Author Archives: lylebrooks

Flashbulb Chronicles 4 – Fear of the Unknown

 

The twists of my medical misadventures became even more bizarre in a saga that lasted several months and once again changed the course of my life, bringing me further into the family of my good friend Yinka Ogunro. A close confidant through thick and thin, our shared love of music has been a beacon over time. Since I met him, nearly twenty years ago, I’ve been enthralled by tales of his inventive Nigerian namesake father – an upper extremity orthopedic surgeon known by most as “Dr. O”.

1) “That’s one of the great things about music. You can sing a song to 85,000 people and they’ll sing it back for 85,000 different reasons.” – Dave Grohl

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When we finally met, Dr. O spent twenty minutes trying, but failing, to dislocate my shoulder, which I had always thought was the source of my recurring pain and nerve impingement. With natural, conversational curiosity, he administered a battery of tests with the loose focus of a jazz drummer setting up his kit. He referred me to a nerve specialist, who electrically tested the nerves in my arms. We crossed the shoulder off the list and I took my films to a spine guy who set me up for a series of neck injections, which proved helpful but left me with residual pain. For this, I was given a TENS, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, unit that uses pulses to alleviate pain.

2) “I can tell whether a person can play just by the way he stands.”  – Miles Davis

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When I returned to Dr. O weeks later, the pain doctor had already denied that the electricity provided by the TENS machine could have possibly been connected to the constant pain now engulfing my right arm. In his first analysis, Dr. O didn’t know what to make of it. Knowing what I know now, I believe the hemangioma – a sort of vascular cluster – had always been there. But there was no way for me to know that not everybody’s funny bone shot lightning into their pinkie finger. I imagine further that all of the steroids I had taken for previous maladies had helped it gain size.

3) “People create stories create people; or rather, stories create people create stories.” – Chinua Achebe

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Fitted for a brace that locked my arm at nearly a right angle, and necessitated the use of a sling. I was prescribed awful large red anti-inflammatory pills to keep jagged, inflamed pain at bay until the good doctor could get better insight into my condition. Seemingly without warning, I could be overcome by extreme jolts downward from the elbow of heat, electricity or even icy cold. There was an upheaval of every activity in my daily life as I would spastically jump at the attacks. There were frequent office visits – including sensation tests which demonstrated a significant loss of feeling down the arm and into the outside fingers.

4) “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” – Albert Einstein

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As a writer, my hands have always been instrumental in processing the ideas at the heart of whatever words I may endeavor to write. First seen as black ink scribbles on loose-leaf pads of paper, the second more intensive stage takes the rotational engineering of the radiocarpal joint and advances it to the more precise gambit of the keyboard, where each finger contributes in an enigmatic flow which inherently expands and deepens what the pen began.

5) “We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or worse, ourselves.” – Joan Didion

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I don’t know if the area in question was discovered by Broca or Wierneke, where the complications originate for my terrible issues trying to adapt from my long-established process of working to the use of dictation software as my arm became worse. The speaking, voice hearing part of my brain collided with my overwhelming dependence on music to train my focus on the task at hand. Where I could modulate pace, volume and intensity of my tunes to suit my writing needs, my voice invariably made me more anxious and unresolved.

6) “People love gentle larceny.” – Dan Akroyd

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A group of us were standing on my cousin’s porch when my girlfriend pointed out a protrusion beneath my elbow that didn’t look right. It was like a push button of pain and her noticing it changed the course of treatment dramatically. When I showed Dr. O the mass, he curiously manipulated it, moving my arm into different positions, and finally suggested an MRI might reveal our culprit. Back in the tube, the arm was isolated, which kept me in an awkward position. I was, however, becoming adept at mentally slipping my mind out of my body as the machine blurrged around me – the hint of a popular country radio station fluttering beneath it.

7) “The idea of ‘Spoonful’ was that it doesn’t take a large quantity of anything to be good. If you have a little money when you need it, you’re right there in the right spot, that’ll buy you a whole lot.”  – Howlin’ Wolf

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Two months before my imminent surgery to remedy the worsening situation, my girlfriend and I rescued a little black dog with smoky grey bits. He was six pounds and eight weeks old, a little dirty but full of love. Immediately, I called him “Mingus” after the composer and bass player, Charles Mingus, who’s Beneath the Underdog has been hugely influential. With one bad arm, I did my best to keep up with my new friend, fighting off the isolation that can accompany pain from an unknown source.

8) “To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.” – Milan Kundera

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The mass had grown into the ulnar nerve and its presence was causing all sorts of confusion. As Dr. O explained it, the nerves are like the bundles of wires used in suspension bridges and the hemangioma would have to be teased out tediously. With this in mind, he booked us a surgical center with the best optics and brought in Yinka’s younger sister, Shade, to handle the four-hour procedure with her young eyes and small hands, with which she left an elegant scar along the curve of the joint.

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9) “Buildings are deeply emotive structures which form our psyches. People think they’re just things we maneuver through, but the makeup of a person is influenced by the nature of spaces.” – David Adjaye

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The next year, as my eyes were beginning to fail, the problems of the ulnar nerve returned. Every couple of months I’d have another MRI to monitor its progress. Eventually, he referred me to a Radiation Therapist at the Cancer center, prohibited by the proximity to a major nerve. It remains in a happy medium near the nerve but not choking its internal circuitry and I’m sure Dr. O and the rest of the family will ask how the arm is when I see them over the summer in Nigeria for Yinka’s wedding.

10) “A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.”  – Ingrid Bergman

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Tiger By the Tail – Rooting the Who Dey Way

The Dallas Cowboys were born when my father was a student at The University of Texas in Austin, thus defining each season’s moods in our household for a lifetime. When I joined the party in the middle 70s, both teams were at the peak of prominence. UT had the “Tyler Rose” Earl Campbell, the Cowboys had everybody’s All-American Roger Staubach, Too Tall Jones and Tony Dorsett. Coaches Tom Landry and Darrell Royal are central figures in the worship of many homes throughout Texas.

But as my young mind learned to love the game of football, I struggled to conjoin myself emotionally to a single squad. There was something terribly mystifying about how a group of strangers in Dallas or even on the nearby college campus could determine my father’s happiness. My love of the game was fueled not only by my father’s weekly lessons but in NFL Films cinematic productions with their combination of Sam Spence’s epic music and John Facenda’s colossal voice describing the monumental transformation of the professional game from hard-charging ground games to the beautifully complex aerial attacks of the modern passing era.

Much to my father’s chagrin, I could therefore become engrossed with opponents, even divisional rivals like Joe Theisman and Art Monk of Washington, Lawrence Taylor of New York or Reggie White of Philly. Increasingly, I found myself reading about earlier generations, drawn to legends like Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, Ray Nitschke and Jim Brown. On a Monday Night in November of 1985, the real-world ramifications of my fandom and this violent sport collided when Lawrence Taylor ended Theisman’s football career as he sacked him from the blind side.

But, despite the violence, I was inspired by the intensive choreography of play design and strategy much the same way I was intrigued by the composition of the multifarious symphonic parts of the classical music my father loved. On the other hand, there were awe-inspiring moments of unbelievable acuity like the virtuoso players I heard on his jazz records at home. As with music, the more I learned the less I could realistically devote myself to a single genre, band or team. Nor did I like the emotional ramifications of bearing the slings and arrows alongside one or two teams as it occurred in our household.

While living abroad, I decided to keep up with the NFL by playing Fantasy Football. The weekly team upkeep allowed me to follow the league as I devoted my strongest admiration for those players who would eventually help me win the 2001 Championship, stat generators like Rich Gannon and Tony Gonzalez. However, the virtual exaltation was riddled with disconcerting conflicts once stateside, as when players on my team faced off and rooting interests were torn asunder. If I had neglected those feelings, I would have ultimately become isolated celebrating a set of conditioned choices I made to start the season. This was too egocentric and self-congratulatory, running counter to the way I learned to love professional football.

In the many years since Jerry Jones and his evil empire sent legendary Cowboys’ head coach Tom Landry packing, there had been few consistencies in the league as fun to root for as Brett Favre. Back in Austin for the holidays during graduate school, I watched his infamous Monday Night Football game against the Oakland Raiders the night after his father passed away. It was like nothing many fans had ever experienced, at G&S Lounge complete strangers bonded as he completed over 70% of his passes for 4 touchdowns and nearly 400 yards. And as many males in American culture, the filter of sports undoubtedly connected our profound experience to a vibrant palette of emotions typically outside of the masculine vernacular. And time slows down in those moments, when you swear the whisper of history in on your neck, while watching a field general become a Maestro.

Like the old gunslinger, who like the legends before him left everything on the field, after migrating from Green Bay through New Jersey and back to the Minnesota Vikings, I was ready for a home base of my own as a fan. In a violent playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, Favre was battered and his squad lost in a heartbreaker that left me raw in a black shirt with his number 4 and ‘Legend’ in white. He came back one more year but his body was no longer willing and I found myself watching with hope another quarterback wearing purple, TCU’s Andy Dalton, who led his Horned Frogs to a perfect 13-0 eventually beating Wisconsin and monster Defensive End JJ Watt in a thrilling Rose Bowl, 21-19.

Watching Dalton as a leader through his senior season was nothing short of spectacular and as I learned more about how truly great he is as a human being it was terribly easy for me to hitch all of my wagons to whichever team selected him. And, in the second round, after gifted former juggler AJ Green, the Cincinnati Bengals took Andy Dalton. What struck me from the jump was the degree to which attention was given to his fiery red hair, and further the similarities in its color and that of the team, as opposed to what I saw as a field general with a lot of intangibles.

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In the seasons since, the Bengals have seen highs and lows and there’s never a shortage of exciting moments. Each season, I follow the draft coverage for new names and faces and anxiously await the schedule. Three years ago, in December, we made the pilgrimage to Paul Brown stadium for a Monday Night showdown with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. It was cold and rainy, we bought striped ponchos, and we screamed the “Who Dey!” chant alongside a rambunctious crowd the intensity of which never wavered. Earlier, we rode Segways through downtown Cincinnati with our Airbnb host PJ, drank two dollar PBRs out of glass boots, and eventually threw down Skyline Chili dogs. As we parted ways, he pointed us into the Tailgate showing us where to grab beer on the way.

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A few days later, I had surgery on both of my eyes, and my mind would return during the absolute darkness to our victorious march as a Who Dey Nation, hollering in unison and hopped up on Monday Night glory. I’ve formed friendships with other fans and I am often stopped by folks with some connection to Cincinnati whenever I’m identifying myself as a Bengals fan in the orange and black. I even bought a Reds hat and loosely followed a terrible season in order to appreciate more deeply the lives of those folks in the Jungle with us. On a few occasions, I’ve been asked why I would choose such a thing by people who have felt fated to root for Paul Brown’s downstate middle finger to his namesake in Cleveland. The only true answer is, “Who Dey think they gonna beat them Bengals?!” To which they must reply, “Noooobody!” Because, as I have learned, the measure of fandom is not the quality of the team at any given moment rather it is found in how well fans love their squad.

Flashbulb Chronicles 3 – Turning the Screws

Fresh out of graduate school, I was working on my first ghostwriting job during the summer of 2004. The research was exceptionally engaging and allowed me the opportunity to dust off little-used past coursework like Latin, German, Roman History and Legal Ethics. The return to my hometown allowed me to resume participation in my favorite regular basketball games around town. Saturday mornings before nine in Eastwoods Park near the UT campus I played with a group comprised primarily of lawyers and philosophers who I had met through the record store.

1) “For we must be one thing or the other, an asset or a liability, the sinew in your wing to help you soar, or the chain to bind you to earth. — Countee Cullen

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Back at it for most of the summer, I was also in a Sunday evening game and had a couple of friends who met up during the week. A streaky jump shooter at best, I was always eager to set picks and make the extra pass. My true focus, however, was and always had been defensive with an eye towards maintaining cohesion between the five positions and feeding fast breaks off the glass. Defense consists of a lot of habits and choices, therefore the more aggressive we become it follows that our decisions are less sophisticated. And in one fleeting down court inbounds of the ball, I would become another statistical illustration of such a notion.

2) “Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.”  — Hermann Hesse

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That moment is frozen in time, the instinctual break on the ball developed over years of staying engaged with the middle foreground and its peripheral spaces, and it would live on in infamy. Everything about my play on the long pass was well executed, the jump and the timing, but somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten to account for my own landing point. The other regular game was in a nicely appointed gym; perhaps the alternating venue had my sensibilities twisted. But ultimately, there are good reasons players don’t often press full court in pick-up games. Regardless, after I broke up the pass, I had to contort my body to avoid toppling into my opponent and as I did so my right great toe met the concrete where his foot was planted.

3) “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air. You can never capture it again.” — Eric Dolphy

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A rookie ghostwriter at the time, I had no insurance to speak of and therefore I did nothing to attend to the painfully jacked-up toe. Having experienced a pair of far simpler broken toes in the past, I kept up with ice and taped the toe for support; years later, I would realize how futile such attempts had been. Though I’d not have thought of it that way at the time, this was the formal conclusion of my basketball playing life, which had begun, in the explosive aftermath of Michigan State beating Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA Championship. The game, however, has lived on within me even though my body can never play again. And, when I watch people play, it can trigger such joy as I recall the lessons encoded in the elements of the game even during years where I relied on a cane or walker and meds to make the simplest trip to the kitchen.

4) “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” — Bertolt Brecht

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Nearly four years later, my knees forced me into the insurance market as they began to break down (https://theflashbulb.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/flashbulb-chronicles-pt-2-to-seek-better-thoughts/). Throughout this process I lived in the upstairs apartment of a large split house, which had me up and down stairs, limping and generally putting a lot of wear and tear on my lower extremities. Between each of the knee surgeries, usually, as I was rehabbing and getting myself back into shape, that right great toe would flare up and cruelly shut me down again. When I asked my knee surgeon about the very swollen toe, she scoffed at any surgical fix and left me hopeless.

5) “Literature is my utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.” – Helen Keller

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The process of becoming hobbled was one that came along in phases and delivered me just far enough from normal to dislodge me from any consistent social strata. For years I was at the whim of the crumbling foundations of my poorly engineered body, with nothing but books, films, and music to carry my restless mind out into the world surrounding me. Reams of paper could account for myriad false starts on my own literary works, which seemed to stagnate alongside my own mood.

6) “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s how you carry it.” – Lena Horne

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A year after my third knee surgery, we moved into to a one-story house on the Near Southside of Fort Worth. Throughout the move and ensuing six months, I’d had only a pair of flare-ups with my foot and was becoming more active riding my bike and shooting hoops solo a couple times a week. But with the New Year came a historically bad decision, which saw me walking bourbon-fueled and in wholly inappropriate footwear just over a mile in the dark of night to see the live music beckoning to us on our porch. Somewhere in the first quarter-mile, something in my foot had busted loose and all I had was more bourbon to offset the rising tide of pain overtaking me. By the time we arrived at the venue, neither my mind nor my body could stand up and there was quite literally nowhere to sit down. It was a long quiet, much slower trip home and it would be seven long painful months before I would find any sort of relief.

7) “Respect your efforts, respect yourself. Self-respect leads to self-discipline when you have both firmly under your belt that’s real power.” – Clint Eastwood

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My personal purgatory became a podiatrist’s office in a strip mall, where for several months I returned only to have no cure but plenty of foam for my shoe and prescriptions for meds to combat my body’s growing revolt against the demolished and now re-broken set of bones that made up my right greater toe. X-rays were taken and I was assured that surgery was an option if it were necessary but that my sesamoid bones were shattered and would need time to recover. But alas, when these methods fell short of improving my condition, I took my business and x-rays to an Orthopedic Surgeon specializing in foot and ankle reconstruction.

8) “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” – Susan Sontag

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Within five minutes of meeting my surgeon, I felt a deep sense of relief, it didn’t hurt that he was cool, carrying on with the looseness of the leader a big band. Digital x-rays were quite the time travel from the podiatrist’s office and as we looked at them in his spacious office I finally saw the adversary. As we booked the ensuing procedure, he explained the truth about podiatrists, “I wish those guys wouldn’t load people up with meds like this. You know they aren’t doctors, right?” I simply thought mine was incompetent but it would seem I’d fallen into a common error loop.

9) “You can rebel against everything adults say. When I want to find out what the new music is, I find out what parents hate.” – George Clinton

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The surgeon broke the bones again and reshaped them so that the right great toe stood straight with the assistance of titanium screws after crookedly crowding its longer neighbor for eight years. Throughout the process, I tried my best to continue covering local music. The week before I went in I caught Loudon Wainwright at The Kessler (https://wordpress.com/post/theflashbulb.wordpress.com/45) and the week after I had a big show booked which I attended. It was a glorious night, the venue was packed and even though I was medicated and on a cane, I still found ways to dance all the same.

10) “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”  — H.P. Lovecraft

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A year later, I returned to have the screws removed because I could feel their heads emerging beneath the skin. As he looked over the file, he commented quite emphatically, “That toe was quite a mess,” before scheduling the procedure for his main office in Dallas. The screws come out much like one would expect with a medical-grade screwdriver and repeated ratcheting of my foot. As he set to work on the first screw, he asked if I could feel what he was doing. When I acknowledged that I could, he called for another dose of the deadening agent which he applied quite liberally before picking up his tool again.

Flashbulb Chronicles 2 – To Seek Better Thoughts

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Prior to my eyes failing, I had already become well practiced in the process of degeneration, procedure, and recovery over the course of a decade. It was another of my birth defects, a pair of bipartite patellae, where the saga of my surgeries began. A dislocated knee during 7th-grade football tryouts tipped us off to the fact that the kneecap had never fused properly; rather it remained two separate bones. Most importantly, as I would mythologize later, I beat the kid next to me on the track, which had just enough of a dip in it to pop my kneecap out.

1) “In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time assuring each other our costumes of identity are on straight.” – Ram Dass

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Ten years ago, while moving a 7-foot couch into my upstairs apartment, something began to break down in my left knee. The process was intensive and involved removing a pair of posts on the screened-in porch; there were a number of casualties on the way to its final resting place at the other end of the house, including my roommate’s scraped up back and hands. Before we got the massive piece of furniture through the kitchen, my knee began to swell to the size of a large grapefruit and I remained on the couch for the next six weeks.

2) “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” – Flannery O’ Conner

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Most of the next year was spent nursing the knee before I finally sought an orthopedic surgeon nearby to check it out. When the first x-rays came back, I commented on how the smaller chunk looked like a ship leaving the harbor of the larger chunk. The greatest concern about removing the wayward bone for the surgeon was the 7-inch incision required. Despite my waving off any issues about scars, he wasn’t sure it was a necessary procedure, choosing instead to do a basic cleanup of the damage caused by the kneecap’s split arthroscopically.

3) “Everybody you fight is not your enemy and everybody that helps you is not your friend.”  — Mike Tyson

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Almost immediately after the first surgery, it was clear more work needed to be done. The first procedure had simply cleaned up the wreckage but did nothing to stymie the patella’s further separation. When I returned with a nearly melon-sized knee, the surgeon simply showed me a series of rather intimate pictures as evidence of how nicely he had cleaned out the joint. Of course, these were images taken during the procedure and did nothing to explain my body’s extreme reaction weeks after the fact. Throughout this frustratingly idle process, my options were mostly limited to reading and watching movies, which allowed my usual quote harvesting to intensify and acted as a welcome distraction from the pain.

4) “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” – Albert Camus

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After three frustrating meetings with the first surgeon, my mother encouraged me to track down Dr. Bergin – the orthopedic surgeon who had diagnosed the malady twenty years earlier. Of course, my visits became frequent because my insurance refused surgery on the knee for another nine months, which meant my only recourses were Hydrocodone and regular draining of fluid build up. So I had time to learn about a cowboy trading her riding lessons for hand surgery, which led to competitive cut riding, and, eventually, a novel she based around her experiences. By this point, I rarely left home and when I did it was with the assistance of a cane; my interpersonal skills deteriorated further with each passing month as I became more consumed by what was happening.

5) “I never make stupid mistakes. Only very, very clever ones.” – John Peel

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Between the first and second surgeries, I had signed on to develop story ideas for an upstart production company. However, hovering somewhere between pain and painkillers left my mind lacking clarity and I became increasingly difficult to be around. Emotionally frazzled, I left a trail of questionable choices and confused dealings as I lived in a perpetual state of limbo. Unsurprisingly, I was giddy as a schoolchild when Dr. Bergin finally asked, “Are you ready for me to pull that thing out yet?” In less than a month, I was wearing my gown getting the low down on my cocktail by an anesthesiologist before being wheeled into the OR.

6) “You can tell how smart people are by what they laugh at.” – Tina Fey

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Before I undressed, I had asked the nurses if I could take the chunk of kneecap they extracted home and when I awoke there it was like a new potato on the table to my right. That first laugh was a very long time coming – almost like seeing a defeated adversary – the conclusion of the nightmare saw a return of a more sociable version of myself. Many of my friends, even a couple of their kids, asked to see the bone, which I kept in the freezer – I would always indulge them by pulling it from the freezer and saying, “You can touch it if you want.”

7) “I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.” – Albert Einstein

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Those three years initiated a period of personal transformation driven by the breaking down of my body. In my early 30s I expected to spread out and challenge myself, but instead, I was comparing notes with my mother about her knee replacements and researching pain management. A large percentage of my energy was spent doing mental health upkeep, at times I could trick myself by focusing like a sommelier on ways to describe the various types of pain stimulating my central nervous system. At times, it was as though the pain’s intensity overwhelmed my visual field, where I would see blobs of color. The dynamism of the pain could trace jagged electrical bolts or feel heavy and sludgy like lava.

8) “Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it.” – Langston Hughes

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With each recovery came a renewed sense of vigor, I bought a stationary bike to help me get back in shape. Activity during the periods of regrowth accounted for over a hundred pounds of weight loss, a curve that would fall off a cliff when a step felt a little wrong and my body would once again stage a revolt. With each new round of swelling – when gravity and mobility become far more adversarial – life moved towards an Olympic level of absurdity. I am the sort of person who refuses assistance as a way of life; many of my falls, tumbles, close calls and near misses were due to an irrational pigheadedness. But I found it helped to laugh as often as possible upon unintentionally finding the floor.

9) “The monster was the best friend I ever had.” – Boris Karloff

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Only one procedure was needed to care for the issues in the right knee. Through all three knee surgeries, I lived upstairs in an old house, which meant I was hopping up and down; my bedroom was a loft in a converted stairwell, which meant I took a few tumbles. As a result, my spine had taken a beating at either end. In addition, all of the limping had awakened a big toe pulverized years before I had obtained insurance, and soon after that same toe would become an ordeal all its own.

10) “Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.” – George Sand

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For more than three years, everything revolved around my problematic patellae and it became clear I was missing out on a great deal of life. My friends were getting married, having children and starting businesses while I was stuck in third gear, a moody shell of my former self. At times I certainly found myself feeling despondent, but for all that was lost, I gained the appreciation of simple glories, like the moment you successfully regain a normal gait and return to walking without limitation after not knowing if such a thing were possible.

Flashbulb Chronicles 1 – Strands of Words

At two, my mother noticed, while I was in the bathtub, that my right eye did not move in unison with its neighbor-conspirator. Rather, it sank and struggled when I looked upward to my mother or drooped and veered when my gaze returned downward to the collection of Tupperware containers in the tub – from one to the next, I took such joy in transferring the bathwater. The subsequent surgical procedure functions more as mythology to me now: a very new procedure, my sitting up on the gurney and waving to those I passed on the way to the OR. But, I still vividly remember the years of eye patches that followed.

1) “The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent think you might block every shot.”- Bill Russell

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Over two years ago, the right eye began sinking again; and after all the reading and writing, the left eye was pulling away from its moorings. The minute discrepancy between the two eyes had grown to a nearly full-time state of double vision punctuated by the jagged teeth of migraines. Where I had once been able to digest books in a sitting, I now struggled to make it through twenty pages without resting. Unable to keep the lines on the page straight, the act of reading became arduous and exhausting. Research for big projects no longer reasonably fit within my skill set. What once took a week had become a month-long endeavor.

2) “Derive happiness in oneself from a good day’s work, from illuminating the fog that surrounds us.” – Henri Matisse
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More than one eye doctor has told me that, save for tailor and jeweler, writing may be the worst occupation for the eyes. They have shown me also that I have never quite seen what I thought I saw. My brain, amidst the assortment of visual information – distinct and non-coordinated streams from each eye – approximated a fiction from the overlapping data streams flowing into my visual cortex from wayward eyes. Depth perception faded and household accidents increased. As my world grew darker, I withdrew into a crooked visual world, forced to accept the world was not what it seemed.

3) “You were once wild here, don’t let them tame you.”  – Isadora Duncan

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No longer could I ignore the issues with my vision and a process of behavioral modification began with re-examining how much of a role digital media could have in my life. Leading up to the first two procedures, my writing time was limited to brief 20-minute windows, which meant the use of my eyes was restricted and I rested them religiously between sessions. An eye patch, ice packs and a lot of good old fashion squinting have all been employed with hopes of getting more continuous time working through a scene, a line of dialogue or some other element of a project.

4) “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” – Thomas Mann

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Despite the rapid withdrawal of my presence, online and in the real world, I did not want to lose touch with folks I’d come to know and value. So I began posting simple quotations alongside black and white images of the speaker to whom the quote was attributed. The lines came from a life-long devotion to collecting, recording and sharing great bits of language, wisdom, insight or courage. The bits resonated with different parts of my experience and inspired me to see beyond my own personal limitations.

5) “If we had a keen vision and feeling of ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow, and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” – George Eliot

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New Year’s Eve eve 2014, my surgeon re-shaped muscles in both eyes and altered the opening and position of each eyelid. For the next 72 hours, I was in complete darkness with heavy bandages over my eyes – completely dependent upon the kind support of my girlfriend. Once the freshly rebuilt muscles grew tired, Cubism broke out starting at the periphery eventually overtaking the Fovea, which is responsible for processing details. What began as a glitch in the system led me through a menagerie of disturbed facial configurations, eventually, though, pain and dislocation ruled those moments.

6) “I didn’t ask my mother to buy me a trumpet or a violin, I started right on the garden hose.” – Rahsaan Roland Kirk

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So, I grew more involved with the simple little snippets I posted online, pleased to imagine those who engaged with them collected into social settings with the speakers. Recovery demanded I spent long periods of time with my eyes closed, so it was a necessity to occupy my mind. The game was to trigger the bulb in my head where a kernel of satisfaction would blossom as friends and colleagues responded. With each tiny interaction, my search for fresh strands of words grew more compulsive. And I turned to the breadth of letters.

7) “Money is everywhere but so is poetry. What we lack are the poets.” – Federico Fellini

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Though the speakers would have most certainly disagreed amongst themselves, during the first week of the new practice these words in this context became the building blocks for engineering perspective. An 11-time NBA Champ; French painter; Italian filmmaker; Legendary Dancer; Novelist and voice of German Letters who openly challenged the Nazis; a blind inventive jazz virtuoso; the Brit who wrote under a man’s name and was buried with the dissenters at Highgate; the French Fashion designer, who was also a Nazi spy; Groundbreaking 19th century English designer and decorator; and the spokeswoman for the Feminist Movement.

8) “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” – Coco Chanel

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Perhaps, some felt my habit was overly quotidian; maybe even individuals who were driven away by the practice. But as the months wore on and I remained in a Purgatory of double vision and uncertainty, I mostly chose to focus on the positive feedback. Reconnecting with old friends, I received messages of encouragement such as “You should make a book out of the quotes,” or, “This is one of my favorite interactions with the platform.” A dear cousin in Brooklyn sent a sweet holiday card mentioning her appreciation of the quotes. Parents of friends and friends who had become parents commented and soon enough I saw familiar groupings of names.

9) “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” – William Morris

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The interactions came in the form of likes, shares, and comments. They kept me going while I continued to struggle with my vision, when, at times, I was unable to think about much beyond whether or not the problems were going to be permanent. Searching quote collections or scrolling through images eventually spawned vast speculative conversations as the strands of words took over. Darkness becomes preferable when the eyes cannot be trusted; I went from someone who slept minimally and was constantly active to someone who spent most of the time seeking cover. It became more difficult for me to socialize. Stuck without the distractions of visual stimuli, one’s mind may naturally drift towards the dungeon; the attention to what acted as meditative koans and, then, the subsequent reactions and interactions filled my mind with better thoughts, guiding me to continue writing no matter how difficult it was.

10) “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” – Gloria Steinem

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Three months ago, I went through a procedure to repair a loose tendon in my left eye and tighten up the supporting muscles. As I am coming out of what felt at times like a protracted fever dream, I now have time to reflect on those quotes, the process of scavenging for them and the impact they had on me and my world during a confusing period. Over the course of nearly two years, I posted more than five hundred quotations. Upon further reflection, the unique moment of each post gives way to a bounty of signs and symbols, which perpetuates my faith in creativity as our greatest tool in the face of adversity – personally and culturally.

Flashbulb Flashback // Saved By The Crack Pipes / 1.16.13

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Good shoes are invaluable, more so than most any accouterment. One must not be satisfied with comfort, finding the right feel is the real moral of the story. The sound of the heel against the pavement, the best shoes allow you to feel the earth beneath the floor. Footwear does not dignify itself until it has proven itself to be vital across a path of unwavering distance. Perhaps the creases along the forefoot recall a drunken night walking home in the rain. That vitality aids us past obstacles while ennobling us towards future endeavors.

I returned to Austin, after an on-again-off-again relationship with my hometown, to a music scene that had exploded along with the presence of those yellow bracelets. Leaving Los Angeles for The Violet Crown proved less distance than anticipated with celebrities becoming the norm amidst the crane-stacked urban wiles. Late that summer I stood in a field between Sheryl Crow and Los Lonely Boys as both flogged away at SRV tributes and felt grossed out by the business of the whole thing. This was when the word “weird” would start to lose its meaning as the streets were overrun by the phrase Keep Austin Weird.

Working in a record store requires blinders as much as it does focus and there can be times when releases blur together, or at least, that’s how it worked for me. But what stands out most from that weird era was the music of The Crack Pipes. When friends from elsewhere would ask after the scene, The Crack Pipes were permanently inserted into my responses. Once Emperor Jones released Beauty School, few mixes left my hands without a tune from the gentlemen I was calling Revival Rock. While the nomenclature left something to be desired, what I was reaching for was this sense, both on record and especially live and in person, that I was being revived from a listless sleep.

When I was a kid I had to learn how to use smelling salts because my mother had fainting spells, I would turn the little metal cap while she was busy and take the burn until I couldn’t take it any longer. That’s the feeling that best describes the band, who melt down rock and roll, and recast it with a fine balance between soul’s articulate heart and the delightfully rowdy noise of punk. With the voice of Ray Pride burning at its heart, the quintet runs on a high-octane soul. At a time when I was getting burned out, The Crack Pipes, stacked with talent, reinvigorated the heart of rock and roll. When asked about their 17-year evolution, Ray made it simple, “basically, our sound is a result of us pouring everything we love into a blender and hoping we get people’s ears drunk.”

Bridging the Chicago blues upbringing of guitarist BillySteve (check also Churchwood) with the love of noise drummer Mike Corwin and Ray derived from bands like The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. Bass player Nick Moulos (check out Party Lines) grew up ripping skate punk in Austin, even playing with Tim Kerr from The Big Boys. In addition to the Pipes various backgrounds, Ray cites additional reasons for their longevity, “We all got along real well from the very beginning and no one is the crazy perfectionist super boss.”

But beyond influences, my sense of “revival” stems further from the religious connotation of raising the spirit. Whether catching them at my favorite Austin record shop, Trailer Space or down at Mohawk, the fervor with which The Crack Pipes hit the stage whips every room into a crazed throbbing mass. Like a bomb ticking its way to an explosion, every show in my memory is colored by that high-energy revelry. After one such show at Emo’s, fueled by the feedback and glory of the closing collapse, I declined rides and walked a rainy mile to my car. The smile never left my face and the night’s music play in my head over the downpour as I recalled OBN III’s Orville Neeley bounding into the crowd during their set only to joyously flip my ballcap into the crowd behind me.

The shoes I wore that night have been with me for almost seven years now, only had them resoled once. They continue to fit, no matter what the situation. If you were to walk around in them, they wouldn’t fit you like they fit me. Shoe metaphors aside, I have convinced The Crack Pipes to come tear the roof off of The Grotto, sharing the stage Friday (1/18) are Oddlot and Fungi Girls, two bands who come to shred and make gut-check rock music.

Flashbulb Flashback: Taylor Craig Mills / Totally Classic, Man // 10.30.13

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When I arrived in Fort Worth, I read the skies like my ancestors and found The Moon. Behind the bar, there was a gentleman who carried himself with ease. After the bourbon was poured, we exchanged pleasantries. Such were my early months knowing Taylor Craig Mills. We’d see one another at shows. That handshake, the nod of the head or tip of his Open Road Stetson, the little things showed presence; from gestures like a kind word, or a short-and-sweet anecdote, everything was in its right place. And when I heard him sing at 2012 Weekly MAF, his Mills & Co. performing a divine set in the cool darkened oasis of The Durty Crow, it stopped me in my tracks. Mills’ voice set against lush arrangements gave one the sensation of time slowing.

Mills is a storyteller in the Texas tradition, able to conjure the wilds of our state’s longing as well as the isolation of that Lone Star. 2012’s Don’t Ever Look Back Twice is a bounty of sculpted layers, rife with characters caught up in the perpetual grind. Star-crossed lovers and tragic subplots line the hallways of these tunes, swelling with enigmatic pathos echoing long after the music stops.

Opening with a haunting whistle, the album is as evocative as a collection of short stories and has been in heavy rotation since making its way to my ears last year. When we met up at The Aardvark late in the summer, it was Mills who asked the first question, “So what are we doing here?” Soon we were talking about his first band, with his brother, called Voight. During those early musical experiences, he realized, “Songs have the best reach to the human heart.” It was this thesis that eventually launched Mills&Co. in 2010. Then came Our Souls To Keep, the album’s closing tune with the meditative refrain, “Don’t let it go to your head,” and he’d found his sound.

Folks who had known him for years were astounded to hear what he’d been working on, and the scene responded positively. Tom Urquhart and Tony Diaz from KTCU’s Good Show allowed him to record a demo in their studio, getting twenty-two songs down in the first session. Soon he would join Blackbox’s roster of artists and find even more fans.

Mills & Co’s sound centered on the front man’s true tenor, a vocal ability often wasted in traditional rock forays. Developing material for the project, he sheepishly approached friend Jeremy Hull, bass player for cowpunk masters Holy Moly, followed by drummer Joe Carpenter. “I thought the warmth of Jeremy’s bow worked well with my voice.” Filling out the lineup, Mills turned to Kris Knight formerly of Handclaps and Harmonies[i], giving him a keyboard player with a strong head for harmony. “I wanted a more natural feel. No matter how strong your voice is when you’re battling lead guitar and amps you get drowned out and people miss the point of everything.” Whether seen as a two, three or four-piece the songs always resonate.

In addition to his own music, Mills and Knight joined Un Chien, allowing our mustachioed hero to return to his bass player roots, “Its fun to play my part and not have to worry about everything else.” The band destroyed their Joy Division set at Rock Assembly 2013, Mills nailing Peter Hook’s melodic bass lines. Recently signed to Hand Drawn Records, their full-length debut releases December 6th.

Taylor Craig Mills continues to write new tunes for the next Mills & Co. record, telling me four songs have already made their way onto set lists. He will continue to find new ways of connecting with people, “I’ve done the rock and roll show and that’s a blast. But the reason I became a musician was to have an effect on somebody. Sometimes it’s a song that makes your night, week or even your month better.”