Sunday, November 23, 2014

Between Rounds

“How are you?” the young woman at the supermarket asked me this afternoon.

I’ve heard that line several times this week—I’ve said it myself--but it sounds a little strange in light of my recent trip to the ER.

I was tempted to say, “well, I just got out of the hospital and I’ll probably be going back, and I’m dreading it. My left arm still hurts from having an IV needle stuck in it for three days and I feel tired, old, and cranky. How’s by you?”

But the cashier isn’t getting paid nearly enough to listen to my grief, so I just smiled and said, “I’m fine.”

I feel like I’ve been away for a long time. But unlike vacation, I don’t feel refreshed or relaxed; I feel drained.

I looked at the pictures I posted on Facebook of my L.A. trip and I can't help but think that it wasn’t so long ago that I was happy and healthy, no idea that one of my organs was about to go haywire on me.

I'm so emotionally fragile that I actually got teary-eyed when a nurse from my insurance company called this week to see how I was doing.

"The insurance company doesn't care about you," my auntie rightly pointed out. "They just want to make sure you don't cost them any more money."

I hate missing my gym workouts, even though I know that I obsess over the gym too much and that there are more important things to life than working up a sweat and lifting weights. But I like the routine.

Food is a big topic now that the holidays are upon us, but I’ve lost interest in eating much else beyond soup, yogurt, and bread.

When I got out of the hospital I swore I’d stuff myself like Henry the Eighth, but now my appetite seems to be hibernating--along with my social life.

"In the criminal justice system..."

I’m scheduled to see my surgeon tomorrow where we’re going to talk about the next steps. I was supposed to get a colonoscopy, but the gastro-internist wanted to wait until my guts settled down before going to work. My oxygen numbers were also a little too low for his liking, so he wants a pulmonary specialist to determine if my lungs can handle the anesthetic.

I know there are people out there who have it much worse. Richard, my former roommate at Lutheran Medical Center, is a prime example. Richard, a large West Indian man, was being treated for diabetes, which had resulted in massive swelling in his right arm.

No one came to visit Richard during my entire stay at the hospital, even though he mentioned that he had both siblings and children. I don't want to imagine what that's like, given the way my family, particularly my sister, was there for me. And the friends and family who couldn't make it were wishing me well on the phone and online.

Richard had a pronounced accent and several missing teeth so we didn’t communicate particularly well, but that was partially my fault because I was so upset at my own situation that I didn’t feel like talking.

I had elected instead to feel sorry for myself and binge watch “Law & Order” episodes to a point now that I feel like donning an overcoat and grilling murder suspects with Jerry Orbach.

However, even though I felt rotten, I could sense Richard was enjoying the program too. He wasn’t fortunate enough to have someone like my sister to pay for his TV service, so I cranked my set around so he could watch along with me. Perhaps there’s hope for me yet.

When I was discharged from the hospital, my sister came to pick me up and noticed that Richard had no telephone service. She gave him cash and even left a message for Richard’s sister in New Jersey. I was more concerned about getting the hell out of there, but the discharge process takes forever.

As we left the hospital, Richard was being loaded onto a gurney for some kind of procedure. We wished him well and Richard raised his bloated arm.

“I love you,” he said.

I thought I was hearing things, but my sister confirmed it for me. This stranger, with all his problems, said he loved us.

Thank you, Richard. I hope someone is taking care of you now so you'll be able to say "I'm fine" and mean it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nothing by Mouth

I forgot how much I hate Jell-O.

I’m back home now after a three-day stint at the hospital, where gelatin was the one of the few things I could eat—when I could eat at all.

This particular hell ride began on Thursday morning when I started feeling stomach pains. I assumed I had eaten something that disagreed with me and that whatever it was would soon pass.

I was incredibly wrong. The pain worsened over the course of the day, even though I was wolfing down Pepto-Bismol tablets by the handful.

I kept telling myself that I was okay, but my doubts grew as the agony increased. I got into bed at 11pm, but the pain was so terrible that I knew I had to do something.

Finally, I got up, dressed, and called for a car to take me down to the ER at Lutheran Medical Center.

But I was still telling myself that the doctors would give me something for my guts and send me home in a few hours. I had even planned on going to work the next day.

Clearly fortune-telling is not my strong suit.

I entered the surreal netherworld of the ER, where time has no meaning, and ushered into a small room where the doctors began performing tests.

“Is your belly always distended like this?” one physician asked when she rolled up my shirt.

“No,” I said, noting that I could barely button my pants.

As I lay there waiting for tests results, I could see a cop bringing in a handcuffed young man who looked physically fine and mentally twisted. He was taken to a booth in a distant corner where he soon began screaming “Nurse!” repeatedly at the top of his lungs.

Your Room is Ready

“Will somebody please tase this fuck?” I groaned.

No such luck. The loser, apparently angered by the number of immigrant ER staffers, began insulting them.

“You’re not American!” he roared. “You’re not American! I’m an American!”

And I’m thinking of leaving the country, thanks to you, you worthless freak.

Two young doctors came into my room and told me that, according to a CAT scan, a portion of my colon had come lose and was now blocking up my innards.

“It’s pretty serious,” one of them said.

Serious, yes; pretty? No way in hell.

The nurse set about finding me a room and, at about 6 AM on Friday morning, I finally decided to contact my aunt and sister and tell them what the hell was going on.

And I here I have to say that my two favorite ladies were absolute angels during this trying time. My sister was at the hospital every day for hours at a time, visiting with me and conferring with various hospital officials. I am such a lucky little bastard to have her in my life.

I thought about the times I had come to Lutheran Medical as a visitor during my mother’s many illnesses. And I believe the last time I was here was in 2007, when my father died.

Now I was the patient. I was the one in pajamas walking the hallways and tugging the IV stand around like a silent dance partner.

The doctors didn’t want me to eat or drink anything, so I sat in my bed with a tube down my throat sucking the gunk out of my stomach. The sign over my head—“Nothing By Mouth”—made it clear that I should not be fed.

The tube was removed on Sunday and I was allowed to finally start consuming broth, fruit juice, and yes, gelatin. I didn’t like this stuff when I was a kid, but it was a regular feast after days of starvation.

The food started making things happen in my lower regions, if you know what I mean, and I dutifully reported this activity to the nurses.

“I have all these dreams of being a famous writer,” I told my sister during one of our hallway hikes, “and now my biggest accomplishment is taking a poop.”

The head surgeon initially thought that I could go home without surgery, something that brought boundless joy to the hearts of my family and myself.

However, he later conferred with other doctors at the hospital and decided that I will have to submit to a less invasive form of surgery within the next three weeks.

I’m not happy about this, but I can’t risk suffering another attack. If this condition had flared up just a few days earlier, my fabulous California vacation would have been a disaster. For that I am very thankful.

So soon I’ll be back at the hospital, back to no food, and, ultimately, back to Jell-O. But if I can put an end to this suffering, I’ll gladly walk those halls one more time.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Worthy Endeavor

The little girl sitting behind me on the plane Tuesday night said it best as we landed at JFK.

“I want to go back to California right now!” she declared.

“Me, too,” I muttered.

Not that I’m complaining. Well, yes, of course, I am. I had no desire whatsoever to see my vacation end since I had an absolutely fabulous time visiting my Uncle Joe and his wife, Sara.

I soared to new heights on this trip, as I tracked the migration of monarch butterflies in and around Monterey, hiked around the space shuttle Endeavor, met up with some of my West Coast cousins, and, craziest of all, took part in a “Pitch Slam,” where aspiring screenwriters like yours truly sit down with producers for a five-minute rundown on what they have to offer.

I was only in LA for one night before we hit the road and headed north in search of the migrating monarchs. These amazing creatures cover thousands of miles as they make their way to their winter home.

It’s just about impossible to photograph the monarchs without special equipment and the sharpest image I got was of an injured butterfly, which is kind of a cheat I suppose, but it’s still a nice shot.

Getting a decent shot of the Endeavor proved to be difficult as well. I took some photos at the shuttle’s location in the California Science Center, but you really need to see it for yourself.

It was amazing to look up at this spacecraft and think of what it’s been through, how many miles it’s traveled. You just can’t capture that with an I-phone.

In the Slammer

And then it was time to put pleasure on hold and take care of business at the Pitch Slam. I often go through guilt trips when I go on vacation, scolding myself to stay at home and write or make a short film like I’ve been threatening to do for too many goddamn years. So I felt good taking out the time to do something for my career.

As one of the hosts explained, the slam is like speed dating for writers. I have never done anything like this before in my life and for that alone I consider the event to be a first class success.

I was very nervous at the outset of this thing—like I am at speed dating nights. And just like speed dating and other singles affairs, I was tempted to run out the door before the show even got started.

But I held firm, going from one studio rep to another. I was very nervous at first, speaking too quickly and stumbling over my words. There were close to 30 reps in the room and I wanted to bail after talking with the first three.

However, as my confidence grew, so did my desire to speak with more people, so by the end of the day, I had run through all the tables like Minnesota Fats on a billiards blast.

I was initially wary of the other writers in the room, but then I realized that we were really allies, not adversaries. Everybody in that room wanted to see their dreams come true. I met some really nice people, including an 85-year-old man on a walker. It was a real slamming day.

I saw this little ditty about advice from a butterfly. Among other things, it suggests that you let your true colors show, take yourself lightly, take time to smell the flowers, and look for the sweetness of life.

I think I accomplished those goals.

When I went to get my luggage at JFK, some guy actually hit me up for change, proving beyond a doubt that I was back in New York. I was going to tell him to get lost, but I decided to slip him a buck. Even though vacation was over, life still tasted pretty sweet to me.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Your Own Adventures

“Hey!” my neighbor’s young son shouted as I raced by his house this morning.

I turned and saw that he was pointing at his chest, proudly displaying his Spiderman costume, which came complete with rippling muscles.

“Spiderman!” he declared, making sure I had gotten the point.

“You look great!” I shouted. “Happy Halloween!”

I ran down to the corner just in time to see the back end of the 8:20 bus to Manhattan driving down Shore Road.

This was actually the second bus I missed this morning, as I had raced down to the same corner a few minutes earlier in a losing effort to catch the 8:15 bus.

I had thought catching the 8:20 would be a breeze, but then I realized I had left my lunch back on the kitchen table and I scurried back to my apartment to get it.

Missing two buses in one morning is some kind of an achievement, I supposed, but if I had gotten the earlier one, I would’ve gone to work without my lunch—turkey sausages, green peppers and kasha—and more importantly, I wouldn't have had that delightful encounter with the miniature superhero.

I did manage to finally catch the 8:25 bus and get to work on time.

I hope I make better connections tomorrow, when I am scheduled to take off for Los Angeles for a 10-day visit with my aunt and uncle. The fact that I’m flying on All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation, makes me a little queasier than usual.

This is something of an impromptu trip, as I had some leftover vacation days. I toyed with the idea of doing a “stay-cation” so I could take care of several long overdue chores around the house and with my career.

But then I recalled that I’ve done stay-cations before, starting off with all these tremendous plans only to see my to-do list turn into a to-didn’t list in record time.

In addition, I had Chinese food for dinner tonight and one of my fortunes said “it’s up to you to create your own adventures today!”

You can’t argue with that.

I’m just about all packed; I’ve got the car service coming to pick me up tomorrow morning. I stopped by Trinity Church on Wednesday to attend mass, receive Communion, and get another one of Father Mark’s fabulous pre-trip blessings.

This wonderful man put his hand on my hairless head and asked God to protect me and to bring me back to Trinity safely. I walked out of that church with tears in my eyes.

Right now I can hear the older kids on the block raising all kinds of merry hell. I don’t like to dress up, but I do enjoy Halloween as a spectator. People can be so incredibly creative and the kids—like my buddy this morning—look adorable.

As usual, I’ll have limited computer access for a while, but I will do my best to check out everybody’s blogs.

Now get out there and create your own adventures.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Uninstall

I got up early Saturday morning to do something for my health, but I wound up getting all kinds of mental.

I clicked onto YouTube to watch a video on qigong, an ancient Chinese practice that aligns the body, breath, and mind through a series of simple, relaxing exercises. I find these routines to be a nice compliment to my lunatic gym workouts.

I was on tight schedule because I had to get to the gym for a cardio kickboxing class, get cleaned up, and meet with my sister for one of our theater outings with our auntie.

So I switched onto one of my favorite qigong videos and…nothing. There was a message about updating something, but I, in my diehard digital ignorance, couldn’t make any sense out of it.

Inching ever closer to the panic button, I Googled what I thought was Adobe’s home page and downloaded a ton of misery. My homepage was promptly hijacked by some outfit that offered to clean the living crap out of my computer—for a price, of course.

I freaked, forgetting all about balance, inner harmony, mindfulness, or anything else that could’ve helped me. When it comes to any computer-related issue my mind has a tendency to roll into a fetal position and shriek, “I don’t know nothin’ about fixing no computers!

I did a qigong routine, but I was distracted and things got worse as I made my breakfast. I was angry about being unable to remove this unwanted program from my computer, annoyed that I had caused problem in the first place, and exceeding pissed that I didn’t have the time to fix it.

Thought, Word, And Deed

What if this thing is some kind of bug that’s going to get all my passwords and go hog wild with my bank account?

What’s worse is that I allowed my mind to go on yet another time travel rampage, dredging up unpleasant incidents from the past so I actually got even angrier than I already was.

I’ve said before that I’m an anger junkie and this latest incident is sad proof of that. Once again I was feeding the dark wolf.

I raced up to the gym, made my class in plenty of time, and zipped back to my house.

I had about 20 minutes before my sister came by so I calmly sat down in front of my computer, Googled up a link on how to uninstall a program, and dispatched the malicious malware in less than a minute. A third-grader could’ve done this.

If I judge myself by Western standards then I’ve failed in my attempt to remain calm under pressure—failed miserably, in fact.

But if I go a little deeper, recalling my mindfulness meditation class, then I accept the fact that there is no failure in this situation, no punishment, no shame. I just get back on my bicycle and continue down the road.

I’ve got nearly 60 years worth of malware in my brain that sorely needs to be uninstalled, but it won’t be anywhere near as easy as cleaning out the computer. It takes a conscious effort to reject old thought patterns and look at problem-solving in a new way.

I find I’m more successful when I take a more casual approach to my troubles. This happened recently in my boxing class, when I allowed stray thoughts to distract me when I should’ve been pounding on the heavy bag.

Instead of getting angry, I just gently asked myself, “what if all you had to do this world right now was hit this bag?”

And it worked. I cleared my mind, took a deep breath, whaled on that heavy bag like it owed me money.

It’s a strange little trick, but it’s beats getting all kinds of mental.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Godzilla vs. Wak Wak

Godzilla may be able to flattened Tokyo with a swish of his tail, but he proved to be no match for a pack of paper dolls.

I came to this conclusion during a recent weekend of excessive TV viewing. I had started my Saturday off by watching The Adventures of Prince Achmed that I had recorded off of Turner Classic Movies.

I knew virtually nothing about Lotte Reiniger’s 1923 silent classic except that it is one of the first full-length animated films.

I had anticipated something as visually stunning as Max Fleischer’s fabulous work, but my hopes were quickly cut to ribbons when I learned that this film “starred” a collection of black cardboard figures, which Reiniger had created with a pair of scissors and brought to life with stop motion photography.

Did I seriously really want to spend my morning watching a 91-year-old feature length shadow play? How could I possibly stay interested in such a crudely made cartoon?

How did I stay interested? Very easily, that’s how. Once Prince Achmed started I was completely caught up in the story.

Reiniger had an incredible eye for detail, so the cardboard figures become real characters. Shadow puppetry is an ancient form of storytelling and this film continues that venerable tradition.

There’s an early scene where Prince Achmed clings desperately to the back of a runaway flying horse that has been presented to him by a malevolent magician.

The horse goes higher and higher as lightning cracks through the sky and snow blows all directions. Perhaps my fear of flying was acting up, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

The story contains elements of One Thousand and One Nights and is packed with witches, wizards, demons, a beautiful princess and a climactic battle between good and evil in the enchanted land of Wak Wak.

From the technology side, the film is incredibly dated and simplistic. But it has a sense of magic and wonder that is sadly lacking in most modern movies.

The Shadow Knows

This point was heavily underscored later that evening, when I returned home after dinner with some friends and decided to use a freebie coupon that Time Warner had sent to me for being such a good customer and upstanding human being.

I was entitled to watch any pay-for-view movie, so I chose with the latest version of Godzilla, which stars Bryan Cranston, one of my favorite actors.

Yeah, I know, but it was Saturday night, I was tired, stuffed, and looking for some enjoyable junk cinema. I’m a huge fan of the original film, 1954’s Gojira and I thought I’d get a kick out of the remake.

I was wrong.

The film starts off well enough, with some suspenseful scenes, but it quickly runs out of the little energy it has. Despite all the special effects and explosions, I could barely watch the thing and I finally fell asleep during the climactic monster mash. And it didn’t bother me in the least.

Perhaps I would’ve been a little more forgiving if I hadn’t seen Prince Achmed that morning, but I couldn’t help marveling at how this $160 million aspiring epic had so thoroughly failed to move me.

Those of you who haven’t seen Godzilla yet should know that neither Cranston nor the King of All Monsters have much screen time.

Instead we watch whole cities being destroyed as two drab-looking Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) prepare to get jiggy and cover the earth with scores of mean little mini-MUTO mothers.

I truly believe that director Gareth Edwards is a skilled filmmaker, and I’ve heard great things about his low-budget 2010 feature, Monsters, but I would like to see him work on something more substantial.

While Prince Achmed is literally a handmade work of art, Godzilla is an act on commerce, a prefab blockbuster designed to hit all the right notes and pulled in monstrous mounds of money.

I see that there are plans for Godzilla 2, which is hardly a surprise as studios search for the next big franchise.

Good luck with that, but I would much rather take another wild flight to the land of Wak Wak.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Busman’s Holiday

When I was a Cub Scout so many years ago, we used to sing this little ditty as we returned home from our daytrips in honor of the bus driver who had made the outing possible.

Three cheers for the bus driver,” we'd all sing, “he’s fat and he’s jolly and built like a trolley…

I supposed that bit about being fat would be considered offensive today, but we said it with love and I don’t think “morbidly obese and jolly” makes for a particularly nice song.

This tune came climbing out of a dark corner of my memory recently when I thought about this fabulous driver who used to work on the X27 line that I take to and from work.

Ride the Express Bus long enough and you start recognizing the various drivers. This particular fellow stands out because he is just so damn nice.

I believe his name is Mike, and if isn’t, well, Mike will just have to do, won’t it? The great thing about Mike is that he makes you feel like you’re entering his home rather than climbing aboard a bus.

“Hello, my friend,” he said to me one night. “Good to see you!”

Can you believe that--a New York City bus driver giving someone that kind of greeting? I was tempted to look out the window to make sure I hadn’t been transported from the concrete canyons of New York to Main Street in Mayberry.

“Thank you,” he said, as I dunked my Metrocard into the slot, like I was doing him a favor by paying my fare.

One of Mike’s regular passengers got on behind me and greeted him with a wisecrack.

“Ugh!” my fellow rider said. “If I knew it was you I would’ve taken another bus!”

Mike just laughed and headed down Broadway. And he was able to maintain this incredibly cheerful attitude as he drove through the manic streets of Manhattan. He rarely uses the horn, I’ve never heard him yell, and he keeps his cool in the middle of rush hour traffic.

God, if only someone could bottle this man’s patience and cheerful disposition. I’d buy a busload of the stuff.

I think of how I lose my temper so quickly at work. My job may not be easy, but it doesn’t begin to compare with what Mike must deal with on a daily basis.

All’s Fare

The way the freaks in this town drive it’s a wonder he doesn’t go from Mike to Mad Max and run people off the road.

A few weeks have gone by and I haven’t seen Mike. I figured he was working a different shift and that I’d run into him sooner or later.

And then one night last week I was talking to a man who rides the X28, which goes out to Bensonhurst. This gentleman told me had gotten on an earlier bus, paid his fare, but then got off when he saw a woman sitting outside a building on Broadway with a baby in her arms.

“I told the driver to wait,” he said. “I was going to give that woman some money. I went over to her and when I turned around the bus was gone.”

“He drove off after you paid your fare?” I asked.

“Yes!”
Okay, now that just plain sucks. This man’s reward for an act of extreme kindness was to get chiseled out of six bucks and a ride home.

He said he'd get on the next X28, tell the driver his story, and ask to ride without paying an additional fare.

I didn’t say anything, but I wasn’t hopeful. You meet some great drivers on these buses, of course, but there are the occasional asshats who switch off their brains and refuse to give you an ounce of help.

And usually you meet these slugs at the worst possible moment--like now.

A few minutes later an X28 pulls in, the kind man gets on board and who do I see behind the wheel but marvelous Mike himself.

I saw the gentleman explaining himself to Mike and, without hesitating in the slightest, Mike waved him to a seat.

Aunt Bee, is dinner ready?

I signaled to Mike and pointed to his new route, demanding in pantomime to know why he had deserted his X27 fans. Mike smiled and shrugged, gave us all a wave and drove off. And my day suddenly got much better.

Role models can come at you at any moment and from any walk of life and Mike has some incredible qualities that I want to emulate. He proves that you can have a heart and still survive in the big city.

So three cheers for the bus driver and thanks for the great ride.