Thursday, November 25, 2010

Too Much Stuff!

I've paid mucho bucks over the years for a storage unit for stuff I couldn't fit into my domicile for about seventeen years, from Long Beach to Mexico and all the way to Mendocino, CA, preserving stuff I couldn't fit into my house.  (I love the late George Carlin's monologue on stuff, don't you?  If you haven't heard it, here's a link:

Stuff by George Carlin

I am happy to announce that as of November 21, 2010, I emptied my storage unit of all stuff and ensconced my stuff inside my own roughly 800 square foot cottage on the Mendocino Coast.  I am busy sorting through, re-packaging, reducing, and deciding what can be thrown and what ought to be preserved, but the primary thing, the primary thing, is that


America, wake up!  You have too much stuff.  You have storage units and garages crammed full of stuff, and attics and sheds and whatever shelter you can find for your damned stuff.  I say if the stuff is of any value it should live with you; if it cannot live with you in real time and space then rid yourself of it--give it to the poor, donate it to thrift stores, do whatever you have to do to live more leanly on the earth, for we Americans, although we constitute only 4% of the world's population, nevertheless consume 25% of the world's goods.  Prosperity is good but gluttony is not.

We have lost control of our stuff.  Time to get our stuff under control. 

Follow my example, I urge you, and you will know my joy--that all my stuff is under one roof and I live with it.  All my stuff is of such value now that we coexist in time and space.  Anything less is an indulgence in material overpossession.  Do not be possessed by your possessions!


Craig Erickson

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Goodest Samaritan? Part III (end)

When I think about the week I spent with Humphrey, it amazes me that his leaden spirit did not weigh mine down to the point of depression, something I have much suffered in my life, as any reader of this blog knows.  But the Holy Spirit kept my spirits up in the spirit of service to this helpless yet grumpy man, and I learned a lot from him.  What did I learn?

First, let me say that as a doctor for 31 years I have never had a tougher case.  Here's a man who claims to have kidney cancer, melanomas (I didn't observe any on his skin, only what looked like possible early squamous cell cancers), and obviously has end-stage emphysema and a crippling neurological syndrome for which there is no treatment.  Combine these maladies with a leaden spirit, a stone heart, if you will, and you have an ungrateful yet demanding patient who depends on you for everything but resents his very dependence.

I thought long and hard about his two major illnesses and what possible psychic link they might have to his life and came up with a hypothesis.

Although a professing Christian who attends the Church of Christ, Humphrey, I believe, made a bad spiritual decision 26 years ago.  When he lost his wife and son (his son was about 5 at the time), he said he grieved for two months, and that he was really in love with his wife.  I was happy that he grieved, but I explained to him that in my experience as a doctor, that the normal grief process for a mate takes a least a year and is never entirely healed.  But he claimed he had gotten over it in two months.  Therein lies the puzzle.

How could this be done?  Only by shutting one's heart off completely to grief, and thus all feeling.  I believe Humphrey began to withdraw from any emotional engagement with other human beings after this tragedy for which he insufficiently grieved.  Witness that he had no friends left to rely on when I found him, that his one link to his home fell through, that another supposed "friend" in Medford (who was to help us financially, as I was tapped outr) he couldn't even locate, and that he has no living family.  My hypothesis is that after this tragedy he closed his heart down and swore, in some sense, that "nothing would ever hurt him again."  As he withdrew from the human race, as he practiced what my Shakespeare professor called "The Economy of the Closed Heart" (in reference to Polonius' speech in Hamlet), his heart slowly turned to stone.  And his two major illnesses are virtual incarnations of that withdrawal.

Think: With his emphysema he can only spit out a sentence gruffly before having to catch his breath, so he is prevented from normal conversation, and also any variation of emotion in his verbal delivery--his sentences come out flat and clipped with no emotional modulation.  Secondly, his neurodegenerative disease makes it impossible for him to shake hands with anyone.  He can't open his hands.  He can't give a hug. 

Isn't it frightening how in the sentence of his body he is also withdrawing from the world physically?  Doesn't this in some way represent his decision to withdraw from the world emotionally?

Never say to yourself, "I will never be hurt again."  Your heart may turn to stone like Humphrey's, and then your body may follow.  As long as our hearts are open to the world and our fellow humans, we are in constant danger of being hurt, and that is the price we must pay for intimacy in an imperfect world.  Those unwilling to pay this price may succeed in protecting themselves to some extent, but in the end they will get smaller and smaller, with fewer connections, with fewer life-sustaining bonds, until they are trapped within the fortress of their own self-protection.  What a terrible fate.

I prayed with and for Humphrey repeatedly, that God might start a spark in his heart and reverse his chronic withdrawal from the risk of contact, but he ended up asking me to "stop preaching at him" and I desisted and gave up.  I could not, for the life of me, affect his heart in any way, and my prayers were also of no use, I suppose.  My only hope is that somehow, when he saw me arrested in the course of trying to aid him, that it might have shocked him into a human feeling of sympathy for me, or even guilt for what my service had cost me.

As I surmised, the man is nowhere to be found on the web, so I must chalk up my expenses as a loss.  Yet the lesson is a valuable one.  May I never close my heart to hurt lest I close it to love.


Craig Erickson

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Goodest Samaritan? Part II

It's good to be back in my domicile with the turntable my friend Ralph gifted me, listening to vinyl and smoking maduro cigars.  The house is in order with a new coffee table and a new dining table, and I vacuumed and picked up.  Nice to feel centered.  I did the wash yesterday.  Oh, and I also hung new shower curtains today.

I've been tearing through my scratchy vinyl collection since I got the turntable and have been happily reminded of one of the most underrated singer-songwriters of all time, Gordon Lightfoot.  He rivals the Beatles for melody and his studio work in his golden years is spotless.  And he moves me.

Here are his four best albums, recorded late 60s through early 70s:  "If You Could Read My Mind," "Don Quixote," "Sundown," and "Cold on the Shoulder."  Hearing them again put me in mind of his genius.  Unfortunately, when I've seen him live, he never varied from the recordings much. I always like to see a little extra live, but I guess Gordon just never learned how to rock out.

My last post ended with a reference to jail so let me address that.

When Humphrey and I finally arrived in Hillsboro, Oregon, where he was supposed to connect with a waitress for his house key, as his key was taken when he was robbed (of course the bar was under new management and nobody knew anything about a waitress), I was first stopped by a policeman for having my license plate light bulb out. 

Logically, a policeman's headlights should sufficiently illuminate the rear end of a car, one should think, to read the plate, but for this bored officer with nothing to do it constituted an emergency.  He let me go with a verbal "fix-it" warning.  I thought it a bit strange, particularly as he stopped me at night.  He was wearing Devo-style glasses that looked a lot like swim goggles.  So maybe he was a Dragon and Dungeon nerd in uniform.  But what can I say?  There must be a law about the bulb so he was only doing his job--albeit a bit obsessively?

All the police cars in this oppressive suburb are painted pure black and sneak up on you at night from hidden alleys.  I was stopped a second time for running a yellow light.  I did speed up a bit to make the light, but I did not run a red light nor exceed the speed limit, and my whole van was in the intersection while the light was yellow, and I'd swear that on a stack of Bibles (if Jesus hadn't told me not to swear).

Nevertheless, that was the pretext for three cop cars to pull me over.  I parked next to a hospital, fortuitously.  For during or after my arrest, Humphrey had an emphysema attack and took his walker, his sleeping bag and his traveling bag and hoofed and huffed it over to the ER and that's the last I've seen or heard of him.  According to his promises, he owes me $2500, but I haven't looked him up online yet.  He strikes me as the sort of paranoid individual who wouldn't be listed in any case.

The arresting officer was good-looking, full head of dark hair with silver sideburns, normal weight and fit.  He was also courteous and polite, two rare things in a police officer, especially one with 15 years' experience.  I found out he was single and likes to work the graveyard shift.  In any case I would rate him as an all-around nice guy, as when he cuffed me I asked him to make it loose, and he did.  My experience with police in the past has been that when you make that request they screw them tighter in sadistic glee just to show you who's boss.  Officer Snyder didn't do that, God bless him.

He said he smelled wine on my breath and was correct.  After failing to get a key at the bar Humphrey had indicated, a bar that took us over half an hour to find (it wasn't until that point that I realized that Humphrey not only suffered peripheral neurological deficits but that his noodle and memory were affected as well, though he blamed everything on his poor vision, another consequence of his neurodegenerative illness), I took a break from Humphrey to clear my mind and had one glass of old vine Zinfandel at a wine bar on the main drag in Hillsboro.  It was a good glass of wine and comforted me as I began walking back to the van, trying to decide where we should park for the night to sleep without getting rousted. 

I told the officer that I had indeed had one glass of wine but was sober and happy to grace a breathalyzer with my exhalations.  Sadly in Oregon they rely upon the clinical expertise of the officer, not a machine.  By his lights Officer Snyder thought me intoxicated, especially since his flashlight could evince nystagmus in my eyes.  But who wouldn't have nystagmus after driving hundreds of miles, especially at night?  I told him I couldn't pass the heel-to-toe or one-leg- raising tests because of the nerve damage to my lower extremities from failed surgery, as well as the generalized neuropathy my neurologist discovered.  He told me to do my best.  My best wasn't good enough.  On came the cuffs.  Have I told you how much I hate handcuffs?  They burn like the Elves' cord Frodo used as a leash on Gollum.  Must be something about my allergy to the Beast.

After nearly two hours in the waiting area of the jail, Snyder finally tested my breath and I blew a 0.00 % alcohol level, which blew his mind.  So he called the "DRE" (Drug-Related Expert) to give me a further evaluation, but he was in some other county, so he next asked me for urine.  I prayed about this, and it seemed only another way for the State to screw me, especially if they found trace metabolites of clonazepam, which I sometimes take for sleep.  If they found such metabolites they might try to build a case against me as intoxicated on prescription drugs.  So I declined.  Snyder told me that my license could be suspended indefinitely if I refused.  "My CA license?" I asked.  He called someone and said, "No, it only applies to Oregon."  To which I replied, "No urine, then."  (What I really wanted to say is unprintable.)

Then it was off to the tombs, a too-cold shower, my teeth chattering, then into the ill-fitting jumpsuit and a concrete bed with a thin mat on it at 6 AM, 8 hours after my arrest. 

I think the greatest torture of the arrest process is the inefficiency of the system, the interminable waiting for law enforcement monkeys to hunt-and-peck their endless reports out while the prisoner remains cold, uncomfortable and inconceivably bored.

The next day our "pod" was hauled off to a "vestibule" where we awaited transportation to our arraignment.  Before transport they called out my name and two others.  The other bros said, "Hey, that means you get to go!"  And  indeed, though it took four more hours, that's what happened. 

At 6:15 PM on Tuesday, November 16 (my daughter Keturah's birthday, and I did remember to call her) I was released onto the streets of Hillsboro--a dangerous man with a 0.00 alcohol level and a dastardly license plate light bulb extinguished.  Why they let me back out on the streets I'll never know.  I did have the uncomfortable sense that they were just cats toying with their prey, however, as if they released me just to mess with me again.  But with all the fervency of intention I could summon, by 7:30 PM I girded my loins and prepared to drive all night to get back to my beloved California, and did exactly that.

(To be continued.)


Craig Erick

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Goodest Samaritan? Part I

In driving back from Long Beach, California, on Tuesday, November 9th, in Fresno, I picked up a passenger.  And what a passenger!

I had stopped at Denny's for a burger and, short of dog food, a hamburger patty for Scout.  There were two ramps to enter the restaurant.  Near the base of the left ramp sat a scruffy-looking old man hunched over a red anodized aluminum walker, exuding a very negatory vibe, shock of hair in every direction, no upper teeth, beard of neglect, bloodshot eyes and a hunched habitus.  So I avoided him by going up the right-hand ramp.  This I did twice.  But when it came to dispose of the box in which Scout's patty came, I had to walk by the man to the trash.  And it was then I made my mistake.   I asked him how he was doing and he said, "Not very good."  And instead of "'Too bad!", I, whether by psychiatric habit or Christian politeness, chose to listen to his tale of woe and intervene.

Call him Humphrey, a 58-year-old electrical engineer whom the doctors have given "three months to live" (I love these stories, I have rarely had a patient who didn't have a story about how he or a family member had been pronounced terminal and miraculously survived to eventually bury his doctor!). 

He had been traveling by bus back to Oregon when he was robbed in Fresno and relieved of his wallet, keys, and other valuables.  All he had were a few dirty clothes in as beat-up athletic bag, a thin sleepng bag, and his walker.  His only ID consisted of hospital discharge papers, which did him no good when I took him to the DMV in Fort Bragg, which required a birth certificate.  And with no ID he couldn't access his funds, though he purported to be a relatively wealthy man, at least compared to me.  We rested at my place in Mendocino for three nights while I wrestled with what to do with him.  There are no social services adequate to provide a man with 24/7 personalized care while traveling, which is exactly what Humphrey needed, being near entirely helpless because of his crippling neurodegenerative disease.  I asked my stepson if he wanted to drive Humphrey home for the promised $1/mile up and back, but his car wasn't running and he was pissed at me for whatever reason, so when I presented the offer to him he immediately called the police, thinkng a restraining order was in force when it wasn't, as it was Veteran's Day and I had not yet been served.  Afterwards a nice policeman, a sargent, escorted me to the station where I received the necessary papers forbidding me to come near my wife and stepson until a hearing on December 8.  Why they feel they need protection from me I'll never know; I've spent the last eleven years protecting and providing for them, and I've saved Derek from suicide once and Kathleen, twice.  I've delivered Derek from prison, jail, and a dead-end life in a metal shack in Oaxaca, Mexico.  But people get strange ideas in their heads--I can be very intense, and it was sometimes hard to distinguish whether I was manic or filled with the Spirit over these last months, so I may have appeared threatening to the undiscerning eye, but know that I have never touched Kathleen physically.  As for my condition I am happy to report that I am indeed filled with the Spirit and not mentally ill.   I have never violated a restraining order, nor would I.  I respect my mate's need for privacy for as long as she needs it and I would never jeopardize our love by insinuating my presence into her life when it was unwelcome, though I weep frequently over her absence.

It finally came to me that I was the only logical person to get Humphrey home, though I hate to drive, especially since I suffer chronic back pain and driving aggravates it.  But Humphrey needed a doctor 24/7, especially one also trained in the humility of a hospice worker, as I have been.

As for Humphrey's condition, he suffers from severe emphysema, mononeuropathy multiplex, "spots" on his kidneys, "multiple melanomas," is addicted to cigarettes and alcohol-- and is the grumpiest man and most demanding person I ever met!

It's the multiplex that's really messed him up.  It is a poorly understood syndrome of multiple foci of damage to peripheral nerves, and I included a link above.   In Humphrey's case it is crippling.  His hands are so bad, for instance, so that he needed me to put a cigarette in his mouth, light it, and remove it from his fingers near the end of the smoke before he burned himself, as he could only clutch it between immovable fingers like some weird exotic bird and had no way to extricate it from his knuckles.  Yet he was constantly demanding cigarettes, which I bought him, and  afterwards I would sometimes have to hold his albuterol inhaler to his mouth and hit the button in time with his inhalation to counteract the effect of the cigarette smoke.  In addition I had to keep him constanty supplied with vodka and coke, or failing a liquor store, "Steel Reserve," 24 oz., which he could drink through a straw with the can positioned in my van's cup holder as he leaned forward. 

And if he ever uttered a "Thank you," it was in a gruff, semi-apologetic voice, as if it pained his pride to say it.  For here was a man who had bossed twelve electrician crews in construction, a man used to authority, a man of business.  His helplessness was killing him though he was loathe to admit it.  He wouldn't even admit to "bad luck."  But is this bad luck?

He has no family in this world, having buried his older brother.  His wife and son were killed in a car accident 26 years ago.  He was stricken with this neurodegenerative disease 4 1/2 years ago and has been steadily worsening.  Truly he needs 24/7 hospice care.  But I, being a doctor and a hospice volunteer, was prepared for his case.  I just didn't think it would cost me over 1300 miles of driving and a night in jail to boot.

(To be continued.)



Monday, November 08, 2010

New Poem: Marked for Life

Marked for Life

I am that fire-hollowed redwood
with the open black belly
who miraculously thrives
stories above the damage.

Sentenced to live,
to shake my green feathers
at the sky like other trees,
I nevertheless bear
the unmistakable scar
of a great love lost,
a charred cave at my base
where her shape
is burned forever.

Unexpected Light

Unexpected Light
Selected Poems and Love Poems 1998-2008 ON SALE NOW!