New To Some, Old News To Others

For those of you unfamiliar with my column: in Burke, Springfield, Fairfax, Fairfax Station/Clifton/Lorton, Mount Vernon and Alexandria, welcome aboard the Kenny train. I have been writing a weekly column for Connection Newspapers since December 1997 appearing primarily in our “Tuesday papers,” as we call them: Vienna/Oakton, McLean, Great Falls, Reston, Oak Hill/Herndon, Arlington, Chantilly, Centre View and Potomac. The question has persisted among friends and family: Ken he continue to, as my older brother Richard jokes, “churn out this dribble?” Apparently so, if the last 19 and half years are any indication.

Back in the day when I first had to characterize my column for various local yearly Press Association editorial contests (of which I have won nearly a dozen awards), I would write “Everything in general about nothing in particular.” A great friend of mine, Edward Faine, himself an accomplished author — of children’s and jazz books, and a small press publisher as well, has described my columns as “Thoughtful humor and insightful commentary.” Perhaps between these two quotes you’ll get a sense of what you’re likely to get from my weekly wondering.

And so it continued until June 2009. That’s when I published my first column about a diagnostic process which had been ongoing since New Years Day which ultimately lead to a lung cancer diagnosis delivered to “Team Lourie” on Feb. 27, 2009 (you bet you remember the date). That column, entitled “Dying to Find Out, Sort Of,” chronicled the process, excruciating as it was/is that one often endures attempting to determine the cause of a medical problem; in my case, a pain in my left-side rib cage which a day or so later, migrated to my right-side and eventually took my breath away — almost literally, especially when inhaling and/or bending over. This difficulty forced me off the couch and into my car for a drive over to the Emergency Room. Once the diagnosis was confirmed, I wrote another column entitled “Dying to Tell You, Sort Of” which detailed the findings of the nearly eight weeks the process took to specify my diagnosis: stage IV, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Out of the blue, I had become “terminal,” as my oncologist described me, and given a “13 month to two-year” prognosis to boot. Surreal, which is a common description offered by many in similar situations, is how one feels after receiving news of this kind, and only begins to tell the tale of the change and evolution in the individual’s life living forward into treatment and subsequently beyond into the great unknown.

This ‘great unknown’ is mostly what I have written about and published ever since; “cancer columns” (original I know) is what I call them. Occasionally, I will write a non-cancer column, one a month or so, depending on my experiences. These columns will address non-cancer issues of the day, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Most recently topics have included the movie “The Exorcist:’ “Exercising a Demon,” paying for things with a credit card: “Credit the Card,” reacting to advertising for grass seed and riding mowers: “And So It Begins,” and buying in bulk: “Bulky Boy,” but never/well, almost never do I write about my wife, Dina; I have been warned.

Though the recurring theme of these columns is cancer, the content is rarely morbid or dare I say, self-indulgent, believe it or not. I try to make fun a very “unfun” set of circumstances. I’m still writing about life; now however, it’s life in the cancer lane, a road unlike any I had ever traveled before. Nevertheless, I’ve gotten through eight years and nearly three months of it relatively incident free, save for a week in the hospital three and a half years ago. And yes, I am still undergoing treatment.

I hope you readers will be semi amused at the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune upon which my columns are based. Please know: the significance of their content is not that it is me writing them, it is that cancer is being written about.

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“Bulky Boy”

Is the nickname I gave Andrew, one of our male cats. It’s because he’s a bit portly, like his father, yours truly. However, Andrew’s nickname is not the impetus for this particular column. The impetus for this column is my tendency, as the primary (almost exclusive) buyer of miscellaneous household goods and to a lesser extent, services, to buy in bulk/quantity, not necessarily quality; although that’s a subject of a long-ago column and perhaps a future one as well — dare I cross that Rubicon again, and one that has earned me this identical nickname to Andrew.

As a cancer patient originally diagnosed as “terminal” — at age 54 and a half, eight-plus years ago, time becomes an integral/essential part of your life; what there is of it presently, what you have been told you have left of it and what you — in your wildest dreams, every day and every night, hope you actually get to do: live a relatively “normal” life expectancy.

Even though life has gone on years past my original “13-month to two-year” prognosis, I still struggle with the emotional yin and yang of whether I’m closer to the end or further from the beginning (date of diagnosis). And is so struggling, everyday decisions that might have a time element/time-sensitivity to them are complicated. Is it necessary to do it/buy it/obligate myself to it now when the benefit might be later? A later I might never see? If I’m trying to enjoy life in the present as much as possible to fend off the inevitable and relentless stress that a “terminal” cancer diagnosis imposes, then how does a future benefit help me now?

As a few examples and finally to the point of this column: buying in bulk. 240 dryer sheets — for two adults, one of whom works at home and doesn’t exactly get dressed for it; 90 tall kitchen trash bags — we use one bag a week, and that includes bagging the cat litter for five indoor cats; paper towels — enough quantity that we could likely wrap them around our entire house if we had to; toilet paper — is sacrosanct, one can never have enough in stock; and tissues/Kleenex — given how frequently my eight-years-of-post-chemotherapy nose runs — constantly, is also sacrosanct (although I can always use toilet paper, paper napkins or paper towels in the pinch; not exactly the same pinch as if the toilet paper inventory runs out, however). Naturally, these items are all nonperishable so their life expectancy is not a consideration. But since mine is, sometimes I think I need to buy them or else, because when I do need them it will be too late.

As for perishables, obviously it makes little sense to overbuy (expiration dates notwithstanding, except mine). I can’t eat all the food quickly enough anyway (another point of contention from a previous column), although I may try. But even I know, in my cancer-induced haze, that spending money now on an unpredictable future though penny-wise and beneficial in some emotional ways, might be pound-foolish. I need to feel good today – period, not feel good today about something I might benefit from tomorrow. I mean, how else am I even going to get to tomorrow? Don’t I need to filter out potentially harmful/debilitating mental and physical images/impacts and try to live as unencumbered as possible (to invoke one of my deceased father’s favorite words)? Cancer is already an uphill battle. If I don’t want to live the legendary life of Sisyphus, pushing a figurative rock up a hill, only to have it fall back down time and again, I need to find a way/strategy to both manage my budget and control my mind. Obviously, I want to live like I have a future, but not at the expense of my present. You can call me “Bulky Boy” all you want, but “crazy-kookie” not so much.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye

I can hear ye and I can see ye. And I don’t need life insurance to pay for the cost of my funeral, and neither do I need supplemental insurance to co-pay my Medicare coverage. These are both solicitations/direct mail pieces I’ve received in my mailbox in the last week. I can’t help but wonder why? Have I gotten older before my very eyes without regard to my actual age? Have I somehow become a qualified applicant without realizing the consequences of my living so many years beyond my original “13 month to two-year” prognosis? (I always place quotation marks around my prognosis as an indication of its having been said by my oncologist, and as a bit of a dig since here I sit and write eight years and two months post diagnosis.) Or do the people sending the direct mail pieces know something about me, my household and my neighborhood that I don’t?

Not that I really want to think too deeply about why I’ve been bombarded with these presumptive age-sensitive solicitations but, the piling-on effect of the past two weeks has stoked my embers. It’s not as if being targetmarketed burns me up or increases the temperature under my collar, but it does cause me to think and consider; always dangerous. As Moe Howard of The Three Stooges said to brother Curly in a typical two-reeler story line: “Every time you think you weaken the nation.”

I wouldn’t say the onslaught has been at all equivalent to the volume mailboxes see in the weeks leading up to an election, however. The materials I’ve received lately have felt more personal than the usual and customary ones that arrive before an election promoting a candidate, a cause or an amendment. Those political pieces merely wanted my vote. The pieces I’ve received of late wanted my life. Not literally of course. But they want me, not exactly a pound of flesh, but more than a piece of paper (computer entry, actually).

I haven’t had the opportunity as yet to speak with any of my neighbors to find out if the entire neighborhood was similarly solicited or was it just yours truly, the cancer patient whose survival has raised a marketing flag? I mean, with all the hacking/unauthorized access to phone numbers, addresses, bank accounts, Social Security numbers and private medical information, I don’t suppose it’s beyond a hacker’s reach to secure lists of “terminal” (I also put quotation marks around ‘terminal’ because again, it’s how my oncologist described me in late February 2009, and as yet another dig because I’ve lived so long beyond ‘terminal’) patients who quite frankly might be more open to/in need of and sensitive about certain conditions/situations/circumstances not necessarily characteristic of the general population.

Or maybe these direct mail pieces had nothing to do with me (I’m not a narcissist, really; just sort of writing for semi bemusement), but are simply modern-day equivalents of the old town cryer – without the bell? But with a similar goal: to reach as many people as possible, hopefully under favorable circumstances, not in the square, but rather in the privacy of their own homes.

Naturally, I tossed all of it. I didn’t take offense though, nor am I the least bit defensive about it having landed IN MY MAILBOX. It’s simply sound marketing. Find a neighborhood/zip code with the demographics that match your product and voila, a connection is made, supposedly. No connection here however, merely fodder once again for a column. (Besides, I have life insurance and I’m too young for a “med supp.”).

And So It Begins…

The onslaught of radio and television advertising for grass seed and riding mowers. I suppose if I was a responsible homeowner, given the time of the year: spring/April, I might have an interest in such timely offerings. However, since I’m not and since I’m still unable to manage the two acres that I own, affectionately referred to as “Belly Acres,” going on 25 years dating back to May ‘92 when we initially took ownership, the best I can do is borrow my neighbor’s riding mower and spend a couple of hours every two weeks or so trying to keep the grass below my knees. Cancer issues not totally withstanding.

Actually, aside from having little interest, minimal experience and multiple home/tool maintenance issues/pre-existing conditions, I am the perfect target: a homeowner who can’t do anything on his own and needs help all the time for everything. Specifically as it involves my yard; I have grass, trees, bushes, shrubs, daffodils, flower beds, wild flowers, weeds and more weeds. If I were so inclined and wanted to confide to someone in a Lawn & Garden store, I would have to admit that a novice looks experienced compared to me. I need to be taken by the hand — literally — and instructed as if the words being spoken to me were a foreign language. Which of course, they are.

This previous paragraph presumes however that I have a budget and even a passing notion to attempt to improve upon the randomness that characterizes “Belly Acres.” I can still remember a conversation I had with a local lawn and garden consultant when we first moved in. A gentlemen came by and together we walked around the property. After ending up back at the house, he asked me what I wanted to do. I said something like, “I don’t know, you tell me.” He responded with words I could semi understand but mostly it was unintelligible — to me, so I asked for a clarification.

After grasping the obvious, finally, I asked: “Is what you’re telling me that I could hire someone to work full time for the rest of his life and still the work wouldn’t get done?”

“Yes,” he said.

That’s when I fully understood the problem. I then thanked him for his time and haven’t revisited the issue since. Talk about pointless. And so, all these years later, the property remains nearly as it was. Oh sure, tress have fallen down, branches, limbs, sticks and stones have hit the ground — and house, and together have cluttered up the general appearance. However, any effort beyond paying people to clean up the miscellaneous yard debris has been lost in the passage of time and in my lack of initiative. Throw in a “terminal” cancer diagnosis and at least for me, pulling weeds, etc., became a fairly low priority.

Still, it doesn’t mean that I don’t pay attention to advertising aimed at homeowners, especially the ones promoting grass seed and riding mowers. Many of which are quite funny and clever. Not quite clever enough to get me off the couch and into a store to spend money on a project, especially on one whose timeline might not match mine. That’s not to say that I’m living like I’m dying so why bother? No. it’s more about common sense and gratification. I don’t need to wait for — anything. Oh sure, I need to plan for tomorrow but not at the expense (pun intended) of today. It’s not exactly akin to a fool and his money but when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, priorities change, as do budget/time allowances; in fact/feeling, everything changes.

I don’t mean to imply that I’m a closed book, unable to get out of my own way or incapable of taking the good with the bad. As you regular readers know, I’m really pretty flexible when it comes to my less-than-ideal circumstances. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have my moments. Hearing/seeing these lawn and garden promotions has given me pause though. Not enough to change my mind but enough to motivate me — to write a column.

Credit The Card

I’m not a big spender, maybe a medium spender — on my best day. My brother is a big spender, my father was, too. My mother, probably who I most likely take after: ‘medium’ and judicious, again, like me (or is it me like her?). Nevertheless, the money got spent and if there was more of it, it likely would have got spent, too. It’s not as if I was deprived growing up, I got the things that mattered — in the long run. I just didn’t get everything money could buy.

But that was before credit cards. Well, before Visa, MasterCard, Discover and Capital One. Sure, there were department store cards: Filene’s, Jordon Marsh, Kennedy’s — in Boston, and off course there were gas cards: Esso, Amoco and Arco, and I suppose I recall knowing about American Express and Diner’s Club, but they weren’t used by everybody everywhere, certainly not by the Louries. Now, plastic is the currency by which many of us pay to play, and some of us use to merely stay in the game.

And for me, it sort of is a game: how long can I go without charging something and how much can I charge and still be able to pay the balance off when the next monthly credit card bill arrives? As I contemplate my daily/weekly/ bi-weekly/monthly inflow and outgo, I associate my efforts at restraint and attempted control with that of a levee, if I understand their function correctly — which I might not: bend and not break? Like some NFL team defenses are often described.

The problem arises — for both me and the levee, when the levee/spending restraint breaks (quite the opposite of brakes/stops). That’s when the damage occurs. That’s when the balance overflows. That’s when good, bad and indifferent money follows. In for a dime, in for dollars, some of which don’t make sense. Once that resolve is weakened, and once that wallet is opened and that credit card is handed over, I feel very much the addict. Once I’ve started — and stopped denying myself the pleasure of the purchase, I find it extremely difficult to get off the spending bus. Invariably, it’s taken me awhile to get on so whether it’s sensory deprivation, deferred gratification or premature escalation, there are no more skid marks on that slippery slope. The race is on, so to speak and until I hit my imaginary financial wall, my credit card balance is going onward and upward.

Sure it feels good to spend money I don’t have without considering the pay-back consequences. Presumably, the benefits derived from the purchase will help soothe the savage, impoverished beast as he jiggles and then juggles the dollars in order to find some cents. I imagine that’s what makes the world go ‘round: short term pain for long term gain. Still, it doesn’t feel much like progress and progress is what feels good to me. Although, these new Rockport leather slip-ons with the “cushiony” soles and orthotic inserts are improving my disposition and lessening the pain in my feet and fatigue in my legs, it still costs me money not in my wallet.

I admit, I am enjoying the support and comfort my new shoes are providing. But I’m also keenly aware that I haven’t received the credit card bill yet reflecting there and other slipperyslope purchases made that same weekend. And when the piper has to be paid, I may not like my new shoes — among other items, nearly as much as I do right now. Right now, the shoes are free. Soon they won’t be.

Further complicating this spending-not spending dilemma is the fact that I’m a 62-yearold cancer patient; how do I deprive myself of any creature comforts when I have recurring highly stressful situations that give me, and my life-expectancy, pause. Naturally, I’d rather pay my way — and my share, but at what cost? I suppose cash in hand is still worth two in the bush, but if a credit card is all I have … ? Either I use it or lose it. The pain and/or pleasure will likely follow regardless.

Exercising A Demon

Last night, between 9:30 p.m. and 10:15 p.m., I traveled back in time — without leaving my bedroom and without the use of a Time Machine. I went back approximately 41 years to the fall of ‘73, to my sophomore year in college at The University of Maryland. A group of us decided to go see one of the most talked about movies of the year: “The Exorcist.” Talked about because it was filmed locally here in Georgetown and because it was said to be scary as h—.

I believe we saw the movie at the old KB Cinema located on Wisconsin Ave., NW, adjacent to Rodmans. I could be wrong but there’s no one to ask, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. I remember little else about the evening, other than my return back to my dorm room, #103, at Cumberland Hall in College Park. Though I had a roommate, he had gone home for the weekend so I was all alone. And that is what I remember most, closing the door, shutting off the lights, sitting on my bed and staring into the darkness and seeing Linda Blair’s face (from the movie) and being extremely uncomfortable being by myself so soon after having seen the movie. I had a difficult night. I don’t remember if I had any nightmares however, but, it was a miserable experience trying to fall asleep. I have not seen “The Exorcist” a second time, in its entirety or in any pieces until last night, despite it being a movie readily available on cable, especially around Halloween.

I would say I saw the last 45 minutes. I saw Linda Blair tied up in her bed. I saw Linda Blair turn her head completely around. I saw projectile vomiting from her mouth. I saw her fiery, yellow eyes and her face all torn up with scars and scabs. I saw her bed shake. I saw her bed levitate. I heard the demon inside her growl, screech, curse and speak backwards and verbally attack all the priests held sacred. I heard the bells chiming in the movie score. I saw plenty but not enough to justify the fear that engulfed me all those many years ago. Having watched the move again (and having slept peacefully through the evening), it almost feels as if I’ve survived a rite of passage somehow, faced off against my past and come out reasonably healthy — all things not considered.

Nevertheless, I have no interest in seeing “scary” movies. I guess I don’t see the point or rather the point pales in comparison to the fact that I’ve been diagnosed with cancer: now that’s scary. Moreover, having lived over 40 years since having seen “The Exorcist,” a few other scary things have happened in life which places a movie in context; it’s only celluloid (sort of), it’s not real. So I’ve learned a few things and probably unlearned a lot more. I wouldn’t say watching the movie tonight was an epiphany-type moment when the light came on and I realized what I had been missing or perhaps realized what I’ve been getting. Granted, it’s only a movie, and one that’s over 40 years old, but it’s a movie/experience/ affect that had stuck with me for a long time, and now I’m free of its tentacles.

It reminds of another movie I saw as a young boy, when I was under 10 years old, it scared the h— out of me and did give me nightmares: “Invaders From Mars,” released in 1953. The Martians landed in a field just within view from a little boy’s bedroom window in his family’s farmhouse. I remember his wide eyes at seeing the light off in the distance. I remember the music. I remember the Martians having a device that made the ground disappear and then reform. I remember the Martian leader’s head being carried around in a goldfish-type bowl of something. I don’t remember the plot. I just remember being frightened. It wasn’t until “The Exorcist” 15 or so years later that I had been similarly scared. And it wasn’t until 35 years after seeing “The Exorcist” when I was once again so scared that I had trouble sleeping, and had nightmares, and experienced everything else associated with fear that your life may actually be coming to an end: my non-small cell lung cancer diagnosis in late February 2009. Having survived more than a few years now past my original “13 month to two-year” prognosis, maybe I am ready to go see another scary movie? After all, I could probably use the diversion.

Sick & Tired

Man o’ man was I sick last weekend (that was not a question). It began as a runny nose, followed by an annoying hacking cough, compounded by sneezing and watery eyes, an occasional headache, with zero interest in food and hardly any energy to get myself out of bed where I spent practically the entire two days. I haven’t been that sick/incapacitated since, I don’t know when. Thankfully, there was no temperature, sore throat or nausea to further complicate my inability to move off the bed. And most thankfully, there was no urgency to visit the bathroom (I don’t know if I would have had the wherewithal to even get there). Otherwise, I mighty have actually had to call/email the doctor and/or make an appointment at the Emergency Room. After all, I do have cancer so I really shouldn’t ignore — totally — the times when I’m feeling uncharacteristically bad. This past weekend, had I gone from bad to worse, I would have called.

However, my symptoms, as miserable as they were, especially for two days, didn’t meet the this-is-it threshold as set forth by my oncologist. Though the symptoms were new and different versus the everyday norm, they certainly weren’t uniquely different (lung cancer related) for a seasonal-type cold. Moreover, the pain/discomfort/cough wasn’t coming from my lungs, and the symptoms had only lasted a few days, not a few weeks. I therefore determined that unlike Babe Ruth who felt “just as bad” as he sounded in his famous Babe Ruth Day farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on April 27, 1947, I wasn’t dying. I was just sick with a bad cold, one that was worse than any I remember (although maybe I’ve forgotten. See column titled “I Can’t Forget What I Don’t Remember” published 3/22/17).

Nevertheless, since I’m not a doctor, just a patient, presumably I should know what my body is telling me. However, I may not be so inclined to listen (fear mostly). Though my life may occasionally be at stake, I still struggle with the facts of my case. I delude myself into thinking that if I don’t give in to the pain and suffering — as rare as they usually are, then I won’t suffer the consequences: dying before my time. I don’t want to believe the worst so I don’t. I wouldn’t attribute my above-average life “unexpectancy” since diagnosis (eight years — AND ALWAYS COUNTING) as the power of positive thinking since I never read the book written by Norman Vincent Peale. But I try not focus too much on my diagnostic reality.

I mean, it’s not as if I laugh in the face of death; heck, I cry more than ever, especially while watching programs on television when heartstrings are pulled. Somehow though, I try not to take my cancer personally, if that makes any sense? I try to take it the same way Curly Howard of The Three Stooges took his many slapstick pratfalls: “I’m a victim of soycumstance.”

But when I get sick, whether or not I feel anything in my chest/lungs, I cross over into an entirely new realm. No more am I able to talk/humor myself into or out of things, no more am I able to deny my cancer reality and no more am I able to pretend that all is right in my world. It’s during these situations when the metaphorical/proverbial you know what hits my emotional fan that I suffer the most. Unfortunately, there’s not a shut-off button. I just have to ride it out, as bumpy as it typically is, and hope I come out the other end in better shape than when I went in.

So far, so good. Although I’m still coughing a bit and blowing my nose, all the other symptoms have subsided and no more do I feel worse for the wear. I don’t suppose it’s cancer-related, but of course, what do I know? What I do know is this: if the remaining symptoms linger, I’ll worry, and on Wednesday, April 19 — and for the following week, I’ll worry even more awaiting the results from the CT Scan and lower abdomen MRI I have scheduled that day (it’s a special: two for one). Granted, these tests are not any newer than catching a cold, but still, I can’t help wondering: since I was diagnosed as “terminal,” this can’t keep going on forever, can it?