In the Hands of the Masters

Yall are going to have a hard time getting me out of this cowboy hat…

I got a blast of reality in Houston last week. It was about a month since my last visit- a month where life largely returned to “normal”. I was back in my routine for the most part, and on most days I could ignore the specter. I feel great here at home, even with the chemo. In Houston, however, things are different. There is no “normal”. There are constant reminders of the situation everywhere. It is surreal and sobering. That said, I am still living the dream and I managed to enjoy myself.

On Tuesday I was scheduled for a 6:45 a.m. blood work appointment (which is cruel and unusual). I left D to catch up on her sleep and schlepped my way over to get stuck. Afterwards I had a couple of hours before my ERCP (that’s an Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography for those playing at home) and decided to treat myself (because, y’know, I’m worth it). I figured that if I was going to be in Texas for treatment, the only suitable memento would be a custom-fitted cowboy hat. I summoned an Uber and trekked out to what is apparently THE place to get a hat in Houston.

I walked in to The Hat Store and was greeted by a couple of gentlemen. They had a cosmic yin-yang thing going on- one tall and lithe, the other short and built like a fire plug. The fire plug, Gary Cohen, is the owner. I told him why I was in Houston and why I was in his store. He probed me about how I would be using the hat and for what purposes. He took his time to show off various models, and describe their relative merits. We found a straw number that was quite clearly meant for me. At this point, all of the hats are unformed- the brim is flat and the top is rounded. The next step, shaping, is pure art.

Uncomprehendingly, he did not ask for my signed photo
for the wall. I think I'll send him one anyway.

He asked if I had a particular shape in mind (which of course I did not). I said that I wanted something functional and relatively traditional - and nothing crazy like the concert cowboys. “Hmm, with your face, you’re going to want the alpine”. Mr. Cohen stepped behind the counter and turned open the valve on his steaming machine and proceeded to work his craft. Deftly maneuvering the hat on and off the steam, he started bending, coaxing, and shaping the straw. He constantly checked his work putting the hat on my head and observing, then taking it back to the steam for more. He was very keen for my input in the shape (apparently, serious hat folk are very particular about shaping). I was quite happy to leave the shape to his practiced hands. In the end, we were both very pleased that my hat was MY hat. He showed me a variety of hatband options, and I went with a peanut brittle crocodile strap (cause, y’know, I’m worth it).  We settled up, Mr. Cohen gave me some tips on hat wearing, care and maintenance, left me with some kind works, and I was off.

I spent more time than planned in The Hat Store, so it was a race to get back to M.D. Anderson to make my procedure on time. (Which I did…barely.) I left my hat with D for safekeeping, got undressed, put on the silly gown and settled in on the stretcher. After getting poked, prodded and prepped by a variety of very pleasant people, the doctor showed up. You will remember Dr. Lee as the superstar endoscopy guy that unraveled the mess that is my biliary system to place the stent that relieved my jaundice and made my chemo possible. I mentioned to one of the nurses that Dr. Lee performed a near miracle on my last ERCP, and he replied in an almost reverent tone “That’s what he does, all day, every day, he’s amazing”. When he arrived, Dr. Lee easily and comfortably deflected all of my praise and admiration, and accepted my thanks. We had a chat about the procedure (a replacement of his masterwork) and he started on his way. Before he left, he turned, pulled out his phone and asked if he could take a picture with me. “Only if I can take my picture with you, and only if I can wear my cowboy hat”. He asked that we not post anything to social media, to which I grudgingly agreed, and he was on his way.

Lee and Me.
(Faces have been disguised to protect the studly)

Coming out of those procedures is always a bit of an uncomfortable time for me. In that drug-induced fog, I apparently have a habit of spilling my guts and emotionally gushing my love and appreciation for everyone within earshot. Dr. Lee came back for a visit and to give another humble report of a masterful performance. He gave me his sincere best wishes and told me that I had won the hearts of everyone on his team. How in the world I could win anyone’s heart with a tube down my throat, sedated, drooling, and lying buck-naked on my stomach is beyond me (I’ll have to look into that), but he made me believe it nonetheless.

The next day, it was biopsy time. They stuck a big ass needle between my ribs and into my liver to get the sample. With the drugs, the experience wasn’t all that bad- although it was disconcerting to hear the doctor say “We’re going to check to see if we have enough material, don’t move, there’s a big needle sticking out of your liver”. The biggest problem was the fasting. Because I had to fast for both procedures, and because there is no solid food after an ERCP, I went from Tuesday at 5:45 pm until Thursday at 5:00 pm with no solid food and only 12 ounces of broth for fluid. On Thursday at 5:01pm I went directly from the recovery room at the hospital to downtown Houston for a steak the size of a toilet seat (cause, y’know, I’m worth it).

So, one week and two masters of their respective crafts. I am quite jealous of people who have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of perfecting one thing in life. My journey has been somewhat different, having spent my time trying to learn as much as I can about as many things as I can. In the end, we can each choose only one path, but it’s certainly a pleasure to watch the master travelers.

This week’s listen: Still on the Noel Gallaher. He is, bar none, my favorite lyricist of all time. This week I’ve been admiring his craft on While the Song Remains  the Same.

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