S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Vision Quest,” Park shares about recent doctor visits, and recalls Christmas Eve 1974 on LSD.
I spent much of last summer with a turbulent, bloated abdomen. I lived on lemons as a kid and have had a delicate stomach since, so put off going to the doctor as long as possible.
When the gurgling got loud enough that other people noticed I finally went in for an endoscopy and colonoscopy. When I woke the nurse told me all had gone well, that there’d been a single polyp in my colon and the surgeon had removed it.
This was encouraging. In the interim my abdominal discomfort improved and I figured I’d suffered some sort of extended food poisoning.
Hardly. When I met with the surgeon later he showed me photos of my stomach lining (it looked like a ragged old curtain), told me the biopsy indicated I had “auto-immune gastritis.”
My stomach, in effect, was eating itself. This is a precancerous condition of unknown origin and definitely put my mortality in question.
Fortunately I’ve been counted out by doctors before and resorted (as much to ameliorate the discomfort as save my ass) to the countermeasures available to me, i.e. changing how, when and what I ate (in with the chicken, out with the beef), sleeping upright and finding a way to get Vitamin B into my system.
The latter has been a problem for decades now (ever since my bout with hepatitis and cirrhosis in 1979). It seemed counterintuitive that my liver wouldn’t want B-12 (it’s the first thing they shoot you up with in rehab), but when I’d take a supplement that contained it I’d suffer mono-like symptoms afterwards. (Foggy brain, zero energy or appetite, whacked out in bed all day.) This also happened when I ingested the vitamin inadvertently, say in a Red Bull or fortified water, which meant it wasn’t some psychosomatic quirk: my body wanted nothing to do with B-12, and in its absence I’d eventually succumb to pernicious anemia.
My doctors and I argued about whether my stomach or liver were to blame, but in the end my buddy Moochie recommended a sublingual that worked. In the meanwhile the gurgling and bloating have lessened and last month, after another endoscopy, the Physician’s Assistant told me that not only were my B-12 levels normal, but the inflammation in my stomach had subsided.
“So,” he said, “you still have auto-immune gastritis, a rare and complicated disease, but in its present state it’ll likely take seven to ten years to develop into stomach cancer … if it ever does.”
“Really?” I said. “That’s great. I’ll be eighty by then and begging for the mercy of death.”
“Exactly. Plus,” he added (and this is why I’ve come to prefer PAs to the stodgier MDs they work for), “the average age of death for guys 6’4” or taller is sixty-four. By that standard you’ve already outlived yourself!”
He didn’t know the half of it. In addition to the gastritis I’ve been troubled lately by: (1) my eyes being so bad that (after a lifetime reading at least a book a day) I’m lucky to finish one a month now; (2) my lungs giving out after thirty years of cigarettes and fifty-five of pot smoking; (3) the essential tremor in my hands making drawing difficult; and (4) after (in effect) three memoirs … running out of stories for this column.
But it’s like whether I die or not: who cares? I’m not just old, I’m used up, and if you’ve lived for your passions that’s the objective.
But it’s like whether I die or not: who cares? I’m not just old, I’m used up, and if you’ve lived for your passions that’s the objective. I’ll go to my grave (well, the nearest dumpster actually, as that’s where I’ve specified my ashes be tossed) a satisfied man.
Oh, I could have used more sex, but like most of us this age I can barely remember what I had. And as often as I’ve claimed no regrets (other than those lemons), I damn sure wouldn’t do fifty jobs in twenty years again.
Or would I? I never intended to do any of them, either. It would have been one thing if I’d been ambitious; looked around, seen what others did for a living and thought, Oh yeah, that’s for me! (I could point to certain things in the arts, I suppose, but I met most of the artists I know at those same shit jobs.)
No, it’s all in the reckoning, and—for all the reflection I’ve done through the years—a pivotal moment for me was Christmas Eve 1974. After a series of drug and alcohol fueled episodes, culminating in the girl I’d stolen from another friend sleeping around on me, I was back in Portland, Oregon for the first time in five years.
I was staying at my old friend Karl Franklin’s place in the northeast part of town. It had been that long since I’d seen him, too, and when I’d called a couple days earlier, told him I’d be hitching through on my way to the Bay Area, he said I could housesit while he and his new bride flew to Minnesota for the holidays.
It sounded good to me: I’d have hopped a slow boat to China if someone offered. Even better they were poised to leave for the airport when I arrived, because his wife and I loathed each other on sight. (The only thing unusual about that was its mutuality; usually it was just the woman.)
They offered me the guest room but I preferred the old couch in the basement. As I said I had some reckoning to do: between the jobs and hangovers and drifting and bad writing and failed romances I was low as a snake.
Which was unusual for me. Angry? Irritable? Bored? I suffered from all those on occasion (particularly when sober), but depression? It wasn’t my nature, like my brothers I was generally allergic to self-pity.
But maybe that was the problem. Shouldn’t I feel worse about being a wino, especially when everyone else felt bad for me? (Karl looked like he’d have never left me alone in his house if he’d seen me first.)
My calculation was a simple one actually: there was no one I wanted to be, or anything I wanted to do (other than write), much less anyone I was beholden to, so what difference did it make who or where I was in the interim … might as well follow the highs. There were dangers in that approach, of course, as there were with anything, but (as I later proved as a pot grower) that’s the part I liked.
Or so I told myself, anyway. Perhaps I was missing something, maybe there was a regular guy in me after all, and being a bum was just the easy way out. That wasn’t normally worth considering, but my girlfriend’s betrayal had underscored my low desirability as a mate. I was twenty-seven at the time and, given my present course, would be lucky to reach thirty, so I’d felt the now or never intimations more often lately.
I went round and round about it sitting on Franklin’s couch in the dark (aided by his whiskey and my weed) but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Decided it was time for the backup plan.
I’d rarely used psychedelics for the purpose they were intended, i.e. introspection instead of energy and laughs, because it seemed redundant to me. Hell, I’d been scrutinizing myself since I was a kid and that self-examination, if anything, had only increased over the years, making it the last thing I wanted to do on mind benders.
But there was no harm trying it, I supposed, and if so I might as well swing for the fences, take both tabs of the strong Red Dragon acid I’d been saving. Walk to Lloyd Center (Portland’s largest and most popular mall) and sit by myself on Christmas Eve while festive lovers and families streamed past.
Rub my face in it, in other words, let a tsunami of normality wash over me. This was part of a pattern itself, of course (wringing experiences for all they were worth), but I’d be doing it sans alcohol and figured that’d balance things out.
So there I was at three in the afternoon, slouched on a bench near the mall entrance with carols and snowflakes in the air. I’m a sucker for Christmas and this was picture book stuff, so peaceful I almost wished I’d skipped the Red Dragon.
Almost. Then the first rush hit, a runaway train blowing through my brain. I gasped, stumbled to my feet, swung my arms in the air to keep my balance.
You did it this time, you moron! I thought, riding out the wave. You took too much! You took too much!
I finally plopped back down (spurred by the shrieks of small children), only to succumb to a fierce self-consciousness. I’d ignored my appearance for years but suddenly my two hundred and sixty pounds, much less the months without a haircut or shave, or the fact that, in a crumpled fedora, tattered jean jacket and Levis I must have looked like a drug crazed bum, made me cringe.
I’d been President of my high school class and a Most Likely to Succeed kid in that town. I’d even worked in that very mall selling sporting goods!
Which quickly flipped my paranoia to, Hey! Was that guy an old classmate? Or that one or that one?
I had my head on a swivel for a while, finally remembered that was the point: I’d become someone no one would recognize, anyway, and was there to check myself out.
I’d have to surrender to the LSD overdose first, though, let it do its work unhindered by terror, and that meant invoking Hunter S. Thompson’s admonition to buy the ticket, take the ride.
It encapsulated the psychedelic experience perfectly: it’s happening, there’s nothing you can do about it, might as well lean in. (Easier said than done, of course, but it always worked for me.)
So I peeled my lips off my gums, sucked in the Jingle Bells as I eyed the holiday shoppers. It seemed like there were thousands of them, rushing past me in a blur of laughter, chatter and packages. That night or the next morning they’d open their presents under the tree, share a festive dinner with family and friends while I sat alone in Franklin’s basement, wishing I had two bucks for a jug of eggnog.
The utter absurdity of it made me giggle, then burst out laughing. Soon I was heehawing like a donkey (spittle flying) as the crowd parted in front of me. I must have looked and sounded like a psycho and was amazed, when I finally regained control, that no one had summoned the mall cops.
I sat back, set my fedora on the bench next to me, focused on the mission at hand. Studied the young fathers in the crowd, trying to recognize myself in them. A guy who thought a wife, children, a house, two cars and a career wouldn’t be a painfully slow death at least. When I couldn’t find him I closed my eyes, looked through my memories to see if he’d ever been there.
Not a trace. (Well, either that or the Red Dragon search engine wasn’t good enough.)
That didn’t take long, I thought, guess I know what I’m doing after all. Then I hesitated, gazed up through the falling snow, decided a small sign from the heavens wouldn’t hurt.
“Merry Christmas!” said a voice in my ear. “Hope things work out for you, pal.”
I looked down: saw some guy had dropped a fiver in my fedora.
Another man might have been angry, sang Harry Chapin in “Taxi,” another man might have been hurt.
Me? I left that hat out, waited ’til I picked up another ten, then headed for the nearest bar.
Best? Christmas? Ever?