Category Archives: Memory

Getting the Lead Out: How Led Zeppelin Helped Me Fight Breast Cancer

Zepp Denmark

I didn’t understand why I kept doing it. Nearly every night in the latter weeks of undergoing chemotherapy for an aggressive form of breast cancer, I stayed up late, sometimes into the dark hours of early morning, watching Led Zeppelin concerts from the late 1960s and early 1970s on You Tube. And okay, I admit it. It wasn’t just during the last days of chemo that I was dialing up Page, Plant and Co. It was on through the mastectomy of my right breast and the first of my reconstructive surgeries.

What was the deal? It wasn’t like I had just discovered the band. I grew up with them.

I felt a bit unmoored.

After weeks of this, I confessed my nighttime rendezvouses to my friend, Sharlene, over lunchtime salads.

“Do you think this is abnormal? Is there something wrong with me?”

Sharlene assured me she thought my mental state was intact. Thank you, friend! So, sure enough, that night I returned to Zepp’s 2007 reunion concert at London’s 02 Arena (somehow, I was comforted by the older age of the band as it was in keeping with mine). I had seen this performance how many times now? But watching Page’s fingers running up and down the frets of his guitar during “Ramble On” never grew old. The power of the sound reverberated right through me.

Still a creeping sense of guilt tugged at the back of my mind.

A few days later, I called a good buddy who also happens to be a practicing psychiatrist.

“There is something clearly wrong with me.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because I’m obsessed with a band from the 1970s. It’s like I’m a teenager or something.”

“Well,” Joanie asked, “Do you enjoy the music?”

GOD, YES!

“Good. Then don’t worry about it.”

I had a shrink’s blessing. I resumed my fandom.

Today, sitting in a hospital chair, fluids and magnesium dripping into my veins, it has dawned on me that I’ve been in a type of mourning. Not so much for the loss of my breast, though that hasn’t been easy, but for the young woman (still a girl, really) I was as the 70s era faded. It wasn’t really the beauty of a young Robert Plant that I longed for when I watched those early concerts; it’s the beauty that I was.

I miss her.

I’ve missed her shiny, sleek hair, how lithe she was on those first few steps of her near daily run, her wide, wondering eyes in the mirror, her slim frame, often eager mind, and her ability to experience life fresh of too many disappointments. And oh, that magical thinking, when young was something you would always be and one year stretched on forever.

One year races by now. And everything is measured in time, appointments and deadlines. “Today, tomorrow, yesterday.” I don’t think about time when I watch those old Led Zeppelin concerts. It doesn’t exist.

After a year off from running, I received the “all clear” to resume the sport again. So this evening, I’ll lace up my shoes and take this aging, cancer-recovering body out for the first of what I hope will be many more runs. And I’ll reconnect with that young woman whom I’ve realized remains inside, but just in case it’s hard to find her, I’ll turn on my iPod Shuffle and press play to “Ramble On.”

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Lift off

Flight Chagall

“The night-time shadows disappear 
and with them go all your tears…”

~Marsden – Marsden – Chadwick – Maguire

Another drop

Rainy Day

 

Headache

Sky gray

A swathe of wool

covers this day.

Yet each hour

is for keeping

and for listening

to the rain.

Time will seek

its certain passage

when memory

unravels,

relaxes,

and like the wool,

slips away.

  P.B.

Goodbye, again

Life is full of goodbyes, so many of them. Too many.

When I was a young idealist, I thought anything was doable, was possible. You could help anyone who wanted to be helped.

Now that I’m older, I realize how impossible that all is. It would be wonderful indeed if, to paraphrase Lennon and McCartney, all you needed was love, but sometimes love just isn’t enough.

I lost a friend today. She wasn’t a close friend and hadn’t been for a while. Maybe ever. The truth is I had grown uncomfortable around her over the years.*

*For the purposes of this blog and to protect her family, I’ll call my late friend, Meghan.

Meghan suffered cruel storms inside her head. Through the years the suffering grew worse and was so painful to watch that friends and acquaintances began to keep her at a distance. I admit I was one of those people. I didn’t know how to help Meghan; her troubles were like a whirlwind that threatened to swallow up anyone who came too close. The last time I talked to her she was in a psychiatric unit, desperate to get out. She’d attempted suicide and survived but the terrible injuries she endured as a result only deepened her depression. A hopelessness settled in and stayed.

There had been better times. Times when Meghan danced to her beloved jazz music and spoke with delight about her passion for the humanities. She had a keen eye and always had something original to say about a painting, a sculpture or a film. But as the better days faded away, it seemed as if her big, kind heart was just too heavy for her to carry. The pain seized control and Meghan’s speech grew staccato, like rapid bullet fire, her thoughts racing so quickly ahead she could barely keep up. Meghan’s life had become a burden to her, not a gift.

And so, she’s gone. It’s too easy, too convenient to say she’s at peace now. But I do. I hope Meghan’s found the quiet her mind never gave her in this living world. But I’m just so sad she had to go through all she did to get it.

 

Stick a fork in it!

I love entertaining, giving parties, cooking for friends. Making a meal for someone is a creative, personal gesture. Using your hands to pat, mold, shake, stir and bake food for your guests to ingest is, well, a downright intimate act. And one to take seriously. Of course, not everyone does as I was reminded when I read an article in the New York Times about the challenges of cooking for those with dietary restrictions.

I understand that it can be a pain to modify a menu for dinner guests. But that’s what you do for guests, right? I’ll never forget the time I went to a girlfriend’s house for dinner. I had told her beforehand that I didn’t eat red meat. Halfway through a meal of elaborately concocted turkey and vegetable wraps, I discovered that she had snuck thin slices of pork into the mix. Later she bragged about fooling her vegetarian-leaning friends this way because she thought their dietary preferences were “ridiculous.”

Rude, right? But not just rude. It’s reckless to serve a dinner guest a food s/he chooses not (based on moral or religious beliefs) or cannot (due to allergies and health reasons) eat. I remember one Christmas when I presented a neighbor with a plate of cookies. I was feeling pretty good about my gift until my neighbor spit out the bourbon ball she had almost swallowed. Not knowing her that well, I had forgotten that she was a recovering alcoholic.  I felt terrible. She was forgiving but the memory has stayed with me for years. Same goes for the time I served an acquaintance (who later became a dear friend) a dessert made with regular white flour. I had overlooked the fact that she was allergic to gluten. Not good.

I’m much better about noting—and remembering—the food preferences and/or intolerances of my friends now. I’ve learned their food restrictions are a lot more than just “picky eating.” When one of my favorite couples came to dinner recently, I made two meals—fish for her (the only animal protein she would eat) and chicken for him. I didn’t serve nuts either as both were allergic and I didn’t want to send them to the hospital.

So, I try. But to intentionally serve a guest one of their forbidden foods as my girlfriend had not only done but delighted in doing? The word, “sadistic,” comes to mind. Needless to say, I didn’t share many meals with her after that stunt.

A few years ago, I heard she adopted a couple of kids. I sure hope they don’t have any food allergies.

Neither a borrower, a lender (nor a bully) be

 

She said good days ain’t got no rain

She said bad days are when I lie in bed

and think of things that might have been.

~Paul Simon

 

I don’t remember what the disagreement was about. It wasn’t even an argument, just three fifteen year old girls talking after gym class. There was Maxi—open and popular, knowing when to show her cards or hold them close. She usually had aces until later on when the drugs took hold (but she made it through). Mel didn’t have aces but she took what she could get. That day it was drama. About a boy—what else? Mel had had him and now she didn’t. But she wanted to tell us that it was more than that, more complex, and of course, it was. Because life usually is.

Mel told her story from a place of deep focus that was in high contrast to the soft spring day around us.  But she held Maxi’s attention, and mine, to a point. I had arrived late to the conversation and didn’t yet understand what the sorrow was all about. I mean, why so serious?

My insights on the matter of Mel’s failed romance lacked gravitas but I offered an opinion anyway and hoped for a little levity. Instead, without warning, Mel reached out and struck me in my left breast. I say “struck” but “slugged” is more like it. The feeling wasn’t unlike the time when, as a child, I had maneuvered the wrong way around my mother’s new coffee table and tripped, belly flopping against its side.

“Got the wind knocked out of you,” my dad told me as I gasped for air that threatened to come a terrifying second too late. “You’ll be okay.” And as dads often are, he was right.

But Mel’s fist against my breast was even more of a surprise than the result of that long ago afternoon tumble. I didn’t see Mel’s fist coming because I didn’t know I was falling.

“Uh…ha.” Maxi’s uncomfortable laugh brought me back to myself. A response was required but all I could do was look at Maxi in the way one does when seeking rescue from acute embarrassment. This was the the moment for me to stand up. To look Mel in the eye and let her know she had crossed the line.

Instead I filled my mouth, still gaping wide, with my own awkward chuckle and didn’t do a damn thing.

Looking back, I realize that worse than the act of physical violence was Mel’s cool self-assurance that there would be no negative repercussions. Mel knew I wouldn’t protest because she recognized bone deep approval seeking when she saw it. And as was the tradition of all doormats, I had lain down in the dirt and allowed her not just to wipe her feet but to kick me when she was finished.

I was reminded of this the other day while searching eBay, hoping to find an album my sisters used to play when I was a kid. It was the era of acoustic Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary. But I was looking for a group far less well known—the Chad Mitchell Trio. The trio had gone through various incarnations (Jim McGuinn aka Roger McGuinn who later founded the Byrds, played banjo for the trio; and John Denver replaced Chad Mitchell, namesake of the group, before he eventually left to pursue his solo career) but it was the early days of the CMT I preferred. Particularly, their Best of 1963 collection which was interspersed with live and studio recordings. I loved that album and, along with listening to it, Peter, Paul and Mary and Meet the Beatles, learned to sing. When my sisters left home to find careers in a bigger city, I inherited the CMT album (along with some first edition Elvis Presley and Everly Brothers 45s) and I tossed aside my Popeye the Sailor Man discs and began my first real music collection.

Chad Mitchel Trio album coverAfternoons when I got home from school, I threw the trio on the hi-fi, singing along to songs about the John Birch Society and Billie Sol Estes*. Now I had no clue that these songs were political satire but I learned the lyrics and and sang with conviction (I credit the trio for subliminally making me the proud liberal I am today). But there was more than just jabs at current events on the record. The lovely 19th century Irish folk ballad, Green Grow the Lilacs, Woody Guthrie’s Great Historical Bum and even a square dance song—Hello Susan Brown—provided me with hours to flex my vocal chords and pique my growing interest in all things lyrical. So it was with a special mixture of carelessness, naïve trust, and stupidity that not quite a decade later I loaned this prized possession to a girlfriend who hoped to expand her repertoire as an up and coming singer/ piano player. You guessed correctly. It was Mel, or as I fondly remember her, Slugger.

*Billy Sol Estes was a businessman from Abilene who went to prison for bilking millions of dollars from Texas finance companies and farmers by conning them into paying for nonexistent tanks of fertilizer. This wasn’t particularly happy news for his friend Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson when Congress held investigative hearings about the scheme.

Now I honestly don’t recall if I allowed Mel to borrow the CMT album before or after her fist made contact with my left breast but I admit it could have been afterwards. I was gullible and anyway, forget and forgive, right? The times they had-a-changed, and Mel left my house also carrying with her the hackneyed Doors’ album, The Soft Parade, Spirit’s debut record , and Grand Funk Live (one of my adolescent blips on the good taste screen). Chad and the boys didn’t quite fit with the rest of the hard rock crew but I liked to think of myself as a rock music aficionado with eclectic tastes.

Mel assured me she would get the records back to me the next weekend.

“That’s okay,” I told her, maintaining my role as suck-up, “take your time.”

And she did. About four years worth.

***

It was on a visit to my mom those four years later that I decided to get in touch with Mel and retrieve my records. I’d been in my old room, looking through belongings I had left behind while I attended college. Just like my sisters, I had abandoned those things I felt I had outgrown. But as I flipped through what remained of my orphaned music collection, I realized I missed my Doors album and especially the Chad Mitchell Trio. I looked up Mel’s name in the phone book, took a deep breath and dialed her number.

“Hello?” Mel’s voice sounded the same.

“Hi, Mel. This is a friend from your past,” I joked, trying to keep it light. After spending a minute catching up–married? Kids? How’s school going—I got to the point.

“Mel, remember those records I loaned you before we graduated? I’d really like them back. Could I come over and get them?”

“Records? I don’t remember…”

“You know that Doors album and—“

“Oh yeah. Well (heavy sigh), I’ll have to look around for them. I just moved, ya know.”

Uh, no, I didn’t know. Why would I?

“I’d really like them back,” I persisted (you’re doing great, I told myself, keep it up).

Okay. I’ll be home Friday night.”

She gave me her address then added, “It will be good to see you.” Really? Wow. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

***

Dressed in my new black cords and ribbed Steel blue shirt, I sat on Mel’s couch. Her boyfriend and a couple of her teenaged cousins were there. The television was blaring some stupid sitcom and Mel was laughing and carrying on, enjoying being the center of attention. But mostly she enjoyed ignoring me.

After an appropriate amount of time had passed, I asked for my records.

“Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ll get them,” Mel said sinking further into her recliner and starting up a new round of laughter with her cousins

An hour went by.

“Uh, Mel. I’ve got to get going. I really need to get my records.”

“Oh, all right.” Clearly put out, Mel pushed herself out of her comfy chair and headed for what I assumed was her bedroom. A minute later she emerged holding some worn looking albums.

She handed me the stack. “Thanks, Mel!” I was so relieved. There was my Doors album right on top. I glanced through them—Grand Funk was there and Spirit but wait a minute—where was the Chad Mitchell Trio?

Mel was back in her recliner, smoking a Marlboro, focused on her “real” company.

“Mel?”

“Yeah, yeah, just a second. I want to see this part of the show.”

And so I sat for another fifteen minutes. Finally the program ended. Mel reached for the TV Guide.

“Hey, Mel. I think there’s a record missing.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, my Chad Mitchell Trio album—“

Not even looking in my direction Mel shrugged. “Oh, probably. I don’t know where it is. Somewhere around here.”

“Well, can you get it?”

“Oh, its just too much of a hassle. It’s in a box somewhere.”

I didn’t yet know what passive aggression was but my gut told me that it wasn’t unlike that day when Mel had slugged me on the tennis court. Only this time it was something more underhanded.

My corduroy pants began to feel much too tight. It didn’t make sense. Not when I was feeling so small.

I had to go home. I couldn’t wait to get out of those cords.

“I’m taking off,” I told Mel and stood up. “Thanks for the albums.”

Mel stayed put in her recliner. “Yeah, well, maybe I’ll find the other record and give you a call.”

“Okay, that would be great. Bye, Mel. Thanks, again.”

I think she said goodbye but I don’t remember. I just wanted to get back to my mother’s house so I could rip off my cords and take a shower. It wasn’t until I was in bed that I allowed myself to face what I had realized as I sat paralyzed on Mel’s couch: Not only had Mel known exactly where the CMT record was but I had once again failed to stand up to her. To stand up to a bully. And more importantly, to stand up for myself.

***

A few years ago, visiting a friend up north, I found the 1963 CMT album in a local library. My friend checked it out for me and we made a copy. It’s barely listenable due to all of the skips, scratches, and bumps from who knows how many years of wear and tear. I’ve since been able to download a few individual songs from the internet but the album in its entirety remains out of print and apparently has never been converted to a digital format.

I don’t always think of Mel when I listen to those old folk songs. But music can spark memories like little else can so she occasionally comes to mind. For a long time I’ve imagined myself reacting differently on the tennis court that day. At times I wish I had hit her back or at the very least, told her to back off. What is it they say about standing up to a bully? The bully often backs down (I have since learned, sadly, that this is not always the case). Would Mel have backed down? But another question comes to mind. If I had stood up to Mel that spring day, would she have, four years later, still refused to give me my CMT album? Would I have even loaned those records to her? I might have gained much more insight into her character—and mine—had I stood my ground. All of those (mostly) fruitless internet searches would have been unnecessary because I would still have that album.

Yeah, I know, the proverbial “what if?” But it was a lesson that the actions we take—or don’t take—even as kids—can create a mold that’s harder to break as we grow older. I like to think I’ve learned well how to assert myself since those experiences with Mel. But I wonder. If I had stood up on that tennis court all those years ago, maybe it would be just a little bit easier now.

Thanks for the fantasies, Davy

Many of my contemporaries are remembering Davy Jones today. No doubt more than one of us is recalling how cute Jones was, how sweet and adorable he looked as he sang about his Daydream Believer. His face seemed to hold an incorruptible innocence which was (and is) pretty much the antithesis of the rock and roll image. Now I seriously doubt that Jones was an innocent (in show business? No way.) but that was the appearance he projected.

The “safe-to-take-me-home-to-meet-Mom” Jones of Daydream Believer never did it for me. I wasn’t interested in Sleepy Jean or homecoming queens. Nope. I was instead interested in the Davy Jones persona I heard in the song, Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow). Yeah, I know it was cheesy but bear with me.

Written by Neil Diamond, Look Out is the story of a guy with a problem–he’s in love with two different girls. The song begins with some simple but catchy guitar chords before Jones jumps in to confide his troubles.

 

Look out, here comes tomorrow

That’s when I’ll have to choose

How I wish I could borrow

Someone else’s shoes

 

To my young ears (I’m not going to tell you how young because I don’t want to remember how old I am now) this was an unusual and unexplored dilemma. How can you be in love with two different people at once? Jones describes how-

 

Mary, oh what a sweet girl

Lips like strawberry pie

Sandra, the long hair and pig tails,

Can’t make up my mind

 

Now, to a kid, this wasn’t just a tad naughty, it was downright kinky. One minute Davy (at least in my imagination) is making out with Mary and then doing God knows what with a tomboy in pig tails!

 

Jones expresses his special kind of angst in the chorus–

 

I see all kinds of sorrow

Wish I only loved one

Look out, here comes tomorrow

Oh how I wish tomorrow would never come

 

Listening to these lyrics and the way Jones breathlessly delivered them in his earnest British accent, well, let’s just say my prepubescent hormones were nudged a little bit closer to full-out, right-on puberty.

 

Last verse–

 

Told them both that I loved them

Said it, and it was true

But I can’t have both of them

Don’t know what to do

 

Oh my God, Jones sounds so forlorn, so desperate, so…passionate as he repeats the chorus. And before I even know what makeup sex is, I imagine the argument, the tears as he tells Mary (and then Sandra and OMG, Mary again) that he is choosing the other girl.

In reality, these were the 1960s and famous as he was, Davy Jones could have had as many girls as he wanted. But my immature mind didn’t yet understand all of the complexities and impossible reconciliations the era would usher in. I just knew that I wanted the passion I heard in Jones voice.

It’s a unique sadness we feel when we say goodbye to a wished-for icon of our coming of age years. When Whitney Houston died, I felt sorrow but it wasn’t tinged, at least not for me, with the memories of newness and possibility that only childhood can bring. We may leave our childhood icons behind as we age, but when they die, we remember what they inspired in us and what we did or did not achieve.

 

Here’s the song (click through to You Tube). Thanks, Davy.