Monday, August 31, 2009

"Summer Times - Pink Eye"

Virtually every summer, usually in August, a pink eye epidemic would coming sweeping through my camp like a sticky tornado. At its worst, close to a third of the camp would be engulfed by this dreaded scourge.

Apparently, there are different kinds of pink eye – viral, bacterial, pink eye caused by allergies. There’s a lot of information about it on the Internet. I thought I’d put some of it in here, but then decided not to. I mean, what am I, a medical blog? Okay, recently, but, normally, I’m a whole different thing.

The best thing about pink eye is that I never got it. Pink eye is extremely contagious. You touch something contaminated, you touch your eyes, you got pink eye. I never touched my eyes. Back then, I wore thick glasses. This gave me a bifocaled wall of protection between the contaminate and my eyeballs.

I always hated my glasses, but they kept me from getting pink eye. That’s inanimate objects for you. You hate them, and they help you anyway. The animate can learn from the inanimate in that regard. Though it’s unlikely we will.

Okay, so I didn’t get pink eye, but a substantial chunk of the camp did. You could easily identify the afflicted. Their eyes looked red and itchy-looking, and when the pink eye ointment was applied to them, goopy. One glimpse of these pathetic wretches compelled you to recoil from their presence while uttering the word,


As much as possible, pink eye campers were rigorously segregated from the rest of the populace. They ate separately, using their own separate eating utensils. They played separately. (I clearly remember receiving the severe warning while I was playing badminton: “Don’t touch that ‘birdie’! That’s the pink eye ‘birdie’!”)

Pink eye were restricted from going in the water. It could be the hottest day of the summer, a real scorcher – the pink eye tribe was relegated to the sidelines. As the “healthies” frolicked in the refreshing coolness of the lake, the “pink eyes” looked on helplessly, their bodies sheathed in sweat, their half-closed eyes, mere slits of encrusted envy.

One summer, during a particularly virulent pink eye infestation, our camp received a visit from a basketball team, made up of staff members from nearby (non Jewish) Camp Tawingo. An exhibition game had been arranged between their camp and some hastily assembled staff members from ours.

Our camp owner was always encouraging demonstrations of universal brotherhood, trying to forge a consistency between our behavior and the “we’re all the same” principles expressed in many of our camp songs.


I’m proud to be me, but I also see

You’re just as proud to be you.

We may look at things a bit differently

But lots of good people do.

It’s just human nature

So why should I hate you

For being as different as I.

We’ll take and we’ll give

And we’ll live and let live

And we’ll all get along if we try.

I’m proud to be me, but I also see

You’re just as proud to be you – it’s true –

You’re just as proud to be you.

We once had a local Protestant minister come and speak to us. But when he adamantly insisted that we were all going to hell, the ecumenical encounter was immediately cut short. The guy may not have even been offered snack. (Although knowing the camp owner, he probably was.)

Judging from their ball-playing contingent, Camp Tawingo seemed to have sprung from a Nordic branch of the Tree of Man. They were all giants. The players on our team varied from not tall to not much taller, Eastern European stock growing close to the ground. There are a few exceptions, a smattering of uncharacteristically tall Jews, owing to the fact that their gene pool had been visited by marauding Cossacks who’d been awarded “pogrom privileges” with the local femalery.

It wasn’t enough that the Tawingo team was tall. They also had plays. How do you define “mismatch”? Tall and trained versus short and disorganized. (“Scrappy” could not make up the difference.) The game was a blowout. Something like, fifty-eight to twelve.

One shining moment rises from the debacle. When the game was over, the entire pink eye community – sitting separately, as usual – rose as one, and raced towards the victorious Tawingans, shouting,

“Let’s congratulate the winners!”

I retain the memory a team of terrified strangers bolting down the road, pursued by an exuberant pack of sticky-eyed crazies.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Health Care Costs - An Inside Story"

Recently, this reporter spent four days in the hospital, prior, it turns out, to surgery and a more extended stay in the approaching future. The following, through the filter of confusion, fear and inexperience, is his cataloging of the treatment he received while he was hospitalized.

During my four-day stay in the hospital, I was seen by nine doctors.

Doctor Number One: My personal doctor’s backup replacement. (My personal doctor was on vacation.)

Doctor Number Two: The E.R. “admitting” doctor.

Doctor Number Three: The doctor in charge of the E.R.

Doctor Number Four: A cardiologist. (Who saw me a number of times, and also administered a test, described below.)

Doctor Number Five: A doctor specializing in infectious diseases. (There was a concern that, along with my heart valve problem, I also had an infection in that area.)

Doctor Number Six: The backup replacement to the doctor specializing in infectious diseases. (It was the weekend, and the original doctor specializing in infectious diseases was off.)

Doctor Number Seven: The backup replacement to the backup replacement to my personal doctor. (Ditto, the “weekend issue.”)

Doctor Number Eight: A urologist. (The treatment I was undergoing was affecting my kidneys.)

Doctor Number Nine: My personal doctor. (It was now Monday, and he had returned from vacation.)

Nine doctors. All of whom, presumably, got paid for their time and expertise.

Their conclusion: My heart valve needed repairing. And I didn’t have an infection.

Included in the treatment during my stay was

A cardiogram

(I almost received two cardiograms, but I informed the second cardiogram technician I had just had a cardiogram twenty minutes earlier.)

A chest x-ray

An echocardiogram

(I would have received a treadmill stress test, but I was told that the stress test technician had gone home.)

And a test where they take pictures of your heart by lowering a camera down your throat. (This was administered by the cardiologist.)

I spent two days in Intensive Care.

I spent two subsequent days in the regular section of the hospital.

Every day, I submitted to at least two blood tests.

(One day, I had blood drawn twice in the same hour. Though the blood technician explained that an unfortunate mishap had occurred concerning the first batch, I strongly suspect the involvement of vampires.)

All that activity in four days.

Which made me wonder.

Was the level of treatment I received necessary, or excessive? Was it the result of scrupulous caution, or was it defensive, concerned less with my health than with potential litigation for negligence? I believe I have an answer to the second question. Based on the vibe I picked up from the doctors, I truly believe they were being sincerely and extraordinarily careful on my behalf.

Do I consider the level of treatment I received excessive? Three points on this question:

First, the treatment was for me, so, not surprisingly, I want it all.

Secondly, thankfully, my insurance will cover everything, so my concern here is more theoretical than bankrupting.

Thirdly, having no wisdom in the medical area whatsoever, I am in no position to determine whether the treatment I received was excessive or not.

It did seem like a lot. To the practiced eye, however, it may have been exactly what I needed.


1. Is it possible to determine a line between “exactly what you need” health care, and more health care than is actually necessary?

2. If it is, is it then possible for reasonable, fair and compassionate people, trained in such matters, to come to some consensus on the general location of that line?

3. If the line is locatable, is it morally acceptable to try and determine where it is, or would any efforts in that direction be considered rationing?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I think they’re worth asking.

It seems to me that if people received something in the area of “the right amount” of health care, and no more, there would be money available for more (hopefully all) people to get at least a minimal amount health care.

It seems to me.

But I’m just a reporter.

I can only tell you my story.

Hopefully, it can help.
Perhaps my Canadian readers can illuminate my American readers with their health care experiences.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"It Was The Strangest, Strangest Thing"

I have a “Clock-CD.” It’s like the “clock-radio” I got for my Bar Mitzvah, except that with this, along with the radio, there’s a CD player. I like this thing. It allows me to wake up to the CD selection of my choice.

It’s a nifty appliance. And it only took me three months to figure out how to use it. That could be a record in this house. We are not very technological. We’ve owned a DVD player for a couple of years. We have an attractive mobile sitting on it.

Not long ago, my friend, Paul, surprised me with a wonderful present. It’s a CD, whose sole track contains the original theme song from Hockey Night In Canada. Hockey Night is a deeply rooted Canadian tradition. The games were my most reliable companion through my adolescent Saturday nights. The gift stirred powerful memories. No dates; great hockey.

Ever since I received the CD, I’ve been waking up to this energizing anthem. Which goes something like this:


“Da da-da da-da

Da da-da da-da

Da da-da da-da



“Da-da-da da da da-dahhh

Da-da-da da da da-dahhh

Da-da-da da da

Da da-da-da

Da da da-d…”

This may not be doing it for you. I have the melody in my head. But if you don’t, “Da-da-da da da’s” meaningless. Sorry. I got carried away.

I love that theme!

Go find it on the Internet. “Original Theme to Hockey Night In Canada.” It’s irresistible. It’ll make you like hockey.

My Hockey Night “wake-up” never fails to start my engines. Every morning, I jump out of bed and skate straight to the bathroom.

All right.

One morning, as usual, I hear the blast of this unmistakable Canadian call to arms. For several seconds, I allow its driving rhythm (and its soothing nostalgia) to wash over me. Then I reach over, and I press the button to turn it off.

To my surprise, in contrast to every other time I’ve done this, this time, the music doesn’t stop.

It just keeps going.

I press the “Stop” button again.

“Da da-da da da…”

The Hockey Night theme song continues to play.

I stop for a moment, trying to understand what’s going on. Then, suddenly

The music stops.

All by itself.

I have no idea what happened. I guess there was a “delay”, or something. What does that mean? I have no idea. But at least it’s over.

I start to sit up…

“Da da-da da-da…”

It’s back.

The Hockey Night theme’s, like, thirty seconds long. Apparently, the way it’s set up, after it finishes, the track stops playing for couple of seconds, and then, it re-starts. I thought it was over. But I was wrong. Because there it was again.

“Da-da-da da da da-dahhh…”

“Da-da-da da da daddle ahhhh…”

I begin pressing every button on my “Clock-CD.” But it does no good. The Hockey Night theme keeps playing. Then ending. Then playing again.

I’m starting to get agitated.

I love Hockey Night In Canada.

But it’s jangling my nerves!

I roll over in bed. I reach out to my “Clock-CD.” I press the button…

And it stops.

And it stays stopped.

I’m lying in bed thinking, “What the heck just happened?” Suddenly, it all comes clear to me. I realize why I’d been unable to turn off the music.

Apparently, immediately – and I mean mere seconds – before my “clock-CD” was programmed to wake me up, I was dreaming that it already had. The Hockey Night theme? It wasn’t real. I was hearing it in my dream. That’s why I couldn’t turn it off.

Imagine my perplexitude. In my dream, despite my greatest efforts, I was unable to turn off the music. And moments later, in the “awake” version, I could.

It was the strangest, strangest feeling. Like a hockey-themed Twilight Zone.

I wouldn’t categorize it as a nightmare exactly.

But I really don’t want it to happen again.

Postscript: And then it did.

When I was in the hospital, I had this I.V. thing in my arm. When I came home, the area where the I.V. had been felt extremely sore. In fact, my first night, I woke up from the discomfort it was causing. Surprisingly, when I was awake, the area barely hurt at all.

My whole life, I’ve been a huge fan of sleeping, preferring it, generally, to being awake. (Soothing snoozes, over bumps and bruises.) These experiences, however, have prompted me to seriously consider changing my allegiance.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Wrongful Dismissal"

I don’t know why this bothered me, but it did. I can feel the crankiness bubbling up just thinking about it. It’s not good to keep the crankiness inside, where “Mr. Silly Valve” lives, so I’m letting it out.

Venting for health.

Okay. Here we go.

Dr. M and I and another couple go to the movies together. We see Being John Malkovich, written by Charlie Kaufman. I feel the same way about all Charlie Kaufman movies. (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York) The first two thirds of the movie is amazing, and the third third is stupid. Either disappointing, or it doesn’t make sense. It’s as if Kaufman’s unwilling to surrender to traditional, story-resolving formulas, but what he’s chosen to replace them with is worse.

I’m all in favor of blazing new creative trails. But Kaufman’s new trails invariably lead to quicksand.

Okay, so after the movie, we go back to the other couple’s house for coffee, and we post mortem Being John Malkovich. Dr. M and I are in general agreement. (We usually are.) The film started great, but at a certain point, it went haywire.

The other couple disagrees. They found Malkovich excitingly imaginative, psychologically illuminating and enormous good fun. Not just the first two thirds of the movie, the whole thing.

So, fine. We have opposing opinions. So what? It’s not like there’s a “right answer.” It’s two different views.

The discussion has been lively and articulate. No agreement, but we’re having a good time.



As the discussion of the movie starts to wind down, the male member of the other couple proclaims this:

“Of course, Earl, I’m not a professional writer. You would certainly know better about these things that I would.”

I sit there in stunned silence. But in my head, there’s a very large explosion. (And a “flashback explosion” at this very moment. Which is not good, since I have a doctor’s appointment in twenty minutes.)

My mind tried to process what had just occurred. By bringing up that I was a professional writer, the guy was suggesting that I was an expert. That’s a compliment. And should be taken as one.

The reason it wasn’t taken as a compliment – by me – was because it didn’t feel like a compliment. It felt like a punch to the gut. Or suspiciously lower.

I’m not getting into the guy’s head. I won’t try to explain why he felt the need to “zing” me. I’ll stick to my own reaction. And my own reaction was this:


Do I know more about writing than that guy? Of course. I’ve been doing it for decades. (I’m doing it right now.) I know how to put stuff together, how to structure a story, how to build to a resolution. I don’t always succeed. Nobody does. But am I an expert in that department?

Yer darn tootin’!

But I also know that when you’re talking about your response to a movie, we’re all experts. My training as a writer, beyond the technical nuts and bolts, doesn’t lift me to some loftier plateau. When it comes to respond, everyone’s equal. You see what they see, and you feel what you feel.

Maybe this guy sensed an unspoken criticism from me, some unconscious message of “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” The guy heard me say, “It’s interesting how people can respond so differently to the same movie” (I actually said that), but he interpreted that as meaning, “You’re an idiot!” So he shot back, saying, in effect, that my opinion didn't count, because it was tainted with expertise.

I don't know, I guess I hurt the guy’s feelings.

But he duzzn’t has to call me “a professional writer.”

That’s really low.
Health Update: It turns out that instead of a heart valve replacement, I get to keep my own valve and just get it repaired. So no pig valve for me. Also, no urgency. That means I’ll be here at least for the next couple of weeks. Pass it on.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"The Free Speech Exception"

Free speech is a wonderful thing. When used responsibly. But right now, that’s not happening. People are saying things, for example, about health care, that they know are not true, and nobody can stop them. You can challenge their arguments with evidence proving what they’re saying is not true, but it doesn’t help.

Because they won’t listen.

But that’s free speech for you. When you’ve got First Amendment protection, you can say pretty much anything.

There is one famous exception to the free speech protection. Something that, you say it, and you’re in trouble. They had to have at least one free speech exception, something not protected by the First Amendment.


“So people will know we’re serious.”

“I see. So it’s not like, ‘You can say anything.’”

“Right. ‘There’s an exception.’”

“It show’s that we’ve thought this through.”


So they made an exception. Something you can absolutely not say. What is it? The free speech exception states that you are not permitted to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

You can see where yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater would be a bad idea. People would panic, there’d be tramplings, chaos and more roasted theatergoers than might otherwise be necessary.

So they made that exception. Something you were forbidden to say, so a tragedy of that nature would never occur. Yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and no First Amendment protection for you, Mister. You’re going straight to jail.

A fire in a crowded theater is not that frequent an occurrence. But at least it’s something. And it may have broader implications, if it’s applied metaphorically. Examples of which will not follow, because I can’t think of any. Though I did hear a mention of it on Law and Order. And there was nothing on fire.

To be honest, I’m a little confused about the “‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater" exception. Is the restriction against yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater limited to when there isn’t a fire? Or are you not allowed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater even when there is a fire? I’m kind of fuzzy on that point. Does the “No yelling ‘Fire!’” rule apply to just one situation, or is it both?

What I’m wondering is, why is it wrong to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there’s actually a fire? What are you supposed to do? Pass a note?”

“There’s a fire in the theater. Pass it on.”

If there’s a fire in a theater I happen to be sitting in, I would definitely want to know about it. So I can make immediate plans to get out of there. To me, if someone knew there was a fire in the theater I was sitting in and they didn’t say anything, I would be really angry.

“You knew there was a fire and you didn’t say anything?”

“I couldn’t. Free speech exception.”

“All right.”

I don’t know, maybe you can yell “Fire!” when there’s actually a fire, or at least make some kind of announcement. Which then leaves the “crowded theater” issue. I mean, what constitutes a “crowded theater?” Does it have to be a sellout? Almost full, with a couple of celebrity “no shows” who got a better offer at the last minute? Full except for those private boxes up on the side, like where Lincoln got shot? I mean, who wants to sit there?

Say there’s this half-filled theater. The play’s okay, but it could use stronger casting, richer production values, and a rewritten entire script. Maybe you couldn’t get into the big hits. You love the theater. So you took what you could get.

If the theater’s not crowded, can they yell “Fire!” there?

Whether there’s a fire there or not?

I wanted to talk seriously about the First Amendment. Bu I guess I’m not smart enough. It’s a very important issue. Right now, the protected right of free speech is being marshaled against reason and possibility. And that’s sad.

I wanted to write about free speech, and what I ended up writing was silliness.

Good thing that there’s no free speech exception for that.

"A Temporary Break In The Action"

I’m home for the moment. They fixed the symptoms that were causing my problems, but they didn’t fix what was causing the symptoms. That’s next. In the meantime, I get a break from the hospital, which was very consummately helpful, in terms of treatment, though as a physical structure, it was somewhat Motel Sixey. I was told the place was built in 1920, to which I immediately snarked “As a hospital? Or what there bowling?” Sometimes, I’m not appropriately grateful.

As a patient, the symptoms you “present” can suggest various causes. To me, my symptoms suggested “acid reflux”, which I’d been told a couple of years earlier I had a mild case of. My symptoms last week, however, weren’t mild. That should have been the tip-off that it wasn’t “acid reflux.” I had trouble breathing when I was lying down. Something else was going on.

You go to the hospital when at least one possibility suggested by the symptoms is serious. That’s why I spent five days there – narrowing down the possibilities. Half of my time was spent in the Intensive Care Unit, which, for me, was efficient and painless, but judging from the sounds emanating from nearby rooms, it seemed more like hell with a bill.

I don’t know about “hospital stories.” They involve other people and I have no right to exploit other people for material. I probably will, but that’s because that’s what I do. I did notice, however, that on my second day in the hospital, I asked Dr M to bring me a pad and a pen. The impulse is definitely there.

To remember.

Though not necessarily to share.

As I await the next phase of my treatment, I will leave you with one observation:

Hospitals are a great place to see women from other countries. (Whom I happen to be partial to.)

If you act particularly needy, you can get a hug.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Okay, don’t make a fuss. I’m in the hospital. I always had this funky heart valve. Well, a piece of it fell off, and now I need to get it fixed.

I’ll be gone for a while, and then I’ll be back. At least that’s the plan.

Don’t go away. I need the company.

As Gene Hackman said in Hoosiers:

“I love you guys.”


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Summertimes: the Horse Bag Challenge

When you’re on a canoe trip, and you’re not a strong paddler, and you can’t carry a canoe, and you can’t carry a pack, when you’re inconsistent carrying the paddles, when you’re sent into the woods to collect firewood and you come back and say you couldn’t find any, there’s not a lot available for you to help with.

Except for one task, the task assigned to people who are unable to perform any other task on a canoe trip. What task is that?

You go out on the lake and you fill the “horse bag” with water.

It’s the easiest job on a canoe trip.

That’s what everyone says.

My suspicion is that “everyone” has never tried it.

I have.

And it’s hard.

Very hard.

And dangerous.

Even if I were capable of performing other canoe trip chores, they – “they” meaning the “trippers” in charge of the canoe trip – would probably have sent me anyway. That’s because they traditionally send the complainers out to fill the “horse bags”, and I was definitely one of those.

A complainer with just cause. Is there any other kind? There’s a lot to complain about on canoe trips. For one thing, no matter where you set up your sleeping bag, you usually end up sleeping on a stick. Well, not a stick, exactly, but on the protruding root of a nearby tree, so, though it’s not technically a stick, it is wood, and it hurts when you sleep on it. That’s why you complain about it.

The reason they send the complainers out to fill the “horse bags” is because the task requires them to venture out to the middle of the lake. A long way from the campsite. So you can’t hear them complaining anymore.

“Horse bags” were called “horse bags” because that’s what they looked like. Extended, (in this case) army green, cylindrical canvas containers with a strap across the top, which, if you stuffed hay it one and lifted the strap over the horse’s ears, no one would say, “What’s he eating out of that for?” They’d know, because it looks exactly like a horse bag.
All right.

Two types of water were required on canoe trips, one type for cooking, and one type for drinking. If you were going to boil it over the fire, the water didn’t need to be that pure. You could just go to the edge, where the campsite met the lake, kneel down and scoop it into a pot, after extracting the dirt, debris and minnows.

Drinking water had to meet a higher standard. When the water was collected, a purifying Halazone tablet was dropped into it, after which you waited half an hour for anything in the water that could kill you to die. Unlike cooking water, drinking water was collected not at the water’s edge, but from the deeper part of the lake, further out, where it was assumed it was cleaner, since no forest animal had peed in it. And whatever the fish did in water, they did lower down.

This brings us to the “horse bagging” procedure itself. How so? The drinking water was collected in the “horse bag.”

“Horse bagging” is a two-person assignment. One person paddles the canoe to the middle of the lake, holding it steady, while the other person (who we’ll call “me”) scoops the water into the “horse bag.” It sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Not so fast.

First off, you need to know this. The canoe is an extremely tippy means of conveyance. It flips over easily. You do not want that to happen. Because then you’re in the lake.

Balance is essential. The paddler is of great assistance here. If the water collector leans, say, over the right side of the canoe, the paddler needs to lean very pronouncedly to the left. Not too far to the left; otherwise, the canoe will tip over on that side. It probably goes without saying, but when it comes to ending up in the lake, it makes little difference which side of the boat you fell out of.

We are now down to the nitty gritty. The part of the “horse bagging” procedure we call

“Getting the water.”

We’ll assume that the lake is relatively calm. A choppy lake considerably increases the difficulty. A turbulent lake, and you may never come back. Not being alarmist. Just setting the parameters.

His canoe floating at the water-collecting spot, the “horse bagger” reaches over the side of the canoe, and dips the “horse bag” into the lake. “Dips”, not drops; the “horse bag”, at least until it gets waterlogged, floats.

The “horse bagger” then skims the “horse bag” along the surface of the lake, filling the “horse bag” with water as he goes.

Now here’s the thing, the essential dilemma of the “horse bagging” procedure.
You want to fill the “horse bag” with just the right amount of water. You don’t want to bring a half-filled “horse bag” back to camp, even though it would be easier to lift into the boat. You don’t bring enough water, you’ll just have to go out and do it again.

On the other hand, if you fill the “horse bag” to the top, one, you can’t lift the thing. It’s too heavy. And two, even if by some miracle you could lift it, as you hoisted up the filled-to-the-brim “horse bag”, if you looked down around you, you would see water from the lake pouring into the canoe. Trust me. You do not want that.

Getting the precisely right amount of water into the “horse bag” requires a trial-and-error process, which goes something like this:

Too full? You spill some out. Spill out too much? You put some more in. You fill. You spill. You re-fill. You spill some back. Your objective is for your “horse bag” to contain exactly the right amount of water. What is “exactly the right amount”? Enough to service the needs of the canoe trip, but not so much that they have to send out another canoe to rescue you.

Breaking the natural sounds of birds and water animals, comes an unexpected, rather impatient sounding voice, emanating from the campsite:

“Come oooooooon iiiiiiiiin!”

Sure, they’re thirsty.

But you want to do it right.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Welcome Back"

At some point on your vacation, you have to come home. Otherwise, it’s not a vacation anymore. It’s living somewhere else.

We’re back in Santa Monica. Not a terrible place to live. In fact, some people come here for vacation. They’ll have a pretty good time in Santa Monica. Though they’re unlikely to spot any deer.

How do you describe going from Chickadee Trail to a city (L.A.) with millions of people in it?

You leave a place where maybe two cars pass every hour and you return to a place where your thoroughfare of choice is a four-lane freeway whose traffic flow in more like fifty cars a minute.

It’s different.

First day back, I’m waiting for my mail. Before we left, I had filled out a form, ordering a “vacation hold.” When the form asked if I wanted my “held” mail delivered when I got back or I wanted to pick it up at the Post Office, I understandably chose “delivered.”

Who wants to go to the Post Office if you don’t have to? Judging by their faces, the people working there don’t want to go there.

Our letter carrier arrives. She has only brought the mail for that day.

“What about my “held” mail,” I inquire.

“You have to pick it up.”

“But on the form I filled out, I requested…”

“There was too much mail. You have to pick it up at the office.”

“Vacation calmness” drops away a little at a time. A substantial hunk had just been subtracted.

I get in my car, and make my first post-Indiana drive to the local Post Office, not the main Post Office, but a nearby, “pick-up” building. I’m at a stoplight, commiserating with my favorite conversation partner – myself: “I guess what they should have said was, “’Held’ mail will be delivered unless…” The light turns green. I sit there, completing my internal thought…”there’s too much of it.” And what do I hear?


Another withdrawal from the “vacation calmness” account. In two weeks in Indiana, I was never honked once. I’m driving here less than five minutes… I thought Los Angeles was laid back.

I know what street the “pick-up” office is on, but I don’t know which block. And there are no discernible address numbers on the buildings to help. “How far can it be?” I ask myself. “I’ll park and I’ll walk.” “You do that,” I reply. “I will,” I respond, completing the exchange.

I park the car, and I start to walk.

It turns out the “pick-up” office is a long block away, on the other side of a busy thoroughfare. (This will be an important factor on the walk back.)

I won’t criticize the Postal Service. The internet’s making them look passé. Rubbing it in would be like going into a Pony Express office years ago and saying, “How ‘bout those trains!”

After showing my “pick-up” card and my I.D., a postal worker brings out a container, brimming with our “held” mail. I reach into the container, scoop the mail up in my arms, cradle it to my chest, and head out the door, hoping to reach my car, a long block away across a busy thoroughfare, with the entire bundle still my possession.

Why didn’t I leave the mail, return to my car, drive back to the office, and pick it up? You’ll understand a lot about me when I answer that question.

I didn’t think of it.

I am now on the street, struggling with maybe a hundred separate pieces of mail, some of them slippery from glossiness. At first, I’m progressing pretty well. I’m thinking, “Maybe I can make it.”

Then I spot the busy thoroughfare ahead of me, and the apprehension of crossing it with this unwieldy burden jostles my confidence. A new thought crosses my mind. “There’s no way I can make it.”

It seems to me, the moment that negative message flashed through my consciousness, my entire armload of mail suddenly slipped from my grasp, raining down onto the sidewalk, the catalogues staying put, but the lighter items, blowing into the distance.

I am now sprawled on the pavement, my hands holding down the stack of mail that has not yet taken flight, wishing very hard that I was still on vacation. I have no idea what to do.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spot this off-duty lady bus driver, who’d been leaning against her bus enjoying a “smoke break”, heading in my direction. The bus lady runs down my errant letters, gathers them up, and brings them back. I thank her for her kindness.

Not content with such assistance, the woman heads to her bus, where she reaches into a lower compartment and takes out a dry-cleaners thin, plastic bag. She comes back and offers it to me as a carrying pouch. Having second thoughts about its flimsiness, she returns to her bus, and produces a sturdier garbage-type bag, which she brings to me as a better second choice.

Thanking her again, I slide my prodigious stack of mail into the flimsy bag, and slide the flimsy bag into the sturdier one. Then I get up. Santa with a sack of mail.

I tell the bus lady she saved my life. I want to add, “But if you continue smoking, who’s going to help me with my mail next time?” I keep that comment to myself. It felt wrong rewarding her generosity with a lung cancer scare.

I’m back in the car, the mail nestled safely in the passenger seat, and I think to myself (sometimes, I think to myself, sometimes I talk to myself), “It’s complicated.” It’s not like one place is heaven, and the other’s a zoo. Yes, a woman in an Indiana supermarket had allowed me to go ahead of her in the checkout line because I only had one item, even though she only had three. But look was just happened. In a faceless megalopolis, a heroic stranger had extended herself on my behalf.

Sitting in turning lane on my way home, a spontaneous smile spreads across my face. And once again, I am talking to myself. “Maybe coming back isn’t so bad after all. It’s not the place, anyway. It’s the people. And the truth is, there are nice people…”

Four hundred posts. Thanks for bein' there.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"The Enemy Within"

Television got me a house.

Television got me a really nice car.

Television got me trips, it got me stuff I wanted to buy, it got me more expensive (and hopefully better) haircuts.

Television never laughed at me when I muffed a fly ball, or wobbled around on skates. It kept me company through my teen years, when buddies were occupied with more adult pursuits.

Television taught me a trade, and let me ply it happily (or as happily as I can ply anything) for decades.

Television got me a wife. After a chance meeting on the street, Dr. M (who was just M at the time) tracked me down, a feat that was only possible, because I had won a television writing award (The Humanitas Prize) and she happened to be taking a film and television course whose teaching staff voted for that award.

I admit it freely. Television gave me cash, confidence and a lifetime companion. You can therefore imagine how monumentally ungrateful I feel saying…

Television is a nerve-jangling menace. And we have to stop watching it.

(There’s a television sitting beside me. And it just glared at me.)

As for my chances of escaping TV’s addictive grip – very unlikely. I’m pretty much a goner. But maybe I can help others. The way those rock stars used to do those Public Service announcements saying, “I almost died taking drugs. Don’t do it.”

(Those PSA’s always seemed misguided to me. Rather than sending a “Don’t take drugs” message, the ads seemed to be saying, “Take drugs. But stop just before they kill you.” That’s an entirely different message.)

This isn’t about content.

This isn’t about the distortion of reality.

This isn’t about lost time.

This isn’t about a failure to develop social skills.

This isn’t about suddenly wanting a pizza (or a beer, or a new car, or more hair) when, before the commercial, you were thoroughly content.

This isn’t about television ’s selection process, when, if it’s not on TV, it effectively didn’t happen, and if it is, it’s as important as the Kennedy assassination.

This isn’t about television’s ignoring of the issues that television, due to its innate limitations, is not equipped to cover.

This isn’t about the unbending requirements of the marketplace.

Those issues are important. But they’re not what I’m talking about today.

What I’m talking about is what television does to our bodies, and I don’t mean that watching a lot of it makes us fat. I’m talking about what television does to us unconsciously, how it messes with our inner rhythm. I am here to declare that the act of watching TV – the mere process of sitting there and doing that – does things to our natural state of being we have absolutely no idea are taking place.

Whoo. Is that intriguing?

Or is it “over the top”?

I’ll let you decide.

Here’s my belief. Television, ostensibly a haven of relaxation and repose, actually makes us more jumpy. Not on the outside. On the outside, they’re Zombies. We know that, because every time we want a TV watcher’s attention, we have to throw something at them to get it. They’re simply not home.

Do they appear relaxed? Well, they’re not moving. But not moving doesn’t mean relaxed. Inside that immobile exterior, without their being aware of it, watching television is churning those TV watchers up.

My argument n a nutshell: TV watching puts you in a state of passive anxiety.

(My television just moved a little closer. I believe it’s reading over my shoulder.)

Here’s where I got proof of all this. About a year ago, I took an extension class at UCLA called, Sociology of Mass Communication. Along with some paranoid ravings about the content of the news being controlled by too few corporations – corporations don’t care about the news; they care about money – the teacher assigned some TV watching experiments for the students to conduct at home. They were extremely illuminating.

One assignment required us to watch TV for ten minutes with the sound off. While we watched, we were instructed to record with a check mark the number of “technical events”, meaning every time the scene changed, or the camera cut to a different angle. The exercise was meant to bring to our conscious attention how jumpy what we’re watching really is.

In a ten-minute period, I check-marked over two hundred “technical events.” That’s a camera move every three seconds. (During commercials, it was more.) This experiment made me aware that, though I may think I’m being soothed by what I’m watching, the images bombarding my eyeballs are jumping around like crazy. This is hardly the same as enjoying a sunset.

How do I know that jumpiness is affecting me? Because of another experiment our teacher instructed us to carry out:

Watch television for thirty minutes with the set turned off.

That’s right. She wanted us to watch TV for thirty minutes, with the television set turned off. We were to watch the set itself.

Now that seemed strange. But I did it. And, at about the halfway point in the experiment, feeling foolish and hoping nobody would come in the room, I experienced an alteration in myself that was both shocking and unexpected.

My reaction caught me entirely by surprise. There I was, sitting there watching a blank screen when, suddenly, I let out a breath. Not any kind of a breath, a long, relaxing, cleansing-feeling breath. I remember thinking, “What the heck was that?”

What it was was the realization that the process of watching TV – even when it isn’t on – causes me, in a way I’m completely unaware of

to hold my breath.

That can’t be relaxing, can it?


I did an experiment demonstrating that, despite the conventional wisdom that TV provides a soothing break from the turmoil of everyday life, it does precisely the opposite. I came back from a TV-free vacation where I read six books, (along with attending four movies, two plays, two ballgames, visiting two museum and a Greek festival). I see the difference. I know watching TV is not good for me.

Yet I continue to watch. A lot.


It’s “The Call.” The call I can never resist.

Hey, Err-ill…

Ball game.

Hey, Err-ill…

“Red River’s” on the westerns channel.

Hey, Err-ill...

There was that great joke on “30 Rock” a year and a half ago. There could be another one tonight.

Hey, Err-ill…

The president’s making a speech.

Hey, Err-ill…

C-SPAN 2’s offering a lecture by the foremost authority on the Civil War. It’s not TV, Earl. It’s a lecture.

Cable news, Err-ill…

Maybe this is the night a Republican says, “You know, we’ve been a mean-spirited bunch for the longest time. Seems like, as religious folks, we ought care more about the people who are less fortunate than us.” Or when a Democrat says, “Conservatives may have something with this ‘gradual change’ idea. Maybe we ought to stop laughing at them, and listen.” Do you really want to miss that?

Despite my most determined efforts, “The Call” has me entirely in its thrall. I’m as doomed as doomed can be.

(My TV has returned to its position. And it’s smiling.)

But you may still be able to save yourselves.

Or at least think about it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"A Sidelight On The Book Signing In Michiana"

We attended a book signing at the Tree Tops restaurant, which has a bar, which, though we were having dinner, was where we were seated. The bar was extremely noisy, either as a result of the book signing, or because it’s a bar. In any case, after meeting the author, having her sign a couple of books, and having a bite to eat, the noise exceeds our tolerance levels, and Dr. M and I decide to leave.

The problem was, there was a White Sox game on the bar’s TV, and I wanted to watch it. Owing to the earsplitting din, however, we had no choice but to hit the road. I would have to catch the rest of the game on the radio back at the cabin.

Arriving home minutes later, I immediately switch on the radio. And I can’t find the game. I thought I knew what station it was on; I had listened to another Sox game earlier in the trip. But it wasn’t there.

Or anywhere else.

Listening for the play-by-pay, I work my way up the AM dial, all the way up to the Spanish stations, in the 1700’s. No ballgame. I then try FM, based on my longstanding theory: “If something’s not where you think it is, look where you think it isn’t.”

The game is not there either.

Like, they’ve ever had a baseball game on FM. (Yes, they do. And during the "seventh inning stretch", they stop for a pledge drive.) No, they don’t, Brackets Man.

I am now feeling a little crazed. There’s no way there’s a ballgame being broadcast on TV that isn’t also on the radio. It’s impossible. I mean, occasionally, there are ballgames on the radio that are not on TV. But I’ve never experienced it the other way around. It’s all too bizarre. Was the game merely a fig Newton of my imagination?

This not the first time something bizarroland has happened to me in Michiana. Once, I bought an unfamiliar brand of unsweetened iced tea at Al’s Market, and when I went back later to buy more, they told me they never carried that brand.

What is this place? Brigadoon?

The ballgame mystery was ultimately solved with a call to Dr. M’s brother-in-law in Chicago. He informed us that the Sox game I had seen in the bar had been played earlier that afternoon. The TV broadcast was a replay.

Finally, it made sense.

They never replay ballgames on the radio.

But, you go back for ice tea and the store says they never carried it?
That one remains a mystery.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"The Consequence of Calm"

It happens in Hawaii, when I’m basking on my lounge chair seven hours a day, with time off for lunch. It happens in the spa I go to in Mexico, where, while others are erobicizing their body fat off, I can be found relaxing indoors or outdoors (weather permitting), when I’m not engaged in my personally tailored spa regimen of bath, hammock, some kind of treatment and nap. And it happens in Indiana. Relaxing in bed, or on our screened-in porch, or at the beach at magnificent Michiana Shores. Stop 39. (I am told we own a part of that beach, though I’m not clear as to which sand is ours.)

What is it that happens when I’m away, basking, lounging and/or relaxing?

I read.

And why is this unusual?

Because I can’t read at home.


Not a thing.

Why not?

I’ll tell you that later. Or at least my seriously considered theory on the subject, which I think is right but, you know, who thinks their theories are wrong?

“I feel passionately about my theory, but I think it’s wrong.”

“I’m not following you there.”

That doesn’t happen.

On this latest vacation, at our little log cabin in Indiana, I read five books, one of them hard. Then, I went to a local book signing and picked up and almost finished a sixth. For a guy with not great eyes, that’s a pretty nifty pace.

The first book I read was a baseball memoir written by a Yale graduate who pitched for that school’s team, got drafted (in the 26th round) by the Angels, was assigned to the lowest level of the minor leagues in Provo, Utah, and was released after one season, after which he went on to Harvard and studied medicine. The reason he was released was because, on one outing, he’d pitch capably, and his next outing, he’d pitch terrible. Hopefully, he’ll find greater consistency as a doctor.

The second book was a memoir by Bob Greene, a veteran columnist, recalling his experiences working at his first newspaper job, in Columbus, Ohio. Gushy but interesting. (I wouldn’t be a very good book reviewer. The people who hire you expect reviews that are longer than three words.)

The third book – the hard one – was called The Morality of Law. I don’t know why I bother with hard books. I guess there’s something I want to know. My hope was that this book would provide a persuasive argument for the adversarial system, which I view as, less moral, than a courtroom shootout. Unfortunately, the book wasn’t about that. It was about the elements necessary to legitimize a system of law, and an argument for the belief that the law is constant evolving, rather than being set in stone. My comprehension level for this book? Maybe twenty per cent. Though I may have the intellectual curiosity to read such a book, I may not smart enough to understand what it’s saying. Inexplicably, I keep trying.

Generally, I read non-fiction. The one exception in my five books was a humorous espionage thriller by House star Hugh Laurie, written in 1996, when he was only famous in England. Something about terrorists, bankrolled by an arms dealer, so that when the terrorists engage in a hostage taking event, the arms dealer’s new helicopter could swoop in blow them to pieces, thus promoting sales for the new helicopter. I know the chronology is off, but if Hugh Laurie had auditioned for Monty Python, they would have rejected him, judging his material, “More cheeky than actually funny.” Which is exactly what he’s like on House. Except he saves people, so you don’t mind that much.

I had brought four books on the trip with me, and now I was done. Fortunately, I ran into a fifth book at the Great Lakes Museum of Military History¸ located at Dunes Plaza, just behind what’s advertised as the “Winner of the Best Chinese restaurant in Michigan City” award, four years running. The book I found was another memoir, called 365 Days, the title referring to the duration of the Americans’ tour of duty during the Viet Nam war. The author, a doctor, focuses primarily on the devastating injuries the soldiers incurred. This book was very disturbing to me. There were times when I questioned my right to be reading it. I felt like a “casualty voyeur.”

It’s Day Eleven of my trip, and I am once again bookless. Then I read in the local paper that there’s a book signing at the Tree Tops restaurant, right next to Ye Olde Benny’s, about two miles from the cabin. That evening, a writer would be signing her latest in an ongoing series of Chicago-based murder mysteries entitled, Red, White and Dead. It’s not often writers trek to the hinterlands to sign their books. We were curious to see what that would be like. Plus, I needed something else to read.

It was kind of an odd experience. The author wasn’t dressed for the country. And she didn’t have any mosquito bites. We bought two of her books, one of which mentioned Michiana locales. Red Blooded Murder would be my sixth book. 458 pages. I read four hundred and thirty of them on the plane ride home. (When I wasn’t being threatened with “breaching the cockpit.”)

Well, having waded through foregoing survey of “Books I Read On My Vacation”, you deserve an answer to the original question.
Why can I read books on vacation, and I can’t read anything at home?

I’m calm on vacation. And I’m not calm at home.

And why am I, a person with comparatively a stress-free existence, not calm at home? It is with enormously mixed feelings that I tell you that I believe the cause of my condition, the eradicator of my calmness and contentment at home is…


The evidence for this claim shortly.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Vacations are very nice things. You get to go to a different place and temporarily live a different life. Going to the same different place for twenty years (ditto for our family trips to Hawaii, and my, generally, solo excursions to this spa I go to in Mexico), leaves no available time to visit other different places. But, though we think about those spots our repeat visits are keeping us from experiencing, nobody’s making us go to Michiana. We love the place. And we can’t stop coming back.

Why? On a sensible level, I have no idea. It’s a long shlep from where we live. When we get there, the cabin, left untended for the other fifty weeks of the year, is invariably in need of repair. There are lots of mosquitoes, not much hot water, and when trees fall down and take out nearby power lines – as they excitingly did this trip – there’s no electricity.

The two closest towns – Michigan City, Indiana, which didn’t wait for the recession, it went bust decades earlier, and New Buffalo, Michigan, a yuppie haven for sailing sloops and cabin cruisers that sleep six – are just what they are, two diametrically opposite places, neither delivering the long-distance traveler substantial any “must see” magic.

It’s not the place that brings us back. It’s the place. “The place”, meaning the exquisite natural surroundings. In Michiana, the leaves are green, and the sky is blue. (I will not be entering that sentence in any writing contests.) We have those colors in L.A as well – green and blue – but they’re washed out, pasty and pastel. (Smog is a contributing factor in this regard.)

Midwestern natural beauty is bright and vibrant, and on a good day – and there are many of them – shimmering. There’s something about surviving a punishing winter that makes nature emerge, as they used to say in Puffed Rice commercials, shot from guns. Maybe it’s the time off they get during the winter. Maybe after not having to be trees for a season, just tall wood, they come flying back to life, greener and tree-ee-er than ever. Robust is what they are. And a pleasure to behold.

No matter where you take them, vacations offer a welcome break from the regular routine. Dr. M works very hard. Time off allows her to abandon her daily schedule and responsibilities, kick back, and make me breakfast. I mean…take it easy. Whatever your job, it’s a relief not to have to do what you normally do.

Me, I normally do nothing. (If you define “doing something” as performing an activity people pay you for, which most people do.) For me, “vacation” simply means “doing nothing” in a different locale.

That’s too glib. There are meaningful bonuses. Even for a full-time layabout.

Bonus Number One. Dr. M and I get to spend uninterrupted time together. That’s always good. (Professional confidentiality – hers, not mine – precludes further elaboration.)

Bonus Number Two. For working people, "vacation" offers vactioners the option of doing what they don’t get to do at home. Meaning nothing. I know there are “Type A” maniacs who take their driven personalities with them on vacation as well – “We saw six churches, five museums, a glass blowing factory, and a ghetto. And then we had lunch.” – but such behavior is far from obligatory. On vacations, laziness is seriously encouraged. Vacations are battery-charging “Time outs.” Doing nothing is entirely acceptable.

It’s different at home. Every morning, I kiss my wife goodbye, I watch her leave the house, heading off to a responsible position at a building with her own office and, I believe, a parking space. And I’m in my pajamas. No matter how happy I am, writing this blog, playing the piano, taking the odd Extension class, inside, there’s a voice, asking this nagging daily question:

“Shouldn’t you be doing something?”

On vacation is the answer to that question is a resounding, “No!”

I do nothing all the time. It’s only on vacation that I have permission to do nothing.

I can’t tell you how much better than feels.

Bonus Number Three, which I’ll go into more detail about tomorrow. The vacation setting – like one that plunks me down in the middle of a forest – provides me with the physical, spiritual and emotional configuration to be able to read. In fifteen days, I read five books and took a substantial bite out of a sixth. That doesn’t happen at home. Aside from the paper and a couple of magazines (The New Yorker and The Atlantic), I don’t read anything.

Why don’t I read at home? I’ll answer that next time.

Hint: Get ready for some massive ingratitute.
A little “Head’s Up!” This story may help you avoid an unnerving mid-air mishap.

On my flight back to Los Angeles, I’m traveling “Business Class” – the “Miles for Leg Room” program. Half way through the flight, I get up to go to the bathroom. The “facilities” are situated up front, just behind where the pilots do their thing. I head towards the front of the plane.

When I reach the top of the aisle, I come upon an unattended food cart, turned horizontally, blocking my advance. When I reach to move the food cart out of the way, a very serious flight attendant swoops in and informs me, in an icily official tone, that if I take one step forward, I’ll be guilty of “breaching the cockpit.”

Though not an infrequent flyer, I have never heard of “breaching the cockpit”, and I think the flight attendant is kidding. The woman’s “no nonsense” demeanor convinces me she’s not. Her scary intensity tells me she that has access to equipment for stopping people from “breaching the cockpit”. Suddenly, I’m not in that big a hurry.

I can wait. The cockpit will not be “breached “by me.

Moments later, the pilot emerges from the bathroom. (Hence, the security.) The pilot knocks on the cockpit door, employing a highly classified secret code:


The cockpit door opens. The pilot returns inside. The food cart is now moved aside, and on the flight attendant’s signal, I am permitted to move forward.

It was a harrowing interlude. I could easily imagine the headline:

“Passenger gunned down while trying to pee.”

This is hardly the way I would like to be remembered.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"Michiana Memories - 2009" (continued)

We were without phone service for five days. The company was AT&T. We called them on our cell phone from the parking lot at Al’s Market, a three-mile drive, but it was the only place where we could get reception. AT&T’s automated answering service machine asked for our billing number. Stupidly, we had forgotten to take our Indiana phone bill (which we receive in Los Angeles) with us. Adding to our foolishness, we had neglected to commit our AT&T billing number to memory. Unfortunately, without that billing number, the answering machine service said it couldn’t help us. After many calls back, we connected with a nicer machine, which permitted us to leave a message.

(It turns out that AT&T has no office in our vicinity, just a mobile repair service. Once, while we were making our desperate cell phone inquiries, I spotted an AT& T repair truck (or was it a mirage?) pulling out of Al’s Market’s parking lot. We decided not to chase after it, however, fearing we might end up in the next day’s newspaper’s crime report: “Out of state couple, arrested for speeding, claimed they were trying to catch up to a Phone Truck.” It would have fit right in with the garden hose thefts, and the 17 year-old runaway arrested in his home.

While still in L.A., Dr. M had signed up to attend a three-day psychoanalytic conference in Chicago, which, fortuitously, coincided with our vacation. Rather than drive, we parked our rental car at the depot, and took Amtrak in from Michigan City. The plan was for us to see a Cubs game together, then she’d stay on for the conference, and I’d take the train back alone.

Cubs fans from nearby small towns got on at every stop on the way to Chicago. Cubs fans are different. They treat regular season game like it’s a Football Homecoming. They adorn themselves in team colors. Women (mostly) sport dangly Cubs-logo earrings. The crazier ones apply Cubs-appropriate face paint. I even noticed an attractive Cubs tattoo, just above the butt…I mean, belt.

The most noteworthy thing, particularly to a Dodgers fan, is that Cubs fans stay for the whole game. Even when, as in the game we attended, the Cubs are massacring the Astros 12 to 0. The explanation for their remaining till the last out of that prodigious drubbing wafted down to our front-row seats.

“It doesn’t happen that much.”

My experience tells me that Cubs fans stay till the end even when they’re losing. And that happens a lot.

Amtrak returns me to the Michigan City depot on 11th Street. Okay. Regular readers know I’m not the most comfortable of drivers. All together now… I brake for shadows. Yes, I do. I also slow down to think. The Toyota Rav 4 has been left for me, so I can drive back to the cabin (and anywhere else I want to drive over the next three days.)

I made it back successfully to the cabin. Though I missed our street on the first try. It wasn’t entirely my fault. The Chickadee Trail street sign faces the other direction, and the neighboring streets look exactly alike – a paved road canopied by trees. I can’t tell one canopy from another.

Okay, so I’m now…Home Alone. (Clasp cheeks and scream.) The third Indiana State Prison escapee remains on the loose, and our phone still doesn’t work, in the off chance that I spot him and want to notify the authorities before he kills me. I’m not fan of the death penalty, but this does seem like a bit of a problem. An escaped convict serving “life without the possibility of parole” has little incentive to leave me alone.

But things pick up. A gentle evening breeze at dinnertime. I’m eating tasty leftovers on the porch, there’s a White Sox game on the radio, I’m smoking an excellent cigar, and a passing deer hunkers down on the lawn directly in front on me, and stays there. Snap this shot. And call it “Contentment.”

The next morning, I drive to Al’s Market, for newspapers, and the best coffee in the tri-state area. During the drive, I pass a prominent billboard, which for years offered quotations for the Bible but now advertises The Four Winds Casino – Biggest Progressive Jackpots. I momentarily ponder. Biggest Progressive Jackpots. Is that better than heaven?

After five days, the phone starts working. I guess to “mobile” guy got the message. My first call, after reporting the good news to Dr. M, is to order a pizza. Little Giant. Great crust. I’m in a tiny cabin in the forest. But somehow, they always manage to find me.

I’m reading a book, one of five I completed in two weeks. Other than the assigned readings for my extension classes, I find myself unable to read books at home. (More on that later.) My current book of choice is a novel by House star, Hugh Laurie, written in 1996, when he was only famous in England. Unfortunately, I donated the book to the Michigan City library, and I can’t remember what it’s called. The…something, if that’s any help. It’s pretty entertaining.

I hear a knock at the kitchen door. Remember, I’m alone, and there’s a killer out there. But do killer’s knock? They do if they’re pretending they’re not killers, but a lost passersby seeking directions, though their true intention is commit mayhem on a solitary Jew.

I head tentatively towards the kitchen. I look outside, and standing at the door…

is a really hot pizza delivery girl.

Holding an equally hot pizza.

Normally, Little Giant delivery guys look like third-string nose-tackles from the Michigan City High football team. This girl was…let me put it this way. If there were such as thing as a Miss not-a-lot-of-clothes-on Pizza Girl calendar, she could very easily be one of the months.

Fantasy is a wonderful thing. Harmless, but not without its rewards. The pizza cost thirteen-fifty. I handed her a twenty, and when she asked, “Do you want anything back?” I think I giggled. I’m not sure what she thought of me, other than I was a terrific tipper. There’s a thin line between “funny guy with a twinkle” and “annoying old man.” My fear is that I’m perilously close to that line. (My real fear is that I crossed that line a long time ago, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know it.)

Dr. M returns. That night, we drive to the movies. A depressed-looking deer passes precariously in front of our car. He seems almost suicidal, like he’s saying, “Hunting season’s soon. I’m a goner anyway.” It’s strange. The other deer we’ve spotted seem to be living more in the present.

We get to the movie theater early. There’s a large pond adjacent to the parking lot. We walk over, and for twenty minutes, we enjoy the antics of ducks, birds, fish and a beaver. This was our alternative to catching the movie’s “pre-show” and learning fun facts about Cameron Diaz. So we took it.

Driving to South Bend, to catch a Silver Hawks – Peoria Chiefs baseball game, we pass dozens of cornfields, and I notice something that, to me, seems very confusing. Growing right next to a crop where the corn stalks are, like, six feet high, is a crop where the stalks are considerably shorter, in some cases, barely one foot high. I wonder what’s going on – a big crop and little crop growing side by side. Is the “little crop” farmer worried about it, I wonder? Does he sneak out in the middle of the night, glare at his pygmy cornfield and yell, “Grow!”?

How is it possible that one crop could do so much better than a crop that’s directly next-door? Is it some kind of weather anomaly? “The rain stops at the fence. He gets it; I don’t.” That doesn’t happen, does it?

Maybe the loser farmer accidentally bought the wrong kind of seeds. Maybe his seeds are for those baby corns you sometimes find in salads. Whatever the explanation, it seems kind of humiliating. I can imagine the "tall corn" farmer driving by, offering a friendly (possibly condescending) wave, and the "little corn" farmer going all red. Of course, there’s always the possibility that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Random Eatery Noticings

My dinner at Bob Evans came with biscuits. Accompanying the biscuits were two packets of “Fresh Buttery Taste Spread.” I have no idea what that is. So I left it alone.

This year, Redamaks, the enormously successful hamburger place that clearly states their hamburgers do not come with lettuce or tomato, offered a new item on its menu:

"Deep-fried thinly sliced breaded eggplant with melted Swiss cheese and marinara sauce on a baked French roll."

The item was listed under “Lite Dining Alternatives.” I guess that’s because the eggplant was “thinly sliced.”

I try not to eat sugar, but for nostalgia’s sake, and because it’s delicious, I order a “Kiddie Kone” of coconut almond fudge at a popular local ice cream emporium called Oink’s. I eat about half of it, and deposit my leftovers in a nearby trash bin. As I do so, I notice a bug-eyed female customer exploding in a look which can only be described as incredulous disgust. “You threw away ice cream!” Her reaction suggests she had never before witnessed such inexplicable behavior in her entire ice cream-eating life.

A printed sign posted on an antique store wall…

“This store is under video survalince.”

Who knows? Maybe it’s an antique spelling.

Front Page Story

A woman planted a potato plant, and it grew a tomato.

That one knocked health care right onto Page Six. (And shared the front page with the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.)

Next to last day…

Dr. M is back in Chicago, this time attending an Elementary School reunion. I decide to take one last walk, to say goodbye. Strolling along Michiana Drive, I spot a deer, standing confidently in the middle of the road. I hear a truck coming. I immediately point out the deer. As he passes, the driver barks an acknowledging, “Yup!” and slows his truck as he heads towards the deer. With time to spare, the deer scampers easily to safety in the nearby woods.

A moment as metaphor.

It was that kind of trip.
“What did he say?”

“Read it”.

“I don’t have time.”

“He saw a lot of deer.”


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"Michiana Memories - 2009"

When we arrived, the cabin was in good shape.

Except the phone didn’t work. (And our cell phone got intermittent service.)

There were substantial holes in three screens.

Two windowpanes were cracked.

And the roof leaked.

Furthermore, the day after we arrived, we were told we had at least three very large, dead trees on our property, two of which could easily land on top of us, should we be inhabiting the cabin when they fell.

(I won’t even mention the hot water which, in the course of a single shower, would cycle alternately through hot, then cold, then hot again two or three times, requiring the shower taker to continually jump in and jump out of it until they were clean.)

What then do I mean by the cabin’s being in “good shape”?

It was still there.

And it was livable. Due to a woman named Jody, who’d cleaned the place up before we arrived. Unfortunately, Jody had overlooked the screened-in porch. I was dutifully assigned to “porch duty”, armed with a “Swiffer”, which is some kind of pad treated with wet stuff that you fasten to the end of a broom handle, and then, you “Swiffer” it around, until the pad gets dirty, at which point, you detach that pad and replace it with another pad.

Insulated from the elements by only screens, the porch was incredibly filthy. I ran through eight “Swiffer” pads cleaning the floor. Why so many? You “Swiffer” away from you, you “Swiffer” back. New pad.

None of this mattered. The cabin’s setting was easily worth the price of the effort. Quiet. Peacefully still, our property enveloped by ancient, fifty-foot trees (many of them not dead), between which were scattered patches of clear, blue sky. During our first lunch on our now “Swiffered” porch, we were visited by a deer and a bright red cardinal, hopping (the cardinal) and ambling (the deer) across our front yard. It was like a Greeting Committee. Like they were saying, “Welcome back. Hey, clean porch.”

The Dunes Summer Theatre is walking distance from the cabin. We see a show our first night. Little Shop of Horrors. Not up to their Pirates of Penzance standards, but still pretty good. Despite a limited budget, they deliver a persuasively menacing carnivorous plant. Oddly – though understandable in Indiana – the show’s featured three-girl “do-wop” chorus is all white, although the director has instructed them to speak with inner city dialects, resulting in “cool” with a corn center. A little jarring.

By the time we arrived there, two of the three prisoners who’d escaped from Indiana State Prison had already been apprehended. The third one, a convicted murderer, remained “at large.” It was believed he was still in the area, an area that included our cabin, where our only form of self-defence were a couple of knives, so dull they were unable to slice through a hot dog bun. This situation would loom as background for our entire vacation.

We donated the cabin’s television to the Salvation Army, though it wouldn’t have worked anyway, after the recent format turnover from analog to digital. (Am I close?) To fill the time, we read books, saw four movies and two plays. We also attended two baseball games, a Cubs game in Chicago, and an “A”-ball game in South Bend, Indiana, (thirty-five miles from our cabin), where we watched the South Bend Silver Hawks (a team of which I was once part owner) play the Peoria I Don’t Remembers.

Movie tickets in Michigan City cost eight dollars (six for seniors). But in nearby La Porte, the tickets are – are you ready? – a dollar-fifty for first run pictures (The Proposal and Ice Age 3). This is a change from last year, when tickets were a dollar seventy-five. That’s right. The prices went down! Oh, yeah, refills for popcorn and soda are free. They’ve got to be laundering money at that place. Otherwise, I don’t know how they’re making a living.

Our second evening, we went to a local Greek festival. Lots of good food, dark-haired people and lines of dancers with their arms draped around each other’s shoulders. The names of Greek desserts always sound to me like the rain pattering onto your roof.

Pita-pa-tapita. Tika-pa-tipita. Spana-kapata-kapata-patipika.

But they’re all delicious. Though messily sticky.

Our third night, there’s a thunderstorm. It’s coming down so hard, trees are begging us to let them in the house. (“There’s lightning! We’re wood!”) We sit on the porch enjoying the show, counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder, which supposedly tells you how far away the storm’s center is. The system doesn’t seem to work. Though the intervals vary from one lightning-thunder to the next, the storm seems to be centered directly over our cabin.

And then we hear it.

First a loud, cracking sound. And after a few seconds, an explosion. Well, not exactly an explosion, more like the roar of a cannon. Well, maybe not a cannon, but the ear splitting report from a very big gun, maybe a .357. (Like I know what that sounds like.)

All our lights are now out. In the sudden darkitude, we make out way towards the direction of…let’s call in the explosion. And then we see it. One of our trees has fallen across the road, taking down the power lines on the other side of the street. The entire neighborhood is now without electricity. (We subsequently learn that a branch from one of our dead tall trees broke off during the storm, fallen onto an adjacent smaller tree, causing it to topple onto the power lines, and detaching them from the pole.)

You may recall my mentioning that our phone didn’t work. And our cell phone was of little use. There was no way call for help. Fortunately, a neighbor, who had also lost electricity because our tree had severed the power lines, did. We didn’t know about that at the time. We were, literally and figuratively, in the dark.

I have a standard M.O. when a crisis occurs. I do nothing. This proved a detriment during the L.A. earthquake of ’92. There were things to do, and I was a little bit frozen. This time, however, I was not frozen. I still did nothing, but it was an easygoing nothing. The truth was, there was nothing to do. Just wait for the electric company to reconnect the wires. My relaxed inaction actually seemed helpful here. It was almost reassuring. Or at least it could be interpreted as such.

For a middle-aged couple, sitting in a candlelit cabin, the rain sheeting down, no electricity, no phone, a escaped murderer on the loose, the situation was seriously unnerving. But with nothing we could do about it, we decided to go to bed.

We lie there in the stillness, shrouded in darkness, waiting for a desperate prison escapee to appear at our window. Eventually, we fall asleep.

Two in the morning, half asleep, we pick up the high-pitched whir of an electric saw. Is someone sawing through our cabin, trying to get in? Or are we just dreaming they are?
Like having dental work under Demerol, we are at that point too out of it to care.

Minutes later, every light in the cabin flashes on at the same time. Now we’re awake. After resuming regular breathing, we realize we can relax. The damage is repaired, the crisis is over. The next day, a tree specialist executes our three dead trees. There’ll be no more trees falling onto electrical lines.

A week later, it happens again. Thankfully, it wasn’t our fault. It was across the street. I didn’t know this, but trees appear to have “expiration dates.”

Apparently, a lot of them were coming due at the same time.

Tomorrow: The saga continues.

Postscript: I found another crime report story from the Michigan City newspaper. “A 17 year-old boy was arrested at 1 p.m. at home on the charge of having been a runaway.” A “runaway” arrested in his home. That one, you’ll have to explain to me.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"'Michigan City Crime Report' - A Random Sampling"

The following is a selected smattering of the criminal activity in the Michigan City, Indiana, area over the past two weeks, as reported in the local newspaper, the News Dispatch.

There were admittedly some more serious infractions – “batteries”, “break-ins” and “failures to appear” – there was also, as I mentioned before I left, three-convicts on the loose from the nearby Indiana State Prison.

(One of the escapees was a convicted forger-murderer, which, to me, seems like an unusual resume. Forging in an artistic activity, whereas murder is considerably more brutal. It’s not copying a signature; it’s making somebody dead. I just can’t imagine the same person committing both those offences. Was it like, “This isn’t your handwriting.” – Bam? There’s something funny there.

Anyway, the three convicts were eventually recaptured, one of them near the mayor’s country home. What was that guy thinking? “I voted for you. Would you hide me”?

(Before I leave the convicted murders, I’d like to mention that a young woman named Jennifer, who was giving me a massage at the time, offered her opinion on the escape: “They knew they were going to get caught again. They just wanted to have some fun.” My view on this differs. I believe they wanted to not be in prison anymore. But, you know, Jennifer’s from the area, and perhaps she knows better.)


Interspersed among the more serious infractions in the daily police report, were these. I present them to give you some sense of the place I recently visited, a place that felt such items worthy of printing in the newspaper:

Reported stolen: A gallon of orange juice and two bags of potato chips…

A report of an “egging”…

“…Charged was a thirteen year-old boy for being uncontrollable.” (Is there an actual legal description of what it means to be “uncontrollable”? “I’ve got him…no I don’t. I’ve got him…no, I don’t.” If that happens, I don’t know, like three times, is the kid automatically deemed to be “uncontrollable”? What if he’s just wearing a lot of sunscreen, and he just keeps slithering away? Of course, in deference to the police, I wasn’t the one trying to bring the kid under control. He could have been a real handful.)

“…Missing were a set of keys, a key chain, and some pruning shears…”

After a theft report, “…A refrigerator and a garden hose were found at a neighbor’s residence.”

“A fifteen year-old boy was arrested at 10 a.m. at the police station after he wrote his full name above a police station toilet while he was being held.” (Without knowing the local ordinances, it appears as if the boy had only written his first name or just his initials above the police station toilet, he might have been in the clear.)

There’s one more story that was either too long or too important for the “Police Report” column, so it was reported as a separate story.

A woman’s erratic driving precipitated a four-car collision. To quote the article, the woman “immediately admitted to being the cause of the accident, saying she had reached to her 3 year-old daughter who was trying to get out of her car seat”, momentarily taking her eyes off the road.

So far, I’m with her. Sympathetic, even.

The trouble was the woman “smelled of alcohol and was swaying back and forth.” The woman reported “she hadn’t been drinking, and said the open beer bottle on the passenger side floor board happened as a result of the crash.”

Well, that’s possible, I suppose. But then…

The woman “allegedly said that the crash had caused numerous closed containers of alcohol to break open.”


The article ends by saying that, after tests showed a blood alcohol level of more than double the legal limit, the woman changed her story and admitted she’d been drinking.

I don’t know. If she’d stuck to her guns, she just might have pulled it off.

So much for a taste of small town criminality. Tomorrow: “Michiana Memories – The Summer of ’09.” A little teaser?

Downed power lines will be involved.

In fact, they’ll be involved twice.

And not the same power lines.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Summer Times - Rainy Day Programs"

“Rain, rain, go away…”

I’m not a fan of that request.

“It ain’t gonna rain no more, no more…”

A demoralizing prediction.

“It’s raining, it’s pouring….”

Now we’re talkin'.

Included among the most enjoyable days at camp, along with Saturday morning’s fresh cinnamon buns and Saturday dinner’s hot dogs and French fries, the two meals out of the week’s twenty-one I could actually stomach (unfortunately, they were very poorly spread out), were the days involving cloudbursts, followed by hours of non-stop thunderstorms. During these downpours, all camp activities were officially curtailed.


“All camp activities officially curtailed” meant no “Swim Instruction” in freezing water. It meant no black-and-blue shins from being whacked there by field hockey sticks and lacrosse rackets. It meant, till the rain stopped, I’d be free of the humiliation and abuse I incurred playing every sport I wasn’t good at, which was all of them.

Rainy days at camp were the times that most closely duplicated what I did at home. Nothing. True, there was no television to watch at camp, but as the rain pelted down outside, I had time to read the TV Guides my counselors bought me on their days off, and sigh.

When I talk about a Northern Ontario rainstorm, I’m talking about Nature really putting on a show. Heart-stopping streaks of lightning. Thunder that made (the less manly of) us cover duck under the blankets. Rain that fell so intensely, we had to bring down the shutters and lock them in place, so the wind-driven deluge wouldn’t blow inside and inundate the cabin.

We felt protected in that cabin. Nature was “full throttle” outside; inside, we were warm and safe, reading comics on our Hudson’s Bay-blanketed bunks. (Trivia Answer, should it ever come up: The colors of the stripes on Hudson’s Bay blankets are black, red, yellow and green. A little public service for the readers.)

My comic books of choice were Tarzan and Uncle Scrooge. Though he was no “strange visitor from another planet” and lacked a “Utility Belt”, Tarzan could do anything other “superheroes” could do. But naturally. Superman could fly; Tarzan could fly too – from vine to vine. I liked that Tarzan’s special gifts didn’t come from some external force, or because something bit him or he accidentally fell into a vat of something. Tarzan was a totally normal human being. Who happened to have been raised by apes.

Uncle Scrooge was obsessed about money. Definitely a hero.

How else did we fill our time on rainy days? We wrote home. “Please send pretzel sticks, not the twisty kind. And red licorice, not black.” We always included that we missed them. But it was hard to tell if that was sincere or if we were angling for a salami. It was probably a little of both.

We played cards. We started with “Go Fish”, then graduated to Blackjack, Casino and Gin Rummy. (I had a counselor once, named Phil, who was so proficient at Gin Rummy, that while he was playing me, he’d always take the card in his hand that he knew I needed for “gin” and he’d turn it around to face me.)

If the counselor was clued in to the impending inclemency in the weather, he might check out one of the camp’s limited inventory record players and selected recordings, so we’d have music to comfort us through the thunderclaps. Preferences generally leaned towards the folky arena. Harry Belafonte’s Calypso was a popular pick. As was The Weavers on Tour. Some campers requested the original cast album of West Side Story. It was a more innocent time. You could like musicals and all it meant was you liked musicals.

My favorite rainy day entertainment by far, however, was a series of spoken-word recordings called, I Can Hear It Now.

Narrated by legendary journalist, Edward R. Murrow, who tagged them “a scrapbook of sounds”, the records introduced clueless campers to the spoken highlights of an earlier time. The discs came in sets chronicling different eras. The set I remember best covered 1932 to 1945.

It chilled me to hear these historic events brought alive through the voices of the actual participants. Roosevelt intoning, “We have nothing to feah…but feah itself.” King Edward the Eighth, choosing an American divorcee over the British throne, unable to carry on, “without the help and support of the woman I love.” Lou Gehrig’s Yankee Stadium shattering farewell, where he claimed, despite his “bad break”, that “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” The emotional reporter, crying “Oh, the humanity!” as he witnesses the airship Hindenburg exploding into flames. A gruff-voiced announcer calling Joe Louis’s redemption in a monumental rematch:

“Schmeling is down. The count is five…”

Recalling listening to those memorable moments in time as the rain came slamming down around us still gives me the shivers. To paraphrase the title

I can hear them now.

Rainy days were idyllic times for me, a carefree and regenerative interlude, whose spell could only be broken by the saddest three words I could possibly hear:

“The sun’s out.”

Friday, August 7, 2009

Hey, No Fair!

European Christians forced Jews to become moneylenders, a job forbidden to Christians by their religion. The Christians, who had coerced them into that enterprise, then excoriated them as “money-grubbing Jews.”

Observing this conundrum, a Jew of the time remarked:

“They kick us. And then blame us for limping.”

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


An actual overheard story.

The Setting:

A table at the iconic Beverly Hills deli Nate ‘N Al’s.

Singer Jerry Vale is sitting at the table accompanied by two men whose primary activity is to keep Jerry Vale feeling good about himself. Also at the table is an invited lunch guest.

“Jerry, tell the ‘Sinatra story’,” encourages one of Vale’s buddies.

Vale begs off. He doesn’t want to tell the story.

His pals insist. Do it for the lunch guest.

“He’ll love it,” his buddy assures Jerry.

“Wait’ll you hear this!” crows the other pal to the intrigued invitee.

After considerable coaxing, Jerry Vale finally relents. He tells the “Sinatra story”.

“Frank Sinatra is performing in Carnegie Hall. He finishes a number. The audience is going wild. Out of the crowd, someone yells out, ‘You’re the greatest!’ And Sinatra, from the stage in Carnegie Hall replies, ‘Well, I’m no Jerry Vale. But I try.”

The story ends with a moment of respectful silence from the table. Then one pal says to the guest, and says, in reverent tones:

“Frank Sinatra said that.”

And the other chimes in,

“In Carnegie Hall!