Page Two: Lost Horizon
A journey both medical and existential
"I've always been crazy and the trouble that it's put me through
I've been busted for things that I did, and I didn't do
I can't say I'm proud of all of the things that I've done"
– "I've Always Been Crazy," Waylon Jennings
Admittedly, there is something repugnant and vainglorious about calling yourself "crazy," especially along the lines laid out in that song, but I lack the vocabulary to offer a much better self-description. It would be foolish to pretend that I ever really write about anything but myself, but at least that unspeakable hubris is somewhat leavened by my attempts to season my prose strongly with self-deprecation.
The morning of Tuesday, Nov. 28, Nick Barbaro and his wife, Susan Moffat, tried to reach me by phone. I didn't answer. Nick and Chronicle Film Editor Marge Baumgarten had stopped by the day before, when I fear I looked like no one so much as Eyebeam's Hank the Hallucination, sinking into the walls and floor, so they were probably right to be concerned. When I didn't pick up the phone the next day, Susan drove over to check on me.
I had been scheduled to go in around 4pm that day for blood tests to accompany a complete physical that was to take place a few days later. Sue volunteered to – rather, insisted on – driving me to the clinic.
Susan and I have been friends since 1971. Unbeknownst to me, she followed me around the campus of Windham College in Putney, Vt., where we were both undergraduates. At the behest of her boyfriend's roommate, she was following me in order to do a short comic-book story featuring me as Answer Man. When she finished the four-page, highly collectible, single-copy issue, we finally met.
To update something Susan wrote – "It's the fall of '81 and I'm in a third-floor Boston walk-up, opening a letter from Louis Black. I've known Louis since college, exactly one decade. Of that, we've spent three years living together, six weeks not speaking, the balance as friends" – it has now been more than four decades since we met. I add that there were more than a few years when she was a writer here and that she has been married to Nick, my partner in the paper (as well as its publisher) and South by Southwest, for two decades.
At 2pm on the day of my appointment, I called Susan to say I thought we should go right then – two hours early. As we pulled into the clinic, Susan informed me that they might just send me to the hospital. I started hemming and hawing. Susan did not respond. I was fully aware that this nonresponse itself held meaning: If the doctors wanted to send me to the hospital, I was going.
I didn't even make it to the blood tests. When they did in fact tell me that I was going to the hospital, what I felt was an overwhelming sense of relief.
Most of my life and for the longest time, decades, I've been heading toward the far horizon. Usually with pedal-to-the-metal intensity, I've unrolled along a linear, sequential path where today was distinctly after yesterday and tomorrow was some place straight ahead, comprehendible but unknowable.
In the last couple of years, my movement has become more radial, if not completely circular. What happened yesterday was no longer that far away – not only from what would happen the next day but from what went down last year. And it's been shrinking, the circle becoming tighter. But I didn't notice.
Sue took me to Seton. In some order after that: I ate a turkey sandwich, I blue-lined, I was taken to the ICU. I was tied down. I suffered congestive heart failure. The multiple decades of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse I've visited on myself all came storming home. For several days, I was under.
Susan came to visit. I urged her to accumulate guns and plans, lots of guns and lots of plans, because "I'm getting out of here." I didn't. The Seton staff is amazing. I fell in love with the hospital's food.
Annie Lewis and Eli, my son, first and foremost, as well as Suzee Brooks, my mom, my sister Fran, Alicia Rutledge, and too many others to enumerate gathered round and rallied me. The Seton staff (almost all – doctors and nurses, physical therapists, and aides! – were just amazing, as I may have mentioned) slowly nursed me back to health. I am not amazing. And I'm stupid. Against everyone's advice, I escaped by signing myself out one Sunday. To everyone's approval, though accompanied by the heartfelt sighs of "When will he ever learn?" the next day I was back in the hospital.
The staff continued to be superb – "superb" being an understatement! Even when I was back inside my head, I found the food outstanding.
"I've always been crazy but it's kept me from going insane
Nobody knows if it's something to bless or to blame
So far I ain't found a rhyme or a reason to change
I've always been crazy but it's kept me from going insane"
– "I've Always Been Crazy," Waylon Jennings
My dear friend Fred Bayles wrote other friends:
"With Louis it is always an existential question as to whether he is disoriented or simply being Louis, so it took a bunch of emails back and forth before Susan rescued him.
"Susan's summary offers the details, which suggest the lad wasn't in very good shape, but is now in good hands."
Fred wrote to me:
"Couldn't tough it out, ehh? Had to have a woman take you to the hospital simply because you had a few boo boos and heart failure. This is not the Louis Black of the old days.
"That Louis Black wouldn't have sought medical 'help.' He would have stayed at home ... until he swelled up to three times his normal size. Then he would have wandered the neighborhood, scaring little children and dogs as he cackled with delight.
"The old Louis Black wouldn't have given a second thought to a bone-deep infection. The old Louis Black would have gnawed off the offending foot, deep fried it, eaten it with Russian dressing and washed it down with Wild Turkey from a jagged bottle he bit open, all the while growing a new appendage. That is the Louis Black we all remember and admired. Not this Nancy girl who pretends to be in a coma just so he can get clean sheets and three squares a day through the feeding tube.
"I feel like I hardly know you anymore.
As a result of the outstanding care by everyone, after about three weeks, I left the hospital. I missed the food. A couple of Saturdays later, I returned to the hospital but was released the next day.
I continue to go back for a variety of kinds of aftercare. I feel renewed. I am reignited.
The horizon is too far to really be seen, but after finishing the current rounds of mending, I am gearing up to go racing toward it again, heading there as fast as I can go. I hope to long be chasing it but never quite get to it.
When he is not tormenting Louis Black in an entertaining fashion, professor Fred Bayles is director of the Boston University State House Program. He is also the author of Field Guide to Covering Local News: How To Report on Cops, Courts, Schools, Emergencies, and Government and blogs about the growing focus on and need for outstanding, reliable local reporting, as well as how to do it, at www.reportersfieldguide.wordpress.com.