Sunday, May 01, 2016

Sunday morning round-up: Unforgettable cancer stories, Gonzo Derby Day, and snow, lots and lots of snow

Happy May Day!

While many of you bask in May sunshine, we are buried in snow. A moisture-laden three-day snowstorm covered my lawn and garden. It would look like March 1 but for the daffodils and blades of grass poking out of the white blanket. It's not that winter is too long, but spring is too cold and snowy. But without it we get the wildland fires of August.

Since my Jan. 18 retirement, I write every morning. I write journal entries, short stories, and a novel. I write what matters to me. I haven't been blogging as often as I find myself preoccupied by imaginary stories and memoir. It's not as if there is a lack of blogging topics, especially in this wacky election year. I so miss the gonzo journalism of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. If this isn't a "fear and loathing" year, I don't know what is. As is true with most writers of my generation, Thompson influenced me. I don't/can't write like him, but his style infected all of us.

Fellow blogger Ronny Allan featured my sister Mary's cancer journey last week. Mary works at Big Bend Hospice in Tallahassee and, a few years back, was selected as a bone marrow donor for my brother Dan, struggling with leukemia at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Mary was undergoing pre-op tests when the doctors discovered a spot on her lung which turned out to be a carcinoid tumor. She was successfully operated on. That also ruled her out as a bone marrow donor. My sister Molly was the eventual donor, leaving her nursing job in Italy for several months to come back to the states. How did this family drama turn out? Click here to find out.

On Saturday, May 7, 2-5 p.m., the Laramie County Democrats Grassroots Coalition (LCDGC) holds its annual Derby Day and Wild Hat party/fund-raiser in Cheyenne. Admission is $15 and you can buy one of the Derby horses as well as bet on side races managed by your fellow Democrats. Prizes also given to the wildest hat. The Kentucky Derby is known for swanky attire and wild hats. Swanky attire in Cheyenne usually is rodeo duds. Wild hats are usually not big and floppy as the incessant wind will send them off to Nebraska. Cowboy hats? Well, if you get one that fits right, it should stymie most wind gusts. You can probably "wild up" any cowboy hat, although you may get some weird looks at Frontier Days. For all the details of the event, click here.

BTW, DYKT Hunter Thompson's magazine article on the 1970 Kentucky Derby became the first of his pieces to be labeled gonzo as in "gonzo journalism?" 'Tis true. You can read "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" in Thompson's 1979 collection, The Great Shark Hunt. Will Cheyenne's Derby Day be decadent and depraved? One must attend to find out.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Wish we were memorializing Prince in 2036 instead of 2016

Symbol for the opioid formerly known as Oxycodone.
News of Prince's death rocked music fans. I'm not a big Prince fan, but do admire his creativity. The soundtrack of my life is more Sgt. Pepper's than Purple Rain. I remember well Prince's videos airing on the early days of MTV. Remember music videos on Music TV? Yes, I thought that you would. A new public TV station in Boulder also aired music videos at night. That was Colorado Public Television Channel 12, which now is based in Denver's LoDo. I remember videos by Prince and Pat Benetar and the "Roly Poly Fish Heads" song by Barnes & Barnes and the late great band The Call with its subversive lyrics and sneaky Biblical references. I was thirtysomething then, and music videos were new and quirky. We talked about them at work. Didya see...? Yeah, weird, eh? Yeah. Weird, Weird, and cool. 

The videos have moved to the web. And Prince is gone. The most disturbing aspect of the tragedy are the allegations that he was hooked on opioids for pain. Prince spent his adult life dancing across stages. He jumped from platforms and did the splits, all while wearing his trademark high-heel shoes. When you get to be 57, no matter your physical prowess, gravity takes a toll. Prince had hip replacement surgery and back problems. What does a performer do about chronic pain? Painkillers. And Percocet offers some wonderful painkilling properties. Better living through chemistry, eh? Problem is, that opioid high is addicting and ya wanna keep poppin' those pills.

In the past year, I've undergone two knee replacement surgeries. Both times, my orthopedic doctor prescribed Percocet (Oxycodone + Acetaminophen) for pain. As the weeks passed, the doc weaned me from a higher dose to a smaller one and finally to none at all. A wise man, one who has written many prescriptions for opioids -- and has undoubtedly heard many pleas for more, sir, please, more. Pain sufferers can be a pain -- and very persuasive. No wonder the pills are handed out like candy.

Patient: Doc, I'm in terrible pain.

Doc: You are a terrible pain.

Patient: Trouble right here in Magic City, Doc. I need opioids and it rhymes with hemorrhoids and it stands for pool and...

Doc: Are you high?

Patient: High on life.

Doc: Here's a prescription for a gazillion Percocet.

Patient (kisses Doc's feet, backs slowly out the door):  You won't regret this Doc!

Doc: Yes I will. 

Since I began my personal experience with opioids, I have heard scores of blood-curdling stories about opioid abuse. Fatal overdoses, lost jobs, ruined marriages, etc. Addicts will do anything (and have) to get their hands on Oxy. When they can't, some turn to heroin. Thus the heroin epidemic in the hinterland.

What are our other options when pain haunts us? It would be nice to just say no, but it's not that easy when your body and your brain are working against you. Pain screams for relief. If you are lucky, the pain in only temporary. Knee and hip replacements heal over time and you feel almost as good as new, a return to the days when you only had a bit of knee pain. Aleve can soothe the ache after a Snowy Range hike. Sure, the commercials are annoying but that's a small price to pay for 24-hour pain relief! Caution: Aleve may cause nausea, light-headednesss, heartburn, dizziness, abdominal pain. But still better than Heroin P.M.

Medical marijuana is a hot issue in many states including Wyoming. Marijuana won't kill you. It may lead to harder stuff. But what if you are already taking the harder stuff in the form of opioids? Wouldn't pot be a welcome change from the fever dreams of opioids and the threat of addiction?

We don't yet know Prince's autopsy results.He may have died from a heart attack or an aneurysm. Both can kill quickly, especially if you are alone in an elevator and have no phone to call 911. In those circumstances, you can't always think straight -- or have enough time to dial for help.

Meanwhile, let the tributes roll on. Prince deserves it. I just wish we were giving him a posthumous send-off 20 years in the future.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Grant Farms store in Cheyenne reinvents itself

Yes, it's supposed to snow buckets this weekend. Winter storm Vexo may prove to be vexing here in Cheyenne and all along the Front Range. 
However, gardening season is still on the horizon -- just delayed by a weekend or two.
In the midst of winter -- not to be confused with the winter that visits in springtime -- I attended the topping off ceremony of the new building at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. So cool to watch the building's progress on my walks around the lake. Check it out at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens web site. 
Another boost to gardening in the area is news from Grant Farms on Lincolnway to reopen and reinvent itself. This comes from the Botanic Gardens:
Long-time Cheyenne garden center Grant Farms is set to reopen on April 23 selling plants, seeds and supplies for your garden.
On May 1, it is becoming a source for local fresh food like eggs, fruits and vegetables (mostly organically grown). In addition, they will provide fresh-baked bread, pastries, Jackie’s Java fresh coffee, local cheeses and milk.
On Memorial Day weekend, Grant Farms will open a new Garden Patio Bistro where you can sit and enjoy a fresh coffee drinks, ice cream and fresh smoothies. In addition, they will have live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Show your Botanic Gardens membership card prior to them ringing up your sale and get 10% off!
Looking forward to sitting around sipping an iced latte while inhaling the fresh scents of growing things -- and enjoying live music. Grant Farms is based outside Wellington in Larimer County, Colorado. We consider Wellington a suburb of Cheyenne, although Fort Collins usually claims it. Some people prefer the more accommodating attitudes of CO to WY where crazy people run our legislature. 
Find more info for the Grant Farms store in Cheyenne. 

Saturday, April 02, 2016

What I learned in graduate school, part one

It seems as if I've read hundreds of critiques about M.F.A. writing programs over the years. They usually fall into two camps.
No. 1: I spent three years and tens of thousands of dollars on an M.F.A. program and all I got was this lousy diploma.
No. 2: Grad school was worth it -- I learned more than I thought I would.

Alas, I've read more of the former than the latter. They usually are written by young people who have joined the system without much life experience which, of course, is what it means to be young. Does this 65-year-old retiree remember how it was to be 19 or 21 and flummoxed by a university system -- any university system? I was an overachiever, a scholarship student, who crashed and burned after two years at a major American university. The fault was my own, although I spent many years blaming the university and the government and my parents and the phases of the moon. I am an ex-newspaper reporter and satirist who loves it when people take on any system. Doesn't mean the writer is correct in his/her critique. It's fun to be pissed off in print and get attention. 

I'm going to say some nice things about my M.F.A. program. Stop here if you prefer to read the negative over the positive. You may learn something but no guarantee, just as there is no guarantee that an M.F.A. program will make you a stellar writer and a denizen of the Literary World. 

Before I begin, let me thank writer Marian Palaia who wrote a recent essay, "The Real World vs. the M.F.A." for Literary Hub at http://lithub.com/the-real-world-vs-the-mfa/. If fact, you can skip this blog and go read Palaia's piece, as it covers most of the same ground that I do. She's close to my age (pushing 60) and earned her M.F.A. as an older student, older even than I was at 41. Such a wonderful essay that I'm ordering her novel and reading it. The least I can do for a fellow writer.

I liked these lines from her essay:
I do not advise waiting as long as I did to get an MFA, if you are sure that what you want to do is to write. What I do advise is gaining some awareness of the world, and of the people in it who are not like you, before you go into a program.
At 37, I had met a lot of people not like me. Gang-bangers, corporate CEOs, jocks, cabbies, political activists, druggies, yuppies, loonies, etc. I had held tons of jobs, some temporary gigs as hospital orderly and warehouse worker, to full-time jobs as corporate editor and newspaper reporter. When I began to look around for creative writing programs, I had one goal in mind: become a better writer. I had written articles on teen-age swimming phenoms to automotive fan belts. I'd written a novel, which earned me an agent but not a publisher.  My agent advised me to quit my job, go down to my basement and write full-time. I knew that hunkering down in my basement with my typewriter was a bad idea. I could see myself typing, the clatter of the keys clanging off of the basement walls. But I could also see myself wandering the basement rooms, haunted look on my face. Not good for an introvert depressive to be alone all day in his basement. Visions of Emily Dickinson, tormented in her attic. Ernest Hemingway and shotgun at his writing desk in remote Idaho.

I also wanted to meet interesting people. I guess you can do that anywhere. But writers, even in academia, should be interesting, right?

Thee first interesting person I met was writer and faculty member John Clark Pratt. My wife, son and I were in Fort Collins looking for a rental. I decided to drop into the CSU English Department. Dr. Pratt (I could call him John but he'll always be Dr. Pratt to me) was the lone M.F.A. faculty member hanging out in the Eddy Building on a July afternoon. He welcomed me, told me a bit about the program, which only began the year before. Only later did I learn that Dr. Pratt was the author of "The Laotian Fragments," a pilot in Vietnam, and one of the country's experts on the literature of the Vietnam War. He helped establish the CSU library's special collection on Vietnam. In the late 1980s, it featured unpublished manuscripts by veterans, published works by some well-known writers and an assortment of notes and research and ephemera. You can visit it still. Might even be online now.

When school began in late August, I met the rest of the faculty and my fellow students. For the most part, the faculty was closer in age to me than the students, but I had expected that. John Calderazzo was the creative non-fiction guru, A world traveler, he wrote mostly on environmental issues and wrote an excellent book on volcanoes. He'd been a free-lance writer for years, writing articles for corporate, real estate and automotive mags to make extra cash. We free-lanced a real estate piece together, since I also was on the lookout for extra cash.

David Milofsky was a novelist and short-story writer. He'd just left a position with Denver University to take the job at CSU, and commuted from Denver. Milofsky had been an investigative reporter in Milwaukee and still had that hard-bitten city reporter attitude. He was my adviser as I liked his fiction and he liked the fact that I was a bit older than the other students and not so naive and wide-eyed. Poet Bill Tremblay was from Jack Keroauc's hometown and played football before turning to poetry. He was more coach than academic. Mentor to many poets and the faculty member that you knew would turn up for every student reading. I worked for him as student editor of the campus literary magazine, the Colorado Review.

Mary Crow was the other poetry prof. She may have been the most academic of the bunch. She traveled widely, was bilingual and made sure that students got a taste of writers from all over the world through the visiting writers program. Receptions were always held at her house, potlucks where us budding writers got a chance to gnosh and chat with writers such as Paul Monette, Linda Hogan, Tomaz Salamun, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Mary talked me into being the M.F.A. student rep to the university's Fine Arts Program, which led to my career in arts administration -- more about that later. Leslee Becker was a fine short story writer and quirky human. She mentored us short story writers and also LGBT students in the English department.

One of my four semester-long workshops was with short story writer Steve Schwartz. I learned a lot in the workshop, but possibly the best info I got from Steve was about the Colorado Council on the Arts' Arts Education program. I applied, was accepted, and next thing I know, I'm signed up to spent a month in Peetz on the prairie as a paid visiting writer. The goal was to mentor high school students for half the day and write the other half. I never made it to Peetz as a writer/teacher, The students never knew what they missed, and neither did I. My job in Wyoming would place me in charge of a visiting writers program called Tumblewords, brainchild of the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF), then located in Santa Fe, now in Denver.

Most of these writers who also were teachers are now retired, as I am. A new crew took over, which is the way of things. I learned so much from them, and I was able to work with them in new and interesting ways when I found my calling.

In my next installment, I'll talk about all the good stuff I learned during my three years in the M.F.A. program. Stay tuned...

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Meet some quirky North Koreans in Adam Jonson's fiction

Know anyone from North Korea?

I don't. But I feel that I do now, after reading Adam Johnson';s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Orphan Master's Son."

Johnson is not from either Korea, as evidenced by his name. Nothing in his book jacket bio mentions that he lived in Korea or taught there or even briefly sojourned there. I am sure I can find more info on the Internet. But right now I am content to let a fiction writer weave his magic spell.

Johnson acquaints me with North Koreans, those benighted folks who live in the most backward and isolated country on the planet. Jun Do is the orphan master's son who, at the orphanage, is given the toughest jobs in the place by his father and, in turn, assigns the actual orphans even grimmer tasks. As a teen, Jun Do is spirited away by the government and learns how to be a night fighter in North Korea's many tunnels. Because he has an orphan name, others refer to him that way. His usual response, "I'm not an orphan." Nobody seems to believe him. His response becomes predictable and funny. In fact, This novel is filled with humor, a pleasant surprise since Westerners are supposed to feel nothing but sorrow and pity about North Korea.

I'm only a third of the way through the book. It's one of those that you read late into the night, forgetting that the witching hour has come and gone.

One other aspect of Johnson -- he writes terrific short stories. I first read his work in the short fiction collection, "Fortune Smiles." The title story features two North Koreans who have defected to the South. Such magnificent creations. Only one is fitting in to this new land, the other has all the anti-establishment swagger of Kesey's R.P. McMurphy. This is odd and endearing, since he comes from super-authoritarian North Korea. How did he survive there -- and why does he want to go back?

While you're absorbing Johnson's short stories, read "Hurricanes Anonymous." I was dubious about reading yet another story set in post-Katrina New Orleans. As always, the drama and humor is in the characters and how they face up to the situation. We humans are a strange bunch. It's masterful writer who can help us see a small band of them in new and unusual ways.

Friday, March 25, 2016

History comes looking for you.

The Rolling Stones rock Havana today. The Western World's Capitalist Songsters in one of the last bastions of international communism. Unthinkable a year ago. The Leader of the Free World attends a baseball game in Havana. President Obama, the first black president in U.S. history, sits next to Raul Castro; they trade quips about on-base percentages and ERAs. The day before, they were debating Americanism vs. Cubano Communism. That was a course we had in high school in Florida -- Americanism vs. Communism. That usually meant the Soviet variety, but we were only too aware that Red Cuba was a threat just 90 miles from Florida. Mr. Muir taught eighth grade at Our Lady of Lourdes and we played basketball with his son. Mr. Muir, a respected teacher at a private school in Havana, fled Castro in 1959 and now teaching snotty-nosed Catholic Anglos in the same town that his honored former dictator Fulgencio Batista owned a house along the river. My father, who stashed supplies in our Wichita basement for the Apocalypse during the Cuban Missile Crisis three years before, now pointed out Batista's house whenever we drove by in the station wagon overloaded with his Catholic brood.

And a NROTC midshipman, 1970, I spent three weeks in Cuba. Gitmo, now the U.S. terror prison, a confused 19-year-old. We tried to pick up the teen daughters of Gitmo officers at the base pool. Barbed wire barriers threaded the border, guard towers manned by soldiers the only Reds we could actually see. Soviet spies followed in our ship's wake, Russian fishing trawlers the big joke, antennae crowding out the fishing nets on deck. At night at the officer's club, we heard pilots' stories about night raids against the commies of North Vietnam, of buddies lost to SAMs. "You'll be there soon enough," they said, "that war not ending anytime soon."

My vas pokhoronim! -- "We will bury you!"  said Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow during the height of the Cold War. Fall 1956 -- I was five. My father buried nuclear missiles deep beneath the Colorado prairie.

Said Obama to the Cubans: “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”

History comes looking for you.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Flashback: Will 2016 Wyoming Democratic Party caucus crowds be as large as they were in 2008?

I have a decade-long history on Blogger. This can be a bad thing, as I can still see some of my more embarrassing writing and photographic moments. It's also a good thing, as I can trace my political happenings going all the way back to 2006.

The Wyoming Democratic Party held its 2008 caucus on March 8. Sen. Obama and Sen. and former Pres. Clinton both visited the state in the days before the caucus. People were excited. People were motivated. More than 1,500 Laramie County Democrats came out to caucus at the Civic Center in Cheyenne. That's approximately 1,300 more than came out to caucus in 2004. It was a banner year for Democrats, and it got attention outside the state. I'm a party member and I was on-hand to cast my vote, lobby for a spot at the state convention and volunteer to assist the madding crowds. Youi can read my report on the day at http://hummingbirdminds.blogspot.com/2008/03/historic-day-for-wyoming-democrats.html.

Turnout for the 2012 caucuses was anemic. This year, Dems again expect big crowds, one of the reasons that the caucus venue has been changed from downtown's Historic Plains Hotel to the gym at Central High School. Local Bernie Sanders supporters have been very active for about six months thanks to efforts by my neighbor Ed Waddell and his fellow Berniecrats. I expect many Sanders supporters will turn up to vote. Hillary Clinton supporters are equally active, canvassing and calling and talking up the former Secretary of State and First Lady.

Here are the details for the upcoming April 9 caucus:
The caucus and presidential preference vote will be held at the Cheyenne Central High School Field House Gymnasium, 5500 Education Drive on April 9, 11 a.m. Immediately following the morning’s caucus, convention activities will resume at the Plains Hotel, 1600 Central Avenue. We will be discussing the changes and volunteer opportunities for the convention. Check out the Laramie County Democratic Party’s frequently asked caucus questions at http://www.wyodems.org/frequently-asked-questions  
Get more info by attending the LCD’s monthly meeting on Monday, March 21, 6:30 p.m., at the IBEW Hall, 810 Fremont Ave., Cheyenne.

If 2008 provides any lessons for 2016, I urge you to arrive early. In 2008, I arrived at 7:30 a.m. and 100 voters already were in line. Some 1,400 folks lined up behind me, with the line snaking around the Civic Center. Great to see so many Wyoming Democrats all in one place. Let's do it again!