Category Archives: personal

“Darkness” at 40

220px-BruceSpringsteenDarknessontheEdgeofTownForty years ago today, Bruce Springsteen’s best album (there, I said it, no “sometimes I think it’s his best” or “it’s one of his best”), was released. I was seventeen and it was the beginning of the summer of my senior year in high school. I lived in South Bend, Indiana, which wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Springsteen fans – I’m not sure if any of my friends even listened to him, and he certainly wasn’t on the radio all the time. (One of my friends called him “Bruce Bedspring” because she couldn’t stand the rust and rasp of his voice.)

I’d discovered Born to Run when it blew up in the national music press; at 14, when that album came out, I was already a pretty big music fan and spent a lot of time reading Rolling Stone and other music magazines – I’d even go to the public library after school or on weekends sometimes and read Billboard and Variety as well as Creem and Rolling Stone and whatever else I could get my hands on. So when Born to Run came out, I read the reviews and figured I’d better check it out. I loved the baroque poetry of its lyrics, the characters who definitely didn’t live in Indiana, the wall of sound. I asked for, and got, his two earlier albums for Christmas that year; they didn’t resonate as strongly with me but there were definitely songs on those two that I also loved.

Because of my extracurricular excursions into the music press, I knew about Springsteen’s lawsuit and that he wasn’t able to release another album until all of that was resolved. When I read – probably in Rolling Stone – that he finally had an album coming out in the summer, I was excited. Darkness on the Edge of Town was the first album that I knew to look forward to before it was released.

Me at 17, playing guitar.I was listening to a lot of music then: Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton (don’t judge! the guy is a good guitarist), Heart, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, lots of Beatles still as well as Wings (I tried listening to John Lennon’s solo work and I just didn’t get it – yet), Boston, Pink Floyd, Leo Kottke, Al DiMeola, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane – I’ve always been a multi-genre listener with a soft spot for great guitar of whatever kind. Then there was Patti Smith, whose Horses album I’d bought because the cover image intrigued me. It took a while for me to understand what she was doing but I spent a lot of time with that album; Easter, which also came out in 1978, struck me much more immediately and viscerally, and when I learned via the liner notes that Bruce Springsteen had co-written “Because the Night,” a lot of things suddenly made sense to me.

But when Darkness finally came out, it was the one that, probably more than any other, made me feel alive. I wasn’t sure why I fell in love with it so hard. The characters, again, didn’t live where I lived. “I got a ’69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor” may as well have been in Latin – actually, I’d taken a year of Latin, so I probably would’ve understood Latin better. But the whole album just felt so honest, so … lived. I was in the process of learning how to be a writer then, and most of the time when I was home I was by myself in my room, listening to music through headphones or writing bad poetry or both at once. And the way Springsteen approached the lives of his characters, people who were like him in some ways and who lived not too far from him and who no doubt encapsulated some of his own feelings and experiences but who weren’t, exactly, him – and how he used those characters to say something real and true about the world, so real and true that a 17-year-old middle-class wannabe-poet from the Midwest could identify with them – that taught me SO MUCH about how to write. There were a lot of characters in Born to Run too, and they were fun, with a core of truth to them in the way they wanted to get out of where they were (what teenager can’t identify with that?) – but they weren’t real the way the characters in Darkness were.

At seventeen, you’re facing one more year and then a Big Big Change. Or I was, anyway. You’re trying to figure out what in the hell your place in the world is going to be. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” has transformed from a fun little game in which you can be a doctor or a rock star or a famous poet or a keeper of unicorns to the realization that you are going to have to find a way to live, a way that might be different from how your parents live, something that might involve screwing up and facing consequences. It’s exhilarating and terrifying all at once, and Darkness talked about both the terror and the exhilaration. I used to blast “Badlands” as I got ready to go to my minimum-wage summer job, realizing that something called “work” was going to have to be a part of my life for a long long time, feeling every bit the oppressed worker (ha!) and finding some kind of hope and comfort in the fist-pumping resolve of that song. “Racing in the Street” enchanted me, though I didn’t understand what it was saying, really – to be honest I didn’t really understand that one until I was much, much older, maybe in my thirties.

Darkness was an album about the contentious relationship between the individual and a world that isn’t always kind to individuals. It’s an album about growing up and figuring out what you have to take on, and how you’re going to do it without giving up who you are – or how to live with what you do give up. In some ways I immediately understood what it was saying, in some ways I understood it viscerally but couldn’t have put it into words, and in some ways I am still just understanding it, forty years later.

So happy record-release anniversary to Mr. Springsteen and to Darkness. I wouldn’t be who I am today without this music, I’m quite certain of that.

Oh yes, and then after the album had become a deep part of me, after listening to a couple of concerts that were broadcast live on the radio (THAT blew my mind, for sure), I finally got to see Springsteen and the E Street Band in September of that year. Talk about a transformative experience… I’ll write about that one for its anniversary. Promise.


(Thanks to Backstreets, whose compilation of commentary on Darkness inspired this post. And thanks also to Ultimate Classic Rock’s Darkness at 40 roundtable, which also helped me think about what the album meant to me.)


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About a Bear: Health update on the Best Cat Ever

Those of you who’ve followed me on social media for any length of time have seen photos of my three cats, Honey Bear, Lotus, and Tamarin. Today, Bear got some bad news at the vet.

I noticed a few weeks ago that Bear was a little gimpy on one of his back legs. It wasn’t that he was limping, exactly, but his leg kind of went out at an angle sometimes. Since he’d had complete blood work done at the vet not that long ago, and since he’s old enough that arthritis seemed a likely possibility, I started him on Cosequin (glucosamine chondroitin, specially flavored to be delicious if you’re a cat). He loved the stuff, and it did seem that he was noticeably better after he’d been on it for a bit. Arthritis, I figured, or perhaps a mild case of hip dysplasia (Bear is probably at least part Maine Coon, and they seem to be prone to this).

But he was still poking his leg out at that funny angle, and I was starting to think I ought to talk to his vet about it. Then a few days ago he was flopped over on his back getting a good long belly rub, and I felt an abnormal lump on his chest near his armpit (which I’m sure has another name on a cat, but you know what I mean). Uh-oh, I thought, and got a vet appointment scheduled.

Well, it turns out his “gimpy” leg is actually due to another lump that I hadn’t found myself, up near the top of the inside of his hind leg, near the groin area. The vet aspirated both lumps and under the microscope she clearly saw that the lump on his back leg contained abnormal cells. She’s not a pathologist, but she’s an experienced vet with good instincts, and she feels pretty sure my Bear has cancer.

Now, we could send the samples off to a veterinary pathologist for a more definite diagnosis. It would be expensive ($200 or more), and while I am happy to spend whatever it takes (even if it means taking out a loan) for my cats’ health, my vet and I talked about it and having a firmer diagnosis wouldn’t change our course of action. Bear’s an older fellow now (somewhere around 14 or 15), and he has a heart murmur that’s gotten a little worse over the past couple of years, so surgery is most likely not a good option for him. Standard treatment for osteosarcoma (which is what this probably is) is amputation of the limb, perhaps followed by some radiation and/or chemo. But in Bear’s case, the tumor is so high on his leg that they might have to take part of the pelvis as well, and regardless, it’d be serious surgery – and if the cancer has metastasized, which seems fairly likely, probably wouldn’t buy him all that much time. If he even made it through the surgery.

This sort of cancer is actually pretty rare in cats – my vet said she’s never seen anything quite like this in a cat, though she has in dogs – leave it to my Bear to be unique and different! She said she was going to do some reading and see if she could learn anything more, and of course I’ll spend some time online looking for authoritative information that isn’t so technical as to leave me in the dust. It’s possible that we will come up with some treatment options. It’s also possible that it will turn out to be benign, and stop growing, and he’ll just walk funny for the rest of his life. But, given that it seems to be progressing quickly so far (Dr. Hughes feels like she would certainly have noticed the lump if it had been there when she last saw him in July, plus he’s lost 3 pounds since then – he’s down to a little over 9 pounds now, which is skinny for a Bear), we’re probably looking at palliative care until his quality of life is no longer good enough for him to be happy and comfortable. I’ve got some pain medication for him – he doesn’t seem to need it now, but if he starts having pain on the weekend or sometime when I can’t get to the vet quickly, I’ll have a couple days’ worth just in case. Till then, we are just living day to day.

Portrait of Honey Bear the cat

Best. Cat. Ever.

I want to stress that Bear is feeling good for now. His eyes are bright and clear, his ears and tail are perky, his appetite is excellent, and he enthusiastically sharpens his claws on his corrugated scratcher and snuggles up on my lap & purrs just like he always has. I envy animals because, unless they are being chased by a predator or something, they pretty much don’t worry about mortality. All Bear cares about is whether he feels OK right now, and whether he’s getting the dinners and treats and belly rubs that he knows he deserves.

I could take Bear for a second opinion, etc. But my gut feeling is that my vet (who I have known and trusted for many years) is right. And while I’d prefer it if my cats all lived forever, none of us get that. (With the possible exception of Keith Richards, who shows every sign of being unkillable.)

Bear became a part of my life in December of 2002. I’d lost my 18-year-old cat Yoda to cancer a few months earlier, and by November I’d decided that I was ready to welcome a new cat into my home. I told my mom that for Christmas I wanted her to take me to the rescue where she’d adopted her cats, and we’d find me a baby kitten – I figured a baby kitten would be easier for my elderly diabetic cat Mudpuppy (who was around 14 then, I think) to adjust to.

But Mom just happened to visit her local animal shelter a few days after that discussion, and when we talked on the phone that day, she told me about the cat she’d met there. A big, full-grown, long-haired cat named “Tigger” who was incredibly laid-back, and who was such a staff favorite that one shelter worker who was allergic to cats had welts all over her arms because she loved him so much that she could not resist picking him up and cuddling him all the time. I could tell from the sound of her voice that she was in love with this cat and that he was something special, so I said, why don’t you give them a call and put in an application for him? But you want a baby kitten, she said. He’s not a baby kitten. Never mind that, I said, call the shelter before they euthanize him or something! Well, my mom didn’t even bother saying goodbye to me – as soon as I used the e-word she was in too much of a hurry to call the shelter. 🙂

Because I would be the one actually adopting the cat, the shelter had me send in an application via email. After I described my life as a cat person, giving Mudpuppy his two insulin shots a day and all, they were pretty eager to let me have Mr. “Tigger.” (The email response to my adoption application came back really fast: “You are SO approved.”) Honey Bear – “Tigger” just didn’t fit his big, fluffy, ultra-laid-back self at all – got neutered and stayed at my mom’s for a few weeks until I could pick him up at Christmas. Best Christmas present ever. (And I agree that you should never give animals as Christmas presents. But this wasn’t a surprise present or anything – Mom just found him and facilitated the adoption!)

Bear has enormous paws, gorgeous green eyes, and the sweetest heart that ever beat inside a cat. I love and adore him, and he will get the best possible care and the most possible love for however much time he has left on this planet.

Oh yeah, and you may also know him as Santa Cat (he looks a little like David Crosby in a Santa hat here, I think):

Smiling cat in a Santa hat.

Santa Bear. NOT photoshopped!


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