Thursday, January 31, 2008

And then there were two

I was one of many who was put off by John Edwards' ambition to continue with his presidential bid after learning of his wife's untreatable cancer. I was appalled when I found out how much he spends on haircuts while claiming to speak for and champion the causes of the poor and working class. But I stuck with him because he articulated what I think is the basic issue of our time, the need to pry apart the stranglehold corporations have on our government and our democracy.

John Dickerson from Slate had this to say:

But Edwards' pitch was too limited. He often sounded like he was preaching to the converted in his party. Did this sink him? The question will be thoroughly adjudicated as the Democratic Party launches into another of its stirring debates over the limits of the populist message. But watching Edwards, it always felt like he was touching a passionate minority of voters who already believed that corporations were at the root of all of America's problems, as if all that was needed was the right candidate to beat them back. Edwards rarely summoned the bridging language that might have resonated with people who weren't already predisposed to corporation hate.

Even as I doubted his viability I planned to caucus for him next Tuesday, when he promised he'd still be in the race. I tried to keep faith. After all, I voted for Nader - twice. My facility for both optimism and cynicism keeps me on my toes. But he must have gotten brain freeze when he was here earlier in the week, because about twelve hours later Renee Montaigne informed me he had dropped out.

So now I'm ambivalent. How great is it to be choosing between a black man and a woman for the highest office in the land? But who has the best chance of winning the Independents and middle-ground Democrats? I think there's plenty of moderates who would vote for anybody but Clinton. Not to mention, the crooked, ends-justify-the-means neocons who have already stolen two elections aren't going to quietly sidle away on the departing heels of George W. Bush. They aren't going to cede power that easily.

I detest that the mainstream media has been competing with Fox News with their sexist rhetoric against Clinton, and by extension, all women. But she and her husband are not innocents; they have been using Rovian tactics in their campaign against Obama, tainting the conversation with just enough to remind white Americans of their distrust and fear of black men. It makes my stomach turn.

So, Obama moves up as my number one choice. But will he be effective? I agree with the argument that he won't be able to hit the ground running, that he will need time to orient himself to the playing field. There really isn't time to loose; we have already gone backwards socially, economically, morally, several decades. And I don't mean to insinuate that he's naive -- he is a member of the largest oppressed community in our country, after all, he knows what "the man" is all about -- but does he really know the depth and extent of the wickedness of our government? Does he have the stomach? Will he regret his decision once he finds out? Still, he is more in touch with the masses, unlike his opponent as well as his mega-endorser, Oprah, and I believe he will best speak for us.

It's all relative

This I overheard yesterday:

"We're going to New York this weekend, when it will be a lot warmer, in the 30s." Sounds balmy.
When I got in my car to go home yesterday evening it had warmed up 10 degrees since the morning commute, when the thermometer read -14 (yes, that's a minus), not factoring for wind chill, which was about twice that.

It is "warming up." This morning the thermometer read a comfy 1 degree. You'd be surprised what a difference that makes. The weather forecasters have suspended their cold advisories, when they warn people not to leave skin exposed or go out alone and broadcast threats of hypothermia and frostbite. It's 6 right now, and sunny, but the wind chill makes it feel like -6, but at least we're headed in the right direction. It's days like these I'm thankful for hot flashes. Strange days, indeed.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Email to Harry Reid

I just sent this to Senator Reid:

I am perpetually disheartened and angry at the "Democratic" leadership for continuing to cave to the Bush administration, allowing them to get away with their crimes against the American public and the constitution. The FISA bill and the effort to grant telecoms immunity for their participation in illegal surveillance of Americans is just another in a slew of attacks on our democracy.

You are not giving them "hell", Harry, you are giving them head. Please remember why you are in Washington and who you are working for.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Dream a little dream

I had a dream about a month ago that I should have written about at the time, of course, but I'm going to try to remember it now.

It began (do dreams really have a beginning?) in some cityscape, in something like an elevator or turnstile. There was a group of us being asked to follow the path down to ....? We did this, and it became increasingly difficult going as the path kept getting narrower and crookeder. The pathway included stairs and hobbit holes and all manner of passages that kept getting smaller to the point that I was physically sure I couldn't fit through but then found myself in another passageway.

(This is not an uncommon theme, closed spaces, entrapment and claustrophobia).

Finally I was in something like a stadium, but one that was suspended in space, but I knew it to be underground. There were many levels, some of them having grassy areas. There were lots of people there, and I understood we were all trapped, while another population of people lived up on the surface.

I slowly realized those of us who were trapped were imperfect in some way. Some were not terribly good-looking, or somewhat fat or somewhat old. To my eyes, nobody was ugly, but I got the impression that we or someone else thought us to be less than "ideal."

I overheard someone tell a youngster that they would eventually be allowed to go up to the surface, once they became an adult. I intuited that comment to mean that the young person had not yet matured into what the surface population considered ideal. I then figured out that I could have an effect on whether I thought I was good enough or not to live on the surface.

Pretty deep, huh?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Sound Construction

If you called Wain’s cell, you might get this voicemail message: “Hello, you’ve reached Sound Construction Company and Wain Anthony McFarlane . . . Create a great day.” Wain is a working musician – and by that I mean that music is his day job. Wain is Sound Construction Company and as such he writes and records music; manages up-and-coming artists, including having mentored one blond, dreadlocked teenager who now has his own presence in the cities’ music scene; rents sound equipment; operates a recording studio; and coordinates musical events. As a musician he mostly sings and plays guitar, but he has been known to fill in on keyboards or drums when needed. Wain also has hobbies. He keeps Japanese koi in the water garden he built one summer in the yard of his girlfriend’s house. He spent a couple weeks (and all the money that should have been going toward living expenses) sanding the floors and white-washing the walls of his warehouse so he could provide art space as part of the Northeast Art-a-Whirl last spring. He recently was given 35 old red pay phones that he wants to weld together into a working phone booth and hopes to get a commission from the city for an installation of the phone booth as an art piece downtown.

I picked Wain up at his Northeast Minneapolis home one cool morning in November to drive him to the hospital for outpatient surgery. His girlfriend, Catherine, with whom he lives, asked me to be his driver that day since she couldn’t get off work. As he collected his keys and cell phone, I noticed a painting on the wall I hadn’t seen before. It was a portrait of Wain flanked by Ziggy and Stephen Marley from when Wain’s reggae band, Ipso Facto, opened for the Melody Makers at the Quest in the early 90s. In the painting, Wain is smiling broadly, wearing his signature black top hat. Wain is a big black man, five feet nine and shaped like Santa Claus. As I followed him out the door I noticed how scrawny his dreadlocks had become. When I met him 11 years ago, they were plump and long and doubled the sized of his head. Now they were sparse and barely hanging on.

Wain was diagnosed with hypertension in 1997, but it wasn’t until he went in for a hip replacement (years of jumping on and off stages, combined with prescribed steroids and Jack Daniels, destroyed his hips) in February 2006 that he was sitting still long enough for tests to be taken, which diagnosed kidney failure. Hypertension, along with diabetes and glomerulonephritis, is the leading cause of kidney failure. Until a compatible kidney donor could be indentified from among the many family members who volunteered to be tested, his dialysis treatments could continue indefinitely. He needed a permanent dialysis access site (called an “arterio venous fistula”). The fistula, a device implanted under the skin, joining a vein and an artery, offers efficient access for removing the patient’s blood for filtration. It is also less likely to get infected than a temporary access site that had to be opened anew each time.

In the car, he made several calls to “take care of some business before I go to sleep.” One almost never has his full attention. It was rare for Wain to go more than a few minutes without an incoming or outgoing call. If you are ever out at a restaurant or bar with him, there will always be someone – fan, friend, someone who saw Wain play at a wedding or prom – who stops to say hello and chat. That day he made calls to solicit help for the move of his studio equipment from his warehouse, which he could no longer afford, to a smaller office space, and to coordinate an up-coming gig at Famous Dave’s.

I dropped him at the hospital and went back to pick him up several hours later. He would not be released until he had feeling in his arm (where the fistula was implanted) which would take another hour, so they let me wait with Wain in his room. The nurses were in and out, monitoring his progress. One of them told Wain some other nurses had been talking about him. He grinned from ear to ear and said “gossiping about me, how fun is that?!” Eventually a nurse told him he could leave, but he still didn’t have control of his right hand so I had to help him get dressed. He laughed as I helped him get his jeans on and started singing the Dionne Warwick song, “That’s What Friends Are For.” We were singing it together as we walked out to the administrative station, where six nurses were bustling but stopped when Wain approached. They asked him to sing them a song and he crooned the first couple verses of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” One nurse asked what band he was in. He said, “My band is called Wain McFarlane. My big band was called Ipso Facto.” I saw the recognition in their faces as they nodded and looked at him with renewed interest. “I was the guy in the top hat. My brother, Greg, played drums and that was my brother JuJu in the leather chaps and nut cup. I got you through the 80s!” He chuckled, “You were drunk, but I got you through it!”

It had been a manic journey to this moment. Soon after the diagnosis of kidney failure, many of his family members offered to be tested for compatibility as donors. But because he didn’t have the proper health coverage, navigating the kidney transplant program was like slogging through molasses; nobody could be tested for donor compatibility until the seemingly limitless paperwork was complete. For instance, they would fill out a form and submit it. The next week they’d check back to see how the process was going and would be told it was never received. Or they weren’t informed of all the parties that needed to receive a copy. They eventually learned to keep copies of everything and follow up, ideally in person, to make sure the information was logged where it should. There were two or three different forms a week for roughly six to eight months. As Catherine described it, they had to stand on one foot facing east while the moon was rising to get the accurate and complete information and she was afraid Wain might not live that long.

That fall Wain went to Walker, on Leech Lake in northern Minnesota, for a couple of weeks. He has a good friend who runs a resort on Leech and visits several times a year. One night he was sitting at a bar and struck up a conversation with a couple sitting next to him. It came out in conversation the hassles he was having trying to get a kidney. The woman had connections through her work with the Mayo Clinic and could get him in contact with a kidney surgeon there. What’s more, the couple had a big house in Rochester and would welcome him as their guest, giving him his own wing and run of the place for as long as would be needed. Within two weeks they were sitting in the surgeon’s office. Soon after that, the first family member was tested for compatibility (to date, several family members have been tested but a kidney donor has yet to be confirmed).

A week after the fistula implantation I went with Wain to one of his thrice weekly dialysis treatments. We stopped at the convenience store to buy coffee and sweet rolls for some of the other patients. He told me, “I’m the pacifier. You can tell how the day’s going to go by those first few minutes.” He was referring to his neighbors who sit in the “Tahiti” section of the clinic (the other two being “Jamaica” and “Maui”). He explained that some mornings the patients were grumpier and needier than others.

There are 28 “chairs,” or dialysis stations in the privately run clinic he goes to in downtown Minneapolis. Nearly all the patients are black. African-Americans have disproportionately higher rates of kidney disease and, due to issues of poverty and access, are also less likely to be placed or even referred to kidney waiting lists. African-Americans are more likely to find a compatible kidney from another African-American, but they have a low instance of donorship compared to white Americans. When we arrived at the clinic he was glad to see who his technician would be that day and greeted her as “my Nubian princess.” He passed out the coffee and made sure everyone had some munchies. “Everyone is happy this morning,” he grinned. “It’s a good day.”

It takes four and a half hours for the dialysis machine to clean Wain’s blood of impurities and excess water, the work his kidneys are no longer doing He tries to get started by 7:00 a.m. so that he can be home by noon to start his day. The guy to his left let out a belly laugh, and Wain said, “He’s watching Sanford and Son. She’s usually watching it too,” he continued, gesturing toward the woman to his right (each chair had its own television). “They laugh in stereo and that makes me laugh.” He giggled. He told me about his plans to take them fishing to Leech Lake. They would all “dialysize” at the small clinic in Walker.

“Oh look, it’s that country guy, Keith Urban, he’s gonna be here this weekend.” Wain’s channel was tuned in to a morning news and entertainment program. “He’s that country dude. Catherine says you don’t like him,” he said to me, not quite approving of my music snobbery.

“I never said I didn’t like him, I said it’s not country. It’s pop,” I contested.

“I like him. And what’s that other guy’s name? Kenny Chesney. I saw him once in Jamaica. Do you like him?”

“Kenny Chesney is a virulent homophobe.”

“Yeah, they’re all homophobes down there,” Wain said, referring to Jamaica, where he visits about once a year.

Wain’s father is originally from Jamaica; his mother is from Mississippi. Wain was born in Kansas City, MO, and the family (ten children at the time; two more were yet to be born) moved to Worthington, Minnesota, in 1964 when Wain was 11. He recalls his childhood in Kansas City, watching movies from the balcony of the theatre, feeling like a king. He didn’t realize he wouldn’t have been allowed in the other section of the theatre. On one of the first days in Worthington he was checking out his new neighborhood and ran into a white kid on the street. He hadn’t yet seen a white person up close and the sight scared him. He screamed, which startled the white kid, and they both ran off screaming in opposite directions. Wain always laughs when he tells that story. The kid, Phil, remains a good friend.

Wain was really looking forward to the Famous Dave’s gig coming up the following night. He doesn’t have many these days. Dialysis makes him tired and sore, including making it painful to play the guitar. Furthermore, to qualify for Medicaid, he has to limit his earnings, keeping them under about $1000 a month. That means itemizing every dollar that comes in and accounting for that to Hennepin County Health, Housing & Social Services, which distributes his disability and EBT (food stamps) benefits. He exceeded the upper limit a couple months ago and hasn’t been getting EBT since. By the time he pays all the musicians after the Famous Dave’s gig, he won’t even clear $100. As Wain has said many times, you’re not a musician for the money. The preparations, the assembling of musicians, the audience, the music – every aspect of the show energizes him, gives him purpose. He rarely frets about money, a quality that is not always endearing to Catherine.

Wain assembled a variety of musicians to make up the band for the Famous Dave’s show and, in addition, would have two musical guests up for a couple songs each. Wain is brilliant at assembling musicians who have never played together before and orchestrating magic. That night there would be a second lead guitar (Wain is one), bass, drums, keyboard and a conga/saxophone player. The guests that night would be a 15-year-old slide guitar player and a jazz singer from Denmark.

* * *

It’s the night of the gig. The stage is ready, the musicians are assembled and Wain and I are getting a drink at the bar. A blonde, college-aged woman taps him on the shoulder and asks “Are you Wain McFarlane?” He nods. She’s from Walker where she has seen him play. She says her mother is sitting at a table on the other side of the bar and wants to talk to him. It turns out her mother is one of the owners of the Moondance Jam, a festival that takes place every summer, Walker’s Woodstock, and Wain has wanted to play there for years. They agree to meet in a few weeks when Wain will be up at the lake.

Catherine has brought some colleagues to see the show and one of them has brought her seven-year-old daughter, Olivia, specifically to meet Wain. Wain asks Olivia if she wants to come up on stage and sing. She shakes her head. He is about to turn away to talk to another member of the party when Olivia finds her courage and tells him she plays the guitar. Wain asks, “What’s your favorite song to play?’ “Back in Black” she says with a straight face.

Even though Wain hasn’t decided the playlist until he is standing in front of the audience, the band follows his direction without faltering. As it turns out, he starts with a bluesy rock instrumental then leads the band into “St. Thomas,” the pop-calypso version from the jazz-fusion wave of the 80s. These are followed by an R&B number Wain wrote, “That Was Then, This Is Now,” which was used several years ago as background music in a scene on the soap opera “The Young and the Restless.” I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve heard him play this song. I ask Catherine if she ever gets tired of hearing it. She shakes her head and smiles dreamily, “No, it feeds me every time.” Many people forget that Wain isn’t the only one going through his health crisis. Catherine is also bearing a heavy weight. It’s good to see her enjoying herself. She told me once, when she feared Wain might die before he got a transplant, that he is too big for the world, that this earth can’t contain him.

It’s past Olivia’s bedtime and Catherine walks her to the stage so Olivia can wave goodbye to Wain. He brings Olivia up on stage and hands her his white Stratocaster, which is about the same size as she is. She sits on the drum stage so she can lean the guitar against her small body then plunks out the opening chords of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” while the band quietly backs her up.

During the second set, those ubiquitous clusters of middle-aged women gather to dance together in front of the stage. One of them is me. There’s Wain center stage, in a sleeveless plaid shirt and straw cowboy hat, eyes closed, feeling his way through a guitar riff. Another family member has been identified as a possible donor. Whenever he gets a new kidney, it’s clear he is not finished with this rock ‘n roll life just yet.