Sunday, September 29, 2013


Is there anything more demeaning than a paper hospital gown? Every time I have to wear one--which has been far too often--I feel as if Cristo has attempted and failed wrap me. There was a middle-aged man at the hospital where I went yesterday morning, he was walking along the corridor looking for a rest room with his pale naked butt sticking out of the gown.

And what about catheters? I’m amazed no one has picked up their comedic potentials. They deal with pee, which is funny, and penises, which are always good for a laugh, and they make you walk funny and wear a frown as you do, because nobody, nobody, has ever smiled with a catheter inside them. Walking funny, we all know, is comedy gold. I’m sorry to say I’m not sure how much of this can apply to women while remaining politically correct, so once again being pc may lead to lost opportunities.

Yesterday, as the catheter implanted in me the day before was removed by a male nurse, I said all medical personnel should have to wear one of these humiliating devices at least one day out of the year. The nurse shuddered, said, “I don’t mind surgery; the only thing that scares me is having to wear one of those things.”

Also, I think Catheter would be a really great name for a little girl.  It sounds almost biblical: “And Catheter did say go forth and procreate safely because I am one with you, deeply held and the cause of relief and distress…”

So here’s what happened: It all went as planned. The day of the surgery, I got to the hospital at 6:15 a.m., driven there by my friend Paul who has now seen me through a half-dozen such procedures. I changed into a sky-blue hospital gown and was told to lie down on a gurney, shielded from the world by a curtain hanging from the ceiling.

A bunch of people came to see me.  Nurses, nursing assistants, two anesthesiologists, one anesthesiologist’s assistant, a person who put in the IV, and a guy pushing a mop around the hallway. The latter was possibly the friendliest of the lot.

I signed many papers, which is hard to do when you’re lying down. I didn’t have time to read them but I accepted the fact that if anything at all happened to me, including but not necessarily limited to an alien abduction, the hospital would not be responsible. I gave up my pants, undies, short, wallet and phone. I was festooned with little sticky pads attached to wires that went into a machine that beeped and burped. I went ahhh with my mouth wide open three times. I listened to the sounds endemic to a medical establishment, hurrying footsteps, rubber wheels on linoleum, pinging of machines, public address announcements, the wailing of an injured child, greetings from one nurse to another, telephones, faxes…

At 7:30 they hook up the IV and start the anesthesia drip (I’ll find out later they filled me with opiates, which truly pissed me off as I had specifically requested they not use opiates on me), and suddenly it’s 10 a.m., I am in the recovery room and I can feel the catheter scratching my urethra. My mouth is cottony, my eyes sandy and my groin hurts.

I wait. I wait some more.  Now that the operation is over, no one is particularly interested in my state of being. A nurse asks how I am, I say, “Just peachy…”

Around 10:45 the surgeon comes by.  This is unusual and I worry but he says everything went well, and it doesn’t look as if what he has taken out is invasive. Good news. Better news, he has already injected me with the chemotherapy solution. Intravenously, it makes you deathly ill, but shot directly into the bladder; there are few side effects save for a burning sensation that ebbs and flows.  I may not need to go through the six-week course of chemo.

It’s done.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Drill

So operation number six is this Friday, yippee, which will be followed by decatheterization (neat word of extremely limited use), six weeks of sheep-tuberculosis chemo (I’m serious), a fair amount of bellyaching on my part, and a couple of weeks of squirmy discomfort during which I will stand up to type on an aged IBM notebook.

Here’s the drill. I get to the hospital, am asked about 60 questions four or five times each by a series of medical personnel that include but is not limited to the admissions person, the person who wheels me to a small, curtain enclosed space, a second and third admissions person, and the nursing assistant who hands me a light blue paper gown too small to be cinched and a plastic bag for my belongings. When I ask if I can keep my cell phone handy until I am wheeled away, the nursing assistant will get another person who will tell me that I can indeed, and explain to me the hospitals anti-theft and security procedures, even as she asks me to sign a release stating they are not responsible for the theft of my belongings while I am in their care.

Another nurse will ask me if I have any of about 30 ills or physical shortcomings including dentures. Also, what drugs do I take, are any of them illegal, and when did I have a drink last. I say 22 years and she looks at me strangely and shrugs.

There are a fourth and fifth person whose duties seem indeterminate--by now the uniforms have changed from light blue to green, or maybe puce. You can tell the rankings by the scrubs--the lower the status, the more likely the scrubs worn will feature cartoon animals, smiling sunflowers or dancing Fudgesicles.

Each time I am asked a question, the answer is noted on a nearby computer, and as the questions repeat themselves endlessly (last time I was asked what I am allergic to eight separate times), I wonder is somewhere nearby is a cloning center and they are, as we speak, building an ersatz Thierry with all my physical shortcomings, and why they’d bother.

Then I am left alone for anywhere from one to four hours. If I’m lucky, someone will come along and tell me the doctor will be there any minute, but they’re lying, he never is.

I can tell things are getting serious when medical personnel number nine or 10 comes to insert the IV and anesthesia needles. One goes in the crook of my arm, another on the top of my hand. The latter will leave a nasty blue bruise for a couple of weeks.

In time, Anesthesiologist Number One arrives. We talk. I say I have a system that metabolizes the stuff really fast and in the past I’ve woken up during surgery. He or she asks me if I’m allergic to anything.  I repeat my concern. Anesthesiologist Number One nods, smiles, pecks something out on the computer keyboard and leaves.

A passing nurse’s aide asks if I need a glass of water and I say yes, but I’m not allowed to drink before the procedure.

Anesthesiologist Number Two essentially does a repeat performance of his colleague. I sign a second release saying anything bad that may happen to me here is no one’s fault but my own.

The surgeon appears. He is in full surgeon garb and rubbing his hands together which for some reason always chills me. He is a short, handsome, white-haired man in his late 50s, who has operated on me twice before. I have never, ever seen him smile. He apologizes for keeping me waiting--the patient before me had the bad grace of misplacing a kidney or a lung and it took a while to find it. The surgeon says he will see me in the operating room. I want to make a joke, we have to stop meeting like this, but I don’t.

A new nurse comes and starts the flow of anesthetic. I feel nothing. The world does not go black, it merely ceases to exist…

And then I’m back. My head hurts, my mouth is dry and tasting of something unpleasantly metallic. My throat is sore from the tube inserted there and now gone.  There’s a dull ache in my groin. The surgeon, I know from past experience, has already left the building, so I won’t know if the surgery was a success until post-op in three or four days. I am both hungry and queasy.
I am hopeful that maybe, just maybe, I won’t have to go through this again.






Friday, September 20, 2013

The Avanti, the Jeep, and the Porsche

I own three cars.  None is younger than a quarter century and their cumulative value is probably less than that of a three-year-old Toyota.

There’s a 1989 Avanti convertible, a gorgeous piece of wire-wheeled engineering designed by Raymond Loewe, the French genius who also came up with the original Coke bottle and the Maytag washer. The car never ceases to get comments, wherever and whenever I drive it.  I bought it 15 years ago from a Sarasota, Florida, automobile museum, and people in their 50s and above always say they haven’t seen one of those in a long time. All in all, less than 500 convertibles were made so mine is a bit of a rarity.

The original Avantis were built by Studebaker and when that company bit the dust, a series of new owners kept the Avanti name alive. They stopped being manufactured for good in 2005, I think, when the then-owner of the company was found guilty of a pyramid scheme. Luckily, there’s an active collector’s community, as well as a quarterly magazine and several websites to answer most questions.

My Avanti is ice blue. It needs a new top and new upholstery on both the front and the rear seats, but I don’t have the six grand this would cost so for now there are cheap seat covers that somehow impugn the car’s dignity.  Recently, I was at a gas station when a young man approached me to say his stripper girlfriend really liked the car. I wondered why he had to put in the stripper bit, but it seemed telling me his paramour’s occupation really pleased him, so I just smiled as he shook my hand, offered me a Marlboro, then left with a wave.

My daily driver is a 1986 Porsche 944 Turbo, also a beautiful car that goes like a bat if I stomp on the accelerator. It’s white, very basic, and the radio in it really stinks, so much so that all tunes sound as if played through an old-fashioned megaphone. A few years ago I did some minor modifications on the car, including putting in a high performance computer chip that added 20 horsepower to an already powerful engine. The car is a delight to drive along windy two-lane roads of which there are not enough in my area. Invariably and far too often, while idling at a red light, some young hotshot driving a pumped up Subaru with a wing spoiler and low profile tires wants to race. We rev our engines; the light turns green and he takes off in a squeal of burning rubber. I ease into first with a supercilious look, and we’re both happy.  

My third car and I have a love/hate relationship. It’s a 1979 Jeep CJ7 in which long ago a backyard mechanic put a gigantic Pontiac V-8 engine. It is as primitive as such vehicles can get, with a complex independent four-wheel drive system that requires I use twin shifters, after having turned by hand four rotating hubs, one on each wheel. The car has Dana lockers, of which I am justifiably proud though I have no idea what they are. It stands about eight feet tall, has a roll cage, fire extinguisher, a mean and tricky clutch, headers and a custom-made exhaust system, and was designed to race in the Moab desert, climbing over boulders and other stationary objects. The fuel pump whines and has had to be replaced twice. So have the distributor, carburetor, coil, brakes front and rear, and a host of other smaller things that failed. The first tear is so low I never use it. I think it was designed to climb telephone poles.

Why I bought the car in the first place remains sort of unclear. It fails to start about two out of seven times, leaving me stranded more than once, and it spends the majority of its existence in my driveway slowly leaking bright green cooling liquid. Four years ago I sold it to a man who put it in his garage and never drove it even one time. I bought it back from him, which makes me twice the fool.

The Jeep’s only real advantage is in winter. Once every three-or-so years, Northern Virginia falls prey to snow blizzards with accumulations of up to two feet or more.  This is when the aged Jeep comes into its own. With all four wheels churning, the thing goes where others fear to tread. It rumbles along happily as the rest of the region is paralyzed. I have helped stranded neighbors and winched or pulled other cars out of ditches. I guess that means that a couple of days out of a thousand, it earns its pay.

Which, come to think of it, is more than a lot of people I know.





Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Books, words, authors, and all that jazz

There have always been poorly-written books. The penny dreadfuls, the sappy romances, the Westerns of a century ago, were the staple of the average readers. They sold in the thousands and rarely made their authors rich.  Most have vanished without a trace-- all the better--but they have left a legacy of something we could call the $20-dreadful, the truly awful books that in turn become truly awful movies that somehow make bad authors into respectable writers, while earning them millions.

Since you ask, here’s what I think is wrong: We’ve created a population of bad readers willing to accept awful plotting, dismal grammar and two-dimensional characters. Our schools have brought forth people who have never really been taught to read properly, i.e. to appreciate that a good book is not necessarily an adventure without bruises or scrapes. It will take more effort to get through War and Peace than it will to read The Da Vinci Code but in the end Leo Tolstoy is more satisfying than Dan Brown.

What increasingly bothers me is that trivial writers are being feted as if they were good ones, and merely good ones are being treated as if they’re extraordinary. I recently read a book by Dennis Lehane, an author whom I generally like and whose career has included best-sellers and motion pictures, and it was disturbingly obvious that, in spite of the praise amassed for his latest opus, he was coasting on past glory. The lead character was not so much poorly drawn as without substance. The story was at best uninteresting and without much of a plot, and though Lehane prides himself on his historical accuracy, in this book it was lacking. Or perhaps not so much lacking as undeveloped…

Even one of my favorite writers, James Lee Burke, can err on the side of the unreadable. Consider this sentence: “Twenty four hours later, at sunset, the sky turned to turquoise; then the strips of black cloud along the horizon were backlit with red brilliance that was like the glow of a forge, as though the cooling of the day were about to set into abeyance so the sun’s heat could prevail through the night into the following dawn.” I think what this 59-word epiphany means is, “The sun was setting and it was still hot.” Burke is a man with an uncommon liking for stringing words together in unending streams. He likes overwrought images, confusing palettes of bright colors, and pages of introverted meanderings. Sometimes it works, most times it does not.

Maybe I’m being unkind. Certainly I believe in writing as universal therapy. Whether as a writer or a reader, words take us from the dismal to the godly and back. But poorly arranged, thoughtlessly pasted together, they can also confuse, frustrate, anger and annoy. Sometimes I even gnash my teeth.

Me, I have a great respect for words. I think they’re one of mankind’s best inventions, allowing us to communicate the felt and the unseen and oput meanings to emotions that otherwise would remain undisclosed.  I suppose this is why I get exasperated when they’re used shoddily.