Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Chapter Five: Only the Lonely
I'm finding it harder to fight back the loneliness that keeps trying to envelope me. It's pretty awful when somebody else's good news winds up making you feel depressed. I heard from a friend today who has fallen in love with someone he's admired from afar for a long time. They've had two dates, they slept together, everything is going wonderfully. I want to be happy for him, but in my heart there's an impossible-to-contain surge of jealousy every time I think about it.

When I first thought B was going to be the one for me, I decided I'd save myself until the time was right for the two of us. We made out a few times, got fairly hot and heavy at some points, but neither of us was quite ready for sex. So I waited. My great reward for my celibacy and trust? I got sick -- and had to have testicular surgery -- and B, after keeping me on the line for months, found someone new, someone, I was informed, who is "gorgeous." Thanks, "friend," that certainly doesn't in any way reinforce my feelings of inadequacy and my issues with my body.

The fact remains, I have not been intimate with anyone in over a year and a half, and I'm starting to seriously wonder if that's ever going to happen for me again. I've always had complaints about my appearance, but, especially in the past few years, I managed to attract some pretty wonderful people. If it didn't always work out perfectly between us, at least we had fun and no one was seriously hurt. In most cases, the sex wound up reinforcing friendships. That's what almost certainly would have happened with B.

But now, listening to my friends talk about their love lives, it's as if I'm hearing reports about life in some distant galaxy. Sure, it may be possible, but I certainly don't know anything about it. The experience seems very distant. And it shouldn't be: I am only in the middle of my life, not at the end. My body, I am told, is healthy and strong. Certainly when I'm in the pool, as I have been every day this week, I am pleased with the stamina and energy I seem to have. I will never be as muscular as I would like to be or as solid as I might like to be. So what? This time last year, I was living in fear of my body, as I carried around a tumor the size of a slightly flattened-out egg in my groin. Thinking back on it now, I can't believe it really happened to me.

I do not feel guilty about having survived. For a very brief time, I did. I thought about how, why God would allow my largely aimless, purposeless life to go on while so many other people died, leaving behind spouses, children, truly important work, etc. Of course, my family and friends would miss me if I was gone; was that enough, however, to justify my being allowed to continue? Eventually I came to the realization that this was not my question to ask. Sometimes you have to resign yourself to the basic fact of life: Nothing is fair. Sometimes good people get hurt, get sick or die. Sometimes corruption pays off and goes unpunished. Any day anyone of us can experience something that will change our lives forever, maybe for the better, perhaps not. That's the risk you run from the time you take your first breath until check-out time (which hopefully doesn't come until a time when you feel you've lived a full and fulfilling life).

Am I fulfilled? No, not in any way. Most of the time I don't even feel I have friends I could share these feelings with. I'm not interested in pity or hollow compassion. I don't want to hear, "I understand." They don't. And I don't want to make anyone crt either. Cruel as it may seem to say, there's nothing more aggravating than listening to someone weep, especially the person in question is crying about someone else's problems.

As I write these words, I hear Rod Stewart on the stereo singing the chorus, "Somebody special is looking for you, somebody special is dreaming of you." That would be comforting to believe. I caught part of "Sleepless in Seattle" a couple of weeks ago and it reminded me how much I wanted to buy into that idea that everyone has a perfect soulmate waiting out there that fate and circumstance will ultimately reveal. I respond with the words of a different song: "Where in the world must I go to find you?"

Is R the answer? I so badly wish it were that simple. Fantasies are enticing, but there's no escaping reality. The odds against me in that situation are formidable. I don't know enough about him to make any moves toward getting closer. The age difference is almost comical. While I enjoy daydreaming, I'm practical enough to see that's probably not going to develop into anything more than flirtation.

So where do I go next? I don't want to be alone for the rest of my life, but I have no clue where to look for the person who could be right for me. My IQ could get me a Mensa membership, but it can't help me find that elusive someone.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Chapter Four: The Trust Circle
The exercise seemed deceptively simple. Twenty people form a circle. One person is chosen to stand in the middle. The man or woman at the center of the ring closes his/her eyes and counts to five. The circle rotates. Then, with eyes still closed, the person in the middle must walk forward confidently. It's up to the people standing on the sides to stop him/her from walking into a wall. The person bounces off the hands of someone, then moves off in a different direction. Again, he/she is stopped. Once more the process is repeated. With each move, the person should feel more secure, more trusting. This is the basis of the trust circle.

I found the exercise fascinating; I went through it twice, in fact. The first time, I'll admit I was slightly hesitant when I started moving toward the edge. Not being able to see, you have no way of accurately judging how close you are to anyone else. The first time someone reaches out to stop you, it's startling. Whose hands are these? Where am I? But each successive turn gives you a little more confidence. The initial apprehension disappears. You feel you can literally put your safety in the hands of the people around you.

This exercise was part of an improvisational class I started tonight, but I plan to apply it to my own classes when school resumes this fall. The truth of the trust circle could easily carry over to any number of applications. It fascinated me.

The class was wonderful, by the way. I knew only a couple of people when I first entered the room, but, as one woman pointed out, no group bonds faster than a theater group. Two hours later, we all went out for drinks at a local restaurant and found ourselves chatting as if we'd known each other for months. The spirit of cooperation, which will certainly be a key ingredient of this class, was almost magically established; there were no wallflowers and no bullies. The instructor stressed the idea that there are no mistakes in improvisation and there's no room for judgments either. You make the choices you make because they are right for you at the time. It's up to you to analyze why you did what you did or why you said what you said.

Something is telling me this workshop is going to provide me with insights that go far beyond the stage. Most intriguing...

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Chapter Three: The Waiting
I'm not sure what to think. Part of me wants to give in to fantasy. Another part says, "Don't expect too much." I'm teetering on the verge of completely falling for someone. And, of course, there are at least 72 good reasons why I should stay away. But, for the time being, I'm ignoring them. And I am perfectly OK with that, too.

It's R who has me feeling this way. I'm almost embarrassed by my emotions. But I'm reasonably certain I'm not completely alone here. We've had lunch together twice this week -- and I did not do the inviting either time. Those eyes not only look at me, but seem to look into me as well, asking questions in that miraculous language without words. There's a little bit of shyness there, which just makes R that much more attractive. Who will have to make the first move? Will either of us ever summon up the courage? The fantasies are feverish and powerful. I lay awake most of the other night, consumed by visions of us making love. If I could ever have a wish come true... Lust and love are braided together in my mind, one melding perfectly into another. I pray for patience -- and wisdom. I'm on dangerous ground.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

Chapter Two: Another Lost Weekend
Have you ever had one of those long weekends in which all your plans seem to fall through? That's what I've been through the past three days. I was looking forward to having three days in a row off from work and I had some pretty ambitious plans, including paying a visit to my friend K, who I haven't seen in more than 18 months, and attending a birthday party for my mom and my niece, who were both born on the same day -- 55 years apart, of course. Well, first the family party was rescheduled for Monday night (no big deal there) and then I got a call from K telling me that he'd have to work double shifts all weekend and there was no point in driving almost four hours to see him for 10 minutes.

I was much more disappointed by this. K and I have had a fairly intense relationship for the past eight years. We began as friends, then moved into an area I'm not entirely sure I can define. It has not always been easy to sort out my feelings about him. I think perhaps he feels the same way about me. We're planning to meet up later this month, and if we do, I'll be curious to see what happens between us.

O.K., I'm able to adapt, right? So I called around to a couple of other friends to see if they wanted to do something. One of them was stuck working; the other must have been out of town. Who needs friends anyway? I thought, and I headed over to a local bar/cafe to see some friends who were scheduled to perform there. It's not just around the corner -- the trip takes a full hour round-trip -- but I decided it would be worth it.

Curses, foiled again! I got out there to find the parking lot empty; an early morning storm had knocked out the bar's electricity and it was closed until further notice. So I came home, watched two movies I'd already seen several times before on TV and groused to myself about my lousy life.

Today, I got up late and made plans to get some exercise, perhaps a long walk or maybe a trip to that swimming pool in my complex I haven't visited in over two years. I chose the pool. I've always loved the water -- perhaps it has something to do with my astrological sign, the crab -- and the temperature of the water was absolutely perfect, not too cold or too warm. I floated around blissfully for about 20 minutes until -- yikes! -- thunder began rumbling in the suddenly darkening skies above me. I grabbed my towel and keys and hurried back home, waiting for a storm that didn't materialize. Instead, I baked a delicious pizza (five cheeses and shredded Danish ham), listened to This American Life on NPR, played a little computer solitaire and watched part of "The Wizard of Oz."

Then, since no rain has shown up, I returned to the pool, eager to get in a little more swimming time. I weigh about 160 right now; I'm almost six feet tall, so this does not exactly make me fat, but I am heavier than I feel I should be. I blame part of it on my radiation treatments last September. Most people lose their appetites when they're undergoing radiation. I became a ravenous pig, eating huge meals day in and day out. Of course, radiation makes you lose your energy more quickly, so I tended to eat and go to sleep, a great way to increase your waistline and put a little extra flab on those thighs, which is exactly what happened. So I am determined to work some of it off this summer, one way or another.

Anyhow, after about 20 minutes of peaceful swimming, I was startled again by the sound of thunder. This time, it was not a hoax. I barely got home before a bold wind swept out of nowhere to shake the trees and pelt us with rain. Well, it was probably time to do some laundry. And so ends an almost thoroughly wasted weekend.

I'm a little perturbed with myself because I didn't do something I really wanted to do, which is to call R, this fascinating new guy at work. It's a slightly strange situation. Within the work environment, we have rather lengthy conversations (one of which lasted five hours -- thankfully, it was not on the clock) and it's obvious he wants to be friendly -- or more than friends, if you listen to some of my co-workers. But I have not yet been successful in getting him to go out for a beer. I asked him Friday and he politely turned me down. I was concerned that if I called him at home over the weekend it might look a little too aggressive. I'm not going to rush this. We have a considerable amount of things in common and he's exceptionally bright. Most of the people in the office can't stand him, but when I look at him I see what I was like many years ago, wanting to impress people and often going about it in an abrasive way. I guess perhaps I'm overly sympathetic. Still, I see the potential for a real friendship here and I don't want to spoil it by coming across as a stalker.

Friday, July 04, 2003

Chapter One: The Living Dead
Why have I called my on-line diary Pump Up the Valium? It all goes back to an upper endoscopy I had to go through about 10 years ago. Prior to the procedure -- in which a tiny camera is attached to a long hose that's shoved down your throat into your stomach -- the doctor gave me mainlined valium, which proved to be so potent I was told to stay home and rest for the next three days. That valium completely rearranged my priorities for a while: The day after the procedure, my sister called to ask how I was feeling. I was slightly ashamed to admit that before she called I had spent more than half an hour trying to rearrange the magnets on my refrigerator into an eye-pleasing pattern.

Yes, it's true. I lost all track of time and any sense of what was important and what was not. Rearranging those refrigerator magnets felt like a job that had to be done immediately, no matter how long it took. Oftentimes, life can be the same way. I think it's extremely easy to lose sight of what should be important in our lives because there's always so much other nonsense to deal with. So we sometimes overlook the people we should be paying more attention to and miss out on things we should have done because we're caught up in working extra hours, showing up to make appearances at places we don't want to be, doing chores that we hate, etc. Sometimes we need to "pump up the valium" and completely change our perspective.

I do not mean this to be taken literally. I had friends in college who were valium addicts and their lives were not particularly pleasant (read "I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can" for further details). But I am all in favor of occassionally looking at life from a different angle. Remember the film "Dead Poets Society," in which teacher Robin Williams makes each boy jump up on top of the desk so that he can get an unusual view of the classroom? Try it: It works.

Right now, I am trying to decide how to take my own life in a new direction. I feel as if I'm in a rut and I know I have to make some changes soon. Up until now, I've always felt there was something I was working toward, some goal I was just about to achieve; now, for the first time, I look ahead of me and see a void, a black hole. It's like being trapped on a ferris wheel: You go 'round and 'round and up and down and you never get anywhere. That's fun for a little while, but when all your days begin to run together and you begin to lose your sense of purpose, it's time to move on to another ride.

The past year and a half has been confusing, disorienting and somewhat painful for me. At the beginning of 2002, I thought I'd found someone truly special. A phone call last week put that idea to rest once and for all. "Can we still be friends?" I was asked. I said yes, but now I realize I might as well have said no. How can I be "friends" with someone who kept me hanging on a string for almost 18 months, promising far more than was ever delivered, standing me up more than once, returning calls only when it was convenient (or when a favor was needed)? Yes, I was foolish to put up with it, but that does not mean I'll ever be able to forgive the perpetrator.

To add to that confusion, I also found out I had cancer. A lump in my left testicle turned out to be a fast-growing tumor, but only after I got a ludicrous first diagnosis from a quack who insisted first that I had a skin rash, then had the nerve to suggest it was a veneral disease. It was neither. Surgery and radiation have left me completely clean and healthy, but the aftershocks have been far worse than anything I experienced during the months that I was sick.

Two years ago, a committee was putting together an invitation list for my high school reunion. My best friend -- one of the few people from that era that I've stayed in touch with -- got an invitation, but I didn't. My friend insisted I find out why I wasn't invited, even though I made it clear to him that there was no way I'd ever even consider going to the reunion anyhow (even though I only live about an hour away). Still, curious, I looked into it and e-mailed the woman responsible for sending the invites out. She was startled to hear from me, since she had been informed by someone that I had died many years ago!

The text from her e-mail follows: "I am so sorry to report your death prematurely -- happy to hear you are alive and well! Someone told us at the reunion that they had just seen you and you were working as a computer tech in GR -- you have several careers I guess!
The weird thing about this is -- my greatest fear was realized when calling parents of alumni for current address - that we would call the parents of someone that had unknown to us passed away. I personally spoke to someone that told me that you ... passed away 20 years ago. I'll have to go back and check -- but at the point in time we had just started calling phone numbers from our yearbook's "Senior Index" where parents were still living in the same house. Who knows who I spoke with -- I just remember feeling so bad for bothering them. I am truly sorry for this mistake."

At the time, I thought it was kind of darkly funny. Most of my friends did, too. But now it's not so humorous. I've found out first-hand that once people start thinking of you as sick or weak or even dead, it's extremely difficult to live down that impression.

When I was properly diagnosed last July, I only told a few people (the ones who really needed to know) about my condition and the surgery I would need. Most of them seemed to understand; no one freaked out, thankfully, and no one demanded to know how this happened or what I could have done differently that would have prevented this. That's good because the simple truth is that no one knows the cause of testicular cancer; my doctors told me it was hereditary, that it's in the genes and that it does not follow any sort of a set pattern.

So I had the surgery (known as an orchiectomy) and, purely as a precautionary mesaure, went through 20 sessions of radiation to make certain that any residual cancerous cells would be wiped out. I was off work for about three weeks and during that time I tended to stay home and rest. Meanwhile, apparently, some people were preparing for my funeral.

When I did begin socializing again, I encountered some amazingly tactless and dopey questions ("Will you ever be able to go to the bathroom again?" "Does this mean you'll never have sex again?") and some comments that just plain bewildered me. One "friend" said he knew nothing about what had happened and asked me to tell him about what I'd gone through. Midway through my description, he said, "Yeah, that's about what (unnamed friend) told me had happened." So if you already knew, why did you need me to confirm it?

In the months since, I've noticed that some of my old friends are very much still a part of my life. Others -- well... I can't say exactly how or why we don't keep in touch, but clearly there has been a change. The most notable lost friend was, of course, the one I wanted to stay close to the most, the one who called me last week and essentially closed out our friendship. In the time since I'd had the surgery, we had seen each other exactly twice, both times for very brief, slightly uncomfortable periods. Looking into those eyes, I knew I was no longer seen as being the same person -- and, of course, if we're going to be literal about it, I wasn't. Nor would I ever be again.

After my radiation treatments were over, many people badgered me to write about my experiences to help others who might be going through the same thing. I heard several times how "brave" I was, how "admirable" my strength under the circumstances had been. But it had nothing to do with courage or fortitude; it was merely the self-preservation instinct that drove me. Frankly, my illness was pretty disappointing as far as drama goes. I would love to tell you about the night I woke up in a pool of my own blood, or the excruciating pain I suffered or the hair-raising race to the hospital -- but I would be lying. None of that happened at all.

The real pain has come during the recovery process, watching people steer clear of me as if they were afraid I was somehow contagious. I have wanted so badly to lash out at some of these former friends, to tell them in complete detail how they have made me feel, to try to shame them into accepting me once more. Instead, I've kept my mouth shut -- up until now, that is. Perhaps it's time for me to let a few of 'em have it with both barrels.

But while that might give me a few moments of self-righteousness to savor, I know that won't be the solution to the emptiness I'm feeling right now. That can only come from being able to establish a genuine relationship with someone. For months, I have hidden myself away, partially because I was being faithful to the aforementioned former flame and partially because I am still not completely comfortable with my body. On one hand, I crave someone who will love me as I am. On the other, I have no idea what intimacy will be like; medical journals say there shouldn't be any problem whatsoever, but I don't have that kind of self-confidence yet. I admit it: I am scared. I am more frightened by this than I was by the prospect of confronting cancer.

And yet I know that somehow I'm going to have to go forward and deal with this. I have been alone for a very long time and that is no longer a comfortable place for me to be. I refuse to believe that I have gone through the things I have in the last year so that I can be lonely, remorseful and stuck in a rut.

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