Tag Archives: birth defects

Flashbulb Chronicles pt. 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 clean up 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. Barbara 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. Tracing the dynamism of the pain along the nerve could have 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.

The 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 human 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.