Banter M Issue 47

In this issue of Banter M:

My Chemical Romance - Chez Pazienza marks the 10th anniversary of the surgery that removed a tumor the size of a pinball from his head with a highly revealing account of what life is like now -- particularly after turning to testosterone boosters and discovering his inner sex fiend, who, as Chez writes "Wants to f*ck. All the time". 

Celebrating More Than Celebrity - Jamie Frevele uncovers an interesting trait in both Prince and Beyonce that is likely responsible for their success as artists. If we celebrated more than their celebrity, could we potentially unleash our own artistic greatness into the ether? 

Zen and the 2016 Election - Ben Cohen argues that rather than succumbing to petty tribalism and never ending conflict, the American presidential election as the perfect test of patience and a unique opportunity to develop a higher state of consciousness.  

My Chemical Romance

by Chez Pazienza

"When All I Want To Do Is Wrong"

I want to fuck. Right now. This is a problem.

Technically, it shouldn't be a problem that I want sex, given that I'm a 46-year-old man and not, say, a 76-year-old man. Despite my best efforts and some of the most powerful recreational chemicals created by man or nature, I'm not exactly in the ground just yet. So with that in mind, there's nothing wrong with still having a healthy appreciation for that unique thrill of being inside someone, making her feel good, making myself feel good. Sex is one of those profound experiences that not only reminds you that you're alive no matter your age, but, if you're older, has the ability to put you in touch on a primal level with the person you were in your that glorious nascence of your experience. If you can vanish into that rare headspace where you completely let go and allow the passion and bliss to just wash over you, the feeling is nothing short of miraculous. It's spiritual, lovely, so abundantly human.  

But that's not what I'm talking about here. What I'm referring to -- what I want with every fiber of my being more and more these days -- is something else entirely. It goes beyond the flowery language or the clear-headed, rational explanation of what sex is and what it means. No, I want to fuck. I don't want to drift away on shit. I want to have the kind of sex where it feels like your very soul is shooting out of you when you come. I want insane. I want dangerous. I want the kind of fucking I remember from my early 20s. And here's why: Because chemically, I am in my early 20s. From a biological standpoint, I may as well be 22 all over again -- and this is only a recent development in my life. For years I wasn't simply my advancing age; I was in fact much, much older than that. Most men in their 40s see their vitality begin to slip away -- noticeably so. But I had something else working against me that a lot of men didn't. And it had effectively closed the door on who I was: who I used to be and even who I was meant to develop into in middle-age.

Put simply, I wasn't who I was supposed to be in my 40s. Until a single shot changed all of that.

"Don't You Know How Sweet and Wonderful Life Can Be?"

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the surgery that removed a tumor the size of a pinball from my head. I was diagnosed with it in early April of 2006 after spending five days in the unshakable grip of a headache that felt like something was eating its way out of my skull from the inside. I remember laying there in my apartment in Brooklyn with a cold washcloth over my face, literally in tears as I pleaded with some higher power for just a few hours of sleep -- a tiny slice of time away from the torment. I had made the mistake of telling my doctor at the outset of our relationship that I was a former heroin addict, which meant that under almost no circumstances would she prescribe me painkillers that actually work, certainly not for a supposedly excruciating pain that she couldn't confirm was the real deal. So that's how it went for days: me moaning and groaning in anguish with nothing but naproxen and a some codeine to supposedly -- but not really -- take the edge off and no idea what the hell was going on inside my head. It took three days of this before my doctor, suitably concerned, finally scheduled an MRI.

I was led to believe that it wasn't the job of the MRI technician to tell you what he or she saw during the procedure, only to whisk the findings back to the doctors and let them break the bad news. My MRI technician, however, decided to take the initiative and met me in the dressing room as I slowly, painfully put my clothes back on. "I can tell you what's wrong with you," he said. I didn't respond, since speaking made my head pound so hard it had, on several occasions, nearly made me pass out from the agony. "You've got a tumor underneath your brain that's about that big," he continued, holding his fingers maybe an inch-and-a-quarter apart. "And it's bleeding." I just stared at him blankly for a second, then asked the obvious: "Am I gonna die?" "Probably not," came his response. "It's likely benign, but you still need call your doctor and tell her you're going to Cornell Medical Center immediately." I had been in so much agony for so long that I'd almost reached a place of peaceful Zen, where every waking moment felt like a surreal pain-hallucination, so I didn't really process what he was saying. It came through in fragments. Brain. Tumor. Hospital. Now.

A little while later, there I was -- curled up on a bed in an ER room, the lights kindly switched off so that my brain didn't feel like the white beams coming through my eyes were burning it like a magnifying glass incinerating ants. The actual diagnosis as a result of my MRI was "giant pituitary adenoma" -- a large tumor wrapped around my pituitary gland. It had been there for years, growing, secreting its own hormones and screwing with my pituitary's own hormonal output. It was likely the driving force behind the mood swings I'd been experiencing for some time and the night blindness I seemed to be developing at the ripe old age of 36. Who knows what caused it to begin bleeding -- something called "pituitary apoplexy" -- but it was the blood pooling around it that created the excruciating pain I was in, which meant that the tumor and everything near it had to come out. Hearing this didn't send me into a tearful frenzy simply because, well, at that time I could think of nothing other than my own suffering. But when the nice, young doctor told me they were going to have to cut open my head to get it out, that registered. That turned my blood ice cold.

That was the plan. It wasn't, however, what happened. Because at the last minute, as the procedure was being discussed with me and I was being prepped for surgery, a doctor dressed in a perfectly appointed suit -- minus a lab coat of any kind -- strode in and declared that he was going to take my case and that my tumor would be removed through a noninvasive resection technique that involved going in through my nose and pulling everything bad out. He gave me platelets to stop the bleeding, steroids to shrink the tumor and, finally, some decent fucking painkillers. And just like that he sent me home. I would come back in three weeks, after a series of consultations with an ear, nose and throat specialist, and have the tumor removed. It came out on April 25th of 2006. Certainly the procedure I had done was far better than having my head opened, closed with a row of grisly staples, then left permanently scarred, but anyone who tells you that endoscopic resection is "noninvasive" can go fuck himself. They still go into your head. They still pull something that was there out. You still deal with the aftermath.

About that aftermath. Despite a hellish first night in recovery, I somehow felt shockingly decent in the days following my surgery. I was only in the hospital for five days and upon leaving immediately walked across the street and got myself a hot dog from one of the carts on the sidewalk near the hospital. It tasted good, better than any I had ever had. I was feeling so upbeat, in fact, that I placed on the mental back-burner the parting words of my neurosurgeon -- the warning he gave me about what was almost surely to come. "There's going to come a time when you'll wish we'd taken your arm off," were his ominous words. "Because there's going to come a time when people won't believe there's something wrong with you, but you'll know there is. You'll know you're not who you used to be." I was told a large part of my pituitary gland had been removed and that it meant I'd have to be on hormone replacements -- and I was told that the situation could counterintuitively get worse as the years pass -- but at the time I was too busy marveling at all the ways I was a walking miracle of modern science. Sure, I got shingles in the immediate wake of the surgery -- the one thing that finally made my doctor break down and prescribe a 100-count bottle of Vicodin, my addictive past be damned -- and there were the odd, confusing scents my nose suddenly picked up, but overall I was in pretty good shape.

But that did in fact change. It changed drastically. I began to recognize the constant upheaval in my body and the impact it had on my depression. (I would cry often and for no reason.) I was put on thyroid medication as well as hydrocortisone and Androgel, the lattermost for my suddenly unstable testosterone level. And that became the biggest problem for me. That right there. Because my sex drive dropped, then increased, then leveled off, then plummeted. The hair on my legs vanished seemingly overnight. The hair under my arms disappeared over time. My facial hair thinned. As I got older I wondered how much of that testosterone drop could be attributed finally pushing past 40 and how much was a direct result of the surgery. It seemed like my prescriptions for everything I was on had to be adjusted monthly to compensate for whatever the hell was happening inside me and what hormones were or weren't coming from my almost nonexistent pituitary gland. I was under the care of an endocrinologist and that person's job was to constantly monitor my system and compensate for whatever wasn't there anymore. The result was that it was difficult to ever truly feel like me. Ever. And when I explained to people that there were certain things I had trouble doing anymore and that when I said I was sick I really was sick, they sometimes reacted incredulously. It was always then that I'd remember my neurosurgeon's warning. I knew there was something wrong with me -- even if no one else could see it.

In the past few years, I saw my sex drive once again nosedive. It was holding steady, obviously meaning that my testosterone level was holding, but at some point it bottomed out. I liked to come, sure, but to be honest it and everything done to achieve it just wasn't a priority. It's a strange thing when you simply stop caring about sex. It's difficult to put into words what it feels like because it quite frankly doesn't feel like anything. It's negative space. The desire just isn't there anymore: the desire to go through the motions; the desire to feel, touch, taste and smell all those things sex represents; the desire even to masturbate. It just doesn't matter. I was aware of how much I had changed, transitioning from a guy who spent most of his life pursuing every hedonistic impulse on the planet to someone for whom none of that holds the least bit of interest, but in the end that awareness meant nothing. I didn't care that I didn't care. I knew it was a problem for my girlfriend because we'd sometimes go for weeks at a time without sex and I had heard on more than one occasion how we were turning into barely-there roommates and nothing more, but not giving a damn about getting laid was just who I was. You can't miss what you don't have -- and I had no sex drive, so I couldn't miss it.

Why did my once maddeningly powerful need for that feeling slip away? Because my testosterone dropped. And why did my testosterone drop? Because, for a time, I couldn't afford health insurance. All of that changed, though, last year.

"My Whole Existence Is Flawed"

After the results of my first blood test came back, my new, no-bullshit endocrinologist here in Los Angeles gave it to me straight: "You have the testosterone level of an 11-year-old girl. You're an idiot for letting it get this way." There it was, the confirmation I didn't really need: It wasn't age that had sapped me of all that manly testosterone, it was the surgery that had long ago removed a pituitary tumor from my head and part of my pituitary with it. And yes, I was an idiot. I was a constantly exhausted, listless, sexless idiot. I figured she'd be putting me back on Androgel, which had worked somewhat in the past. She shot that down in a heartbeat. "No, gel won't do you any good. You need injections to kickstart your system," she said. And that's how I wound up on a regimen of HGH and testosterone shots. I was vaguely aware of what that combination of chemicals might do to me and for me, but really whatever description I had heard about the benefits of HGH and injected testosterone, I'd soon learn, didn't even begin to scratch the surface of the actual result. The first time they injected me, it felt like someone had shot me up with rocket fuel. The impact was instantaneous and profound. I laughed uncontrollably at the sudden feeling that I could walk outside and stop traffic with my bare hands. I'd been bitten by a radioactive spider or maybe showered with gamma rays. I was a fucking superhero. I was BrundleChez. I had liquid fire coursing through my veins.

Oh, and I wanted to fuck. Immediately. In a series of waves washing over my body it became clear what had been missing. Me, someone who had once treated women's bodies the way Native Americans treat buffalos -- let nothing ever go to waste as everything deserves to be honored and devoured -- had basically given up. I had stopped caring about something that most of my life had been hallowed and passionate and insane and glorious to me: sex. That perfect, wondrous, feeling of fucking. My doctor was right -- what had I allowed myself to become? No matter. I was back. That feeling was back. I wanted it. I wanted it now. So I went home, woke up my girlfriend and we went at it in a way we hadn't in a very, very long time. I was present -- completely. I felt every little movement, every little sight, sound and scent: I took it all in. And when I came it was more intense than anything I had felt in years, maybe going all the way back to my 20s. That was it: I felt like I was in my early-20s again. All thanks to a single syringe full of synthetic hormones. Better living through motherfucking chemistry. The fountain of youth in a needle. My strength would come back. The hair under my arms would come back. I'd be normal. Better than normal, actually. Far better.

But there's a strange downside to all of that and, like those days when I barely wanted sex, it's difficult to put into words. Not having a sex drive is strangely, well, calming. I'm not sure whether it was simply a bottomed-out testosterone level or what stemmed from it -- the lack of desire to get myself or another person off -- but when you remove the primary driver that for centuries has made men do stupid, stupid things in pursuit of, it makes you more clear-headed. Even when I was younger I believed it would be undignified to be, say, a 40- or 50-something horn-dog still obsessed with his penis. I never wanted to be an older man who still chased women around like some pathetic latter-day lothario. I looked down on people like that and so when the need for sex evaporated I sometimes found myself reveling in all the ways I wasn't in danger of becoming that sort of tragic figure. True, my girlfriend and I argued more than once about the fact that I had been so passionate as a younger man that I'd committed my exploits to paper and internet space -- and now here I was, with her but not in the way I once was years ago with others. But I had always argued that I was a better person now. That I was saner, more centered, less able to be victimized by my own dumb passion. Because that was always the thing with me: I allowed myself to become a slave to my most primal desires.

Now, though, I'm back. A regular series of injections has made me a young man again in many ways, but with increased testosterone and all that it brings I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by my hunger the same way I did when I was a young man. The slavery comes not when there's a desire but when there's a need -- and thanks to the flood of chemicals in my body, sex feels more like a need than it has at any point in years. Maybe decades. Granted, this is indeed balanced out somewhat by my maturity and experience, by the knowledge of what can happen when I allow something I crave to dictate the terms of my life. I may not feel like 46 most days, but I'm still 46 and I have a lifetime of shitty mistakes made chasing highs of every kind. But it's staggering on a personal level just how different things are these days thanks to the shots. It's not just that I have an occasionally overpowering sexual appetite, it's the way that appetite has changed me at a fundamental level. For so long I wondered when I talked to women whether they felt any sensuality at all coming from me given that I didn't feel it from myself. I wondered if anyone -- besides my gorgeous and endlessly patient girlfriend -- was attracted to me, only because I knew I wasn't interested and therefore wasn't giving off anything in the way of "vibes."

But what about now? Can anyone actually feel my sexuality? Should I even want that as a 46-year-old man? Think of how balls-out fucking ridiculous that sounds to even say at my age. Remember, I never wanted to be that asshole and I still don't. But can a human animal read the changes in someone when they suddenly are a sexual being again after so long? And other than the person I've dedicated myself to, is it even important that anyone still see me as attractive or sexual or seductive? Doesn't not-being-that-asshole mean that by middle-age it just shouldn't matter to me anymore? Isn't nature sapping you of testosterone and the sex drive that goes with it in your 40s simply its way of telling you your time as a young man is up? But it's not. Not anymore. Like so much, modern medicine has found a way to subvert nature's designs on us -- and it's turned me into a silly, horny teenager again. It's wonderful. And terrifying. And more than a little embarrassing. While I'm certainly supposed to have more testosterone coursing through my body than I did just a few months ago, I'm not sure I'm supposed to be -- this. I worry about the hunger that once led me to some truly dark places years ago. I'm old and experienced enough now to keep it all under control -- I think. But it's surreal to suddenly be here again. I thought I was past all of this. I thought that for my many sins of the flesh, ten years ago the universe had seen fit to relieve me of that which let me to commit them.

But chemistry has brought it all roaring back.

I want to fuck. All the time. This is a problem.


Next: Celebrating More Than Celebrity - by Jamie Frevele

Celebrating More Than Celebrity

by Jamie Frevele

It's been a wild time for music, with Beyonce releasing her "visual album" LEMONADE last weekend and igniting social media and the blogosphere into a firestorm of thinkpieces. Just days before, Prince died. Enough said. Both of those things happening so close to each other probably overwhelmed a lot of music fans, and mentions of both were inescapable online. And one thing that many people wondered was how did these geniuses do it? Beyonce and Prince are both artists deserving of their massive fan bases, but why is it such a shock when they make something great when that's what they have been celebrated for all along?

I have an idea what it could be, but you're going to have to put your phone down for a second and stop checking Facebook so you can read it.

Do you really think Prince and Beyonce spent as much time as you did on social media? In his life, Prince tweeted 740 times. Beyonce has tweeted nine times. She's tweeted so few times that I had to spell the number out in letters because that's what copyediting rules dictate. As an example of people not making a great use of their time, I have tweeted 19.4 thousand times, roughly, as of my writing this post. And my last tweet was about joining another social network. Though the reason for that was to find more writing work, so I feel like that last tweet was justified because it was in the name of creativity. But people like Beyonce and Prince don't need Twitter or LinkedIn because they are spending their time being productive. Beyonce and Prince spend their time making things, and constantly. Apparently Prince had "hundreds" of unreleased songs and died in his Minnesota home studio. Beyonce kept an entire album and accompanying film under wraps until last Saturday. Was she sharing her progress on Instagram? Leaking teases on Facebook? Hell, no. She was too busy making art to be bothered with that.

But there is so much social media reaction to Beyonce doing her job that it makes me wonder: what are the jobs of all these people who seemingly worship her like a god? Some of them are obviously writers because the barrage of thinkpieces that followed could not be ignored, nor could the thinkpieces about the thinkpieces, in case you needed any more convincing that the internet is eating itself. But what kind of void is only filled when Beyonce does what Beyonce does? And while it's great to see an artist create something that resonates with her fans -- when is that ever not great? -- is it really that big of a deal?

Not every single person is a creative type, so it's silly to think that every person who loves Beyonce and/or Prince should pick up a pen or musical instrument and start living up to their own idols. But maybe being silly would be better for us. I always learn so much from people who constantly make things. I watch women like Sara Benincasa, who is writing book after book while I watch from the desolate glow of my computer screen, thinking "I should be writing something of my own… but I have some very important scrolling to do right now."

What's so great about Beyonce and Prince is that they create (or created) unapologetically, revealing insecurities along with triumphs. And we're only seeing the best of what they chose to show everyone. Can you even imagine the bad stuff? The shit that they had to work through in order to find the gold that made it into public? I'll bet it wasn't even that bad, but the fact is that they worked. They earned their acclaim. I just wish that rather than watch people gush incessantly over people they admire but will never meet, I'd rather imagine that the release of such a great piece of art would cause people to abandon social media in favor of a haven of original thinking. These people told amazing stories, but what is my story? Look how Beyonce told her story! Look at how Prince did it! Now it's my turn to do something great rather than release millennial-friendly gushes and emojis on facebook.

Maybe I'm just a frustrated artsy type who's been too lazy to start something up, despite having a ton of great ideas for stories to tell. I resent myself for lumping me in with these other do-nothing people who merely watch instead of adding to the cultural conversation, but it's been a long time since I made something great. I'm not a huge fan of Beyonce or Prince (Bowie is another story, though), but I won't deny their importance and I admire how much they accomplished because they had focus.

I can make all the dumb Twitter jokes I want, but it hasn't gotten me any closer to my own Purple Rain or Lemonade, and that's frustrating. We should expect more from ourselves. That's why we should celebrate artists like Prince and Beyonce.


Next: Zen And The 2016 Election - by Ben Cohen


Zen And The 2016 Election

by Ben Cohen

Lately I have found myself further and further emotionally removed from the day to day news cycle and the unfolding presidential election. The incessant bickering between the Hillary and Bernie fans and the horrendous spectacle of Donald Trump laying waste to all that is decent in society have all led to a rather stark revelation: if you get emotionally involved in all of this, you stand to make yourself very, very ill.

Further than that, I now look at the American presidential election as the perfect test of patience and  a unique opportunity to develop a higher state of consciousness. 

Let me explain. 

What we are witnessing on MSNBC, Fox, CNN etc every day is essentially human tribalism wrecking a process that should inspire us and give us hope for a better future. Democracy and the election of those we deem noble enough to lead us is the greatest invention of civilization, but in American in 2016, we are watching an orange faced sociopath insulting his main rival for being a woman, and the media presenting completely different interpretations of it. We have seen fanatical tribalism rise up around both a decent politician and a nasty bigot, and meaningful dialogue essentially come to a halt.  

The astonishingly toxic nature of this election cycle is indicative of a culture in such a state of dysfunction that it no longer has any solid basis for a coherent society that understands itself in any meaningful way. 

From the biased news media outlets to the political groupies regurgitating their candidate's talking points, the American election process is basically now a sporting spectacle, but without the sportsmanship. Not only that, the players aren't even playing the same sport given how polarized their ideologies are. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump may as well be living in different universes as they could not be more diametrically opposed on virtually every issue. The Republicans and Democrats cannot be mentioned in the same sentence any more -- one party consists of thinking, rational adults, while the other consists of half baked fundamentalists who believe the earth is flat. The two sides no longer speak to each other, they only speak at each other. 

The trap, it seems to me, is getting emotionally involved with any aspect of it. Once you sign up as a Hillary Clinton fan, a Bernie Sanders fan, a Donald Trump hater or a Ted Cruz believer, you've signed away your sovereignty as an independent, thinking person and have succumbed to the most basic and destructive tenants of tribalism. This isn't to say that you can't support one candidate over another or be deeply concerned about the future of the country and want to keep certain politicians away from the levers of power -- but attaching yourself to what essentially is a brand created by clever marketers who have spent years creating an image for toothpaste companies, television sets and celebrities means you give up the ability to see what is really going on.

This instinct of blind fealty to one candidate over another is utilized by those in power to distract us from real issues that affect us all. As we follow the horse race and back "our guy" (or "gal" in this election cycle), we inevitably lose sight of what our candidates actually stand for and are proposing once they get into office. I personally see Bernie Sanders as being an antidote to much of this thinking given his relentless focus on actual issues, but nevertheless many of his groupies have sadly turned his candidacy into a personality cult that is just as toxic as any of the others. Once you get to the "Bernie or Bust" movement, you have succumbed to the very same instincts that have successfully driven the country apart. Any rational observer can see that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be preferable to a bloviating fascist, but when you are deeply emotionally attached to the Bernie Sanders brand, pragmatism goes out the window and everyone else suffers because of it. 

Really though, my argument isn't about politics at all. It is about the sovereignty of the self and the dangers of giving it up to an invented human construct. We invented football teams and pit them against each other in grand spectacles of ritualized battle. We invented the construct of race despite there being no biological basis for it and have gone to war over this insignificant difference in skin pigmentation. We invented Apple laptops and pitted them against PCs, arbitrarily set up nation states and continue to fight over their borders, and compare ourselves to others by what products we buy.

Once you get lost in this world of competing ideologies, religions, sports teams or political candidates you live in a world dictated by the ups and downs of their successes and not your own. As the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said to an audience at the United Nations:

One wonders, if one is at all serious, why man kills another human being - in the name of god, in the name of peace, in the name of some ideology, or for his country - whatever that may mean - or for the king and the queen, and all the rest of that business. Probably we all know this: that man has never lived on this earth, which is being slowly destroyed; why man cannot live at peace with another human being; why there are separate nations, which is after all a glorified tribalism. And religions, whether it be Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism, they are also at war with each other. Nations are at war, groups are at war, ideologies, whether it is the Russian or the American, or any other category of ideologies, they are all at war with each other, conflict. And after living on this earth for so many centuries, why is it man cannot live peacefully on this marvelous earth? This question has been asked over and over again. An organization like this has been formed round that. What is the future of this particular organization? After the 40th year what lies beyond?

Personally, I think the human species is getting there as we have become less violent over time, more connected to one another through our technology, and generally more tolerant. Maybe it is because the hyperconnected world we live in offers so many forms of tribalism that we are slowly beginning to see through it all -- which would be a huge step forward in personal empowerment and significant antidote to the appeal of our more destructive instincts. 

The 2016 election then, offers the perfect opportunity to witness our silly tribalism and find a way to avoid its trappings. If you find yourself banging your fists in frustration over your chosen candidate's failures or your sworn enemy's successes, just remember that you are making not only yourself sick, but the rest of us too.