A Bigger World, A Draining World: A Coda

It was twenty-one bitter degrees out when I went for my walk today, and the wind chill seemed determined to blow every one of those icy gusts straight up my pajama pants.  Gini had gone back home to get her phone, telling me to go on without her… but that was half a block ago, and I wasn’t sure if she was coming back.  I took tiny steps with my sneakers; each step was treacherous, with snow, ice, unexpected slopes.  My hand ached with cold because I had to clamp my hat to my head lest a gust of wind carry it away, my knuckles turning white. If I fell, I didn’t know anyone would come to get me.
And that block.  It went on forever.  A sidewalk that was an endless series of concrete squares, houses that took five minutes to shuffle past, landmarks an eternity away.
I kept walking.  Putting step after step down.
You’re larger, motherfucker, I spat in the world’s icy teeth.  You threaten to swallow me.  But I’m gonna walk you down to size.  One step at a time is how I master you.  Each step makes you smaller.  Makes you mine.
I kept walking.  Alone.  Unaided.

A Bigger World, A Draining World

I used to jog around this block, I thought.  And not even be winded when I got back home.
Yet there I was, teetering along, huffing and panting at a pace so slow our tiny dog kept looking back in puzzlement to wonder what the holdup was.  That distance, once so casually manageable, seemed like the trek to Mount Doom.  I was mentally remapping old landmarks to fit my new framing, thinking, okay, after those footprints in the cement, there’s the tree three-quarters of the way up the road.  And, if that’s true, then we’ve been doing this long enough for my shirt to be soaked in sweat and we’re not halfway done.
The world has swelled since I had my heart attack.  It is a larger place, filled with more spaces and intervals, scary in its immensity.  I remain undaunted – I know where I am, I can find my way back home – but it is like opening up your back door to discover the thatch of woods in your back yard has become a deep and dark forest, thick with tripping roots and quicksand.
It’s a bit mystical, as Gini is by my side and to her, the world is normal-sized.  I am bewitched.  To her, this is just the block around her house, and I have been transformed into a feeble patient, a withered husk to be shuffled along.  And that’s the curse.  I’m still me – my sense of humor is intact, my drive is intact, my ferocity and latching onto every opportunity is still there – it’s everything else that’s changed.  Yet she cannot see that.
To her, I’m the one who’s shrunk.
Among the disabled, there’s a popular essay short-handed as spoon theory – where you’re given so many spoons per day to use, and burn them up on mundane tasks, and when you’re out of spoons you are unable to do anything else.  But that is in many ways a bad metaphor, for there are very few places that will accept spoons as valid currency.  No, after a devastating illness your whole internal economy has been devastated, like post-war Iraq, where you used to be able to count on a steady flow of electricity and now there are storms of brownouts and whole days where your house is dark.  Things that used to be free now cost.  There was a time when nipping off to the bathroom was a gimme and I – holder of the teacup-sized bladder – could pee at will.
In this larger world, where the chair is bigger and the hallway is now the size of a city block, the effort it takes to get to the bathroom has a distinct cost.  It’s not an unpayable cost, but it is rather like arising to realize that a toll-taker has taken up residence at the end of your driveway and it’s gonna cost you a quarter every time you back out.
Yet you are still you.  Here I am, giggling at the same Big Bang Theory reruns, plotting the same stories, snarking on the usual social networks.  I’m not changed.  The world has.  It’s full of more drugs, more routines, more checkups, more doctors, and all of that is getting in the way of being who I want to be.
Yet for all of this hugeness, it’s also smaller.  Because my wife has had the trauma of watching her husband have a close-to-death experience – nothing where I was going down on the table, but having the question of Will Ferrett still be around? kicks up all sorts of ugly psychic residue, like a malicious child stomping through a well-tended garden.  You can see the stress on her face, the way she can barely concentrate on work.  Her whole future has been smeared and must be rebuilt.
It’s a smaller world for me because Gini takes her cues from me.  If I have a crying breakdown in the shower, she’s going to resonate with that like a struck fork.  If I apologize for not being able to do something, then she gets upset because, well, that’s just another reminder of how transformed I am at this instant.  She gets knocked askew when I tell her that I’m sorry that she has to do something for me, or express frustration and/or terror at a huge thing that used to be trivial, or just do anything aside from being brave.
She will bear my weaknesses, of course, because we are a loving couple.  She is here to support me.  She has not asked me to change my behavior in one iota, nor would she.  But the truth is, she’d feel a lot better if I just acted as though I was well again.  Which means if I want Gini to feel as good as possible – and of course I do – then in the middle of this hubbub, I must be stoic.  This neighborhood block, which seems to go on like a boring movie with no end credits in sight, is no big deal.  This pain is minor.  This inability to do things is, well, just part of it, for I must be chipper.
I wound her if I react the wrong way, and I want both of us to be healthy when it is all done.  And so here we are, two people absolutely committed to each other’s wellness, locked in to trying our best.  For us, it’s temporary – I will, I am told, be an ordinary feeble man in another three to four weeks, at which point the rehabilitation takes place, in which case I’ll be stronger than I was before. Which is a gratitude I carry.  This is not forever.  Unlike many of my disabled friends, I am a tourist, and will be exiting given a little luck.
But for now, I’m enspelled.  I have to go for a walk around the block today, as a part of my therapy.  I do not know how large it will be.  It could be trivial, it could be devastating.  Yet no matter how large it is, I must step out with confidence, grasp my wife’s hand, and tell her that it’s all good today.
This is love.  This pain.  This is rehabilitation and life and adoration all in a basket, and doubtlessly I’ll weaken at some point and lean on Gini because I must, and feel her strain as she takes up my load, because we’re both in love.  And in transition.  And so very, very human.


“Be careful,” I gasp, settling down onto the bed.  “My chest hasn’t stretched this far – it’s hard to breathe…”
“I’m careful,” Gini tells me.  She moves slowly, tentatively, sliding in next to me, looking to me for reassurance that she isn’t causing me pain.  My sternum was snipped open when they operated on my heart, breaking all my ribs, and as such any weight on my chest is like having them broken all over again.  She rests her head lightly on my shoulder, and I sigh.
“Not on – my belly – “I tell her, the pain in the hollow of my throat, moving her arm away from its usual resting place.  “Down here.  On my thigh.  Take my hand.”
She does.  “Does it hurt?” she asks.
“Yes,” I tell her.  “A little.  But it’s worth it.”
For the first time in two weeks, we are snuggled together.
It’s been hard to be together since the surgery – a held hand, her massaging my feet, an awkward pained hug in the kitchen.  We’re a physical couple.
“I can’t believe how sleepy I am,” she says.  I stroke her hair, feeling the muscles in her body untense, because her body finally understands what her mind has been trying to tell it: Ferrett is back.  “I’m sorry, I know you’re not tired….”
“Sleep, my love,” I tell her.  She curls up against me, relaxed in a way she hasn’t been since that first awful text I sent her two-plus weeks ago, pressing up against me, needing me in the way that I have always needed her, and as she starts to snore it is like the pound of sea on the surf, the righteous tide which we are owed, this rhythm of our bodies together again.

"What Women Respond To Is Authenticity"

My friend Dave was very authentic when, flush with excitement, he announced to all of us that he’d discovered a new way to masturbate.
Not that we’d been discussing masturbation, at all.  We were in eighth grade and this was the cafeteria at school, and even we knew this was the place to discuss Spider-Man comics and Star Wars.  But Dave sat down, bubbly with excitement, to share this new technique, which was news he was certain we’d all be eager to hear.  The trick was, he informed us, not to just yank up and down, but to roll it between your palms, like you were trying to start a fire with two twigs.  It was, he assured us in no uncertain terms, awesome.
This spurting of information was perhaps the most authentic thing I have ever witnessed.  Dave was not excited himself by the idea of us whacking it; he’d never discussed sex before insofar as far as I could recall.  No, rather, he was so caught up in this new and wonderful thing in his life that he wanted to share this newness with all of us, so that – touchingly – we could all benefit from this. This was a genuine act of friendship, in that it would have been so easy for him to keep it to himself, but then how could he live knowing that his friends’ lives were so diminished?
So you can imagine how he felt when he immediately acquired the nickname “Dry Rub” and was mocked thoroughly for this overshare until he finally graduated high school and moved to another state.  One act of authenticity = five years in the penalty box.
The reason I say this is because I saw a Tweet from an author decrying the Pick-Up Artists’ techniques.  “You know what women respond to?” he said. “Authenticity.  Do that, and you don’t need any moves.”
That is pure, stinking, liquefied bullshit.
Look, I’m authentic in what I say, and that authenticity is but one tool in my arsenal.  A powerful tool.  But pure authenticity leads to what women (and people) don’t like – nattering on about your hobbies ad infinitum, saying whatever disgusting things are on your mind, making women uncomfortable because hey, this is a very authentic squeeze on the shoulder.  Now, some of you got great instincts down at the Instinct Factory and you know what’s okay to say and what shouldn’t be said… but a lot of guys (and girls) are poor old Dave, working from very authentic and sincere intentions, and sharing all the wrong things.
What most people define as “authenticity” isn’t actually “sincere, heartfelt emotions” but rather “a core suite of sincere, heartfelt emotions run through a rigorous gamut to a) determine whether the audience is receptive to your message, then b) tailored to be of interest to that particular audience, and finally c) delivered, with a considerable blend of skill and instinct, in a way that maximizes your audience’s liking of you.”
But Authenticity itself is maybe 40% of that.  We all know nerds who blunder in to tell endless, unamusing stories to helpless crowds of people.  They are authentically convinced that these stories are great.  They are authentically telling these misogyny-strewn tales, as it represents a portion of their life.  They are authentic in that if you asked them, they would honestly answer that they thought they were entertaining and funny and what everyone there wanted to hear.
What they are lacking is that crucial feedback loop that tells them, “No, wait, you’re failing.”
I’m not a big fan of PUA techniques, but I am understanding that there are idiots gifted with excellent instincts where they were trained, either by a good family or genetics, when it’s the right time to say things.  And these people, given a privilege that benefits them in a million subtle ways they cannot possibly understand, think that anyone who has to come to these techniques via teaching must be Doing It Wrong.  Just do what I do!, said Michael Jordan, leaping onto the court.
Folks, learning to be a compelling person is hard for most people.  Luckily, most of us get the majority of our awkwardness out of us in middle school – like Dave, who I’m led to believe runs a successful business and has a lovely girlfriend and I bet if his friends heard of the “Dry Rub” incident would write it off as clumsy adolescence because Dave now is lovable and smooth and knows not to talk about whacking it unless the conversation seems to be turning that way anyway.  Yet many are slower than Dave, or learned later in life, or have to work harder to pick up on those cues that tell you, “Oh, hold on, this isn’t going well.”
And you’re not always yourself anyway.  Do I like sports or the weather?  No.  But I can converse on both fluently in small talk, because strangers expect it of me and I’ve learned that they’ll like me a lot better if I can meet them on their common ground.  Is that authentic?  Hell no.  But my desire to be friendly is authentic, and that requires me to do a few phony-ish things to bridge the gaps.
If making friends and lovers was as easy as “Be Yourself,” then every mouth-breathing nerd would be followed by scores of admirers.  Instead, it’s the much more complex message of “Be a version of yourself that people will respond positively to”… and that’s a complex dance that takes years to refine, a constantly evolving performance that wavers between inauthenticity and public disgust, a hundred thousand hard lessons learned as smiles wither and conversations shrink into awkward silences.  You learn to get around that.  You learn very artificial measures to keep a conversation going, you learn when to sit back and let other people tell their tale even thought ZOMG THIS STORY I KNOW RIGHT NOW IS WAY FUNNIER, you learn to develop interests in things you didn’t have interests before.
And if you do all of that right, then people will go, “Man, that dude/ette is authentic.
They’re not, really.  But it’s a helluva show.

So What's It Like, Recuperating From Heart Surgery?

So basically, to fix your heart, they snip through your breastbone, fling your lungs over your shoulders, strip veins from your legs, then stick tubes in your belly.  How the hell do you recover from that?
Surprisingly well, as it turns out.
Like any major surgery, your body is at the whims of your healing surges; you will be feeling fine, and then your body will go, “AIGHT, TIME TO LAY DOWN,” and you can’t argue.  But you can get up out of your chair, you can lift things up to eight pounds with your arms, and you can totter around.
You acquire a ton of various chest pains, since all your ribs were broken to get at your heart, a pain which reverberates in weird ways.  Reaching to scratch the back of your leg can produce mild shooting pains.  Twisting?  Other crackly pains.  You’re terrified some of these are ZOMG HEART PAINS, which you’re told are more pressure-like, but at this point all the pain is chestal since that’s where 80% of your wounds are, and so you’re continually in a mild freakout mode that maybe the heart surgery went poorly and oh hi Ativan, I love you, you calm me.
Walking is weird because, well, they’ve yoinked several large veins from your legs and everything has kinda shrunk around them, so your legs feel literally two sizes too small.  Take too big a step and you feel everything go unacceptably taut, like you’re a marionette and someone’s yanking on the reins. So you totter.  You’re told that about two weeks into walking suddenly it’ll all feel normal again, and you are counting the days.  Until then you feel a little wobbly on your pins, even though everyone says you look fine.
Breath comes slowly, in part because if you breathe in big, oh hello, ribs.  Walking around the kitchen twenty-five times will put you out of breath, huffing, your heart pounding more than a heart that’s had surgery should pound – or so you feel, even though the doctors tell you it’s fine.
You’ve had a lot of fluid put into your system, so you’ve been put on a diuretic – which means you’re peeing, copiously, once an hour, seemingly whether you drank any fluid or not.   You’re peeing so much they’ve put you on additional vitamins to make up for the ones you’re whizzing into the toilet.  Peeing also involves getting up, which is more exercise – except at night, when you finally give in to your body’s needs and use that stupid little plastic thing so you can pee in your sleep chair.
Recuperation: a dignity-free zone.
Truth is, though, you’re slow, and ponderous, but actually pretty functional.  You can make your own meals.  You can clean your own dishes.  There are times when you get too tired, and puppy-dog your family into lifting the chair leg for you, but you’re like a low-weight, slow-motion version of you.  You take more naps in the afternoon, and are pained in the evenings after a long day when your friends come to visit, and sleep in a chair, but it’s mostly you.  You can talk.  You can joke.  You can wheeze a bit.
You feel like your old self knitted together by sutures.  But it’s better than you thought it’d be.  You’re considering to go see a movie with your Mom tomorrow, which is ZOMG OUTSIDE, and your concentration still isn’t up to writing fiction, but it’s there.
You can see the horizon.  It’s far away.  But you’re getting there.  One laborious step at a time.
And occasionally you think: that shit really happened.  It totally did.  All that panic.  All that love.  All that pain.  It’s a Thing now, an event now forever embedded in your past, and day by day as the bruises fade it’ll become reality.  As it is, it’s still somehow too weird to really encompass properly.  43 and heart attacked?  That shit is crazy. Impossible.  Not real.
Then you get up and walk and oh, yeah, there’s the reality.