Sunday, April 19, 2015

Radioiodine Ablation Blues - Part 1

In the immortal words of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, "Isolation/ Isolation/ Isolation." A week ago I had convinced myself it wouldn't be so bad! Hey! I'll get to catch up on all those video games! I'll have time to work on creative projects! Sure it'll be lonely and I'll miss my wife and child, but it's better than being in the hospital! Three days after taking the magical radioactive iodine pills, I feel like shit. I can't tell if it's the treatment, which didn't mention anything about feeling like a gross slug with no appetite for the first few days. I can't tell if it's my body chemistry reacting violently to my severely hypothyroid husk finally getting that sweet, sweet taste of the thyroid horomone delivery vehicle Synthroid. I can't tell if it's my allergies going haywire living in a room that hasn't been dusted and properly cleaned since I was last living in it ten years ago (for reference, I dug some stuff out of some boxes in this room last week and was feeling like crap and hacking up gunk for the next three days). I blame myself for that. It's a chickens coming home to roost scenario. Regardless, here is how I've been spending my days:
The Isolation Chamber. Feeling like Desmond from Lost in his hatch.

My two favorite posters. 
My most prized movie posters from my years working at AMC Studio 30.

  • Wake up at 6:30 AM because my body clock is set for a one-year-old girlchild sitting up in bed going "hi, hi, hi" or "daDA, daDa, daDa" at that godforsaken hour. I groan and lay there realizing I have to get up and pee so as to facilitate the radioactive iodine leaving my worthless body and crawling out of bed feels like a victory. Refilling the two medical-grade sippy cups in the bathroom sink feels like an honest to god triumph. 
This is basically the worst.
  • Go back to bed until Jenny and Rosie Facetime me at 9:30. Rosie greets me with "daDa!" and the conversation is spent with Rosie in control of the phone which is hilarious, sweet, full of frequent pauses, and new things Rosie is doing that I'm not there to see first hand. It's nice that technology makes it possible to at least be somewhat connected to my family, but mostly these conversations just make me want to be home. Fuck the solitude, fuck the "being able to work on creative pursuits." I want to groggily make breakfast for my daughter and complain about having to get up before 7:00 am and I want to watch my kid stomp around her playroom and try to keep her from choking on stuff and from falling off the things she now insists on climbing on top of.
Seriously, it sucks not being able to snug this baby
  • Go back to bed or get up. Friday and Saturday I went back to sleep because of the general exhaustion. Friday was my last day of the low-iodine diet and no Synthroid. I don't think it's possible to appreciate your little thyroid gland until you have it cut out from your body and can see what happens when you're not replacing the hormones it emits. The thyroid is responsible for your metabolism, which plays your energy levels like a puppet on a string, and regulates stuff like your body temperature. Even with the modest AC running, I've been freezing cold. The longer you go without it, the more your body sinks into a hypothyroid state, the more exhausted and lethargic you feel. Friday was spent in bed, drifting in and out of restless sleep, and not wanting to eat anything.Saturday I was able to start pumping my body full of thyroid hormone but I still spent the whole day in bed sleeping and watching TV. 
  • Not even good TV, mind you. I have a whole backlog of shows I planned on burning through. I'm watching A.) Live Sports and B.) Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. The former is acceptable, as I'm a red-blooded American man and my parents have an excellent cable package. The latter is bizarre and telling of just how shitty I've been feeling. On Friday I was so excited to be able to eat all those foods I've been craving the last two weeks, and I settled for watching that frosted-tipped clown Guy Fieri going around eating ridiculously tasty-looking food. "All I wanna do is watch that idiot eat french fries, and it's glorious." The worst thing about that show isn't Guy's stupid one-liners (of which there are so, so many, most of which are actually really entertaining if you come at them the right way), but the lack of enthusiasm he presents when he finally gets to dig in to a fancy-ass grilled cheese sandwich. "Mmm, good job. The truffle oil is a nice touch. You're killin' it boss," he says with all the excitement of a talking toy having its string pulled. LOOK AT THAT GODDAMN GRILLED CHEESE GUY! THAT TEXAS TOAST IS LIKE AN INCH THICK! THERE IS GRUYERE ON THAT SHIT! DIP IT IN THE TOMATO BISQUE YOU FOOL! LET ME LIVE! I think he's just burnt out. One of the episodes was from 2007 and he was way more excited about these greasy-spoon classics. He's graduated from grody truck stops to places I want to look-up next time I go to Chicago or St. Louis, but he's probably eaten so much of this awesomely rich food the dream has become a nightmare. Either way, I watched maybe two-and-a-half hours of that show on Friday.
My mom is a great cook but looking at this makes me wanna hurl
  • And then had absolutely no appetite on Saturday. For lunch I thought about eating leftover grilled chicken and green beans and almost threw up. All I do is drink water and eat Jolly Ranchers. Do you love Jolly Ranchers? Yeah, try eating two an hour for three days. On Friday I fell off. I couldn't do it anymore. One of my teeth became intensely sensitive from all the Jolly Ranchers. It hurt to brush them. Now most of my teeth are super sensitive and I hate everything. There is literally a ziploc bag full of these sitting a foot away from me and looking at the bag is making me nauseous. So are the matzo crackers, unsalted almonds, and unsalted tortilla chips sitting within my sight-line.
Disgusting. I hate these forever now.

The Devil's Candy
  • Yesterday I got to eat real food for the first time in two weeks. I should clarify that the food I was eating on my low-iodine diet is "real food" in the sense that the meals were simple, healthy, and delicious. The sort of food a normal human being should be eating on a regular basis. But I would drive by Schlotsky's and be like "Damn Schlotsky's sounds good right now," which is literally something nobody has ever said ever. Jenny would talk to me and I'd imagine her head turning into a BBQ sandwich. I was dreaming about Joes KC's Z-Man. On Saturday, I got one for dinner and I could barely appreciate it. The hunger had gone. I still ate it, but it was a workmanlike affair. That afternoon I enjoyed orange chicken from Panda Express, another deep craving from my low-iodine days, because I am disgusting and nothing satisfies like mall Chinese food. This morning I feel a bit better, but I'm still not hungry. I wanted all these pornographic food-eating experiences and now I'm eating because I know I have to. Dad brought me a sausage, egg and cheese english muffin sandwich from Starbucks and hey, that was pretty good, but I'm still not hungry.
Look at this feast! I'll have at it again before my isolation is done,
that's for damn sure. Although I will say, it was takeout, the sandwich was cold,
and I'mma make the moms take me after my full body scan so I can
experience this in its natural habitat.
The star anise flavor in the eggroll was gross,
but the rest was incredible.
  • Although Indian food sounds really good. And maybe because I've been watching the NBA Playoffs. Have you heard of this Steph Curry guy? He's pretty good! And he makes me seriously consider pulling the cancer card and making my dad go out and get me some Chicken Tikka Masala from Korma Sutra. I don't think my parents have ever had Indian food, and I don't think they're gonna start now. 
  • But let's talk about the Golden State Warriors, man. I don't watch the NBA, but this team is super fun. It's great to see a juggernaut full of young dudes just tearing it up doing insane shit. They're playing the New Orleans Anthony Davises, so it's entertaining on both sides of the ball. See how my judgment has been impaired! Has the radiation settled in my brain?! Triple D and NBA? What have I become!
  • I've also been watching a lot of soccer, because it's on. The FA Cup Semifinals were on yesterday and today and I watched both of those matches with a surprising amount of attention. Mostly because I was curled up in bed and didn't have the energy to get distracted by my phone, but still! It led to a lot of navel gazing about American attention spans not being able to deal with the hypnotic, seemingly boring pace of a soccer game. I thought that might be changing after World Cup Fever swept the land, but nobody cares about the MLS unless they live in KC or Portland or Seattle or one of these other poor cities with a lack of professional sporting options. Naturally I've been watching the Royals, which is as close as I've been to normal. It's like hitting the reset button on my brain. I spent an hour managing my Fantasy Baseball team this morning, and I'm writing this long diary entry, so I'm hoping this is a sign of things to come. That maybe I'll write that concept album about Radioiodine Ablation Blues that I was planning on writing, or maybe I'll do a covers album choosing songs from the band posters in my room.
Oh yeah, some hockey too because why not.
  • I wonder what it would feel like for Anthony Davis to slap me in the face. His arms are so long, one of them starts in a different time zone and you have an hour to kill before his hand actually hits your face and knocks your eyeballs out of your head. Sometimes it looks like he's gonna accidentally dunk the top of the backboard.
  • They keep cutting to Steph Curry's family in the stands. They are the most attractive family I have ever seen. 
I mean, just straight up beautiful people.
  • There are THREE Radiohead posters in this room. They're small advertisements for Kid A and Hail to the Thief. It's confusing because I never really loved Radiohead the way I loved Fat Wreck Chords punk rock, This Kid A one is really cool though. Should I record this covers album (I brought my four-track and guitar and recording gear for some reason), at least it would be fun to figure out how to tackle a track from The Streets A Grand Don't Come for Free. I have four more days to kill, so anything could happen! Odds are I'll sleep until I have to go back to work on Friday, however. 
Still Cool
  • There is literally a wall of books I have no desire to read. Hoping the lethargy subsides and I can dig in to some of these books. This is the minor league farm system of my book collection. The good ones are all back home in boxes. The ones on these shelves are the ones I'm invariably going to take back to Half Price Books whenever it comes time to get my collection in order. 
Most likely all casualties when it comes time to cull. The hazards of working
at a used bookstore for 5 years.
  • I finally played some video games last night! I'm nearing Dragon Age: Inquisitions endgame and I can't wait for this game to be over. I only discovered that you can skip through all the chatting with the X button halfway through! THIS WOULD HAVE SAVED SO MUCH TIME. There's just too much damn lore. And I know some people eat that shit up, but I just wanna battle demons, and even that got pretty boring after a while. But even after an hour of that, I stopped, put on sports, and went to sleep. 
  • I thought being radioactive might be interesting. You have this idea like, "Oh my pee will be neon!" or "Oh I'll glow when the lights go out!" but no, it's just like normal except you feel like shit (and even then, I can't verify that the general shitty-feeling-ness is linked). The danger is that nothing is different. But if I like, chewed on one of Rosie's toys and she chewed on that toy, she could ingest that radiation and it would start eating away at her thyroid. That's the scariest shit in the world. I hate that I even have to go upstairs to shower. I can tend to spit when I talk, so talking to my parents on my way up and down, I think, what if a fleck of spit gets on her food tray and she eats off the tray and then my baby can't grow because I fucked up her thyroid! I'm gonna drop $60 on a new Xbox One controller because what if she finds her way to it and the sweat from my palms has irradiated the thing? It's crazy having to be so mindful of one's bodily fluids. Something I clearly wasn't as a high schooler, evidenced on the fact that my basement bathroom is absolutely disgusting. I love my wife for a lot of reasons, and one of those reasons is that she challenges me to be a cleaner, less disgusting man. 
Naturally, my name is misspelled on the lead container holding my
cancer treatment. Wouldn't have it any other way.
Bottoms Up!
  • Fortunately, after today 95% of the excess radioactive iodine will have been excreted from my body and I'll only have to worry about the beta and gamma rays emanating from my neck (where most of the work is being done on the offending thyroid cells, although I'll find out of it's anywhere else during my full body scan on Thursday). 
  • Just realized I've been watching the replay of Game 1 of the Warriors/Pelicans from yesterday. This is how out of it I am. 
And there you go. Don't get thyroid cancer, although I don't know if there's anything you can do to prevent it. I think about that a lot. Was there anything I could have done? Was there a radioactive event in Kansas that was covered up by the government that they'll only declassify 50 years from now? I really don't know. The nuclear medicine guys seemed super confident I'd only need one treatment and that it works 80% of the time. There's a 30% chance of recurrence later in life, at which point I guess I just get another treatment. 

Bathroom mural illustrating my maudlin teenage years. No light at the end of the tunnel,
just terror! Naturally!
My collection of autographed baseballs! 

I think this is a very telling insignia of my upbringing.

There are rules for bathroom usage with this treatment. 

At least I have a porch!
This hole was either made by hurling a baseball at the wall or
practicing my golf skills. No lie. I forget. Probably baseball. The salty
pencilling looks like the work of my brother or some other brute.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Mountain Goats - Beat the Champ

The Mountain Goats - Beat the Champ 
Merge, 2015
Acquired: Merge Records Mail Order, New, 2015
Price: $30
The day after I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, John Darnielle announced the new Mountain Goats record. I took it as a silver lining and immediately ordered the deluxe edition, no questions asked. I remember something about the color of the vinyl: one gold, the color of the championship belt. One green, the color of the money made. Holding the records now and having spent significant time with this beautiful record, it's bittersweet. There's the glory mixed with the fact that pro wrestling is a job done by hired professionals to sell it as reality.

What JD does so well here is drive home the fact that while the outcomes may be scripted, wrestling isn't fake. It's an industry populated by real people making the most of their chosen profession. These are tales from a time when heels might still get the shit beat out of them in the parking lot. Years before the nod and the wink of the WWE and wrestling's acceptance as a sort of people's theater.

I'm sure every review of Beat the Champ has featured the writer's own personal history with professional wrestling, because I'm sure most of us have one. If you were a child, there was no doubt a phase where you and your brother practice frog spashes and suplexes on oversized stuffed animals (and each other) on your parents bed when they were at work. We made gimmicks modeled after our heroes: Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Undertaker, Edge, and all three faces of Mick Foley who might as well have represented the Holy Trinity in those days: Mankind, Dude Love, and Cactus Jack. The father, the son, and the hardcore holy ghost. The gods of the Attitude Era. We fiercely despised Ted Turner's WCW and tuned in diligently every week to Monday Night Raw even though our tuning in didn't influence the ratings of the Monday Night Wars. This will all sound like white noise to those who suffered through more highbrow childhoods reading books while being raised by parents who took them to museums on weekends, but for me, there were a solid three years where I lived and died by wrestling.

I'm writing this from my childhood bedroom in the basement of my parents house where I am staying in isolation due to the radioactive iodine therapy that will allegedly wipe out the rest of the thyroid cells in my body. There's a notebook buried down here that contains the complete kayfabe history and lineage of the matches, feuds, and title changes amongst the giant tub of WWF wrestling figures now sitting in the laundry room. I printed images of belts off the internet and superglued them to pieces of felt affixed with tiny pieces of velcro. I hand painted the Jakks Pacific figures when their gimmicks changed. I was SERIOUS about this shit. At 12 years old, I thoughtfully booked my own federation in the Hrabe Basement Territory. I told stories, crafted drama, and had insane matches. I made my dad take me to the hardware store to buy chicken wire so I could build a Hell in a Cell (complete with a trap door in the roof to recreate Mankind getting choke slammed through the damn cage and onto the mat below). I cut the hell out of myself building it and every time I played with it, but every major “Pay Per View” in my lineage had to have a hell in the cell match. My Luna action figure featured “real” hair, which ended up getting singed off in a no holds barred no disqualification match for the women's title. Other wrestlers were blown up with firecrackers. Thrown off the deck. Nearly cooked alive in a “Grill Match.” It was an insane fantasy playground, and it's the main reason I fell in love with storytelling. It's why I love books and movies and why I write. It facilitated a creative awakening and though I no longer follow “sports entertainment,” as it is called these days, I take offense anytime someone throws shade on wrestling.

John Darnielle understands this, and it's why these amazing character studies are some of his best work in a body that has consisted of solidly great work consistently since 1999. There are a lot of ballads to pair up with a lot of heartbreak, and the quietest moments—as on the showstopping “Unmasked” or the heart wrenching closer “Hair Match”--leave you breathless. Then there are the big, rollicking tributes to Chavo Guerrero Sr and Bull Ramos that really capture the larger-than-life legacies of these regular dudes who meant so much to so many people. Especially Darnielle, who in “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” notes in regard to his abusive stepfather: “You let me down but Chavo never once did/ You called him names to try to get beneath my skin/ Now your ashes are scattered on the wind.” Fuckin' A.

Some of the songs get violent, like the surprisingly joyous “Foreign Object” which is about stabbing someone in the eye with the titular object, and the brief, fist pumping “Choked Out” where the subject absolutely glamorizes his hardcore style and issues no-bullshit statements like “Everybody's got their limits/Nobody's found mine.” And then like the genius he is, Darnielle twists that line on the next track (and the album's finest song) “Heel Turn 2.” “You found my breaking point, congratulations” proclaims the beloved babyface actively turning the crowds cheers in to hissing boos. It's full of quiet desperation, sadness, and bittersweet satisfaction. Beat the Champ is maybe the most goddamn bittersweet album I've ever heard, based on the fact that I've used that word like four times and that word runs through my head every time I play the album.

I only had a chance to listen the record on vinyl once before going into isolation, but it was a wonderful experience. I was running around the house, baby in arms, trying to get everything ready for my extended leave from the household (read: getting my gaming consoles packaged up for transport). Thyroid cancer is a highly beatable cancer and Beat the Champ has helped my attitude tremendously these last few months. Whenever I started feeling uneasy about facing mortality, I just put on “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” or “The Ballad of Bull Ramos” or “Werewolf Gimmick” and said fuck cancer. When the doctor brought out the radioactive iodine in a lead container this afternoon, I thought of it like a folding chair or a foreign object. It might not make it a fair fight, but when you get ambushed all bets are off. I felt like Ric Flair talking trash when I muttered, “Cancer, kiss my ass” before I threw back the radioactive iodine pills, no doubt embarrassing myself in front of the doctors but feeling goddamn great about having so much power put in my hands after months of feeling powerless. Beat the Champ isn't Tallahassee or The Sunset Tree and some of the melodies feel cribbed from All Eternals Deck and Transcendental Youth, but it's probably the best songwriting you're going to find anywhere in 2015 and I love this album more than words can adequately express because it was the album I needed.

"The Legend of Chavo Guerrero"

"Heel Turn 2"


Monday, April 6, 2015

Gut Feeling: Waxahatchee - Ivy Tripp

Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
Merge, 2014
Katie Crutchfield wasted no time capitalizing on the breakout success of her sophomore effort as Waxahatchee—2013’s excellent Cerulean Salt. That album was full of concentrated ramshackle indie-pop. Perfect hooks locked in sub-three-minute shells that begged relistening the way a junkie begs you to let you have just this next one free because they’ll get you the money in three days, they promise. It was one of those albums where I AGONIZED over which track would make my year end list, because half the songs on that album were show-stopping standouts and the other half were these subtle, soulful gems that helped Crutchfield crowbar the album under your skin.

Coming off an album that was effectively vulnerability personified, leadoff track “Breathless” sounds like a flexing muscle. A beefy drone of feedback carries through the track’s four minutes, which is practically an epic by Crutchfield’s standards. It’s a slow burner, relying on the underlying feedback tones to drag you into what is effectively everything the follow up to a breakout success should be: confident, assured, and willing to jump off the cliff.

Listening to Ivy Tripp in the car, I could practically taste a 90s Merge Records vibe. I couldn’t remember who put it out, but when I arrived at my destination and had a chance to check it made perfect sense. Merge is like a time capsule, preserving bygone traditions of indie rock. Ivy Tripp is a fair bit more put together than its predecessor, and though it’s maybe three tracks too long I still found myself putting it on when I didn’t know what else to put on.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Gut Feeling: Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Asthmatic Kitty, 2015
I know the whole “50 States Project” was a “joke,” but Sufjan Stevens had me fooled. If you asked me ten years ago what his 2015 release would be like, I’d have guessed he’d be releasing “Maine Squeeze” or “Utah-t Me How to Love” or “Get Down on the Dance Flor-ida,” not reverting to the blindingly gorgeous and hushed banjo-heavy folk of his 2004 album Seven Swans. It’s more surprising still considering his last full-length—2010’s The Age of Adz—was an experimental, electronic drenched epic that sounded like Stevens totally tearing down everything he’d built himself up to be. And I suppose that’s what happened. Carrie & Lowell is a return to the sound that made his name, but it’s also his most powerful piece of work. Inspired by the death of his mother, the songs are at times painfully raw and intensely personal. Ok, it’s all intensely personal. There’s no room to breathe, and that’s part of Carrie & Lowell’s power. The songwriting is of a strength that dispels the notion Stevens’ peaked on Illinois’ finest moments and illustrates that his best work may be yet to come. As great and heartwrenching as the songwriting is, the music here is truly outstanding. Sure it’s quiet and beautiful like Seven Swans, but it’s run through a filter of ten years of dabbling in minimalism, electronics, and hip-hop. It truly feels like the sum of years of hard work. It takes a delicate touch to pull off an album this intense, and for all of Stevens’ scope and grandeur on previous projects, this one feels like a legitimate masterpiece.

Listen to Carrie & Lowell in its entirety at NPR. Ideally in a quiet place, alone, after nightfall for maximum effect.

"No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross"