Scientists don’t know what pain is. Neither do doctors, who are sort of scientists. Thing is, in order to coerce us into giving them huge amounts of money (whatever that is), doctors have to pretend that they do know what pain is, which is why they’re also sort of actors. (They’re also deluded ideologues who stuff our bodies with fucked-up chemicals to see what will happen, but that’s another story.) Of course it’s awful that doctors do all that play-acting to make us think they know things, occasionally improving our health but just as often making it far worse. We should know better, really; after all they’ve done that for centuries with all those leeches and bloodletting and the like. No records of how many they bled out with that, are there?
Perhaps a more fundamental question than what pain is would be: why don’t scientists know what it is? I would suggest that it might be less a matter of where to look and more one of how to look for pain. Because they might not know how to look, or might have forgotten. Because you never know, maybe they look at people and just see bodies, flesh and nerve and guts. Is that what people are? Maybe they look at landscapes and see maps. Maybe they look at cities and see progress. Maybe they look at horses and see cars. Maybe they look at dogs and see possessions. Maybe they look at corruption and see candy. Maybe they look at a bloom of heat and see a snake. Maybe they look at a shoe and see a foot. Maybe they look at a duck and see a duck, whatever that is. Maybe they look at molecules and don’t see the space between. Maybe they don’t see the space between. Because maybe they think seeing is what someone told them it is. Because maybe they think they know things. Because maybe they think they know exactly as much as they need to. Because maybe they look in the mirror and see power. Because the mangling of lives. Because the terror of the flesh. Because hubris.
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NEW PUBS :: My poem “Conditional” appears in the new and intense Colossus Press anthology, Colossus: Body, subtitled An Anthology on the Sovereignty of the Self. Go Colossus! Even better, all proceeds from sales of the books go directly to the non-profit Keep our Clinics. What better reason to pick it up? Oh yes, the amazing work of 78 uncompromising wordsmiths. Go! :: Excited to have my first piece of visual art in full-color repro in Maintenant 17. The folks at Three Rooms Press have outdone themselves with this issue on the theme of Peacefire, which contains the work of 254 artists from 34 countries on 6 continents. This is a dangerous book that you should have in your collection and in your mind. I’ll be participating in readings from the journal in New York on October 19 and in San Francisco on December 3. :: More deets on both collections on the Anthologies & Journals page.
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Speaking of inane, Western Medicine has this pain scale ranging from zero to ten, which doctors expect patients to adhere to as some sort of objective measure. The chart invariably contains a series of emoji-faces that we are meant to relate to and pinpoint. But what is it they say? One man’s toothache is another man’s unanesthetized amputation. Though I’ve had a number of experiences with short-term pain – for me a 10 was a bone infection in my lower jaw, where I cried all night while every breath and heartbeat jolted every thought from my head – much of my significant pain has been long term. Those have been mostly joint problems, i.e. a torn meniscus, a “tennis elbow,” and most recently daily shoulder pain due to a combination of TOS (Thoracic Output Syndrome) and rotator cuff tears. Those can stretch out for months even when they somehow resolve on their own; add several more to that for the medical industry to decide to treat it appropriately. So I’ve had more than one occasion to ask a doctor, “How can I quantify low-to-mid-grade pain that happens for months on end? What number(s) do I give that? Do I get credit for accumulated pain, aggravation, and anxiety, or should I just average it to a somewhat boring if bothersome 4?”
I haven’t gotten an answer to that one yet.
So here’s a stab at what this scale might actually mean, based on what we do know about pain as well as Western Medicine.
0 – 1: Sitting in the waiting room.
1 – 3: Sitting in the waiting room for 50 minutes.
3 – 5: Being told after waiting 50 minutes that they can’t find anything wrong with you despite all the pain, that you’ll need to see another doctor whose first appointment is in three months, and in the meantime they’ll give you some meds to take just in case.
5 – 7: Waiting for three months while feeling worse from taking all the meds they gave you for whatever they couldn’t find wrong with you.
7 – 9: Sitting three months later in another waiting room for 80 minutes, at which point your gall bladder explodes from all the meds they gave you for whatever they couldn’t find wrong with you.
9 – 11: While you’re slumped in the waiting room in toxic shock, they tell you that you really should have come in about this sooner. You begin to slip away as doctors and scientists worldwide continue to debate whether death is painful. There are even those who believe that it is the most pleasurable possible experience, and after all that waiting, it just might be.
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UPCOMING :: I have a NEW BOOK coming out in October and you’ll get to see the cover for it very soon. It’s called Mammal and I can’t be prouder to have it midwifed by Roof Books in NYC. It’s also my fave collection so far with all kinds of new and older work never compiled in book form and years in the making. You can’t wait to read it, I promise. Woo, hoo, and all that. (!) I’ll be traveling east for a release party at Segue Foundation in New York on Saturday, October 21, and if you’re in the area please save the date. I’ll be visiting there for a few days prior but that’ll be the only reading that I do in the city. Please come! I’ll also do readings from it in Philadelphia and Woodstock, and I might peek into the Cantab Lounge slam in Cambridge at the very start of the month. Did I say woo? And hoo?
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So if doctors can insist that we quantify pain with a number, then I can insist right back that we can quantify pleasure as well. And we should, really, if only to keep the proverbial scales balanced. Toward that end I’ve created this nifty little metric to aid us in plotting the happy quadrant of the axis, and to get us started here a few prompts and perspectives taken from my own humble experience (or not).
0 – 1: Eating a bag of oyster crackers; watching Season 11 of The X-Files; reading Deleuze and Guattari; waiting for a bus in Texas without a book (which are illegal there anyway); watching anything by Ingmar Bergman.
1 – 3: Eating cheap chocolate ice cream; watching Matlock; saying hello to a friendly dog; getting a hug when you’re sad; listening to The Four Seasons (or any Vivaldi, really).
3 – 5: Eating Mom’s chocolate chip cookies; watching Parks & Rec; getting a kiss from a loved one; listening to a favorite old album; walking in the park in springtime.
5 – 7: Drinking guava juice on acid; enjoying a good scotch while listening to live jazz (or any drink and music, but it’s the music that takes you there); a reunion with good friends; watching Parks & Rec on acid.
7 – 9: Taking ecstasy; a really good fuck; falling in love (be careful!); walking in the forest on mushrooms; eating Mom’s chocolate chip cookies on acid.
9 – 11: Taking a lot of ecstasy after a cleanse; staying in love (or so I’ve heard, more of an accumulated pleasure); watching the falsehoods of the world melt away; the best sex of your life that incorporates every kink and fetish that you have (whether you’re aware of them or not) and finishes with a three-minute orgasm (though any longer might flip you over to the Pain Scale).
Okay, maybe this is a little silly and maybe Americans rely just a bit much on substance use for what we call “pleasure”. Or maybe our addiction to Capitalism and accrual has us on a (very) misled quest for The Max in everything. Maybe we’ve forgotten the difference between pleasure and sensation. Or maybe we’ve just forgotten how to look for what pleasure really might be. Maybe we all need a good walk in the park in springtime.
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Reflect :: Had a blast this July at the newly invigorated Beast Crawl, Oakland’s (mostly) annual literary festival. Started in 2012, it roared through the decade and after a few quieter years during covid, has come back full-throated. I got to participate in my first Identity Crisis, a pre-Beast event on the 20th at the terrific First Edition bar in which I got to read the work of Lynn Alexander and Youssef Alaoui, and they read mine. Scary! And a great prelude to the Beast itself on the 22nd. During the first leg I dropped in to the Starting Points event, which was an open mic at Feelmore Adult Sex Shop. Wasn’t planning to read but it was so fun I felt inspired to jump up to spew what might be my perviest poem ever, “After Freud, Before Freudiana” (which you can read in my upcoming book Mammal). Then went down to Awaken Cafe to host a #we event featuring trans writers LD Green, Julian Mithra, and Dena Rod. They were fantastic! Finally I wandered across the street (probably in traffic) to join Collapse Press at Oaklandish. Attempted a reading of “Mud Song”, one of my all-time faves (and which will also appear in Mammal), which taught me to remember not to read off-page with low blood sugar. But it was fun, and I got to catch up with a lot of folks I hadn’t seen for ages at the afterparty at First Edition, a perfect closing to this high-vibe circle. Rawr!
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I’ve had a lot of physical pain this year that several months ago made me finally want to improve my life. It’s a pain in my left shoulder that mostly happens when I lie down to sleep. Started last November as an annoying tingle that in December advanced to a light ache, but no biggie. In January I made it astronomically worse by moving around a lot of heavy objects and it morphed into a gigantic throb-monster. Since then I’ve lost an average of 2-3 nights of sleep per week. By “lost” I mostly mean “medicated,” which isn’t much better. I know that a lot of people have worse ailments than this, and these are not complaints, just observations of my recent experience for those who are interested.
The thing is, come the start of March when I’d been managing this daily pain with its requisite exhaustion for a month and a half on top of a months-long depression, I woke up one day feeling like a new mammal. An amazing new mammal. The depression was gone (don’t ask me how) and I was like, what the fuck have I been doing? Maybe it was the cortisone shot the week prior that took away the pain for a bit, or maybe starting physical therapy with a terrific practician, or maybe who the fuck cares. I woke up to hearing the birds, bounded out of bed, and decided that I didn’t want to feel like crap for the rest of my life. Simple as that.
And easier said than done. The pain came back a few weeks later but I managed to stay clearheaded, energized, and extremely productive for a couple of months. That’s the reason in fact that you’re reading this on my recently revamped website. I started riding the stationary bike hard for thirty minutes or so most days, doing a lot of PT, and eventually worked my way up to calisthenics and strength building – all of which, between COVID isolation and my sedentary and depressive nature and growing old in a vicious country and culture, I hadn’t done in years. I stopped eating sweets and brought my blood sugar down to pre-diabetic levels, lowest in seven years. I developed a new mantra of sorts, which I’d say to myself, usually out loud, when I found myself staring into space (at which I am an adept). That was: Stop Not Doing Things. And I would.
After a while the pain started to drag me down a bit, as did the gabapentin they had me taking for it. The gaba let me “sleep” at night but seriously messed with my nervous system and behavior mechanisms in the process. Had a rough start to June with aggressive anger states and freakouts which were my final days as a gabapentin puppet. I ran the medical gauntlet to get some Norco instead, and started actually sleeping again (i.e. getting healthful rest while I slept). Within a week or so the pain lifted. Had a terrific mid-June with the ongoing biking and exercise and a bit of weightlifting, getting out and about, and generally starting to prep for Beast Crawl in July and for my trip back East and book release in October. Hooray!
There is an annoying coda to this story, and a really boring one at that. On June 19, I went into Kaiser for an MRI just to make sure there wasn’t something major that we were missing, and the machine tech managed to re-injure my shoulder pretty badly. No kidding. No need to describe how (ask me if you want to know), but it was definitely negligent. Kaiser of course has been doing their damnedest to keep a blind eye, to the point of rewording my grievance report to eliminate the details which show that to be the case. Thus my propensity for snarking at the medical industry in this month’s verbiage. But here and now, as we plod into August, I’m doubling down my efforts to turn that plod into a springy step, to take back my body and my life again. Feel free to send along some cheerleading.