A Life in Pain

 

As my regular readers know, I’ve suffered from significant middle-back, shoulder, and knee pain for many years. Eighteen months ago, I started developing low back pain. In February, it got so bad that my pain specialist ordered an MRI. When the radiologist said I might have a tumor, the pain specialist ordered a follow-up MRI. The second MRI didn’t show a tumor, but it did show “degenerative changes of the lumbar spine.” Perhaps, these changes were put in motion when I broke my first lumbar vertebra in 2013.

Over the years, I’ve had to give up hiking, biking, camping, and even neighborhood walks, but I was somehow able to do yard work. Yesterday, just getting my tools out for yard work left me in so much pain that I came indoors. I can still do light housework, but it has started leaving me winded. My internist suspects a heart problem, so he ordered a number of tests, the last of which is scheduled for tomorrow. I wonder if the problem could simply be caused by holding my breath because of the pain. 

I have been in worse pain (pain that felt like being stabbed in both shoulders with ice picks), but I’ve never been so nearly devoid of hope. Oxycodone helps, but getting enough oxycodone is impossible. Because I’m at the top dosage of oxycodone, the pain specialist suggested morphine or Dilaudid, but I hate to go to a new drug because of the time it would take to reach an effective dose. A major fear of mine is that the anti-narcotic forces will persuade legislatures to deny narcotics to people in chronic pain. If that should happen, I would have to either live in utter misery or shop the Dark Web for Fentanyl. Because Peggy is opposed to the latter, I would be in an impossible situation. 

I stayed awake for my prostate surgery last month. When I told the anesthesiologist that the surgical area felt fine, but that my back was killing me from lying on the hard surgical table, he gave me dose after dose of Fentanyl until I was completely free of pain for the first time in a long time. If I could feel that way everyday, it would be worth dying sooner, because the life I’m now living hardly qualifies as life.

I wrote the above yesterday, not knowing if I would put it online (I have come to share very little of what I write, either online or through correspondence). When I got up this morning, the following all but bubbled out of me, and I think I might put it and what I wrote yesterday online. Here is what years of living with chronic pain has been like…

A toothache that is horrible at times, and less horrible at other times, but is always there. Feeling like a physical and emotional weakling. Feeling that the person I used to be has gone away, and I don’t know where to find him. Not being able to enjoy things. Not looking forward to things. Not liking anything or anyone. Blaming myself for being in pain and for letting it rob me of a happy life. Not being able to concentrate or remember things. Being edgy, and feeling like a fool for being edgy. Suspecting that the world is full of people who are in more pain than I but are handling it better. Avoiding social engagements. Knowing that people will pity and avoid me if I tell them how much I hurt.

Looking forward to doctor’s appointments because doctors are friend substitutes who won’t reject me for telling them how I feel. Drawing-in on myself so I don’t have to deal with challenges. Dreading being in even more pain and losing even more mobility. Being awakened throughout the night by pain. Structuring my life around pain-avoidance. Wondering how I am going to pay for the household jobs that I can no longer do for myself. Tensing my body because Im afraid to relax. Holding my breath because breathing hurts. Feeling like a cripple, an invalid, a has-been. Feeling sorry for Peggy because she married a loser. Wondering where my friends went. 

Feeling like I’m losing my mind. Wondering how much longer I can hold-on. Worrying that pain and medicine will shorten my life. Feeling that if I were stronger, I wouldn’t need so many drugs. Blaming myself because I haven’t found a way out of the pain. Knowing that no one on earth understands what I’m going through because I look like a normal person. Wondering if people think I’m making it all up. Wondering if people consider me a boring whiner. Believing that I should avoid people because no one would want to be around me anyway. 

I won’t even try to wrap this up with a satisfying conclusion. I will instead put it online pretty much as I wrote it.

A Post-Surgical Update

 

Here is how Johns Hopkins describes the surgery I had on Thursday: “A transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP) is surgery to remove parts of the prostate gland through the penis.  The surgeon reaches the prostate by putting an instrument into the end of the penis and through the urethra. This instrument is…12 inches long and .5 inch in diameter. It contains a lighted camera and valves that control irrigating fluid. It also contains an electrical wire loop that cuts tissue and seals blood vessels. The wire loop is guided by the surgeon to remove the tissue blocking the urethra one piece at a time. The pieces of tissue are carried by the irrigating fluid into the bladder and flushed out at the end of the procedure.”*

Four days post-op, I’m seriously fatigued and bored out of my mind, but aside from the fact that it hurts to pee, my pain has been minor. I can slowly start working my way toward normal functioning in two weeks, at which time I’m supposed to let bleeding be my guide to what I can do.

 
I told the anesthesiologist (a delightful man named Albert Cho) that I wanted to stay awake for what was supposed to be a 90-minute surgery—but ended up taking two hours—and he readily agreed. There being a drape between us and the other five or so people in the room, we had an intimate conversation that I would enjoy sharing if I knew he would be okay with it. 

Surgical tables are hard, and the longer I lay there, the more my back hurt. When I asked for relief, he gave me Fentanyl. The pain didn’t go away until I hit 200 mcgs, an apparently large amount that I could only tolerate because I’ve taken narcotics every day for years. Fentanyl is awesome. I was wearing a Fentanyl patch when I crushed my thumb (after breaking my back) in 2014. When I realized that I had closed the bathroom door on my thumb, I said to myself, “That must hurt...” and then, By god, it does hurt!” and I opened the door.


When the surgeon visited me in recovery, I asked if there had been a problem, and he said no. I knew this couldn’t be altogether true both because of how long the surgery took, and because there had come a point at which the people on the far side of the drape had switched from talking to whispering. When he left, I asked my nurse (who hadn’t heard my conversation with the surgeon) what had happened, and she said I had bled more than expected, and the surgeon had thought it prudent to keep me in surgery a while longer. 


Recovery rooms are dismal places, what with people moaning, puking, and talking out of their heads—and that’s just the nurses—but I couldn’t go to a room because they were all occupied. I worried that I might have to spend the night in recovery (which has sometimes happened at Peggy’s former hospital), but my nurse predicted that I would be out of recovery in an hour or two, and she was right. My room being ready, off I went to meet my nurse, 27-year old Kristina, with whom I felt an instant rapport. I was so happy to have the surgery behind me that I babbled like a chimp. Before our time together ended, I was in envy of the man whose luck it is to be her father.


I left surgery with a double lumen urinary catheter, which consists of one tube carrying sterile water in, and another tube draining blood, clots, and urine out. Before entering my urethra, these tubes were joined together in a larger tube, which was taped to my thigh at one end and secured to my bladder with something resembling a balloon at the other. The balloon’s pressure made me imagine that I had to urinate, but there was nothing I could do about it. Nearly all of my post-op pain is due to the fact that it hurts to pee. My penis is black and blue, and my urethra feels sunburned, yet all of my post-op pain combined is minor compared to the back pain I’m in daily.


Most hospital nurses work twelve-hour shifts (hospitals appearing to be okay with the fact that consecutive twelve-hour shifts result in medical errors, job burnout, and car wrecks involving nurses who fall asleep at the wheel), so at 7:00 that evening, Kristina was replaced by Yani, whom I also liked and trusted. Before Kristina left, she said she would see me the next day. An hour before shift change the next morning, Yani said the same, so imagine my dismay when a gruff man with a loud voice—and a student nurse in tow—was introduced as my new nurse. I seek to avoid loud people, so his volume combined with my unhappiness over what I regarded as his hypermasculine persona, led to an unhappy relationship. On the other hand, he seemed competent and showed pride in his work, so my only real objection was that I didn’t care for him, and I didn’t think he cared for me. 

I tried to find out why Kristina had been replaced, but no one knew, although they admitted being surprised by it (I also learned that Kristina had spoken highly of me). I hate having to put up with things that make no sense to me, especially when I’m paying for them.


Before being sent home, I had to pass a two-part test. In part one, I had to pee into a urinal and show the result to my nurse. Part two was identical to part one. Had I flunked, I would have been sent home with a catheter that drained into a small bag during the day and a large bag at night. I easily passed, but my urine continues to be bloody, and I’m told that it might remain that way for quite some time. When I’m not peeing blood, I’m dribbling blood, but the nursing student who prepared me to go home offered nothing with which to catch the dribble. When I asked what she proposed, she gave me a stack of abdominal dressings, but I found that blood passed right through them, so I switched to stuffing my underwear with old washcloths, which cost nothing and are adequate for the task. Some men spend the rest of their lives dribbling, so I can but hope for the best.

 

*https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/transurethral-resection-of-the-prostate-turp

On Last Week’s Surgery and this Week’s Surgery

Last Friday (April 8), I had a posterior capsulotomy. This is a laser procedure in which a hole is cut through a cloudy, post cataract surgery lens in order to allow the cloudiness to dissipate. So far, I’m not seeing any great improvement in vision, but the resultant floaters are driving me nuts. They are large and appear to move more rapidly than ordinary floaters. Depending upon where I am looking and how distant they appear, I mistake them for gnats near my face, roaches on countertops, and spiders on walls and floors. Yesterday, I sidestepped what I mistook for a mouse crossing my path. I am told that the floaters will “probably” get better.

Later this week, I’m to have a transurethral resection of the prostate, which is the name of a surgical procedure that’s performed through the penis in order to reduce the size of an enlarged prostate. Death is unlikely (one man in a thousand), but incontinence afflicts ten out of a hundred, five of them long-term or permanently.

I’m up to twenty-plus surgeries depending upon what one counts as a surgery (is a posterior capsulotomy a surgery?), but instead of growing accustomed to them, I dread them increasingly because: (1) the risks worry me more; (2) the care I receive is often impersonal and sometimes egregiously callous or glaringly incompetent; (3) Whether they’re minor or major, somewhere along the line of the many people and departments that are necessary to make a surgery possible, mistakes happen, always; (4) The older I get, the more slowly I heal; (5) I have to be at the hospital hours before I usually get out of bed, and surgery is a crummy way to start the day; (6) I chafe under the limits imposed upon me during convalescence (I’m not supposed to lift more than ten pounds for six weeks following this surgery, which is nothing compared to the limits imposed after rotator cuff repairs and major joint replacements).

I try to reconcile myself to the things I fear or dislike by remembering that, if things go well, my life will be better for having had the surgery, and that I should be grateful to have access to medical care that is denied to most of the world’s people. In the 1950s, I saw my impoverished grandmother go blind in both eyes for want of cataract surgery, and after five hernia repairs, I know something of how miserable and limiting hernias are (I try to put myself in the shoes of a poor laborer whose family will starve if he can’t perform heavy labor, but who is sure to die a horrible death from bowel strangulation if he continues to work). 

A hundred years ago, the average American man died at age 59; today it’s 76, and without modern medicine, I would already be dead. I remind myself of such things, but counting ones blessings can make a person feel bad about himself for complaining at all. By way of comparison, if you try to reconcile yourself to having a toothache by telling yourself that your problem is nothing compared to dodging missiles in Ukraine, not only will your tooth hurt as much, you will hate yourself for being a whiner and a wimp.

 

Update: My speech difficulty being worse in the morning, Peggy  called the hospital an hour ago to ask why we haven’t heard from the anesthesia department (they invariably schedule pre-op tests and a consultation a few days prior to surgery). She was told that the hospital doesn’t have me on its surgery schedule (perhaps the doctor’s office never contacted them). Upon learning this, Peggy immediately called the doctor’s office, but it’s nearly impossible to get them on the phone, and they take hours to call back. I have also called them, but I have no idea if the urgency in my voice will inspire them to act.

So it is that mistakes always, always, always happen, and the patient can never, ever sit-back and trust that what is supposed to be done will be done in the way that it should be done. Instead, the patient can but hope that the mistakes will be temporarily frustrating rather than life-altering or fatal. In this case, if there’s no operating room available, the surgery will have to be postponed, and because I was getting in early due to another patient’s cancellation, I could end up waiting months.

All about Peggy: Part 2: Dancing with Bears


Peggy’s first adventure with bears occurred while camped in the Arizona desert (the place was named the Coronado National Forest because of its ten-foot tall trees). Our camper consisted of a bear-defeating aluminum canopy mounted on the bed of a pristine white ’73 Datsun truck named Lolita. I so loved Lolita that I at least sponge-bathed her daily when we were away, including the engine compartment. Such compulsion is burdensome, but I couldn’t imagine driving down the road in a truck that wasn’t sufficiently clean for surgery. Peggy later complained that our photo album contained more pictures of Lolita than of her. This was true, but it was also true that I hadn’t followed-up on my plan to put a wedding ring on Lolita’s cute little distributor cable, and that the only presents I had given her were things like spark plugs and oil filters that Peggy didn’t care for anyway. To make a long story less long…

There we were, in the middle of the night, camped sixty miles from the Old West town of Tombstone, when my young bride suddenly and inexplicably announced that she had to “tinkle.” The park service had thoughtfully provided an outhouse for such troublemakers, but between us and it gamboled a large flock of feisty bears who were pursuing their hobby of emptying garbage cans and demolishing coolers. As Readers’ Digest regularly reminded its readers, what bears most enjoy doing is killing attractive young women—a description that still fits Peggy perfectly despite her advanced years—by hiding in outhouses and ripping-off their arms, legs, and heads before working-up to serious damage.

Aside from sunny and safe Sunday afternoon outings to the Jackson, Mississippi, zoo where the bears are tastefully locked behind stout iron bars so that courageous adolescent boys can impress wide-eyed adolescent girls by taunting them (the bears, I mean), Peggy and I had never laid eyes on an actual, in-the-flesh bear. Worse yet, these Arizona bears were nothing like the Jackson zoo bears in that these bears were looking high and low for innocent young camperettes. What’s more, they had us surrounded, and the moonless night was every bit as dark as a moonless night. 

Despite these unhappy statistics, Peggy remained grimly determined to pee. Such stubbornness represented a side to her that I hadn’t seen, and that troubled me greatly because, as I told myself, any woman who becomes this stubborn over a trivial matter like peeing would be capable of committing any manner of faux pas in the face of something important. 

Having nothing better to do at the moment, I decided to approach Peggy’s problem through the application of intelligent thought. Specifically, I thought about the following: (a) Our bed occupied the entire interior of the camper; (b) The canopy roof was too low for Peggy to squat over a jar; (c) Peggy might find it impossible to pee safely and effectively within the confines of a space that rendered safe and effective peeing impossible; (d) The solution to Peggy’s problem lay in solving for X when X=a+b÷3.14-7. Because I had no idea how to solve for X, or what solving for X would even accomplish, I regrettably concluded that intelligent thought is a waste of time except when boiling popcorn.

However (and it was BIG however), I saw in a flash that the cerebration of the stupidest man who ever lived is so superior to that of the most brilliant woman (Peggy), that I had no choice but to cancel my subscription to Ms Magazine. “What are you talking about?” you ask. I am talking about how a man, any man, could, in three easy steps, solve a problem that had short-circuited the brain of the female genius who lay squirming at my side with yellow liquid sloshing against her teeth. Here are those steps: (a) raise the camper door (this is extremely important); (b) lie on one’s side; (c) pee through the open door!

Irrefutable though my reasoning was, I knew it would be ill-advised to share it with a member of a gender that becomes overcome by feelings of feminine inferiority in the face of male rationality, so I settled for suggesting to Peggy that she tell her bladder to stop whining until the bears had gone to bed. I shed a tear when she promised to do her best because, inadequate though her best would be, not even a man could do more than that. Unfortunately…

As time passed, Peggy’s moaning and squirming achieved the desperation of a sugar cube in boiling water. Between moans, we could hear the bears snickering as they awaited her emergence, but we could tell that some of them had moved to another part of the campground. It was then that a plan presented itself. Peggy said it was time for extreme measures, so she would get out of bed and pee by the back bumper while I stood lookout. “That doesn’t sound like much of a plan to my male brain,
” I said, but if it’s what you want, I’ll lie in bed and protect you,” To my dismay, she made the power-hungry argument that I could best protect her by getting out of the camper for a less obstructed view, and to be on hand to eviscerate criminally-disposed bears. I told her that she sounded arrogant, masculine, and shrill, and it was then that the air became pregnant with tension. 

Peggy finally said that I could do as I pleased, but that if I stayed in bed, she too would stay in bed, and her side of the bed would most assuredly remain dry. Dry from what, I didn’t know, but her tone sounded ominous, so I offered to accompany her. We knew there were no bears behind the truck because there was no noise behind the truck, so I exited first—Peggy was insistent on this point—and chivalrously helped her to exit. Once on the ground, it was my job to stand beside her as I leaned from one side of the back of the truck to the other so that no bears could sneak-up on us.

As I was heroically occupied in doing my job, Peggy busied  herself by keeping a bone-crushing grip on my calf while tinkling as fast as she could go. Simple though these tasks were, she performed them admirably, although I later found it necessary to chide her for bruising my shin and calf. I also took issue with the fact that she had peed on my foot. “How could this have happened?” you ask. It happened because I had been so dedicated to doing my job properly that I took no notice of Peggy’s failure to do the same, the result being that when warm liquid ran across my foot and made mud pies inside my dusty flip-flop, I didn’t immediately divine its source. The situation could have been worse, of course, had the bears found the odor so maddening that they charged us like Crazy Horse charged Custer. 


What I learned about peeing that night was that, on the one hand, abject terror can make peeing impossibly unavoidable; on the other hand, it can make it unavoidably impossible. Such considerations notwithstanding, Peggy stuck to the task at hand. When she emerged victorious, I said that, in the interest of companionability, I too would pee, and that, in the interest of chivalry, she would guard me as I had guarded her. When she didn
’t respond, I looked toward where she had been and found myself alone in a moonless wilderness.

I naturally concluded that bears had martyred my beloved, so imagine my dismay when I happened to glance into the camper and found that she was cleaning her facial pores with witch hazel. When I, too, had returned to our snug fortress, I respectfully inquired, “Had I been massacred, Dear, would you have pulled my corpse to safety or left it for the rangers to stumble upon while you toured the Grand Canyon?” Snores prevented her from answering, so I broached the subject again over breakfast, adding that she should have informed me of her proclivity for snoring before we were married, so I could have decided upon the advisability of a shared future. I also asked if she had withheld other fatal flaws, but I regretted my cruel words a moment later when her pretty face reflected the anguish of a sensitive soul who was too remorseful to speak. I have no idea why, but everyone else on earth mistakes the expression for boredom.

Part Two

After moving to Oregon, Peggy and I camped every other week in pretty weather, staying out for 2-3 nights at a time in areas so remote that we seldom saw anyone (in Oregon, such places are easy to find). When sleeping in Lolita became uncomfortable for my beloved’s constantly aging joints, I magnanimously surprised her with a vintage 3/4 ton van with almost no dents and a high ground clearance for traversing rutted logging roads. On this occasion—as on many others—she was so overwhelmed by gratitude that she went through four stages of self-expression. 

Stage 1: Peggy is unable to make a sound. 

Stage 2: Peggy makes sounds resembling speech, but no one knows what they mean.

Stage 3: Peggy jokingly asks if I can get our money back.

Stage 4: Peggy jumps up and down in her characteristic happy dance; smiles her grimace-like smile; and pours out her gratitude with such playful teases as, “I hope you bought me a parachute so I won’t break a leg getting out of the _____ thing.” Many people claim that Peggy’s childlike humor is her most endearing quality, and that they hope to experience it someday. 

By happy coincidence, Oregon’s black bear population abounds alongside salal, currants, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries, salmonberries, huckleberries, and hazelnuts. On the joyful day in question, we were biking down an abandoned coastal logging road when I spotted three bear cubs not twenty feet away. I threw on brakes and exclaimed, “Sweetheart, bride of my youth, look, oh look, at the darling little bears!” I naturally interpreted her silence as the product of unspeakable delight, so imagine my dismay when I turned toward where she had been, and found that I had been speaking to a tree. I naturally assumed that a bear had eaten her and was busy accustoming myself to widowerhood when I chanced to see a woman who resembled my late wife receding into the distance as fast as her pretty legs could pedal her sexy red bike. Because I knew that Peggy would want me to love again, I set out after the mysterious “woman on red,” but a race horse couldn’t have caught her.

Some might say that Peggy, unlike her husband, behaved rationally given that mother bears tend to annihilate anything that comes near their cubs, trees included. I would respond that there is not a single record of a single black bear killing or injuring a single person to protect a single cub (although their predilection for human flesh often inspires them to peel people like bananas). What black bears are on record for doing is running rapidly away from their little ones at the merest hint of danger. Therefore, if you should someday sneeze while walking through the woods, you should immediately recite whatever prayer you remember (“God is great; God is good; let us thank God for our food” became favored by many after a news report claimed that
no one who used it reported being killed by a bear) because you are in grave danger of being flattened by one or more fleeing bears...The image of a female abandoning her loved ones brings my thoughts back to Peggy.

“Why,” I demanded, when I finally found her cowering in her bedroom closet two days later, “did you abandon me to certain death?” “I didn’t abandon you,” she mumbled while staring at the floor. “Like you, I wanted to get all drippy while schmoozing with Pattington Bear
’s mother, but because I love you, I gave up what I wanted in order to get help for you in case she turned out to be half grizzly.”

The realization that my wife held my physical prowess in such low esteem that she didn’t trust me to protect her from a buttress of brutal bruins hurt my feelings twenty times worse than had she proclaimed me a bear-destroyer
par eccellenza, but I was too scared to tell her that, so I rhetorically asked, “My gentlest darling, was that really why you rode away as fast as your wrinkled legs could pedal your sexy red bike?” “How could you have doubted it?” she cooed. “After all, Snowie darling, you know what grizzlies are like because we almost saw a whole gaggle of them on that trail in Canada. If those hikers we met hadn’t told us that there were bears ahead, and if we hadn’t run to the car and stampeded back to Montana without even stopping at the border station, you would have shown those Canucks what you were made of, and it wouldn’t have been pretty.” “You’re right, my brown-eyed nymphet. If I hadn’t gotten homesick for the Home of the Brave, I might have pixillated every bear in Canada because I’m so intimidating that there are days when I don’t dare look at myself in the mirror. It was here that she kissed my cheek. Most people mistake Peggy for a total hard-ass, but she can be half nice when she puts her whole heart into it.

Next time All About Peggy: Part 3: Peggy Abandons Me to a Flurry of Hawaiian Wolverines

All about Peggy: Part 1: The Tumor

 
By September, 1971, Peggy and I were engaged. On the memorable day in question, we were in my parents’ backyard petting my little dog, Wolf (I grew-up naming all of my dogs Wolf, Sassy, or Tippy). I had just stepped inside for a glass of water when I heard Peggy emit an anguished cry that erased all thought of thirst. I ran to her side where, with trembling fingers, she pointed to a large, gray, marble-sized sphere on Wolf’s neck and, with the solemn reserve of one who has tragic news to convey, said softly, “Wolf has a tumor.”

I then did the last thing she expected a sane person to do upon learning that his dog has a tumor so aggressive that it wasn’t there the previous day. I laughed. I think I might have laughed until I cried, but 51-years is a long time to remember such details. When my laughter subsided, I grasped the hideous gray orb between thumb and forefinger, “unscrewed” it from Wolf’s neck, and crushed the blood-gorged monster between two bricks that I carried for the purpose. Peggy was beside herself with admiration. In fact, she was floored, flummoxed, and no less addled than a goose with a skull fracture. Her face paled; her eyes bugged; and she looked at me as if afraid to look away. Then, almost imperceptibly, she started sliding her pretty bottom in the other direction. Perceptive young man that I was, I knew that she did these things because she was humbled by the knowledge that, only in America, could a woman with beauty, brains, but no money, marry such a man.

I was entertaining similar thoughts myself, but instead of rejoicing, I was wondering if I shouldn’t find myself a bride with beauty, brains and money. Regrettably, my innocence and naiveté enabled the 20-year-old San Antonio rose to lure me into the grim matrimonial pit from which I continue to gaze helplessly at a tiny wedge of distant sky. When I tell her of my bitterness each morning over yet another bowl of cold, unsalted gruel, she cruelly retorts that while a gigolo looks to his woman to make him rich, a real man looks to himself to make his woman rich. So much for feminism! So much for a bride taking responsibility for ruining her husband’s life! So much for women
’s cruel indifference to non-pecuniary genius! But let us return to that long ago day in Mississippi, a day so long ago that the world was still in black and white…

As Peggy continued to scoot her pretty bottom away from me, I shouted: “Peggy, my love, Wolf’s ‘tumor’ was a blood-bloated tick that would have latched onto your eyeballs had I not killed him when I did.
I only laughed because it had never occurred to me that you didn’t know what a tick looked like.” She couldn’t have been more impressed had I rescued her from a ‘possum. I knew this because she persisted in silently opening her mouth in sexy resemblance to a freshly-caught catfish. Although the heavenly vision she conveyed was impaired by her lack of a catfish’s gray skin and whiskers, I tried to put aside her failure in that department just as I tried to put aside her failure in the money department. Unfortunately, fifty-years of looking up at a tiny wedge of sky has made my neck hurt and left me depressed, especially when the sky is clear but also when it is cloudy. When I consider the joy that might have been mine had I been born a gay Icelandic ailurophile, I just want to retch. In fact, I think I will.

Next time:
All about Peggy: Part 2: Why a Woman Who Hates Cats has Five Cats

Of What Good is a Cat?



Peggy and I were married in late ’71; our friends, Lynn and Christy, in early ’72. Soon afterward, Christy got a kitten that she adored. After giving birth, she said that her eyes had opened, and she realized that her beloved pet was, after all, “only a cat.” Maybe the same fate will befall the woman who insisted that her cat understood every word she said and loved her completely. This hints at the power imbalance between humans and creatures whose existence requires our love and loyalty. Cats, being solitary animals, might not understand that their lives are in the hands of an unstable species, but perhaps dogs do, and that’s why they’re desperate to please us.

I think most people marry a delusion, but time reveals the reality, and perhaps the same is true of my love for my cats. But again, how would I know when it comes to a creature so otherly? Dogs are easier to understand because, like us, they are a social species. Call a dog, and she comes running; call a cat, and the cat might or might not amble in, that is unless I have food in which case all five cats appear without being called. Count on it, when the cheese is unwrapped or the butter dish unscrewed, there they are.

I remember a day when our fifteen-pounder, Brewsky, was relaxing on the floor one moment and inside an open cabinet six feet off the floor the next. Such things must be seen to be believed, and even then it’s hard, but that’s the magic of cats. They’re little thin-boned predators that are easily injured, have no aerobic stamina, are impossible to know, and force me to accommodate them because they sure as hell won’t accommodate me, but they’re also loving, mysterious, have keen senses, and make Olympic athletes look like couch-potatoes.

Every night at 10:00, the cats and I pile into my twin bed where I spend the next two hours reading. While I read, they sleep; bathe; roughhouse; crawl under the covers; crawl out from under the covers; leave the room; return to the room; go crazy when a fly passes overhead; and sip water from the bowl I keep amidst my many potted plants. I sing to them, praise them lavishly, insult them cruelly, and tell them about my reading. I also introduce sundry conversational topics concerning the meaning and nature of Felis catus. Last night, I asked how they can stay so damn beautiful on a diet of corpses. The cats who happened to be looking in my direction continued to look in my direction; the cats who were looking in another direction continued to look in another direction. When I saw that my question was going nowhere, I asked how they are able to instantaneously go from deep relaxation, to leaping two feet in the air to kill a fly, to deep relaxation. There followed another awkward silence during which I became embittered by the suspicion that they were simply reviewing my words in the hope of finding a reference to butter.

So, you wonder, why do Peggy and I keep our butter in a stout container with a screwable lid? It is well you should ask. The reason is that our first-born, Brewsky, discovered that he could get all the butter he wanted by shoving the glass butter dish off the counter and breaking it. We objected for various reasons, among them the possibility of vomit everywhere and a 3:00 a.m. emergency surgery. He hotly insisted that our concerns were asinine, but when he broke another butter dish, we got a cat-proof container. He was livid but powerless.

If my cats weighed fifty pounds, they would eat all the butter they pleased, and if a mad scientist exploded them to 200-pounds, I’m not sure but what they would eat me too. But doesn’t this contradict my belief that they love me? It’s not their love I question; it’s their inherent wildness. In the mad scientist scenario, I can imagine the following sequence of events: cats tentatively toy with frail humanoid who once towered over them; cats’ paw-swipes knock humanoid to floor; humanoid bleeds; cats become excited by the combined odor of blood and hysteria; cats’ pupils become black saucers; cats flatten their pointy ears and lay back their long whiskers; humanoid tries to dial 911; cats knock phone from humanoid
’s hand; humanoid’s broken bones impede his desperate attempt to crawl to safety; cats take turns swatting humanoid; humanoid lies still; cats dismember humanoid; cats agree that humanoid tastes terrible; cats bathe themselves and one another; cats sleep in a kitty-pile; cats have happy dreams; cats sup on cheese and butter. That’s one possibility. Another possibility is that they would show humanoid the same gentle affection that cats have lavished on chickens, rabbits, and other prey animals with which they were raised.

But doesn’t the fact that large dogs treat their humans gently suggest that large cats would too? I think not. Dogs are a social species that have lain beside our fires for 23,000 years, during which time we
’ve genetically transformed them from dignified hunters into groveling slaves who would starve on their own. Cats are a solitary species that entered our lives a mere ten millennia ago, and have largely resisted our attempts to make them into freaks. Dogs love us because we’ve molded them that way. Cats love us because we mold ourselves.

How can we mold ourselves so cats will love us? First, we must provide food, shelter, toys, and treats, although these things alone can no more buy the love of a cat than they can buy the love of a child. It is therefore necessary to: move slowly, speak softly, touch gently, behave predictably, and be quietly affectionate. But how do we know that cats are even capable of loving humans? We know it because they offer us affection; seek our support; warn us of danger; grieve when we die; and sometimes risk their lives to save ours.

Dog lovers have allowed dogs to set the standard for what an animal’s love is supposed to look like. Dogs say, “What you love, I love. What you hate, I hate. Even if you abuse me, I will steal for you, kill for you, and, if I could, I would write bad checks for you.” Cats say, “I love you, but I have my own life to lead, and if you force me to choose between death and slavery, I will choose death.” 

I feel a commonality with cats. To illustrate. If I’m reading in bed and no cats join me, I’ll call them. If they don’t come, I’ll go looking for them. Like as not, I’ll find them sitting about the house, in the dark, staring at walls. I am hurt by the thought that they prefer doing nothing to spending time with me. Yet, there have been hundreds of times when I was staring at the computer, and it suddenly dawned on me that a meowing cat had left the room because I hadn’t heeded his repeated requests for attention. Might not such a cat be as hurt by my inattention as I am by his?

Ailurophiles praise cats for being clean, beautiful, polite, funny, honest, independent, honorable, and affectionate. Ailurophobes insist that cats are vain, stupid, cowardly, selfish, tyrannical, sadistic, and altogether disgusting. They argue that while dogs are out guarding children, guiding the blind, herding cattle, warning of intruders, sniffing out bombs, digging for avalanche victims, finding lost hikers, subduing criminals, alerting people to cancers, and making themselves indispensable in a thousand other ways, cats are home licking their asses and hoping for something to murder. While it is true that few cats serve a practical function, few dogs do either, yet we love them and other “useless” things (sports, TV, and babies, for instance), so why not love cats? Then too, how well does our species measure up to the unselfish standard by which we praise dogs? Given the number of unloved dogs that live miserably, die horribly, and are killed in shelters, not terribly well. I would even say that dogs and cats are better people than we are, but then that
’s not saying much.

Chevrolet is doing a series of highly realistic television commercials that feature a cat named Walter whose strength, courage, leadership, energy, fortitude, alertness, intelligence, and loyalty are, like those of most cats, ignored by his oblivious human. In closing, I will offer the most recent Walter ad for your elucidation, and perhaps, your edification:



We Form a Group Marriage

 

In 1987, I took a job at the University of Oregon where I was instantly attracted to a woman named Ellen who conducted the group orientation for new employees. A former alcoholic, Ellen was also a movie buff who decorated her apartment with black and white glossies of yesteryear’s stars. She had grown up in a small Willamette Valley town and, after marriage, had moved to an even smaller town in Oregon’s Great Basin Desert. Her marital unhappiness and her hatred of the area’s provincialism led her to leave her husband and move to liberal Eugene. It was here that she embraced feminism, and it was here that she found inspiration in a 19th century Swedish ancestor whose rejection of women’s assigned roles in society caused her family to disown her (she then made her home under an overhanging boulder, enabling Ellen to claim that she descended from a woman who crawled out from under a rock). When we met, Ellen had won acceptance into doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota, and was cashing in her retirement savings to fiance her education. She would be leaving Eugene in three months, and so it was that—with Peggy’s knowledge and consent—she and I spent as much time together as possible.

That fall (1987), I flew to Minneapolis. Ellen having no car, and the weather being bitching cold by Eugene standards, she laughed merrily as we walked about the downtown area, and locals stared from restaurant windows because I was wearing every piece of clothing I had. When it came time to discuss the future of our relationship, I brought up the possibility of group marriage. She reacted angrily until I assured her that modern polyfidelity was egalitarian. I then described my relationship with Peggy in order to convince Ellen that gender oppression was the furtherest thing from my mind. The following two paragraphs summarize what I said:

“Although I work as hard as Peggy, what money I earn comes from jobs that are temporary and/or part-time, my ‘real work’ consisting of housework, yard work, and home improvement projects. Just as Peggy is bored by working at home and finds fulfillment in her nursing career, I prefer the independence that comes with working at home. The gender roles that society demands of us don’t fit, but going our own way is also hard, especially for me because while the public envisions a housewife as being deficient in skills, intelligence, and ambition, it regards a househusband as a despicable sponge who is a man in name only. My own mother called me a loser, a failure, a kept man, a disappointment, and a good for nothing who will never amount to anything. She calls Peggy my better half (and means it), and says that Peggy is a good woman who married beneath herself. Yet, I thrive on hard physical labor, and I’m so driven to get things done that I stay busy every waking moment. I even limit my reading to practical nonfiction. What’s more, when Peggy’s 36-hour work week ends, her time is her own, but because I live on my job site, I’m driven to keep working. At the same time, I’m in charge of my life in ways that are impossible for those who work for someone else.

“At the other end of the spectrum from my mother, Peggy’s career-oriented women friends complain that their husbands dump all the housework and childcare on them. They tell Peggy that she’s lucky to have a husband who mows, cooks, bakes, launders, shops, pays bills, mops floors, raises a garden, cans food, makes beds, services cars, irons her nursing uniforms, takes on home improvement projects, and makes money on the side. They ask to borrow me, and laughingly warn her that some woman will try to steal me.”

Because Ellen scorned conventional lifestyles, she was intrigued, her greatest concern being that Peggy and I agree to the eventual addition of another man. She spent the following summer back in Oregon with Peggy and me, and the two of them got along famously. By then, Peggy also had a reason for wanting to live in Minneapolis. Specifically, she wished to trade ICU nursing for L&D, but Eugene was experiencing such a nursing glut that Sacred Heart required previous L&D experience. Minneapolis’ Abbott Northwestern had no such requirement, but their only opening was in antepartum. That was close enough to satisfy Sacred Heart’s requirement of prior experience.

For my part, I had no desire to move to Minnesota after less than two years in a place I loved, and I was further discouraged by Minnesota
’s harsh winters. I shared my feelings with Ellen and Peggy, but they were both so excited about the move, and they both so needed to move for career reasons that I felt I had to go. They suggested that I think of living in Minnesota as an adventure and promised we could return to Oregon when Vicki graduated.

So it was that in August, 1988, we made our marriage vowsand ate our wedding cakein the company of Eugene’s polyfidelity community. On the legal front, Peggy went back to using her maiden name. On the nonlegal front, we declared ourselves the Speedwell Family, a name which was inspired by the flower. More aptly in our case, it was also the name of a leaky ship that the pilgrims of 1620 were forced to abandon on their voyage to America.

The closer we came to moving, the more hesitant I became. On October 2, I got word that my mother was dying, and I arrived in Mississippi just in time to hold her hand as she breathed her last. Two days later, I was back in Oregon renting a Ryder Truck and a car carrier for Peggy’s Ford (my Datsun truck was already in Minnesota, and we took turns driving a third car). Prior to the move, Peggy and I sold our house in Oregon, and the three of us bought a house in Minneapolis, yet everything within me screamed, “Don’t go!”

Yellowstone National Park—which is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined—burned that summer—and we narrowly avoided a very long detour by exiting the east gate just before it closed. Peggy and Ellen got along famously and enjoyed themselves immensely, but the best light that I could put on the situation was the hope that things might not go as bad as I feared.

Snow fell on Minneapolis the day after our October arrival, and by Christmas, night-time lows were in the -20s F. No matter how cold the weather, I felt duty-bound to take our sweatered schnauzer on her daily walks, but I shortened the walks when she tried to enter every house we passed. Yet, I found that windless, sunny days were actually pleasant if the temperature stayed above zero. The worst part of Minnesota winters wasn’t the snow and cold per se, but the slippery roads, the city filth that settled on the snow, and the grimy, salt-encrusted cars. I had always prided myself on how well I cared for cars, and every rust-bucket I passed was a reminder that my cars would soon look like that. Like many people, I tried to minimize the damage with frequent washes, but was discouraged by the fact that cars looked as bad six blocks after being washed as they looked before being washed. So it was that car care—like the rest of my life—seemed like a lost battle, and by now, Ellen and I did little but battle.

Yet, I found a lot to like about Minneapolis. We started a support group at our house; made friends at the atheistic First Unitarian Society; found respite from winter at St. Paul Conservatory; fell in love with old Fort Snelling and the Minneapolis Institute of Art; enjoyed the trails at nearby Wood Lake Park; and found pleasure in estate sales. Despite all this, my mental state had so deteriorated by our second winter in Minnesota that I started seeing a psychoanalyst who put me on an antidepressant called Norpramin.

Peggy and Ellen decided that a winter trip to Arizona would do me good, and I needed no persuasion. Peggy and I flew
down in January, 1990. The weather, the scenery, and our time together were heavenly, but Ellen and I continued our fights over the telephone. Once back in Minnesota, our relationship so deteriorated that Peggy never left for work but what she feared that we would become violent in her absence, though we never did. When she switched from staying out of our battles to taking my side, our homelife deteriorated even further. On one occasion, she shook her fist in Vicki’s face. Soon afterward, she came home from work and found Ellen naked and screaming while I held her from behind for fear she would wreck the house. That was it for Peggy, so she arranged for a job interview back in Oregon. Because I had felt trapped in the marriage from the outset and never wanted to be in Minnesota in the first place, I prepared to follow. Ellen also wanted to call it quits.

By the time Peggy returned to Oregon in March 1990, the nursing glut was over, and so the hospital would have hired her to work in L&D even without her antepartum experience in Minnesota. This meant that her work in Minneapolis had not furthered her career and that, as she saw it, she had given up her seniority for nothing. We were also shocked to discover
that housing prices had risen by over a third, the market being so hot that we had to compete in a three-way bidding war for the house that we have occupied for the past 32-years. As for her living arrangements in Oregonprior to my return in Mayshe and a friend named Elaine, who was also leaving a failed marriage, moved into the Lincoln Street home of a mutual friend named Shirley, laughingly calling it “Shirley’s Home for Wayward Women.” Both women had attended our marriage to Ellen.

In closing, I will anticipate a few questions… 

 

Are participants in a mixed gender marriage necessarily bisexual?

This is up to the people who form the marriage although everyone in a group marriage considers themselves married to everyone else.

What did you tell your families about your relationship?

Ellen had scant contact with her father and none with her mother, so telling them
was a non-issue, but my father and Peggy’s parents visited us in Minneapolis. Peggy knew her parents would be horrified, so we allowed them to assume that Ellen was our housemate. I had always been open with my parents, so I told my father, although he persisted in thinking of Ellen as a live-in lover.

What was the hardest part of your marriage to Ellen?

Because I don
’t feel comfortable detailing the reasons Ellen and I argued so much, Ill just say that the second hardest part was having to defend our marriage’s validity. Some examples: It rankled me that we couldn’t legally share a last name… I went to war with the Minnesota Zoo because they refused to issue us a “family membership…” I complained to the minister at First Unitarian about a sermon in which he described marriage in traditional terms… I felt called upon to explain that, no, we weren’t old style Mormons, and, no, I wasn’t putting together a harem. Living on the defensive wore me down, but because I was unwilling to hide the nature of our relationship, I didn’t know what else to do.

Are you in contact with Ellen?


Peggy and I haven’t been in contact with her since 1990. When I googled her today, I was pleased to learn that she is still working and is prominent in her field. 

Was this your only group marriage experience?

Two years after our return to Oregon, Peggy’s lover—who was also my best friend—proposed that we start a group marriage with him. On the upside, Walt was generous, playful, humorous, spontaneous, versatile, intelligent, optimistic, energetic, and possessed of unlimited self-confidence. On the downside, he never mowed his lawn; his house was dirty and unorganized; and he spent money as fast as he made it. He said he would change, but we doubted he could, and it was obvious that he didn’t realize how profound our differences were. For example, after he brought his wok over and cooked for us, I spent the next day cleaning grease off the floor, the cabinets, and the ceiling; and whenever he showered at our house, he made such a mess that I cleaned the bathroom when he was gone. When I surprised him by cleaning his Land Rover, he complained that he had liked the moss that grew in the window tracks, and he became equally upset when I mowed his yard.

How do you now feel about group marriage? 

Traditional marriage being so difficult despite public acceptance, I have come to have serious doubts about the feasibility of group marriage. Personal limitations have also led me to lose interest. Specifically, age and chronic pain have left me fragile and robbed me of strength, energy, boldness, and optimism. My basic belief in the core abilities of myself and others has also plummeted. In closing, I can but say that I respect what Peggy, Ellen, and I tried to accomplish all those years ago, and I also respect the courage and boldness we showed in making the effort.