Rocks and Guts

It was a good weekend. Got to go out to a Lapidary Club show in Campbelltown, nice little place down to the southwest of where we live, hung out with some friends, looked at rocks and gems and jewelry. I was struck by how incredibly similar it was to the shows back in Augusta, Maine. The Kennebec rocks and minerals club used to (actually, they might still) rent out the national guard armory and set up these huge shows. People would come from all over the state to sell handmade jewelry, rough gems, and since I was about ten years old at the time my absolute favorite pieces of merchandise – small pewter dragons holding crystals. I ended up flipping most of them for Magic cards or cash to buy Warhammer figurines in my teens but I had a lot of those little bastards, I used to save up my yardwork allowance all spring and summer and put together a discretionary fund for the convention.

I actually belonged to the junior version of the group for a couple of years, I forget the exact registered name but it was known unofficially as the Rock Hounds, it consisted of maybe two dozen preteens from the Kennebec Valley area who would drag our parents out on field trips to old mines and quarries, usually dig up a ton of worthless rocks and then lug them home. My parents have a large garden moat circling our entire house and I’m pretty sure that the edges of it are mostly chunks of granite, pyrite, and some mica schist (see, mom and dad? I remember the names, it was totally worth the overpriced membership fees and the gas and time spent ferrying kids around to giant pits in the ground).

It was good for my imagination, I think. I still got flashes of that at the show as an adult. There’s something about big, bright crystalline clusters that gets the cogs in my head turning. Probably a result of reading a lot of mid-90s fantasy books, playing the Final Fantasy series like it was going out of style and general immersion in genres where data was coded into crystals, or you could use them as fuel for healing or harming others. As an adult that’s definitely my inner child rearing up more than anything else but as an actual kid it was a great exercise for my brain. As soon as we got away from our parents my fellow rock hunters and I would make up elaborate fantasies for what we were digging for, what dangers lay hidden in the quarry area, some of us would bring little Lego sets we’d put together and played out mining scenarios. Lots of fun. I’m glad that still dominates at least a small corner of my brain, under a thin layer of cobwebs and dust.

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There’s no graceful way to segue into this next topic but the trip also made me incredibly grateful to have friends with invisible disabilities similar to mine.

I’ve not posted about it here much before, and if you’ve only come to know me later in life, I had to have most of my large intestines out when I was 17. Ulcerative colitis, essentially the body’s own immune system going bonkers and targeting organs instead of invaders. It can range in severity and I, being a teenage male, ignored most of the warning signs and early issues or wrote them off to milder ailments. End result? Not actually going in to see a doctor until it had progressed to a pretty bad stage. Even then I only thought I had a bad flu, because the symptoms were so similar. They checked me for that, food poisoning and a few other things before finally figuring it out, at which point I was discharged with some oral steroids. I reacted badly to those and had to go back into the hospital the next morning, where I ended up staying for several weeks.

To be completely honest, I think it was more traumatic to my parents than it was to me. I already had a pretty morbid sense of humor I’d been nursing through teenhood and the prospect of imminent death by my own body going haywire was amusing in a really weird way. I ended up having to have an emergency surgery within a couple days of checking into the hospital, when the specialist they called in said that the area was so badly ulcerated that I was in danger of bleeding out internally and/or succumbing to some flavor of toxic shock. I went in for that and, while I don’t remember much beyond when they started administering the drug cocktail, I do have a very vivid recollection of my surgeon listening to something I said as I was beginning to go under, turning to one of the nurses and saying that people usually aren’t that sarcastic when they’ve taken as much anesthesia as I had.

Then, darkness.

Then, I woke up in the recovery ward and discovered that somehow the epidural in my back had become twisted and was feeding painkiller directly into my right leg instead of the site of my surgery, leaving me with a completely untreated gash running from just under my ribcage to just above my pubes, held together with staples and stitches and whatever else, and I could feel every square inch of pain in the region for about five hours until they could get the resident anesthesiologist to come see to me (some incredibly inconsiderate woman had chosen the same night to give birth and he was busy dealing with that) and get it set back in the right place.

On the plus side, I have a really good example of pain that I can now compare any trivial injury to and realize that hey, this isn’t so bad.

That surgery left me with a stoma and a pouch, the details of which I will not inflict upon you, until I went in for a second and a third surgery. The second one was to set up the beginnings of a j-pouch, kind of an artificial large intestine they made from a piece of my small one. The third surgery was relatively minor and just involved getting everything hooked back up and the external stoma opening reversed.

It’s weird because it both had a huge impact on my life and hasn’t changed me very much at all, if that makes any kind of sense. It didn’t change the things that I like, or do, or believe but definitely tweaked my approaches to them. I have to plan things out to make sure that my medication is at its peak during certain times, but I was never the most spontaneous person to begin with. I’ve always enjoyed planning stuff and this kind of worked out in my favor. I can only imagine how terrible it would have been to go from being a free-spirited sort to having to have at least a couple hours notice to do anything. I have to be picky with my meals and assess what’s going to trigger insanely painful stomach cramps at any given time (and it changes, so people who eat with me regularly think I’m crazy for having a plate of something one day and none of it the next). I never had the opportunity to become much of a drinker because my meds don’t respond great to alcohol, and if I’m going out somewhere for hours I need to be on those meds so I’m not doubled over in a corner somewhere. The nice side effect is that I tend to sober up extremely quickly now by sheer virtue of my body not taking in as much alcohol from each drink, and I think I’ve had a grand total of two hangovers in ten years even when I’ve gone to bed trashed.

The reason I bring this whole thing up is to give some context to how incredibly cool it is to have friends with similar digestive issues and food sensitivities. Not feeling like a complete weirdo for picking over a menu or straight up not being able to handle certain cuisines is nice. Hanging out with people who won’t think you’re just being snappy when you’re dealing with chronic pain is a godsend.

It also got me thinking a little bit about storytelling, particularly since my mind was already working overdrive from seeing some gorgeous amethyst geodes that looked like caves on an alien world. If you’re writing a story with supernatural elements of some sort, they’re going to inform how a character interacts with the world even if they aren’t tied directly into that character’s core personality, and I think a lot of magic systems kind of ignore this. It comes in as something of an afterthought once the rest of the world is set up, and it’s treated more as a toolkit than anything else, at least in the vast bulk of fiction that I read. Treating certain kinds of magic as lenses through which the rest of the world is filtered is something I realized I’ve been doing, particularly since my surgeries and without even realizing it. My current project deals pretty heavy with necromancy and ectoplasm and the restless dead, and I’ve kind of been treating my protagonist as if he’s got a sensitivity that can flare up just like chronic pain when various trigger conditions are met, and it completely shapes his chapters, where he travels, how he travels, how he interacts with others. Instead of crippling stomach pains he just has to deal with being a magnet for ghosts and other ectoplasmic entities, but it’s still as close as I’ve come to writing what I know in a secondary world setting.

One of the only other series I’ve seen that takes it along a similar route is Jeff Salyards’s Bloodsounder’s Arc trilogy, where one of the characters seems to act extremely irrationally and in a way that other characters don’t know how to deal with, but that I picked up on fairly early as a form of chronic pain induced by his weapon. Instead of the usual sentient, bloodthirsty cursed swords he’s got a flail that forces him to relive painful experiences from the lives it extinguishes, and other characters have trouble processing the acute physical pain this inflicts on him and the gradual wear and tear it takes on both his personality and his tactics as the series goes on. He can’t really separate himself from it because it’s become part of him and he’s reliant on its benefits, but they’re no longer benefits so much as a dwindling offset of the side effects that wrack him with increasing regularity.

My current story isn’t the place to explore it, but at some point I’d really like to do a take on the heroic fantasy tradition where chronic pain and invisible disabilities take the center stage or even form core elements of the setting. Maybe when I eventually take the plunge into writing something for more of a young adult audience, because I certainly would have killed for that particular form of escapism when I was younger and figuring out how to cope with this stuff.

But that’s enough about me and my weirdness. Speaking of escapism, I’ve dived into the new Richard Kadrey book and enjoyed it a lot. He’s managed to skirt that edge of grimdarkness and mid 90s Spawn worship and come up with a series that has not only held up but improved with almost every new book. The first Sandman Slim is the pulpiest urban fantasy revenge story out there but he’s added a truly surprising amount of depth to the world and built upon my favorite trope of angels, demons and tentacles in a way that would make me still want to continue reading and exploring even if I didn’t like the protagonist. And I do like the protagonist, because unlike most urban fantasy deadpan snark spitfires he has become increasingly self aware, critical and intelligent. He’s learned not to muscle his way through situations that he would have done in the first couple of books and his open mindedness as a person feels fluid and organic instead of tacked on after writing all the action sequences. It’s got elements of the old Vertigo Lucifer comics and a nice, grimy pateena that’s all its own. I’m probably going to finish the last few chapters tonight and hit up the new Cornell shadow police story, which is going to be tonal whiplash to the extreme.

The Twin Peaks rewatch continues, we’re one episode away from the first season finale now and it’s fun watching it with someone who’s never seen it before, especially as the really weird series mythology begins to kick in. Even if it is beginning to give my wife flannel-clad 90s PTSD.

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