I was 21 when I first got my hands on a book called The Dice Man by virtue of a gift from a friend. It was a book that caught me from the first page, introduced me to the idea of deciding one’s fate by the roll of a die, and was indirectly responsible for a friend’s unsuspecting mother encountering a certain memorable phrase involving a wet sack.


By Kristen Elde


One Friday morning, I was running the streets of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood when I tripped on some garbage and fell, bracing my fall with… my chin.

The sound was the worst: the dull internal clatter as top teeth met bottom. After lying prostrate in the middle of the dusty street for a split second, I scrambled to right myself. I made it to a sitting position and my thoughts went instantly to my mouth. My teeth: were they all there? A quick once-over with my tongue suggested they were. At the same time I brought my hand to my chin—but not before a nice crossing guard thrust a stack of napkins beneath it, urging me to apply pressure. “You hit the ground hard, honey. There’s blood—a lot of it.”

Dear Tim Kring,

I have a special request. One which I’m sure that many people hold close to their hearts, fondly whispering to the skies, possibly with the preface ‘Dear Tim Kring, wherever you are…’

Can I please have some of your money? Because I feel owed.

My request is this: can you please not make another terrible season of Heroes?

I know, I know. I’ve been harping on about this for a while. But the problem is that just when I think your show can’t get any worse, there it goes and just drops the ball even further. It’s as if I dated a really beautiful, really wonderful girl for 22 weeks, she went on holiday, then came back, and she was Herman Munster. Then she did it again, except this time she was Herman Munster’s non-union equivalent. And then she repeated the process one more time, and she became myself, and I was forced to experience first-hand just how horrible it is to date me.

Tsunami 2010

By Don Mitchell


The great Chilean earthquake of 27 February triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific. I wrote about my experiences in the 1960 tsunami here on TNB, never imagining that I’d be writing a companion piece only a few months later. While working on my posting, it occurred to me that because many people have Google Earth on their computers, I should specify enough place and street names so that readers can get a look at where I’ve been today. Here’s how my tsunami day went.

6 AM. Sirens. I’m lying awake, ready to get up, drink some coffee, go downtown and run 10k along the bay front, where it’s flat.The sirens start, and my first thought is – tsunami! Then I wonder about it. Maybe somebody mis-programmed the monthly test? But no, they keep wailing. So I get up, and because I haven’t bothered dragging the old boom box down from the closet shelf, and there’s no regular radio in the house, I go to my computer.  Indeed, yes. Those are tsunami sirens, so I go in and wake Ruth. She wears earplugs. She’s startled.

6:15. I say, You make the coffee, and I’ll go fill up the Quest. I made a couple of runs to The Dump yesterday, and the fuel low light went on. I didn’t bother getting gas because I didn’t have my wallet.

6:20. Oh. I’m not the only one who needs gas. At the Union 76, the line stretches half a mile. Oh. I’ll wait it out.

6:25. On Hawai’i Public Radio, the Saturday morning host, who usually plays modern music, is doing the tsunami warning. In the background he’s playing John Adams’ “Shaker Loops.” Excellent choice – agitated and rousing, but not ominous.

6:30. Inching along. For the first time, I hear the Emergency Broadcast System alert squawks followed by an actual message. Not “This is a test . . . .”  Nope. A Hawai’i County Civil Defense person comes on with the detailed warning.

6:35. I’m in front of the Kaumana Fire House. I don’t want to stop in front of the engines, so I leave a gap. Oh! Somebody drives along and cuts in in front of me. This is Manhattan Bridge behavior. Somebody’s really worried. Never mind. If he doesn’t want to act in the Hawaiian way, I will. I don’t give him the stink eye.

7:00. Sirens again.

7:15. Switching between stations, I note that not every announcer knows what a “fathom” is. The official recommendation is that vessels go offshore to where the depth is “100 fathoms,” so some are saying “600 feet,” which is correct, and others “600 fathoms,” doing the X6 thing but forgetting to change the unit. Some feet and meter differences, too. One source says 7 feet expected, another says 4 meters. That’s a significant difference.

7:20. I fill up.

7:25. Back home. I gather up all the loose water bottles in the car. Might as well fill them, too. For sure, the power’s going out and I can’t remember whether the water flows when the power’s out.

7:30. A few email messages in from the Mainland. My sister reminds me not to be an idiot as I was in 1960. I respond that I’m 50 years older and most likely wiser.

7:59. I get out a general email reminding people who haven’t been at my house on Wailuku Drive in Pi’ihonua that it’s not near the shore. I put in a link to my TNB tsunami piece. I include Greg and Matt in the email: Matt because he’s lived in Hawai’i, and because I loved his Katrina piece, and Greg because I’ve been commiserating with him about the snow.

8:00. Sirens again.

8:20. Irving calls from the mainland. “Don’t go down to that bridge,” he says. We talk about snow.

8:40. I remember that my trailer can haul anything, not just waste. So I call my friend Alan at Alan’s Art and Antiques in case he needs help moving his stuff. Alan’s store is on the waterfront. He says No, I’m just taking a few things. And he reminds me that the 1957 Hilo Intermediate School yearbook that I haven’t picked up is at his house. So it’s safe, he says. I call Dragon Mama, Mrs. Suzuki, in case she needs help. She has a tatami, futon, and cloth place, also on the waterfront. A lot of our furniture came from her shop. She says No, we’re going to take a chance. She’s putting everything on the higher shelves and can tolerate a few feet of water in the store.

9:00. I call Carolyn. Does she know anybody who needs hauling help? It’s getting late, but I can hitch up quickly. No, she doesn’t. She lives up near the Volcano.

9:30. It’s a beautiful day. Sunny and cool. This is good, because if it gets bad down there, it’ll be easier for the workers.

9:35. I start thinking about where to go to watch. Charge the camera batteries. Charge the cell phones.

9:40. The tsunami ETA is 11:20. It’s nice when a pending disaster has a fairly precise schedule.

9:44. I start typing this. How did I forget about TNB? I need to mind my priorities. In a while I’ll drive down to town and see about a safe vantage point.

9:46. I hear that all water’s been shut off along coastal zones, so the tsunami can’t drive salt water and sewage into the system. I wonder if they did that in 1960?

10:00. Sirens again. It is a different sequence, I think. Longer. I head for town. Sailboats out beyond the breakwater. It’s a beautiful scene, like a regatta. But they’re fleeing to 100 fathom water. Most of the good vantage spots are taken. People have lawn chairs and even canopies in some of the best spots. I drive by the old Main Fire Station, where I went early in the morning in May 1960 to start trying to rescue people. Coming home, I drive past the old Hospital, which is now the County Annex. I feel it pulling me. From the road, I can see the old ambulance entrance. That’s where we took the dead bodies.

10:05. Ruth is on the phone talking to a friend in California. I feel a surge of irritation. A tsunami is coming! The ordinary world will be shaken. I immediately realize how ridiculous my feeling is. We’re in no danger at all.

10:10. A new ETA: 11:04. And no one will see it coming. On the Mainland, when there’s a winter storm or lake effect warning, I get the weather radar on my screen and see the trouble forming. See it moving. But this thing’s different. It’s out there, a wave front moving through deep water, not showing itself. For all that we’ve had hours of warning, when it does arrive, it’s going to leap up suddenly.

10:15. I stand on the porch, thinking. I go down to the van and open the hatch. Bungees and the tarp from my last dump run. I decide to leave them there. Somebody might need them. I walk into my shop and pick up my heavy ax. Should I put it in the van, just in case I have to do rescue work? I already have my biggest Gerber knife in my pocket, for the same reason. No, that’s silly. This isn’t 1960. Other people are ready to handle these things. And yet . . . I put the ax in the van. I keep my knife in my pocket. I feel simultaneously  well-prepared and silly.

10:30. Time to go. I tell Ruth she should wear sneakers, just in case we have to walk in wreckage. Is that going to happen? No. I put on my red Nike trail running shoes. Then I feel stupid, because I’m also wearing a red t-shirt. I hate thinking that anybody might think I chose my red shoes to go with my red shirt. I get in the car, Mister Red Man.

10:32. I run back inside to shut down all the computers. There could be a power surge, or the power could go out and the batteries run down before we get back.

10:35. Heading down the hill. I say to Ruth, If it happens, you’ll never forget what you’ll see. It’s a mighty force. I also use the word “inexorable,” which is a word I rarely use, but it’s the right word. The sea just keeps on coming at you. I want her to see it, so we can share it. She only knows about 1960 from my memories.

10:38. I’m thinking that Haili Street might be the best spot. The 1960 tsunami was also spawned in Chile, and it crashed into the Hamakua coast, out past Honoli’i, and then was reflected straight into Hilo Bay. Or at least that was the reconstruction – it was 1 AM that time, and so nobody actually saw it happen. Today, if this tsunami barrels at us out of the same direction, I’d like to see that reflection for myself. But from Haili St, we can’t see Honoli’i.

10:45. I drive down a little side street that parallels Haili, but I don’t grab a space for a while.  I find a parking place on Kapiolani. OK, it’s a good place, Honoli’i or no Honoli’i.

10:48. I tell Ruth, Let’s walk farther down towards the shore. We might be able to see out towards Honoli’i. We walk. The Water Department guys are driving around in their trucks. We get down where I hoped it might be good, but it’s not. Time to go back up the hill. I say, we might as well walk over to Waianuenue and go back up that way. We still have time. Ten minutes to go.

10:56. We’re walking back up Waianuenue, past my old elementary school. The sidewalks are crowded. More lawn chairs. I catch my toe on a sidewalk slab and stumble. A woman says, Don’t get hurt up here! I laugh. She asks, What’s it like down there? I say, Oh, it’s OK except the water’s boiling and it’s full of poisonous snakes. She laughs. Everybody laughs. I feel like a dork. I am a dork. This is surreal. Ruth and I are worried about getting back to Haili St in time for the show which, we know, starts at 11:04.

10:58. We get to the van. I whip a quick U-turn and get over to Haili St. There’s a place!

11:00. We walk up to where the view’s pretty good. Lots of people. There’s a guy wearing a “Harbor Security” patch. I wonder why he’s not down at the harbor, but I don’t say anything except that I’m a 1960 survivor. We talk about how teenagers believe they’re immortal.

11:02. Lots of sailing boats and some larger craft out past the breakwater. I’d be farther out, if I had a boat. I think I see a whale, but I’m not sure so I don’t say anything. But I start thinking about it. Will the whale be surprised? Then I think, No, probably there’s some acoustic energy preceding the wave. I don’t like thinking about a humpback being lifted over the breakwater and crashing into the shops along Kamehameha Avenue. But if it happens, I’ll get there with my camera somehow. It would be a great shot.

11:04. Show time! But there’s nothing. Helicopters – four of them, and now five, when they’re joined by a large Army chopper, down from the Pohakuloa Training Area. A Coast Guard C-130 rescue plane is circling, circling.

11:15. Nothing. There’s a bunch of teenagers sitting on a truck. I can’t resist, so I go over and tell them that when I was their age, I was down on the Wailuku bridge, and almost died. They’re impressed. What did you think? one asks. I’m going to fucking die! I say. They laugh. They’ll never fucking die.

11:20. Nothing, except I think one reef by the breakwater is exposed. I call to the kids, Look at the reef, it’s coming. I shape my voice to sound ominous. It doesn’t come. They are polite.

11:25. Nothing, except I realize that I’m leaning on a little pickup truck with an “Eddie Would Go” bumper sticker. This is very amusing, so I photograph Ruth and the Eddie Would Go sticker. Eddie Aikau was a famous big-wave surfer and lifeguard, who died in the Molokai Channel going for help when the double canoe Hokule’a overturned. I didn’t know Eddie but I did know somebody who sailed on Hokule’a.

11:40. Nothing. It’s hot. Maybe some other reefs are showing, maybe not. I can just barely see the tip of the breakwater, and it seems choppy there, as if something’s churning.

11:45. Nothing. I start talking to the woman whose house we’re in front of. Her family lost their fishing boat in 1960. We talk about 1960. She’s clearly pleased that nothing has happened. I’m not as pleased as she is. I admit this to myself. I want a 1960 replay except in daylight and with only a little destruction and nobody dead. I want to see it happening and not be terrified when I do.

11:55. Time to go. And yet . . . I can’t go home. So I head for Kaiwiki, where there’s a panoramic view of the bay. To get there, we drive across one of the Wailuku River bridges upstream from the bridge I was on. It’s packed with people. In 1960, people on this bridge saw me and my friends clinging to the bridge. They didn’t know who we were. In 2007 I ran into somebody in Buffalo whose father had been on that bridge, watching. He sent me an email: So you were one of those idiots.

12:10. Up to Kaiwiki. More spectators. Somebody in an old red Nissan Pathfinder has driven right out into the middle of an agricultural field. For a better view? It doesn’t seem better to me. We stay there a while. Nothing happening.

12:30. Down the hill. I’ll try Wainaku, near Alae Cemetery. Up Kulana Kea road with its No Trespassing signs, and a clump of orange cones that must have been strung out across the road this morning. Lots of cars. There are many giant raised-up pickups. I wish I had one to use today. Great view. I see serious churning in the bay, clearly a big outflow past the breakwater. And the waves against the breakwater seem more massive and synchronized than usual.

12:40. My son calls from the Adirondacks. Snow. Bad cell service. He didn’t know. He just saw my email on his iPhone. It’s all over, I tell him.

12:57. The whale breaches. So it was a whale. I keep my finger on the shutter and when it breaches again, I get it. Why don’t I have a huge telephoto? If I drop the whale image into my TNB piece, it’s going to be pixellated. People will laugh. The bay’s beautiful, but nothing’s happening.

1:00. Head home.

1:15. My stepson calls. What’s happening, I just saw it on the news. Well, it was nothing, and now it’s over.

1:20. Home. A bunch of emails, including one from Matt, who wishes the tsunami to pass like a flowing stream rather than a raging torrent. There’s one from Greg, who has snow and won’t have power until Tuesday. Those are worse circumstances than mine would have been, even if the tsunami had lived up to its billing.

1:30. How to make sense of the day? I can’t. It’s too complicated, emotionally. It’s wrong to feel disappointment because a natural disaster didn’t live up to expectations. It was so scheduled, and I admired that. The warning system, the computer models. The emergency preparations were precise and well-executed. Everything worked as it was supposed to. At Civil Defense they must be celebrating, and they should be. And yet I feel certain that among them, there are some who are disappointed that they will have very little post-tsunami work to do.

2:00. Well, for excitement I can thin my banana patch and take a load to the dump. I put the ax back in the shop. I get my machete and fell a couple of dozen bananas, and load the heavy green-black trunks, wetting myself with their juices. It’s the only water that’s hit me today. I hitch up the trailer and head down the hill for The Dump.

2:15. Oh, the Dump is closed today.

Continuing my series, Evolution of the Book, this is a story of the all-consuming edits I began just after I got my first book deal. This is when everything still seemed salvageable.

Just back from vacation, and a lot of people have asked me, “How was Paris?” And while I had a fine time, my memory of this vacation has been all about editing my book. I got my edits back two months ago. And several weeks later, when I was able to pull myself out of the fetal position, I went to work, unstringing all the beautiful sentences I thought were finished to do the tough work of trying to make the book bigger and better than the original.

Editing a piece of writing is very much like taking a knitted sweater and having someone say, “Only small changes, really. Just re-do this bit in the shoulder. And maybe use an alternating color every other row.” And you know very well that this means you’ll have to unravel the entire sweater to make those changes, and once you have a pile of yarn, you have to trust that it will be a sweater again. That it will be a sweater that blows the original out of the water.

Luckily, while I was still in shock and calling myself stupid, failure, mediocre, and other favorite pet names I like to use, Mr. Henderson built me the most awesome, secret office, where I am typing this very blog and also rebuilding the sweater, so to speak.

To get to my office, you have to go through a wisteria tunnel.

The office is hidden in ivy.

And it has a door that’s hard to come across.

Here’s the inside. That’s Jack, one of my dogs. I should straighten that lampshade, I guess.

Maybe you noticed the doll in the window. It’s my first Barbie doll ever, and I got it this summer from the very awesome Heather Fowler. She sent outfits, too! I have to say I was tempted to cut Barbie’s hair and see what happens when you unscrew her head and stick firecrackers inside. Maybe this is why no one bought me a Barbie as a kid.

I sit at this desk for hours and hours every day. My desk is usually messier than that. And when I’m on a roll, there will be balled up pieces of paper all over the floor. (Man, I need some artwork on that wall. Over the couch, too.)

My mouse pad is a Roget’s thesaurus. I’ve had this one since high school and it’s falling apart.

I have the coolest view ever out this window. I should probably wash the window, huh?

There are little boxes all around, filled with whatever. This one has rattlesnake tails and bullet shells. Some have tampons and ponytail holders and gum.

This is a tricky section of the book, all laid out so I can see where the problem is. I keep that little bat-girl nearby because I think she’s made of the same stuff as the narrator of my book. I’ve tried to buy that print, but it’s sold out, so I’ve got my eye on Ray Caesar, and next time I love something, I won’t be so slow about it.

There you go – a quickie office tour. Mr. Henderson built the whole thing and painted it and put up the molding and sewed the curtains. It’s an absolutely awesome gift, and now I need to make good use of it and edit this little book the best I know how.

I was staring at Rodent’s kitchen floor and hating the broom, not yet having found the kind I like, which is a Chinese fan-shaped broom that takes lots less effort than any other shape of broom.

“Where can we get a Chinese fan-shaped broom that’ll make sweeping easy?  I never see them at Tesco—is there a Chinese store around here?”

Rodent’s kitchen is in his house which is in England.

He looked confident.  I was suspicious.

“Don’t worry,” he said.

This was a millenial shift from his usual, “We’ll see.”

I carried on hating the broom and his kitchen, especially since it needed painting and a new floor, as well as new lighting, stove, fridge, sink, countertops and cabinets.

I hung up the broom on the side of the cabinet next to the wonderful “Shit Happens” apron hanging near a never-used DustBuster, dead-batteried “torch” (flashlight) and two sets of keys that worked nowhere.

Did I mention that dear Rodent is a native of Scotland, and for many years has lived in England?  That qualifies us, since I’m a native USAmerican, as a couple divided by a common language.

Months before, he had recoiled immediately, and uncharacteristically, when I’d told him to change his pants.  We debated the UK and USA meanings of “pants” long after he had actually changed them.  I had meant his khakis; he’d thought I meant his briefs.

These word debates have stretched throughout our loveship and tend to happen at inconvenient times, such as the first time I wanted to bake an apple crumble, and he said the oven is part of the cooker.

“Where’s the cooker?” I asked.

His reply, God help us, was: “In the kitchen,” followed by, “and the cooker is the cooker.”

“OK,” I said, settling down for a long debate:  “Where’s the oven, then?”

“It’s inside the cooker, of course.  Where else would it be?”

I took a seat and wondered just how to commit suicide using a gas oven which seemed present but unidentifiable.

An image came to me of the Chinese cleaver, ever handy in the Slicey-Choppy drawer next to the thing I had thought was the stove, on top of which were things I had used as burners but which were called “hobs”.

With inordinate patience and creativity, I said, “I’m going to the toilet now, that little room next door which contains no bathtub.  If it contained a bathtub, I would have to call it “the bathroom”—not “the toilet”—or the Building Society would be forced to condemn the house and its occupants for lack of Englishness.  When I return to the kitchen, please have the door of the oven, which is in the cooker, open, so that I can put the apple crumble in it.”

When I returned from the toilet, I noted with immense satisfaction that the door of the oven was open and there was no sign of a cooker anywhere to be seen.  In went the apple crumble followed by a 15-minute explanation of Gas Marks 1 to 8, as distinct from Fahrenheit-designated oven temperatures.

It didn’t take dear Rodent long at all to provide me a broom for the kitchen.  He’s a man, after all, and men have to Do Things in order to continue qualifying as men.  This I guess is the case in both our countries.

He appeared, grinningly pleased with himself, in the kitchen, holding a push broom.

Seconds passed, grin still strong.  I waited for a move of some kind, some sign as to why he had brought a push broom into the kitchen.

“You got a job sweeping Tesco’s car park, and you want to practice?” I offered.

“This is your broom for the kitchen,” Rodent said triumphantly, his mission accomplished.

“It’s a push broom, and it’s usually used out of doors or in the garage, but not in the house.”

“You wanted a broom—and this is a broom,” he insisted.

“I agree:  It is a broom.  But as you can see it bears little resemblance to the broom that I usually use in the kitchen,” and I grabbed the derelict kitchen broom.

“That’s a brush,” Rodent countered.  “You didn’t say you wanted a brush.  You said you wanted a broom.”

“What does a kitchen brush look like, then?” I asked.

“Like what you’re holding,” he said.

“Are there any kinds of brooms other than the push broom you have brought?” I wanted to know.

“No, just that.  It’s the only kind of thing we call a broom.”

“So, if I want something to sweep the floor in the kitchen, I will call it a brush—not a broom.”

“Or you could call it a broom, and here it is,” he said patting the push broom.

No doubt because he’s a man, he began Doing Something.  He began using the push broom.

I couldn’t stand it.  He was pulling the push broom, not pushing it.  Over and over again.

I called it to his attention.  He explained: “That’s because I’m inside the house trying to sweep up some dust, obviously—not outside trying to sweep up some leaves.”

There’s a special kind of laugh-weep reserved for UK-USA couples.  It leads to big, floppy, weak hugs and kisses.

This laugh-weep keeps the Queen’s English alive alongside its dimly reflecting colonial vocabulary, and it assures us of our places next to one another as partners in ongoing ignorance.

It also breeds patience.

Poet Rob Sturma performs his work at the Hollywood Institute of Poetics at Stories Bookstore in Echo Park, CA. July 3, 2009.

It’s Saturday, the middle of the night, way past my curfew, and I’m standing in an alley just outside the Fleishman’s backyard with Anthony Ware and his skinny friend Jack Burns.  I’m ready to hop the fence with them and break into the Fleishman’s house.  The plan is to make it into the bonus room, where skinny Jack says Mrs. Fleishman’s diamond watch waits for us in an unlocked drawer, where on a high shelf sits a shit load of Dr. Fleishman’s booze that Jack swears he’ll never miss.

November 1991. I stared out the partially fogged up window, my cheek pressed up against the cold glass. Down the street people at the grocery store were going about their lives, on their way home from their jobs. Walking into the store. Pushing shopping carts. Making choices. Standing in lines. Opening the backs of their Jeeps. Loading bags of groceries. Closing the backs of their Jeeps. Strapping kids into car seats. Driving home. It was raining.

I hadn’t left my room for three days, hadn’t slept in four. Most of the time I’d been at the window. During the day I watched the people down the street. At night I stared out into the darkness, seeing shadows move or imaginary rodents in the bushes. Every half an hour or I would drag myself from the window and over to the mattress to fix up another speedball, or two or three, or however many. I threw the used syringes on the floor. Every week or two Monica would come in and gather them all up and take them to the needle exchange, come back with a couple grocery bags full of new ones.

I heard the deep rumble of a Harley pull up outside the house. It was Shifty. Ordinarily I didn’t let customers come over to the house but I had been ignoring my beeper for three days and I was running out of money. These coke binges had been really screwing me up. As long as heroin was all I used everything ran like clockwork, but once or twice a year I would feel an irresistible pull to shoot coke and then it would have to run its course, usually a few days, maybe a week. I would shut myself in a room and not come out. I could hear Shifty’s motorcycle boots clomping up the stairs. He knocked.

“Come in,” I said.

He opened the door, took one step inside and froze.

A few days before this Monica and I had been on our way out to see a movie. The Addams Family. As I was pulling out of the driveway, Sharon, our roommate, pulled up. She’d just spent a week at her mother’s in Eastern Washington, detoxing. She rushed over and stopped me before I could back out of the driveway, an urgent look on her face. I knew what she wanted. Usually I would give someone like her the lecture, “You’re past the worst of it. Why do you want to get messed up again?” It had never worked, but I usually gave it a shot. And when they persisted, which they always did, and I relented, which I always did, I would say, “Be careful, your tolerance is down. Do it in two or three shots.” But that night I was in a hurry, Monica and I had to get to the movie. I ran into the house and sold her thirty-five dollars worth, then ran back to the car and headed for The Cinerama downtown. I thought the movie was dumb but Monica seemed to enjoy it. When we got home I went straight up to my room to do a shot. I had just finished when Monica knocked and stuck her head in.

“Sharon’s dead. She OD’d.”

I’d seen it before. People OD’d and died most often after they tried to quit. Their tolerance would be down, or they would get drunk and want to get high and that was that. People should just stop trying to quit, I thought. Then they would have a tolerance, some margin for error and this kind of shit wouldn’t happen. Sharon had been a nice girl, smart, quiet, not pretty enough to be a stripper like Monica and had struggled to get by with a regular job. I told myself that this is what happens when you choose this life. I told myself that where Sharon was now wasn’t so different from where I still was, that I was the living dead and she was just plain dead. I told myself, and Monica told me too, that it wasn’t my fault. All those things might have been true, or not. I wasn’t sure what my level of responsibility was. But I knew one thing, I had to get out of there. The cops would come, and the medics, and I didn’t want to be around for that circus. I cleaned all the syringes out of my room and packed up my drugs. As I walked out through the living room I looked over at Sharon’s door. It was open slightly. A picture formed in my mind, of her in there sprawled on the bed, her eyes open, staring, a needle in her arm.

Shifty stood there stunned, looking around the room. The entire floor was covered in syringes, two or three deep in some places, like hundreds of driftwood logs washed up onto a beach.

“Come on,” I said, “sit down.”

He stood there, staring at the syringes.

“Hey!,” I said, “come on.”

Finally, he snapped out of it and walked slowly and carefully over to the mattress, his boots crunching on the syringes. It sounded like someone walking on a gravel road. He sat down carefully on the corner of the mattress. Speechless, he looked around the room again at the hundreds of used syringes and the bottles of piss.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“A hundred,” he replied.

I began weighing up his piece.

“Man….,” he said, looking around, “this is….wow.”

I chuckled. “Yeah.”

It was shocking, I suppose, to him, to other people, even ordinary junkies. But to me it was simply the natural landscape of my world. I finished weighing up his piece, he thanked me and left, his boots crunching on the way out. As soon as he was gone, I began cooking up some speedballs.

My veins had been gone for a couple years. They’d simply dried up, run away from the onslaught of needle pokes. It’d happened quickly, over a few months, it seemed, with the big ones. Then the smaller ones went as well. I wasn’t about to do what my friend Nikki did, sit in a hot bath for hours trying to raise a vein to the surface of her skin, or mess around forever stabbing myself a thousand times. Some junkies got all wack about the ritual of shooting up and would sit there playing with their dope and needles for hours. They were half-asses, part-timers, dilettantes. Minor leaguers. It wasn’t some gas-powered radio controlled model airplane, it was heroin. You do it, you get strung out, it ruins your life and you die. End of story. Get the drugs inside your body so you can get on to the next thing, even if it was just staring out the fucking window. Even if it was just dying.

I lifted up my pant leg and unwrapped the ace bandage from my calf, then removed the wad of soaked paper towels and tossed it onto the floor. The wound was about six inches long and three inches wide. It was deep. At first I’d used little veins in my calf, ones that didn’t take too long to find. But eventually, they’d gone too, and I began injecting the heroin right into the flesh, into the muscle. Not skin-popping, shooting with the tip of the needle just under the skin, but deeper. It wasn’t the same as hitting a vein, not by a long shot, but it did the trick. I felt it. First a black spot appeared under the skin, about the size of a quarter. Then the skin on the surface just sort of dissolved, peeled, melted away. I could rub it with my finger and it would just sluff off. Then the black flesh under that melted away as well and left a wound, a hole. I figured it was the high potency of the shots and all the crap they put in black tar heroin that caused the flesh to die.

The wound didn’t bleed, or hurt, it only oozed a liquid the color and consistency of olive oil. The heroin seemed to cauterize the flesh and kill the nerves, so I shot there again. I would have left it alone, moved to another place but I soon discovered that I felt the shot a lot stronger when I shot into the wound, almost as strong as before when I had veins. I figured it was all the tiny capillaries trying to repair the flesh that carried the heroin to my heart and then my head faster. And so it went. I continued shooting into the wound until it got bigger and deeper. It didn’t affect me at all, I watched the flesh dissolve away, as if driven by some weird desire that if I could just get to the center of myself I might be able to find out something about myself. I began trading for and gobbling antibiotics to keep the wounds from getting infected. It didn’t smell bad and it wasn’t draining pus, so no worries. I packed it with paper towels and wrapped it with an ace bandage to keep my pant leg from getting wet.

I went to stick the needle into the wound and it stuck. I let go of the syringe and it stayed there, wobbling. I got a firm grip on it, pulled back and it sprung free. I felt in the wound with my finger. I had noticed this hard lump in the wound before but hadn’t thought much of it. It didn’t look like bone, I thought maybe it was a tendon or something. There was a little edge that I could get a grip on with my fingers. It was sort of loose, and I moved it back and forth, then more rapidly, jiggling it.

Suddenly it came free with a sucking sound, like a stuck boot pulled out of the mud. I held it up and examined it. It was about two inches long and a half an inch wide, and looked like a little piece of rotten driftwood except it was blood red in places. One side was smooth and rounded, and the other was porous like a sponge. With a paper towel I rubbed it. I could still see red in places but now some of it was off-white. I was pretty sure it was bone. I sighed, and decided I had better find another place to shoot, the other calf, my buttocks, shoulders, something. But that would have to be next time. Right now I needed to get the heroin in me. I injected the shot into the wound, away from the area where I had pulled the bone fragment.

I placed the piece of bone in a little wooden treasure chest, the one I’d kept firecrackers in as a kid. A couple of days later I took it out and examined it. It had dried. I tied a string to it, made a necklace and wore it around my neck. A medal of honor. Something I had picked up on the battlefield. A trophy, a memento. A souvenir of the enemy.

I wrote this back in August, 2009. At the time, Palin was making her big splash about death panels, and the health care debate was lost in the fracas. By December, Palin and her death panels won the Lie of the Year Award from PolitiFact, but the damage had been done: the sound and fury was too loud, even though it signified nothing.

We remain mired in health care debate. Though the smoke from the death panels has cleared, new ridiculous problems have arisen to take its place. The seed of the piece remains as true as it did when I wrote it, though the death panels have fallen to the level of satire.

Plus, my father really wanted me to post this. I have to make Dad happy once in a while.

This health care debate–I admit I haven’t been following it all that closely. I suppose that my reasoning is somewhat lazy, as is my response to it, but not my feeling about health care. That isn’t lazy at all.

I haven’t been following because as soon as there’s the kind of vitriol and spew in the media that has been involved in this so-called “debate” the issues are lost to us. There are no more examples of what would help, how it might work, who it would effect; instead it becomes about who is the most inflammatory, who can come up with the most hysterical argument, and how we can continue to be mired in the crap unchanged and unchallenged to think in new ways.

But this is about me and my life, and I would like someone to recognize that.

For example, since we are self-employed around these parts, we also have to pick up the tab on our health insurance. Do you know what it costs? Close to 600 bones a month. Do you know what our co-pay is? Thirty bucks every time we set foot in an office, no matter if it’s to take a temperature or get a splinter out. And forget our deductible: we actually had to make the choice between 2,500 dollars per year or 10,000. I think we could call this level of insurance “catastrophic.”

What about eye care? Non-existent. For us, that means that every year, though our 5-year-old son needs glasses for something considered “medical,” his glasses are not covered by our insurance. Do you know how many glasses a kid goes through? Hundreds of dollars a year spent on specs. And my husband and I who merely have age-deficient eyeballs cough up hundreds of dollars to keep the words from blurring on the page and the traffic signs in focus.

Dental: Non-existent. This despite all the studies that have shown that good dental care is one sure-fire way to keep health costs down because of all the attendant ailments that accompany crappy teeth and gums. But that aside, let’s just talk about dollars: two hundred+ bucks apiece to get our teeth cleaned and tuned up every six months. Why do we go that often? So we can avoid the much more painful thousands of dollars that result from crummy gummies. I had to pay close to two thousand dollars a few years ago for a root canal and all its attendant horrors; I would like to avoid that again if possible, so I go to the dentist.

Of course, we have other mouth woes that we both keep ignoring; my husband’s teeth have become so crunched together they’re wearing down and I’ve been missing a tooth in back since my twenties. As a result, my teeth are wearing unevenly and flopping over. But maybe we would have those things fixed if we weren’t hemorrhaging so much money down the other medical rat holes.

Back problems? Forget it; out of pocket. I have chiro coverage, but never once has my chiropractor been paid through my insurance plan because he’s not a member of their tribe or something. Mental health issues? Better to be healthy but crazy, I suppose.

And we’ve got good health. What happens if one of us gets really sick? God help us. Individual health plans are notoriously skint on their lifetime limit–we’ve got two million bucks of coverage and then–buh-bye. Talk about a “death panel.”  Seriously, what happens if they have to fix a liver or kidney, or my heart? Do we run up to the two million and then the insurance adjuster says, “I’m sorry–we were just about to plug in that heart of yours but you’ve reached your limit.”

We’re the lucky ones. Whether by fiat or hard work we’ve been fortunate to have enough money to buy our own health insurance. Many don’t. Many of our friends, who are completely and solidly middle class, cannot afford to spend the extra money each month on their own medical insurance.

The result? Treatment for the most severe form of cervical cancer in a free clinic in Los Angeles. Pre-diabetic health monitoring that is so spotty as to be pointless. Out of pocket expenses of many-multiple thousands for a CPAP machine to keep our friend breathing through the night. Amount paid for emergency oral surgery: ten thousand dollars in cash. Two hip replacements for our friend, a young woman in her twenties, which she couldn’t pay for, and then had to claim bankruptcy. Type 1 diabetes with no insurance–a horror my step-sister has navigated partly by ducking back into school to get insured again. Otherwise, her now “pre-existing condition” rules her out of almost all other plans. What happens when she graduates?

These are ailments affecting people in their twenties through their forties. This is not a discussion about how to care for the elderly. This is about people in the prime of their life who would, with proper preventive health care and better access to good medical teams, live a long time. These same people may have their lives dramatically shortened because they cannot afford insurance.

So these discussions are an obfuscation which offend me personally. I take umbrage with these cavalierly hurled arguments because they are playing with the lives of people I love, active members of American society, taxpayers and voters, who may die prematurely because the health care system won’t care for them.

And what about my Dad?* Where is he in the discussion? The death panels apparently have him and his Stage 4 cancer singled out, but I don’t think he feels tremendously threatened by these medical bureaucrats waving their mighty pens of death over his head.

In fact, he’s relieved that his whole medical team understands in black and white terms that he does not want his life prolonged unnecessarily. That he has the choice to say no to being hooked up to machines and medical devices which may hand him a few more days or weeks, but in a manner which would hardly be called “vital.” That he may choose between that and living out his days comfortably, without strident measures, without hysteria or intubation, without medicine that is as potentially toxic as it is prolonging.

Is that last inkling of life so truly desirable, if sculpted by equipment, money, interventions, and resources that give no comfort or solace? Is the mere fact of living enough, no matter what the condition of the life? Is it life for life’s sake, or life for living?

If you ask me, and nobody did, I think this “health debate” is about a country’s unwillingness to step up to care for its citizens in a responsible way. I think it is about companies and industries so mired in bureaucracies of their own making that they cannot envision another way. I think it is about people’s lives being less important than the evolution of the pay-to-play system, and nickel-and-diming by the insurance industry. I think it is about trying to unravel the Gordian knot woven during the horrid evolution of the PPO, where codes of symptoms and ailments became more important than a holistic view of any given patient.**

We are the ones who pay the price of their inflexibility with diseases and easily treated injuries winding up in the least efficient places on earth: the Emergency Room. Or unable to save money for our retirement because we’re too busy spending it on glasses and CPAP machines, claiming bankruptcy for medically imperative operations, and insurance that is so expensive we have little left at the end of the month. So this disingenuous legerdemain being perpetrated to take the issues out of the hands of patients makes me pretty damned angry.

You can call it a death panel if you want, but I’ll take it for what it is: life and living under our own terms.

*Painting by my father Charles Moone, called “Self Portrait,” painted in 1972. His headstone reads: “Where Will You Spend Eternity?”

**Sometimes there are even articles to back up my opinions! A nice article called the “Five Myths About Health Care Around the World” from the Washington Post, which I found on Metafilter after I wrote this. Call it synchronicity.


By Ted McCagg

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