A Mouse in the Lab, The Pinhead’s Pain du Jour

I’ve neglected this site for a month or more because I’m feeble; I do ridiculous things that cause me to suffer, and I’m easily distracted by stress.

Should you care, I apologize.

It’s no surprise when I do something monumentally inane; this is a habit I adopted as an adolescent, and I continue it to this day. Mastery requires practice. Consider me a master.

What has changed over the years is the tax my ill-advised activity levies; the older I become— I am now 72 — the more dominant my distress, the more it affects most aspects of my life. Most times this load is more difficult to shed than the psychic baggage provided by the cancer that creeps daily toward my bones and brain, making its unstoppable way to my control center to capture the rudder, and steer me to a nasty berth.

I’m usually able to ignore my cancer predicament at this point in the progress of the disease, the exception being when I lie awake in the middle of the night, the dark and quiet of my surroundings in Siberia With a View nudging me past fantasies of polyamorous bliss, puppies, and the wisdom-packed acceptance speeches I will never deliver at award ceremonies, leading me to the reality of what squats in the shadows, not far ahead. Once I finally sleep, then wake, I can put thoughts of metastasis aside, and immediately fill the void with needless agonies.

Needless, because unlike the upset caused by cancer and the demise it promises, I can’t brush aside the rewards of my idiocy; they are built in to my routine. I am without a defense.

If I were a politician, the ramifications of my ridiculous behavior would slide off me like fried eggs from a non-stick pan. Regardless of the degree of my foolery, as a politician I could remain blameless, washed by the adulation of the internet-, “news” network-, and talk radio-blasted mooncalves who support me, relieved by the money and inauthentic self-esteem that come of my calling.

Similarly, were I a Wall Street banker, a real estate developer, an executive at an oil company, I would feel no pain of the sort that dogs me now. I’d surge brusquely forward, swept clear of troublesome mnemonic debris and kept confident by an eraser located next to the amygdala in my small brain, encouraged by my distorted aspirations and bloated self-regard, a rabid greedhound careening on, never colliding with barricades of my own making or suffering blowback provoked by my folly.

Politicians and mavens of finance and industry excel at avoidance behavior; they are masters of bullshit and deceit, willing and eager to spew their bile and blather, impervious to remorse so long as cash flows and they continue to suck at the tit of power, casually dismissing fact, even when caught with a hand in the intern’s pants, or when their untaxed riches are discovered stashed in accounts in the Cayman Islands.

They, like nearly all humans, are nitwits to some degree, but the one or two who know it won’t admit it.

I know it, and I admit it.

Absent the luxury of an eraser located near the amygdala, I am the mouse in the lab that repeatedly endures self-administered shocks in order to be rewarded with small doses of cocaine. I know what’s coming, but I can’t stop myself; the rush promised by the paltry return is too much to resist.

Now, true to form, and despite clear warnings in my recent past, I’ve stepped again into the shit. I do not learn from experience.

In one sense, this is a virtue. After all, what can come of an examination of my experience but a reminder that denial is the only medicine for my maladies?

If I learn from experience – take, for instance, my numerous bouts with gout — I deny myself chunks of well-seasoned, fatty beef chuck, seared, then braised for hours in red wine and beef stock in the company of lardons, a mirepoix, herbs, a truckload of garlic, shallots and root vegetables that sweeten with enough time in the moist heat.

Heed the Puritan’s siren and I set aside the bottle of Pigeolet en Provence, the pre-dinner gin and tonics. I turn from crustaceans, avoid the lowly and lovely anchovy and sardine. I bid farewell to my favorite fungi, reject a helping or three of my preferred vegetable dish: creamed spinach.

Denial could dissemble the familiar routine and dissolve its prices, were I to learn from experience. But I would be miserable still, in a considerably less satiated state. Who needs this? Said the mouse.

I realize my unwillingness to reflect on difficulties experienced in the past, and the results, is costly. When you know that pain waits crouched like a gargoyle on the porch, why open the door when it knocks? Only a pinhead does so.

So… I’m a pinhead, as well as a mouse.

In my latest excursion to the Planet Half-Wit, I suffer neither the physical upset resulting from an overdose of extra-hot Hatch green chile, pork, garlic, Bolito beans, and cheese, nor the agitation experienced after hefting a weighty load of mind- and mood-altering substances. Despite a verifiable lack of stability, I’m not tormented by the anguish of mental illness — tumbling to the center of a black hole of depression, rocketed into manic orbit by a flood of hot brain juice, or made jittery by voices in the closet.

My pain du jour follows from an unnecessary commitment, one guaranteed to bear little reward, and a great deal of suffering. The mouse is hard at work.

Should you care, you might ask: “What is it this time, Karl?”

Should I care, I would answer: “I agreed to write another play.”

If you read my commentaries on this site, you know I wrote a play last year, and know my efforts entailed prolonged distress (some say for the theatergoer as well as for the author).

At the end of last year’s ordeal, as therapy, I reread accounts of Giordano Bruno’s gruesome demise in the Campo de Fiori, to remind myself there are miseries that exceed my own.

(The square is among my favorite spots in Rome. The piazza is beautiful in its way, shadows amplifying architecture at most times of the day, the dark statue of the great man atop the site of his torture and immolation. There is a porchetta sandwich available at a nearby shop — a treat so tasty it requires that a gourmand order at least two for a midday snack. With a glass or three of wine to help the pig on its way.)

A pinched Calvinist who practices her measured existence might ask, “Why do it again, Karl? Why agree to write another play? Isn’t there a better option? Say…”

  • A root canal without anesthetic.
  • Kidney stones.
  • An attack of the aforementioned gout (guaranteed after consuming two porchetta sandwiches and several glasses of wine at Campo de Fiori).
  • Shingles, or a spinal tap.
  • A foot nailed to the floor.
  • Mandatory attendance at a Republican Party Central Committee meeting, the atmosphere in the room redolent of wet diaper and strawberry Ensure, the agenda scrawled with the blood of a welfare recipient.
  • Two minutes of a Sean Hannity broadcast on Fox News.

I might answer: I don’t practice a measured existence unless I’m asked to report on my ever-expanding waistline.

Like politicians and bankers in one respect only, I’m a slave to reward, in my case held captive by acclaim. Severely limited acclaim, for sure, but I absorb appreciation like a dry sponge takes in warm water. A smattering of attention causes me to swell more than if I gulp Piper-Heidsieck and devour a dozen or more Shogoku. I crave attention; in turn, attention brainfucks me, and I stumble headlong into the next ditch.

The play I wrote a year ago had a fine run at a regional theater; the run sold out, and was extended. I received six cents per hour for my efforts, and was showered with at least three encouraging remarks delivered by residents of the area whom I met in the produce section of our supermarket. These were as gold to me: gifts offered and received during a shared examination of organic beets and tainted romaine lettuce.

The sponge swelled.

When the sponge swells, memory fades: the memory of what a total pain in the ass it is to write a play, in particular one that people expect will be — as they say here in Siberia with a View — “a real knee slapper.”

I’m now several months into it: three complete do-overs, two of the scripts set afire in the back yard, followed by six drafts of two acts. I can’t avoid the price of my stupidity. I’m chained to a flimsy dock, watching the tsunami slam into the harbor.

As I work, I recall that the playwright must concentrate for lengthy periods of time.

This is an obstacle.

Second, a playwright asked to provide the product in a limited amount of time must have a plan. Here, also, I fail.

I find it difficult to plan anything; planning irritates me. I suppose my aversion has its roots in the years I spent in the rock and roll biz, and as a denizen of Art Land, and is somehow related to substances I indulged during that time, and since. My ability to plan, much less plan well, never developed. My few complete plans are limited to shopping lists penciled once I determine what I’ll cook for dinner — lists I then forget to take to the store.

So I write, I struggle, I suffer.

I create a setting for the new play (due for delivery to the producers a month ago). The action takes place in an ICU. The patient, a woman in her late 60s or thereabouts, is dying. She is visited by an ethereal, albeit screw-loose being who refers to herself as a “Sylph.” The Sylph steals underwear as a hobby.

The patient is in a coma, yet she hears and feels everything, but no one can hear her or communicate with her, except the Sylph.

A breach in the patient’s Dura, through which surgeons removed a tumor some years before, has reopened. She is leaking cerebrospinal fluid; she is in extraordinary pain. Her end is near.

The Sylph visits to assist the patient in a recall and review of experiences needed so the dying woman can make an informed choice prior to her demise. That choice is a rendition of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, totally absent any Judeo-Christian fantasy. The script includes but one extended reference to the prime Western religious tradition: a story based on an experience I had decades ago when I wrote a newspaper piece about a bozo who made a cross-country “pilgrimage,” toting a large cross made out of leftover redwood deck posts.

His pilgrimage involved riding in a rusted Econoline van in which he transported the cross, his wife, a cooler and a Coleman stove, a portable toilet, and a three-legged French bulldog. He pulled over outside the small towns on his route, shouldered the wood and suffered his way to the parking lot of a church where he yammered, passed the hat, and enjoyed a free lunch provided by glossolalia-dazed zealots. He offered profuse thanks to his god for the Vienna sausages and store-bought potato salad, wolfed down the repast, then hefted the redwood and struggled out of sight to the other side of town where his wife and dog met him with the van, and they were off to the next stop, pockets bulging with coins of the faithful.

The cross had a wheel on it.

Doctors drain cerebrospinal fluid from the patient in order to lessen the pressure that keeps her Dural breach from closing. She has developed a bleed near her pituitary; the risk of infection is extreme. She cannot survive.

The Sylph mixes a cocktail comprising the drained fluid, a stout load of vodka, and a spritz of vermouth. She calls the drink a “Cerebrotini,“ claiming it improves the patient’s memory and attitude. The two get very drunk, and partake of a considerable amount of morphine as the play progresses. There are comments made regarding Michael Jackson, Propanol, and the ill effects of repeated colonoscopies on both Jeffery Dahmer and Donald Trump. It seems the Sylph has met Russell and Whitehead, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Max Planck, among others.

In order to appease local theatergoers, the patient recalls a life spent in a town very much like Siberia with a View, relating stories about characters she knew during thirty years of operating the town’s premiere dive bar, The Throwback. She relates a story about her debate with a Thomas Jefferson impersonator in front of several hundred inebriated librarians. Chuckles might abound.

Amusing anecdotes concerning frozen bunnies, right-wing gun freaks, dead grandfathers, and tapas bars fertilize the dialogue.

A very few audience members will recognize some of the characters and stories, though all elements have been modified. Newcomers in the crowd (this includes everyone who moved to Siberia with a View during the last 30 years) will pretend they know the characters and stories in order to one-up fellow culturati during the intermission. Some of the culturati attend Republican Party Central Committee meetings, others play pickleball. All are vital and important.

My stress has grown more extreme as days and weeks pass; I’m neck deep in angst. I work less each day, choosing instead to binge watch videos featuring aging porn stars whose visible declines and likely medical problems intrigue me, and to view Julie Fowlis videos, in particular those she makes with her pal, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh.

What little resolve I possess each morning melts quickly; I am ready for cocktails by 2 p.m., a couple of 75-percent CBD edibles and bed at 6.

I am alarmed by my decline. I consult my personal physician, Wanda — a cherished friend with whom I share life’s secrets. She orders me in for an exam, a blood draw, and a battery of tests to determine the condition of my vital organs.

“Don’t overdo it the night before, like usual” she warns. Wanda is extremely smart, with a wealth of emergency room and surgical experience, the consummate professional. I respect her, I listen to her, I limit my gin and tonics to four.

She calls the day after the office visit.

“I have your lab results. Knowing what you do on a regular basis, things look good. Liver and kidney function are OK, much to my surprise. In fact, I’m totally stunned. Cholesterol is a bit high, and I don’t want it to get higher. Since your brother recently suffered at least two heart attacks, didn’t pay attention to them, and suffered heart failure, I want you to take a stress test. I’ll make the appointment for you, since your attention span is pretty limited, too.”

“I’m already under stress, so just slap some monitors on me.”

“Don’t be a smartass,” she replies. “I’ll get back to you with the date and time.”

“I have a bottle of 2000 Domaine Les Pallieres Gigondas in the cellar,” I say. “I’ll break it out in celebration of my extraordinary lab results. It’s the kind of wine I won’t insult by leaving any overnight — it must be finished before I turn in. I’ll skip cheese in order to tend to the cholesterol sitch. If you leave work in time, you’re welcome to join me.”

“Not likely.”

“Oh, and about this stress that’s burying me,” I say, “any ideas on a solution, courtesy the American pharmaceutical industry?”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Well, how about a double hit of Ketamine three times weekly? That could lift my load, and I’ll be able to push through with writing this fucking play in short order. I once took a huge load of Ketamine back in the old days. I got it from an assistant to a veterinarian at a zoo. Rough flight, that one: I woke up behind the wheel of a 1948 Willys Overlander in the middle of a Denver intersection, and was told I was forcibly ejected from a restaurant following a loud argument about Milan Kundera with a calzone. I hear manufacturers have ironed out K’s creases, and the dosages have been calibrated. I’ll come to your office, and you can administer it in a quiet space. I’ll bring my iPod and headphones, and listen to Mozart. I won’t bother a soul, I promise.”

“Oh, for god’s sake. Goodbye.”

So, here I am: stuck with finishing the task, enduring the pain, without respite.

The Gigondas is exceptional. It is the last bottle from a case purchased years ago with my sommelier buddy, James. This shit ages well. Much better than I.

I drink a glass or two while I cook dinner: seared beef tenderloin, heavily peppered. I reconstitute a batch of dried Morels sent to me from Oregon by my sister, Karen, and her husband, Greg — fungus hunters par excellence. After I sear and remove the seasoned meat from the pan, I sauté these puppies with some shallots, microplaned garlic, and fresh rosemary and thyme from the planter. I deglaze the pan with a splash of cognac, add a gurgle of the Gigondas, some of the morel soaking liquid, a bit of beef glace. I reduce the liquid, re-season, add a bit each of heavy cream and coarse Dijon, a smidge more chopped parsley, cook a couple minutes to combine and tighten, add the meat, swirl in a couple tablespoons of unsalted butter, and turn off the heat.

In the morning: back to work!

All that remains to add to the play is an effective close. Members of the audience must leave the theater brimming with questions regarding profound matters but, at the same time, with smiles on their mugs, the result of extended mirth and the spark of unexpected insights.

My brother calls.

Whenever my brother and I communicate, we first update our Deathwatch reports, each trying to best the other with descriptions of the doom that waits, then Kurt makes useful suggestions regarding everything. He is, by his own estimation, an expert, and his suggestions occasionally find the mark — though I find both his recent explanation of String Theory and his plan for developing a cold fusion reactor using a refrigerator and the pump from an old fish tank, lacking in useful details.

I mention my need for something that will cage my theatrical monster and allow me to administer the coup de grace.

“No problem,” says Kurt. “As usual, I have the answer.”

Damned if he isn’t right on the money.

“You know,” says Kurt, “nothing ends a play or a film better than the simultaneous appearance of a unicorn and a rainbow. Toss that in…what viewer will dare say they didn’t have a totally satisfying intellectual and emotional experience? Even genocide seems somewhat reasonable if there’s a rainbow and a unicorn involved.”

It is so glaringly obvious; why didn’t I see it long ago?

I’ll go online tomorrow and alert the producers that the scenic designer needs to start work on a portable rainbow (large, well-lit, glittering), and the costume designer should begin a search for a unicorn outfit. Stat!

I feel better; I know it is temporary, since I’ll fuck things up again real soon, but I relish the relief.

This calls for a cocktail or three, and a blast or three of Mendocino Purps. Perhaps I’ll call my special friend J. and see if he can locate a corrupt vet with some Ketamine to spare.

I can handle it; there’ll be no repercussions.

According to Wanda, my lab results were spectacular.




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2 Responses to A Mouse in the Lab, The Pinhead’s Pain du Jour

  1. Val Valentine says:

    Before I read this, this morning I was thinking of you, and thoughts no less guide by a forested trail or but my life’s experience, were, ‘When Karl Isberg enters a public room, everyone the smartest man in the county, (inserting a “r” might also be appropriate) has arrived.’

    You make me think of Paris where they’re protesting gas prices today on the Champs Ellysees, which also be the setting of you newest play.

    my best wishes, Karl

  2. wm musson says:

    Karl….nice writing but wish i understood more……..oh, well…..my favorite square is across from the abandoned hotel at Sinclair, Wyoming….wine, chillable red from 2 liter box…..aloha, bill

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