Keep On Keepin’ On

I had a follow-up appointment today. My last one ended with me being admitted back into the ICU. After today’s appointment, I went to lunch with my family and then took a nap in my own bed. I think we can call this one a win.

I’m doing well. The swelling is getting better every day and the doctors were as pleased with my healing as I was. My pain is pretty much non-existent right now beyond the occasional headache, which is also good. I am sleeping better with each day, too, which is an important part of the process. Sleeping has also pretty much always been one of my best skills, so it’s nice to know I still got it.

So things are good and moving forward. I’m not back to normal, of course. I’m still really tired. I still need to watch out about lifting heavy things or straining myself. But all that should keep getting easier and better with time and rest.

This is mostly over but it’s also the start of a new normal for me. I’m going to be getting MRIs for the rest of my life. I may have to get radiation if the tumor comes back. There’s a lot of possibilities ahead of us but they’re all better than what we just faced.

So for now, we’ll just keep on keeping on.

Set Backs and Updates

I’m still doing well but I do want to say this: brain tumors suck.

During my follow-up appointment on July 3 the doctors decided to admit me to the ICU again to drain fluid from my face. In their estimation, the post-op swelling was reaching problematic proportions. My face was swelling with cerebrospinal fluid (or CSF), which is the stuff that our spine and brain both live in. The presence of that fluid makes it hard for my face to heal from surgery and so it had to go.

The way they got rid of the excess fluid was by installing a drain in my back, kinda like tapping the end of the CSF system. The installation hurt about as much as you would imagine. Nobody wants a needle put in their back, let alone a plastic tube. In this whole process of brain surgery the pain and discomfort I felt when they installed the drain was the worst thing I’ve felt.

There’s still a lot of good stuff to keep in mind. I’m alive and I am still happy to be alive. It amazes me that I live in a time where I had a brain tumor and they were able to remove it while keeping me alive. Also, my swelling is way better. The drain worked and I have that to be grateful for, too.

The downside? I just got home after 11 days locked up in a hospital with a drain in my back. While it worked and saved my life (and is allowing me now to heal from surgery) 11 days away from my wife and kids is one of the worst things I’ve had to endure.

But I’m home now, basking in the glow of my family. I’m resting and sleeping well. I feel great. My pain is mostly gone, the swelling is disappearing, and I feel more like myself everyday. I feel better about the road ahead, too.

But——just in case you were wondering——brain tumors still suck.

Thanks for the love, the prayers/thoughts, and the palpable feeling of community. I know I’ve got a lot of people pulling for me and I’ve felt it every step of the way. I couldn’t be more grateful for it. If there’s a silver lining in all this, that’s certainly it.

My uninvited growth

Here’s where I need to start. I feel very loved and lucky and I have a tremendous amount to be thankful for at this very moment in my life. I am alive and I am feeling better each and every day. When it come’s down to it, that’s all that really matters.

On June 18, 2019 I had a brain tumor. Today I do not.

I first noticed what turned out to be my brain tumor about 7 years ago. I was training for my second LA Marathon when I noticed a slight swelling on the right temple of my face. The swelling was only faintly noticeable, aligned with my right temple muscle running from the forehead just to the top of my right cheek. The swelling was pretty consistent. It didn’t come and go but it was even and did change slightly in size depending what I ate that day or on what my training pattern might have been. But none of it was all that profoundly different.

Over the years it grew more and more and changed less frequently. I pointed it out to my wife and started to get a little concerned. Finally, about 3 and 1/2 years ago, I went to my doctor to have him take a look at it. I was hoping for an MRI but he said it was an overdeveloped temple muscle caused by teeth grinding and chewing in my sleep. He recommended I see my dentist for a mouthpiece, which I did.

My dentist made the mouthpiece but insisted there was no dental evidence I was grinding my teeth at night or biting down hard. I still wore the mouthpiece for three some years and, sure enough, it did nothing. Not only didn’t the swelling shrink but the mass continued to visibly grow. As it grew I became more aware and even self-conscious about it as something that was “other” or foreign to me.

I grew more concerned. I noticed it more and I was sure people in my life (and work life) noticed it, too. After all, I work with a bunch of kids who notice the little things, like slight growths or the kinds of imperfections we associate with age that we don’t see all that often in our youth.

Last fall my ophthalmologist saw it and he finally ordered an MRI. Turned out it wasn’t the muscle but an actual foreign growth. I called it my UFG——my uninvited fucking growth. My UFG concerned my ophthalmologist and the radiologist who read my film. It looked like a tumor, one that had some origin in my brain. Luckily, one of my best friends is also a radiologist and I had him take a look at my MRI before I had any formal sit-down with a doctor to talk about next steps. It didn’t look good, but it also didn’t look like we had a 100% sure reading on what it was we were looking at.

Since UFG was on the side of my face we could do a biopsy of him and start to get some sense of what he was before cutting into my skull. Last January that biopsy told us UFG was not cancer but it also identified it as a meningioma. For those that don’t know a meningioma is a tumor that grows from the lining of the brain. That’s right: I had a brain tumor but one that decided to gentrify my face. It started in my brain but grew through the skull and took over that temple muscle before spreading to through the cranium.

It took about two months for us to learn I had a tumor and to get test results telling us it wasn’t a fatal or aggressive form of cancer. That two months was a hard time for Melinda (my wife) and me. We had to confront the possibility of the worst, which is not a pretty thing when you have 3 little ones. We survived it, sanity and love in tact. We also had the benefit of medical professionals moving us toward a medical solution for my UFG.

That solution was surgical. I had a team of surgeons, one to focus on the outer cranium parts of my UFG and a neurosurgeon to focus on the UFG origin story on the lining of my brain. Luckily, since UFG had been such a colonizer, I had no real “traditional” symptoms of a brain tumor. No headaches or no compromised brain functions. I had an unsightly bump that kind of gave me a sore jaw and swollen pressure on the right side of my face, but all that’s not too bad considering the cause.

I entered Kaiser’s Kramer Medical Center in Anaheim on June 17 to get it taken out. It was a several step process. External UFG gentrified my cheek and jaw. He was close to a cluster of blood vessels and incompatible with our goal of minimizing bleeding and the prospect of a transfusion. So step one was going up my main artery like an angioplasty in order to inject some dye in those vessels and give them a little embolism. This would make them more visible (and hence more avoidable) while also making them less bloody when they were cut.

Phase two was extraction. My neurosurgeon’s plan (he is a pretty amazing guy, the kind you’d expect to do such a job) was to saw into my skull and remove UFG from my brain lining. That’s where UFG started. He was like a tail along my right lobe heading through a patch of skull that ended in my temporal muscle. The plan was to remove the “tail” and, to be safe, cut away about 2cm of brain lining surrounding it. That would also entail removing the patch of skull UFG passed through since, in passage, it became tumorized, too. The plan was to replace the patch of skull with titanium.

When Dr. Amazing got in there he learned that UFG had been more cranially aggressive than originally thought. First, a 2cm lining removal took us too close to a vital (life or death) artery near where the lobes meet, so he kept a conservative distance to make sure I stayed alive (yeah!!) which also may have left some UFG at the cellular level. UFG also turned out to be doing more than resting on my lining. He was also squatting on my brain. He was an easy removal but still, fucker was living rent free on my brain.

The other part of extraction was lead by my head/neck surgeon, a 30 year veteran of the meningioma game. His plan was to cut in to my head, pull down my face like a John Woo movie, and remove UFG from my temporal muscle and cheek area. We expected the UFG already colonized my temporal muscle and so its removal there was to be expected. He’d rebuild the destroyed and colonized muscle with titanium mesh so it would balance cosmetically with my left temple. The MRI suggested it was well beneath the cheek bone too, so the plan was to remove that sliver of bone temporarily to safely extract UFG and then rebolt the cheek bone into my skull.

When he got in there he learned UFG had been pretty aggressive there too. It had eaten up my temporal muscle and did much the same to my cheek bone. So a minor plan alteration was called for and the kind doctor replaced my cheek bone with titanium instead of reinserting the tumorized bone.

A week ago, all this happened. I came out of surgery alive and with a pretty good prognosis. They said the best case scenario for me would be about 3-5 days in the hospital and then about 1-2 months of rest and recovery to let the trauma of surgery return my swollen face back to normal. Sure enough, I came home three days after surgery. I have a series of follow-up appointments that will inform where we go from here in terms of treatment but, the most important thing I have is the love and concern and friendship of a grip of people, all of whom have helped my recovery with kind notes, plants and flowers, food, and consistent thoughts. The best part has been feeling——on a daily basis——how this is more than an individual act of healing and, instead, a nurturing group process.

So thanks. I thank you if you’re one of those people who care about me and who’s shared that caring in any kind of way. I thank you for the road ahead, too, one that’s going to take time and lots more of the love I’m using now over the weeks and months ahead. I feel lucky to have you in my life and the feeling is 100% mutual.

Take care.

Friday Five: June 1981

It’s a quick one this week, while I’m away from the interwebs.

5. “Double Dutch Bus” by Frankie Smith
It ended the month of June at #2 before beginning it’s four-week stay at the top of the R&B charts. It was funk, rap, and the kind of thing that (we) kids (of color, at least) loved to dance and skate to. It felt modern and hip to me.

4. “Take It on the Run” by REO Speedwagon
The song peaked at #5 on the Hot 100 in June, the follow up to the much larger hit “Keep on Loving You.” They combined to make the album Hi Infidelity</em) the biggest selling rock album of 1981, and the band's biggest selling album in their long history (it was their ninth album overall and they had seven more in them to come). I joined my first record club in 1981. I didn't get this album but I did eventually buy the follow-up Good Trouble. I don’t remember being a big fan; it was just what one was supposed to buy.

3. “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes
This could easily be #1 on my list but Kim Carnes doesn’t need my help. It was the #1 song in the country for nine non-consecutive weeks, from May to July 1981. After its fifth week, its reign at the top was interrupted by the odd mishmash of musical samples called “Medley,” by a Dutch group called Stars on 45. It then returned to the top spot for another four weeks. The smash hit was written by Donna Weiss and the maker of more than a few hits, Jackie DeShannon. I don’t remember being crazy about the song but neither did I dislike it. It was one of those cultural phenoms that everybody knew.

2. “Give It to Me Baby” by Rick James
While Kim Carnes was burning up the pop charts, Rick James was doing the same on the R&B charts, where he sat at #1 for five weeks (from June to July) with this hit. A funky bass line gives way to a killer dance song that makes it hard not to move. It was a favorite at the roller skating rink.

1. “All Those Years Ago” by George Harrison
Peaked at #5 at the end of the month, one of the pleasing tunes by George before he hit his renaissance in the later decade. Lyrically it captures his age and position as a former Beatle, so it’s nostalgic. Musically he’s making a current pop hit with lots of overtures to the past as well. I don’t remember it at all at the time, but I like it a lot now, as I do most of George’s stuff. He’s the fav of the fab four for me and my boy.

Friday Five: June 1980

I was 7 years old when 1980 began. It must have been a big deal——the end of such a distinctive decade and the start of a new one——but I don’t remember it. A few years into the decade, I do remember thinking of myself as a chid of it. It felt like our (my?) decade. And of course, a big part of that was the distinctive sound of pop and rock and dance music.

I’m not sure you would see much of what was to come later in the decade in the top hits of June 1980. But maybe if you listen hard…

5. “Let’s Get Serious” by Jermaine Jackson
Michael Jackson began 1980 at the top of the R&B charts for a six-week stretch with his hit “Rock With You.” He would not be the only Jackson brother to achieve that success. Jermaine did the same for six weeks, from May to June. Whereas brother Michael reached the top spot on the Hot 100 too, Jermaine only made the top 10. Brother Michael would soon rise to be the biggest recording star in history; this was Jermaine’s biggest hit. Everything I’ve just written——talking about Jermaine Jackson entirely in comparison to his brother Michael——is completely unfair to Jermaine Jackson as an artist. It’s also reflective of his entire career. The song was written by Stevie Wonder, who also offers some vocal support.

4. “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” by The S.O.S. Band
Let me apologize now for what I’m sure is going to be a frequently written statement for the next few weeks, as I write about early 80s music. This song was a big hit, one we loved to hear played at the roller skating venue we frequented. And that’s saying a lot for a kid like me back then. You see, “the disco” was a big part of the 70s. And, for all intents and purposes, roller skating joints were the discos for kids who could not yet go to a proper disco. They were windowless warehouses lit with bright color lights flashing on and off——with a big disco ball hanging in the middle of the rink——where kids went to meet other kids and have a good time dancing/skating together. We even had drinks——sodas and cherry or blue raspberry Slush Puppies (kind of like Icees). To say this about this song, then, is a form of high praise.

3. “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc.
It spent four weeks at the top of the Hot 100, from the last week of May into June. Sometime in summer 1980 my mom took me and my sister to the local record store, a chain called Licorice Pizza (do you get it kids?). She let each of us buy a 45 record (a single for you youngins), which was the first for each of us. My sister bought this. We listened to it a lot. A LOT.

2. “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” by Billy Joel
This was the 45 record I bought. It made it to #4 in June 1980, before climbing to the top of the charts for two weeks the following month. “New Wave” was big stuff and this song——seemingly a reaction to the changing trends——ironically blends some of them in to what is a punchy, swinging rock tune. We played this a little less that “Funkytown,” but not by much.

1. “Call Me” by Blondie
Debbie Harry was asked to write a song for a movie about a male prostitute. This is what she created. The new wave hit was the band’s second #1 single (after 1979’s “Heart of Glass”) and it helped make the movie American Giglo into some kind of hit (one that my 7-year-old eyes would not see for another decade. The song was in the top spot for six weeks from April into May, remaining at the #5 position until the first week of June. It came in at number one for the year end charts, too. Along with Devo’s “Whip It” and the B-52’s “Rock Lobster” this song heralded a new kind of musical sound to my young ears, accentuated by the fact that groups of teenagers I saw (usually at roller skating rinks or water slide parks or other kinds of public places all seemed to like them at almost religious levels.

Friday Five: June 1979

1979 is the high point of disco. There were 26 #1 songs on the Hot 100 that year and only about 10 of those (maybe) were not disco related. The crop of songs that made the year-end charts were heavily disco, too, although rock groups like The Knack (whose “My Sharona” ranked #1 for the year) were also represented.

While I like a lot of disco, especially the funk/soul stuff, it’s not my favorite work for the time.  I’m much more partial to the classic rock of the era—Van Halen, AC/DC,  Foreigner—or the non-disco pop stuff (like the B-52’s, whose debut album dropped in 1979).

That said, the tunes that made the top five in June of that year were some solid examples of the genre.

5. “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer
Her album Bad Girls was her biggest selling work, made so by hit singles like the title track (a #1 song in July) and this #1 hit of June 1979. The album——like the song——is filled with things a seven year-old kid and his sister shouldn’t have been singing and dancing to, but what ‘cha gonna do? It was one of our most often played albums of the year, due in no small part to this song, a dance classic with a strong guitar lick that kicks off the entire album. It hit the top spot on the Hot 100 for three non-consecutive weeks in June.

4. “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge
It’s an iconic song, one whose message of female solidarity and love allows it to transcend the limits of the genre and the era. Written by Niles Rogers, it’s a party song with an uplifting melody and lyrics with malleable meanings, a combo that carried it to #1 on the R&B charts. Rogers wrote it to describe the group itself (as they describe themselves to him) but it had powerful meanings for gay liberation movements and others as well. One of my favorite songs to hear anytime.

3. “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead
Gene McFadden and John Whitehead were song writers who wrote hits for the O’Jays, The Jacksons, and others. When they finally released their own album in 1979, this was their biggest hit, topping the R&B charts for the first week of June. A song of optimism and celebration meant to communicate the status of Black America in the post-Civil Rights era, it’s an indelible anthem and a likable dance tune. Here’s the duo lip syncing the hit on Soul Train.

2. “Chuck E.’s in Love” by Ricki Lee Jones
Ricki Lee Jones released her debut album in 1979 and this song——about fellow songwriter and musician Chuck E. Weiss——was her biggest single, topping out at #4 on the Hot 100. Jones’s talent had gained her a set of allies and advocates in the industry. Dr. John, Michael McDonald, and Randy Newman all made guest appearances on her first album. She was also part of a unique, late-70s music scene in LA. She was dating Tom Waits at the time, and they lived in now legendary dump of a place called the Tropicana Motel, along with fellow residents Weiss, as well as members of Black Flag, The Stray Cats, and The Runaways. It’s a unique sounding song, with a catchy riff, and an example of the non-disco stuff that had success at the time.

1. “Boogie Wonderland” by Earth, Wind, & Fire
Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” was the biggest disco hit of the month. It spent two weeks atop the Hot 100 and five weeks at #1 on the R&B charts. Her success on the R&B charts kept Earth, Wind & Fire out of the top spot with this song. From the album I Am, “Boogie Wonderland” is a disco classic but also a less of a “timeless” song than their bigger hits of the era (or even “After the Love Has Gone,” from the same album). Still, it holds a special place in my upbringing. I have memories of my folks getting ready to go out on a date night (maybe even to a local disco) and me and my sister would be playing this album (and this song) making our own fun for the night by jumping around the house of pretending to be professional dancers. As impactful as the music to me was the Afro-centric art that graced the cover and inner fold of the album.

Friday Five: May 1978

I turned six years old in 1978, which means I actually remember some of the music. I wasn’t old enough to control much of what I heard——most of what I listened to would have been the music that older folks around me listened to——but I was old enough to like things and start to exercise some choice.

5. “On Broadway” by George Benson
I love George Benson. I have a distinct memory of my uncle Frank playing George Benson and Chuck Mangione around this time and I liked what my uncle like. Benson is an underrated vocalist; he’s one of the greats of his era. Of course, he’s also a skilled jazz guitarist. The combination of the two took him to both critical and popular success in the mid-70s. This track (from his live album Weekend in L.A.) reached #2 on the R&B charts in May 1978.

4. “Use Ta Be My Girl” by the O’Jays
It has a guitar intro that has a Latin flavor and a whole bunch of disco leanings but it’s the vocal stylings of the O’Jays (who by this time were Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, and Sammy Strain, who replaced original member William Powell after his death in 1977) that makes this a classic R&B tune. It spent five weeks at #1 on the R&B charts, their last hit record ever.

3. “The Closer I Get to You” by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway
Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway are good stuff when they’re on the own. They’re even better together. The two friends (they met at Howard University in the mid-60s) recorded together often. This would be their last duet, although each recorded their parts separately. Hathaway’s mental health struggles kept him from joining Flack in the studio. It would be his final hit record, topping the R&B charts in April and lingering at #5 in early May. It also peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 in May.

2. “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees
No group came to symbolize the era of disco more than the Bee Gees. As a result, no group suffered more when the anti-disco backlash took hold. I think history came back around to respecting and celebrating them a decade or two later, and I’m glad. Their R&B (and even funk) foundations produced a gaggle of hits——songs whose quality shows through even when you strip away the disco elements. Of course, this one is pure disco. The film Saturday Night Fever came out in December 1977 and by January it produced the first of three #1 hits for the Bee Gees. This was the biggest of the three, reaching #1 in March where it stayed for eight weeks, ending its run in early May. I was only 6——too young to see the movie——but I was old enough to know it was the movie everyone was seeing. I remember talking about it with my godparents’ granddaughter, who was a few years older and so saw the film, as we listened to her album of the soundtrack.

1. “You’re the One that I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John
I was old enough to see John Travolta’s other hit movie that year, Grease. (Actually, I probably wasn’t old enough but most of the sex stuff went over my head, as it likely did for my Spanish-speaking grandma who took us to see it multiple times.) The Grease soundtrack was undoubtedly the most played album in the Sandoval house for 1978. This song hit the #3 spot on the Hot 100 in May before peaking at #1 in early June——right when the movie was released. That means the song was released before the film! It’s the climax of the movie, when good-girl Sandy finally goes bad.