Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bedside Manners

Yesterday I had some medical tests performed at my local HMO. I lay down on the examining table, pulled up my shirt so a young Indian (or perhaps Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lanka or Maldivian) woman could do a sonogram of my kidneys, liver, bladder and stomach. She was friendly in that oh-so-distant way cops, medical technicians and lawyers on the opposite side are taught to be. The tests are not particularly unpleasant save for having to drink 32 ounces of water an hour before and then having your bladder leaned upon, and I’ll add here that I think my HMO is a well-run institution with which I have had no qualms of late.

The woman left the room twice for five minutes each without explanation. I reasoned that maybe examining people’s bladders eight hours a day might make you want to pee pretty often, but this is not the sort of thing discussed with an aloof Indian Asian person, so after her first departure I kept my thoughts to myself. The second time she left, though, I started getting antsy. Had she seen something that necessitated instant reporting to the powers that be? Would I be whisked from examining table to operating table in a matter of minutes? Was there something wrong?

I’m not stranger to tests. In fact I’m one of those rare men who underwent a mammogram when there was a slim possibility that I might have breast cancer (roughly one out of a hundred cases is male), and I’ve had my share of colonoscopies, barium exams, MRIs, EKG and other procedures. I have always believed that being left alone during or after the exam is fairly thoughtless. Granted, it is not up to the tech to interpret the results of the exams, but tests, by their very nature, imply that perhaps something is not working properly. They raise our awareness of mortality. It’s impossible, as one goes through these things, not to entertain the thought that Oh My God I Might Die!        

While waiting for the tech’s reappearance, I wrote my own obit, questioned its placement in the Washington Post  (lead obit page where the death of semi-notables are noted, or page after that meriting only an announcement paid for by friends?)  I wondered what said friends would say, and decided my will was not as current as it should be.  I speculated about the disposition of the stuff I own and decided to look into being buried in my Avanti automobile, then remembered I wanted to be cremated and it would be a shame to burn such a fine car.  Then the Indian woman rematerialized and told me I could go.

I won’t get the results of the tests for a few days, and since I am not a physician I will leave their interpretation to others. My doctor has already explained the best- and worst-case scenarios, and there’s no reason to think the direst will happen. But still. A smile would have been nice, and any small reassurance welcome.  Isn’t that what are called bedside manners?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Old Stuff

In my house I have a couple of pieces of furniture worth passing on to another generation. They’re functional, rather than museum quality and they’ve been around a long time.  One is a heavy wood dresser made in the mid-1700’s by an unknown ébéniste in France. It’s dark, scarred, rather forbidding, and the top, which I think may be oak, is cracked and stained. Gouges and nicks have been filled in places with sawdust and glue. The four drawers do not ride on metal rails but on wooden strips. The handles are inelegant, and the decorative carvings are well-made but rustic. I imagine this piece may have belonged to a country doctor, or to a bourgeois family in Amiens or Nice. As I was growing up, it was in the family’s living room and my mother used it to store linen and silverware. I use it in my bedroom for folded t-shirts and shorts.

My second treasure is a small secretary from the same period. One of the legs broke a long time ago and was clumsily glued and screwed back into place, giving the piece a slightly malformed look I feel adds to its charms. It has a pull down writing surface once lined with leather. There are six little drawers where my mother stored her decks of cards and score-keeping bridge pads, and a not-so-secret compartment with a sliding top, where she kept her red packs of American Pall Mall cigarettes and to this day, more than a half-century later, the compartment still smells of tobacco.

Lastly, I have a matched set of two fauteuils from the 1820s. They are small, built to accommodate the shorter and lighter guests of the 19th century.  My father recovered them several times over the years and the present fabric is dark with stains and age. One day, perhaps, I’ll have them done, but I’m in no hurry. The two easy chairs are redolent of earlier, more genteel times.

I was thinking of the furniture after visiting a friend’s home recently, a newly-built townhouse in the Maryland outskirts of the Nation’s Capital. It’s a pleasant, modern place with all the amenities of a 21st century dwelling, and no history at all. There’s a handkerchief of a front yard, a slightly larger square of fenced-in land to the rear, and not a hint that the family living has a past, with parents and grandparents who may have fought in wars, struggled to achieve, lived, bred and died. If my friends’ forefathers left something behind, it is not to be found in this dwelling place.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in such homes. Not too long ago I was invited to a party at the residence of a former Washington bigwig. This was a multi-million dollar domicile in one of the country’s most affluent neighborhood, and there again, amidst expensive rugs, triple-paned windows, uninspired artwork and shelves of books that looked unread, was the vacuum of an absent past, as if the homeowner had sprung to earth full blown, adult and parentless.

I still have some of my father’s tools. Framing clamps, brad drivers, a manual drill, all things needed for him to frame my mothers’ paintings, reupholster a sofa or fix a leaky faucet. I grew up watching him repair things and learned how to do the same in my home. These old possessions have an unmatched importance in my life. I employ the tools, sit in the chairs, store my treasures in a desk that once graced my parents’ living room in another time and another country, and I am transported.

The passing down of family heirlooms is a dying institution. Few possessions nowadays are designed to survive more than a decade at best (think IKEA, stereos, TVs) and the handmade items of earlier generations are often lost to fire, flood, lack of attention or economic necessity.  My Kaypro computer from 1979 may end up in the Smithsonian—there’s already one there—but it’s unlikely to evoke the interest of a future generation.

In our haste to be blue-rayed, 3-deed and high-definitioned, we’re running out of the worthwhile household stuff we need to understand and remember our ancestors. If somewhere in your house you still have some of these things, take care of them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


One of the advantages of living alone is the ability to concoct some truly bizarre dishes without the accompanying complaints of eaters others than myself.   I have made things without names that I could never make twice. Some have been amazing, more have been odd, and the majority has been largely bland with the occasional bite of Mexican hot sauce that makes all things taste spicy and still uninteresting.

My father, who served with the Free French in North Africa during World War 2, recounted the day he was in a Bedouin camp trying to persuade the tribe’s chief to throw his lot in with the Allies. A sumptuous meal of roast lamb was served, and the chief honored my father by giving him the eyes of the beast. The interpreter whispered that not only was the guest supposed to eat both eyes, but he must chew them thoroughly while making various sounds of appreciation. My father, young and flush with the importance of his mission, did as he was told. When he had swallowed and followed the treat with great slugs of date wine, he noticed that the chief could hardly suppress his laughter. In a moment, the entire tribe was rolling on the carpeted floor of the desert tent, mimicking the young Frenchman’s stalwart expression.  According to my father, the tribe fought with the Allies and had a hand in decimating the forces of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.

Though I’ve not had to eat the eyes of anything, I have had my fair share of inedible meals. Bouillie, for example.

Bouillie was—and remains, for all I know—perhaps the most offensive victual ever created by the French. It was a staple of post-war Paris at a time when fresh vegetables, meat and dairy products were almost non-existent. In my house, bouillie was made with warm water, two-day old bread and a liberal dash of salt. Serve in a soup bowl, eat before bedtime to foster the illusion of a full stomach.

My mother invented a close second to bouillie when we came to the Unites States. The muttonburgers she made smelled so foul I could tell with one sniff from a street away what was on the menu.  Even my father, the same man who years before had eaten the eyes of a sheep, had a hard time with them. They were greasy, grey, odiferous, and the taste they left in my mouth lasted for hours. My mother served one to my friend Happy Sweet (real name) and he ran away.

The third concoction was served every time we went to my mother’s best friend’s house. I don’t know why anyone would invent cold soft-boiled eggs in aspic save to torture adolescent boys. The adults seemed to relish them and often asked for seconds even as I tried to scrape the beef jelly from the egg white. When the yolk broke, it mixed with the aspic to make a dreadful, blood-colored semi-liquid that tasted like wounds.

The last entry is nuoc-mâm, a Vietnamese fish sauce brewed by layering anchovies and salt in a barrel. In three months, a brownish liquid escapes. This is poured back into the barrel and left to ripen for an additional three months.  What it comes down to is six-months-old fish juice.  Do I need to say more?    

Saturday, June 11, 2011

This Is a Test

So, either it’s the water being piped to these guys’ homes and offices, or they’re all drunk. Either way, I have a solution—testing. First we test the waters for psychoactive drugs left over from Abby Hoffman days; then we run monthly urinalysis on anyone with even a finger’s worth of governmental power. We also pee-test brokers, day traders, lawyers, accountants, attorneys, cops and councilmen (and women), car mechanics, sellers of any used vehicles, contractors, land speculators and anyone showing up at your door with a too-good-to-be-true deal to resurface your driveway.  Also, roofers.

The tests will have to be administered randomly and supervised, since I am sure the worthies named above know that clean urine is available on the internet; we don’t anyone doing a switcheroo, and we will probably have to pay people a sensible salary to watch other people pee, but it will be worth it. The tests will not stop what a friend calls “cannon-balling into stupidity” but it may make a dent, and at this point any progress, no matter how small, merits the effort.

All this is necessary because we are really in a downward spiral right now. I’m getting along in age and can’t remember another time when so many have done so little for so few. I am frightened by the fact that more and more loons really believe they are electable, and are willing to spend millions to try their chances. It worries me that issues have become as useful and as disposable as plastic shopping bags. I don’t understand why there are no heroes anymore, of any type—artists, astronauts, soldiers, inventors, statesmen and leaders. Nor do I grasp why such a relatively high percentage of the people we have selected to represent us are crooks, dolts, liars, or a sad combination of all three.

Any thoughts out there? After all, urinalysis is as good as mine…

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Blinded by the Light

An acquaintance, a woman I have known more than decade, once told me she had discovered the secret to a happy life. Over coffee one day I waited for her to tell me and she took her time doing so. She deliberated deeply, as if her revelation might best be kept secret from unbelievers like me, and then she said, “Stay out of the idiot spotlight.”  She took another minute or two, nodded and added, “If you do that, you’ll be just fine.” Then she stood up, pecked me on the cheek and walked away clutching her purse.

I’ve thought about that phrase often as the idiot spotlight shines with burning intensity on a variety of Loony Tunes characters—senators and businessmen, potential presidential candidates, actors and athletes, a panoply of men and women (but mostly men) who might have become celebrated for less reckless reasons had they taken care to not stand in that harsh and merciless brilliance. But they did, so screw ‘em. I have absolutely no compassion for the people I will call fortunate idiots, folks with education, resources, loving families, bright futures and opportunities most never dream of having, folks who, at the heart of it all, should know better and somehow don’t. I don’t quite understand them, either. Does the idiot spotlight attract them, moth-like, or do they think the beam only falls on lesser men?

Because really, one does not bask in the idiot spotlight by accident; in fact the light’s brightness is so often crowded—indeed jam-packed—that one almost has to make a reservation.  Often, the spotlight is activated by an action that defies good sense, and a follow-up of denial in the face of absolute evidence. This in and of itself deserves a secondary illumination, something we might call the Dull Glimmer of Brainlessness.

The DGB, in many cases, eventually leads to a realization that denial has become more costly than truth ever could be. Ironically, there follows a chorus of Hank Williams’ classic I Saw the Light, in which the sinner, this time visited by a different radiance of atonement and humility, tells all, begs for forgiveness from family and constituents,  admits to having a problem and promises to deal with it. Then he (again, we are dealing mostly with he’s) enters a rehab where shortcoming are identified, faced, and dealt with prior to reintegration into society and, often, a return to old behaviors. Sometimes the rehabs give little graduating certificates, but these rarely end up framed and hung.

I’ve been singed by the idiot spotlight more than once, and it has never been pleasant. I like to think I learned something from every instance, though I can’t swear to it. But to date I have not Tweeted photos of my crotch, nor used public moneys to pay off a mistress, nor propositioned men in the Minneapolis airport.  As other friends have told me, it’s all a question of progress, not perfection, so I suppose I’m doing something right.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cell Phone Phollies

To me, it was always obvious. Cell phones cause cancer. Or rather, it is believed that cell phones are as likely to cause cancer as talcum powder, high-voltage power lines, Jersey Shores and, for all I know, Big Boy tomatoes. 

The possible cell phone/cancer risk has been around as long as the gadgets themselves. I remember some 21 years ago being given a test phone that looked and felt like a brick and came with its own power supply in a blocky leather shoulder bag.  I was reviewing the thing for a local tech magazine and the supplier warned me against actually holding the phone too close to my ear. He smiled when he said it but was serious: “We don’t know a lot about these things. The radio waves might be bad for you; we’re just not really sure yet…”

The latest scare comes from the World Health Organization, an arm of the United Nations which in a recently released report announced cell phones are “possibly carcinogenic” to people using them. Industry folks dismissed the report, of course, saying that five billion people use cell phones today and that the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the devices is far too weak to cause harm. Additionally, spokesfolks at the CTIA, which represents cell phone makers, say the study used outmoded equipment. To be fair, WHO is quick to the draw when it comes to cancer-causing products, having already identified coffee, hair-coloring products, chlorinated water, polyurethane foam and printing inks as dangerous to one’s health.  But then again, so are buses when you stand in front of them and they’re moving. Personally, I think it’s important to remind any and all organizations that life is a terminal disease.  You always die from it.

I’m not sure whether cell phones can cause cancer, but I’m pretty sure they’re dangerous. Without even mentioning the fools who carry on conversations while driving, endangering not only themselves but other motorists, cell phones have demonstrated the treacherous stupidity of many of their users. Ask, for example, former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who stands accused of trying to get a hotel chambermaid to have sex with him. DS-K could have gotten away with it, but while waiting for his flight for France to take off, he realized he’d forgotten his cell phone at the hotel and called the concierge there. By that time the maid had reported the assault. Police drove to the airport and scooped DS-K from his first class Air France seat. All because of his cell phone.

Or remember the burglar in Maryland who left his phone in the house he had broken into and robbed? And what of the aptly named Representative Anthony Weiner (D NY), who denies using his phone to send a photo of a (perhaps his) bulging Fruit of the Loom-clad midsection to a Twitter follower? About a year ago, an acquaintance found her spouse shacked up in an NQA motel by reading the text messages he’d forgotten to delete from his phone.

This is my favorite story from, a website for gearheads.  “Brothers Jared and Cooper Colwell and two other men were sleeping at their home in Midvale, Utah, when a pair of ski-masked crooks busted into the house and demanded everyone's cash, wallets, and cell phones…Jared thought he recognized one of the burglar's voices—it sounded like a friend of theirs named Randall Talbot who had previously crashed at their pad for a few weeks. Figuring they had nothing to lose, the Colwells texted Jared's cell phone with a message saying "Randy, I really want my phone back; I'll pay you $300 for the phone right now." Sure enough, Randy and his partner-in-crime agreed to a meeting at a local store. The Colwells called the cops, who were there to greet [the thieves] as they emerged from behind a dumpster at the rendezvous point—reportedly poised to grab the $300 and take off."

Here’s my advice: Hang up. Hang up now.