Sunday, September 19, 2010

...On 35

"Too many of my life experiences seem to relate to Counting Crows songs... "All My Friends" is the perfect anthem for a single guy approaching his 30s."

When I wrote those words on January 11, 2005, they seemed appropriate for the disconnect and ennui I was feeling at that time, on the cusp of a new year in an unfamiliar but exciting land. I was both hopeful and wary of what lay ahead.

My uneasiness was largely unjustified. Despite the loss of my grandfather and the first signs of a worrying health issue, 2005 ended as one of the best years of my life. And now, over five years later... I realize I didn't know the half of it then. I'm now two hours in to my 35th year, and I have no idea what the future holds.

All I know is the present is nothing like what I'd planned, and the future doesn't feel quite as exciting as I used to believe it to be.

Thought I might get a rocket ride
When I was a child, but it was a lie
That I told myself when I needed something good
At 17 had a better dream, but now I'm 33 and it isn't me
But I'd think of something better if I could

Even more so now than in the past, my life is largely my work. Thanks to a tough economy and -- well, frankly, lousy timing -- my current job is far removed from my passion for aviation. That's both a blessing and a curse, and my perception of the situation varies day-to-day. I'm hardly alone there, of course, but it still comes as a sometimes-harsh realization when I remember what I used to do for a living.

And yet... I take tremendous satisfaction in knowing that I'm doing something good for the company I work for, the same company that introduced me to flying in the first place. The symmetry of my situation often brings a smile to my face, and I feel I've now proven a few things to a few people I didn't really impress my first time around.

Is that why I came back here? I don't know. Is this what I want to be doing five years from now? I don't know that, either. The possibility doesn't frighten me, as much as the fact at the moment I don't see any other options. That's what I fear the most. I'd better be happy where I'm at, because it's literally all I've got.

All my friends and lovers leave me behind
And I'm still looking for the girl
One way or another
I'm just hoping to find a way
To put my feet out in the world

As for "the girl"... well, my most recent relationship ended three years ago. I can't believe it's been that long, really. There isn't another one even remotely on the horizon... and frankly, given the choice between a girlfriend and an airplane, I'd probably take a Cessna.

I'm rather content being single, though I admit it does sting a little. Most of my friends are married, and even more have kids. Even an ex I absolutely, positively thought would never married -- I mean, never -- is not only happily married, but she also a son and a stepson. 

She's also now my "friend" on Facebook. Life is weird.

Caught some grief from a falling leaf
As she tumbled down to the dirty ground
said I should have put her back there if I could
Well everyone needs a better day
And I'm tryin' to find me a better way
To get from the things I do... to the things I should

In experience and sensibility, I feel more 25 than 35. There's a lingering immaturity in a lot of what I do and say, that I know I shouldn't still have. I also perceive myself as a younger man, immediately subservient to others in a group... even when I've been proclaimed the "leader." I think I do manage to correct that perception, and I know I'm capable of rallying others -- I've done it before, and enjoy the challenge -- but it still troubles me my first instinct is, "wait, really... are you sure you want me for this?"

And though I've always leaned to the right on most political issues, over the past year I've found myself becoming a fervent, almost militant conservative. Maybe not a Tea-Partier per se, but definitely a believer in small government, and forcing everyone to fend for themselves over relying on federal assistance. 

That's not so unique in this day and age... but what I find odd, and disquieting, is that some of my all-time heroes were passionate liberals. Robert Kennedy. MLK. At the top of that list is all-time favorite songwriter, Harry Chapin... who himself idolized Pete Seeger, and who donated all his earnings to fight world hunger. When did my attitude shift to "let the hungry feed themselves, we've all got our own problems to worry about?"

All my friends and lovers leave me alone
To try to have a little fun
One way or another
I just wish I had known
To go out walking in the sun
To find out if you were the one

I'm a pilot who hasn't flown in almost two years. I'm a dreamer who can't really remember the last dream I had. I'm a writer who seldom posts on my blog, and can't remember the last letter I wrote to my grandmother. (I'll bet she remembers, though, because it's so damnably rare.) 

I've let friendships evaporate because keeping them up was too much trouble, too taxing, too emotionally trying.

All you want is a beauty queen
Not a superstar... but everybody's dream machine
All you want is a place to lay your head
You go to sleep dreamin' how you would
Be a different kind if you thought you could
But you come awake the way you are instead

More than ever at 35 I realize the disconnect between how I perceive myself, and how others perceive me. I'm a fat guy with a thin self-image... until I look in the mirror and see with my own eyes how much I've let myself go over the past two years, and witness how much my girth has worn the fabric on the side of the driver's seat in the 6.

All my friends and lovers
They shine like the sun
Well I just turn and walk away
One way or another
I'm not comin' undone
I'm just waiting for the day

And, on 35, I find myself asking... when will the day get here? Or have I already let it pass by?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Karma Kar

Big news! An abbreviated version of this blog post ran on the popular automotive site "The Truth About Cars" on October 23, 2010. Not so big news! A poster to that forum correctly pointed out Mazda never offered a six-speed manual with the V6 engine - it was a five-speed I almost bought. Those who know me well know how much that relatively minor oversight bugs the heck out of me... RF

I fully intended to buy a new car on August 26, 2006. A loaded Mazda 6S Grand Touring with the 6-speed manual, Dark Cherry Red over beige leather, with in-dash CD changer and moonroof. I justified the extravagance as a reward to myself for getting through the last seven months following a health scare. Diagnosed with testicular cancer that January, I had been extremely fortunate in the time since the initial surgery. Monthly observation scans had shown no additional tumors, which meant no radiation or chemo.

The deal wasn't done that Saturday, though. The dealer's numbers were still a bit too high for my tastes, so I left that day in my Grand Am. I wasn't too worried, as I expected the dealer to come around in a day or two. The plan changed two days later, during the monthly consult with my oncologist.

I was still a nervous patient, and I sweated each CT, X-ray, blood test, and follow-up. Dr. Bhogaraju was extremely understanding of that fear, and it was his custom to greet me with the reassuring statement "you're OK." He didn't say it that day.

Instead, my latest CT had revealed an 8 mm growth on my left lung, and inflamed lymph nodes nearby. "We need to run some more tests," said Dr. B. "It's rare for TC to spread to the lungs, but it's possible. I'm recommending a PET scan, which will show us how 'hot' the inflammations are. We'll take it from there."

In the middle of all this was that red Mazda. Sure enough, the dealer did call that afternoon to say essentially, "you win." But now I was in no condition at all to buy a new car. In a daze, I told the salesman it looked like my cancer had come back, and I was not willing to sign my life away to anything for another five years.

Days without action turned into weeks, as my insurance company was reluctant to approve the expensive PET scan. I was a nervous wreck. A second CT was approved, and it showed the lung nodule had grown to 10 mm. My oncologist pushed for a surgical biopsy, and starting talking about the possibility of going on chemotherapy.

"But this could still be nothing," he told me more than once. The one positive was, my blood work showed no tumor markers... but that wasn't a guarantee it wasn't cancer. I didn't believe him. I felt I had already used up my positive karma for the year.

I come from an extremely close family. My mother planned to come to Dallas to stay with me during the surgery, and for however long after. This posed a problem; she couldn't drive my 5-speed Pontiac, and I certainly didn't want her renting a car for what could be a months-long stay. There was probably a better, cheaper solution to that quandary, but my addled mind couldn't grasp it... so, in mid-September I called the Mazda dealership again and asked about an automatic-equipped 6.

As it happened, there were several loaded models available with automatics. The dealer was even willing to 'split the difference' for the additional cost of the auto. Fear about my medical situation, however, instilled a newfound frugality. I told my salesman I wanted only a base V6 with an automatic. No sunroof, cloth seats.

I drove off the dealership the evening of September 16 with a Pebble Ash Metallic 6S, and a sense of resignation. I looked back sadly at my still-pristine Grand Am as I left. It had been the first car I'd purchased with the exact equipment I wanted -- the only Navy Blue 5-speed SE1 to be found in the entire DFW metroplex -- versus the compromise I now owned.

But the funny thing is... this story isn't really about that.


My new license plates arrived at the dealership on September 28. The dealer still owed me the delivery prep car wash -- it had been too late for the detail area to clean the car when I bought it -- so I made an afternoon of it. By that time, Blue Cross had finally approved the PET scan, for the first week in October. I was existing in a dream-like state, detached from my surroundings.

As I waited on the showroom floor for my car to come out of the service lane, one of the sales managers walked up to me. "Hey, got a second?"

We chatted a bit about the new showroom fixtures being installed at the dealership, as per Mazda dictate ("I think it's all just a way for Mazda to sell furniture," he quipped.) After a moment, he lowered his voice.

"Just so you know... I went through what you're now going through about 10 years ago," he said. It took me a second to understand what he was talking about. "TC. I had it, and had my last round of chemo right before my 35th birthday."

He told me about his experience. How he discovered he had it, and how it affected him. He told me about the "fucking asshole" urologist who had told him "he had good news and bad news"... where the good news was it was treatable. And he answered my questions... all of which were much more personal than the typical "car salesman/customer" relationship normally allows. 

He told me about his experience being on chemo... the hair loss ("I looked like Grasshopper from the Kung Fu movies"), the sickness, the smell. "And here it is 10 years later -- I got testicular cancer before it was 'cool' -- and I'm doing fine. It's never come back."

I was dazed. He didn't have to say anything; it's not a story a lot of men feel comfortable sharing with a stranger. Instead he chose to share his story, because he felt it would help me. And it did. I drove off the dealership lot that day more confident -- more heartened -- than I had felt since August 28.

Describing the experience to my friends and family later, I could only think of one phrase to capture that feeling. Though I am not particularly religious -- that was especially true at that time -- I felt that God spoke in that moment.

All because I bought a car... three weeks later than I'd planned to.


By divine intervention or just sheer luck, from that day onward... things started looking up. The PET was encouraging; the lung nodule had not increased further in size, and two of the three lymph nodes had actually shrunk. A surgical biopsy October 11 confirmed it wasn't cancer; this was all due to a comparatively minor respiratory infection. Antibiotics cleared it up.

It wasn't cancer. "I told you it was probably nothing," Dr. B said, grinning, at my next consultation. "By the way, did you ever get that car?"

My 'Karma Kar' just turned 40,000 miles last week, eight days shy of four years under my care. I don't plan on getting rid of it any time soon. And, so far, I'm still cancer-free today.

As you might be able to tell, I'm reluctant to say that's purely a coincidence.