In this issue of Banter M: Why I Stopped Covering Snowden and the NSA Story – Bob Cesca on Glenn Greenwald and Ed Snowden fatigue. Lessons Learned, and the Science Behind Ayahuasca – Ben Cohen concludes his journey with Ayahuasca and looks at the science behind psychedelicsWhere Is My Mind?- Chez Pazienza on his traumatic experience finding a brain tumor. Why I Stopped Covering Snowden and the NSA Storyby Bob CescaTwo years ago this month, Glenn Greenwald published the first of many articles in
Why I Stopped Covering Snowden and the NSA Story
by Bob Cesca
Two years ago this month, Glenn Greenwald published the first of many articles in The Guardian and, subsequently, The Intercept based on stolen top secret documents provided to him by Edward Snowden. Two years later, I simply can’t muster the enthusiasm to publish anything else about the story, especially after having published what, in hindsight, was perhaps too many articles about the story.
I stand by every word, but the fact of the matter is that after an entire year covering the story up close, I don’t have anything else to add. At this point, how many different ways can I write about how shitty the reporting was? How many more articles, beyond the first 150, can I honestly and enthusiastically dedicate to the ridiculous game-of-telephone that we witnessed on too many occasions — when a sensational, speculative headline morphed into “facts?” At the end of the day, my role was all about reporting on the reporting. It was deadly serious territory and it was being reported with a sort of recklessness and in a way that seemed incomplete and coy.
I have no particular loyalty to the National Security Agency, but what I wasn’t about to do was to climb aboard the outrage machine, rending garments and going full conspiracy theorist when the digital journalism I was reading didn’t seem to add up. And since I was familiar with the work of some of the journalists responsible for it, I understood the agenda. It was so obvious to me what was happening with the reporting, it was difficult to focus on anything else.
While I have a voracious appetite for writing about and covering politics, there was something about this particular story that became repetitive and predictable, especially once some of us had cracked the code (no pun intended). It’s almost impossible to get into a debate with nihilists who simply believed that the entire system had to be upended — consequences be damned. Every day became a shovel fight with tea party trolls on one hand, and Snowden zealots telling me it’d be great if we could tear down the government and the two-party system and how, somehow, progressivism would emerge from the chaos and destruction.
But here’s what ultimately ended my coverage. It was frankly a combination of, one, not wanting to sound repetitive and predictable, and, two, the fact that I actually really, really liked Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour. I don’t know if that means it was an effective propaganda piece or what, but while I still have strong convictions about the online publishing about the story, the movie effectively disarmed whatever drive I had to continuously write the same takedowns over and over because for the first time, I was actually attracted to work that involved Snowden, Greenwald, The Guardian and especially Poitras. The latter of whom, Laura Poitras, is genuinely a gifted filmmaker who made a deservedly award-winning film.
When I reviewed the movie for The Daily Banter, I added at the end of the review that I had gone so far as to write to Glenn Greenwald to congratulate him on the film’s Oscar victory and to pass along my congratulations (for what it was worth) to Poitras. And surprisingly, Greenwald was both gracious and accepting of my complimentary remarks, and he promised to pass them along to Poitras. Now, it’s entirely possible he didn’t know who I was or what I had written about his journalism. Either way, his non-characteristic politeness was, admittedly, another disarming factor. While my visibility is nowhere near the same level as Greenwald, for a moment it felt oddly like we two soldiers from opposing armies shaking hands across the trench wall.
Don’t get me wrong. The temporary sense of detente aside, I still feel the same about Greenwald’s reporting as I did two years ago. And while I never really cared much about whether he’s an asshole or not, contra my friend Charlie Pierce who thought I did care, it occurred to me that he could’ve been an asshole to me via email, or he simply could’ve ignored me. He didn’t. And that meant something to me. I also realized to a certain extent that, at that moment, Oscar night, it was arguably the beginning of the end of the Snowden story as a front-page item. There are one or two more movies in the works, sure, but it’ll be surprising if either reaches the same level of notoriety as Citizenfour.
Meanwhile, the story has been self-sequestered within its own niche. It’s difficult to dedicate too much time to a topic that’s out of solid rocket fuel, and which few people outside that bubble actually pay attention to.
And that’s really the shame of how it all went down. Delicately handled, there could’ve been an opportunity for serious NSA reform and additional (underscore additional) civil liberties safeguards. Contrary to the kneejerk conclusions of a few Twitter trolls, I’ve always and consistently supported augmenting safeguards against government overreach. The difference is that my liberalism is accompanied by intense skepticism of the cynical, libertarian view of government. That said, any institution can be corrupted, including NSA. The problem with the way the Snowden reporting was handled, with so much caustic antagonism, is that it wasn’t just poking the intelligence community, which is fine, it was also intentionally jabbing and scolding people like me and millions of other Americans who don’t necessarily dig the idea of crash-and-burn activism.
The story itself and the meaningful reform that should’ve emerged is basically dead. The USA Freedom Act was passed with modest reforms to metadata collection, but very little else has been done. So, in June of 2015, is there anything else to say? For me, probably not.
The Amazon rainforest
Lessons Learned, and the Science Behind Ayahuasca
by Ben Cohen
(This article is the third and final part of a series on psychedelics. Part 1 can be readhere, and part 2 here)
After I took part in my first ayahuasca ceremony, I did three more over the following days. Having gone to the jungle armed with a note pad and my phone to record voice memos, I could barely bring myself to write anything down or attempt to record anything for future reference. I scribbled on my note pad an intention after the first ceremony, saying simply “Please Mother Ayahuasca, be gentle with me tomorrow,” as some of the staff had told me when we arrived that they had had calmer experiences after asking Ayahuasca for an easier time. I had written this off as New Age nonsense before my first ceremony, but now I was listening.
The experience had been so profoundly overwhelming that all my energy was spent trying to reconcile a world view that no longer seemed applicable in any way. My experience on mushrooms had opened my to the notion that there was some sort of natural intelligence that all life was a part of, but Ayahuasca ripped that into tiny shreds and offered up something far, far more complicated and far, far more disturbing than I could have possibly imagined.
I find it hard now to distinguish between the ceremonies after the first one, mostly because I would experience Ayahuasca flashbacks throughout the day, and particularly at night. These would amplify just after ceremony, and dwindle during longer periods between. The second ceremony was again, enormously difficult and there were several points at which I thought I might die. While making a concerted effort to ‘go with it’, there appeared to be much more work to do, and the medicine continued to zone in on the fragile parts of my psyche and physical self that Ayahuasca was showing me were intrinsically linked.
The staff were truly amazing and seemed to magically appear when things got difficult, helping me breathe and stay grounded as the medicine rifled through my body and mind, working, working, working to evaporate the cultural conditioning I had gone through, crushing my ego as what I had known as reality continued to dissolve. By the third ceremony my mind was unable to muster the energy to fight this astonishing force, and as it came on, I finally allowed it to do its thing while still in the depths of the experience. Accepting the rhythm of Ayahuasca allowed me to work with it to a degree, and I had some success navigating my journey and moving away from the pain towards a state of pure tranquility. Any small deviation from this rhythm would pull me back into a state of terror and darkness that I had become all too familiar with, and the more I panicked, the further I went in. The more I gave in to it, the faster I could come out of it. Operating as some sort of finely tuned biofeedback system, I began to see Ayahuasca not as a magical medicine, but an access point by which humans could plug themselves into, or back into as it were, Mother Earth itself.
The work required to experience Ayahuasca’s magic is no joke. It was the single hardest experience of my life, and to this day I still struggle to come to terms with what happened to me. Looking back now, the particular images and experiences I went through seem less important than the overall lesson I seemed to be receiving. The experience of a traumatic rebirth, seeing alien entities, watching the jungle birth a panther then becoming that panther myself, disintegrating into language, feeling humanity’s pain through a nuclear holocaust, and experiencing love in its purest form were as real to me as anything I have ever experienced. But given the wide variation of experiences reported by those who have taken Ayahuasca, it seems naive to assume that the particular things I went through have any real meaning as it relates to what what we define as our every day reality. I can say with absolute certainty that my mind did not conjure up the vast majority of the imagery and experiences I saw and went through, and if it did, then I know absolutely nothing about myself or my subconscious. But whether they were “real” is almost a meaningless question given I can’t say whether the reality within which I am writing this story is “real”. I experienced it as reality, just as I experience this one, and there isn’t much I can do about it.
Since my experience, I have thought long and hard about whether to speak openly about Ayahuasca. I had intended to write about it before going, but having done it, the ramifications seemed infinitely more serious and potentially detrimental to my credibility as a writer. Knowing full well that much of what I am saying could be interpreted as New Age psycho babble, I know that I must tread carefully when making any claims about its benefits. But as Terence McKenna said:
In the Amazon and other places where plant hallucinogens are understood and used, you are conveyed into worlds that are appallingly different from ordinary reality. Their vividness cannot be stressed enough. They are more real than real. And that’s something that you sense intuitively. They establish an ontological priority. They are more real than real, and once you get that under your belt and let that rattle around in your mind, then the compass of your life begins to spin and you realize you are not looking in on the Other, the Other is looking in on you.
Knowing this first hand, it would be irresponsible and untruthful for me to pretend otherwise. So here I go.
Terence McKennaTerence McKennaTerence McKenna
The Shipibo people in Peru do not have a grounding in western science, so speak of Ayahuasca and the visions in terms of spirit. The Santo Daime Church in Brazil, a Catholic sect that uses Ayahuasca as a sacrament believes Ayahuasca is the literal blood of Christ. One of the guests at the retreat spoke vividly of finding her sacral chakra after ceremony. None of these descriptions mean anything to me, but I believe we all experienced the same thing, and attempt to describe it according to our own cultural conditioning. It should be noted though, that there are many, many reports of shared visions, communication between Shamans in alternate realities, and a countless tales of telepathy between people taking Ayahuasca. This makes the notion of other dimensions and undiscovered mental capacities far more serious a proposition, and I am all for scientists studying Ayahuasca and its effects as much as they possibly can.
Western science tells us very little about what Ayahuasca is, largely because research on psychedelics has been shunned by the scientific community for decades due to its illegality in the West. Thankfully, we appear to be experiencing a renaissance where serious institutions are being allowed to study them in controlled environments. As I wrote about previously the medical trials on psilocybin done in places like Johns Hopkins and Imperial College London have yielded truly astonishing results, but there is still very little on Ayahuasca. Of the few, limited studies done however, there appears to be real evidence of Ayahuasca’s healing properties. Neuroscientists at the University of Sao Paulo published results from the first clinical test of a potential therapeutic benefit for the plant based medicine. The scientists involved reported that the drink began to reduce depression in patients “within hours, and the effect was still present after three weeks”.
Another medical research paper from the Federal University of São Paulo looked into Ayahuasca’s potential for treating various cancers and found evidence that it could have a positive effect. The study looked at 9 patients who were treated traditionally and found that the majority benefited immensely from Ayahuasca. Of course more research must be done, but it is at the very least, very interesting.
These studies are hugely important if Ayahuasca and other psychedelics are to make their way into the mainstream of Western society, particularly given the connotations associated with their use. The western psychedelic community has done itself no favors over the past few decades. The orgiastic hedonism of the hippie movement created the militant backlash against psychedelics, arguably leading to their current legal status. New Age spiritualists have also developed ludicrous cultish belief systems based on personal visions and play their part in alienating themselves from intelligent people who would otherwise be interested in exploring their own consciousness. Psychedelics are in dire need of some scientific and intellectual credibility, and in the West this can only come about if rational, intelligent people begin to speak openly about them.
Having reintegrated myself as best I can back into life in the West, I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I cannot convince everyone of Ayahuasca’s power to heal, and what the ramifications of its existence truly means. I have desperately wanted to convince those I care about to experience for themselves its enormous benefits, but the resistance has often times been strong, with close friends and family taking offense at what I am saying . This is something I will need to get to grips with in the coming months, as I am coming to understand that most people are either not ready to take the plunge or just don’t want to do it regardless of its transformative benefits. Nevertheless, I will do my best to articulate what I believe Ayahuasca to be and will continue to speak about it in the hope that it may resonate at some level with those at least partially open to listen. Because as Terence McKenna said:
Our world is in danger by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness. And so to whatever degree any one of us, can bring back a small piece of the picture and contribute it to the building of the new paradigm, then we participate in the redemption of the human spirit, and that after all is what it’s really all about.
In speaking openly about it and writing this series, I hope that I too am contributing to the building of this new paradigm in some small way. Because for me, Ayahuasca allows us to hear Mother Earth — a sentient organism in deep distress because of human destruction of her bio systems. Ayahuasca and other plant psychedelics act as mediums through which we can sensitize ourselves to the earth as a living being, and once this happens, we are able to see the insanity of our wanton environmental destruction. While taking these plant medicines can be unbelievably challenging, the benefits are indescribable and life changing. While I am not fully healed from my fibromyalgia pain, I know now where it comes from and have taken steps to alleviate it. I no longer eat red meat or pork, and have an ever deepening affinity for our natural environment. Ayahuasca never stops working through you, and to this day I continue to learn from her.
The plants are there to help us, and Mother Earth is singing to us to come home. And we need to start listening before it is too late.
Where is My Mind? Part 1
by Chez Pazienza
(This is Chez Pazienza’s account of his experience having a brain tumor, originally published 12.26.06)
The First Night
“Hi. My name is Piper; I’m going to be your nurse tonight.”
The voice seems to come from out of the endless darkness.
“How are you feeling?”
More than hear myself respond, I simply feel the groan bubble up from the back of my throat, creating a harsh tremor; the vibration makes my head pound harder. I’m having trouble keeping my eyes open, so I can barely bring the lithe image into focus as it glides around my bed — careful to avoid the machines, and the tubes which hook me to them.
Once again the voice comes from nowhere.
“Are you in pain?”
I exhale and somehow manage a feeble word.
“How bad — on a scale from one to ten?”
I have no idea how to answer that. Much worse than a bad hangover; slightly better than if I’d just been shot in the head storming the beach at Normandy. I’m not quite sure how that translates into a numerical figure.
“Seven,” I say.
I open my eyes a little wider and the hazy blur sweeping around me comes into focus. I can still barely make out the features though: Short, young, possibly attractive, long hair; a girl — the kind I’d rather not have seeing me this way. I’m not sure exactly how I look, but judging by the blasts of crimson on the neck of my gown and the crusted blood on my chin, I doubt I’m ready for the cover of GQ.
For some reason, there’s an image in my head I don’t understand — a view of the 59th Street Bridge lit up at night; a view of the FDR running perpendicular to it.
I let my eyelids drift downward and allow the world to go black.
“Okay, I’m going to give you a shot of morphine,” comes the voice again.
Everything seems to disappear for a moment; there’s silence — followed by a sudden thrust of liquid fire which consumes my arm from the inside out. I gasp loudly and my body jerks up from the bed, pulling the IV tubes taut. My eyes are open wide. My heart begins racing violently. I can hear the beep of the electronic monitor sounding faster and faster — keeping time with each pulse of blood through my veins.
“What’s happening?” I can barely get the words out.
Piper has her hand on my chest now, trying to push my body back down onto the bed. “You’re having a reaction to the morphine. Just give it a minute.”
I can’t breathe; I’m trying, but I can’t.
I look directly at the young nurse’s face, which I can still barely make out, despite being just inches from mine. Her head is now nothing more than a black silhouette against what looks like an empty gun-metal sky. Wherever I am, there’s very little light. Even with my eyes open, all I see are slightly differing shades of muted grays and blacks — except for that view.
“Help me,” I cough. “Please.”
Her hand still pushes gently on my chest, as my heart-rate begins to slow — the beeping of the monitor subsiding with each pulse. My body relaxes back onto the bed; I take a deep breath. I’m numb. The pain is gone.
“Can I ask you something?” I manage.
“Am I alive?”
The silhouette remains inches away from my face. After a moment, a sliver of gray seems to grow in the center of it; it takes me an eternity to realize that it’s a smile.
“Yes, you’re alive.”
I close my eyes again and fall back into the blackness.
Eight Hours Earlier
My eyes flutter open; the room spins briefly, then comes into a soft focus. I hold my hand up to block out the bright light streaming in through the waiting room windows. Outside, the sun is rising over the East River and New York City is waking to what will surely be a gorgeous day. I unfortunately will be having none of it; my schedule’s full for the next several hours.
I stretch slightly — rolling my shoulders — and turn my head to the left. The softness of my wife’s hair envelops my nose and I breathe deeply, reaching my right hand around her face and running my fingers through the dark brown tousle. I can feel her breath on my arm as her head continues to rest on my shoulder. Across the room, my mother and father sit facing me; they’re wearing anxious smiles.
“You were out pretty good there,” my father says.
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
“Can we get you anything?”
“How about a ride home?”
“Nope. Can’t do that, son.”
I lift my arm to glance at my watch and it pulls the line on the IV I’m attached to; I’d better get used to this kind of restricted movement. It’s just after 10:30am; I’ve been waiting here along with my parents, my wife and her parents for the past four hours. My surgery was scheduled to begin just before seven. So far the only eventful things that have happened to me since my arrival involve me trading in my clothes for a flimsy hospital gown, getting hooked up to a saline drip and answering some questions about my past drug use. I fail to see how anything I did to destroy my mind and body six years ago has anything to do with why I’m here today. Then again, I was stupid enough to carpet-bomb my bloodstream with an awe-inspiring arsenal of opiates for an extended period of time; I’m obviously not very bright.
My wife nuzzles her head into my neck and turns to look up at me.
“Are you alright?”
I pause for a moment, realizing that I have a responsibility to be steadfast — strong. “Yeah, I’m okay,” I say with an easy smile — one which I hope distracts from the terror in my eyes.
I’m having a brain tumor removed today.
It’s approximately the size of a pinball and has rested itself directly atop my pituitary gland, where it’s begun destroying the nerve-center which controls my body’s hormone output. My entire physical being has essentially been going haywire since it moved in and decided to do to my head what The Who used to do to their hotel rooms.
I became aware of the unwanted guest in my brain about three weeks ago; that was when the headache began. It was manageable at first — although unusual because a full-night’s sleep did nothing to make it subside. I took Advil. I went to work. I tried to ignore it. And then it got worse — much worse.
By just after noon, I could barely move; it felt as if someone were hitting me in the face with a sledgehammer each time blood pumped into my brain. I slowly shuffled over to my supervisor’s office and explained the situation to him — that I was in excruciating pain. I told him that I was going home.
The following eighteen hours were indescribable. The headache continued to get worse, no matter how many Advil I took or how much I tried to relax. By the time the sun went down and my bedroom was submerged in darkness, the pain was so bad that it felt like my sinuses were being eaten by bacteria from the inside out. I truly assumed that at some point I would reach up and find a new hole in my face — the escape route for whatever was devouring my flesh.
I moaned loudly during the night, unable to sleep and instead counting off the hours to sunrise — when I could drag my racked body into Lower Manhattan to see my doctor. I had convinced myself that a trip to the emergency room for a headache would simply end with a six-hour stay in a busy waiting room; it would do far more harm than good.
As it turned out, my doctor did little to help me; she gave me a prescription for a codeine painkiller and ordered a CT scan for the following day.
When I got back home from her office, I downed six of the pills and drifted off — the pain ebbing only slightly.
The next day, the suffering continued. The CT scan showed nothing.
It was the day after that — the fourth day of extraordinary agony — that I was sent in for an MRI.
It was then that I finally found out what was happening to me.
“Well, I can tell you what’s wrong with you,” the technician said.
I just stared at him — my eyes opening and closing in slow-motion. I seemed to be fading in and out of consciousness as my body tried to shut itself down to escape the perpetual torture.
“You’ve got a brain tumor,” he continued. “And it’s hemorrhaging into your head.”
“Am I going to die?” I asked.
“Probably not. It doesn’t look cancerous.”
Two hours later, my wife and I were at New York Presbyterian-Cornell Medical Center on the Upper East Side. She was in tears; I was being prepped for surgery. It was only at the last minute that a young doctor in a smart suit pulled aside the curtain to my little room, took a look at my MRI and brought everything to a grinding halt. He said that I was a perfect candidate for a minimally-invasive tumor removal technique which would involve neurosurgeons entering my head through my nose rather than cutting open my skull. He ordered me put on blood-platelets to stop the hemorrhage, Vicodin to kill the pain, and steroids to shrink the tumor as much as possible. He scheduled me for surgery in three weeks.
In the far corner of the waiting room there’s a young Orthodox Jew and his mother, sitting and filling out paperwork. Moments ago, she was casually brushing off his shoulders as he rocked in his seat — reading the Torah, probably for the twentieth time this week. He tried to pull away from her, but she refused to relent — no doubt wanting him to be clean and presentable, should he wind up face to face with Yahweh in a few hours. It was the kind of stereotype which is always associated with New York City, but which is hard to believe actually exists.
My parents and Jayne’s parents seem to be enjoying the surreal distraction.
It’s then that the doors open, and the nurse walks in and calls my name.
My wife begins to cry as I stand up. My family walks toward me and, one-at-a-time, gives me what I can only hope will not be one last hug. I pull away and shuffle toward the door, my wife holding my hand. She turns my head toward her face a final time and allows me a parting look at her smile — the view I’ll take with me into oblivion. She looks like she’s about to collapse, so I put my arms around her, once again pulling the IV line, and hold her tightly.
“I love you. Don’t worry. I’ll see you in a few hours.”
She runs her hand down my face. “Come back to me,” she says.
I squeeze her hand one last time, wave at my family, and allow the door to the waiting room to close behind me. I follow the nurse down the long hall — concentrating on the little swishing sounds my hospital-provided footies are making on the tile floor. I try to think of my wife. My heart is beginning to pound. I take deep breaths.
“Don’t I get a gurney or something?”
The nurse glances over her shoulder. “No, we need to keep you awake and alert to go over the final paperwork; you need to sign it before we can get underway.”
“Lovely,” I say. “So I guess a shot of liquid Valium is pretty much out of the question then?”
“We’ll get you something as soon as we get you into the O.R.”
WE’RE not the ones who are about to have a fucking brain tumor cut out of OUR head, lady.
After a few more steps, we arrive at a set of angry, steel double-doors. Yellow and black stickers warn potential interlopers that they are about to enter an operational neuro-surgical theater, and should proceed with caution. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
I’m reading the warning when I feel something brush against my arm. I glance down and see a manila file folder open — several thick sheets of paper visible within.
“I need you to sign where marked please.”
The blood in my veins feels as if it’s being pumped through a firehose; it’s making my whole body shake. I’m terrified beyond words. Without paying any real attention, I numbly sign each slip of paper and hand the folder back to the nurse. She gives me a carefully rehearsed smile and turns to face me completely.
I say nothing.
With that, she spins briskly around and the steel doors open inward — revealing a sight which causes me to immediately fight the urge to vomit. I can suddenly hear the blood thrumming in my ears as my heart pumps it at a painful rate. I begin to shake uncontrollably.
The operating theater is massive. It has a high ceiling from which hang rows of halogen spotlights. They augment the long fluorescent bulbs already bathing the entire room in harsh white light. There’s movement everywhere; technicians and nurses busy themselves in preparation for the procedure — adjusting electronic machinery, placing vials of chemicals in rows and lining up trays of scalpels and knives whose blades gleam in the bright light beaming down from above.
I see the computer monitor which will be used to track the progress as the surgeon inserts the camera and micro-instruments up toward my brain. It sits at the head of the room’s centerpiece: a large bed, with padded arms that extend outward so that the entire thing resembles a crucifix — or the bed on which death row inmates are executed by lethal injection.
I’m shaking to the point where it’s now visibly noticeable.
“We’ll give you something to calm you in just a second,” one of the attendants says as he brushes past me.
I’m about to collapse onto the cold floor.
I hear someone ask where my neurosurgeon is; no one seems to know.
I want to close my eyes and disappear.
A nurse seems to appear from out of nowhere on my left and touches my arm. “We need to get you up on the bed; are you ready?”
I don’t answer, choosing instead to simply crawl onto the crucifix and lie down on my back like a good little martyr.
“Spread your arms, please,” I hear someone ask.
I do as I’m told — taking a deep breath and somehow pulling a few small words up from deep inside of me.
“Can I please have something to calm me?” I say, barely above a whisper.
A nurse on either side of me grabs one of my arms and straps it down to the furthest end of the transom until both are secure. I can literally hear the sound of each powerful heartbeat.
Someone touches me — straightening out the fingers of my left hand. “Take a deep breath. This is going to hurt,” he says — and then slides a needle into the soft skin of my wrist. I clench my teeth and muffle a scream. The chaos and movement continue around me, seemingly oblivious to my presence. I just want to vanish from here. I just want to sleep.
I glance over to my left again, and there’s a heavy IV line protruding from the needle in my wrist; I can see the shank deep inside my vein. The person who just inserted it seems to be examining his handiwork.
He turns his face toward me.
“I’m going to give you something to relax you — okay?”
I turn my head away from him and face forward — toward the ceiling. The brightness from the halogen bulbs burns my eyes; I close them and think of my wife’s face. I wish she were here.
I suddenly feel something cold push into my vein, beginning at the wrist and moving quickly up my arm.
I see my wife’s face.
The light begins to burn my eyes once again — only this time my eyes aren’t open.
I float for a moment. The chaos and noise around me disappears. There’s complete silence.
I see my wife’s face.
Somewhere, the order is given for the Faster-Than-Light jump.
The world goes white in a blinding flash.
I feel the bed shake as it slams through a set of double doors. I’m coughing violently and I can’t breathe through my nose. I see my wife’s face, only now it’s speaking to me.
“You’re alright. You made it,” it says. “We have to go. They say we can’t stay through the night in ICU.” I’m not sure who she’s talking about. I have no idea where I am. She kisses me and then disappears from sight.
The bed jolts as it hits another set of double doors and enters a darkened room, coming to rest directly in front of a large floor-to-ceiling window. The view beyond is spectacular — if it’s actually real and not simply my imagination. It’s a bridge, and a highway with cars streaking along it. The sun has just set, and the skeletal structure of the bridge has come alive with pinpoint lights.
I hear several voices speaking — the volume of their words rising and falling. I get only bits and pieces.
“…a history of drug use…”
“…should be alright…”
Then there’s silence. I’m alone with only the view of the bridge and the highway, the beeping of the machines and an unmistakable song floating through my head. It’s Radiohead’s Lucky.
An eternity goes by.
I hear someone approach from out of my view — feel the almost imperceptible changes in the air.
I close my eyes.
The voice seems to come from out of the darkness.
“Hi. My name is Piper. I’m going to be your nurse tonight.”
The Next Morning
“Well they encourage your complete cooperation. Send you roses when they think you need to smile. I can’t control myself because I don’t know how, and they love me for it, honestly, I’ll be here for awhile.”
I’m counting the holes in the ceiling tiles.
I’m listening to the quiet pulse of the heart monitor.
I’m desperately in need of sleep.
About an hour ago, the heavy bed that’s held my racked body since the faster-than-light jump that swept me from the terror of the operating table to the Neurosurgical-ICU was wheeled up to what they call the “secondary” intensive care unit. My picturesque view — the glowing bridge and highway — is gone, replaced by an immeasurably less picturesque view of a man named Miguel. My bed has been planted — monitors and all — directly across from his so that we now face each other. It should be easy to stare him down should it come to that, being that whatever happened deep in the recesses of Miguel’s brain has left him unable to open his right eye. It remains folded shut in an eerie, perpetual wink.
I realize that I’ve lost count of the holes.
I feel my eyes close and try one more time to drift off to sleep, knowing full-well that it’s impossible right now. If the half-dozen tubes restricting my movement weren’t enough to prevent me from getting comfortable enough to truly rest, then the hydraulic wraps around my calves which inflate every sixty seconds to push blood through my legs would do the trick nicely. The pressure from the leggings prevents my blood from clotting and me from consequently going into cardiac arrest and dying in this bed — with Miguel giving me one final devilish wink to send me on my way to oblivion.
I silently wish to be back in the quiet ICU room with the astonishing view. I’m going to be in pain either way; better I be in pain in near-silence.
I don’t know at what point it dawned on me exactly what it was that was spread out so beautifully outside of my window — at what point I regained even a sliver of true lucidity. I now know though that from that room I watched as the darkness enveloped the 59th Street bridge. I watched the headlights of the cars speeding under it along the FDR — watched them thin as time passed and New York City fell deeper into the night. I counted the minutes until dawn, hoping that at some point sleep would come — but it never did. Instead I stayed awake throughout the entire night, terrified and alone — the steely taste of my own blood dripping down from my punctured brain, through the cotton compresses plugged deep into my sinuses, and into my parched mouth.
Every half-hour or so, the young nurse — Piper — would enter my room from a door I couldn’t see, take my vitals and ask me if I needed anything. I asked for water. I asked for morphine, despite the frightening reaction my body seemed to have to it. At one point she placed a warm blanket over me and I realized that it did nothing to stop my uncontrollable shaking; my entire being seemed to be spasming, and wouldn’t stop. I asked her for another blanket — and another. I was cold. I was shaking and shaking and shaking and nothing would stop it. Nothing. I was scared. I was terrified. I wanted someone to hold my hand. I wanted someone to tell me that everything was going to be alright. I wanted to close my eyes, get up, and slip through that giant window like a ghost and float away into the night — over the city, to someplace far away. I wanted to fly. I wanted to disappear.
But then there would be the rhythm of the monitor — the whisper of the leggings inflating. There would be the sudden awareness of the painful needle shanks in my veins and arteries and the taste of the blood and the feel of it on my cracked lips and the fear would return, and I would return to the bed that held me trapped. I’d ask for more water, and more blankets and more morphine. I’d ask Piper to talk to me — to reassure me. I’d once again be able to make out just the slightest hint of her smile in all that endless darkness — with just the electric light from outside to bathe the room in a hint of color — and she’d tell me that I was doing fine.
She’d tell me that the operation was a complete success.
The tumor that had been eating away at my brain was gone.
“How are you feeling?”
A nurse’s voice brings me back to this moment. I’m in the secondary ICU. I can’t sleep.
“Peachy,” I manage — barely. “I’m tired.”
She whisks around my bed and begins checking the readouts on the various machines to which I’m hooked.
“Do you know where you are?” she says as she adjusts my IV.
“Nowhere I want to be,” I say, then thinking the better of it — “Hospital. Cornell Medical Center.” Despite the languid ebb and flow of my awareness, I’m cognizant of the fact that this woman deals with enough shit — figurative and literal — that antagonizing her is neither fair nor wise. Thankfully, when she comes back into my field of view again, I notice she’s smiling slightly.
“Do you know what day it is?” she asks.
I glance slightly to the left of her as she picks up the chart attached to the foot of the bed.
“It’s April 28th, 2006.”
“Yes it is,” she says without looking up from the clipboard.
“I know that because it’s written on the rotation board to your right.”
She smiles — checks off points on the chart.
“Very good,” she says. “Can you tell me who’s president?”
“Fucking idiot,” I say, actually managing a hint of a smirk.
“I’ll count that as a yes,” she responds, placing the clipboard back on the hook at the foot of the bed and — in the time it takes me to slowly close my eyes and reopen them — appearing at my bedside.
She shines a bright pen-light into my eyes; it feels like it’s burning a hole through to my sore and damaged brain. She clicks it off and I can still see the purple and black sun seared into my retinas. Somewhere behind it she holds up her index finger.
“Follow my finger without moving your head. Eyes only.”
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I do as I’m told: side to side, up and down.
“You seem to be doing well,” she says. “Are you in any pain?”
“My head’s pounding.” I whisper now. “Needles hurt.”
She pushes past another nurse who’s come to fill a tiny styrofoam cup on my sliding table with water. Before I can even react, she’s pulling the surgical tape from the heavy IV line which was inserted into the tender skin of my left wrist just before the surgery — before everything went white. I feel the soft hairs being ripped away. All I can manage is a pained whimper.
“Okay, hold on tight,” she says. “We’re going to pull your A-line. This runs directly into your artery. You shouldn’t need it anymore.”
I have nothing to hold on to, but I close my eyes tightly and try to will myself away from here. In one sudden motion, I feel the shank deep in my vein slide out and the excruciating pressure from her thumb as it flattens a cotton ball into the open wound. Flashes of color dance behind my eyelids. I exhale stale air through clenched teeth. She wraps new surgical tape around my wrist.
I allow my eyes to relax without opening them, and the strange shapes projected against the inside of my eyelids seem to diffuse, then vanish. I finally fade away.
“So give them blood. Blood. Gallons of the stuff. Give them all that they can drink and it will never be enough. So give them blood. Blood. Blood. Grab a glass because there’s going to be a flood.”
I feel something gently stroke the inside of my palm — a light touch. I slowly open my eyes to see a face. It’s glowing bright white. As it comes into a wet focus, I realize that it’s my wife. The light is coming through the window next to my bed and illuminating her soft features. She smiles.
“Hi, baby,” she says. “How are you feeling?”
What begins as a groan evolves into actual words: “Better now.” I smile as best I can.
I can see tears beginning to pool in her eyes. I reach up and touch her face; her skin is soft — even softer than I remember. I look over her shoulder and realize that my mother and father are standing behind her; they’re both wearing reassuring smiles. Before I can even find another word, my eyes drift downward. The room blurs. Sound tunnels away. Everything goes black.
The next thing I hear is a voice. It comes from somewhere in a dream.
“Chez,” it says. “Chez. You have to wake up.”
A slightly darker room than the one I remember emerges from the pitch blackness. To my immediate left, the sun is setting over the East River. My wife is still at my side, but it’s the nurse’s voice that’s dragging me — kicking and screaming — back to the waking world.
“I have some bad news,” she says. “The doctor wants us to begin taking blood from you every four hours. We need your arm.”
Before I’m even awake enough to know what’s happening, I feel the latex strap (they asked me if I’m allergic to latex, didn’t they?) tighten around my arm; the cold swab of alcohol is rubbed into the crux of my left arm; the needle slips in. I wince — curse — awaken fully.
“I have all these tubes in me. There isn’t one you can just plug into?” I seethe.
“Well, that’s the bad news. We removed your A-line, so that means that we have to find a new vein each time. The rest of your lines are for putting fluids in, not for taking them out.”
I turn over slightly, attempting to bury my face in my pillow but unwittingly pulling my IVs taut — putting me in even more pain.
“You’re kidding me,” I moan into the pillow.
“I wish I was.”
The nurse folds my arm, squeezing a fresh cotton ball into place. “Motherfucker,” I whisper. I glance over to see my wife’s face; her expression is a concerned pout.
By this time tomorrow, they will have practically run out of places to insert a needle into me. I’ll overhear the nurse saying that several of my veins are in danger of collapsing.
“A celebrated man amongst the gurneys. They can fix me proper with a bit of luck. The doctors and the nurses they adore me so, but it’s really quite alarming ’cause I’m such an awful fuck.”
I’ve devised a plan; I’m going to get out of here.
My arms are bruised black and blue from needle punctures. Last night at around 3am, I was awakened by a large black man with a picnic basket full of test-tubes and needles and the bedside manor of Ed Gein. He attempted to physically roll me over and put a syringe into my arm, but I managed to knock it out of his hand. “I can get security in here if I have to,” he said. “You better hope they’re armed,” I returned with a furious sneer. This exchange was promptly followed by a blackout, which was promptly followed by my coming to just in time to see a nurse inserting something into my IV.
“What is that?”
Before she could even answer, I felt my arm catch on fire — felt it spread throughout my body. I was being burned alive from the inside out. I opened my mouth in a grisly silent scream. There was molten lava flowing through my veins — boiling my blood as it consumed me whole.
“Magnesium,” I heard her say over the sound of every molecule in my body exploding, one after the other.
Now it’s morning again and I’m being allowed to shower for the first time in four days. I’m unhooked from the monitors — wondering for a moment if the nurse’s station will suddenly light up like a pinball machine at word that one of the patients’ hearts has apparently stopped cold — and am marched off to the bathroom, along with my IV stands and catheter. If there’s a more pathetic or embarrassing situation short of shitting yourself, I’m unaware of it.
I somehow figure out a way to shower and shave, ridding myself of both the smell of stagnation and the ratty castaway-chic beard I’ve been cultivating for the past several days, then return to my bed to find one of my nurses — unfortunately, a young, attractive one — waiting for me with a forced smile on her face.
“What’d my payment not go through?” I say as I lie back down.
“Nope. Time to take your catheter out.”
One of the few true blessings in all of this is the fact that I was knocked out when they inserted both a lumbar puncture into my spine, and a catheter into my penis. For this, I will always be thankful.
“You know, I haven’t looked at it once.”
“Nope. God knows if there’s one image I don’t want lingering in my brain, it’s my shriveled wee-wee with a tube sticking out of it,” I say. “Couldn’t they have at least sent one of the seventy-year-old nurses to take this thing out? Spare me the embarrassment?”
“Sorry — I’ll have to do,” she says with that synthetically sweet smile. She reaches down along the side of my bed as I close my eyes and begin thinking about kittens and butterflies and long, white beaches and star-filled skies and Liverpool’s 2005 victory over AC Milan in the Champions League finals and the new Shelby GT and Maria Bello in leather pants in Coyote Ugly and Pearl Jam’s cover of the Who’s Baba O’Reilly and my wife stepping out of the shower in the morning and any other goddamned thing I can call to mind to distract myself from the twelve inch tube and deflated balloon that’s about to be pulled through the end of my dick.
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I hear her say the words, “Hang on,” then feel razor wire shred my urethra.
My pelvis jolts forward and I muffle a scream which degenerates into a cruel laugh.
“Oh you’re fucking evil,” I hiss.
“Had to be done,” she returns with a look that borders on satisfaction. “Now comes the fun part. If you don’t urinate within the next few hours, we have to put the catheter back in.” As I furiously try to rub the pain out of my wounded penis, she looks right into my eyes — no doubt to lend the necessary gravity to her next statement. “That’s going to hurt — a lot.”
I reach over and grab a plastic bottle which is now hooked to my bedside, put it under the covers and begin pissing like I’ve just downed a gallon of iced-tea. It burns like hell.
“I guess that settles that,” I say, looking directly at her.
“I gave you blood. Blood. Gallons of the stuff. I gave you all that you could drink and it has never been enough. I gave you blood. Blood. Blood. I’m the kind of human wreckage that you love.”
With my shower and shave behind me, I now look presentable for the various doctors who see me intermittently throughout the day and night — the doctors I’m now trying to actively convince to allow me to leave the hospital so that I might be able to go home and get some real sleep. I’ve memorized their rounds and make sure that I’m always chipper and alert when they show up at my bedside — typically in small packs — to stare in fascination at their prize monkey. In the moments before they make an appearance, I sit up straight, open my laptop and slip in an episode of Firefly on DVD. I smile wide when I see them. I tell them the truth: I feel surprisingly good — especially for somebody who had brain surgery four days ago.
Across from me, I see the typical lethargic movements of Dead-eye Miguel — his right eye now held open by a piece of surgical tape which secures his eyelid to his brow. Across the top of his head — running from ear-to-ear — is an unbroken line of dull metal staples. Next to him is a newcomer to our little melting pot of brain stew. His name is Mr. Yu. He’s a diminutive Asian man who smiles constantly and doesn’t speak a word of English. His family tends to visit in groups of seventeen at a time, which means that at least twice a day, the secondary neurosurgical-ICU at Cornell Medical Center is transformed into an episode of MXC, complete with the requisite high-pitched squealing and howls of surreal laughter. All that’s missing is a monitor lizard and young girls in bikinis with raw meat taped to their legs.
“You’re going home in the morning,” Nurse Cockripper says as she suddenly appears at my bedside. “Doctor Schwartz just cleared you. We’re moving you to a private room for the night.”
“But I’ll miss happy fun sexy recovery party!” I say with a deliriously exaggerated smile.
She responds to my obvious sarcasm with a wan smirk and begins unhooking my monitors, eventually leaving only the saline drip which is plugged into my right arm.
“Can I ask you a kind of personal question?” I say as she begins to walk away. She turns around and faces me, putting a hand on her hip like a greasy-spoon waitress who wants to rid herself of a last, loitering customer.
“I couldn’t help but overhear you yesterday, talking to the other nurse about some problem you were having with a guy you were dating — how he didn’t understand your job.” If there’s one thing I have plenty of time to do, it’s listen to what’s going in the world beyond the partially-drawn curtain that separates my bed from the others. I’m not sure how to specifically ask what I want to ask, so I make a quick decision that I should probably just spit it out. “How can you even look at someone in a sexual way?” I say.
Her face softens. Her posture seems to relax.
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” I say, sitting up slightly, “you deal with every type of gruesome bodily function there is. You witness every horrid thing the human body can do — and you’re usually the one called on to clean it up. You stand waist deep in death and decay every day. So, how can you possibly leave this place at the end of each shift, go out on a date, watch somebody take off their clothes and put all of this out of your mind? How can you think of the body as something beautiful — something you actually desire?”
Her eyes widen slightly. I’m fully aware that the line is at least a good ten to twelve steps behind me. It feels as if all the ambient sound has been sucked out of the room — the single act of such impertinence creating its own vacuum. She tilts her head slightly — her hand reaching up to reassuringly touch the ends of the long blond hair which rests gently on her chest. She hesitates, then speaks.
“It’s capable of all that awfulness — it can break down completely — and then it can heal itself. It’s the most incredible machine there is. You don’t think that’s beautiful?”
Sufficiently put in my place, I smile.
As if on cue, there’s the squealing sound of sneakers on tile — the chaotic tromp of young feet across the hospital floor. I look past the nurse to see two children — a boy and girl — plow into the ward with unruly abandon. “Papi! Papi!” they shout as they make a bee-line for Miguel’s bed, jumping onto it and wrapping their arms around their father from either side. It’s now that I notice that Miguel is wearing a dark, pirate-style patch over his uncooperative right eye and an oversized Yankees hat on his head to cover the grisly row of staples. He moves slowly and carefully — his reaction to the presence of his children delayed by several seconds. It seems to take an eternity for him to fully comprehend that he’s at the center of an epic group bear-hug.
Finally, a weak and sluggish smile spreads across his face. He says something in Spanish. His words are a slurred jumble.
A woman about Miguel’s age comes into view and takes her place at his bedside, pulling up a small chair. After a moment, he turns to her — acknowledging the loving touch she gives his hand.
“What happened to him?” I ask quietly, without taking my gaze away from the strange and heartbreaking sight directly across from my bed.
“He had a tumor in his head,” I hear the nurse say. “The same kind you had.”
I immediately turn my head and face the young nurse, looking at her with an intensity I wasn’t sure I was capable of right now.
She says nothing.
I say nothing.
A few feet away, Miguel’s little children laugh for reasons all their own.
The next morning, I’m released from the hospital. I walk through the revolving door and out into a brisk morning in Manhattan. I look up to see the sunlight being split apart by the fresh spring blossoms as they begin to adorn the trees along the street.
I close my eyes and take long deep breaths.
Part 2 will appear in issue 4 of Banter M