Thursday, December 31, 2009

"A 'Coaster' For New Years"

On our Hawaiian vacations, our family typically rings in the New Year in the company of some, often big-time, show biz entertainment. This generally involves a trip into Honolulu, where we sit with strangers at long tables in cavernous showrooms, our un-drunk “minimums” arrayed before us.

Over the years, we have enjoyed stage shows starring Ray Charles, James Brown, a fifties revival show featuring classic acts without the original people, Howie Mandell, and “Bobcat” Goldthwait (twice.) My favorite “Bobcat” joke:

“If you ever see people beating the crap out of me, put down the video camera, and help me.”

One year, we eschewed our tradition patronizing of shows headlined by performers flown in from the Mainland, and attended instead a show featuring a homegrown, Hawaiian standby – The Society of Seven. The leader of this group is the father of an actor I once hired to star in my pilot, Island Guy. But that’s not why we went to see them, however. We went because they’re extremely entertaining, their show invariably included on “Best” lists of the “Top Acts On The Island.”

What they basically do is an up-tempo, Vegas style, music and comedy lounge act. And they’ve definitely got it down. You go, and you love it. Drinking “Lava Flows” only increases your enjoyment.

We’re sitting a table next to the stage. I have consumed one blue drink with an umbrella in it, which means I’m drunk, because, for me, that’s all it takes. (Actually, it only takes half a blue drink.)

The Society of Seven have completed their Elvis routine and their Sonny and Cher routine. It’s now time for their “Tribute to the Fifties.”

The group opens with a song I’m extremely familiar with. This requires me to sing along. Drunk has nothing to do with it. I need no inducement to sing. All I have to hear is…

Fee fee, fi fi, foe foe, fum

I smell smoke in the audi-tori-um

…and I’m there.

Charlie Brown


Charlie Brown

Singin’ up a storm.

He’s a clown


That Charlie Brown

It is now the Society of Eight.

A member of the group leaps to the floor, directly in front of me.

He’s gonna get caught

He gives me an almost imperceptible nod.

Just you wait and see

He shoves the microphone in my face, and, on cue, I “low voice”,

Why is everybody always




The audience is momentarily silent. Then, suddenly, they erupt. Clapping, cheering wildly, and screaming, “Whoo-hoo!”

I had nailed my moment.

Hit it way out of the park.

And as I circle the bases, I am showered with well-deserved adulation.

It’s a little thing, I admit. But for a “Performer in my Mind”,

It was a very memorable

New Year’s Eve.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"We Almost Saw Volcanoes"

“Almost” stories. Everybody’s favorite. I’m being sarcastic. “Almost” stories are pretty close to no story at all. Oh, well. I’m on vacation.

I’ve visited the hotel we’re currently vacationing at before, but just with Anna, not the whole family. At the time, Dr. M was studying for her licensing exam, and she needed Anna and I to be elsewhere, so she could concentrate. Having recently worked with (now Senator) Al Franken, who was vacationing here with his family, I decided to take Anna and join them. It doesn’t take much to get me to Hawaii.

I’ve mentioned this before. Though not generally brave, I am uncharacteristically intrepid when it comes to riding in helicopters. I see it as an adventure. I find the headline, “WRITER DIES IN FIERY HELICOPTER CRASH” glamorous and exciting, and eminently more appealing than “WRITER SUCCUMBS, BLOCKED, IN FRONT OF HIS COMPUTER.”

We sign up for the helicopter tour, showcasing the island’s active volcanoes from the air, “from the air” being the best place (and maybe even the only place) to view the volcanoes. We’re assigned the second row of seats, behind the pilot. At one point, Anna insists that I not turn around. Later, I learn why. The couple behind us was throwing up in a bag.

During the first half of the tour, the pilot flies us past some minor points of interest. Interesting, but hardly the main attraction. We are there for the volcanoes. Which we are now about to see.

Check that. We’re not.

The pilot announces that we’re turning back, due to unfavorable weather. (That’s what makes this an “almost” story.)

We return to the helipad, where the company announces they’re giving back half of our money. This seems a little unfair, though I don’t complain, because I’m happy they chose not to go on. Being indifferent to dying in a helicopter crash is not the same as “Let’s do it today.” They went the “Better safe than sorry” route. I’m not against that.

And yet…

I know, if you measure it by time, we were up there for half of the scheduled trip. Going by time, it was fair to return only half our money. The thing is, the first half of the trip’s primary purpose is to get us in position for the second half of the trip, the half where you see the volcanoes. From an excitement standpoint, the first half is hardly an equal half. It’s an extended preamble.

Imagine, after ponying up hundreds of dollars to see a (PLACE YOUR FAVORITE PERFORMER HERE) concert, you watch the opening act – a ventriloquist – and then the announcer comes out and says, “Your Favorite Performer got snowed in in Poughkeepsie. But we’re giving you back half your money.”

Does that sound okay to you? Or does it sound like the legitimate grounds for a lawsuit?

It comes down to this:

Do we view their actions as depriving us of experiencing the whole point of the excursion – seeing the volcanoes?

Or do we view them as protecting us from falling into the sea?

Looking at it from the “protecting us from falling into the sea” perspective, there’s a strong argument for their keeping all of our money.

Maybe, getting half of it back, I should consider myself grateful.

(Curse you, Earl Pomerantz, for being able to see both sides.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Christmas Beer"

A longstanding Hawaiian tradition, I’ve been told, was for customers to leave cases of beer at the curb, as a Christmas present for their trash collectors. It turned out, however, this well-intentioned gesture was illegal. Regulations state that government vehicles are not permitted to carry alcohol.

Being a resourceful bunch, the Hawaiians adjusted their tradition. On the last collection day before Christmas, the trash collectors recruited their buddies to drive behind them, and gather up the gifts their customers had left for them in their private vehicles. Sometimes, however, their vehicles were too small to accommodate it all, and the buddies were required to down a few bottles, before loading the rest up.

This could lead to some dangerous driving, but at least the beer wasn’t anywhere near the trash.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"The Jewish Hula"

This works better when you see it, though not when it’s done by me. My hula skills are impaired by congenitally fused hips. They simply refuse to sway.

Anyway, here are the directions, if you’d like to try this at home. There are only two of them; it’s quite easy.


Hips sway Polynesically during “Aloha…”

Then, on “Oy”,

Right hand comes up, the right palm smacking smartly against forehead.

Aloha…” – smack!

Aloha…” – smack!

That’s all there is to it.

So try it, already.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Warning: If you’re currently being blanketed by a snowstorm, you might want to skip this story.

As disgusting as this sounds, there are times when Californians pine of a place ever nicer than where we currently live. Tone deaf to how this sounds to folks, who, for six months or more a year, are condemned to shoveling snow off their driveways – while snow continues falling at the same time – Californians yearn for a spot with better weather, whiter beaches, even greater natural beauty and a bluer, more sparkling ocean. And believe it or not, the place actually exists.

It’s called Hawaii.

Hawaii is California for Californians. What California are to the rest of the country, Hawaii is to Californians. The Better Place. The upgrade begins at the Honolulu airport. You make your way down the open walkway to “Baggage Claim”, and your nose immediately tells you you’re not in Santa Monica anymore. The welcoming breeze, heavy with surprisingly not-oppressive humidity, smells like flowers.

Flowers they only make in Hawaii.

America’s history with this tropical paradise is definitely, uh…not its proudest moment. I watched this show on PBS once, telling the story of how, one night, the U.S. Navy landed on Oahu, to “protect American citizens” they claimed were in danger but who were, in fact, asleep in their beds, and well, we never left.

When informed that the military presence was also meant to protect her from her enemies, the then Hawaiian queen, inquired, “Then why are your cannons pointed at my palace, instead of in the other direction?” I suspect this was taken as a rhetorical question, since the navy’s answer was never recorded.

Because of this rather shameful land grab, ever since our first visit, I’ve instructed our children to say to every Hawaiian they run into, in the most subdued and respectful tones they can muster, “I’m sorry we took your island.”

I want the Hawaiians to know we know. And that if we’d been consulted in the matter, it would never have happened. Though, in truth, I really can’t imagine the Secretary of the Navy saying, “We’re planning to take over Hawaii. See what the Pomerantz’s think about that.” They didn’t ask us about Iraq either. I just want the Hawaiian people to know, if they’d asked us, we’d have vetoed the idea.

I’d actually prefer Hawaii to be a foreign country. I think if it were, it would feel less like Encino.

There’s a lot to do in Hawaii – hiking, horseback riding, windsurfing, snorkeling, riding the gnarliest waves on the planet. Our family does none of those things. Our basic plan is to get hold of some lounge chairs, sit on the beach, and do nothing. On rare occasions, we interrupt our inactivity with a quick dip in the ocean, generally venturing up to our ankles. Then it’s back to our lounge chairs, to do nothing some more.

Once, I visited the hotel bar, intending to order a pina colada, but mistakenly ordering a considerably stronger Mai Tai instead. Since the Mai Tai cost seven-fifty, I drank it anyway, getting tipsier than I intended. That’s the most exciting thing that ever happened to me in Hawaii.

(Except for the time I was almost carried out to sea.)

Writing about Hawaii reminds you of its easygoing, “Hang Loose” mentality, and before you know it, you really don’t feel like writing anymore. Then you don’t feel like talking anymore. And then…(BIG YAWN)…

I think I’ll go lie down.
My family and I are hitting the Big Island of Hawaii for the holidays. I have left some Hawaiian-themed shticklach (little pieces) to tide you over.

I’ll see you when we get back. In the meantime, mele kalikimaka (Merry Christmas) and hau’oli makahiki hou (Happy New Years).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Story Conservation"

I told a friend of mine, who’s around my age, a story. I felt a little uncertain, because I didn’t remember if I’d already told him that story. It turned out to be okay, because my friend didn’t remember if he’d heard it.

Apparently, at a certain age, with a certain audience, you just need one story.

And you can tell it again and again.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"THe 'Poop' Cycle" *

I come home from the hospital, and I can’t poop.

(Courtesy of the anesthetic and the pain medication, both of which I’d have been very unhappy without.)

I been given things to help with the problem. I will spare you the details. Other than saying, they didn’t help.

I feel frustrated and forlorn, cut off from a natural, and previously regular, bodily function.

I try my hardest.


Days pass.

No letter from home.

It becomes an obsession. Pooping is all you think about. It’s not like you’re asking the impossible. Babies do it without even trying.

As a last resort, you turn to the Almighty (who you may not believe in.) “Dear, God,” you entreat, perhaps even on your knees, “I’ll never ask for anything again. Just let me poop.”

You try again.


Then, one day, finally,

It happens.

The logjam is broken.


The next day,


But my outlook has changed. I feel hopeful. If happened once, it can happen again.

The next day,

It does.

Now, we’re talking. Two days out of three. Perhaps there actually is a God. (The same God who blessed me with this affliction in the first place.)

Time passes. There’s progress every day. I’m thinking, someday, things will be exactly the way they were.

But with one difference.

I will never take pooping for granted again.

More time passes…

The birds are singing. The miracle of regularity has been regained.

More time passes…

And the miracle becomes ho hum.

Regular, regular, regular

Regular, regular, regular.

The feeling has faded.

I felt the impulse to poop,

And I didn’t even bother.

* Hopefully, this is an analogy for all life’s passing difficulties. Otherwise, it’s just a story about poop.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"The Big Three"

I know what Tiger Woods did, and I don’t like it. What I don’t understand – and this isn’t a pose, I really don’t get it – is why what Tiger Woods did is any of my business.

I’m not sure which of the dragons I can’t possibly slay I should take on first. There are three of them. Three core American values, synergizing like all get-out. You can’t stop ‘em, or even slow ‘em down. They’re way too powerful. But, what the heck. Let’s try.

We’ll start with this.

Even if it can be persuasively argued that other people’s actions – that do not rise to the level of a crime – are nobody else’s business, this would not, by at least one definition of “business” actually be the case. Exploiting people’s misbehavior is, in fact, one group’s enormous, and highly lucrative, business.

It’s the gossip business.

(And you don’t have to be famous to participate. Check out the White House gate crashers, the “Balloon Boy” family, and the couple with eight kids.)

A celebrity – or colorful “Nobody” – missteps, and the Gossip Machine instantly kicks into action. (I only know the celebrity ones.) Hugh Grant and a hooker. Mel Gibson and a female peace officer. Alec Baldwin, berating his daughter over the phone. Letterman and his interns. Tiger Woods and his ladies. There’s a leak or a reported arrest and it’s,

“Crank it up, Boys! We’ve got a Big One!”

Why do these stories bother me? Well, for one thing – as I’ve written elsewhere – I feel that when a hero of mine’s sordidity is made public, I – with no say in the matter whatsoever – immediately lose a hero. The great crooner, Bing Crosby, apparently, beat the bejeezus out of his kids. Now, during the Christmas season, every time I hear, Der Bingle warble,

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas..”

I hear, set to the same melody,

“I gave my kids a good beating…”

Let me be crystal clear. On the issue of child beating, put me down as “Strongly Against.” I’m also sensitive to the assertion that a hero who behaves that badly forfeits the right to remain a hero. The thing is that I worshipped Big Crosby as an entertainer. Now, that adulation seems hideously misplaced.

I had nothing to do with Bing Crosby’s mistreating his children, and on a practical level, there was nothing I could have done about it. The question then is, did they – “they” meaning the people who cashed in on the story – really need to make it public?

“They didn’t need to. But there’s no law against it. It fact, what they did was entirely natural.”


“It’s business. Free Enterprise.”

Say hello to Dragon Number One.

“Wait a minute. Are you against Free Enterprise?”

“Some of it.”

“We’re talking about a legitimate undertaking.”

“Disseminating gossip.”

“Disseminating information. Come on. It’s Free Speech.”


“You’re against Free Speech?”

“Some of it.”

“It’s in the frickin’ Constitution! The First Amendment. First! The most important one!”

“Well, actually, the current First Amendment was originally the Third Amendment. But the first two amendments didn’t pass, so it moved up to first.”

That was boring.”

“Just disseminating information.”

“Information nobody cares about.”

“And they care about Tiger Woods.”

“Ka-ching. Ka-ching.”

“I see. So if people are willing to pay for it, you feel totally justified making money from Tiger’s misfortune?”

“Oh, geez. Who is this guy?”

“Just a person who happens to believe that your way of getting extremely wealthy stinks up the place, and by ‘the place’ I mean what we expose to the world as American Culture.”

“Look! People in – Thank God! – enormous numbers choose to read gossip. Nobody’s twisting their arms. It’s Free Will. You’re not against Free Will, are you?”


“Okay, let’s sum up, here. You’re down on Free Enterprise. You question Free Speech. And you have problems with Free Will.”

“That’s right.”

“You know what that makes you, don’t you?




“And stupid.”


“And Un-American.”

“Here we go.”

“Listen, Smart Guy. You should be grateful you live in a country that gives you the freedom to write things that are wrong and stupid.”

“For a limited readership.”

“Hey, you could try gossip.”

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Blind Spots"

I imagine every show has its Blind Spot, the thing they never mention, because if you did, the show wouldn’t work anymore. I’m not experienced in hour shows, though I imagine they have them too. I’ll stick to the stuff I know.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Mary Richards was a smart, funny, strikingly attractive woman. Yet through the show’s seven-year run, she never got married, or was involved in a serious relationship.

Blind Spot.

Why did it happen? Because, creatively, it was better for the series if Mary remained single. Her not being “with someone” left Mary open to a neverending onslaught of hilariously disastrous dates. So that’s the way they kept her, even though, as the series wore on, Mary’s remaining single made no reasonable sense whatsoever.

More examples of sitcom Blind Spots:

(Note: I will not offer an explanation for each show’s Blind Spot, though I suspect the answer would invariably be the same – “The show works better that way.” Or more honestly, “If we brought that up, there wouldn’t be any show at all.”)


They drove cabs all night, and when their shift ended, they went out for pizza and beer. Pizza and beer? For breakfast?

I once wrote a Taxi episode entitled, “Nardo Loses Her Marbles.” The story involves Elaine Nardo’s having a (television style) nervous breakdown, resulting from the fact that she drove a taxi at night, worked at an art gallery in the daytime, while, at the same time, raising two young children alone. Given the twenty-four hour day, and needing some time in there to sleep, I don’t think this can physically be done. So I wrote about it. (Unlike others, especially the writers who created the show, I like doing stories about Blind Spots. It’s the secret rebel in me.)


(This could be wrong. I was never a regular viewer.)

George and Cliff drank for hours on a daily basis, yet never seemed to get drunk or need liver transplants. They did, however, go to the Men’s Room on occasion.


Were Frasier and Niles adopted? What made them so radically different from their father?

Everybody Loves Raymond

Given the way they consistently behaved towards each other, what exactly kept Raymond and Debra together?

Two and a Half Men

A guy brings home a different woman, or squadrons of women, on a regular basis, and there’s an underage kid living in the same house. (I don’t know, maybe this is just me, repressively mired in my fifties value system.)


(I am already on record as declaring Seinfeld to be the greatest network comedy of all time. This does not, however, make it immune to Blind Spots).

Stories tell of Jerry’s working in Atlantic City, where even lounge comics are paid thousands of dollars a week. Yet Jerry continued to live in the same building as Kramer, who barely made a dime. And by the way, who pays Kramer’s rent?

A random sampling, demonstrating how even the greatest series steer clear of their conceptual “Achilles’ Heels.” Perhaps you’ve noticed other examples of your own.

Do Blind Spots matter? To varying degrees, they do. I could never get past Frasier’s “These boys do not seem to have come from this father.” It’s likely that forgiving the Blind Spots varies directly with your affection for the show. The more you like it, the more you ignore, or fail to notice, the Blind Spots.

Putting it another way, when I insisted that some show she was enjoying made very little sense, my stepdaughter, Rachel, once shot back:

“It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s funny!”

This could explain why I’m not working anymore.

Or why we don’t have a bigger house.

Or why I was never a favorite in the “Rewrite Room.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"The 'Seinfeld' Variations"

I recently wrote here about successful TV series hitting their stride, noting that some shows hit the bulls-eye in their pilots, while other take time to find their quintessential sweet spots.

I mentioned that Seinfeld was a show that needed time. It wasn’t that the series didn’t show signs of promise from the get-go; it was that the early signs were fitful and sporadic.

I’ll make a confession here. When Seinfeld first came on the air, I refused to watch it.

That’s silly.

I know, Italics Man. I can be petty sometimes. The thing is, when Seinfeld first appeared, I was working as a consultant on Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, co-created by Garry and a wonderful writer – and a sweet man – named Alan Zweibel.

The two series seemed troublingly alike – two single Jewish comedians playing themselves, chronicling their life experiences. (As you might know, Seinfeld was originally called The Seinfeld Chronicles.) It wasn’t team loyalty that made me reject Seinfeld. I checked it out, and found the Shandling show to be the superior product, more imaginative in its conception and execution, and funnier.

Were you right about that?

Absolutely. (Though some may disagree.) Early Seinfeld sparkled with those inspired conversational runs – like the debate about the placement of the second to the top button on men’s shirts – but when it came to story selection, early Seinfeld seemed familiar and disappointing. (Plus, the characters were, as yet, not fully developed.)

I became a Seinfeld fan when the show changed. (Also, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show went off the air.) Unlike any hit series I can remember, throughout its long run, Seinfeld continued to evolve in its storytelling. “Evolve” is the wrong word – it wasn’t straining towards to some advanced state, like some mutating amphibian struggling to make it to dry land. The show simply kept reconfiguring itself.

(I was very curious about how this happened – the inside story of this “evolutionary” process. The only time I met Larry David was when I was consulting on a pilot created, coincidentally, by his longtime buddy, Alan Zweibel. Unfortunately, Larry didn’t want to have much to do with me, partly, I think, because, when I met him, I gushed like a teenaged groupie, a condition unbecoming to a middle-aged man, and less than a picnic for the gush-ee.)

An early Seinfeld story:

A girl from out of town asks Jerry if she can stay at his apartment, and Jerry thinks sex is in the offing, only to be disappointed when it turns out that the girl is engaged. If they continued do stories like that – or Jerry’s apartment gets robbed – ho and hum.

But they didn’t.

The list of episodes I printed up shows that on “Episode 15”, Seinfeld served up “The Chinese Restaurant”, a skillfully written one-act play of an episode about the “nothing” that George championed so passionately when he and Jerry pitched their pilot at NBC – in this case, the “nothing” was the gang waiting an excruciatingly long time to get seated at a Chinese restaurant.

The storytelling on Seinfeld had fundamentally changed. The show had abandoned the tried and true, setting out, instead, to find its own Seinfeldian way. Rather than being intensely plot driven, “Episode 15” relied on the “we’ve all been there” frustration of waiting endlessly for a table. No sex-steeped storyline. No “only in sitcoms” improbabilities. It was – boldly and innovatively – just the thing itself, the unvarnished situation. “They said it wouldn’t be long, and we’re still not eating. We’re going to die waiting for this table!”

“Episode 19” brought us “The Pen” Dr. M’s all-time favorite. Nothing complicated or twisty. Jerry casually compliments a man on his pen, and, despite his objections, the man insists that Jerry take it. After he leaves, Jerry’s mother berates him for taking the man’s pen. Simple and true. And painfully funny for anyone who’s ever had a mother.

Which brings us to “Episode 22.” Demonstrating “The Chinese Restaurant” was no one-time anomaly, here comes “The Parking Garage.” Four people, wandering aimlessly around a shopping mall parking garage, unable to find their car. I have been there, my friend. That’s what makes it special.

Having won me over with identifiable storylines, Seinfeld took yet another turn, this time, in a mouth-droppingly inspired direction. Three or four sub-plots, seemingly disconnected, wind up, to the viewer’s shock and surprise, intersecting in the final resolution. In Scene One, Kramer comes in wearing a white jacket he got on loan from a deli , only to end up later posing as a white-jacketed dermatologist. I sat there, laughing my head off, at the same time wondering, “How did they do that?”

Applying this storytelling technique, Seinfeld scored week after week, with hilarious episodes heightened by gasp-inducing (as in “I didn’t see that coming!”) climaxes.

As Seinfeld wound down, and with Larry David no longer involved, Kramer turned his apartment into the set from The Merv Griffin Show, and I was looking for my coat. But that happens when every series sticks around past its creative hey-day, to rack up more episodes for syndication.

There were many elements that made Seinfeld my favorite comedy of all time. But the greatest of them could be the way the show continued to re-invent itself structurally. I wish I could have gotten Larry David to talk about how that happened. Unfortunately, if you insist on gushing, you’re going to put people off.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"A Hockey Star Abroad"

Writing a hockey story about the legendary announcer Foster Hewitt led to a comment mentioning the magnificent Maple Leaf immortal, Frank Mahovlich, reminding me of a story I once read about him.

Frank Mahovlich was an All-Star left winger, with a graceful skating style and – as Montreal hockey announcer Danny Gallivan would have called it – “a cannonading shot.”

By merely touching the puck, Mahovlich could bring the characteristically quiet Maple Leaf Gardens spectators immediately to life. “The Big M” as media called him, corralled the puck and started “up ice”, and, as if on cue, fifteen thousand seemingly sedated Leaf fans suddenly erupted into “The Sound.”

“The Sound” is not describable in words, at least not by me. You had to hear it. It gave you chills.

With his long, elegant strides, Mahovlich, the puck cradled comfortably on his stick, built an increasing head of steam. And as he did, anyone listening on the radio or watching on TV could detect the gathering roar generated by the suddenly energized fans. It was like,


withe each "W" rising in intensity to an ear-ringing din, exploding into a celebratory “YAAAAAAH!”, when, at precisely the right moment, Mahovlich pulled the trigger, and Foster Hewitt confirmed the result:

“He shoots…. He scores!!!”


Frank Mahovlich once scored forty-eight goals in a single season, which, at the time he did it, was a lot. The following season, however, Mahovlich only netted eighteen goals, generating cross-claims that either Leaf coach “Punch” Imlach was riding him too hard, or that the iconic Leaf superstar was a congenital “head case.”

This story is not meant as confirmation. It’s just a story I read in a book entitled The Days Canada Stood Still, chronicling the first time – in 1972 – that the professionals of the National Hockey League faced the (ostensibly amateur, but who are we kidding?) national hockey team of Russia. This was a monumental event in my home country’s history. It takes a lot to make Canada stand still.

The showdown was arranged as an eight-game series, the first four to be played in Canada, the latter four, in the Soviet Union. It’s important to remember that this encounter took place during the middle of the Cold War, a period when suspicions between East and West ran dangerously high.

Arriving in Moscow, the Canadian team is billeted at a local hotel. Their minds buzzing with stories of Soviet espionage, the players are vigilantly on the lookout for signs of KGB hanky-panky, secret listening devices that might provide their Russian opponents with advantage-gaining hockey tips.

Mahovlich is reportedly, a little more suspicious than the others. Settled in his room, ”Mahov” pulls back the carpeting, discovering – “Aha!” – a suspicious-looking metal plate, fastened to the floor. Has “Mahov” found evidence of a “bug”? Or is he just overly jumpy, an insular Canadian, a long way home.

No need to take chances, eh?

Procuring a device suitable for the purpose, Mahovlich got down on his knees, and, as meticulously as he prepared for a hockey game, patiently went at the worrisome metal plate, till he loosened its screws and finally worked the plate free.

And immediately, the chandelier in the room beneath his fell crashing to the floor.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"The Opposite of the 'Jumped The Shark' Moment"

A “Jumped the Shark” moment is that moment in a television series, where an event takes place that stretches credulity beyond the breaking point. The example from which the term derives comes from a late Happy Days episode, where “Fonzie”, vacationing, I believe, in Hawaii, vaults completely over a shark while waterskiing. A beloved character displays some unlikely behavior on a popular television show, and an entire country goes,

“I don’t think so.”

That’s “Jumping the Shark.”

The beginning of the end.

Today, I’m interested in the opposite of “Jumping the Shark.” I have witnessed myself being excited and often overjoyed to the point of releasing a celebratory “Yippee!” or a less showy though no less appreciative “Ahhhh” by the moment when a television series discovers its essence, that moment when the diverse elements come magically together, "sealing the deal" with the audience, and certifying that show’s creators have indisputably delivered the goods.

Can you be a little clearer about that?

I’ll try, Italics Man. What I’m talking about is that point where a new series comes alive, producing an energized and original-feeling whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, those parts being the “spot on” casting, the show’s distinctive story selection and its style of telling it, the defining range of the show’s comedy, and the unique manner in which the characters – whom we’ve never seen before, or at least never seen before that way – interact. You follow?

I guess so. It just sounds so subjective.

You can say it’s subjective. You’d be wrong, but you can say it. My point here is that there’s something about the way a show – I’m talking about a new show – delivers on its concept, where you just have to acknowledge, “That show really knows what it is.”

Of course, there are series that know what they are that nobody wants to see. (These shows are generally about poor people.) There are shows that might have discovered what they are, had they been allowed to stay on the air long enough to find out, but they weren’t. Then there are poorly conceived shows that just blunder along, having no underlying “what they are” to discover.

I am not talking about those shows; I’m talking about the hits. And what’s interesting is, some shows hit their natural stride from Day One. And others, which are allowed to be nurtured, find themselves as they go along.

I knew The Dick Van Dyke Show had hit “pay dirt” right from the pilot, where the Petries’ young son, Richie, signaled he wasn’t feeling well by the indisputable fact – at least to his mother – that “he wouldn’t eat his cupcake.”

I could tell The Mary Tyler Moore Show was “there from the get-go” from the exchange in its pilot where, during a job interview, Mary becomes contentious and Lou Grant snarls, “You’ve got spunk!…I hate spunk!”

These classic comedies “had it” right from the starting gate. Some others did too. Selected examples:

Rosanne always knew what it was – the embodiment of the comedienne’s “Domestic Goddess” persona in sitcomical form.

The premier episode of Friends also arrived fully realized – likable, clever and quirkily off-center (the pilot featured a runaway bride still in her wedding gown, and a monkey.)

Home Improvement debuted fully formed as well, complete with its feral “Tim, the Tool Guy” growl, never-before-used animated scene transitions, and the neighbor you could only see from the nose up.

This season, Modern Family hit the airwaves conceptually whole. The energy (and self-assurance) felt “there” from opening scene.

Now you, Mr. (or Ms) Skeptic, may say, “Earl, you’re saying that these shows came out ‘fully formed.’ But doesn’t that really just mean you liked them?”

Respectfully, Mr. (or Ms) Skeptic, my liking them is emphatically beside the point. I remember watching the pilot episode of Three’s Company. When it was over, I said, “That was very funny. I’m never watching it again.” “Why?” I was asked. “Because it will be exactly the same every week.”

The show had discovered who they were. And “who they were” was something I never wanted to see again.

The preceding were hit shows that “opened whole.” There are, however, other shows that I came to love (or at least admire) that didn’t come into full floweration for quite some time.

One of them was Cheers.

Cheers didn’t fully become Cheers until Sam and Diane slapped each other, and then kissed. You could feel the difference immediately. Before the “slap-kiss”, Cheers was an unquestionably funny series. But after that series-defining moment, the laughs were “through the roof!”

While it showed flashes of potential, The Cosby Show didn’t explode until mid-way through its first season, when the Huxtables lip-synched “Night Time Is The Right Time (To Be With The One You Love).” I take no credit for that. By then, I had already left the show. I remember watching that episode at home and thinking, “Oh, that’s what the show is about. The “trumping” power of “family.”

Seinfeld also took time coming into its own. Despite restaurant conversations, where Jerry and George debated the importance of “button placement” on men’s shirts, early Seinfeld felt like The Single Guy with better writers. The series developed piecemeal. Elaine wasn’t even in the first episode. I also read that the “Kramer” character wasn’t fully realized until Michael Richards stopped thinking of Kramer as being a step behind everyone else and imagined him as being a step (or more) ahead.

For me, Seinfeld didn’t attain its pinnacle of brilliance until “The Parking Garage” – its twenty-second episode.

Sometimes, great series find themselves in their pilot episodes; sometimes, it takes longer. Hopefully, the networks will be patient with the “late bloomers”, though they usually aren’t, unless the shows they have in “Development” are even worse. In any case, a show that “finds itself” is a miracle to behold. Having connected with its essence, it shines like a glistening diamond, bringing satisfaction to its writers, and hours of joy to those watching at home.

Until it jumps the shark.

Monday, December 14, 2009


I once wrote an episode of Rhoda called “Brenda, The Bank Girl.” The story involved Rhoda’s sister, Brenda, who, despite being congenitally non-competitive, is goaded into entering a contest at the bank she works at, the winner of which gets anointed, “The Bank Girl.”

As the episode goes on, Brenda gradually catches “Competition Fever”, becoming increasingly consumed by the passion to win. In the end, she does win, but feels terrible for letting a stupid bank contest manipulate her emotions.

The idea for this story came from a personal experience concerning the Emmys, a television prize awarded annually for “excellence.” I was nominated (for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show), I tried desperately not to care, but by the time they announced the winner at the ceremonies, I was so worked up, I feared that my powerfully beating heart would burst through my tuxedo shirt and fly into the head of the guy sitting in front of me. (Who, by the way, ultimately won. I still hate that guy.)

I despised what an ultimately meaningless competition had turned me into. Imagine having your heart explode because you happened to lose a tin statue. Boy, would that feel stupid.

You meet a guy in heaven, or whatever:

“How did you get killed?”

“I lost a television award. And you?”

“Normandy landing.”

I am inordinately uncomfortable with competition. But I’ve never figured out if it’s because I’m fundamentally non-competitive, or because I want to win so badly, I can’t handle the entire process. It’s weird. Two opposite ways of feeling result in the same behavior. You simply don’t compete.

Competition is probably totally natural, originating as an evolutionary survival technique. It’s like that joke. Two guys are being chased by a bear, and one of them says,

“I don’t think we can outrun this bear.”

To which, the other guy says,

“I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”

Competition as a saver of life. It’s likely where it all started.

It didn’t, however, remain in that arena. With no bears in sight, people continue to compete, in every way imaginable.



PERSON ONE: I said it first.

Competition is everywhere. You tell a story, and somebody has to “top” it. They met a famouser person. Their surgery was more harrowing. It even works backwards:

“I’m the worst (dancer, cook, understander of computers, fill in whatever you want) in the world.”

Call it “Reverse” competition. They’re claiming the championship of “bad.”

Once, competition involved understood and accepted do’s and don’ts. Boxing was governed by the Marquess of Queensberry statutes. It was okay to punch your opponent’s brain into tapioca, but you had to do it within the rules.

Remember Chariots of Fire? A determined runner, representing England in the 1924 Olympics, hired a professional trainer to prepare him for the games. The runner, a Jew, was assailed for “going too far to win” (the unsavory implication being that Jews gained unfair advantage by ignoring the standards of “civilized” Englishmen.)

The past had clearly recognizable rules, or so we imagine. But at some point, the line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” behavior got blurred. Who knows? Maybe that’s more realistic. And less hypocritical. Maybe the idea of Geneva Convention, with its rules concerning appropriate behavior during wartime is, like, humane but ridiculous. Such niceties are certainly not found in nature:


ZEBRA: You’re very predatory, you know.

LION: What am I supposed to do, talk you into becoming my dinner?

Humans, however, are a different kind of animal, with different capacities. One, humans can decide whether or not to compete.

“A projectile vomiting contest? I’ll pass.”

And two, if we choose to participate, humans have the ability to make rules concerning the way we do it.

“No gouging your opponent’s eyes out.”

“Man! They’re taking all the fun out of it!”

I know there are still rules. What’s missing is the sense of shame inherent in ignoring those rules, reflected in the saying, “You’re not really guilty, if you don’t get caught.” In the World Series during the late seventies, Yankee baserunner Reggie Jackson stuck out his hip, deflecting a throw, a maneuver that turned the momentum of the entire series. You’re not allowed to do that – it’s “baserunner interference.” But having gotten away with it, Jackson is now immortalized, not as a cheater (except to Dodger fans), but as “a fierce competitor.”

Is there one person you hold primarily responsible for the “winning at any cost” philosophy?

Yes, there is, Italics Man.

And who would that be?

I blame Vince Lombardi.

During the fifties and early sixties, Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers to five successive championships. And what was Lombardi’s most famous pronouncement?

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

Being a certified winner, Lombardi’s message took hold, embedding itself indelibly in our cultural belief system. So what? “So what” is that this mantra points to a, for me, disturbing logical consequence. In competition, whether it’s sports, politics, arguing with your spouse, or a heated game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”, if “winning is the only thing”, the only strategy that makes sense is,

“Whatever it takes.”

In the world of “winning is the only thing”, limiting your tactics – by refusing to engage in what you view as unacceptable behavior – makes you an almost certain loser. And a sucker. And a jerk. You may as well not participate at all.

I guess what it comes down to is this: Do we choose to behave like human beings – regulating our actions by identifiable rules – or do we function as reflex-driven, kill-or-be-killed animals? Until that’s decided – and I mean by everyone, in every game – I’m staying on the sidelines. Although there’s a strong possibility it won’t help.

LION: I’m eating you.

ZEBRA: I’m on the sidelines.

LION: Yeah, I’m eating you.

Oh, well. At least I’m spared the extended chase.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"The Dean of Hockey Broadcasting"

I wish you could hear his voice. I wish you could sense the shiver of excitement when he exploded onto the air with his trademark

“Hello, Canada, and hockey fans in the United States…”

Earlier on, before it became a province, he tacked “…and Newfoundland” to the end of it. But that was before my time. (As I get older, it seems less and less was “before my time.”)

I’ve tried imitating his voice. I can hear it perfectly in my head, but something happens as it works its way out, that “something” being an alarming loss of accuracy. Hewitt’s voice appears to emanate from the back of his throat, as if hiding from the bitter, Canadian cold. The resulting tones emerge distant and pinched, as if the voice itself were wearing a wool hat and a scarf.

But whatever its source, on those windblown winter nights, Foster Hewitt’s voice reverberated across a nation.

It bound us together, a whole country tuned into those Saturday night games. (The NHL schedule was set up so the Leafs always played at home on Saturday night. You can do that when your league is comprised of six teams.)

Everyone in Canada, except for Quebec – where the hated Canadiens games were broadcast – listened to that game, broadcast by that inimitable voice.

The Voice of Hockey.

Foster Hewitt was the pioneer of hockey announcing. He originated phrases still in use to this very day, his most famous call of all – and the title of his autobiography –

“He Shoots, He Scores!”

You can’t really do that call justice on paper. Or whatever this is. That call, especially during “sudden-death” overtime playoff games – is electrifying. A death knell when it’s called against your team, a “leap-to-your-feet victory dance” when you win. How can I convey that emotion.

“He shoots, he SCO-O-O-RES!!!”

Nah. You had to be there.

Foster Hewitt invented “He shoots, he scores!” It seems like, Duh! today. When a goal was scored, I can’t imagine what the earlier announcers would have said instead.

“It’s in the thing!”

“It’s behind the guy!”

“It’s over the place!”

Even if you’re not a hockey fan, you’ll have to agree those aren’t nearly as good.

In “Foster Talk”, a player who slowed down the game (to protect a lead) was “ragging the puck.” An intensely played interlude had opponents “going at it hammer and tongs.” A fight-filled contest became “a rock-‘em – sock ‘em hockey game.”

Before television, Foster Hewitt’s voice was our bridge to the thrills and excitement of a game we could only imagine, our imaginings informed by his defining descriptions. Hewitt was Canada’s eyes. And its emotions as well. Though, being Canadian, he never really went wild.

When TV arrived, it was weird at first. Though the game started at eight, the telecast didn’t begin until nine. This delay forced fans to listen to the early part of the game on the radio, a strategy that made (dollars and) sense when you learn that every Leaf game was broadcast exclusively over CKFH. So what? The “FH” in CKFH stood for Foster Hewitt. With no alternative until nine o’clock, hockey fans were the captives of the announcer’s own station.

Also, theoretically, a nine o’clock television “start time” meant the only way to see the entire game was to buy a ticket and watch it in person. This ticket-buying inducement seems reasonable, until you remember that Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Leafs played at the time, had been sold out since 1942. You couldn’t get a ticket. Out of luck fans like myself had to settle for the next best thing – radio till nine, then switch to TV.

The game expertly called by Foster Hewitt.

The indisputable Dean of Hockey Broadcasting.

“Hello, Canada, and hockey fans in the United States…”

The words remain in my bones.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"Two Movies For The Older Moviegoer"

I hesitate to do this, because I invariably get in trouble writing about what I like and what I don’t like. Readers who agree with my assessments are less likely to respond in support than people who loved something I didn’t, generally sounding hurt and a little angry.

It’s apparently inevitable. There’s almost nothing that somebody hates that isn’t somebody else’s favorite thing. These disagreements can rapidly turn personal. Somehow, saying you didn’t care for something seems to imply, or at least is inferred to imply, that people who liked something you didn’t like are not just people with a different opinion – they’re wrong. Oh, yeah, and stupid.

Disagreements can send doors slamming in the faces of the disagreers. I don’t know how you prevent it, except to say, “Like or don’t like what you want. And allow me to do the same.” It may not help – it probably won’t – but at least you tried.

Okay. On we go.

I saw two movies, a couple of days apart. One was an ensemble picture called Pirate Radio, written and directed by the Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually guy. The other movie was It’s Complicated, showcasing stars Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, and written and directed by the woman who gave us What Women Want, The Holiday, and Something’s Got To Give.

Pirate Radio made me cry. It’s Complicated made the veins pop out on the sides of my forehead. And it wasn’t from joy.

I’ll start with Pirate Radio, a valentine to the sixties about a ragtag collection of itinerant disc jockeys, broadcasting the latest rock music from a boat off the coast of England, while battling for survival against the anti-rock British government, determined to get this irreverent band of troublemaking platter-spinners off the air. The movie is episodic and as shaggy as the times they nostalgically recreate, times during which I, incidentally, happened to be living in England, enjoying the bootleg broadcasts of “pirate” radio, which in actuality was called Radio Caroline.

There is little question that a portion of my enjoyment, and my sobbing uncontrollably during Pirate Radio’s finale, stems from me, crying shamelessly for my lost youth. These were my times they were talking about, and, like “pirate” radio itself, those times are now long and forever gone.

But I think there’s more to it than that. Pirate Radio, telling the story of some underdog “crazies” fighting for their lives against the change-resistant “Establishment”, credibly depicts those polarizing times without whitewashing the excesses of either side.

The resulting movie is a glorious mess – perhaps not a quote the film’s producers would want plastered on the marquees:


But both I and the people – around my age – who I saw it with, were genuinely carried away, (especially by the film’s impeccably selected soundtrack) entertained, tickled, touched and moved.

There is nothing glorious about It’s Complicated. Nor is there any mess. Though no housekeepers characters appear in the movie to clean things up, everything – including the people themselves – radiates the impression of an exquisitely manicured lawn.

The wardrobe is drool-worthy. (A normally level-headed Dr. M actually Googled the movie’s credits on the Internet, in an effort to learn who did the costumes, so she could contact them and find out where they shopped.) The furniture is “I want it all.” Exotic kitchen gadgets? – “I’ve been looking for that for years!” In every regard, the production shimmered with the indisputable message:

“Rich or poor, it’s better to have money. Way better.”

Yes, the characters have problems. After ten years of divorce, the Meryl Streep character has an “adulterous” (or maybe without the quotes) affair with the Alec Baldwin character, her currently re-married ex-husband, generating the “Big Question” of the movie:

Will they get back together, or what?

The “or what” being the Steve Martin character, a “nice-guy” architect, also smitten with the Meryl Streep character, who’s supervising the remodeling of the Meryl Streep character’s already perfect house.

I’ve been told that poor people in the Depression-era thirties flocked to movies featuring characters wearing satin gowns (the women) and top hats and tails (the men), hungry for a dream that would distract them from the cash-deprived nightmare of their everyday lives.

I never understood why they did that. Impoverished moviegoers, foregoing an apple so they could buy a movie ticket to watch the “Upper Classes”, dressed in outfits costing the price of a car, swill “highballs” in penthouses and cavort at the Stork Club. What exactly was the appeal?

“The appeal was learning that even though these people were rich, their lives were still a shambles.”

“Okay, but they had food!

I don’t think I’d have handled the Depression very well. I’d likely have been extremely depressed. And those “rich guy” movies – with the exception of the class-detonating Marx Brothers pictures – would not have helped a bit.

All right. Enough about the money angle. It’s Complicated bugged me on other levels as well.

Such as consistency and credibility.

Oh, come on, Earl. It was just good fun.

Hold on, Italics Lady. You’re short-circuiting my argument. Before you tell me it doesn’t matter, the movie’s just entertaining fluff, would you allow me to first express my opinion on what, in my view, the movie did wrong?


(I hate when people say “Fine” when they don’t mean it, including the fabricated “Italics People” I make up to move things along.)

A couple of questions concerning It’s Complicated:

The Meryl Streep character divorced the Alex Baldwin character, and then became attracted to him again.

What changed?

All the movie showed us, as motivational justification, was that before the Meryl Streep character engaged in adulterous sex with the Alec Baldwin character (who, by the way, seemed incredibly needy), they both got really, really drunk.

Two: The Meryl Streep character demonstrated little interest in the Steve Martin character (who, by the way, seemed not all that interesting), and then she fell for him.

What changed?

All the movie showed us, as motivational justification, was that, faced with the prospect of spending time with the Steve Martin character, the Meryl Streep character got really, really stoned. And then he did. And then she did some more. After which they had a memorable evening.

I’m sorry. After getting that stoked up, a person could have a memorable evening with…. (I generally avoid “name jokes” – which are jokes that, as in this case, name a person – the prototype being Hitler – you would normally never have a memorable evening with, but because you’re doped up to the max, you do. Feel free to complete the above sentence with a “name joke” of your choice. Just not “Hitler.” The guy’s been done to death.

Okay, let’s recap. One of the Meryl Streep character’s life-changing decisions is made drunk, and another is made stoned. Is this the message of the movie? Never make a life-changing decision with a clear head?

The movie proceeds entirely on the “fluff” level, clearly uninterested in reflecting life as most people know it. Judging from their empty eyes and their (except for The Office guy) shallow characterizations, the actors, aware that they’re not playing identifiable human beings, fall back on their movie star charm and experienced actor’s “bag of tricks”, hoping it’s enough.

It is enough.

Go ahead, Italics Lady.

You are completely ignoring what “It’s Complicated” is. The movie’s a bon-bon, a delightful confection. A light-hearted farce for moviegoers who, like myself, are sick to death of thunderous explosions, anorexic leading ladies and penis jokes. Yes, the characters behave foolishly, but that’s the point. Self-delusion is not the exclusive territory of the young. Everyone makes romantically driven mistakes. What we’ve got here is a middle-aged fairy tale. Forget about your “serious” standards of “identifiable reality.” Relax and enjoy. It’s only a movie.

Fine. (Okay, I do it too sometimes.)

But I greatly prefer Pirate Radio.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"I'm Very Proud"

Here’s me, most of, bordering very closely on, all of the time.

I’m in a meeting at CBS, sitting in a conference room featuring a long, wooden table – I’m on one side, about half way down. Also present is an executive from Universal, the studio I am currently working for, there to provide moral support. The rest of the people around the table are CBS, what they call “Suits”, including the CBS president, seated, appropriately, at the head of the table. (The closer your seat designation is to the head of the table, the further up your ranking in the network hierarchy.)

I had just worked my ass off. For some reason – it may have been to save time driving back and forth to and from the network’s offices – I had decided to pitch four series ideas at a single meeting, hoping that one of them would be deemed acceptable – which is probably the real reason I did it – to increase my chances of selling something, thus staving off the possibility of rejection. In retrospect, I’m not sure it was such a brilliant strategy. CBS could have inferred from my actions that I wasn’t in love with any of the ideas, so I brought along four of them, to make up in volume what I lacked in enthusiasm.

It wasn’t true. I loved all four of those ideas. Not a surprise, since I love everything I write. Including this.

(Though sometimes I read stuff over later, and I’m not as enchanted.)

Okay, so I finish the insane undertaking of pitching, in elaborate detail, four series ideas. The president of CBS compliments me on my stamina, and goes on the record as liking three of my ideas. However – and experience has made me used to this – he says this is not the time for final decisions. The standard phrase in these cases is, “Leave it with us…” That’s what they say. They want the opportunity to have an “in house” discussion of what I’ve presented….

“…and we’ll get back to you.” That’s what they always say after, “Leave it with us.”

I then say to the president of CBS: “So you’ll call me?”

The president of CBS stifles a chuckle, indicating, “I don’t call people at your level.” The unspoken word, “Fool!” is implied. He then goes on in words, gesturing to an underling seated a considerable distance down the table:

She’ll call you.”

To which I instantly reply,

“Oh, right. That way, everybody has a job.”

The room immediately goes a little strange. Tension, mixed with embarrassment, mixed with uneasy bleats of covering laughter. I have said the wrong thing. “Wrong” because it’s true.

That’s my M.O. I say true things at inappropriate times. Such behavior makes people uncomfortable. And, as a bonus, it does nothing for me either. Nobody likes a guy who says true things at inappropriate times. They may respect him, but they generally don’t want him around.

Behavior of this nature throws a monkey wrench in the process. It punctures necessary illusions, “necessary” meaning that without those illusions, the smooth operating of the business can not proceed. “We’re all equal in show business. That’s why everyone calls each other by their first names.” It’s nonsense. We’re not all equal in show business. All you have to do to prove that’s not true is to compare the bank accounts, and how close your parking space is to your office building’s front door. Everyone knows we’re not all equal in show business, but most people accept the pretense as a normative quirk of the game we’re in. Most people. But, clearly, not all. Some people can’t let it go. They have to say something.


It’s two weekends ago. Dr. M and I have free passes to a screening of a movie that’s about to open but is not yet out. The movie’s writer/director has had a long string of successes, her target audience – an unusual one in this era – the middle-aged moviegoer. Primarily female. Whose preferred reading is the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog.

We go into the movie…

And I hate it.

I knew I would. I’ve never enjoyed any of this writer/director’s movies. I’m thinking of exploring the reason in a separate post. I’ll only say here that, to me, the writer/director’s movies feel overly superficial, and major in opulence. I have a hard time with movies showcasing characters who have everything, except happiness. (Arthur stands out as a glaring exception.) There’s something about rich people’s problems that just…I don’t care.

So I’m dying in this movie. I’m looking at my watch every ten minutes, except I’m not, because I don’t wear a watch, but if I did, I definitely would be. At one point, I actually ask Dr. M what time it is. A quick calculation reveals it’s only half over. I don’t think I can make it.

By the way, a substantial majority of the screening audience (though not Dr. M) – the majority of them women fifty or over – is eating this movie up. Another example, if I needed one – which I screamingly don’t – of my commercial myopia.

Finally, I decide to escape to the lobby and get some popcorn. I’m hoping they’ll be all out, and I’ll have to wait there, while they pop up a fresh batch.

I’m out of luck. They’ve got plenty.

As the Guy Behind The Counter scoops popcorn into a bag, a woman materializes, seemingly out of nowhere. Passing, on her way out the door, she asks me, “How’s the movie playing?” I am completely caught off guard by her speaking to me. My initial reaction is,


She asks me again. “How’s the movie playing?”

From the word “playing” in her question, “How’s the movie playing?”, I infer that the woman’s a show biz insider, possibly a studio executive attached to the film.

As a result of the inference that she’s somehow connected to the picture, I, uncharacteristically, opt for diplomacy. I do not reply,

“I came out to buy popcorn. And I don’t even want popcorn.”


“I asked my wife if she minded if I waited in the car.”


“I’m thinking of returning to the hospital and asking them to reverse my surgery.”

Instead, my response to the woman’s asking, “How’s the movie playing?” is,

“Pretty good.”

Which it was. No, it wasn’t. It was actually “playing” beautifully. The assessment dropped down to “pretty good” when I factored in my “I hate it!” response.

The woman seems satisfied with my “pretty good” report and quickly exits the building. I then turn to the Guy Behind The Counter.

“Do you know who that was?” I inquire.

“The director,” he replies.

I am completely taken aback. I had spoken to the movie’s director at a screening of her movie. It was clearly an inappropriate time to level her with the truth. And yet, to my shock, amazement and surprise

I didn’t do it.

It could be I’ve turned the corner. More likely, it was a fluke.

If she’d have asked me, “How are you enjoying the movie?”, things might have gone radically differently. To “How are you enjoying the movie?”, I might have blurted something in the order of, “I want my money back. And I didn’t even pay to get in.”

That caveat notwithstanding, the fact remains that I went head-to-head with a person of authority and I didn’t say anything wrong. And for that unexpected display of inadvertent maturity, I feel




Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"Twenty-Five (Mostly) Helpful Tips For Prospective Hospital Patients"

Over a period of nine weeks, I enjoyed two stays in the hospital, each of them lasting for four days. At some point, during my first hospital adventure – which involved the draining of some troublesome fluid (was that too graphic?) rather than any actual surgery – I put pen to notepad and jotted down some lessons I had learned, knowing there was another hospital stay in my future, and wanting to remember what I’d picked up on my first hospital visit that might be useful the second time around.

Since my two hospital stays involved two different – very different – hospitals, and the tips seemed to be applicable to both places, it occurred to me that other people might get use from them in whatever hospital they (meaning you, but I didn’t want to scare you by using the words “you” and “hospital” in the same sentence) happen to end up in. You may not end up in any hospital at all. But if you do, these tips apparently work anywhere.

My hope is that you’ll print up this list of helpful tips and suction-cup it to your refrigerator. Then, if it turns out you do need to go to the hospital, you can take the refrigerator with you.

That’s ridiculous. “Take the refrigerator with you.” That’s stupid.

You can just take the door.

Okay, maybe not all my tips are equally helpful. But, hopefully, a worthwhile number of them are.

Here now is my list of helpful hints for prospective hospital-goers (not the visitors, the patients), set down in the order that they came to me.

Hospital patients:

When packing for the hospital, bring along as many personal items as is practical. I was endlessly grateful for the companionship of my slippers.

Once you’re admitted to the hospital, be polite. Remember, you and the hospital staff? You’re in this together.

Be friendly. (Learn everybody’s name. Even the hard names. Especially the hard names. You get extra appreciation – and, more importantly, better treatment – for remembering them.)

Cooperate when you can. When there’s a “gray area” – where it could go either way – cooperate. Cooperating, however, does not mean surrendering to nonsense. At least not without a persuasive explanation.

Prioritize your needs, focusing on what you need the most right now. It’s important not to bury your most urgent needs in an extended list, including “Will you fluff my pillow?” You may end up getting your pillow fluffed up, only to have your most urgent need overlooked and not seen to.

Accept the individual differences of the people who are helping you. Don’t expect them all to be as “on top of things” as the best of them, or as unresponsive as the worst. Also, some people have no sense of humor. Respect that. When you fail to make someone laugh three times in succession, stop trying.

Be conscious at all times. That doesn’t mean don’t faint. It means, before you make a move, consider how that move will impinge upon your hurty areas, your I.V. tubes and their accompanying monitors. (If you accidentally disconnect your I.V. tube, your monitor will beep incessantly until someone comes to fix it, which sometimes could be quite a while.)

Learn from your mistakes. Here are four valuable things I learned. Never fill a paper water cup all the way to the top. It will inevitably spill on you and your bedding when you grab hold of it. And ask for ice water. Ice water stays cold longer. Oh, and when they’re drawing blood, take a deep inhale just as the needle’s going in. A strategic inhalation focuses the mind elsewhere while the pointy thing is puncturing your skin. Also, after you pee into that flimsy, plastic bottle, make sure the top is tightly snapped shut and the bottle is securely attached to the railing beside your bed. If you don’t, the bottle will flip onto the floor and the pee will spill all over the place. (Don’t ask me how I learned this.)

When all around you are treating you like a specimen, cling tightly to the awareness of who you really are. Not a specimen. You’re you. And that matters. Just don’t go overboard. Keep in mind there are more sick people in the hospital than just you, some of them even sicker than you are. (Though none are more important.)

Sometimes, it’s helpful to view what you’re going through in the third person. “Then, they sent a camera down his throat and they took pictures of his heart.” When it’s happening to an (imaginary) third person, the camera goes down a lot easier.

Resistance to an unpleasant “inevitable” (like a camera down your throat) makes the “inevitable” harder to handle. Keep your eye on the ball – the ball being your ultimate recovery – and tell every nerve cell in your body to relax. When the procedure is completed, give yourself a well-earned pat on the back. You also might want to take note that the unpleasant “inevitable” turned out to be not as unpleasant as you thought it would be.

When you’re expressing a specific concern or complaint, make sure you’re expressing it to the right person – the person who can help you with it. Telling the right thing to the wrong person is like not telling anybody at all.

When you’re confined to an institution, that institution is in complete control. This sucks sometimes, but short of writing an angry letter when you get home, or being vicious answering their “How’re we Doin’? questionnaire, there’s not a lot you can do about it.

Resist the impulse to tell your family things about your current state they don’t really need to hear. Transitory complaints will only upset them unnecessarily. Keep in mind, when you’re telling your family these things, you are also telling yourself. You don’t want to upset yourself unnecessarily either.

Never ask a question, the answer to which you are not yet prepared to hear. On the other hand, be alert to the natural tendency for avoidance. (Greater in some people than in others.) Information you may be terrified to hear may end up bringing comfort and relief, correcting inaccurate, and therefore unnecessary, concerns.

If it’s not in your nature to be positive, make an effort not to be negative. Being a hospital patient, the luxury of pessimism is no longer available to you.

“Sleep” is not a major concern in hospitals. Except to the patient. And in this case the patient is wrong. To be helped, it is necessary to be monitored, poked and “pilled” around the clock, which invariably involves waking you up (usually just as you’re falling asleep from the last time they woke you up.). If you enjoy three hours of uninterrupted sleep, that’s really all you need. It’s not like you’ll be unable to function the following day. In the hospital, “functioning” just means lying there.

Don’t expect your recovery to proceed in a straight line. Sometimes, it’s two steps forward and one step backward. Or vice versa. (I’m not sure I know what that means.)

Fear is natural. But so is a deep, relaxing breath.

However you’re feeling, it’s not going to be forever. (And I don’t mean that you’re going to die. You’re going to get better. Or die. In which case, you’re not going to feel anything. Most likely.)

You’re the patient. Let others entertain you.

Okay, that’s my list. Remember to scrupulously follow these tips. And to forgive yourself when you don’t.

Whatever you’re going through, it’s important to keep this firmly in mind:

Someday, this will all be stories.
I hope this is helpful.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"Thank You, Eddie"

I can’t depart this saga without telling you this story.

On the night of August the 19th, I found myself in serious trouble. More agitated than I’ve maybe ever been in my life, I discovered I was unable to lie down, because every time I did, I became so short of breath, I had to immediately get up again. I became so obsessed about my breathing that, for the first time ever, I borrowed a family member’s asthma inhaler and took an enormous hit. The inhaler helped. Temporarily. But I still couldn’t lie down.

At that point, I decided to go into my office and watch TV until, I believed, I was relaxed enough to fall asleep. But, as I’ve reported elsewhere, it is my view that watching TV merely appears to relax the viewer. In reality, because of its A.D.D. editing, added to many programs’ disturbing content, watching TV actually makes you more jumpy.

Passive maybe. But jumpy.

Remote in hand, I nervously flipped from channel to channel, searching for some soothing entertainment I could fall asleep to. And I couldn’t find any. Every show I turned to merely added to my anxiety. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – molested children – that’ll carry me to Slumberland. Sean Hannity, polarizing a nation through misrepresentation and distortion – there’s a lullaby for you! Reruns of House – in my condition? – Get me outta here!

I finally flip to HBO. And there’s Eddie Izzard. Performing in concert.

For those who don’t know him, Eddie Izzard is an English comedian who, tangentially –meaning it’s not the core of his comedy – dresses and makes himself up as a female. More importantly, Eddie Izzard is, to me, the greatest history teacher in the world. Blending prepared material with clearly off-the-cuff improvisation, Izzard recounts history’s most significant events in such an honest, clear and hilarious manner, it’s virtually impossible to forget the lesson he’s trying to impart.

Example: (Paraphrased, due to faulty memory.)


A British officer lands on India’s shores, planting the British flag – the Union Jack – in the ground, and claiming India as the latest addition to the British Empire. Suddenly, an indigenous Indian person steps out and asks, “What are you doing?” To which the British officer explains, “I’m claiming this country for the British Empire.” The indigenous Indian person retorts, “You can’t do that. This is our country. We’ve been here for centuries.” To which the British officer superciliously shoots back:

“Do you have a flag?”

That’s what he does.

As I watch Eddie Izzard, confidently entertaining his audience, wearing patent leather boots, a sequined dress and screaming blue eye shadow

I start to laugh

(And marvel at his artistry)

And I immediately calm down.

Thank you, Eddie Izzard. (And thank you, comedy.)

You got me through a scarily difficult night.

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Story of a Surgery - Part Five"

My chest tubes were removed, and, as a nurse named Ely had assured me, my back didn’t hurt anymore. One immediate consequence of my pain-free state were my thrice-daily prowls down the hospital corridors, strolls which began as convalescent shuffles but progressively increased in vigor and extendedness. No other patients seemed to be out there. The “walking track” was apparently all mine.

The first thing I noticed were the hospital’s formidable wall decorations – large, framed prints of classic paintings by the world’s most famous artists – Picasso, Monet, Lautrec, as well as current artists I never heard of, but they had to be big, or they wouldn’t be up there with the other guys. Had these paintings been the originals, I’d be touring the finest art museum on the planet. Fortunately, the hospital knew its priorities and invested its real money in medical equipment. Prints or no, the pictures were soul nourishing. Much better than a wall plastered with x-rays or MRI results.

During my hallway walks, I also noticed other things. Such as the large poster announcing:

“06 Days­ – No Falls.”

I immediately felt proud. My hospital had a six-day record of nobody falling. But I also felt the heavy weight of responsibility. I was from then on determined to remain upright, for myself, but more importantly, or myself, but for my team, not wanting it never be said, “We were at ‘06’, but we dropped back to ‘00’, when Earl took a tumble.”


Inexplicably, at least to me, was the fact that while the rooms were kept at normal temperature, the corridors were freezing. I was glad I had brought along my bathrobe; otherwise I would very likely have contracted pneumonia during one of my health-restoring walks.

On one walk, I noticed an attractive, female hospital worker pushing a gurney, wearing a scarf wrapped around her head. I thought that was extreme and I unsolicitedly said so:

“It’s not that cold,” I “cleverly” remarked.

The woman looked at me strangely.


And then she moved on.

After which, it came to me. The female hospital worker wasn’t cold. She was Muslim.

It was instructive to know that Open-heart Surgery hadn’t robbed me of my ability to embarrass myself in front of strangers.


At the hallway’s elbow, where it perpendiculared from one corridor to another, I noticed this room with a sign beside the door that read, “Advanced Heart Failure.” In contrast to the wall art, this sign was an unquestionable “downer.” I considered how a patient must feel, reading that sign as they were ushered into that room?

Advanced Heart Failure. That can’t be good.”

Couldn’t the hospital come up with a more encouraging room identifier? How ‘bout no sign at all? The room already had a number; the doctors could easily find it. I just couldn’t understand who was the sign was for? Certainly not the entering patients.

“Do you think reminding me I have “Advanced Heart Failure” is really going to improve my outlook?”

I’m not a doctor, but I can’t believe that sign’s doing anybody any good.


My last walk before leaving the hospital took place on October 31st. Among the “necessities” collected to take to the hospital, Anna had included a cardboard Indian headdress, boasting a “chief-sized” array of colored feathers. On that Hallowe’en morning, I proudly donned my ersatz war bonnet and went out for my walk.

What I quickly noticed was that the degree of enthusiasm for my costume varied in inverse proportion to the staff member’s status in the hospital’s hierarchy. The lower they were on the Totem Pole (sorry about that), the more they enjoyed it. Not one doctor cracked a smile. (“This is a hospital!” their reactions seemed to say. “We’re here to save lives, and make money!”) On the other hand, the orderlies ate it up.

“A chief on Hallowe’en! Oh, man!

I feared for those orderlies. They’d never move up if they refused to take my silliness seriously.


In an institution where you’re required to wear gowns that are open in the back, and no underwear, the concept of “dignity” is pretty much out the window. But, come on. There are limits.

It’s noontime, Hallowe’en Day. I’ve been told my release from the hospital was imminent. It was is now just a matter of signing some paperwork and getting a list of prescribed medicines we needed to pick up at our pharmacy. I feel beansily excited. I am already out of my hospital gown, dressed my “street clothes”, perched impatiently on the side of my bed, waiting to be sprung.

I am confident nothing can impede my liberation. I had passed what I’d been told was the determining test: Demonstrating adequate breatheability, I had successfully suspended the three balls in the air ten times in a row. It looked like clear sailing to the exit.

Not so fast.

The doctor’s assistant arrives with my paperwork, and one, highly personal, question.

“Did you poop yet?”

Incapable of doing otherwise, I tell the truth.

“I did not.”

The doctor’s assistant then tells me the truth:

“You can’t leave until you poop.”

This is the reason I hate hospitals, and all other institutions. They make the rules. I have absolutely no control. The hospital alone holds the key to my freedom. And the key is…

I have to poop.

And then tell them, or, who knows, show them, that I did.

And with that go my last remnants of dignity.

I try to handle the problem “in house.” Take care of the situation myself. But between the anesthetic for the surgery and my aggressive pain-killing regimen…

There was nobody home.

You know how in westerns, the bad guys cut the telegraph wires, so the messages can’t get through? It felt something like that.

Woe was me. I was as doomed as doomed could be. Send my mail to the hospital. I was moving in forever!

During the next forty-five minutes, I try everything that’s reputed to help. Chocolate. Coffee. Milk of Magnesia. Heated prune juice. And a procedure I will not go into, administered by a (nurse) man named Jesse whom I had only recently met.


Mission accompli.

I was officially released from the hospital.

I was wheel-chaired to the parking lot.

I got in the car.

And we headed for home.


First, and most importantly, Dr. M., who was there for me every step of the way. Followed closely by Rachel and Anna, both towers of strength, encouragement, entertainment and support.

The surgeon? Low on “people skills”, but exemplary in the skills that ultimately mattered.

The hospital and its hardworking staff? Thank you.

Family, friends and blog readers who offered good wishes and prayers? They all helped make me feel stronger facing the challenge, and less alone.

Julian, whoever you are. Thank you for fixing my mess-ups on “The Best of Earl.” The assistance of strangers. Quite a concept.

I don’t know what happened. I got sick, I got first class medical help, and now, I’m on the mend. Throughout the experience, there was just one moment of, “Why me?” And as the words flashed into my consciousness, I found myself smiling, because I knew the answer.

“Why not me?”

I plan to write two more illness-related posts. After that, I’ll return my focus to what really matters.

Writing about half-hour comedy.

Thank you all for your patience, and for sticking around. Hopefully, I’ll be here for a while.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Story of a Surgery - Part Four"

My hospital room – a private one – was surprisingly small. A few months earlier, we had visited a friend who’d had major back surgery at the same hospital, and his hospital room was huge. I don't get it. That guy couldn’t even walk!

Not only that, but on our last day, we were informed that every hospital room was supposed to include two chairs. My room only had one.

Class up, Earl-o. Millions of people have no health care whatsoever. And you’re whining about the size of your room and a shortage of chairs?

You’re right, Italics Man.

You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

I’m sorry. I won’t complain anymore.

Wait, one more thing.

They always brought the meals late. One day, my lunch wasn’t delivered till almost two. Then, as I was waiting for my butternut squash soup to cool, an orderly arrived to take me to another part of the hospital for x-rays. When I was returned to my room, I discovered – Are you ahead of me here? –

My lunch had been taken away!

Okay. Now I’m done complaining.

All right, not quite. Although I felt miraculously wonderful for a guy who’d recently had robots poking around his chest cavity, there was one exception to my total wellbeing. As a result of the procedure, my back (just west of my right shoulder blade) was giving me a lot of trouble. I had like a really crampy knot there that wouldn’t go away. I was told I’d immediately feel better once my chest tubes were removed, but it was unclear exactly when that would be. In the meantime


And “Double ‘Ow!’” when I coughed, sneezed or moved.

As I lay there, wincing in mid-to-low-upper-range-level discomfort, I was hardly bereft of hospital-dispatched companionship. A specialist came by from Occupational Therapy. A specialist dropped in from Physical Therapy. A Nutritional Therapist showed up, armed with an Internet critique of my dietary supplements. I even got a visit from “Buddy”, a volunteer dog, who, with his owner, went room-to-room and, on request, would climb onto your bed sit in your lap. (Just “Buddy”, not the owner.) I enjoyed “Buddy’s” visit, though I’m a little iffy on the hygienic implications.

The one specialist that didn’t visit?

A Massage Therapist.

The only one I wanted. The only one they didn’t provide.

Something about massages messing with your blood pressure. My blood pressure comfortably low, I would gladly have risked a few points for a relaxing massage. Anything that would get my back to unspasm and be my friend. It was really bothering me.

And then, they appeared.

Three attractive, young women, materializing out of nowhere like in Monty Python’s, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” I’d have written them off as byproducts of over-medication, but, fortunately, Anna was there with me, and she saw them too.

They called themselves “The Pain Team.” They actually did. Just like The Lone Ranger, “The Pain Team” had gotten wind of my situation and ridden to the rescue. Except instead of a guy with a mask and an Indian companion, it was two Latinas and an Asian woman wearing lab coats.

The “Team” listened to my complaints, and proposed a range of solutions. Higher dosages of my pain medication. Different pain medication. Pain medicine combinations, delivered in both pill form and I.V. drip. They also offered acupuncture, though the suggestion was offered rather tentatively. In my case, this was entirely unnecessary. When it comes to alleviating pain, I am blessedly free of cultural prejudice.

When I asked the team members if they were doctors, they informed me that they were not, mentioning instead another medical designation likely to swell their families’ bosoms with marginally less pride. Their answer triggered some concern. Not because they weren’t doctors, but because I was afraid the real doctors wouldn’t listen to them.

“Silly women, thinking they can alleviate this man’s pain. Why…(derisively chuckling, Steve Martin-style)… they’re not even doctors!

It turned out, my concerns were – as they invariably are – misguided.

The doctors totally listened. My pain regimen was adjusted, and my ouchy back immediately improved. Before my surgery, I had thought of this line: “I’ll know I’m receiving enough pain medicine when the guy in the bed beside me is smiling.” Turns out, I had a single room. But after my pain regimen had been upgraded, the walls seemed happy.

I liked my pain medicine. And I loved “The Pain Team!”

There is one negative to increasing your pain medication. Constipation. It’s a trade-off. You feel an improvement in your pain situation, but you pay the price in the back end. So to speak.

I guess I’m still not a hundred per cent. At full strength, I would never have allowed myself to go out on that.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Story of a Surgery - Part Three"

Dr. M sat in the Waiting Area, accompanied by (daughters) Rachel and Anna, and Anna’s b.f., Colby, who generously took off work to participate in the vigil. I was told that the Operating Room nurse emerged every hour, bringing updates on the procedure. “He’s doing fine.” “It’s going smoothly.” “He’s attached to the heart-lung machine.” (Yikes!) Then, at a quarter to twelve – forty-five minutes before we’d been told the surgery would be over – the surgeon himself came out and announced, “Everything's shipshape; all hands doing well.” Though not as nautically.

I spent time in the “Post-Op Room” with a lot of tubes sticking out of me, among them a “Breathing Tube.” I’d been worried about the “Breathing Tube.” I get gaggy when there’s stuff down my throat, even if it’s, like, a dinner roll. But I apparently did okay, and they soon took the tube out, after which I politely rasped, “Thank you.” (I probably didn’t, but I like to think I’m polite even when semi-comatose.)

My next stop was the “Intensive Care Unit”. When I woke up there, Dr. M and Rachel were sitting nearby. They looked happy and relieved. Or, more honestly, I think they looked happy and relieved. I don’t really know how they looked, because, before the surgery, I had relinquished my glasses, so I couldn’t actually “see” anything, which is how I wanted it, because if I could see things, I was sure I’d be concerned – read: “Ahhhhhhgh!!!” – at the sight of the tubing and I.V.’s sticking out of my body. I once touched a cactus, and afterwards, there were all these spiny things sticking out of my finger. I thought it would be like that. A human porcupine.

Apparently, one of the first things I asked after regaining consciousness was if, while performing my heart surgery, they had also straightened my (wandering) left eye. I was informed they had not, to which I was told I replied, “Fuck!” Rachel, who’s been around me for over thirty years, confessed that, during all those years, this was the first time she had ever heard me utter that word. Of course, I was kidding about the eye straightening thing. On the other hand, you know…I’m already asleep, why not give it a shot?

My first “Intensive Care” nurse (nurses switch off every twelve hours) was named Jackie. Jackie was from the Philippines. Turns out the majority of the nursing staff was from the Philippines. If, for some reason, the immigration from that country had been cut off, my hospital would have found itself so short staffed, the patients would have been relegated to treating each other.

“I’m putting in your I.V.”

“Do you know how?”

“Sort of. I watched another patient put in mine.”

With Jackie came my first test. I’m always anxious about tests, whether in school, at work, or in hospitals, especially tests you can’t prepare for. This test related to efforts to reactivate my surgery-deflated lungs. It required me, after exhaling all the way, to inhale as powerfully as I could into a tube on this toy-like plastic device, which, if inhaled into successfully, would cause three plastic balls, colored different shades of blue, to ascend up three paralleling columns. All the way to the top.

I had learned, after reading the hospital’s orientational Heart 2 Heart brochure, that, unless you could exhale all three balls to the top ten times in a row, you were not permitted to leave the hospital.

My first attempt? One ball. Half way up. I thought I heard the plastic device scoff,

“This dude’s never going home.”

Aside from a test that could change my permanent address to “Hospital”, the other worrisome issue involved sleeping. They’re doing stuff to you round the clock in hospitals, especially in “Intensive Care.” To them, the important concern is not your getting a good night’s sleep – that’s your concern – their primary focus is on keeping you from becoming dead. Their signal that you’re okay is your complaining, “Leave me alone; I’m trying to sleep.” Dead people don’t do that. They just lie there.

The morning after my surgery, the surgeon came by and removed a lot of my tubing, the exception being the tubes in my chest, which was unfortunate, because those were the ones that were giving me the most trouble. Apparently, one of the downsides of robotic surgery is that these, apparently necessary, chest tubes irritate some nearby nerves, causing your back to ache after the surgery – at a spot just inside your right shoulder blade. It’s like a discomfort-inducing knotty cramp that won’t go away. (I’ll try to go easy on the pain description. That spot in my back tightens up just by my writing about it.)

After the tube removal, I was released from “Intensive Care” and wheel-chaired to a regular “Recovery Room.” Before I was released, however, Mark (who had replaced Jackie) delivered two “Look at my face; I am very serious” instructions:

“When you get out of bed, sit on the side of it for a full minute, or you’ll get dizzy when you stand up. And, for six weeks, you are absolutely forbidden to bend down and pick up anything off the floor.”

The “side of the bed” thing was blah. I did that before I was sick. It’s natural. You get to a certain age, and when you get out of bed in the morning, you drop your feet to the floor, and you just sit there. I thought this was a personal negativity thing. “Do I really want to start another day?” But apparently it’s something real.

On the other hand, “No picking stuff off the floor?” You can’t tell me something like that. I’m Laverne and Shirley. Read me any rule, I’ll break it.

Making things worse, I happen to be a congenital “dropper.” Things fall out of my mouth, they fall out of my hands, they fall out of my pockets, and where else can they go but the floor? If I left everything I dropped in an hour just lying around, my house would look like a pigsty.

Fortunately, I have agile toes. Especially my Big Toe and The Toe Right Next To It. I am a-mazing with my toes. I can snatch up a toothpick with those babies. Sorry, deniers of evolution. There is definitely some “monkey” in me.

On the day I changed rooms, I remember gingerly lowering myself to the floor, and taking the first steps since my surgery towards the wheelchair, that would carry me to a location of diminished intensive care.

It felt pretty miraculous. I was just one day from “Open Heart Surgery” (I hate the term “Open Heart”; it sounds so Mayan.) And I was already walking.

Another sure sign that I wasn’t dead.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Story of a Surgery - Part Two"

The Waiting Area is the place where the patients and their families go after checking into the hospital. (The day of your surgery, my hospital validates your parking for the entire day. I think that’s very thoughtful. People fighting for their lives have enough on their minds without also having to worry about what it’s costing them for parking.)

The Waiting Area serves a dual purpose. People having surgery wait there before they’re called in. Then, after they go, family members and friends wait there, while their loved one is being carved up in another part of the building, thinking, “Earl was right here not long ago; now, he’s asleep somewhere and they’re playing with his heart.”

The two areas – the Waiting Area and the “playing with his heart” area – are divided by these doors. (Or maybe it’s one door, I can’t remember.) The door(s) is (are) the fundamental focal point of the Waiting Area. Through that (those) door(s) walks the hospital attendant, who announces to the patient that it’s time to go in. Through that (those) door(s) comes the operating room nurse, bringing updates on the surgery. And when it’s over, through that (those) door(s) comes the surgeon to report on how the whole thing turned out.

That’s (Those are) a really important door(s).

Dr. M and I are sitting in the Waiting Area pretending we’re not scared, when a man named Jose comes out. He reads some names off a list – I think there were four of them – one of which is mine. The four of us say goodbye to our loved ones (they get to come in later to final goodbyes, though hopefully not too final.) We then follow Jose through the door(s). It’s time to get ready for surgery.

The “pre-op” room is like a dormitory with a separate, curtained-off area for each patient, but they don’t close the curtains, at least not at first. You can see the other patients, sitting on their beds, waiting for what’s next. (I wonder if I look as nervous as they do. Probably yes.) I remember one sportily attired patient turning to me and saying, “Good luck.” I say “Good luck” back. (Or “You too.”) For the first time in, maybe, ever, the sentiment carry serious weight.

Stuff starts happening fast. A nurse arrives, with lots of questions. “When was the last time you ate?” “Did you take your medication?” “Are you currently wearing dentures?” I am introduced to a lot of people very quickly. Nurses. Assistants from various departments. I ask everyone their names. (I believe it will get me better treatment when I’m unconscious.) I remember the lead anesthesiologist’s name was Vince.

Everyone seems in an upbeat mood. Why not? They weren’t the ones getting cut open.

I remain focused and clear-headed. I know what’s coming; yet I feel almost euphoric. Which is unusual for me. I guess it takes major surgery to lift my spirits. I realize that, amidst the scary stuff, there’s something good about this. When it’s over, I’ll have a better valve than the regurgitating one I have now. Also, despite the risk – or maybe because of it – of the many way I perceive the situation, one of them is as a massive adventure.

At this point, my surgeon arrives, wearing an expensive suit – something I’d wear to synagogue on the High Holidays, if it wasn’t too hot. It seemed appropriate, I felt. It showed respect. My surgeon was worshipping at Temple Beth Medicine.

Dr. M is now at my side. It is time to give over my wedding ring, which is usually really hard to get off my finger. They need to use soapy liquid, but they finally slide it down. I think – but don’t say – “Does this mean I can date in the Operating Room?” Nervous humor. Not always appreciated. By everyone. But sometimes, I need it.

I had one thing to tell the surgeon. I’d rehearsed it ahead of time, so I’d be sure not to blow the line at “crunch time.” My last words to the surgeon are these:

“I don’t want you to be disappointed if this turns out to be really easy.”

(The night before the surgeon had called me and I’d told him, “During my surgery, I want you to pay special attention to my brain. I need it for later. Pay attention to my brain. Write it down.” I thought I heard a responsive chuckle, but I can’t be certain.)

During this “pre-op” encounter, my surgeon said something that was extremely upsetting to me. What he told me was this:

“If I can’t repair your valve, I’m giving you a pig valve.”

Why was this so upsetting? One – this was the first time he’d mentioned that he might not be able to repair my valve. Two – a valve-choosing selection (there are three different options) needs to be a joint decision, not just the surgeon’s alone. Three – had I been consulted, I would have told the surgeon that I definitely did not want a pig valve – not just because it’s a pig valve, and when I died, they could bury me in a Jewish cemetery, but my pig valve would have to stay in the lobby – but because unlike mechanical valves (my option of choice), which last a lifetime, animal-product valves have to be replaced in about fifteen years, which means having to through this entire ordeal all over again, and who the heck wants to do that? Not me. And I’d have to, unless I died before fifteen years, which is hardly a happier alternative!

Fourthly, this guy’s springing this on me this ten minutes before my surgery! (Which should really be first on my list, but I put it fourth for dramatic effect.)

At that moment, I was frickin’ furious! Except I wasn’t, because Vince, the anesthesiologist, was already juicing me with sedating medicine through my I.V. Can you imagine feeling livid and mellow at the same time? It’s the strangest combination. Like walking in shoes with no treads on the bottom. You can’t get a firm grip.

The next thing I know, I’m being wheeled down corridors to the Operating Room. On the way there, I can hear myself improvising an accompanying musical score. I don’t recall the melody, but it was part “Ooh-Ah” chorus and part, like, an Indian chant. It was very beautiful, totally resonant with the moment. If they’d have recorded it, they could have played it for everyone headed towards surgery. It might eventually have become the “Road To Surgery” theme song. I could have collected gurney royalties.

In the Operating Room, I remember sliding from the gurney onto the operating table, which appeared to be less like a table than the size and shape of an ironing board. I recall making that move, and then


I apologize for that. This is the Big Moment. The exciting climax that a story that had been unfolding over the nine previous weeks had been building to. This was the Big Payoff. The Shootout at High Noon. We’re heading the crashing crescendo.

And I can’t deliver.

Instead, my mind feels like it contains four or so hours of erased tape.

I was totally and entirely Somewhere Else. Or maybe nowhere. Disappeared in a dark and dreamless descent into…

I have absolutely no idea.

And to be honest, I wouldn’t mind knowing. This Nowhere, it was not at all an unpleasant place. If death feels like that, I would not at all mind going.

At the appropriate time. Which is, hopefully, later.

Much later.

Note: If you’re at all curious about what robot surgery looks like, type in “The Da Vinci Method” on YouTube. I didn’t look. Besides being squeamish, I don’t need to. I wuz deah poicinally.