The Princesses and the Penguins

18 Apr


It’s been nearly a year since Princess GiGi died of complications from MRSA. We met on Friday to have a beer in her honor, and brought our inflatable penguins. The penguin story needs to be preserved, even if only on a corner of an obscure blog on the internet…….

April 1 of last year, I came out of the bank to find the Princess sitting in the sunshine eating lunch and watching something. She was a habitually merry soul so I went over. Our museum features a sculpture of a globe. Princess GiGi and Princess Violetta had masterminded the purchase of a boatload of cheap inflatable penguin beachballs, which they had placed around the South Pole of that sculpture. Princess G was watching kids and visitors as they discovered the penguins, and “watching them interact”. It was a hoot, a perfect April 1 prank.

Then the penguins came to the attention of Museum Administration. Admin, of course, took a dim view of inflatable penguins. These penguins were a nuisance. Visitors might damage the lights around the globe, kids might get hurt! (In reality, visitors will damage anything they can reach, penguin accomplices or not, but that thought didn’t really intrude here.) So museum security was called in. These penguins! Where did they come from? How do we know this isn’t something malicious?

These questions could have been settled in the minutes that it takes to send a group e-mail, but never mind that. Paranoia is like being in a hurry, or being rich. Once you accept it, you can never be rich enough, or hurry enough….or be paranoid enough. Once one chicken hollered that they sky was falling, the whole flock began to squawk.

The police were called in. The police didn’t want to touch the suspicious penguins. No, sir. Not even with a ten-foot bomb-proof pole. They could have shot the penguins, I suppose, but not without a lot of paperwork afterwards. The area was blocked off for safety. The bomb squad was called in. It took them some time to suit up. It took them far less time to determine that, in their highly trained and keen professional judgement, these were inflatable plastic penguins. It takes quite a stretch of the imagination, and a near-total ignorance of chemistry, to decide that a plastic penguin beachball can be filled with anything flammable or explosive, i.e. they can only be blown up when they are flat.

The perpetrators were finally located, and called out to retrieve the penguins.  The two princesses were treated to an official reprimand by the ones who actually made all the mistakes. What ground Princess GiGi’s gears was that everyone who chewed her and co-mastermind Violetta out- police, security, admin- ended their spiel with “Can I have one?”  When I told the story at the dinner table, my youngest daughter had the same response.  GiGi still had a big box full, so that is how a plastic inflatable penguin came to live at our house.

Friday we quit at about 4 and held a penguin reunion. We passed around pictures of Little Bear, who is growing so fast and has eyes and smile like her mother. We drank a beer and remembered a friend and colleague who was merry and funny, imaginative, intelligent, good at her job, a dedicated foodie and such a wonderful nerdly geeky young woman in every way. One year later, there is still a hole in this world that she used to fill.


Dr. Sledge gets no sympathy

28 Dec

I’ve found from the beginning that women were not terribly supportive about the whole prostate cancer thing. Not that they wanted me to die, but that they were mostly unimpressed by the details.

Start with the fingers-up-your-tightest-hole examination. Women tend not to be impressed by the Prostate Handshake. Once they’ve had their feet in the stirrups and the ice-cold Speculum of Doom in place for a pelvic examination, sympathy for the Digital Rectal Exam is not forthcoming. The man gets the Urologists’ Secret Handshake, but the woman gets to host a search for Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher.

Post surgery, radical prostatectomy, is similar. My wife has already birthed three kids, so a Foley catheter in the urethra was not impressive. “Looks like a corndog on a stick,” she observed.  Likewise the sore perineal area. The prostate surgical area is right inside the perineum, so sitting is an iffy proposition at best. Forget about riding a bicycle any time soon. “Want me to pick up a donut for you to sit on while I’m out?” she said sweetly.

The same is true for post-operative incontinence. If I sit down incorrectly, I piddle a little. If I cough (holding my scarred-up belly tight with both hands), I piddle. If I sneeze, laugh, or wait too long, I piddle in my pants. “You realize that every woman over 40 who has had children pees a bit when they sneeze?” And don’t get her started on the piddle pads I have to wear in my underwear, because she has only recently been released from a lifetime of maxipads. So it is not that impressive if I am also passing blood. I was even instructed on the proper way to fold and wrap the bloody piddle pad before placing it in my trash.

The most aggravating thing for her is that I have to sleep with the suprapubic catheter attached to a bag at night. I usually sleep on my side or stomach, but the catheter forces me to sleep on my back, so I snore. Christmas morning she lay awake from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. listening to me snore, snorkel and make Darth Vader noises. Of course she does the same thing sleeping on her back. Over the years we have learned to roll over on command, without anybody having to really wake up. But when I suggested she roll over on Christmas night and stop snoring, she raised her head a bit and said, “Live with it.” She remembered nothing the next night, and when I told her about it she laughed for ten minutes. She rolled over on her side, but every few minutes she would start shaking again.

We’ve been married for more than thirty years now, and had three children, one of whom was stillborn. Perhaps the whole prostate cancer experience is designed to help a guy get in touch with his feminine side. Or to increase his empathy for pain by direct experience. It could simply be karma, and karma, as they say, is a bitch.

Dr. Sledge Has Prostate Cancer

12 Dec

Any guy who is in for visits to the urologist needs to be aware: everyone wants to stick their fingers up your butt. Don’t be surprised if you have to do that at check-in, or for valet parking. This is some kind of secret handshake among urologists. I made a mental note to avoid urology conferences and conventions.

 My biopsy results came back positive for prostate cancer, but the MRI results show that it has not spread outside the prostate, or to local lymph nodes. I learned this after many secret handshakes. Surgery seems best for long-term freedom from prostate cancer, but actually I have decided to have my prostate removed just to keep my butt free of inquisitive medical fingers.

My original urologist, who performed the biopsy, insisted I read Prostate and Cancer before we had The Talk. That was an excellent preparation for the next phase, Treatment. He proposed an aggressive cancer treatment of surgery that involved removal of the nearest nerves and all the lymph nodes. I got a second opinion at the closest university hospital, which proposed a less aggressive surgical treatment that left the nerves and lymph nodes intact, unless, of course, things looked different once they were cruising around in 3D inside my abdominal cavity.

For other geologists who don’t think much about anatomy, the nerves in question control arousal and sexual response.

So it seems that everyone I meet wants to discuss my erections. Never in my life have I discussed my stiffies with so many strangers! I filled out a questionnaire on my erections. I discussed my erections with nurses. I discussed them with Residents. I discussed them with the doctor. On my pre-op visit I was assigned a lovely, strapping Physician’s Assistant from the Rockies. She spared me the secret handshake but she want to talk erections, too. An intelligent and accomplished woman who is taller than I am generally leaves me slack-jawed and ga-ga with admiration, but I was too surprised to provide an example at short notice to a woman I had just met. So much for empiricism…

In the name of informed consent, everyone tends to make certain you are aware of the consequences of prostate removal. This only served to bring out the smartass in me, but I managed to keep my mouth shut everywhere except in my head. My P.A:

You are down for radical prostatectomy and removal of seminal vesicles.

          Radical? Like terrorist? You’re radicalizing my prostate? Can’t we just do Jaeger bombs instead?

You need to be aware that after this surgery you will not be able to father children.

          I’ll knock up as many women as I can before surgery.

After surgery, orgasm will no longer be accompanied by the release of fluids.

          My wife’s looking forward to that, actually.

And even with nerve sparing surgery, your erections will probably take a hit.

          Nooooow I’m uncomfortable. Any sort of talk about hitting my erection…

And you will be incontinent to a degree that’s unpredictable for you, but here are the stats…

Yeah, there’s incontinence. My surgeon prefers what is called a suprapubic catheter in these surgeries. The usual Foley catheter comes out your urethra (a hose within a hose), but the suprapubic catheter comes out the abdomen and doesn’t stretch the sphincter muscle of your bladder. This leads to “improved surgical outcomes,” meaning less time wetting my pants. I was looking forward to the Foley catheter, because it seems like just the thing for all those boring-ass committee meetings I have to sit through. But the one that exits through my superpubic region means that I can pee without unzipping or dropping my pants.

What freedom! To mark your territory anywhere without going to jail! And the possibilities for practical jokes are endless. If you get a long enough tube, you could run it up your shirt and out your sleeve. You could wet somebody else’s pants instead of your own! You could pee in friends’ houseplants and blame their cats! The cat that peed in your guitar case would be in for serious payback. You could mark a mugger! If you were stuck next to an annoying relative at the holiday dinners, you could pee in their glass! You can readily imagine how the combination of a catheter and narcotic painkillers might not be a good one.

Then there is what is politely called erectile dysfunction, ED or Mr. ED. My regular family nurse practitioner was the one who sent me to the university hospital, because that’s where her husband went. I was dying to ask about surgical outcomes (I’m getting good with these euphemisms).  I have seen Jan for a long time, through many a problem, but asking about her husband’s boners still seemed a bit out of bounds.  She beat me to it (no pun intended), by offering that he had suffered no problems with Mr. ED. Another friend who had the surgery in his forties offered that Viagra was prescribed after surgery to help keep things in working order during recovery. He still ordered it in bulk from Canada- 200 at a time for $1 each. Dude! You can take your wife out to eat once in a while! At the marathon erection confab, my university urologist agreed, Viagra was part of the rehab. And he said with an evil smile, “And we rehab aggressively.”

The evil smile clinched it. Surgery is 19 December 2014.

I’m just worried that once they take it out, they’re going to discover it’s just callouses from years of long-distance bicycling, not cancer. Damn little bitty bicycle seats.

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27 Nov

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Dr. Sledge Rants About Passions

20 Nov

I gave a talk about “research careers outside of academia” a few months back. It turned out to be more Q&A than talk, but that’s OK with me. One young lady asked me very specifically, “What are your passions?” She didn’t anticipate my answer or reaction.

Talk about “passions” is very trendy. But passion is ephemeral. Passion comes and goes. Passionate moments are typically portrayed as quick and hurried and sloppy. I want to know, what are you willing to work at for the next twenty years? What are you willing to build, rather than knock together overnight?

What I like about pagans is that they have moved out of the realm of the day-to-day, and into the leisurely groove of the Wheel of the Year. It’s a fundamentally different experience of time, one where you surf the seasons instead of counting minutes until 5:00 on Friday. Yeah, when they do magick they kind of lose me, but I would jump naked through a Beltane fire or stay up all night on the Solstice with the best of them. It’s a different measure of time, and in that scale of measurement is a profound insight into our place in nature.

What I didn’t say to the young lady who asked the question is this: Passion is if I bend you over the desk after class. What I’m interested in is marriage, and spending the coming decades learning to love you in every way. I’ve been married for more than 30 years. See the difference?

There’s the real clue to a career in the sciences. Not some hurried and secretive love affair, but a long slow groove that polishes every aspect of your interest. Not some four-minute furious punk song from the Ramones, but a long set from the Grateful Dead at their very best, the Allman Brothers, String Cheese Incident. Musicians, flexible and interacting and responding to each other, braiding a rope from the bass and the drums and the guitars and the vocals, a rope flung over the horizon of time, a shout at the future listeners who will be learning these licks by heart.

I started guitar in 1975. I started Geology in 1978, though I had done Gifted and Talented study in the geology prep lab in high school.  The undergrads coming into my lab are told, “Calm down. Find your groove.” We’re going to be here a while. There’s a rhythm to everything.

In which Dr. Sledge talks out his……

12 Aug

The verdict came after a particularly thorough, enthusiastic and energetic prostate examination during my annual physical. My doctor said, “Hmmm…”

I thought, Shake hands with it, why dontcha?

Another round of the prostate, with even closer examination. “Ummm…”

Tonsils, goddamn it!

The doctor eventually pulled out his finger and said that, with my elevated PSA , age, and slightly abnormal exam, he was sending me up the line to the urologist for further examination. His urologist, which seemed a bit ominous. He left me with a box of tissues to clean up and went out to make the referral. If that was a Digital Rectal Examination, I sure as hell don’t want Analog.  Not wanting to waste the copious amounts of lube, I styled a Mohawk with my body fur and left it at that.

The Urologist put me at ease, checking my external equipment, saying “OK, let’s see the Big Guy first.”  (wOOOOt!) Then he did the Digital Rectal Exam (Are big hands a requirement here?) told me things didn’t feel too bad, and scheduled my needle biopsy .  I approached the date with initial calm that deteriorated into stress-related muscle spasms in my neck: I made the mistake of reading about treatment of prostate cancer online. My info told me that chemotherapy was not usually used (Some good news there) and that radioactive seeds could be implanted in the prostate to kill off the diseased tissue. (I’m radioactive….) Further reading gave details about the implanting of 40-100 seeds via needle inserted through the perineum (Oh, hellll noooo!) while the doctors watched the proceedings through a rectal ultrasound (What?) and a small camera diabolically inserted though the urethra into the bladder. (Nononononono…..)

Buuuuut…. I wonder what mutant power I would get from that?  Intrigued by the idea of a mutant whanger package, I did what I could to calm down and settle the neck muscles.

I disobeyed the preparation instructions (Ooooops), and took some ibruprofen for the muscle spasms on Saturday before a Tuesday appointment. I further made the error of drinking for breakfast a blueberry smoothie: a pint of blueberries, a bit of water, and some ice all taken for a spin. I realized (too late) that I might have dyed my colon a lovely shade of blue or lavender. I really didn’t want the nurse and doctor to think that I had gone to the trouble of redecorating for the occasion.

I showed up for the appointment all prepared. Did I perform the cleansing enema two hours before? Yep, all clear. You put an ear to my rear and hear the ocean. Did I read all the literature? Unfortunately. Did you take the Valium? Valium? No! I could have had Valium? For all this backdoor action someone should have bought me a drink at least. I’d settle for a Valium!  You’ll be OK without it. <Grump.> Is the ibruprofen a problem? No, but I might pass a little more blood than I would otherwise. Yeee fuckin’ haaa.  I didn’t mention the blueberries.

In the biopsy room, I immediately spotted the rectal ultrasound probe, wrapped in a condom. OMG. Did they give it a name? I realized immediately they could only have named it Big Richard. At least they wouldn’t have color in the images. When the doctor came in I asked about the number of biopsies they would do. I was only a novice at this, with a brand new prostate ailment, so I hoped for 1. Twelve. The standard biopsy was an even dozen. Oh, well, in for a penny, in for a pound…

 So, on my side, knees up to chest, been there, done that for the colonoscopy, and the doctor said, “1, 2, 3…” and Wooof! Big Richard was on the job. A consummate professional, I might add, not deigning to notice the new paint or the redecorating. “Your ultrasound looks good.” But then I realized that Big Richard was only the first guest to arrive. Next was a long something or another to deliver a shot of local anesthetic…Then another guest arrived, someone new to the party.

loud click was followed by a very strange sensation in my pelvic region. I jumped, alarming both doctor and nurse who must have thought I’d go running around the room towing the ultrasound machine by Big Richard and his cables. They both put a hand on me. “Are you OK?!?” Yeah I was OK, but what was that? “We use a gun  to take the needle biopsy. You only have 11 to go. Want me to warn you before I pull the trigger?” “No, I’m good. In geology we call that a piston core.”  I’m just not used to someone popping a cap in my ass.

The rest of the procedure was strange but not painful, and I actually lost count somewhere between 5 and 10. Afterwards, the nurse showed me the centimeter-long little worms they had collected.

Then she gave me the Talk. Blood in my urine for a few days. Urine a heap o’ trouble, boy. Maybe some blood in my stools. No hot and spicy comfort foods tonight. And no sexual activity for 48 hours.  Wow. Do I get a Cone of Shame to keep me from scratching that itch? Something like a tutu? No, but the nurse liked the Cone of Shame idea.  How about the radioactive implants?  Those are mostly for the old guys, not for a young guy like you.  Young guy like me? wOOt! That was worth the co-pay.

Thirty minutes later, back on the street. Stopped off in the Men’s to pass some Barbie-pink water. Two weeks for the pathology report to arrive. Twist in the wind…..

But I’d already gotten the ultrasound results: I’m a good guy.

Down deep inside. They have pictures.

Grief is a room in my house

16 Jun

One of Princess GiGi’s friends wrote me after she read my blog, ”This is my first big grief.” Another friend put me in contact with a father who had recently had a stillborn son, as we had. This is my gift to them. I spent too long in the dark with grief, so I hope this will lessen some of the surprises. Everyone is unique, so this may be familiar or may be totally wide of the mark for others. I’m writing at a distance of fifteen years, but many of the memories are still fresh and raw. Grief is a room in my house. 

There is a lot written about grief. Joan Didion wrote about it far better than I ever could. Jackson Browne sang it in Late for the Sky.  These are the things that I want others to know.  These are things that I learned after the death of our son, Bryan.

All of the emotions with grief are very powerful. If they are suppressed, they will emerge elsewhere. In my case, my shoulder would not permit me to play guitar, and I couldn’t begin to fix it until I discovered the connections. It will emerge through your health, and stress-related symptoms, and depression. I was eventually clinically depressed, and that needed to be treated as well as the other problems.

The emotions are so powerful, your body can’t sustain the expression for long. Great ripping bouts of grief would pass through like storm fronts, followed by some calm. Brief moments of sunshine would be the eye of the hurricane. With me there seemed to be some period of recovery, so that when I was recovered enough to feel it all again, my body would present me with another episode of grief. Timing and place might not necessarily be convenient.

Music was a terrible trigger. I realized that all the love songs, all the “you’re gone, I’m destroyed, I’m sad, what did I do?” songs work unfortunately well as grief songs. I went to give a talk at a gem and mineral show 2.5 hours from home, listening to Kim Richey sing Didn’t I? and crying the whole way there and back. A friend made me a mix CD that contained Dee Carstensen’s Farewell, with love,  written to her own child who did not survive. I first listened at work and had to go home for the rest of the day. I was on the recumbent bike exercising, when Kate Wolf’s version of Who knows where the time goes? caught me off guard and left me absolutely breathless with pain.  I eventually listened to Eric Taylor  a lot, spare guitar in a quiet room, dark songs crafting the darkness into light.

Friends may or may not help. Many times  words and actions are all directed at the mother who has lost a child, not the father. Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote several times that what one can suffer another can share. But it is a rare friend who can really share this with you. Sad but true, many people are glad what has happened to you did not happen to them. It’s a secret happiness that most are very ashamed of. The shame keeps them silent. What they need to know is that words aren’t necessary.

Some friends and acquaintances will take refuge in clichés. Some would ask, “What stage of grieving are you in now?” You can’t be serious. I wasn’t issued an agenda when my son died, so I would think or say, “Oh, yes, I’m on step 3b(iii).” A subset of friends want to make a speech – so they will feel better. I still believe that the saying there’s a reason for everything is the most succinct expression of superstition available. Like thermodynamics has a 0th Law, that saying is the 0th Law of Superstition. What doesn’t kill us makes us strong demonstrates a remarkable lack of empathy and compassion. The only appropriate response is to inflict as much pain on the speaker as possible, all for their own good, of course. I believe that if we all work together and kick someone’s balls each time that someone says what doesn’t kill us…then that expression will die out quickly.

Religion may or may not help. Neither my wife nor I believe in God, so we never had to deal with the issues of God killing our child and taking a giant shit on the heads of the faithful. We attended a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at the time. The interim minister was very good to us, but when he left, that was that. The Director of Religious Education that we were close to left, mostly because of the new minister, I think. We indicated we would like to add Bryan’s name to the memorial in the garden. The committee ignored their own policies, went ahead and did it without the paperwork, without being paid, and without even checking the spelling of his name. The stone carver was already there, so why not? Our request to donate a bell in Bryan’s name spurred bureaucratic infighting over who would control such requests in the future. We left to found another UU Fellowship, and when we requested that the old Fellowship move Bryan’s Memorial Fund, they slowly complied, but they skimmed off all the interest from the account.  Maybe other churches are better. I learned that UU’s were so self-absorbed that it wasn’t a really good place to be if you needed any sort of support, excepting perhaps the loan of an underwire bra or a jockstrap.

Science may or may not help. If you ask for an autopsy report, get someone else to read it for you. We asked for one for Bryan. It contained no answers for us, but it did contain all the details on the way the coroner cut up our dead son. I spent a day in a medical library researching stillbirth, and got no answers. (More research has been done since then, but it was pretty bare at the time.) The search for answers is a dead end. Even if all the answers are available, you still have to deal with the hole in your life, the loss that doesn’t end.

Then there’s the things that nobody talks about. Like libido. I suppose it is a normal response to death to want to use your own naturally-occurring abilities to replace the loss. I was ready to knock up any female who wanted it. Single women in my town that want children? Line them up. You big ones take numbers, you little ones choose teams. It was disturbing enough that it sent me to the grief counselor at my wife’s work. She had suffered a severe miscarriage many years earlier, but remembered the aftermath: The doctor told them to wait six weeks before having sex again. They lasted a week. Another friend of my wife’s had a stillbirth the same time we did, and told her husband, “Why don’t we go ahead and try again?” She said, “Honey, he had me on my back and was in me before I could hardly finish the sentence.” I never acted on it, but my wife got pregnant the first time we tried.

Information helps, good books, like Living When a Loved One has Died, Empty Cradle, Broken Heart, and Trying Again.  Support groups help, and keep that feeling of isolation at bay. We reached out to other to let them know that they were not alone.

Work helps, and I don’t mean hiding in the nine-to-five and busy-ness. I worked on it with therapists, both mental and physical, and learned to express myself better with words and music. We attended the ParentCare support group, run by a chaplain from the local major hospital. I met some very exceptional people that I still keep in touch with.

The thing that really works is time. My therapist told me that grief and loss become a room in your house. At first, you spend a lot of time there. As time passes, you spend less and less, but when you go back in that room, it’s exactly as you left it. Every feeling and memory is there undisturbed. Grief is a room in my house.

What I wish for the grieving is peace of mind and heart, and the time in which to find it. That is what I wish for you all.