Tag Archives: writing

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

Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa in Casablanca

 

 

 

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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.