difference matters – in fact, it’s an asset rather than a liability. There is no describing how exhilarating this epiphany was for me, as a person who always felt different from other people. In jazz, difference is the key element that makes artistry possible.” Amen.

It’s great to read about all these aspects of your life – how you approach creative projects, your struggles with addictions (I’m right there with you, again), and just the contours of the changes wrought by time and circumstance as they cut and shape your life and work. Thanks for being brave about putting all that down on paper – it certainly inspires me to be as rigorous. Didn’t someone once say that all the good stuff is hidden inside the pain?

I was sorry to read of your recent and intense health struggles. I am just coming out of a period of being physically and mentally ailing to the point that I was in bed for three months – nothing compared to what you went through, but nothing like anything I’ve experienced before. Reading those passages was an inspiration as well, although I’d just as soon we could all skip that shit and just have the inspiration straight. Still, reading about your perseverance came at just the right time for me. Thanks for the help.

And hey, I still have a ways to go before I get through your discography, but the one I’m most grateful for isn’t even on there. In 1999, you made, in collaboration with Beth Kephart and Art Lande (Art lives near me here in Boulder) Nourishing the Caregiver, which I found providentially at the time my mother was dying from cancer., and many nights when I couldn’t sleep after a day of taking her to her chemo I’d put it on and feel better. It’s the best medicine I possess.

Anyway, that’s basically it. As a creative person, and simply as a person, your book gets me where I live and makes me feel connected, not wrong, like I’m not so different after all. I think that if the world doesn’t grant you the feeling of fitting in, and if the impetus is strong enough, you can build an entire culture out of yourself, and it ends up being a gift that others can inhabit as well. I think that is exactly what you have done and are doing. 

I hope you are feeling OK, being productive, and having fun with Scott. Thanks for everything!

Sincerely yours,

Brad Weismann