Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fun in Surgery

A kind of funny thing happened yesterday while I was getting my cancer surgery. (I subscribe here to the literary convention of leading with an attention-grabber.) The doctor carving chunks out of my neck and shoulder was a first year resident and her assistant, who was also a sort of oversight doctor, was a third year resident. (I saw him glance at himself in the mirror at one point and brush back his forelock and I said, "I saw that!" which discombobulated him somewhat.  I live to serve.)  Anyway, after my doc was done chopping away a couple of pieces of me which were a lot bigger than I had anticipated they would be, the third year guy left and she was busying herself about the office, cleaning up bloody gauze and the like. She took some plastic bottles and put a piece of my neck into one, then she started looking all around, into this, under that. She then left the office saying she would be right back, and left me lying on this folding table assembly swathed in a rather shabby blue robe that featured an off-the-shoulder style – or at least it did the way I wore it. She left the door open, so I could hear her talking to someone in the distance. And she said words no patient likes to hear, at least not in the tone of voice in which she spoke them:

“You won’t believe what I just did!”

I confess that I awaited her return with rather more interest than I might otherwise have done.

She came back with the three-year guy and a nurse and the three of them proceeded to scour the office. It transpired that she had inadvertently discarded or lost a piece of my shoulder. They looked high and low. My actual tormenter was beside herself.

“Don’t worry,” soothed the young nurse. “Everybody does it sometimes. Why, I,” she confided, rolling up her sleeves and slipping into True Confessions mode, “lost something right in front of Dr. Petrov!” One pictured this Petrov as an old tyrant whose crusty exterior concealed a heart that was pretty darn crusty also, as seen on every TV drama since 1946.

“I better not get home and find it in my pocket,” I said.

The three of them turned the hazardous waste bin upside down and picked through its contents. Affecting my best Brooklyn-mobster accent, I said, “Do ya want a piece of me?”

Then they went through the ordinary wastebasket. The looked under the table on which I lay in semi-deshabille. They went through everything again. They started looking in places that really were not possible candidates for receptacles of my discarded flesh; you know the kind of desperation searching one does when something is nowhere to be found, like maybe you had gone into a fugue state and climbed up and put something atop the refrigerator or above a ceiling tile. I mentioned that this procedure reminded me forcibly of Nurse Jackie, which none of them had seen and of which most had not heard. I was enjoying myself immensely. Eventually, the assistants in my doc’s search gave up and departed with an air that suggested she had best suck it up and admit defeat with, perhaps, a soupçon of relief that it was not them who lost it – or lost me, as the case may be.

She kept up the search, and I was beginning to wonder if the rest of my life was to be spent lounging, semi-clad, on a narrow table while busy poking and prying went on all about me. Finally, in her third foray into the wastebasket, she discovered the missing bit deep in the finger of a discarded latex glove.

So that was how I spent yesterday, and a lovely day it was, too. Now I am walking around with these humongous bandages here and there about my corpus. Because of the stitches, I was advised not to lift anything heavy or to do any exercise that might raise my blood pressure.

I could not believe my ears. “I never thought I’d hear a doctor advise me not to exercise!” I exclaimed. ”Far out! Could I get that in writing?”

But the doc said if she wrote anything she would definitely include an expiration date for the admonition. Still, I am sitting on my butt doing nothing on doctor’s orders and that suits me down to the ground. Normally, of course, I would be doing exactly the same thing, but it is nice to have this unwonted aura of virtue surrounding me.

And it is only basal cell skin cancer, which is hardly cancer at all.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Plain Folks

Did you see where that candidate was mistakenly listed on an election tally sheet as "Rich Whitey”? Hope he wasn’t running in a heavily black or Hispanic district! Although I must say, in a way, he brought it on himself. There wouldn’t have been that much of an issue if he had billed himself as Richard Whitney, rather than Rich Whitney, even if the same error was made in spelling his last name. What’s with this “Jes plain folks” business of people running as Rich or Bill or Jimmy or Meg? People are always yapping about the “dignity” of certain government offices, yet they seem unwilling to elect anyone who shows any traces of dignity.

In the same vein, there is great antipathy, it seems, towards any display of intelligence in political candidates. I completely understand people not wishing to elect theoreticians to run things, but it seems deeper than that. There seems to be overt hostility toward anyone displaying above average intelligence. Do I want a candidate to understand what it is like to worry about bills and jobs and mortgages? Sure – but I’d kind of like him or her to have actually figured out how to handle these issues successfully. What is dismaying to me is that people who wouldn’t dream of voting for someone smarter than they are, seem to have no problem with voting for people who are putting a zillion of their own dollars into a campaign.

When people have a zillion dollars to finance a campaign, they have gotten it in only one of two ways: they either inherited it or they made it. If they inherited it, there is no way that they have experienced the same day to day problems as you or me. If they made it, there’s a damn good chance that they are smarter than you and me, even if they call themselves by a folksy moniker and say ‘he don’t’ and ‘I ain’t’. And they damn sure are not an “outsider”, either way. But I guess that if people can believe that Survivor represents reality, they can believe anything. Presumably these believers are on the lookout for their local ‘plain folks’ candidates in the produce aisle down there at Aldi’s discount grocery or when they are picking up a package of 4 T-shirts for $10 at Wal-Mart. If you believe that someone in possession of a zillion dollars is an average guy or gal, just like you and me, there is definitely a lot of stupid in the equation, but it ain’t the zillionaire who’s got it.

This antagonism toward intelligence is nothing new. I recall clearly that one of the handicaps that Adlai Stevenson failed to overcome in his campaigns against “Ike,” was the perception that he was an intellectual or “egghead”. (And why is an intellectual called an egghead? I have yet to perceive the slightest sign of intelligence in any egg I have encountered. Have you ever tried conversing with an egg? Dumb as a rock, take my word for it.) “Smart” and “elite” are not synonyms: neither are “educated” and “elite” the same thing. In fact, P. G. Wodehouse made a lucrative career satirizing how clueless the elite classes of England really are. There is no evidence that the elite classes of the USA are any brighter than those of the English. It is struggle that toughens and educates a man or woman. A smart person, rich or poor, learns from his failures and hurts and setbacks. A stupid person just repeats mistakes. The opposite of “smart” is “stupid”, not “nice” or “ordinary” or “jes plain folks,” although actually none of those three terms rules out being stupid also. It is odd that people dislike a candidate who shows his smarts, but at the same time no one seems to feel that “stupid” is high praise. You just can’t have it both ways.

As far as I can figure out, this large swath of the electorate is hoping for ‘dumb and lucky’. Maybe they should spend Election Day buying lottery tickets instead of voting. The rest of us might remain dumb, but chances are we’ll emerge a whole lot luckier.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

God Calling...

It is always heartening to hear that God has been in personal communication with one of his faithful. It is astonishing to me that what God has to say is so very much in tune with what the believer wants to do in the first place. God regularly advises various preachers to open large and remunerative ministries in high traffic areas, showing that God is a far better businessman than I am. The most recent testimony to God’s vigilance that I have encountered was provided by the wife of the man who was murdered while jet-skiing in the lake that the US shares on its border with Mexico. Whereas the wife had stopped to try and take care of her husband – or at least his corpse – she tells us that God was urging her (and, like good King James, I paraphrase here) to get the hell out of there and save her own ass. As someone who does not believe in a deity, I am struck by how remarkably the advice this lady received resembles the advice that my own more hell-oriented internal voices give to me. It is remarkable to me also that when someone was shooting at her, this lady actually required God’s advice as to what action to take.  I suspect, if God were otherwise occupied and a bus was bearing down on this lady, she'd not think of moving without someone's advice.  I have not heard any record of this lady speculating on why God didn't speak up an hour earlier with the same advice and leave her with a husband who was intact.  God could even have thereafter suggested to her that she get a divorce; then, either way, she'd probably end up with the house.

Of course, it is hard not to think of Shakespeare’s dictum that “Conscience doth make cowards of us all” – you were thinking that weren’t you? OK, this isn’t exactly what Shakespeare meant (It isn't at all what Shakespeare meant), but I doubt that this lady could spell Shakespeare – quite possibly she can’t spell ‘God’ – much less quote him. It is very easy when making a choice that gives one qualms to suddenly hear the voice of God telling one to take the road one preferred in the first place. So many of us listen to some inner voice, and it is to be hoped that few of us are listening to the same voice that was cited by the Son of Sam serial killer. And how, exactly, can we identify the source of a voice when we are under fire? I’m thinking the lady to whom I am referring did not stop and asked for two forms of identification. But that’s just me.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Just the Facts, Ma'am

When I heard that a New Zealand “presenter” had made fun of an Indian person’s name, an act that roused India to protest, my reaction was, “Is this guy (or woman) nuts? What a jerk!” As usual, knowing the whole story makes all the difference. The name in question is Dikshit. I ask you, who could possibly let a ripe target like that lie? Not me, that’s for sure.

It is an orange and yellow fall, this year. I haven’t seen a single maple that has turned red, they are all just the candy corn colors. I understand red leaves result when there is a sudden sharp frost early in the leaf-turning process. If fall creeps up slowly a degree or two lower each evening, the color is not nearly so vivid. And there is something a little depressing about an orange fall, like someone you love fading slowly rather than the quick shock of a sudden heart attack. Since I am not working, the days pass more quickly, and I really haven’t fully realized yet that spring is past, despite the Fourth of July and even Labor Day. Apparently my gardens feel the same – some bulb I planted and forgot has sent up leaves I don’t recognized, and finally has a cluster of buds which I think will never bloom at this late date. I have a couple of dahlia bulbs I planted this year and these too have not yet bloomed, and apparently never will, or at least they will not do so this year. And although I do have zinnias and cosmos higher than my head, and although these have brought forth some blooms, the majority of the buds are just forming.

I got to thinking of this business of sharp early frosts causing brighter autumns and it occurred to me that this is one more thing that I think I “know” without really having any independent awareness of it as a fact. Somebody told me that. The difference between this “fact” and many others that I assume I know is that I actually recall where I heard this one stated. The man my dear friend Marilyn married told me this in reference to liquidamber trees in Sacramento. I have never actually done any verification of it – and really why would I? But in the last few years I have realized more and more that the things I think I know – and take for granted that I know – are things I have just read or heard. I realized long ago that the real danger of the silly tabloids one finds at the checkout counters is that you read the false headlines about famous people and laugh, but a year later when a celebrated person’s name comes up you have a vague memory that they did one thing or another and don’t remember where you read or heard it.

Almost everything I know, is actually something I have read or heard. I’d say fully half of my knowledge is in this category – possibly more. I definitely know that hot water burns, because I have been burned by hot water more than once. But every single thing I have heard about, say, South America is something that I heard or read or saw in a film or on TV; I have never been there. Much of it is extrapolated from what I encountered in Mexico - a land that is definitely not South America, simply because the Mexican people look vaguely the same and speak the same language.  I know from experience that Arabs are far different than the common American perception of them. I don’t even bother saying so any longer, when I hear someone who has been nowhere tell me what Arabs are like because my experience is that the speaker will dismiss my eight plus years of actual experiences in Saudi as ‘liking Arabs’ – in the same way many people once dismissed positive statements about black folks as not being true, but merely the deluded effusions of a n------- - lover. Some folks still do – and equally, of course, there are folks of non-white races who will not accept a single positive statement about anyone white.

I love history and I read it constantly, not really to learn anything, but just because I like it. And the more I read of English history, which is my favorite topic and the one about which I read most, the more I realize that almost anything anyone says is mere speculation, or only partly true. It is impossible to really enter into the mindset of an earlier era. How much more this is true of a people that is not as similiar to me as the English are. This doesn’t just apply to history, however. How often have I heard detailed descriptions of life in the inner cities from people whose only experience of them is driving on a freeway that cuts through them?  It is clear that people who tend to read one set of bloggers and who prefer one cable news channel have a radically different set of ‘facts’ from those who get their information from another. It is easy for a person from the first group to believe that a person from the second group is being willfully obtuse. Some people merely want to have their own prejudices reinforced by anything they listen to (this is what we call “Faith”), but even someone wishing to hear all sides, and who listens to all the sources he can find is still reliant on other sets of eyes to know what really happened when he himself was not present. And as to knowing WHY something happened, that is not even within the realm of possibility to know. Most of us really don’t know why we like what we like in our own lives, or exactly why we do most of the things we do.

Dylan, who in my opinion, got so much right, nailed this whole issue long ago:

My guard stood hard when abstract threats too noble to neglect

Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’, I defined these words quite clear, no doubt, somehow,

But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.

Notice that even folks with experience and smarts such as those folks at Microsoft can’t figure things out. They think, for instance, that I wanted to space Dylan’s lines as if they were separate paragraphs. And they were wrong, wrong, wrong.

Don’t think for a moment, though, that knowing how tenuous, speculative and second-hand all my knowledge is will stop me from acting on (or writing about) facts of which I have no personal knowledge. If you think that, you just got another fact wrong.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Well, Guess What...

I have suddenly become aware of the phrase “Well, guess what…”  Has this always been around or is it something relatively recent? It is very specific in its use: the speaker relates some expectation from a third party or from the universe and then introduces a rebuttal with this phrase. The rebuttal is usually considered withering in its logic or truth and the verb thereof is almost always emphasized – sort of italicized. For instance, “They want me to pay a hundred bucks for a telephone! Well guess what, I don’t even like telephones!” “She said I was with her boyfriend at McDonald’s. Well guess what, I don’t even go to McDonald’s!” I am particularly hearing this phrase in sitcoms, and now that I have noticed it, I kind of enjoy it. See, people think I don’t pay attention. Well, guess what, I never stop paying attention. Sooner or later, I get there.

We had, this past Saturday, our 50th Class Reunion. It was quite a lot of fun and quite a bit more elegant than I had expected. Doing my bit, I gave a few after dinner remarks – by request. I also (he said, tooting his own horn) went above and beyond by volunteering to pick up and return a woman, a former Charlotte Harvest Queen, who lives down in the Southern Tier, that extremely rural line of counties that borders Pennsylvania. She lives about an hour south of me in a village that I had never previously visited. Of course everyone was all “That was so generous!”, but it wasn’t, really. As I have said before, I really love the people in my graduating class. And hello, people, she was a HARVEST QUEEN!

Harvest queens were an institution here in my part of NY from roughly 1947 through the early ‘70s. Each town hereabouts would hold a pageant wherein a number of girls aged 16 or 17 would compete, gowned in prom-style dresses. In Reedville, my town, they’d be led onto the stage from a side door of the gym/theater that used to grace our Town Hall by a town volunteer fireman who would be grinning in embarrassment and flushing a bright scarlet. The ladies were escorted from the side door on a path that threaded through the audience of friends and fam. Then up onto the built-in stage where they arrayed themselves in a semicircle of chairs set up for the occasion. The contestants usually numbered between 7 and 10, garnered by local ladies who furiously worked to convince enough girls to compete to make a good showing. Reedville is a very small town; its official population in the road guides of my youth was 384, although the actual count was probably quite a bit larger, since the guides only counted those within the rough outlines of the village of Reedville, whereas a majority of the town’s people lived in the houses and on the farms in the 80 square miles of the town outside the village limits.

The contest consisted of each contestant coming to a microphone and giving a brief résumé. Most of these speeches began, “I am Contestant number X and I am a junior at Reedville-Charlotte High School…” After these little speeches, the master of ceremonies would ask each lady a brief series of questions. Upon completion of this process, the judges would retire and select a Queen and an Alternate. I had always thought that the title of Queen granted a girl two privileges: the right to compete for County Harvest Queen and from there (if successful again) to represent the county at the State Fair; and secondly, the Queen and Alternate got to ride in the Memorial Day parade next May in an open car, blushing and bowing to the masses. I thought the Alternate, meanwhile, had no other function than to keep an eye on the Queen, hoping for signs of a wasting disease, so that she could succeed to the higher honor.

The girl (they will always be young in my eyes) who did most of the hard work arranging this reunion happened also to be the Reedville Alternate back in the day, and she told me that there was a great deal more to it than that. Anne, for such is her name, told me that there was quite a program of activities for the winners and that, other than competing for the next highest level, the Alternates were included in all activities as equals of the Queens. They met local celebs such as members of the Rochester Triple A baseball teams. There were a number of dinners and events, and the ladies were treated to various opportunities to learn and grow in social awareness.

In general, the prettiest girls won, although occasionally we all were shocked by a decision that was unexpected. Sometimes a pre-contest favorite would freeze up during her speech or the questioning by the emcee. Nearly all the contestants in Reedville were attendees at Reedville-Charlotte, but there were a few exceptions to this. The very southwest portion of Reedville fell into the Stratford school district and an occasional contestant might hail therefrom. In addition, a few girls in town attended a Catholic school in the city, and although I don’t recall any of them competing in my time, they were certainly possible candidates. Of course one year when a girl from Stratford High School won, there was a lot of grumbling from most of us, not least because her father happened to be the town supervisor (our local version of mayor) and we all felt the fix was in. The crowd normally divided between guys rooting for the prettiest and girls wanting to see a popular girl taken down a peg or two.

I don’t want to get all political here, but it is easy to notice that merely being pretty gave a girl entrée to a series of events where she could develop connections, poise and some social awareness. This was never questioned in the 1950s. But the thread of looks counting that still shines through so many areas of achievement was clearly in play. I ask those who watch American Idol, when was the last time a contestant made the top levels who was not at least above average in attractiveness, particularly the females? There has been a heavy gal or two on Idol, but, really, when you see a plain girl prepare to sing in the early phases, you can take it as a given that she will be both dreadful and slightly psychotic. Even the majority of successful female political figures at the highest level of government seem above average in appearance. Is this because people generally vote more readily for the attractive, or is it because prior experiences have given attractive ladies an edge in savoir faire, connections and experience? Life, as we all should know by now, is not fair.

I loved attending the Harvest Queen pageants. There was so likely to be great food for humor. I recall one poor farm girl who, at the required age, still retained the lissome figure of a pre-adolescent boy. This was coupled in the unfortunate girl with a face that was, to be kind, very plain. I remember, as she swept out on the arm of her red-faced fireman, my brother’s best friend muttering, “Toothpick!” which sadly became her sobriquet among us forever after (although not to her face). Naturally we all were giggling through the remainder of the proceedings. My favorite misadventure at the proceedings was the time that a girl known as “Manface Millie” competed. Unbeknownst to me and my friend Howie, the girl’s best friend and the best friend’s mother who doted on Millie were right in front of us. Howie was the nicest guy in the world, a kid who had dropped out of a junior seminary, and who never wanted to offend anyone, but he spontaneously muttered to me, “She doesn’t have a chance!”. Thereupon the friend and her mother, as one, whirled angrily around to face us, the mother saying, “I think she looks very nice!” Howie, the poor fish, blushed fire red and attempting to palliate his offense, promptly added his second foot to his mouth by stammering, “I meant in comparison with the OTHER girls!”

Toward the end of the Harvest Queen era, the county contests began to be televised.  I remember the first time this broadcast occurred - I happened to be back in the area for a visit.  In order to buff up the proceedings into a show that would dazzle the viewers, some entertainment was added.  A former Reedville Harvest Queen was asked to sing. (She was a semi-relative, having a great-aunt by blood who was an aunt of mine by marriage.  I am related, one way or another, to nearly everyone whose family has lived in Reedvile for more than 20 years.)  Well, this young lady launched herself into a version of Fly Me to the Moon which distinguished itself from every other version I have ever heard by being off-key in every note from start to finish.  One of the perils of live broadcasting on local TV!

On a different note, my sister Lucy’s only daughter is to be married in November, in California. The invitation arrived yesterday with an insert informing me that a bloc of rooms has been reserved in a local hotel. Ah, the joys of being filthy rich, which Lucy and her husband are! I suppose these rooms are well-priced, but gee! Doesn’t anyone remember what it is to be semi-broke? Luke and his girl Carol plan to go to and from the wedding by rail and I may go out with them. I really cannot afford this trip and moreover, I HATE weddings which seem to me to be one dreary set-piece after another designed to remove any little pleasure that might derive from seeing a few folks I like in an uncomfortable setting. But I do really like Lucy’s daughter who is a very bright and lovely girl with a great sense of humor. And one does attend these events, I suppose. I may take the opportunity to extend my time in California for a few weeks in order to spend time with my best friend Emily (and possibly other old friends). I have cadged an invitation from Emily, and I have only to arrange the details. An awkward feature of the whole thing is that the wedding is just before Thanksgiving, and if I am to join Luke and Carol on the train going out, then in order to spend a decent amount of time with Emily, I will have to remain with her over Thanksgiving, a holiday which I spent with her last year. Emily has three kids and divers other relatives in her vicinity for whom she provides dinner and I’d really rather not appear to them in the light of the gift that keeps on taking. But I really love Emily and I guess I can withstand a little discomfort for the pleasure of her company. She is the only person in my life with whom I can be entirely open, and for whom no topic is verboten. She is a very bright lady – probably much smarter than me, if such a thing is possible. She is a voracious reader, generally reading books several cuts in sophistication above those which I read, and her knowledge of movies is encyclopedic.

Also, Papa, my former Indian roommate in Saudi, will arrive here next weekend. I look forward to this with mixed emotions. For one thing, I am to accompany him to Las Vegas for a week during which he will be attending an advanced computer class and I will have to try to think of something to do in the meantime. I dislike Las Vegas intensely (the only worse fate would be to be stuck in Orlando). I wonder if there is some non-gambling sort of hip neighborhood such as can be found in other nicer cities, a local Greenwich Village. I do not like the glitz or the gambling or the vulgarity of any part with which I am familiar in that benighted city. Worse, Papa is an indefatigable tourist and will want to do everything. I am going because it is free (he has two tickets on the flight and his wife couldn’t come) and because I feel it is not healthy for me to just sit home all the time, even though that is what I want to do on any given day. I like Papa, but the mad desire to see everything and to shop tirelessly, all the time talking of computer-related topics, which are SO over for me is pretty daunting. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth!

And that is the news from Reedville on this sunny Fall day