Posts Tagged ‘ skating past death ’

Perhaps My Brains Have Turned To Sand


(To my friend Richard, who’s been politely hocking me a cheinik about writing this for the past too-long of a while. Title scooped from a Brian Eno lyric.)

Let me just say that the past four months have been, without a doubt, the weirdest %$#@!ing life-interval (pardon my language) that I have EVER experienced.

I may have to rethink my life-long dream of settling Mars; I’ve been more-than-less constantly indoors for nigh on 120 days — half the duration of a Red Planet run — and would be furtively eyeing the hatches at this point in the journey.

A quick summary with lotsa jargon: last November, I began experiencing sporadic and severe pain in the right-upper-quadrant of my abdomen. On December 17, my gall-bladder was removed; a week later, I was back in the ER with near-fatal liver enzyme levels occasioned by an operation-induced liver hematoma. (Oh, yeah, and I had to be defibrillated again. The look on the ER doc’s face is more easily imitated than described.) A string of subsequent diagnoses (and other hospital visits) indicating biliary dyskinesia led me mid-February to the Cal Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco for a sphincterotomy of Oddi, which scared the living bejeebus out of my wife but only relieved the pain for a week. At this writing, a second gastroenterologist is exploring the possibility that the gall bladder surgery damaged my liver; I had a CT scan Tuesday and have a followup appointment next Wednesday for the results.

Quicker still, no jargon: After two surgeries, three near-death experiences, four months and a pile of ER visits, my gut still hurts — to the extent that, even with concentration-destroying meds, I can sit up for only a couple of hours at a time. (It’s taken me two days to write this, for example.) I’ve been off work since Dec. 1 and receiving disability; Ann was laid off January 4, and we have been surviving largely due to the generosity of our community. Meanwhile, career, chaplaincy (see previous entry) and almost everything else is on hold until I Get Better.

It’s been incredibly, terribly (in the word’s original sense), wonderfully humbling to be the recipient of so many wishes and good thoughts, of food and financial help. It’s also been very, very, very weird to need it, as well as to had a gurney’s-eye view of worry-drawn Ann (in San Francisco, collapsed exhausted next to my hospital bed on a pile of blankets) and looming medical personnel and machines that go “ping” and tubes that go everywhere. On the other hand, it helps to remind myself of all the unread books I used to wish I had time to read. There are fewer of those around the house now, with the intention of fewer still. (Most entertaining so far have been Fleming’s James Bond series and Douglas Rushkoff‘s “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism,” which makes some bad arguments in favor of some excellent pints about issues raised as early as 500 years ago by people who hadn’t recently rediscovered Judaism.)

The weirdest part, and this happened right after the Great San Francisco Valentines Day Adventure, has been this near constant sense of … amnesia? Disconnection? As though I’ve forgotten how to be me, or rather of what sort or type of essence constitutes Nealness. It’s a very difficult sensation to describe — an unfulfilling counterpoint to the sort of ego-loss experienced through meditation, prayer, psychedelics or orgasm — but I bet it’s not uncommon among those in semi-isolation. Evidently we need people around us to remind us who we are (just as we sometimes need solitude to remember Who we are). We also need something to do — something by which to define ourselves — something to make the days count, or at least make them different. (Which they inherently are, of course, but that’s not always easy to see.) This, in turn, raises the question — are we more than our social roles or contacts? Do we, like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, vanish in-between scenes peopled by Other Characters? To tell you the truth, sometimes it has felt that way. An uncomfortable thought, that — more uncomfortable, in fact, than the constant sensation of apparent impalement-through-the-right-side.

But on the other hand, I have fingers that can type (sort of) and I can get up and go for walks (briefly) and to the store (if it’s not something too heavy, or requires more than an hour’s travel). Since some poor bastards can’t even move, or have their organs on the outside which they empty into buckets, I’m not doing too badly.

A few years ago, not long after I’d recovered from cancer surgery, I spoke with a sheriff’s deputy who’d just spent six months laid up with a back injury. Comparing our fates, he grinned and asked, “How many cracks are in your ceiling?”

“It’s not the cracks so much,” I said, “as what lives inside them.”

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Too Mellow to Die


It worries me somewhat that my friends and colleagues are more concerned than I am that I experienced my fourth cardioversion Sunday.

“Experienced” is the wrong word. I experienced, and have a clear memory of, the 150 beats-per-minute irregular jangle in my chest, alternately exhilirating and tiring; the two ER trips, one for pink pills and one for (and this is why I love the emergency-responder sense of humor) “Edison Medicine;” the quiet peopling of “my” ER bay with what now seems in retrospect an awful lot of medical personnel; the partial deforestation of my chest so the defibrillator contact won’t arc; the smell of IV-administered chemicals in my nasal capillaries; the slow drop into warm unconsciousness from a ring of too-casual faces. I’ve seen it before, twice in succession five years ago and once three years after.

But of the cardioversion itself, the targeted electrocution which Ann tells me is always difficult to watch, I have absolutely no memory. And therefore, the seriousness of the situation — the potential for blood to clot in and shoot out of my atria toward my personal brain — somehow has never sunk in. Except for those around me.

All I seem to carry away with me (apart from the deep stretchy scorch in my chest, and a somewhat longer life) is a sense of the Universe’s fragile tensity — mine, yours and everyone else’s, all sideways in space and forward and backwards in Time); a sense that paints with echoing joy and terror everything it touches. (Synesthetics intentional.)

So maybe I shouldn’t be bothered by not being more bothered. Kissing the face of your sweetie can be intoxicating enough — how much more so to kiss the face of Reality, or of God?

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Exploring Mind


What differentiates the explorer from other humans is his answer to the following question:

“If you could experience something that no one else ever had, but the cost was your own life, would it be worth it?”

“Yes,” says the explorer. Other humans would ask what the questioner had been smoking, or say such an endeavour would be a waste of life, or something equally silly.

But the explorer reasons thusly: “None of us will survive life. Life therefore must be lived in such a way as to experience it from as many different points as possible.”

Of course, it would be nice to survive long enough to communicate something of that perspective to those who couldn’t be there; this is the distinction between exploration and reconnaissance. But the experience itself is the essence of both.

(Thoughts occasioned by Cheers.)

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This is what I said about Jim at his funeral:

When studying to be a rabbi, I learned a tradition that says one should begin every public discourse with a jest. So here?s Jim?s and my very favorite shared joke ? at least, the one that?s suitable for mixed company:

A man who had studied much in the schools of wisdom finally died in the fullness of time and found himself at the Gates of Eternity.

An angel of light approached him and said, “Go no further, O mortal, until you have proven to me your worthiness to enter into Paradise!”

But the man answered, “Just a minute now. First of all, can you prove to me this is a real Heaven, and not just the wild fantasy of my disordered mind undergoing death?”

Before the angel could reply, a voice from inside the gates shouted:

“Let him in – he’s one of us!”

The ironic thing about my best friend dying is that he’s the only one with whom I want to discuss it.

This is my first visit to Griefland, and I’m still finding my way around. But “Sputnik” would see the black crushing horror part of it AS WELL AS the intensely spiritual aspect. And know that the one does not preclude the other.

Jim and I were soulmates for life, even though our 1980s-era experiments at roommate-hood proved that we would viciously murder each other in our sleep if we ever tried living together again. We were that much alike, and when you love someone that deeply it gives them leave to annoy you mightily. And annoy each other we did, though never intentionally.

But what really annoys me is that Jim finally won the game we’d been playing ever since we met in 1978. You see, he now knows something I don’t.

For Sputnik and I, the Alpha Male game was measured not by how big our toys were but by how big our brains and hearts were — and how well we used them. Our serious quest for the Sourceless Source meant we couldn’t afford to mess around with anything less — and even though we freely acknowledged that our quest was ultimately unachievable, we wanted it to be real.

An anthropologist’s skepticism, saint’s reverence and anarchist’s sense of humor, coupled with his amazing memory, made Jim fingertip-familiar with numberless and little-known facts, theories, theologies, philosophies, ontologies, epistemologies, epiphanies, chemical interactions and their results, and strange doings of mutual friends and secretly-famous personalities. As Jim’s psychic twin, I can tell you that this paved the way for inevitable and mutual quasi-macho posturing.

Now, one of the great joys of sharing unshared information is making the other fellow say, “Wow! Where’d you hear that?” During our quarter-century together, I could probably count on one hand the times that actually happened instead of the usual “Right. And have you thought about this or that correlation?”

This unspoken but obvious competition kept us both on the Path, which — for the two of us — was the exact same path with the exact same curves at roughly the same time, exquisitely tailored to our individual hands, accompanied by headshaking laughter at our unswerving devotion to something so obviously arbitrary and wordlessly meaningful as our different religious traditions ? his Christian, mine Jewish. But Jim was always a practical guy, living both in the moment as well as in its multiple interpretations, cheerfully accepting the Mystery even as he poked at its manifestations.

Well, that Mystery is cleared up for one of us. And now that Jim’s life is a closed book, I’m really beginning to see how much we actually were a part of each other — and how much a part we all are of everyone we know, especially if we let each other all the way inside.

None of us will never “get over” Jim’s death, because we will never get over Jim’s life. We can’t help it, because we ultimately live in each other. And while it may take a long time for the pain of Jim’s death to lessen, if it ever does, it won?t take nearly as long for us to understand that he is, and always will be, still with us.

Happy trails, my friend. I hope I’ll see you later.

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… echoes …


for some reason, perhaps because this is my first big loss, I thought the funeral would “make things better.” it didn;t occur to me that I felt that way until afterward, when it didn’t. … I did my hardest weeping after we got back Sunday afternoon. and I am now feeling the biggest part of the loss.

it was nice seeing the edges of the hole that Jim made, though — by which i mean the people who pilgrimaged to Shasta to attend the funeral. Ann wrote something about the weekend which she is permitting me to post, so I shall. But some random notes:

- Seeing someone-you-love’s name accompanied by two dates is a definite Step On The Path.

- ” ” photographs and realizing that “this is the remaining physical evidence” is another Step.

The alarm rang this morning and my first thought was, “Crap. Now I have to try and get through another day.” All I really want to do is sit and stare. I am completely unmotivated to work, play, laugh, teach, pray, study, shave, dress myself, or eat. (But at least I have my health, he joked attemptedly.) Even lifting my arms to the keyboard is taking all my effort.

Anyway, here’s Ann’s piece.

The Weekend of Jim’s Memorial January 10-12, 2003
By Ann

Neal’s/my/our friend Jim Gjerde had a catastrophic heart attack on
December 11, 2002 in his girlfriend Jan’s bookstore in Mt. Shasta,
California. He went into a coma where he remained, treading life for 16
days, until he died on December 27th at 10:08 p.m. Jan called us on
Saturday evening, just as our Sabbath was coming to a close.

Neal had known Jim for 25 years. Jim — or “Sputnik” aka “Sput,” as his
old friends knew him — was what I like to call a sane freak, and you must
understand that the term “freak” is a compliment when I use it. He was
deliciously weird, frighteningly intelligent, and endlessly interesting
and interested. As Neal says, he never stopped thinking, he never stopped
learning; he never stopped looking around and grinning. A fringe lunatic
of the most delightful variety. I loved talking to Jim, and listening to

I met him in Berkeley in 1988; he and I were going to meet for the first
time to walk over to the post office together to mail in our request for
tickets to the Grateful Dead New Year’s show. I was a tucked-and-
tailored legal assistant dating his best friend Neal; he was, like Neal, a
shaggy, scruffy, Goodwill-attired, sleepy-looking 25-year-old. Here’s the
weird thing about our first encounter, and I’ve never told anyone: We
individually mailed off our requests for tickets but I had run mine
through the office postal meter and so my request was rejected (“no
metered mail!”) and Jim’s tickets arrived in timely fashion. The part I
never told anyone was how annoyed I was that I, the responsible one, had
failed where Jim-of-the-casual-lifestyle had succeeded. I was really only
annoyed for about 5 minutes; after that I found it all quite amusing.

Throughout the years this is what Jim meant to me: someone who was always
there, someone to turn to. Even if we didn’t speak for years, I found
comfort in his presence, like the big old quilt you keep on the top shelf
in case the weather turns really cold. Had he been MY friend exclusively,
I probably would have pulled the quilt down far more often no matter what
the weather but simply because I liked its smell, and the way it felt when
I pulled it about my shoulders.

Jim knew things about me that only Neal knows. For one thing, that I am
in fact a fringe lunatic in conservative clothing. (Neal always told me
that was good — I could infiltrate that way.) Jim and I had some of our
best conversations in 1989, when Neal worked nights at Berkeley Sauna.
Jim would come over (appearing, like a hungry cat, seemingly from
nowhere….I didn’t know where he lived or what he drove, and I never
asked) and we would sit on my back doorstep and smoke and talk for hours.
I could always be myself with him; he was shock-proof.

Through the ensuing years, he was more out of touch than in. He and Neal
would go for huge chunks of time without talking or even knowing where the
other was, and then there’d be the reconnecting phone call. He was the
Best Man at our 1994 Tahoe wedding.

When Neal got cancer last summer, he and Jim reconnected and spoke often.
In November, 2002, a month before he died, Jim came to spend the weekend
with us.

That was a hard weekend. First of all, it was sprung on me. Guess who’s
coming to dinner, breakfast, lunch, dinner, breakfast, and lunch? So I
was in a bit of a wifely peeve. I was especially peeved to learn that
Neal was going to go about teaching religious school on Sunday, leaving me
alone with Jim to “entertain” him for four hours. I was so wrong. Our
time together was absolutely precious. I’m so grateful for that weekend.
And for the half-day that Neal left Jim alone here. We talked. Jim
REALLY listened to me. That was one of his gifts. He made a person feel

One thing he told me during that long talk really stood out for me after
his death: He told me how frustrated he was that he couldn’t drive and
that he had to rely on friends for rides. Decades of Type I diabetes had
damaged his eyes. After he died, I kept thinking, “You’re mobile now,
Jim; you can go wherever you want, my friend. Use those wings!”

So…December 27th comes and goes and Jan organizes a Memorial Service for
Jim at the Episcopal Church in Lake Shasta on Saturday, January 11th.

Neal and I left Sonoma Friday afternoon, January 10th. It was gray, dark,
and raining. And in our souls as well. Neal had been in a place of deep,
agonized mourning pretty much since Jim’s heart attack. I had felt stabs
of pain and had had bouts of sadness and crying, but had been going about
my life without obsessing too much on Jim’s death.

The trip up felt like a scene from a movie. The Winters Cutoff over to
Interstate 5 is a blank landscape, dotted only with cows and dilapidated
buildings which all seem to have arrived there by accident and without
purpose or people to tend them. I popped in Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were
Here” tape (“shine on, you crazy diamond!”) and we spoke little.

At Dunnigan we swung onto Highway 5; the sky grew darker and the rain
heavier. I had only ever traveled up Highway 5 for vacation purposes –
mainly to go to Mt. Lassen with my family. Highway 5 and all its
long-beloved town names — Dunnigan, Williams, Willows, Richfield, Corning
– had up until now only brought me memories of driving through them long
before the Interstate was built…days of feet-out-the-window sunshine and
the smell of alfalfa and my mom pointing out the different crops and
telling us “It’s going to be hot going up through the Valley today.”

This trip, however, was anything but a vacation. The rain pounded and the
big-rigs firehosed water onto every passing car and the state-sponsored
Rest Areas looked as dreary as vacant drive-in movie parking lots. We
switched tapes and motored up Highway 5 to Led Zeppelin (“Stairway to
Heaven”), more Pink Floyd (“Dark Side of the Moon”) and Alan Parsons
Project (“freedom, freedom, take the world away….). I kept noticing
things along the freeway I’d never noticed before, but they looked
anything but new: “casual” housing of dilapidated trailers, and
ramshackle, tumbledown homesteads, surrounded by dead and dying autos,
their parts strewn about as if by the very wind that buffeted us mile by

We stopped at a Taco Bell in one of the now-hostile-feeling towns and I
gagged down half of some sort of wickedly bad taco “salad.” Neal had more
luck with burritos. Heading north again, I stumbled upon an awesome
college-sounding radio station, playing 12-string guitar/poetry/folk music
which seemed to be a good chaser to Pink Floyd. One song merged
commercial-free into the next as liquidly as the raindrops on our
windshield and the station became the soundtrack to most of our
south-of-Redding I-5 trip. At one point, the rain grew leadenly heavy and
the sky turned pewter and we looked ahead and everything north hung black
and forboding like the edge of Mordor itself. It was still early
afternoon and felt like dusk.

When we finally reached Redding, my gaze turned to the right. Somewhere
out there was Mercy Medical Center, where Jim had gone to die. I felt a
clutching sickness tear at the inside of my throat, and suddenly I was
wailing/keening/moaning/crying for Jim. I called out his name, I told him
I missed him, I think I may have railed at God a time or two; I can’t
exactly recall. I went on like that for about an hour, or until we got to
Dunsmuir, at about the same time the last song on our home-made tape was
playing: Elton John’s “Funeral For a Friend.”

I hadn’t known that I held that much Jim-pain/Jim-love inside me. All
around me there were majestic trees and the moss-green mini-sea that is
Lake Shasta and patches of snow liquid-papered onto the foothills of the
Siskiyous, and I could see the beauty in which Jim had lived and through
which a screaming ambulance had borne him into the lowlands of Redding,
and it just all hurt too much to bear. I regained some sort of composure
as night began to fall and we made the last leg of the trip from Dunsmuir
into the City of Mount Shasta, second exit, to the Best Western Treehouse
Inn, $85 a night and a free breakfast.


Room 106. We unpacked. I turned on the Zenith because that’s what you
do: other towns might have better TV. However, I discovered that
television offerings have become America’s electronic malls — identical
from town-to-town. Paul and Jamie Buchman romped around the screen in our
wood-paneled motel room as comfortably as they had in our dingy-walled
apartment in Sonoma. It was 5:15. I had given Jan our ETA; she called
and we tried to set up a dinner but she, understandably, had much to do
before tomorrow’s Memorial service. We made plans to meet at 8:30 the
following morning for breakfast. Neal and I had never met this woman, the
love of Jim’s life.

I wasn’t yet hungry so Neal and I lit the Sabbath candles and read for an
hour or so, then went down to the hotel’s dining room/restaurant. As we
ate, Neal looked up and said, “It’s Alana!” His
old-friend-from-high-school-turned-our-friend with whom we are in frequent
contact, had shown up for Jim’s funeral. She and Jim had once been
roommates. I ran across the room and hugged her soundly and she joined
our table.

Dinner turned into a pre-memorial for Sputnik, as we all shared stories.
Neal and Alana had more to tell, of course, all about the old wild days
and their collective misspent but properly lived youth. After dinner,
Neal and Alana went to the hot tub together while I curled up with film
critic Anthony Lane’s new book. The phone rang — it turned out that
Jim’s old friends Linda and Randy from Humboldt County were also staying
at the Treehouse, in Room 227. I had met them once, at a wild party in
Rio Dell back in 1988. Neal knew them well. When he got back to the room
we crashed Room 227 and exchanged reunion hugs. They had with them
their teenaged son Cory, and a wonderful shepherd/pit bull/greyhound mix
named Maya who couldn’t tear herself away from me, to my delight. We
finally left them to their bedtime sometime after 11 p.m.

Our bed was comfortable but sleep was elusive and we awakened to the 6
o’clock alarm in mutual states of fatigue and dread. Today was the day.
My head throbbed from my Redding-to-Dunsmuir tear-letting; I pressed
ice-cold washcloths to my swollen eyes. As we headed to the lobby to meet
Jan, I had a sense of what she would look like. I knew that Sput would
not have chosen a round woman, and I was right: Jan is petite. Five foot
and a smidge, perhaps. She is beautiful. Long, thick, shiny straight
golden-brown hair; gray eyes shining with wisdom. And then she spoke and
there was that voice that been so generous over the phone with us in the
weeks since Jim’s heart attack — the deep, sweet, husky, soothing voice
of Jan. Only now she was saying, “It’s nice to finally meet you!”
Gracious, ever gracious.

We began breakfast, and Alana joined us, and once again there was a
pre-memorial for Jim — two more hours of shared anecdotes,
“how-did-you-meets” and remembrances. Jan excused herself at nearly 11,
and the rest of us went to our rooms to get ready.

The Memorial was at 1 p.m. at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Mt. Shasta.
Jim had, within the previous 5 years, returned to his more
Catholic/Christian roots (similarly to how Neal had returned to his Jewish
roots), after years of exploring alternative religious practices. He was
very fond of Vicar Julie of St. Barnabas, and we had heard him talk about
her frequently during his November stay. As she began the service, Neal
and I both understood why Jim was so drawn to Julie. She was warm and

Once Jim decided to recommit himself to Christianity, he did it right.
That is to say, he was a purist. None of this halfway, this-and-that,
part-New-Age crap for him. He wanted the real thing. And this service
was traditional. The priests were in white Lenten robes; there was
chanting; there were bells and incense (or “smells and bells,” as Jim
called it). But Jim also felt free to have a voice in his religious
experience. Shortly after taking the podium and introducing herself,
Julie pulled out a sheaf of papers.

“Right after I became the vicar of St. Barnabas, I received this five-page
letter from Jim.” Laughter filled the room; his friends knew what was
coming. “In which he set down all the ways in which he thought services
at St. Barnabas could be improved.” Hilarity, from the crowd. Good ol’
Jim. Julie gave us the very precious gift of reading to us from parts of
Jim’s letter and in doing so brought him into the room with us in quite a
different form than the white-cloth covered ashes of Jim sitting on the
altar area.

The formal parts of the service were difficult. I’m Jewish, so I couldn’t
participate in the Jesus parts, of which there were many. I couldn’t even
say “The Lord’s Prayer” which, before my conversion to Judaism, had
brought me comfort and which I can recite not only forwards and backwards
but which I can also sing because I know the melody which someone wrote to
add to the verse. These days, however, “The Lord’s Prayer” sounds as
alien to me as Hebrew once did. I found myself longing to comfort myself
with The Mourner’s Kaddish, and I even brought into my head the beginning
of that prayer, “Yit gadal v’yit k’dash sh’mei rabbah,” desperately
searching for spiritual purchase.

Neal had been asked by Jan to deliver a eulogy, and he gave a kick-ass
speech about Jim that Jim would have loved. Then another man spoke.
Then Jan. As I told her later, she rocked. How that woman stood up there
and said the things she did, how she read that unbearably beautiful and
painful W.H. Auden poem, how she did all that without crumpling in a heap
of sorrow, I will never know. All I can think of is that in her religious
tradition, there is a deep belief that Jim is in the place in which he was
meant to be, walking with Jesus, in a happy afterlife somewhere beyond
time, place, and pain. As we say in MY religious tradition, “Ken yehi
ratzon,” — “May it be so.”

And then it was over. A procession out to the reception hall, and there
we were in an overly-flourescented, hot room, seeking out all the
different people from all the different communities into which Sput had
woven himself. “I knew him from Diablo Valley College days.” “I knew him
from the Mugwort parties in San Francisco.” “I knew him from when he lived
in Oakland.” “Tower Records.” “The Self-Realization Fellowship in
Richmond.” And then there were his parents, who had apparently reconciled
themselves to Jim’s early death from the day he’d first been diagnosed
with Type I (formerly “juvenile”) diabetes. And his astonishingly
beautiful red-haired sister Ann, who lost her husband three years ago and
who told me, “You learn that the grief process never goes away; it never

It was like a wedding, but so not. I kept catching myself wishing, in
some ridiculous childish fashion, that Neal and I were up here for Jim and
Jan’s wedding in this very church, and I kept catching myself slipping
into that alternative “what-if” scenario, like some kind of fantasy
addict. This was no wedding. Yes, a church, a priest, a beautiful woman
to love the man, a reception, a hall, the smell of coffee, a book to sign,
flowers and an organ. But no wedding.

And then the reception was over. People drove back — to Portland, to
Dunsmuir, to Alameda, to the airport, to San Francisco, to Vallejo. Neal
and I stayed another night. There was some talk of another party taking
place in Mt. Shasta — some of the Humboldt County community wanted to
keep the hour going without the presence of Episcopalian adults and with
something a little more relaxing than coffee — but Neal and I went back
to the hotel room to have our close-of-Sabbath Havdallah service.

When Sput had visited us in November, we did this service as we do every
Saturday night. There is a candle, a box of sweet-spelling spices, and a
glass of wine. Neal and I chant blessings together and it’s a very
hauntingly beautiful melody. During Havdallah at our home in November, I
glanced over at Sput on the couch and saw him with his head back,
listening to us, a blissful smile on his face. He loved it. Since his
heart attack in December, I haven’t been able to chant the Havdallah
blessings without choking back tears of Sput-sorrow.

And of course this night, the night of his Memorial Service was no
different and quite a bit harder. The chant is in four verses, and as I
finished the first my voice broke, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to get
through it. But then I thought of Jan on the podium that afternoon, reading
love poems to her beloved whose ashes were in a box about four feet to her
left. And resolve washed over me and I toughened up and I by God got
through it to the end.

Havdallah is about the pain of separation — the holiness of Shabbat
separating into the ordinariness of not-Shabbat. I had never really felt
a sadness at the end of Shabbat, as observant Jews are “supposed” to feel.
As Neal feels. I told Neal, “It’s funny that, because of Sputnik, I now
feel pain at the end of every Shabbat, just like I’m supposed to but never
did before,” I guess Jim gave me the gift of understanding something about
the pain of separation. Who said lessons or learning have to be ones we
necessarily WANT in our lives.

We’re home now. It’s Sunday night. There’s a wake in San Francisco, and
Neal will be driving over for it. I never much thought about the meaning
of the word “wake” before, until we were in Mt. Shasta. I was reading
Lane’s review of “Star Trek: First Contact,” in which he quotes a line
about a temporal wake. I started thinking of the wake of a boat, and that
a funeral wake must mean just that: that which trails behind after a
person’s life, and death.

Jim has left a deep and wide wake. And just as I did back in my
water-skiing days, I want to ride the rough part, the part that makes you
jump and jolt and makes every sense alert and alive to the any-second
possibility of diving head first into icy waters. That’s the way Jim
lived, and he would expect no less of his friends.

James Leroy Gjerde
January 24, 1962 to December 27, 2002

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… And we’re back.


Well, here’s the column. NOW I can go on. ;-)

How I spent my summer vacation

By Neal Ross

Monday night, I told my wife, Ann, “When I go back to work tomorrow, the medical hell of the past three months will be only a memory.”

And so, amazingly, it is.

I?m not trying to minimize it ? two isolating months of cancer (diagnosis, surgery and recovery) followed by an unexpected month of incapacitating, thyroid-related vision problems. But before you ask, I?m fine now. (As fine as any of us can ever be, anyway.) The cancer was treatable, the surgery was successful, and the more horrifying (to me) thyroid condition is, so far, responding to steroid therapy. I?m indebted to the 21st century?s remarkable medical technology, which can often see inside our bodies, find small problems before they mushroom, and occasionally fix them. I?m also indebted to, and grateful for, the unconditional love, support and care I received from so many of the people reading this. But I wouldn?t still be here without Ann, who heroically dealt with everything I dealt with during the last three months ? plus the crushing mixture of helpless frustration common to family caregivers everywhere.

Let?s face it: if you?ve been there (and you might have; the cancer club is getting bigger every day, except for the part that?s getting smaller), you know. If not, I can?t really tell you. And that?s kind of the point of this column.

One of the first things I learned this summer was the power of the unexpected. When Ann and I “got the news” on June 18, her first reaction was emotional. Mine was simultaneously philosophical (“Well, I guess I can use this experience in a few years after I finish rabbinical school”) and absurd (“I wonder if cancer patients get a discount at Denny?s?”).

That sort of floored me; I expected shock, fear, even hopelessness. So the second thing I learned was to pay attention ? for the first time in my 40 years ? to how I actually felt, and why.

Now, as I rejoin the world outside my apartment walls, I feel simultaneously deeper and more shallow. Deeper, because I understand more than I did three months ago. More shallow, because I better understand the limits of my own understanding.

Part of the depth is that I am mostly seeing the whole horrible affair as a gift rather than a curse, since I learned so much from it. And part of the shallowness is that after three months of talking about little else than “How are you feeling today?” I can barely bring myself to write another word about it.

I was terribly lucky ? to have such a loving community to help Ann and I through all this; to have access to competent medical care; and, to put it in firefighters? parlance, that everything was “light smoke showing” instead of “fully involved.” Not everyone is so lucky. Who knows ? I may not be next time, if there is a next time. But luck is only part of the equation.

Four days before my cancer diagnosis, I wrote a column about my two favorite modern Israeli sayings ? “zeh ma yesh (that?s what it is)” and “y?hyeh b?seder (it?ll all be okay).” Back then, I said these phrases were two intertwined halves of a healthy world view ? unsentimental pragmatism and unfounded optimism. Both sayings served me well during the past three months, and I expect them to do so in the future.

That could change at any moment. Meanwhile, I?m keeping my eyes and heart open to what this moment looks like. And I guess I?ll see what the next moment looks like when I get there.

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frontal dispatch


I am now trying to write a 15-inch column about the Summer of Tzuris, at my newsdesk, on a new iMac, while hordes of people are giving me intermittent hugs and questions on my first day back at work. It’s 2:15 p.m. I have an appointment to meet the Sonoma fire chief at 4:30 p.m. to tour (and write about) the city’s new fire house. My column must be finished by 4:15, I think. I have rewritten the lead at least three times, and messed with the first 3 inches about six times. This is all I have, so far. And the clock, which waits for no one, is slowly and inexorably eating up my remaining deadline…

Life is good. ;-)

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Quick post-Shabbat update (apols in advanmce for the typing, as I am too tired to go get my patch from the dining room:

1) Consulted a friend of mine who used to be in th e IDF re: Thiursday’s incident — while he apporeciated my resolve, he suggested fighting the battle (if such is to be in the future) on my ground, not the jerk’s: meaning that I should laugh it off and get the license number. He’s right — while my Support for the Team is huge, I don;t like playing games that others define for me — and though my rabbi told me the same thing, sometimes the who we hear from is more important than the what we hear.

2) Ann & I burned a 23 eLUl yahrzeit candle last night, placing it near our Shabbat candles. The wax from the Shabbat candles leaked into the yahrzeit candle, extinguishing it. I do not attribute causeality or cosmicity, but merely note the occurrence…

3) Be it also noted that our synagogue’s Selichot service tonight featurted a new HHD Torah mantle createdd by one of the three women who created the original mantle a few years ago — white silk (I think) with delicate gold flowers all over it. Absolutely fantastic.

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But wait…


SO my eye doctor tells me yesterday that he has NO IDEA what’s causing the misalignment, and is referring me to whiever of the two Big Name Medical Centers (either the University of California, San Francisco or Cal/Pacific) will be covered by my insurance, since he wants the neuro-oculists (neuro-optometrists?) inhabiting same to examine me before calling for a CAT scan or MRI.

“Should I be flattered?” I asked. He, not sharing the mordant sense of humor that is the genetic legacy of my father and his father and his and and so on back to Sinai and before (at least for the Attinson Clan — maybe not for Levites in general) just looked at me blankly.

I told him that (when I work) I am a newspaper reporter, and used to cold, brutal facts. “What exactly did you see in my eyes that makes you want to refer me to the finest medical minds within 100 miles?”

He looked at me. “It’s not strabismus, because if it were, it would have gotten better or at least stabilized instead of getting as bad as it’s gotten.” He also doubted that it’s something pressing on my eye or optical nerve, because it would be evidenced by something secondary (my capillaries would be all swollen up, say).

“Huh,” I said. “Can I at least get a corrective lens to tide me over?”

“There isn’t one strong enough to correct the misalignment,” he said.

“Huh,” I said. I was tempted to ask him for a large-caliber handgun and a big pile of ammunition, and some canned food, but declined on account of the humor thing.

So here I sit, typing one-eyed into the void, waiting for a phone call to guide me to the next stop on the way. Ann is frantic. I am strangely philosophical. I guess I’ll just get through it.

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Or Hapanim


Tomorrow, Ann and I go off to the Reform movement’s Santa Cruz Kallah, for a few days of study, prayer, eating, schmoozing and sleeping. She’s driving; I’m walking with a cane. (She’s already (and quite rightly) accused me of having “caneitude,” a reference to my using the cane for gesturing, emphasis, and general prop-ness as much as (if not more so) than as a walking aid. Bwahahaha.)

I feel… well, apart from the four-inch stitch in my extreme lower right abdomen, the pain and stiffness of the surgery, and the grogginess of the (still-necessary) painkillers, I FEEL *G*O*O*D*!*!*! Wow. I mean REALLY good, psychically, physically, emotionally, etc. I’ll post something I just sent to both of our tight-knit social circles (our synagogue and our Renfaire tribe) which describes that in a general way, but the thoughts and feelings are flooding me by turns: relief, awe, gratitude, fatigue, triumph, grim determination, overwhelming appreciation of my family and friends, puzzlement, frustration at the inhibitory effect of the narcotics on my ability to express myself (self-expression is a cornerstone of my sense of identity, so this is perhaps the hardest of the side-effects of “it”), a sense that “This is/was a Big Thing,” and above it all a strong sense of surreality.

Surreality as expressed in the following post. Right now Ann and I are going to have a vanilla Tofutti Cutie (dairyless ice-cream sandwiches) and go to bed. Oh, and I expect to be back at work, G-d willing, on August 2.

And then, aside from the scar, It Will All Be A Memory… pshyeah. Ri-i-i-i-i-i-i-ight.

Anyway, here’s what I said to everyone:

Date: Mon, 15 Jul 2002 08:55:45 -0700 (PDT)

Shalom chaverim,

Less than a month after I was diagnosed with cancer, Ann & I are now left
with a surreal sense of, "What just happened here?"

It feels like something ugly, huge, hairy and sticky just brushed through
the house with a loud howl of trembling and medicine, leaving barely a
memory (and a few stitches) in its wake.

That's not entirely true, of course. What it chiefly left me with is an
overwhelming sense of gratitude for my life and for the people with whom I
am blessed enough to share it -- for all of your prayers, and concern, and
visits, and dinner, and support, and calls, and advice, and just for being
there. With an overwhelming force of love like that, the awful parts didn't
stand a chance -- not that they weren't still awful, but they were certainly
bearable, since I knew that I wasn't alone.

You all helped me see that, and from the beginning, when I was still
assimilating the fact that I /had/ cancer. I don't know what Ann & I would
have done without you all. "Thank you" doesn't exactly cut it -- I sort of
fantasize lining up everyone so that I can soundly hug you all one by one --
but it's the best I can do over the email.

I love you all. Thank you. Thank you.


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Afterwards, Sleepy


Email to friends:

Date: Thu, 11 Jul 2002 17:25:32 -0700 (PDT)

Baruch atah H', hatov v'hameitiv.

To be brief, since I have to get back into bed (my wiufe is growling at me,
and rightly so) -- The cancer is gone -- removed with the testicle. No chemo
necesary; 95% no radiation necessary either. Feel free to pass this along to
anyone interested.

THANK YOU for your prayers and support!

Baruch Hashem,

Neal Ross Attinson

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Calm Before the Knife


The weird thing is, I’m still trying to figure out why I’m not SCARED.

I often think I’m too stupid to realize when my life, reputation, or other reality-anchors are in danger. I mean, I experienced the certainty of death in February 1988 while serving as a deckhand on the Golden Hinde II, when a freighter loomed out of the midnight fog and into our tiny ship just west of the shark-rich Golden Gate (I recall turning to my fellow foredeck-perched shipmates just before impact and actually saying, “I know this is a cliche, but it really has been nice knowing you all”). Since then, everything has seemed like “Free Time” — it’s helpful to tell myself, “As bad as this current situation is, at least I’m not Carcharadon carcharias poo.” My self-perception is thus of this well-meaning fellow bumbling from one situation to the next, lope-diddy-lope, something like Swee’Pea gurgling in the robot factory while a frantic Popeye rushes frantically (and unnecessarily) to save him.

Well, I don’t always feel that way. But a lot of the time I do. Maybe everyone does. I don’t know.

It’s therefore probably a mistake to obsess over why I don’t feel something. Mostly what I’m feeling right now is testicular discomfort (I really should go lay down), happy wooziness from the painkillers, frustration and inconvenience, uselessness, and a deep gratitude for having this opportunity to learn stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have. (Did I write that already? Well, I still feel that way. I hate writing it out, though, because it makes me sound like some sort of pious religious fanatic. I hate pious religious fanatics. Hypocritical ones, anyway.)

So. Surgery tomorrow. The schedule, I have been informed, is as follows:

  • 12 a.m. to 10 a.m. — No food intake except for clear liquids.
  • 1:30 p.m. — Registration and pre-surgical prep (IV drip, interesting drugs)
  • (1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. — Hold Ann’s hand and lamely attempt to entertain her with gallows humor peppered with Seinfeld references
  • 3:30 p.m. — Surgery
  • 4:30 p.m. — Recovery room
  • 6:30 p.m. — Homecoming

Then, on Thursday, a trip to my oncologist in Marin County to get the pathology.

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