December 31, 2007

I haven't felt the way I feel today...

I hadn't intended to write a summation of the old year/intentions for the new year-type blog, but I've been thinking about this Incubus song more and more lately and the time seems apropo to explain its impact on me. I've posted the lyrics before, so apologies to anyone for whom this is repetitive:

"Nice to Know You"

Better than watching Gellar bending silver spoons.
Better than witnessing newborn nebulaes in bloom.
She who sees from 'up high' smiles and surely sings.
Perspective pries your once weighty eyes and it
gives you wings.

I haven't felt the way I feel today
in so long it's hard for me to specify.
I'm beginning to notice how much this feels
like a waking limb... pins and needles,
nice to know you, goodbye!

Deeper than the deepest Cousteau would ever go.
And higher than the heights of what we often think we know.
Blessed She who clearly sees the wood for the trees.
To obtain a 'bird's eye' is to turn a blizzard to a breeze.

I haven't felt the way I feel today
in so long it's hard for me to specify.
I'm beginning to notice how much this
feels like a waking limb... pins and needles,
nice to know you... Goodbye!

So could it be that it has been there all along?

Now I unfortunately have to admit that, sometimes, I'm a bit dense. I didn't totally get this song at first. It's always stirred a strong emotional response in me, but for a long while I wondered just what lyricist Brandon Boyd was saying goodbye to. My instinctive response was to hone in on the euphoria the song made me feel, which is very similar to that inspired by "Wish You Were Here", in which he beautifully describes a moment of serene contentment and the desire to share it. When, in "Nice to Know You", he sings "I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long", I related the words to experiencing a state of joy after being stuck in a long period of doldrums. But if Brandon were singing about a joyous mood, why would that be something to say goodbye to and let go of? So where I grasped the simplicity of "Wish You Were Here" immediately, "Nice to Know You" left me exuberant but puzzled. It turns out that I wasn't totally off-base, but I was missing the connection necessary to get the full meaning of the song. Then I found this old quote from Brandon:

I had a moment in my life about a year ago where I was way too close to everything that was going on and I was blind, I felt like I was asleep. And the clouds parted for kind of a strange reason and I gained perspective. What happened was my hand had fallen asleep on the airplane on the way to Europe and it remained asleep for about 10 days, which was kind of scary. I must have pinched a nerve or something. But as my hand started waking up, the clouds started breaking away from that emotional state as well. The two happened simultaneously, so I created a simple metaphor for it. So it's basically a song about gaining perspective on a situation.

Kapow. Not only does that make more sense than my original interpretation, it also makes the song so much more meaningful.

As a self-proclaimed "student of Buddhism", I've read a fair amount about enlightenment, which is sometimes described as waking up or an awakening. Better people than I have written about this more coherently than I could ever hope to. In fact, according to Brad Warner in Hardcore Zen, the Soto school of Zen Buddhism actually shies away from discussing the idea of enlightenment at all because it's basically ineffable. If it were so easy for our intellects to grasp, it'd be way easier to achieve. But, for the sake of this blog, I'll go ahead and say that my impression of enlightenment is that it's the ultimate state of perspective. It's stepping back from all of our desires and aversions, our assumptions and expectations, and seeing things as they really are. Beyond that, it's not just seeing them that way, but actually experiencing and dealing with true reality as it is. There's way more to it than I could begin to sum up here, but this little nutshell description is sufficient for the topic at hand **

So, while I understand on an intellectual level the idea of dropping delusion and dealing with reality, I've yet to actually grasp and live it any more than any other average schmoe. It's not as if one day the alarm clock goes off, you lift your head off your pillow and swing your legs off the side of the bed and into nirvana. It takes a commitment and then continual effort to strip away all the illusions and delusions and bullshit that we all cling to and swear are "reality". It's really very much like the metaphor Brandon created for "Nice to Know You": We sleep-walk through much of our life, sometimes feeling that the world is ok and things are good, but more often stuck in a state of dukkha, a Buddhist term that's translated in various ways from "suffering" all the way to merely "unsatisfactory experience". Brad Warner takes a different angle on it and describes dukkha as "idealism":

When you look at things from an idealistic viewpoint, everything sucks... Nothing can possibly live up to the ideals and fantasies you've created. So we suffer because things are not the way we think they ought to be. Rather than face what really is, we prefer to retreat and compare what we're living through with the way we think it oughtta be. Suffering comes from the comparison between the two.

So the trick is to shake out that metaphorical limb that's fallen asleep, to wake up and take off those idealistic blinders. What makes that so hard is those damned prickly pins and needles, our desires and aversions. Here's more from Brad:

...the origination of suffering [is] our wish that things be different from what they are when they cannot possibly be. Things can never be other than they are... So the "desire" often spoken of by Buddhist teachers isn't just the fact that we desire that big car or that busty redhead... Everyone has desires. We can't live without them. Nor should we. The problem isn't that we have desires and needs. It's that we have a compulsive (and ultimately stupid!) desire for our lives to be something other than what they actually are... The problem is the way we let our desires stand in the way of our enjoyment of what we already have.

Letting go of our intense attachment to those desires is like the blood trying to re-circulate in that sleeping limb. It hurts like hell, but if we want to get rid of the pins'n'needles we've gotta let it happen. Otherwise, we end up either remaining numb and asleep, or stuck in that prickly, unsatisfactory state.

In my own case, a couple of years of reading about Buddhism did nothing for me but put me through a series of waking limbs: I'd read something that really struck a chord and I'd set the intention to follow the Path, only to have personal issues and my habitual responses to those issues throw me right back into a state of dukkha. 2007 was a particularly chaotic year, what with an increasingly meaningless job, illnesses of my own and those of family members and, finally, having to euthanise my cat the week before Christmas. Over the last couple months of the past year, there've been two things that carried me through and seemed to begin lifting me out of the sleeping state I'd become stuck in-- Incubus' music and Brad Warner's books. Warner's shown me a form of Buddhism that I can fully embrace, and finally grasping the full meaning of "Nice to Know You" has woken me up and helped me to step back from the things I was too close to. As this new year begins, I'd like to say "pins and needles, nice to know you, goodbye!", but I know it's too soon for that. What I can say is this: "I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long, it's hard for me to specify..."

** If you're really interested in a more thorough explanation of Buddhism in general and enlightenment in particular, I highly recommend both of Warner's books: Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up. Great stuff, especially if you, like me, are leery of concepts such as "reincarnation" and "loving-kindness".

December 23, 2007

Digging for friends

Since this summer, I've lamented not getting into Incubus several years ago when I was first introduced to them. I feel like I've missed out on following the band's growth and on many, many opportunities to experience the fantastic energy of their live performances. When I stop to think about it, though, I realize that the time just wasn't right back then. I'm not sure that I would have been open then to what this band has to offer. I'm at a point now that their music speaks to me in very meaningful ways. One particular song, Dig, struck me right away when I heard it for the first time a couple of months ago. I have to say that a part of me is a bit embarassed to admit how much I love this song. Dig's an exceptionally pretty tune, bordering on power-ballad, and jaded, cynical ears might even consider it to be cheesy and cornball. The lyrics, though, are really wonderfully self-aware and quite touching, and have given me much food for thought.

At this point, I imagine some of you may be rolling your eyes. "Is she just gonna babble about that Brandon Boyd guy again?" Well... yes. But with a purpose that I hope you'll appreciate by the time this already rambling mess is done. You see, Dig is about friendship, which is something I've thought about frequently since getting into the whole MySpace thing, with its collecting of virtual "friends" who can be anything from family members to 'net trolls to aspiring or established musicians to that mysterious entity named "Tom". It's made me wonder just what constitutes a friend, and what's involved in both being and having one.

The friendships I've had over the years, both real-life and virtual, have been like rollercoasters on which I've ridden through intense highs and lows with one or a couple of people for a few years, and then the ride has ended abruptly for some reason and we've parted ways. It's either been an argument, a disappointment, or just that vague feeling of growing apart. I've described in previous blogs (here, and again here) how I ended my last batch of friendships because I felt I was no longer getting anything from them. I have to wonder, though, if much of the problem hasn't really been with me and the level of my expectations. Have I expected loyalty and a level of understanding that's unrealistic for most people to deliver?

Michel de Montaigne, in his essay "Of Friendship", described what seems to be the rarified pinnacle of relationships:

"...a friendship, which we afterwards improved and maintained, so long as God was pleased to continue us together, so perfect, inviolate, and entire, that certainly the like is hardly to be found in story, and amongst men of this age, there is no sign nor trace of any such thing in use; so much concurrence is required to the building of such a one, that 'tis much, if fortune bring it but once to pass in three ages."

Wow. How many of us have had buddies like that? Apparently, the guys in Incubus come close. Three of the five have known each other since middle-school and have been making music together, not to mention traveling around on a tour bus together, for 15 years. Watching them together in interviews and in parts of their recent dvd, Look Alive, it's obvious that these guys have a strong rapport and genuinely enjoy each other's company. I find myself feeling envious of them, that they seem to have such strong ties based on shared history, laughter, creative stimulation, and support. There's been some severing of ties, specifically the controversial firing a few years ago of one band member who was also a high school buddy, but the overall solidity of their relationships is apparently what inspired Dig:

We all have a weakness
But some of ours are easier to identify.
Look me in the eye
& ask for forgiveness;
We'll make a pact to never speak that word again.
Yes, you are my friend.
We all have something that digs at us,
at least we dig each other.
So when weakness turns my ego up
I know you'll count on the me from yesterday.

If I turn into another,
dig me up from under what is covering
the better part of me.
Sing this song,
Remind me that we'll always have each other
when everything else is gone.

We all have a sickness
that cleverly attaches & multiplies
No matter how we try.
We all have someone that digs at us,
at least we dig each other.
So when sickness turns my ego up
I know you'll act as a clever medicine.

If I turn into another
dig me up from under what is covering
The better part of me.
Sing this song!
Remind me that we'll always have each other
when everything else is gone.

Up to this point in my life, I didn't feel that I had experienced anything like that with anyone I'd known. In the past, I often went out of my way to help friends in need, giving of my time, even my car and money. And I've always made a point of trying to learn about the interests of people I consider friends, as much to develop common bonds between us as for my own curiosity. And, so often, it seemed those things weren't appreciated and reciprocated. In those instances, I invariably felt slighted.

Lately, though, I find myself wondering what's changed. In hindsight, I think I've realized that what I felt I wasn't getting in past friendships was attention, and comfort and support when I needed them. I'm learning now that I don't have to have the attention, I can sit back and let others take the spotlight, and yet know that I still have something to offer. And I've been on my own long enough to feel confident that I can weather pretty much any emotional crisis without external support. What I do need, though, is communication, people with whom to share ideas, discuss experiences, and learn from.

I've already written (in one of those blogs linked above) about the various places around the 'net that have led me to begin establishing quite a few new relationships that seem to be burgeoning into friendship. I'm finding that what I enjoy most from these new relationships is the stimulus-- my cycling/kayaking buddies push me physically; various of my MySpace "friends" and music forum acquaintances have exposed me to new literary paths or inspired my creativity; and with some of these folks, I'm exploring new spiritual ground and being challenged to think about my future. But there's also been much of what I felt I didn't have in past friendships-- With everything I've been through lately with my cat's illness and death, I'm having trouble keeping up with and responding to all the thoughtful messages of comfort I've received, and it's left me a bit astounded. (And grateful. Thank you all very much.)

So where have all these people come from? What's behind all these sudden synchronous connections? Is it just chance that I've found internet sites frequented by like-minded folks? Or is there something in me that's shifted and allowed me to reach out? Or all of the above? As these friendships develop, will I allow expectation to take a backseat and just be open to whatever I can learn about and from these various people? My feeling is that I need to avoid expecting a certain level of support or loyalty, and instead hope for more of the stimulus that inspires me to be a finer person. In other words, I think I'm ready to aim for Brandon's ideal of friendship over Montaigne's: If I turn into another, dig me up from under what is covering the better part of me...

December 18, 2007

Goodbye to the cat

So, I had the cat put to sleep this afternoon. The kidney issue could possibly have been maintained for a few years, but the anemia he developed as a result of the renal failure was too severe. When the red blood cell count falls too low, not enough oxygen is carried through the blood stream and breathing becomes difficult.

When I first noticed a week and a half ago that the cat's breathing had become labored, the vet said that we could try a blood transfusion and a few treatments of
EPO (Ironically, had the cat lived, he would never have been allowed to race a bicycle professionally. Sorry, lame joke that couldn't be resisted since I'm into cycling. Anyway...). He said straight out that he couldn't guarantee positive results, or how long the results would last if there were any. For the first few days afterward, though, it was like having the old goombah back again. He was alert and hungry, climbed his scratching post, and even ran across the living room one evening when I walked into the kitchen. By the end of last week, though, there was an obvious decline. By this past Monday, his rib cage was heaving again and he wasn't eating much. So, this morning I called the vet's office at 7:45a.m. and said that I needed to bring him in. Blood and urine samples showed that his stats were worse than before the transfusion.

The decision itself wasn't hard. As I wrote
earlier this month, I've always known what I would do. What's difficult is dealing with the timing of it all. You go along with everything fine, then boom, the animal is suddenly sick. You balance that shock with trying to understand the situation and how to treat it, then boom, the condition is too far advanced and nothing you do will have long-lasting positive results. Even if the animal's condition drags on for years, I think that final realization is still a sudden thing, no matter how often you've considered or how long you've anticipated it.

The vet and her assistant were very nice, and very efficient, which was what I needed most. They gave me some private time to hold the cat, but he was too freaked over being at the vet's office to respond to my affection. The longer we sat together, the worse it would have been. When the vet came in, I put him on the table for her to administer the injection. It took effect immediately, and the cat slumped into a soft, limp bundle. I stroked him a few more times, then the vet checked his heart and said that he was gone. It was quick enough that I was able to keep from dissolving into total blubbering and managed to hold my voice steady while I thanked the vet and her assistant for taking care of him.

I chose to have the goombah cremated, so I left his body there and headed straight up the highway to
Sugarloaf Mountain. Going home would have led to blubbering and brooding, but in the woods and on the mountaintop I can think instead of brood. I know I'll cry more over the next few days-- when I go to bed alone and the cat doesn't wake me up in the middle of the night to beg for attention and food; when I clean up his toys and food dish and litterbox; when I go to work tomorrow and have people ask me how I am; and when I begin to think about whether it's time to go out and find another cat.

There is a part of me, though, that feels relieved. That might seem callous on the surface, but I have to be honest and admit that I'm relieved to not be dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of the last couple of months. I'm relieved for both myself and the cat that we don't have to go through the twice-daily torture treatments anymore. And I'm relieved that he's no longer nauseous and laboring to breath.

My plan for the cat's ashes will involve a hike up another mountain. When all of this started and I began to anticipate the end, I thought about what I'd do with his remains. I don't want to bury them where I live. It's not the only place the cat and I lived together, and I wouldn't want to leave him here if I move. And I don't want an urn or box of ashes on my bookshelf. I may have morbid tendencies, but that isn't one of them. But there's a spot in the Catoctin Mountains called Cat Rock that's reached by a couple of nastily steep, though fairly short, trails. Back in my younger years, I hiked up there a couple of times and had some great moments of reflection while taking in the view. And the symbolism can't be denied. There are tons of beautiful places in Maryland where I could say goodbye to the goombah, but will I remember where I did so in 10-20 years from now? How could possibly I forget that I scattered the cat amidst the boulders at Cat Rock?

And now I'm at home, trying not to look for the cat out of the corner of my eye and wondering how many days it'll take to be ready to clear out all of his toys and other stuff, not to mention the kitchen counter full of medicines and IV bags. And, hey!, I can set my alarm clock back to it's usual time and not get up early to administer morning tortures!


December 5, 2007

Punch Drunk

Where did I park my car?
If I found it I would drive so far from here
The city streets are dim
And my hands are tempted once again
To give in

I'm having trouble seeing
I'm punch drunk and
I need to find a way back home
It would be a miracle if you'd oblige

I will survive
On this island I am stuck
Could you correct my crooked luck tonight?

On the road, my thumb is out
I'm hitchin home, tonight I am without a name
Where was it that I lived?
Well nevermind, just take me with you
And forgive

My lack of information
I'm punch drunk and
I need to find a way back home
It would be a miracle if you'd oblige

I will survive
On this island i am stuck
Could you correct my crooked luck tonight?

I will survive
Tonight I wander and I roam
Just lookin for a way back home tonight

The sun is coming up
I think I've had my fill
Wait, who the fuck are you?
Where did I park my car?
Please forgive my

Lack of information
I'm punch drunk and
I need to find a way back home
It would be a miracle, ohhh

I'm having trouble seeing
I'm punch drunk and
I need to find a way back home
It would be a miracle if you'd oblige

I will survive
On this island I am stuck
Could you correct my crooked luck tonight?

I will survive
Tonight I wander and I roam
Just lookin for a way back home tonight

Spare me, a ride, a ride tonight
Spare me, a ride, a ride tonight

On this island I am stuck
Could you correct my crooked luck tonight?

- (Boyd, Einziger, Kenney, Kilmore, Pasillas)

December 2, 2007

The death watch

Ok, so maybe that title's a bit melodramatic, but that's how I felt at 2:00am this morning.

The cat I've lived with for the past ten or so years is sick. He's been diagnosed with chronic renal insufficiency, which basically means that his kidneys are pooping out on him. Once a hale & hearty part-Maine Coon/part-Labrador Retriever, he was 19lbs of attention-hogging affection and appetite. Ironically, the vet had me put him on a diet just a year ago. Over the last couple of months, though, he's lost over half of his body weight and spends most of his time huddled in a little ball with a woe-be-gone expression on his face. Trying to pet him causes him to either pull away, or to let out pitifully sad squawks that pass for meows. I also get to hear these squawks in the middle of the night, when he wakes up feeling poorly and gets right up in my face to let me know about it. He's gone from being a big, goofy goombah of a cat to a furry, miserable little bit of skin and bones.

Treatment of CRF is tons of fun. His usual vet went for minimal treatment: special food (which he won't eat), one medication, and subcutaneous fluid therapy to help maintain his hydration level. After three members of her staff couldn't hold him still long enough to give him one full sub-q treatment, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to do it alone. There's no experience quite like holding onto a squirmy, agitated cat that shouldn't be stressed with one hand, trying to insert a needle under his skin with the other hand, and then turning on an IV drip with your non-existent third hand. Toooonnns of fun. I gave it up on the first attempt without even poking him once.

So, when he continued to lose weight and the usual vet continued to insist that "some cats with CRF can live up to a handful of years", I took him in for a second opinion. While being examined, the goombah collapsed. The new vet immediately put him on oxygen, and collected lab samples once the cat had stabilised. He finally came out to the reception room to announce to me that "That cat is going to die!" My response was a stunned pause and then "Uhhh, yeah, I already know that. What are you really telling me?" I finally gathered that there's no way to predict how long the cat will hang on, but that he's in worse shape than the previous vet had led me to believe. His increasing weakness and dehydration has apparently contributed to a heart murmur, and the stress of being at the vet set it off and caused the collapse. The new vet prescribed a more aggressive treatment of six medications: three pills, two liquids, and a gel, each to be administered twice a day. So far, I've been able to get no more than one or two medications into the cat at a time. If it's in his food, he won't eat it (and he's barely eating to begin with). If I try to give any of them to him orally, he puts up a hellatious fight for such a weak little thing, and I'm paranoid of stressing him and having his heart give out. In addition to the six meds, the new vet also strongly recommended sub-q therapy. Surprisingly, this has been much easier than expected. The new vet installed a GIF-tube, which is basically a catheter, into which I can insert the IV tube with no needles involved. The goombah looks like a little Franken-cat with the thing sticking out of the back of his neck, but so far he's been amazingly good about allowing me to remove the cap, insert the IV tube, turn on the IV, then everything in reverse. He freaks a bit when the fluids begin flowing under his skin, but it's over fairly quickly.

The big question at this point is how long all of this is going to last. The cat keeps wanting to pry open the kitchen cabinet and curl up amongst my extra plastic grocery bags and cleaning supplies, and this gives me unhappy visions of sick animals searching for a solitary, quiet place to die.

The other spot he seems to like is a corner of my computer room. In the middle of the night, I woke up to find him gone from the bed, and got it into my head that I should try to get him to eat something. I found him in his little corner and gingerly carried him out to the kitchen, where he licked up a few bites of food. He then wandered back to the computer room, staggering a few times, and straight into the corner, where he huddled up into a ball, staring at the floor and occasionally shivering. I sat and watched him and convinced myself that every twitch he made was the beginning of the end. The big thing I wonder about is how I'm going to handle it when he does go, considering my phobia about dead things (can't recall whether I've already written about that or not). Will I freak and not be able to touch his body? Would it be better to have him put to sleep? And, if so, at what point? I've always believed firmly in quality of life over quantity, so my main concern at this point is that he be comfortable. If he deteriorates to the point that he's in pain or constant distress, I would have no qualms about putting him to sleep. It'd be devastating, but so would watching him die slowly or coming home from work to find him lifeless. I'm gonna be sad as hell no matter when he goes, so it's the how that has me agitated.

At 3:00am or so, I finally tucked a couple of fleece blankets into the corner around him and went back to bed. At the moment, he's huddled down there next to me. Every now and then, he'll curl up like normal and go to sleep with the tip of his tail wrapped over his nose, which is a relief to see. And I've written way more than I intended to. My intention for this blog was to briefly say that my cat is sick and his care is taking up a lot of my time, and as a result I'm going to be slow to respond at length to communications. A few brief posts or comments here and there are all I'm going to be able to manage for a while. Unless, like today, I have a bunch of mental or emotional crap that I need to unload.

The silly goombah: