I got locked in a toilet today.

My brother came around and we decided between us I had been inside my house for way too long, so he took me to cafe and all was well. Until I needed to go to the bathroom and I discovered that this particular cafe kept its bathroom next to the area everyone waits to order food, and that it was the smallest freaking bathroom in the world.

Not actual bathroom though. I have limits.

ACTUAL GODDAMN SIZE

I don’t like tight spaces much, I’m not a small human and this bathroom was clearly designed to accommodate people one limb at a time. I had to go into it sideways, more or less orient myself and then close the door.

Which locked itself.

I didn’t realize what had happened until I tried to leave the microbathroom and the door wouldn’t open. My first, primitive brain thought was “door won’t open? I WILL OPEN IT HARDER!”

My primitive brain is not made for tiny bathrooms.

This thoroughly buggered the locking mechanism on the door which was already hanging on by a thread. By the time the rest of my brain kicked in and I decided to investigate the handle/lock/sadness hybrid that was keeping me in the Febreeze scented oubliette the lock itself was jammed.

I was unhappy about this.

A lot of thoughts went through my brain. First and foremost was it would be deeply ironic if I died in here after everything that’s happened. 

I don’t want to have an ironic death. If I’m going to make the papers passing away I either want it to be because I’ve done something heroically amazingly or heroically strange enough to make everyone who reads it laugh.

There was a tiny little window. I considered climbing out of it despite the fact that it would have accommodated my head and that’s about it. I wasn’t getting out the window without dismantling myself with a chainsaw first. I considered calling for help.

I decided I would give myself five minutes and if I was still stuck I would call my brother and get him to see if he could help. It was a great plan hampered only by the fact that I had left my cellphone in the cafe. Maybe that’s why everyone takes their phone into the bathroom…subconscious fear of getting trapped.

So, thus abandoned by both my primitive brain and my subconscious I was left with modern humanity’s only option: push all the buttons.

I mean this metaphorically, there was only one actual button and I’d already broken it.

At a lot of jobs I’ve worked I’ve ended up with the title of unofficial IT guy because of this willingness to push buttons until something works. It’s actually pretty hard to permanently break a computer these days so I’m perfectly OK with trying any and all solutions I find on Google and then accepting the credit when one of them works.

In the tiny bathroom this meant jiggling the handle, rattling the door and repeatedly twisting the locking mechanism.

There was a pop.

The door creaked open. The line of people who had been waiting to place their order who had been wondering what personal dragon I had been trying to slay in the restroom all looked away suddenly. With as much dignity as I could muster (none) I walked back to the table my brother was at. He was engrossed in his cellphone and didn’t seem to realize how long I’d been gone for.

“You OK?”  he asked.

“Sure,” I said. I am full of lies.

If he noticed the rest of the cafe was still looking at me, he was too nice to say anything.

It occurs to me now that I should have told someone who worked there that the lock was broken…

If you are stuck in there now and are reading this on your cellphone, PUSH ALL THE BUTTONS.

It might even work.

 

 

I’ve said before that I never got a big epiphany from my cancer, but I did pick one up from someone else’s emergency.

It didn't look anything like this. I just like this photo.

The moment didn’t look anything like this, I just like this photo.

 

One of the many people who’ve taught me Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a man named John Will, had a heart attack. John is quite simply one of the best teachers in the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s a complex technique or a life lesson, he can bring it across to a room full of beginners and experts alike. His particular gift seems to be imparting lessons that will hang around until the student is ready. More than once he taught me something in a seminar I thought I hadn’t understood, and yet once I’d progressed in BJJ enough, the technique slotted itself into my repertoire like I’d be taught the day before.

John is also the person I think best exemplifies the idea of living life fully. He does more with his days than any other five people I know, and he’s one of the fittest people I’ve ever met.

 

This is John. I always assumed when death showed up for him he'd break its legs.

This is John. I always assumed when death showed up for him he’d break its legs.

 

He still had a heart attack.

Fortunately his wife made him go to the hospital and he’s well into recovery now. The lesson I got came when John mentioned that a lot of people had said that his heart attack was a reminder of how precious life was, to live life to the fullest. The thing is, John knew. He really, really already knew. As I said above no one I know lives their life more. John didn’t need the reminder that life is precious…

But I did.

Cancer should have been one heck of a reminder. I would have preferred a short note.

It doesn’t matter, I didn’t get it. Not really.

I was too caught up in the process of surgery/chemo/recovery to really notice that the lesson I’d been hanging around waiting for was right there. It took John’s medical emergency (and subsequent Facebook post advising the world he was OK) for me to pay attention. It’s a cliche, but life is precious. I just didn’t realize it. Not just as a whole, but in the specific too:

I didn’t realize what a blessing being able to eat more or less what I wanted was until I couldn’t for weeks on end.

I didn’t get how big a deal keeping myself fit was until I couldn’t walk to the end of my driveway.

I didn’t understand how loved I was by my friends and family until they all stepped up to the plate AT ONCE to help me. I sort of knew, but I didn’t understand it. I have an army of people right there, ready to fight for me, and the idea of that is so overwhelming I have no idea how to process it.

I didn’t realize how much time I was wasting until there was a chance I didn’t have any left.

That last one is the one I want to unpack. I want to make it clear that I don’t regret one second that I spent intentionally. If I lay down on the couch to watch something with my awesome wife and a bowl of popcorn, I don’t consider that time wasted, because that’s one of life’s great pleasures. Similarly I don’t consider any time spent writing to be wasted even if it’s writing I don’t end up using 1I wrote three different versions of this article for example. The unused versions aren’t waste, even if they are unused.

The time wasted I’m talking about is the time I didn’t intend to waste. Time I spent aimless online, or channel surfing. The decade I spent miserable in jobs I could have quit. Time I knew was wasted and time I just let slip by. So often I was too caught up in doing what I was doing to notice the wider picture.

I spent a lot of time daydreaming. Not the good daydreaming that makes for new stories, the kind where I dream about winning the lottery. Or about having superpowers. Or about spending my time productively.

Maybe the most honest I’ve ever been with myself was at the beginning of last week where I admitted I’d given up on my dream of being a writer, at least as far as novels and scripts went. I was enjoying my job writing for radio, and the idea of pursuing being a novelist seemed too much. Because I was scared it wouldn’t work. Because the idea of going through so much for possibly no result was terrifying.

It wasn’t just that though. For a while there in my early twenties I trained hard at jiu jitsu, I even had an MMA fight 2Which I lost. and had always wanted to get back to competition of some kind. But I didn’t, and I was kidding myself that I ever would.

Because I was scared. I never really learned how to handle competition, and I hated to lose, especially in front of my friends. So I found reasons not to compete.

That pattern has been there for a long time and a part of it is the lie I always told myself: I’ll do it later. 

You would think that getting cancer would have snapped me out of it, but it didn’t. As I said above I was too busy running through the process of getting well to really get any epiphanies, so instead I’m going to steal the one that John didn’t need. I needed a reminder that no matter where you are in life there might not be a later. 

I wish I could make some grand announcement that from this moment forward I wouldn’t waste any more time, that I would achieve X, Y or Z. Life doesn’t work like that. I can’t make any promises to you or to anyone else. There are no promises to make, all I can say for sure is that it took me seeing someone else’s epiphany for me to get my own lesson.

As I’m finishing this off it occurs to me that maybe there’s another lesson there that I’m not ready for yet, and that will slot itself into my repertoire when I’m ready.

I hope so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I wrote three different versions of this article for example. The unused versions aren’t waste, even if they are unused.
2. Which I lost.

I have a bad habit of writing long posts and then deleting them because they weren’t what I really wanted to say.

I had one written already, I’ve been working on it for two weeks when I could here and there in preparation for finishing chemo. It was…pretty bad. The problem, as far as I can tell, is that the thing I was writing about wasn’t what I really wanted to say and I was going to take four thousand words to say mostly nothing. The upshot was this: I don’t know what to do now I’ve finished chemotherapy. I hate waiting around, and I feel weird about having a second shot at my life, especially when so many people don’t get one.

Fortunately my brother turned up (yep, the one who got attacked by a goose) and I croaked some of my general angst at him ( right now I sound almost exactly like Ned Gerblansky from South Park), and as he does, he had a good clear answer for me: I’m actually a little scared of having a second chance.

I didn’t get a single big cancer epiphany, instead little things started to creep in at the edges. Some of it was small, like I know now that if you’re feeling nauseous suddenly changing position will end badly for everyone. Some of it was big, but slow and gentle, like the realization that I was loved far more than I ever really knew, and how grateful I was for that. I’ve had a lot of realizations about how privileged I am, to live where I do and when I do, because in so many other places and times my disease would have been a death sentence.

But the one that really crept in was the cliche that life is short, and that I should try and make the most of it. The idea that stomping cancer down was a chance to reinvent myself. I’m going to have rebuild myself from virtually zero anyway, so why not try to build a better me? I certainly have every opportunity to do so.

And that’s terrifying.

I can’t just go back to being exactly who I was before all of this. Too much has happened for that. Too many people have gone to the mat (literally in the case for BJJ club who ran two separate fundraisers for me) to just go back.

Too many people don’t get the chance to rebuild themselves.

Fair warning: I’m about to use a role playing game metaphor.

Also, be careful when you go searching for photos about roleplaying on Google. You'll see things.

You were warned: nerdiness inbound.

Sadly it’s not quite like building a character in Dungeons and Dragons. If it was I’d put all my points into charisma and take up acting.  If I could literally just choose from a list of personality traits it would be very easy. Instead it’s like being handed a smudged, torn character sheet someone else has already filled out, complete with flaws and skills, and being told ‘sorry you can’t change most of these things about yourself without serious work, and some of them you can’t change at all….but if you want you can choose to play this a little differently.

That’s why it’s scary. There are no numbers to shuffle around, just a choice to play my character a little differently.

I don’t know what that means yet.

I have a bad habit (I have a lot of bad habits) of making up answers to things that sound better than saying ‘I don’t know’. I often say these things with great confidence and people tend to believe me. It doesn’t make them any more true. So the answer to the question of ‘what are you going to do now your cancer is hopefully cured?’ is not what I would have once said. My old answer, again said with great confidence, would have been something along the lines of ‘I’m going to live my life to fullest’. Astute observers will note that sentence, ‘I’m going to live my life to the fullest’ is almost totally meaningless. It’s a stock answer.

In fact even the question isn’t quite right.

The real question is ‘now what?’ and the honest answer is ‘I have no idea’.

Maybe my big epiphany is that I think I’m OK with that. Obviously I’m not OK enough not to write a long blog post about it, but I’m OK enough that I don’t feel like a bad person for not knowing what to do yet.

Now I just have to remember that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wrote this last week and didn’t post it for some reason. The week after was pretty much the same thing repeated though, so it’s still as relevant as a post of dream buffalo can be. I’ve been so unwell I haven’t been able to do much in the way of writing, but I hope to get a few posts in this week.

-Andrew

 

I’ve had a bad few days.

Actually it’s been a pretty bad ten days.

I knew my last run at chemotherapy would be bad, but I had no idea how bad it would be. I constantly vomited for days on end, so much I burned my throat and while the general upchucking has stopped I can’t really talk. When I do try to speak above a whisper I sound like I’m speaking through a Darth Vader voice synthesizer from 1988, complete with elderly battery and broken hardware. It’s also been painful, and pretty emotionally rough. My wife has been amazing, looking after me while I’ve been alternately bedridden, vomiting or in hospital. I can see why people used to fully hospitalized while they went through high dose BEP chemo in the past.

By the way, I got thoroughly ticked off for not calling the hospital sooner about the vomiting thing. It was done in the generally friendly and caring way of nurses and doctors everywhere in oncology, and yet I was left in no doubt that I had in fact been a stubborn idiot in assuming there was nothing that could be done.

So, if you are one of the unlucky few that has to go through this, when the hospital gives you a card and say ‘call us’ they mean it. Don’t wait.

The throat burning has put me in a weird position. Obviously I haven’t been able to eat until lately, and even then it’s only in tiny amounts. I haven’t always been lucid (hence the lack of blog posts) and have generally been feeling a bit sorry for myself, so I turned to a previously unknown comfort:

Cooking shows. 

I couldn’t choose a favorite, although I did just see Nigella Lawson make a margarita ice cream that is going to be in my face’s future. I’ve watched Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein travel to exotic locales, and Michelle Poh do amazing things. I have watched a lot of YouTube food bloggers.

Yes it’s torture. It’s the best sort of torture, and one I subject to willingly. My mind appears to be able to appreciate the food even though my mouth and my stomach can’t, and far from making me feel sick, I actually feel oddly satisfied seeing Rick Stein plate up an enormous bowl of Sicilian spaghetti. So really it’s not a bad thing, more a way to keep my mind and body happy while I recover.

Except…

Except, I really want a pizza.

pizza-925463_1280

While not just any will do, I would be quite happy with either an exceptional New York style slice, a cheesy deep dish Chicago pie or a charred, mozzarella laden Neapolitan endorsed masterpiece. I have not actually eaten any of these pizzas in my lifetime. I’ve made my own approximations, and I’ve certainly eaten enough pizza, but these pizzas in their truest form exist only in my mind and a kind of bizarre cheese and topping baked fantasy that tugs at both my dreams and my waking thoughts. It is purest fantasy…and it’s gotten weird. 

I dreamed of pizza last night. I dreamed about buying it, eating it, enjoying every mouthful. Then I dreamed I went back in time and selected the precise ingredients, even making the fresh mozzarella from a very placid water buffalo 1water buffalo are, typically, not really very placid creatures and picked the fresh basil. The tomatoes fell off the vine as I walked over to collect them. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize I was dreaming when they broke into slices and the buffalo helped me out by kneading the pizza dough, but it all seemed very normal at the time. Then we baked the pizza and ate it.

It was the greatest pizza never made.

I woke up with a real sense of loss that I had not in reality consumed my dream pizza. I watched a few shows about making perfect pizza, but suddenly they didn’t hit the spot anymore. I had been forever ruined by a pizza cooked up by my subconscious mind. I question my subconscious’ qualifications as a pizza chef. I certainly question its knowledge about the general helpfulness and relative dangers of water buffalo.

I don’t know if (probably as a teenager) you ever dreamed of a person who never existed and then woke up sad that you’d never get to meet them (or, let’s be honest here, see them naked) but it was very much like that…only more so. With cheese.

I told you it got weird.

Cancer has given a me a lot to think about. For a while there I didn’t know who I was (more on that in a future post) and I at least in part still don’t. Physically I’m a raw nerve and twitching muscles…and yet despite all this I have somehow made the time to be sad about a dream pizza made, at least in part, by a friendly water buffalo.

I like to think that, across time and space, a connection was made.

 

I wish there was a point to all this beyond ‘my brain is stupid’ and ‘I still really want a pizza’ but there isn’t.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Rick Stein is on.

 

Other stuff:

I wrote an article over at the Evil League of Evil Writers called Taking Good Things from Bad Experiences and then Writing About Them. The ELOEW have been supporting me since well before this cancer business, and have helped me in ways too numerous (and evil) to recount here. If you have any interest in writing or publishing, I recommend them without reservation.

I have a webcomic named Cthulhu Slippers, a (sort of) office comedy set after the apocalypse. I just posted an update there if you are interested in such things.

Have you seen Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) and her amazing Twitter based record of humanizing awkwardness? Pee first, put down any hot beverages and go check it out. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. water buffalo are, typically, not really very placid creatures

The Bloggess (aka Jenny Lawson) made a frank confession on her Twitter feed about an awkward moment at the airport.

screen-shot-2015-11-02-at-1-11-59-pm

and Twitter didn’t just respond, it responded AWESOMELY. Tales of utter awkwardness spread like wildfire, with a combined sense of shame and growing community spirit over our shared human moments. There’s one of mine up there detailing what was a formative moment in my early working life:

Nov 2:

when I was a travel agent my PC froze mid-booking. I said to my customer “I’m sorry ma’am, I’m having trouble getting it up.”

That…took some living down.

I bring it up not only because The Bloggess was nice enough to retweet me amongst all the other amazing stories, but because I had another amazingly awkward moment this morning at chemotherapy.

I was sitting in the chair hooked up and half asleep. My Mother was there being awesome and supporting me, and I heard one of the Doctors say to my Mother “Here again huh?”…except I thought he was talking to me and I responded before Mum could.

“Sadly,” I said. Implying I was sad that my mother was in fact there, supporting me, again.

It took a few seconds for me to realize what I’d just said. Mum broke out laughing and the doc looked horrified. I tried to say sorry but couldn’t get a word out of my mouth. I eventually managed to croak out ‘um…sorry Mum’. She thought it was hilarious, but I don’t think that doctor will ever look at me the same way again.

Maybe I can wear a mask in next time…

I'm going to wait here until everyone else is gone.

I’m going to wait here until everyone else is gone.

I was going to write a post called ‘all the way down in the dark’ but I accidentally mistyped it as ‘all the way down in the duck’ which seemed like a much better idea for a blog, and it reminded me of the time my brother got attacked by a goose.

It’s not the first time this has happened.

While he was in the middle of a farmer’s market, a goose launched itself at my brother in a flapping, feathered ball of rage. This was in no small part because geese are vicious, ornery creatures at the best of times and tend to unleash hell at the slightest provocation. The ancient Romans used to use them as guard birds because they are so territorial.

You ESPECIALLY.

There are many kinds of goose, and they all hate you.

Despite that, I find it hard to blame the goose, because it was mostly my brother’s fault.

The problem was not that he was bothering the goose in any meaningful way, it’s just that he does an amazing impersonation of a goose. No one is quite sure how or why he’s developed this amazing skill, or why he can do something that looks an awful lot like a mating dance while honking in an uncanny fashion. I just assume he was blessed or cursed by some sort of careless goose god.

I’m not 100% sure why the goose was even there. But while my brother was considering a purchase a solitary goose wandered up behind him and honked.

He honked back.

As I said he does an absolutely incredible goose honk.

The goose wiggled and honked and seemed friendly, so he did his goose dance for it. This requires no small amount of effort, especially in front of a crowd of people who are wondering what the hell you are doing. According to him, shaking your metaphorical tail feather takes a lot of skill.

Anyway everything seemed to be going well. The goose was suitably entertained and so were the people watching, until he made a critical error.

You see, no matter how good his impression of a goose may be, he does not in fact speak goose.

And at some point in his dancing and honking, he had somehow managed to say ‘motherfucker’ in goose.

The goose took it badly.

It pursued my fleeing brother across the length of the market and eventually latched onto his leg and started biting him. My brother is very careful about not harming animals, even when they’re attacking him, so he stood helpless for a moment while he was subjected to the world’s most embarrassing savaging. Eventually the goose got in a properly nasty bite and he decided to at least try shaking it off his leg.

This worked a little too well, as they were standing next to a small hill.

The goose rolled all the way down the hill, took a moment to assess the situation,  decided that begging for bread was a better use of its time and waddled off.

Sadly for my brother, people had noticed. As he walked through the market he heard whispers of ‘…kicked a goose’ and noticed a rising tide of anger. He wisely decided that no one was going to believe him if he tried to tell them that it was merely a good goose dance gone bad and he’d better leave.

In reality he managed to get out of the market without any more trouble from man or bird, but in my mind’s eye I like to imagine he was pursued off the property by a pitchfork wielding (it was a farmer’s market, it could have happened) mob made up of equal parts furious market goers and enraged geese.

I like to think there’s a good lesson in this for all of us: don’t mess with geese. 

 

Yesterday afternoon I felt a tiny tickle on the top of my head and I reached up to brush off what I thought was a leaf. At that same moment my cat Connie launched herself at my head.

A moment later she ran away carrying a very large spider in her mouth, which she crunched up under the dinner table. Since then she’s been watching me to see if more gigantic, delicious arachnids turn up on my head.

Apparently delicious.

I AM LESS DELICIOUS THAN YOU MAY HAVE BEEN LED TO BELIEVE.

 

I also managed to punch myself in the face.

I’d fallen asleep on my right arm and woke up when a fly landed on me. Half asleep I went to slap the fly away, but my arm was no longer my own and instead I belted myself solidly in the eye.

I really wish I could say that that is the first time I’ve done that, but a few years ago I managed to break my own nose doing almost the same thing. I’ve endured a broken nose a lot of times over my life so it’s not as bad as it sounds, but it was embarrassing to have to say ‘I did’ when he asked me ‘who did this to you?’.

I am clearly no danger to insects and arachnids of all shapes and sizes but if you need to get rid of me then I’m your man.