Rannie Yoo 1976 – 2009

Rannie Yoo died at home late on Sunday afternoon in San Francisco. On the message boards she referred to herself as CatsM. It stood for “cats meow.” She was 33 years old.

I first came across her posts on an online forum dedicated to patients with tumors of the parotid gland. Like many I was drawn to the love and joy and humor that was so present in her voice. I would later learn that the tone and words and wisdom that I found so compelling were as well present in her person.

She and I shared the same surgeon. I had been diagnosed with a recurrent pleomorphic adenoma at about the same time that the doctors had discovered her stage IV malignancy.

When she received the diagnosis from our surgeon, she asked him what the worst outcome was. He was a little bewildered. Well you could die, he said.

She received those words and she did more than soldier on. She proceeded to live her life with a beguiling grace. She wasn’t scared of surgery, she said. It was her job to just go to sleep and wake up. It was the surgeon’s job to get rid of this thing. And so she went even as her cancer threw everything it could at her.

After my surgery I looked her up when I returned to San Francisco for my radiation treatment. We met a few times. Although by that time her cancer had spread, she was publicly upbeat and happy. Like others in her predicament, her illness had made her feel strangely alive, perhaps more so than she had ever been. She once said that she was grateful for what was happening to her, that it was helping her become who she was. She could see clearly how much her fiancée David loved her, and how devoted he was. She was grateful to him and to her sister and to her vast network of friends and coworkers. And she was deeply sympathetic to others facing similar or even lesser conditions.

At one point I had confessed to her that I was primarily a lurker on the parotid forum – that although I found the information useful, I wasn’t necessarily seeking a community of illness. There’s a lot of love on that site, she gently cautioned. They are all really good people.

She relied on them, on us, greatly for both solace and as comrades in arms. I believe we also helped her to feel of service and to provide an arena for her to express the wonderful person that she was and and will always continue to be.

Rannie and David married five nights before she died. It was a forestalled wish that she had long been harboring. I would like to think that it was one of many wishes granted her.

With her hair gone she once described herself as looking like a shaolin monk. I will always remember her as beautiful.

It is.

So it is. ¬†I feel as if I’ve descended from second base camp to first base camp. ¬†I’m off the summit, but I still have a ways to go yet before I’m home.

My treatment finished Monday and ended in hugs with my practitioners. ¬†I celebrated at Swan’s sitting at the tile counter with a bowl of clam chowder and a pint of anchor at 9:30 in the morning. ¬†I came home and slept. ¬†I went to Spirit Rock in the evening for a meditation session and a talk.

Yesterday I did laundry and cleared my desktop and began to pack. ¬†It’s taking longer than expected. ¬†My face has a second round of red burns, my mucus still sticky and gaggy. ¬†Taste buds deadened. ¬†But overall I’ve done really really well. ¬†Remarkably well. ¬†I’m very happy.

This year began with a CT scan and a fine needle aspiration and a diagnosis.  And some of you grimaced and counseled me to belly up. And then I was strapped in.  And eight months later the ride (or at least this part of it) is almost over.  In that time: a half dozen consults,  a marathon along ocean cliffs, a run through a blizzard, trips to Phoenix, to San Francisco, a train journey to San Diego and back, travel to Salida and Beaver Creek, Colorado, and San Francisco, and Philly and Lancaster.  Adopted an Amish kitten.  Weddings and travel to New York and Vermont and Hopi and again to San Francisco.  Planting, and digging grubs and ants, and tending hundreds of plants.  Several deaths.  Massive teeth cleaning for the first time in 13 years Рthank you Hopi Health Care.  A growing roster of brand new friends and renewed friends and a deepening group of very old friends.  A deft, protracted incision.  Healing.  And six weeks of low dose fire.  A blog.  Finishing the Border Trilogy and beginning Everything is Illuminated.  I bought a phone.  Ate a lot.  Delicious things that eventually were transformed into the absolutely undelicous.

Feeling so happy to go back to where we presently live.  I want the sky so bad.  I want our friends.  I want silence.  I want the simple.  I realize more than ever what we risk losing of we were to ever leave.  Losing something that most people never even experience.  And for what?  Most likely too much of too much.

I no longer give a darn about those hundreds of things left undone.  Instead I sleep.  I love my wife.  I love my daughter.

In cleaning up I stumbled across the note I scribbled to Mazie a few minutes before I went into surgery on June 17th.  It was scrawled on the back of my authorization form.

Dear Mazie,

  • Remember always to laugh and to make others laugh.
  • Do your best. ¬†If you refinish a bathtub or tile a wall, do it so it will last. ¬†If you play Pachabel or Vivaldi, play it beautifully. ¬†Make it sing. ¬†Do your best.
  • If you drink wine or eat cheese, eat the best. ¬†Learn to discern the best.
  • The best pot of beans are the most simple: ¬†beans, good water, good salt, one onion, lard. ¬†Remember to keep ti simple.
  • Finish what you start.
  • Learn to tell a story. ¬†Then tell them. ¬†They make the world a better place.
  • Appreciate everything: the taxi cab, the driver, the I.V., the table cloth white and crisp, now stained with a single drop of berry juice, the smile, the names, each person’s unique story. ¬†They all are gold.
  • Make good friends. ¬†And do right by them.
  • Sing. ¬†Sing. ¬†Sing.
  • Every street corner, every barista, every vista, every shift in temperature is an adventure.
  • Breathe. ¬†Remember to breathe.
  • At Hopi farming is a religion. ¬†You can spend a lifetime coming to understand why. ¬†Try.
  • We choose life because it is hard.
  • And the difficulties are what make it worth living.
  • Most things that are easy are not worth having.
  • Choose the uncommon path.
  • And if you ever have to choose between picnicking at John Boy’s house on Walton’s Mountain or eating beneath the billboard advertising the place, by all means choose the mountain.

I love you forever and ever my blood.

-Baba

I am a dog

Or a pregnant woman. ¬†As taste has dissipated, my olfactory sense has eagerly leapt to fill in. ¬†But it’s doing overkill, I think. ¬†Odors are now pronounced enough that walking through this city is akin to strolling through a sewer. ¬†Fried food, grease, the smell of flesh – beef, chicken, seafood – are particularly strong and distasteful.

But also richer. ¬†Standing in line outside Mama’s on Washington Square, the odors emanating from the basement entry were deep, round and hollow. ¬† Union Street announced itself shrill and grating. ¬† ¬†The floor of Cafe Roma reeks of ammonia and cleaning fluid. ¬†The bathroom jumps with the slightly acrid smell of that tart powdery soap once used in elementary school lavatories.

Can we ever smell anything new?  Or at some point do we simply paw through the catalogue of memories and reconfigure them to describe the color of our current sensations?

Last night I attended a sound sculpture at the Audium on Bush Street.  For 15 bucks I sat in a dark circular room listening to sounds take shape in four dimensions.  The sounds in fact shaped the dimensions.  From one corner drifted the shimmering laughter of little boys splashing in rain puddles while around them arose looming, pouncing spectral sounds, immaterial shapes that hovered unbeknownst about them.

I felt scared for the little boys because of this spectral energy that existed beyond their consciousness, because of me even, who was aware of the boys, but again resided in a darkened room, in a dimension beyond their world.

Later, what sounded like a mass of ghost children appeared to count off and then march slowly across the room in concert with a chorus of unspecified orchestral sounds. They marched right through our bodies.

In what way do the sound of these children exist? ¬†They exist differently in each one of us. ¬†Hearing (or any sense, really), more than anything is about memory. ¬† When I heard those children playing in the darkened room, what I really heard (which basically is what I felt) was the sound of the first instantiation of children playing – most likely in the late 1960’s on a playground at Grant Elementary School in San Diego. ¬†All other instances of children playing have summoned and been modified by the feeling of that first memory.

Do any sounds exist that we have not yet already heard? ¬†When we listen, we compose (and recompose) the sounds each time from a library of constituent sounds inside our heads. ¬†We can’t hear a timpani drum without hearing the catalogued idea of timpani drum inside us. ¬†Most of the orchestral and synthesized and organic sounds in the chamber were already familiar to me. ¬†They existed within my library.

What new sounds then have been added recently?  Mainly ones outside my culture.  I heard Tibetan throat singing for the first time perhaps 20 years ago.  That was new.  More recently, the sound of the turtle shell rattles fastened to the calves of katsinam.  The deep muffled dirge of katsinam songs. These are new.  Fresh, reconfigured scent, if you will that exist in relation to one highly specific place and experience.  I once rattled a handful of lima bean pods in front of a class of Hopi children.  I asked them to shut their eyes.  What is it, I asked them.

It’s the kachinas, they answered. ¬†It’s so clear and self-evident once you have heard it.

After my hearing isolation experience last night, I dipped into the Mandarin restaurant next door,  ordered a bowl of won ton soup and gagged when it arrived.  I promptly asked the waitress to pack it up for me  to take home Рa gift to my roommate.  I walked up the street to Whole Foods and was overpowered by the scent of rotting vegetal flesh.  I settled for a small container of Cowgirl clabbered cheese, two lemon meringue tartlets and a croissant.

Three more days and the treatments are over.

Brown Cake

I crossed Funston St. on the bus home today. I once stayed in a house near Funston and Haight. It was Christmas time, 1983 and the city was still irrepressably fresh and alive to me as if every possibility lay resident in this place waiting to be awakened. I was with my girlfriend Alison and we were with a girl Darcy and her boyfriend, Gierdon. I remember the cotton linens and the intense cold yellow light and the smell of incense and colorful fabrics, the warm morning caramel aroma of coffee, and hundreds of strange and exotic objects from faraway places.

I think of Gierdon pacing the rooms of the apartment madly, ravenously and then calling Darcy a fucking bitch, a fucking whore, again and again until she broke down crying. I think of his gaunt frame and hollowed out burning eyes and handsome unshaven face. He held up semi-precious stones between his fingers and twirled them in the light. Look at them, he said. Look at how beautiful they are. And I asked where they came from. Afghanistan, he said. I brought them with me from Afghanistan. I import gems from Afghanistan, he said.

On New Years Day we awoke to streets littered white with calendar pages and Gierdon he had been at the New Years show and at midnight Bill Graham’s gnarled face had appeared on a massive video screen above the stage intoning: THIS IS BIG BROTHER. AND YOU KNOW WHAT? I’M FUCKING TIRED OF WATCHING YOU GUYS. YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN, he said. And then father time descended in a spinning cloud of fireworks and the band broke into Big Boss Man and Gierdon was backstage, he said. How were you back there, I asked. I have friends, he muttered.

I think of the fight I had with my girlfriend and of how a friend’s mom drove me back to San Diego and of how this woman on several occasions saved my life. I think of how she saved my life and of how years later she was murdered by her husband.

I think of 1980 on the grass in San Diego stadium up front waiting for the Stones to come on pressed in a pack of people. I had lost my shoes and boots crushed my feet and I burned my soles on glowing cigarettes. It was so hot, burning crushing hot and Bill Graham strolled onto the stage in a cut off t shirt and sprayed us again and again. He sat on his haunches and sprayed us.

I think of the Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert in Oakland Coliseum and again being there with my friend’s mom and of how she wanted to talk to them and how the stadium had cleared out and a lone figure made his way down the rows of thousands of chairs cramming the field and how I raced down the steps and hopped the railing onto the field and how I moved down the rows in parallel with Bill Graham slicing the plastic bracelets linking the chairs and I asked him why are you down here doing this? I pay twenty fucking thousand dollars an hour for this place, he said. I want to get out of here as fast as I fucking can, he said. I cut the bracelets and we talked. I loved this man I admired this man and I asked this man where Paul Simon was staying and this man stood up and stared with such fury. Do you think I’m stupid? he shouted. DO YOU THINK I’M FUCKING STUPID? Get this kid out of here! he bellowed. Get this FUCKING KID out of here!

I think of when the Dead played the Warfield in spring 1983 and I had driven up from Irvine by myself and it was cold that night and I had no ticket and I pleaded at the door explaining that I’d been inside and that I’d gotten sick and my friend had my ticket stub and if they would just let me in I’d take them to my seat to my friend to my ticket and the bouncer escorted me in and I led him to the balcony to a stranger whom I implored to hand me a stub but he couldn’t understand me and the yellow jacketed bouncer dragged me through the lobby right past Bill Graham who glared and hissed to me, to the bouncer, to no one, get that FUCKING kid out of here.

I think of Walodja Grajonca 13 years old before he had even reinvented himself as Bill Graham and his sister younger yet and their parents burned in the ovens of Auschwitz and how they had walked across France hiding stealing until they eventually came to Spain and his sister died there and he came alone on a ship to America. And of how he came to study business in a Bronx community college.

I think of his offices decades later torched and burned to the ground by people who hated him. I think of those final moments when his own body was consumed by flames after his chopper hit powerlines as he surveyed the Oakland fires.

And I think of the kid in the Russian class I was failing. Three days a week I was bullied by the authoritarian Gospodin Hramov a bitter White Russian who hated shitheads like me and this kid a hippie kid who spoke better Russian than me and the kid told me how that weekend some cops had found Jerry parked in his limo in Golden Gate Park and he was shooting up, he was there with all his works and when the cops realized who he was they just let him go, the kid said. Isn’t that cool man, the kid said. They just let him go. Yeah, that’s cool, I said. But even as I said it I began to think it wasn’t.

And I think of that morning that Jerry died. He was in rehab in a private clinic and he was trying to make a go of it but it was too late by then and his heart could take it no more. That morning the news had run across the ticker of the New York Stock Exchange and I had been up all night on call at the San Francisco VA with Anna not yet my wife and Danny Feikin, the only one among us who was a doctor. But there we were all three of us in blue scrubs rounding on patients pretending that we knew what we were doing. Jerry had died and I made my way across the city to the spontaneous gathering in the park and his kids and recent wife stood on a stage and his daughter said to the mass of tweaked out kids: get a life, she said. And thank you. You put me and my siblings through college.

I think of those fields and fields of crimson poppies still growing in Afghanistan. And I think of now, of this once unimagined year, of our boys, our soldiers, of the pinch and the prick, their veins lighting up with gems of china cat, with cakes of Jesus’ Son.

I think of how horrible this world is, of how truly crippled we can be, and of how strange that we can find beauty in it yet. I think of how in this wide universe none of these stories have existed except in my own head, except they now exist perhaps in yours. And I wonder what’s left when even the ashes have burned. And as I find myself being burned each day in this she-goat chimera of a city, I wonder when ones stripes have finally been earned. Does it come with being incinerated?

Scary Monsters 1980

Scary-Monsters2

I only need to shave half of my face now. Pretty much. The other half has no stubble. In some places I’m almost completely clean shaven each morning. It makes a neat line down the middle of my face like in an ad showing the efficiency of the latest razor.

Boy, is it the latest razor. Makes me think of when David Bowie had some sort of electrolysis thing done to his face so that his facial hair wouldn’t grow and he’d never have to shave again.

Which reminds me of a very important story.

In 1980 Paul Allen, one of our neighborhood outcasts, was forced to attend a school assembly at Roosevelt Junior High. He was in 9th grade. The Reagan thing had just started and the school program had something to do with morals and values. Paul with his long blond hair and goofy clothes was thinking privately to himself that it was one of the weirdest things he’d ever been to. MIdway through the program, the speaker flashed up a slide image of the latest David Bowie album cover – “Scary Monsters”, I think it was.

Whoa, Paul thought. Now this is getting interesting. Bowie was wearing some kind of cool makeup that made him look his usual androgynous self. Nice, Paul thought.

Just LOOK at HIM!!!, the speaker suddenly barked out to the packed auditorium. You can’t even tell if he is a MAN or a WOMAN!!!

EEEEEWWWWWWWWWW, the entire audience of eighth and ninth graders jeered.