Thursday, February 27, 2014

Surgery No. 7

“Do you need to empty your bladder?”
No, but thanks. This is the seventh time I’m having surgery for a particularly resistant form of bladder cancer and I know the drill. Nothing to drink after midnight, which was nine hours ago.
“Do you need to empty your bladder?” This is another nurse, 15 minutes later. She is cute, Asian, smiling, and what she actually says is pladdah, as in do I need to empty my pladdah.
No, really. I don’t.
“Batroom ovah da,” she points down the hallway.
I am waiting for the surgeon to appear. We are friends by now, sort of. He knows my pladdah intimately well.
Surgery was supposed to be on Valentine’s Day but it snowed and the world shut down, which was too bad because I had written a little Valentine poem for him, which I was going to recite before the surgery.
I’m glad that I know you
I surely feel better
Secure in the thought
That you care for my bladder
The surgery was performed about five hours ago; it went well and the latest tumor was excised successfully. It was, I believe, non-cancerous, but I’ll find out for sure next week.  All told, good news.
My friend P drove me to the clinic, then back after the procedure, and he too knows the drill.
I’m home now, feeling woozy. The anesthetic cocktail that knocked me out so the doctor could do his work contains opiates and Xanax, a frightful combination for someone who once used those drugs far too often. Now I am drinking quarts of liquid trying to flush them out of my system. It’s weird. I have taken neither opiates nor benzodiazepines in almost a quarter of a century, but my body fully remembers their effects and is telling me, “Yowzah! Party time! This is good!!!” But it’s not. The quicker these addictive substances are out of my system, the better, so I am ruthlessly chugging bottled water, espresso and fruit juice.
It’s gonna be OK.
I’ll get checked out again in a few months and who knows, maybe there won’t be a recurrence!
That would be neat.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Caddy? No Thanks

I have always hated television ads.  Always. The more sophisticated the lie, the angrier I tend to get.
I suspect that, secretly, I’m embarrassed by my own gullibility--I actually purchased Sham-Wows several years ago. You remember Sham-Wows; a really unattractive man with a funny haircut talking a mile-a-minute about how his product could suck up 100 times its weight in water? They would save me thousands of dollars by replacing the single roll of paper towels I use up every week? Yes, those Sham-Wows.
Anyway. I found a recent Cadillac ad run during the Olympics to be particularly offensive and stupid, leaving me wondering who in the world would be taken in by the assumptions made.
You may have seen it. Good-looking grey-haired man in early middle-age is strolling through his (fabulous) home, tousling the hair of his attractive if androgynous offspring. He lectures as he walks, telling us why the American work ethics trumps all others, and informs us that other nations take all of the month of August off!  Holy cow! How lazy and indolent can you get?  Also, Americans got to the moon by not taking the month of August off, and left the moon because they got bored.
Me, I’m thinking this guy is a moron, a handsome moron, mind you, not only sadly uninformed about things like NASA budget cuts, but obviously ignorant of the recent research that shows the American work ethic:
  1. has changed drastically in the past few years, and sadly, not for the better;
  2. is generally not that healthy physically or emotionally, and
  3. is considered by the majority of workers to be generally unrewarding.
After his chauvinistic soliloquy, the guy climbs into a Cadillac--his reward, I assume, for being incredibly ill-informed.
A Caddy? Really? That’s what we should aspire to for not taking vacation? Personally, were I a full-of-bucks executive making a half-a-mil-or-so a year, as the ad would like us to believe this particular guy is, I’d buy something better than a Caddy, a car that right now looks sort of like a luxury Toyota with fatter tires and better interior lighting.  Give me an Aston-Martin, a high-end Mercedes, a Maserati, something with a little class and not completely mass-manufactured\, something with good resale value that will not lose 30 percent of its worth when driven off the lot;
Unless the guy is planning to buy a collection of white shoes and move to Florida.  I suppose that’s a possibility.
I have a feeling this ad will backfire. It stupidly insults other cultures, talks down to potential buyers, misstates facts, and allows a glimpse at the type of smug and condescending American truly not much liked the world over
A Cadillac.  Sheesh. 

Monday, February 17, 2014


I am watching this year’s winter Olympics with a distressingly deep lack of interest. In fact, I am plainly bored by the spectacle of young men and women racing down hills at breakneck speed, cavorting in the air while wearing lethally sharp blades, or snowboarding and spinning mindlessly backwards while negotiating a man-made obstacle courses. Watching, of course, is a relative term. The TV set is on, the sound is not, and colors flitter by silently. I am reading a book and occasionally glancing up to see impossibly fit young athletes with names that have too many Ks and Ys in them, display skills that have no bearing in real life.
Never mind the basic hypocrisy of this year’s games, ringed as they are by a cordon sanitaire of machine-gun-wielding security forces, and held in one of the world’s most repressive country. Never mind Vladimir Putin, and his rendition of  Strawberry Hill on YouTube. Never mind the terrorist threat, the Islamic Black Widows who, we are told, have infiltrated Sochi, the crappy and dangerous snow, the puerile new contests remindful of 1990 Nintendo video games. What I really object to is the provincialism of it all, the national chauvinism that pervades the broadcasts. It seems that, if there are no Americans participating, and preferably in a position to score medals, NBC will simply pretend an event doesn’t exist. As a result, unless I’m willing to stay glued to my set all day, I’m not going to see a lot of biathlon or curling, but I will be ice-danced to death. More so now than ever, it’s all about medal counts, and that’s boring too.
I don’t understand why viewers are no longer allowed to see the judges and the scores they give during ice-skating competition. Well, let me take that back. I do understand it has something to do with the 2002 Winter Games when a French judge cheated (the shame. The shame!) But still. Opaque judging is simply silly. Figure skating and scandal are Olympic synonyms.  Bring back the judge who gives a perfect score to the skater from his country who has fallen three times during his performance. I want someone to boo at from time to time.
Here’s another whiff of silliness. Does winning a contest by mere hundredths of a second really show that one athlete is significantly better than another? In four years, the time-keeping technology will be such that it will be possible to accurately clock an event to the millionth of a second, which will allow the commentators to gush, “Imagine that, Brad! Three microseconds!  Isn’t that thrilling?”  Nah. Not really.
And here’s the last thing. All these young virile athletes are living together largely unsupervised. I want the dirt. I want to know who’s sleeping with whom. Give me gossip, innuendos, impropriety, and shameless behavior, for god’s sake!  I live in America!  I want to be entertained!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Snow. And More Snow.

We don’t get a lot of real, a-foot-or-more snow days here in Northern Virginia, though the media constantly keeps us on our toes with dire warnings of another Snowmaggedon like the one we had four years ago. When is snows a little in this area, people panic. Schools close, radio and TV stations go on 24-hour alert with overly-made-up perky blonde women in anoraks forecasting doom and giving advice. Kitty litter in the trunk, bags of salt, fully charged cell phone, and maybe a roll of toilet paper in the glove box, just in case.  Which is why, I suppose, moms and dads rush to stores and return staggering under the weight of two-hundred rolls of the stuff, preferably double-ply and scented. The liquor stores, which are run by the state, do a staggering business as well. Heaven forbid we be caught without a case or two of Smirnoff and Jim Beam in the basement.
Somehow, where I live, whenever it snows it’s like the first time ever. I’ve stopped trying to understand why.
All this is to say that last night we did get hit with about 12 inches of snow, with more forecasted later today. There was a brief blackout last night. This is the only thing that scares me about a serious snowfall, since a power outage leaves me with no furnace, and I have figured out that my place, if not heated, drops about one degree every ten minutes. Four years ago in December, the power lines went down and I spent close to five days in a truly awful motel. Yes, I know.  Poor, poor, pitiful me.
Right now, everything, including the US Government in Washington, DC, a few miles away, has come to a total standstill. I sit in my kitchen, look out the window and see a god-damned winter wonderland. The snowplows have come by a time or two and my drive way is now blocked by a four-foot-tall wall of semi-frozen stuff.
So far this morning I have done two pages on a new novel, and contemplated a scene for a play I’m currently writing and which is due in early July.  I have put together a stew, and shredded two pounds of celeriac to make celerie rave. I have cleaned out the fridge, swept the kitchen, laundered, had three cups of decaf, and read a story in The New Yorker on how Amazon is killing the book trade. And by the way, Jeff Bezos, I didn’t get my Washington Post today. Can you see about that since you’re the Post’s new owner?
I have exchanged text messages with a few people. I am already starting to get a serious case of cabin fever. I am scheduled to have surgery tomorrow and assume it is going to be cancelled, but when I call to find out, there doesn’t seem to be anyone handling the phones at my HMO.
The truth is, though, that I’m fortunate. There’s enough food in the freezer to last weeks. I recently added to my stash of fishsticks, which lately have become a staple, and I didn’t have to do a TP run.  I have all that I need. There are plenty of books to be read and movies to be seen. My bandmates and I (Cash & Carry, check us out at are putting together some new songs and I need to practice my Dobro and pedal steel guitar licks.  Last week I bought a build-it-yourself paper model of the Titanic. I also have to spend some time on a scale wooden kit of a trebuchet since it is my belief that every home should have one. There’s plenty to do, to eat, to read, watch and occupy my hands.
So what the hell. Let it snow.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Shameless Pitch

This will be a shameless pitch for a friend’s eBook. I seldom do shameless pitches. They are generally beneath one’s dignity and I always hesitate making recommendations because, let’s face it, what I like doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, and the fact that I may appreciate something doesn’t mean you will.
A friend, known to some as the Smart Old Guy because yes, he’s pretty smart, pretty old, and definitely male, has put together a small volume of extremely sage advice, and here’s the clincher: it’s free. You can download it from Kindle from February 14 through 18 for nary a penny.
The book is The Intelligent Young Man's Guide to Life and Love--70 Ways to be Superior in Inferior Times. You can get it here: It’s a quick and enjoyable read and you’ll want to pass it on to your teen-aged son, your younger brother who is floundering, the nephew who wants to marry the transgender pole dancer, and the other nephew who wants to divorce so he can Rollerblade across Asia. And in spite of its title, this little volume could really benefit the ladies as well.
I will take the liberty of quoting liberally from the blurb that announced its publication  so you don’t accidentally download some inferior, look-alike product.

The author of THE INTELLIGENT YOUNG MAN’S GUIDE TO LIFE AND LOVE is disgusted by the way our culture treats young men as childish clowns driven only by adrenalin and testosterone. In 70 short chapters, The Smart Old Guy opens new pathways for young men like you with the brains and imagination to want more out of life than what they see on TV. And he does it without preaching---this book is written for people who enjoy style and wit.

If you possess a spirit of adventure and want to taste everything spread on Life’s table, you need to discover the wisdom found in THE INTELLIGENT YOUNG MAN’S GUIDE TO LIFE AND LOVE. Click on the cover in the upper left, read a sample, and see how this writing is unlike anything else out there.

THE INTELLIGENT YOUNG MAN’S GUIDE TO LIFE AND LOVE will tell you why it is a good thing to be a snob, how to watch out for the tricks the old play on the young, which four magic words will open any door (and must never be said!), and why a rapid retreat is often the true Way of the Warrior.

The Smart Old Guy also has lot to say about those fascinating women you need to resist—and probably won’t be able to. It tells myths and stories about, among other things, an Indian goddess come to earth and an ancient Greeks who tells us how to live by knowing how to die.

He tells you what strange books to read and what bizarre films to see. And in a handful of sentences he will tell you whether you should get married or not. And he gives dozens of tips on breaking free of our trashy---and increasingly stupid---mass culture.

As he says: “I am disgusted by old people who are too lazy to teach the young what they need to know and then sneer at them for screwing up.”

The Smart Old Guy offers the harvest of a lifetime that includes everything from service on the White House staff, to being an award-winning playwright, to driving a forklift in a sneaker factory. He has explored life from many diverse angles and is not shy about sharing what he has learned on his long journey.
Enough said. Download this and become instantly smarter. Really.


Sunday, February 9, 2014


Philips Seymour Hoffman died a week ago, and he did so like many addicts--alone on the floor in a room, surrounded by the paraphernalia necessary to his habit.  In his case, it was a hypodermic syringe apparently still stuck in his arm, and several packets of too-high grade heroin. He died alone because any addict will tell you his compulsion is practiced secretly, hidden from others--particularly others who care. One does not advertise addiction.  The media called his passing an overdose, which means that the amount of heroin he injected was enough to allow his breathing to slow, then stop. He suffocated.  But the word ‘overdose’ is a misnomer, implying as it does that there are safe doses of heroin, and to an addict, this is a bald-faced lie. There is never enough heroin, alcohol, cocaine or meth to pacify the raging want inside, and if this need can be abated for an hour or a day, it is sure to reappear, demanding more. In fact, that’s what addiction is, the constant need for more.
I didn’t bother reading much about his death. I have worked in the past with heroin addicts and when they, go, they do so gently. No meth rage, or violent insanity brought along by too much booze. No physical harm inflicted upon others, either. Heroin addicts die quietly.
My first thought when I heard of the death was that Hoffman must have gotten a new dealer, because often, this is how it works: a new dealer comes into a neighborhood to displace an older merchant. He does so by selling a product that is purer than that available from the established source. Often, the new guy’s heroin is almost pure, or laced with other chemicals to make it more potent. Fentanyl is a common additive.
Word gets around quick that Dealer Dan has a better product than Dealer Dave. Dealer Dan’s stuff produces a deeper, longer-lasting high. Dealer Dan is a good capitalist employing a methodology no different than that of a chain store or franchise restaurant. He uses a loss-leader--better-grade heroin--designed to bring in the customers.  It might even kill a user or two, guaranteeing its immediate success, because if I am an addict, I live in a magical world and I want the best; I want what killed the other guy because by God! that must have been some good shit. And it won’t kill me; I am special, I am master of my addiction.
Once the customer base is established, Dealer Dan does what Dealer Dave has been doing: he’ll start cutting his product and the quality will suffer, but by then he has established customer loyalty and has a steady clientele of daily users.  
Addiction exults in its ability to mystify, and prides itself on being perhaps the only disease that tells the afflicted he or she does not have a disease. It thrives on loneliness and isolation, on the inability of the devotee to explain his state to someone who is not suffering from the same illness. This is why 12-step programs rely so heavily on meetings, on gathering group of addicts so they can share their stories and shed light on their often destructive behavior.  Addiction does not like being prodded out from under its rock.
What happened to Hoffman is a shame. He was a man of vast talents with a limitless future. He had also not come to terms with the fullness of his addiction, and like all practicing addicts, he thought he might control it. I’m sure he was telling himself that soon, tomorrow or the day after, he would stop. He would seek help, go to another rehab, get clean,  and change the things he needed to change in his life, which was probably everything, because addiction is an everything sort of disease. He ran out of luck, and he ran out of time, so in that sense he was no different from any other junkie nodding out on an inner city front stoop.
His death might cause a few users to re-evaluate their lives. But then again, probably not. More than likely, it’ll make them wonder where he got his fix.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


I have two pieces of furniture in my home that I consider heirloom: an 18th century secretary, or ladies’ desk, and a massive chest of drawers probably owned by a French bourgeois family in the 1800’s. Both have crossed the Atlantic Ocean three times, coming from France in the early Sixties, then back in the Eighties when my parents moved back to Paris after two decades in the States. In the early Ninetiess when my mother died and I decided my father would be better off in America with me, the desk and chest of drawers returned to America one last time.

The desk has an elegant folding top and six small drawers, plus a few vertical pigeon-holes for paper, blotter and envelopes. There is a fake front drawer, and a ‘secret’ compartment beneath a horizontal sliding door. The chest of drawers is a massive, looming thing, scarred and darkened by time, its top cracked and badly filled by several generations of do-it-yourselfers. Unlike the desk, it is not elegant. Its ornamentation is basic, workmanlike and utilitarian. 

Even as a little kid in Paris, I knew both these items had mystical powers. I believe, though I am not sure, that they originally belonged to my maternal great-grandfather, an architect of some note reputed to have designed the Banc de France and, family legend has it, ornamented the building’s gables with gargoyles bearing the likeness of people he didn’t like, notably other architects. Hidden from view and sculpted in granite, I was also told, is a likeness of his mistress’ torso, her naked stone breasts overlooking the City of Lights.

The desk figures prominently in my earliest memories. My mother hid packs of her American cigarettes--Pall Malls--in its secret recess. There were also decks of cards there, along with score pads, since she was an avid bridge player; a fountain pen set whose ink had to be replenished every few days; photo albums of her family (but none of my father’s whose forbears were a mystery); old war-time cigarette lighters with black wicks; and assorted colored pencils with which my mother sketched the streets visible from our apartment windows. On top of the desk, where other families might display travel and vacation mementos, was a fired clay replica of a Tang Dynasty horse. This was a gift from my mother’s best friend Marie Louise, a hugely talented but impoverished and alcoholic artist who often spent the night on our living room couch.  

The chest of drawers was in the dining room. My mother kept table cloths and linens there, as well as heavy, inherited silver-plated place settings--three kinds of knives, four sorts of forks and spoons of varying size--used when my parents entertained. The drawers were equipped with massive lion’s jaw handles that I suspect were not original, and I remember my father using candlewax on the drawer’s tracks to make them slide more easily. The middle drawer--where tablecloths and napkins were stored--always stuck. Sixty years later, it still does.

Now in America, both pieces of furniture have found different uses.  The desk, in my living room, holds the collection of clippings from my newspaper days, Moleskins notebooks in assorted colors, a shiny assortment of state-issued quarters in small cloth pouches, and a half-dozen empty wallets. The secret compartment holds a cheap pair of Japanese binoculars and those small, black power supplies that come with wall-mounted vacuum cleaners and other rechargeable items that I have lost or thrown away.  The Tang horse is still there. 

The chest of drawers has winter wear--sweaters, heavy socks, flannel shirts and leather gloves. Atop it sits a menu from an old French brasserie, and two oil-lamps dating back a couple of hundred years.

Sometimes I get sad thinking that at some point in the relatively near future, these relics of a much earlier age will probably be sold and lose their histories. But for now they’re a link to a very real past, a different era in a different country without television, computers, modems, microwaves and self-cleaning ovens. I might never be able to go home again, but these reminders of a simpler time are strangely comforting. The past isn’t gone, it is alive and safely stored in the antique drawers.