Saturday, May 18, 2019

Book Review: Once More We Saw Stars

Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir is a book that is at once heartbreaking and inspirational. Jayson Greene wastes no time getting to the accident that took the life of his 2-year-old daughter, Greta, much too soon; we learn about the tragedy on the second page of the book. From there, Greene takes us on a journey that includes loss, heartbreak, anger, grief, guilt, and just about every other emotion you can imagine. Just how does a young couple deal with such a devastating loss? Greene's brutally honest and beautiful writing makes the reader feel like they are right there with him, his wife Stacy, and his mother-in-law Susan ("Grandma Suz," who was with Greta when the accident occurred) as they navigate their way through the unthinkable. Learning how each one of them manages to live through such a horrible event and come out relatively okay on the other side is an inspiration.

I found myself getting teary-eyed more times than I can remember while reading Once More We Saw Stars. Some of the things that are said by Jayson and Stacy are just gut-wrenching. For example, not long after Greta's death, Stacy says, "Haven't we done this long enough? Can't we have her back now?" And at one point, Jayson writes: "A pall of societal shame hovers over everyone in this club....Children who lose parents are orphans; bereaved spouses are widows. But what do you call parents who lose children? It seems telling to me there is no word in our language for our situation. It is unspeakable, and by extension, we are not supposed to exist."

This book also teaches us about the grieving process, and how no two people will go through it in the same way. "Grief is fluid, and it is always changing," a grief expert tells Jayson and Stacy during a retreat. "Above all, 'grief is unique as a fingerprint. We can show you the stages, but they are not a linear journey. In the end, nothing and no one can hand you the map to your own grief.'"

Yes, this is a sad book. But it is also a book that reinforces the idea that people can--and do--find the strength to deal with unfathomable loss and learn to live again. Is it easy? Hell, no. But if you work hard at it, you can overcome even the worst things in life. I've never been able to imagine what losing a child would be like--until now. Kudos to Jayson Greene for his courageous memoir. Once More We Saw Stars will make you cry, but it will also make you smile. Especially after the birth of the couple's new son, Harrison, of whom Jayson writes: "Under his tutelage, I can feel a frankly ludicrous conviction growing inside of me. We--myself and my wife, the growing child in front of us and the one we never see--are going to be all right."

Take it from me: This one's a must-read.

Jayson Greene and his late daughter, Greta. 

Monday, March 4, 2019

Anna David Learned from Her Mistakes...and We Can, Too

Anyone who knows me knows that I have an adult son who has struggled on and off with severe depression and addiction for more than a dozen years. I don't try to hide that from anybody. In fact, my son's issues inspired me to become a recovery and mental health advocate. Along the way, I've read just about every book on addiction and recovery I've been able to get my hands on, including countless memoirs and self-help books by people in recovery. And I have to say, How to Get Successful by F*cking Up Your Life: Essays on Addiction & Recovery by Anna David is one of the best I've read.

David is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Party Girl, a semi-autobiographical tale about a celebrity journalist who falls victim to a world of drugs, alcohol, and sex, which leads to her self-destruction before she finally finds sobriety. While Party Girl may have been classified as fiction, How to Get Successful by F*cking Up Your Life is 100 percent authentic.

In David's latest book, she shares essays that document her struggles with addiction and her journey to recovery. The essays, which are brutally honest and oftentimes laugh-out-loud hilarious, are grouped into three sections: What It Was Like [Pre-Sobriety]; What Happened [Early Sobriety]; and What It’s Like Now [Today]. This format allows the reader to ride along and witness first-hand the progress David made on her road to sobriety (potholes and all). And while the essays alone make this book highly entertaining and educational, David goes a step further and includes a value-added twist to the end of each one.

Personally, I think the "Lesson Learned" feature that appears after each essay is the absolute best part of How to Get Successful by F*cking Up Your Life. This is where David shines the brightest, taking the frequently negative experiences of her addiction/recovery journey and reframing them into a positive lesson that she, and others, can use to improve life going forward.

For example, in the essay entitled "What Addiction Sounded Like," David talks about how cocaine, the drug that once kept the party going all night long for her, had betrayed her. "It made me unable to do anything but sit in front of my computer and shake," she reveals. And while sitting in front of her computer, trying to write, the computer would emit an annoying "BEEP!" every 60 seconds. "I lived in fear of the beep," David confesses. "It somehow symbolized just how bad things were." At the end of the essay, David shares her lesson learned--“Remember the Bad Times (So You Don’t Repeat Them)”--and provides the reader with some insightful words of wisdom.

Anna David is a gifted, intelligent, funny writer, and this collection of essays shows us that a person can make mistakes in life--BIG mistakes--and still find success and contentment. As she says in the Introduction, David hasn't followed "the typical paths. But at this point in my life I can honestly say I feel successful on all levels…not just with what I’ve achieved but with how I feel about what I’ve achieved, not to mention how I feel about what I haven’t achieved." That’s not a bad place to be, and I'm guessing most people would be incredibly happy to feel the same way. Reading How to Get Successful by F*cking Up Your Life might just help them get there.

Anna David (photo from her Facebook page)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

HopCat (Finally) Does the Right Thing

Back in July of 2015, I wrote a piece about why the name of HopCat's "Crack Fries" bothered me. (The blog first appeared on The Fix's website, then was published here as well.) At that time, HopCat told me, "We have no plans to change the name." Well, it took a while, but HopCat is finally doing the right thing. Today they announced that they are indeed changing the name of their "Crack Fries."

In a statement on their website, HopCat says: "We chose the name more than 11 years ago as a reference to the addictive quality of the fries and their cracked pepper seasoning, without consideration for those the drug negatively affected. We were wrong."

Big kudos to HopCat for making the change. And while I admit that my blog more than likely didn't have anything to do with this development, I like to imagine some HopCat bigwigs referencing it during some important meeting. In any case, this change is a good thing. I might even go check out the HopCat in downtown Detroit now.

If you'd like to read more, here's the link to a good mLIVE story about the name change:

HopCat's Crack Fries Are Getting a Name Change

And here's a video from Mark Gray, CEO of Barfly Ventures, which is HopCat's parent company:

Monday, December 10, 2018

High: Everything You Want to Know About Drugs, Alcohol, and Addiction

I just posted a review of the monumental new book by David and Nic Sheff. It's called High: Everything You Want to Know About Drugs, Alcohol, and Addiction, and it's a book that every young person and their parents should read.

As you probably already know, David Sheff is the author of Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction, which was recently made into a movie (Beautiful Boy) starring Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet. And Nic Sheff told his side of his story of addiction in the book Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines. Now they've joined forces to write High, a fabulous, informative book that has been needed for many years.

If you'd like to read my review of High--and, hopefully, give it a "Helpful" vote over at Amazon (those are always appreciated)--click on this link:

Take me to Dean's review of High on

I think this book is going to be huge when it comes out on 1/8/19. Kudos to David and Nic Sheff for creating it. It's going to save a lot of lives.

Nic and David Sheff

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Anne Lamott Gives Us a Reason for Hope

As I often tell people, the writings of Anne Lamott were introduced to me at a time in my life when I was struggling badly. My oldest son was in the throes of addiction. I was battling depression. And I felt like my whole world was falling apart. I was, in a word, hopeless. But my wife was a big fan of Anne Lamott and suggested I take a look at a few of her books. Figuring I had absolutely nothing to lose, I took my wife up on her suggestion. And it literally changed my life.

For someone who was pretty much out of hope, reading Lamott's thoughtful and spiritual musings was the best thing I could've done for myself. It didn't take long to figure out that Anne's words were a beacon that could help guide me out of one of the darkest periods of my life.

"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up." That passage from Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life made me stand up and take notice. Maybe there was still hope for me. Maybe I could navigate the storm I was in the midst of and find some peace in my world. Another passage about hope, this one from Anne's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, also resonated with me: "Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us."

Anne Lamott gave me back some hope. Now she’s given us an entire book about hope. And it's wonderful.

Lamott tells us in the Prelude to Almost Everything: Notes on Hope that the book began as a list for her grandson and niece, "who are both exuberant and worried, as I was at their age and still am some days." "Dearest," she writes. "Here is everything I know about almost everything, that I think applies to almost everyone, that might help you someday."

Yes, we're living in tumultuous times. But that doesn't mean we can't be grateful for the good things in our world, too. Lamott makes that perfectly clear in the first sentence of this book: "I am stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse, even as I await the blossoming of paperwhites on the windowsill in the kitchen." Those paperwhites? They represent hope. We just have to see and recognize it.

"Hope springs from that which is right in front of us, which surprises us, and seems to work."

Amen, Annie.

In Almost Everything, Anne Lamott explores life, death, love, hate, families (aka, "famblies"), food, writing, and more, and she does it with her usual candidness and (sometimes dark) wit. "I have just always found it extremely hard to be here, on this side of eternity, because of, well, other people; and death." She's also not afraid to throw a little self-deprecation into the mix: "Scientists say we are made of stars, and I believe them, although my upper arms look like hell."

Lamott is so adept at reminding us that things are never as bad as they may seem. If we practice gratitude ("Gratitude is seeing how someone changed your heart and quality of life, helped you become the good parts of the person you are") and see the good in everything--and everyONE ("Empathy begins when we realize how much alike we all are")--our lives will be much more satisfying and fulfilling. We have to do the next right thing and "live in the light, not the dark of the sad past." Is that always easy? Of course not. But having Anne remind us through her wise observations and meaningful stories makes it easier; and it is incredibly comforting, too.

I adore everything Anne Lamott writes, because I can relate to her on so many different levels. She thinks so many of the same things I think, which helps make me feel like I'm not alone. And, best of all, she's a master at pointing out the silver linings--no matter how small--that I may not be able to see. 

This book will make you realize that there is always a reason for hope. "If you arrive at a place in life that is miserable, it will change," Lamott promises. "Some days there seems to be little reason for hope, in our families, cities, and world. Well, except for almost everything."

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

From Stomach Flu Sufferer to "Cancer Survivor" in 45 Days

In my last post, entitled "Everything Happens for a Reason," I told you the story of how the little angel baby next door gave me a bad case of the stomach flu just before Christmas. That led to a trip to the ER, which led to an X-ray, CT Scan, and MRI of my abdomen, which revealed that I had a small mass (oxymoron!) on my right kidney. Ugh.

On Tuesday, February 6th, I underwent surgery to have that mass removed, not knowing whether it was cancerous or not.  The technical name for the procedure I had done is a "robotic-assisted laprascopic partial right nephrectomy." That's a fancy way of saying the doctor used something akin to a medical video game to go in and cut out a chunk of my right kidney, taking the tumor with it.

My post-surgery belly
The nice thing about this surgery--if there can really be something nice about having part of one of your body's vital organs removed--is that it could be done via four smallish puncture wounds in my abdomen and a small incision in my belly button (through which they removed the tumor). Thank God for robots.

The surgery went as well as it possibly could have, and after an overnight stay in the hospital I was on my way home just about 24 hours later. I was sore and a bit limited in my ability to move for a few days, but I was incredibly lucky to have my amazing wife to take care of me.

Last week, I followed up with my urologist and got the results of the pathology report on my tumor.

Measuring 2.2 cm x 2.1 cm x 1.6 cm, the mass removed from my kidney was indeed cancerous. Officially, it was a "papillary renal cell carcinoma, Type I." But the doctor told me they got all of it--"it just kind of plopped out," he said--and there were no signs of cancer in any of the fatty tissue adjacent to the tumor. In my doctor's words, I'm "gonna be fine." No need for any chemo or radiation. Just a follow-up CT scan in eight weeks or so to see how things look without the tumor there. And maybe a couple/few CT scans down the road just to make sure things continue to look good.

Whew. That's a load off my mind, for sure. Obviously, I was hoping the mass was benign, but if it was going to end up being cancerous, I think this scenario is about as good as I could've hoped for.

When I posted the pathology report findings on Facebook (because that's what we do nowadays, right?), I got a lot of love from my friends. A few of them even referred to me as a "cancer survivor," which made me feel kind of strange. I wondered: Can I be a cancer survivor despite the fact that I didn't even know I had cancer until it was removed from my body? I guess so, but I tend to think of cancer survivors as people who are diagnosed prior to having to undergo surgery, or chemo, or radiation. People who fight like hell to beat cancer and succeed. People whose bodies and minds suffer greatly while they go through the battle of their lifetime. Me? I went from having a bad case of the stomach flu to having a tumor removed in just 45 days. I barely had time to worry about cancer, let alone survive it.

If people want to call me a cancer survivor, I'll begrudgingly accept it. After all, it's way better than the alternative. But I know there are true cancer survivors out there who have been through a hell of a lot more than I have, and who are way stronger than me.

One thing is for certain, though: I will be forever grateful that my little buddy next door--his name is Everett--got me sick so doctors could discover a cancerous tumor on my kidney. If I didn't get the stomach flu from Ev, that tumor would still be growing inside of me. And who knows how long it would've been before it was discovered. Or if it would've been discovered? Or what my prognosis would've been by the time someone finally figured out I had cancer?

I have to admit, this whole serendipitous experience has freaked me out a little. But in a good way. And I am thankful for whatever force, or forces, put it all into motion.

"Can you still have any famous last words/If you're somebody nobody knows..."
--Ryan Adams (from his song "Strawberry Wine")

Friday, February 2, 2018

Everything Happens for a Reason

Author's Note: I started writing this blog post yesterday. And then I tried again today. But the story was getting so long and wordy that I didn't think anybody would want to read it. My dad used to say this about people who talked too much: "You ask 'em what time it is and they tell you how to build a watch!" I didn't want to be that guy, so I decided to try and distill my story down to fewer words, and put it into a format that (hopefully) won't bore people to tears. Enjoy!

"Everything happens for a reason."

I used to have a hard time subscribing to that theory, but as I've gotten old(er) it seems like as good a way as any to explain some of the weird things that occur in our everyday life. Especially the things that start out bad, but end up maybe being blessings in disguise. And the things that make you stop and think hard. Really hard. Case in point...

Afternoon of December 21st: My neighbor sends me a Facebook message asking me if I could come over and give her a hand, because her adorable seven-month-old baby, who was sick, had just thrown up again and it was "everywhere." So she needed help holding the little guy while she cleaned up the mess. I run next door to help--the puke really was everywhere--and eventually my wife shows up, too. My neighbor asks us: "What if you guys get sick?" My wife answers: "We'll just deal with it."

Wee Small Hours of the Morning of December 23rd: I get up to go to the bathroom and I feel super dizzy. A few minutes later, I'm the one who's puking my guts out. Multiple times. After making a mental note to never eat Chinese food again, I wake my wife up and tell her she has to take me to the hospital. I guess this is "dealing with it."

At the Hospital: The doctors and nurses (eventually) take good care of me, and several hours, IVs, and medications later, I'm finally starting to feel like I might live after all. But the powers-that-be decide to keep me overnight for observation. Woohoo!

December 24th: It's Christmas Eve day and I'm feeling reasonably okay. I've even progressed from being on an all liquid diet to eating real hospital "food." My stomach appears to be fine. But wait! The doctors tell me that my stomach x-ray and CT scan seemed to show something abnormal with my right kidney. So now they want me to have an MRI done. Wonderful.

I get the MRI done, but not before I almost throw up in the MRI machine. (Apparently, I had some kind of reaction to the contrast liquid they put in my IV before the test.) Now I'm anxious to go home. But a doctor comes in and says the MRI confirmed that something is indeed amiss with my kidney, and that he doesn't feel comfortable reading the MRI and talking to me about it, so I have to have a urologist do that. And the urologist on call has already left for the day, so I have to spend another night in the hospital and talk to the urologist in the morning. WTF???

December 25th: Merry effing Christmas. I'm in the hospital on Christmas morning, my wife is sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed knitting (surprise!), and we're waiting for the urologist. I, of course, continue to imagine all the most horrible scenarios I can possibly imagine, including the "C" word. The one positive I keep coming back to? At least it's my kidney, because I have two of them, and I'm pretty sure a human only needs one kidney live.

Eventually, the urologist shows up and pulls up my MRI films on his computer. He shows us the mass that has decided to call my right kidney its home. Luckily, it's small (2.0 x 1.8 cm). And it's right on the edge of the kidney, too. (Kind of like a pimple on the end of your nose.) The doctor says it's likely a tumor, not a cyst, and tells us we can either have a biopsy done and go from there, or just have the thing removed, because it should be pretty simple. His suggestion is the latter, and we think that seems like the best way to go.

After the consult, I finally get to go home and open gifts with my family. My favorite Christmas present? A purple paring knife from my wife. My least favorite Christmas present? This goddamn tumor on my kidney! 😢

A few days later, my wife and I follow up with the urologist at his office. We finalize the decision to have the tumor surgically removed, and the next day we're informed that the surgery is scheduled for February 26th. Unfortunately, that's just a couple days before a concert we already have tickets for (Phoebe Bridgers), so we call to see if we can possibly get an earlier date. The surgery scheduler tells us that if we change hospitals, the procedure can be done on February 2nd. Great! Sounds like a plan!

But a week before the 2nd, I get a phone call from the urologist's office. They have to cancel my surgery and reschedule it because my doctor had a meeting come up that he has to attend. Seriously?!? All I can think is that this meeting had better be the most important damn meeting of this doctor's life.

The next day, the doctor's office calls to tell me my new surgery date is February 6th. And after I hang up, I start to freak out a bit.

It took me a little while to put two and two together, but when I finally did I realized this:

February 6th, 2018 = 5 years to the day that my father the same hospital I'm supposed to have my surgery at.


I have to admit, this spooked me out for a few days. I mean, it spooked me out to the point where I was seriously considering calling and having them reschedule my surgery yet again.

The other day, though, I was driving my sister to work--she had fallen and hurt her arm, so she couldn't drive--and we had a conversation about this weird "coincidence." I confessed to her that I was more than a little uneasy about it. That's when she told me about another possibility: Maybe my surgery got moved to the day and hospital it did so my dad could watch over me. "Everything happens for a reason," she said to me, matter of factly. Hmmmmm, I thought to myself. Maybe instead of this being a creepy, scary thing, it's actually a good thing.

To be honest, that hadn't even crossed my mind before I talked to my sister. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt comforted by the notion that my dad might be there with me on Tuesday while my doctor and his robot perform a partial right nephrectomy on me. If you're gonna have someone watch over you in the operating room, it might as well be your dad, right?

So I decided not to change the date after all. Because everything happens for a reason. My neighbor's baby got me sick so I'd go to the hospital and they'd find a tumor I never would've known about otherwise. Then a concert and a meeting caused the date of my surgery to get changed to the anniversary date of my father's death; and the location to get changed to the same hospital that he died in. And my sister hurting her arm resulted in me driving her to work and talking about a fear that she turned into something incredibly comforting.

And suddenly, everything makes sense.

What my Christmas Eve looked like.