My Lesson in Mindfulness
In 1979, my life changed while I was covering the trial of Dan White for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
Former police officer White had confessed to killing the progressive Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was becoming the gay equivalent of Martin Luther King. Now psychiatrist Martin Blinder was testifying that, on the night before the murders, White “just sat there in front of the TV set, binging on Twinkies.” Another psychiatrist stated, “If not for the aggravating fact of junk food, the homicides might not have taken place.” In my notebook, I scribbled “the Twinkie defense” and wrote about it in my next report. On the 25th anniversary of those murders, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, “During the trial, no one but well-known satirist Paul Krassner–who may have coined the phrase ‘Twinkie defense’–played up that angle.”
The Twinkie defense rested comfortably between a severely bungled prosecution and a shrewdly manipulated defense. One juror remarked after the trial, “It sounded like Dan White had hypoglycemia.” The “diminished capacity” ploy had worked. And so it came to pass that a double political assassination was transmuted into simple voluntary manslaughter. White would be sentenced to serve only seven years behind bars. No wonder there was a post-verdict riot in front of City Hall.
A dozen police cars had been set on fire, which in turn set off their alarms, underscoring the angry shouts from a mob of five thousand understandably outraged gays. The police were running amuck in an orgy of indiscriminate sadism, swinging their clubs wildly and screaming profanity-laden homophobic epithets.I was struck with a nightstick on the outside of my right knee and I fell to the ground. Another cop came charging at me and made a threatening gesture with his billy club. When I tried to protect my head, he jabbed me viciously on the exposed right side of my chest. Oh, God, the pain! It felt like an electric cattle prod was stuck between my ribs.
I had a fractured rib and a punctured lung. The injuries affected my posture, and I began to develop an increasingly unbalanced body–twisted and in constant pain. I limped the gamut of therapists: from an orthodox orthopedic surgeon who gave me a shot of cortisone in to ease the pain; to a specialist in neuromuscular massage who wondered if the cop had gone to medical school because “he knew exactly where to hit” me with his billy club; to a New Age healer who put one hand on my stomach, held the receptionist’s hand with the other, and asked her whether I should wear a brace. The answer was yes. But I decided to get a second opinion–perhaps from another receptionist.
In 1987, I went to a chiropractor, who referred me to a podiatrist, who referred me to a physiatrist, who wanted me to get an MRI–a CAT scan–in order to rule out the possibility of cervical stenosis. But the MRI ruled it in. X-rays indicated that my spinal cord was being squeezed by spurring on the inside of several discs in my neck. The physiatrist told me that I needed surgery. I panicked. I had always taken my good health for granted. I went into heavy denial, confident that I could completely cure my problem by walking barefoot on the beach every day for three weeks.
“You’re a walking time bomb,” the podiatrist warned me. He said that if I were in a rear-end collision, or just out strolling and I tripped, my spinal cord could be severed, and I would be paralyzed from the chin down. I began to be conscious of every move I made. I was living, not one day at a time, not one hour at a time, not one minute at a time?I was living one second at a time.
The head of orthopedics at UCLA assured me that I really had no choice but to have the operation. I asked if I could have avoided this whole situation with a different diet or by exercising more. He shook his head no. “Wrong parents,” he said, referring to hereditary arthritis. My condition had been totally exacerbated by the police beating. I was one of 37 million Americans who didn’t have insurance, nor did I have any savings. Fortunately, I had an extended family and friends all over the country who came to my financial rescue. The operation was scheduled to take place at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York.
A walking time bomb! I was still in a state of shock, but since I perceived the world through a filter of absurdity, now I would have to apply that perception to my own situation. The breakthrough for me came when I learned that my neurosurgeon moonlighted as a clown at the circus. “All right, I surrender, I surrender.” I met him the night before the operation. He sat on my bed wearing a trench coat and called me Mr. Krassner. I thought that if he was going to cut me open and file through five discs in my upper spinal column, he could certainly be informal enough to call me Paul. He was busy filling out a chart.
“What do you do for a living, Mr. Krassner?”
“I’m a writer and a comedian.”
“How do you spell comedian?”
Rationally, I knew that you don’t have to be a good speller to be a fine surgeon, but his question made me uneasy. At least his hands weren’t shaking while he wrote. Then he told me about how simple the operation was and he mentioned almost in passing that there was always the possibility I could end up staying in the hospital for the rest of my life. Huh? There was a time when physicians practiced positive thinking to help their patients, but now it was a requirement of malpractice prevention to provide the worst-case scenario in advance.
The next morning, under the influence of Valium and Demerol, I could see that my neurosurgeon had just come from the circus, because he was wearing a clown costume, with a big round red nose over his surgical mask. He couldn’t get close to the operating table because his shoes were so large, and when he had to cleanse my wound he asked the nurse to please pass the seltzer bottle…
“Wake up, Paul, “the anesthesiologist, said, “Surgery’s over. Wiggle your toes.”
My wife Nancy was waiting in the hall, and I was never so glad to see her smile. That evening, at a benefit in Berkeley, my friend, novelist and Merry Pranksters leader Ken Kesey, told the audience, “I spoke with Krassner today, and the operation was successful, but he says he’s not taking any painkillers because he never does any legal drugs.” Then Kesey led the crowd in a chant: “Get well, Paul! Get well, Paul!” And it worked. The following month I was performing again, wearing a neck brace at a theater in Seattle.
But, over the years, I gradually got gimpier and gimpier. My hip was so out of kilter that my right foot turned inward when I walked, and my left foot continuously was tripping on my right foot. More and more often, I found myself falling all over the place. Dozens of times. Finally, after I started inadvertently knocking down other people like dominoes at a book festival in Australia, I realized that I would definitely need to start walking with a cane. Since then, at any airport, I have to put my cane on the conveyor belt, along with my carry-on bag and my shoes. And then the security guy hands me a different cane– a wooden one, painted orange–to help me walk through the metal detector without falling.
One time, in a restaurant, I tripped on my own cane and fell flat on my face–bruising myself badly, yet grateful that I hadn’t broken any teeth. That’s my nature–to perceive a blessing in disguise as soon as I stop bleeding. However, this time I was left with a dark, square-shaped scab between my nose and my lips. It looked like a Hitler mustache, and I became very self-conscious about it.
I will be 80 years old in April 2012, and now I really am a walking time bomb. I cannot afford to fall again. I must be careful when I walk. I have to be fully conscious of every step. Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Any fall could injure me. It might even be fatal. I have surrendered to a process that is truly an ongoing lesson in mindfulness. I’m learning that when you are mindful in one aspect of your life, you’ll strengthen mindfulness in other aspects. I am, after all, a Zen Bastard–a title bestowed upon me when Kesey and I co-edited The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog–and I certainly have no desire to trip while hobbling along my particular path.
Paul Krassner is the editor of The
Realist. His books include: Pot
Stories for the Soul, One
Hand Jerking and Murder
at the Conspiracy Convention. He is author of many books including Who’s to Say What’s Obscene?, published by City Lights Books. In 2010, the writers’ organization PEN honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’m very happy to receive this award,” he announced, “and I’m even happier that it’s not posthumous.” He can be reached through his