Ahead is All in Darkness

I’ve lost my vision.

Not my actual vision, but rather my view of the future, the one that guides me forward. I can’t see it anymore.

All the light is behind me, shining on where I’ve been. I can see it much more clearly. And I spend my day looking over my shoulder, thinking of what’s past.

Ahead is all in darkness.

I Awoke to See the Surgeon Leaning Over Me

I awoke to see the surgeon leaning over me.

“It didn’t happen,” he said. “We had to cancel.” Then he disappeared.

I was in a fog of anesthesia so I had no choice but to accept what he was telling me. My memory of where I was slowly filtered in. A nurse handed me a bottle of sore throat spray and wheeled me into another room.

My wife was there, also struggling to wake up from the drugs. We’d scheduled to have my kidney transplanted into her, and now we were learning that it wasn’t happening. At least not as we had expected.

Doctors came into the room, while the nurses finished fussing with our IVs and blankets. My parents were summoned from the waiting room.

“I’m really sorry about this,” the lead surgeon said. “We didn’t have a sufficient supply of blood from the blood bank and I didn’t feel we could go forward with the operation.”

I tried to understand the situation, and I got more than my wife did, who dozed through most of it. Thankfully, my parents were there and lucid. I could compare notes with them later.

View of Bromo Seltzer Tower from my hotel.

View of Bromo Seltzer Tower from my hotel.

“We can reschedule for tomorrow, but I won’t be able to do it,” the surgeon went on saying. My parents grumbled about this, preferring–as we all did–to have things go as planned. We weighed the merits of coming back next week with the original team, or going with a new team the next day. Finally, we settled on a plan, thinking that we were already in Baltimore, all ready to do this, we might as well get it done now.

We were discharged for 24 hours. Thankfully, we had rooms only a block away. My wife and I roused ourselves sufficiently to walk back to the hotel, although I don’t really remember the walk. My parents told us to call if we needed anything, said they’d pick up the tab for the extra night. My wife and I went back to our room to sleep off the meds.

I texted a few key people–my sister-in-law who was watching our kids, friends who could spread the word–to let them know of the delay and then climbed into bed. The day moved about us as we rested. On the sidewalks below, people walked to and from work. Guests checked in and out of their rooms. The day moved to afternoon as we slumbered, with our hospital bracelets still on our wrists and gauze patching the IV holes.

We drank water, but food was of little interest. Our last full meal had been the night before, with my parents and mother-in-law in the hotel restaurant. It was good but I didn’t enjoy it much, feeling as it did like a last supper. Now, the only thing that sounded good was a granola bar; my wife had a bag of chips. Our systems must have been in low gear from the sedatives. It saved us the trouble of ordering a meal.

The day seemed in low gear too, and I decided to step outside and get some air. My wife continued to snooze as I left the room and walked out of the hotel.

It was on the warm side of normal for an August day in Baltimore. The city was preparing for the Grand Prix car race that was scheduled for Labor Day weekend. A racecar sat on display in the hotel drop-off area.

View from the hospital.

View from the hospital.

“This is your car, right?” I joked with the bellman on duty.

“Yeah, I wish!” he said.

I walked slowly on the sunny sidewalk. People passed me going both directions. There were a mix of tourists and folks going about their weekday routines. I wondered if anyone noticed my hospital bracelet. They certainly didn’t know that a few hours before I’d been deep in anesthetic sleep waiting for my kidney to be removed, only to learn that it wasn’t.

I had a strange feeling like I’d come to meet destiny but destiny was a no-show. What was I supposed to do now?

Of course, I knew that the whole thing would begin again tomorrow, but until then, there was open space.

I walked a few blocks toward Camden Yards, passing the Grand Prix barriers that were being placed along the race route. More hotels, and then the stadium was in front of me. The Orioles were not playing that day, but during summer, Baltimore is never more than a few hours away from the front end or back end of another baseball game.

Photo: Natalie Litz on Flickr

Photo: Natalie Litz on Flickr

I decided I’d gone far enough. It was time to head back to the hotel, to prepare for what still lay ahead.


This happened about a year ago, when we were in Baltimore, Maryland, to have the transplant operation, some details about which appear here.

Looking For the Heart of Jazz

IMG_1037“I’m a classical guy,” says Larry, the pianist. “I’m used to having a score in front of me and just playing. This is a whole new mindset.” Jazz is a mindset–I’m in total agreement.

We’re meeting for the first time, the five of us, having answered the call to form a jazz combo. The call came from the jazz program at the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C. Technically, it’s a class—we had to pay for the eight weeks—but more than that, it’s an experiment in learning to play music together.

I came to play drums, although I’m not really a drummer. That is to say, guitar, and not drums, is my instrument of choice. I also play bass guitar, and in that role I was part of a folk/rock band for four years. Over the years, though, I’ve dabbled with the drums and as a bassist, I have a good sense of rhythm. But I’ve never pursued drums seriously, or any instrument for that matter. I’m a musical hobbyist.

When the e-mail arrived saying drummers were desperately needed, I thought to myself, Why not?

We enter our practice room located in the Music Center at Strathmore, a performing arts facility. The room has an almost excessively high ceiling, nearly as tall as it is wide. One wall is lime green and one baby blue. The other two are white. A whiteboard extends along the length of one wall.

There are five pianos, not counting the electric keyboard, and a drum set, fairly stripped down, with a snare, the kick drum, one tom, and a floor tom. Guitar amps and music stands are scattered about, and chairs are stacked in the corner.

Lyle, our instructor, greets us. He knows Larry and one of the guitarists, Andrew, from before. Lyle is probably in his mid-thirties, handsome with a Latino flair. His instrument is saxophone, but he can hold his own on the piano. He is in effect our bandleader and “cat herder.”

We start playing right away. I don’t have many jazz songs memorized, so I concentrate on keeping the beat steady while listening for the changes. Lyle tells me what the groove should be–he always says “groove.” He’ll say it’s “swing” or “bossa nova” and I take it from there.

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“I don’t know much jazz stuff,” Andrew, one of the guitar players, tells me at our second class. “I come from blues and folk music.”

I nod. The five of us have different musical backgrounds, but we are all in this combo for one reason: to learn more about this music form called jazz. And Lyle does his best to help us in the one hour we have per week.

Lyle clearly loves jazz. He gets excited as he talks about the songs we could do. He’s here at eight o’clock on a weeknight. You only do that if you enjoy it.

IMG_001He talks about common jazz forms, such as the II-V-I chord progression. And he talks about soloing. In jazz, it’s all about the soloing. Lyle explains soloing as if the notes were food on your plate. If you’re really hungry, he points out, something simple will suffice, just to get you by. Once you’re full, though, you can start being choosy, picking things that are more interesting, that have more flavor. It’s the difference between using an F major scale in your solo, or playing in the Locrian mode.

Even though I’m the drummer, I still pay attention to all the music discussion. I hope to be able to apply it to my guitar playing someday, to absorb the jazz feel, to gain more insight into the musical form.

Neil, the trumpet player, and Mazyar, the other guitarist, handle most of the solos. As the only horn player, Neil is in effect the lead instrument. The rhythm players—the piano, the bass, and drums—all support the horn. We are to let the horn lead, taking cues from him, Lyle explains. In doing so, we abandon pathways we’re heading down if he leads us in another direction.

I don’t feel strongly about soloing on the drums. Actually, I find drum solos a bit annoying, so I don’t wish to inflict that on others. By the fourth class, I’m getting more comfortable with the swing, bossa nova, and funk grooves. I listen and watch, trying to keep it in the pocket.

Lyle says that we could try something called “trade fours,” where every four measures everyone drops out except the drums. It’s a way to feature the drummer for a few bars. To do this, the bandleader holds up four fingers during the song. The drummer always has the option to shake off the suggestion, like a baseball pitcher taking signals from the catcher.

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The final class of the session is to be a performance. Lyle wants us to have arrangements for the songs we’ve worked on to make them more interesting, make them stand out as not the same old thing. We try different tempos, different openings and endings. We try to take songs that have been in circulation since the 1950s and ’60s and make them our own.

On performance night, a younger combo goes first, all high-school boys. They are very good and most of the audience is there to see them. I’m nervous as I sit through the young guys’ set. When it’s our turn, I climb behind the kit. I’ve been onstage before, but every time it feels new, raw and unscripted, wide open to the possibilities.

Performance night.

Performance night.

And then our four songs are done. As with most musical performances before, I am absorbed by my mistakes and all of the things I could have done differently. But my family and friends say it sounds great.

I guess we succeed in pulling it off. Considering that we’ve only spent eight weeks together, we do as well as possible. But that’s the heart of jazz. It’s a group of individuals coming together to speak through music. We hear what each other has to say, and hope that those listening will find our sounds worth their while.

Extending an Offer

When I was laid off from my job four years ago, everyone told me that it was not a reflection of my work, skills, or commitment. It was just the nature of the business.

“I know that you are not happy with what happened,” the general counsel who handled my severance said in an e-mail. “However, for what it’s worth – I want you to know that I enjoyed working with you and if you need anything, feel free to contact me and I will try to help however I can.”

I tried not to take it personally, I really did. I secretly hoped that someone would step forward and tell me that my years of service were appreciated. “We don’t want to lose you,” I imagined they would say. “We have an opening in another department we think you’d be good for.”
the corporation

But that didn’t happen. And since then, I wondered whether that kind of thing happens only in the movies.

Recently, though, I overheard a conversation between a couple of colleagues. One said that when she’d first applied to the company, she thought she was well-suited for the opening. But the company liked her so much, they made her an offer for both the job for which she’d applied and one for which she hadn’t. “We know you didn’t apply for this position, but we think you might be interested,” she recalled the HR person saying.

It was two for the price of one for my colleague. Those HR people recognized in this colleague some skills badly needed, which, of course, is as it should be. But more than that, they took the initiative to extend an offer that she hadn’t known was there. I guess the key is having the skills, and making sure that others know you have the skills, that are in need at that time.

So this really does happen. It just didn’t happen to me.

I personally know of at least five people, in addition to me, who were laid off and subsequently rehired by the same company. If you consider the payouts for severance and the subsequent costs to publicize the position and reintegrate the workers into the corporation, it seems like an inefficient process. I’m not sure who benefits from this. I certainly didn’t.

Where Do the Days Go?

If I had work where I felt fully engaged, where I felt that I was using my skills for some helpful purpose, where my efforts were recognized and appreciated, then I would be able to go home each night with a feeling of accomplishment, satisfied with the knowledge that I’d done good that day. Evenings would be relaxing down-time, and I would be available for whatever was needed, whoever needed me.

As it is, I feel that my work hours are wasted time. I feel that I’m making the trek each day to fulfill an obligation, waiting for the time when I can go home and when my real life will begin.

Unfortunately, the daily ritual, in all its unsatisfying ways, grinds me down, so that by the time I reach home again, I’m running on a nearly empty tank.

If we have something planned for the evening — a school activity, my son’s baseball game — then I go with it. It will provide meaning for the day.skycranes

When there’s nothing, though, I drink some wine before dinner to recharge. It helps to bridge the gap between my lost work hours and the precious few that remain in the day. And I find that I need to seek out a task. Many people plop down at the TV for the rest of the evening, but to me, that’s more time wasted.

So I pay bills or balance the checkbook. I help one of my kids with homework or organize my desk. During summer, when the days are longer, I’ll mow the lawn or do other yard work.

And when there’s none of that to be done, I’ll want to play my guitar. Except that my nails will be too long, so I’ll have to cut them. Then I don’t want to bother with pulling my guitar case from the corner and tuning up. So I don’t.

Or I’ll think of all the great writing I could be doing. But I don’t.

I just sip my wine and wonder where the days all go.