Friday, August 31, 2007

Life is Strange, Chapter 176,341: In which A Single Cream Cheese Eating Irishman Raises Doubts about the Known and Unknown Laws of the Universe

The other day I went to my neighbor’s for a barbecue. Neighbor Dan had recently been accepted into the unfortunate school of knee injuries (where I have a masters), having blown out his ACL while playing soccer.

“I’m feeling kind of moody and I hate it,” he said when I got there, and I could totally understand. I was feeling moody too. My dog had broken my head not too long ago and had not, I felt, expressed enough contrition. At times I'd been acting downright strange.

AJ was in Newark, picking up a friend from France. It was warm and Dan and I sat in the backyard. The yard sloped down to a dry streambed and the grass was overgrown with weeds and clover save for where there was a slip and slide and, while Dan’s father cooked sausages on a grill, his father-in-law, Mark, debated whether he should head home and get his mower.

“Don’t,” said Dan. Mowing the lawn was his job.

Mark didn’t need much convincing and he sat back and lit organic cigarettes one off of the next and told terrible jokes until we were dizzy from rolling our eyes.

“How’s the pain?” I asked Dan.
“I can’t talk about pain with him here,” he said pointing at his father-in-law.

Mark recognized his cue and explained why. Five years ago he'd had a heart replacement. His old ticker, born with some congenital weakness in the old country, and then further battered by lyme disease, had wore out. He was on the transplant list for a year or so and at one am on a February night, got the call. A heart was ready, was being helicoptered up from Queens. By two am, Mark said, he was under anesthesia.

The operation was a fabulous success. Six weeks later he was back at work, driving his livery car. Five years later, he feels healthy as all get out, energy is great, and mind is absolutely clear…except for a couple things. Strange things.

First: he now dreams almost every night of Florida. Which is odd, because Mark’s never been to Florida. And every night it’s the same dream, the same place, the same hour of evening: they're packing up a house for the season, and then they’re gone.

Second: the cream cheese. Mark had barely eaten the stuff in his life, but since the operation he’s had a craving for it. In those first few months he was eating gallons of the stuff – and always, he said, with a cinnamon raisin bagel.

"I would eat it straight from the container, non-stop," he said. "And then the pickles..."
No way, I said.
“It’s all true,” seconded Dan, seeing my disbelief.

Turns out Mark’s new heart had come from a 37 year old Jewish man in Queens, dead in a car accident. Trying to get to the bottom of these new aspects of his being, he wrote a long letter to the donor’s family, in which he thanked them for his new life, his new heart, even mentioned his strange new food tastes, but they never replied. They didn’t want to know him. It’s like that sometimes.

“One time,” said Mark, “I was on driving to Church on a Sunday morning and I passed a synagogue and just had to pull inside.”
“Did you go in?” I asked.
“No. I sat in the parking lot, holding the steering wheel. It just felt right. It was like the car drove itself into that parking lot."

Later, I would come home and ask my friend Mr. Google what he thought. After some fussing, he gave up a report of a study of implantees who’d experienced deep personality changes from their new organs. An Archie Bunker-like auto factory worker who received the heart of a black teenager and began to hang out with his African-American co-workers. A thirty-ish woman who went from gay to straight. A five year old boy who, never having met them, picked out the parents of his organ donor in a crowd, climbed on their laps and said: Timmy told me to tell you he’s ok.

Mark's story has stuck in my mind. We voyage from morning to night with the assumption that reality is limited to what is measurable. Weight, volume, energy, height. In Europe they’re building a 17 mile oval underground so they can collide particles at light-speed; then they will comb the wreckage of the collusion for the atomic keyhole particle that will explain the existence of our universe. Because where, darn it, did it all come from? Who birthed the bang? I wish them all the luck in the world, this international team of underground particle colliders, but they will fail, I think, because how can any light-speed collusion explain a single cream cheese-eating Irishman? It can't.

Which leads to questions, so many questions, the beautiful kind: Such as: What if it is our seeking that separates us from the sought? Why can’t the final answer allow for mystery? What if we are using the wrong mind?

Back to the yard: Dan’s father brought out a beer for his son. A cocksure calico kitten, realizing Otis was securely leashed, lay down exactly six inches out of his reach. Mark told another dirty joke about Ronald Reagan, and then one about a hunchback in a graveyard. He lifted up his shirt and his scar was like the laces of a football.

”Cream cheese,” he said, taking a long drag off his cigarette. “I could never stand the stuff before. It’s something you’ve got to grow up eating. Sausage, potatoes, that’s what I know.”

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Raymond Carver of Cold Spring

Otis needed his bandage changed and it was raining. I tied two plastic bags over his paw, taped them with packing tape and walked to the vet.

The vet had a small storefront between the wine store and the pharmacy. The waiting room was about the size of a queen-sized bed and gray and three or four people stared at the floor. Otis whined at the scent of a dog behind a door.

“Can you please keep your dog under control please,” the receptionist said. I tightened my grip on the leash.

A young girl in a pink scrub led me into an office and we put Otis on a table. The vet came in and he was not what I expected. He was a big man with a big stomach, a white goatee, tired eyes. He looked like someone who lifted heavy things all day. He cut off Otis’ bandage.

“It’s raw skin under here,” he said. “You let it get wet.”
“Sorry. That must have happened on the way over.”
”You can’t let it get wet.”
“It’s raining.”
“You can’t let it get wet.”

I had a head injury and I was woozy from standing so long. But I didn’t tell him that. The vet squeezed powder onto the paw. With little puffs of dust, it settled in the crevices between the toes. The young girl in scrubs held the paw up for him and the vet wrapped it in bandage.

“All done,” he said.

Outside, in the small gray room, the receptionist told me what I owed.

“Eighty dollars,” I said, after she told me. “To get a bandage changed?”
“It’s your first visit,” she said.
“I know that,” I said. “But eighty dollars?”
“Yes, eighty dollars,” she said. “Because it’s your first visit.”

I walked the dogs home in the rain. And I thought, I couldn’t help but think: eighty dollars? To change a bandage? For a five minute visit. It didn’t seem right. The rain was cold. I heard later that this was the coldest August day ever in New York City. I got home and took the plastic bags off Otis’ paw, and saw that the vet had done a good job. But it didn’t look like an eighty dollar bandage.

I put my jacket on and went back out into the rain. The receptionist was still at reception. I gathered my nerve.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But it just seems like eighty dollars is a little steep, and I’d like some money back.”
“It was your first visit,” she said.
“I know that. But it still seems like a lot. He didn't check out the dog's hips or teeth or anything.”
“Wait here, you can talk to the doctor.”

Instead, I went outside and walked back and forth. I went into the wine store next door and bought a bottle of red wine and a newspaper.

Back inside the reception, I read the paper. The Yankees had lost in extra innings.

“The doctor will see you now,” the young girl in scrubs said.

I went into the treatment room and the doctor came in.

“Eighty dollars seems like a lot,” I said. “I’m not trying to be confrontational. This isn’t easy for me.”
The vet rubbed his goatee with a thick, meaty hand. “It’s your first visit,” he said.
“I have two dogs and a cat,” I said. “Is it going to be eighty dollars for the first visit for all of them? That doesn’t seem right,” I said. “I’m not a rich man.”
The doctor nodded, looked me in the eye.
“And you think I am?” he said. He waved his hand in the air, taking in the room. “You think this little animal hospital is swimming in money? You think I can treat people for free? I put 250,000 of my own money into getting this place started. I owe 30,000 a month to creditors. I have staff, loans. Rent. Rent on this place. It isn’t cheap. Who can afford this? I love my work, but I can’t do this for free.” He leaned back against the wall. “You think eighty dollars is a lot? Fine. Pay what ever you think is right. What is right? You tell me and it’s fine.”

It was quiet. He rubbed his beard.

“It’s hard times,” I said. “I haven’t had health insurance in a year.”

“Five years,” the vet said, holding up his hand. “And I have a family of four. None of us can afford it. None of us have it. My children don’t have it. Tell me what you want to pay.”

“That’s not right,” I said. “I mean, children, that should be free.”

The doctor nodded, rubbed his beard. He sighed.

“Tell me what you want to pay,” he said.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How I spent my summer vacation

…pulled out of the driveway at 5am on a foggy weekday morning, hoping to catch the mid-morning ferry from Cape Cod to Nantucket, not realizing until we arrived at the ferry port with minutes to spare that AJ had left her bag with everything in it under the stairs.

An auspicious start.

In Nantucket we had a mini Peace Corps reunion. Four of us from the inaugural group of Zambian volunteers, half of our group, were there. I hadn’t seen some of them for more than ten years.

Also there was Chris’s lovely wife Helen, who he met and married in the tiny Zambian village of Chabilikila, and their three children. It was amazing to see those kids, especially Torrence, the oldest.

I was with Chris in his village on the night he received word that Torrence had, after a difficult pregnancy, been born without complications in Lusaka, the Zambian capital. The memory of that night is branded into my brain. It figures prominently in the book so I won’t say much about it here except to say this world is strange.

We stayed up till five in the morning talking about that night, about that strangeness, about nothing in particular – whose Bemba was best (Ros), who walked barefoot the most (Chris), who got in the most fights (uh, hmm, forgot) – and after a while it was clear how all of our stories paled next to Helen’s. The rest of us are living lives that, for all their surprises, we can see reflected in the people around us. She left the rural village and everything she knew while just a teenager, and now works evening shifts at a nearby Stop-n-Shop at which fabulously wealthy and over-tanned polo-clad white folk buy imported foodstuff while gabbing into their cell phones.

What are her dormmates at Nkrumah boarding school doing now?

And I have to pause here for a moment and bow my head to a man who had to endure last month what no person should ever have to endure. May time heal your wound as much as such a wound can be healed. May this fragile planet journeying reveal to you places of solace and understanding. May you find home. You are a good man and do not deserve such a loss. No one does and any who would think it ever justified should be sent to the wars they perpetuate. Anything I can ever do, drop me a line.

Back to the trip: hugs, photos, tearful goodbyes, a fast ferry back to the mainland, a long ride up 95 to Maine with a stop in Boston. A whirlwind journey through many chapters of my past, ending, as whirlwinds often do, with a flying animal and a skull fracture.

The flying animal would be Otis. The fractured skull would be mine. The scene of the collusion was a friend’s backyard near Portland, Maine. I’m hazy on the details. I was sitting on my butt with an empty mind, chucking acorns into a bucket, when Otis decided, unasked, to demonstrate his tackling technique. Which is quite good, though I think he comes in a little high.

It felt like I imagine getting blindsided by LT feels. My ears rang like church bells. My implant flew smack into the tool shed. The world detached and hovered like a spinning Frisbee, and I do believe, for a few moments there I … I…well, I had visions, friend. Of the boundary between space and time. Of the trillion indestructible plastic bags of our culture looming up in a great wall. Of every dream that ever was turned to dust. Dust that clouded the shining truth. But oh what lovely dust! Jesus, what a fucking shot!

“You did what?” the ER Doc said. “Your dog hit you?”
“And broke your head?”
“Excuse me then, while I step outside the curtain…and laugh into my fist until tears reach my eyes.”

What followed were not easy days. Sunlight was my enemy. My balance was that of a bobblehead. The news was full of people who should know better prepping for a war at the North Pole and drowning dogs for fun.

But the vacation must go on! And so of course, two days later, Otis badly split his paw on a seashell up a beautiful Maine inlet, and after a day of bleeding all over and an unsuccessful attempt at a backyard repair, got six stitches and a plastic collar. He’s now limping around on three legs with a doleful look that neatly mirrors mine. Our cozy living room is an ICU.

“For our next vacation,” I told AJ, “we’re just going to get in the car and sit in the driveway and pretend we went somewhere.”
“And you’ll wear a helmet,” she said.
“Deal,” I agreed.

Now AJ is writing about a guy whose legal name, no lie, is LordPharaoh ImHotepAmonRa. I’m laying low until the headaches fade a bit more, but also prepping for a magic ceremony of my own devising, in which I will call on the ancestral spirits to eradicate these unnecessary injuries. Yo, spirits, let’s work it. Also, I’ll ask them if they can get me a lower rate on my Mastercard bill. To all the people who I knew back in the day and have read the NYTimes piece and have written an email, I just want to say thank you. Really, it’s been a pleasure to get back in touch with you. Also, beware of airborne dogs.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Promotional Post Number Four

Lots happening since I posted last, including a skull fracture. I was going to write about that earlier but all had to say about it was "hey, who's ringing the doorbell?" and then "ow" over and over and over. But my head's clearing and I'll post soon.

In the meantime: Outside Magazine has listed The Unheard as part of their required reading for the fall along with a book by some dude named Paul Theroux.

Monday, August 06, 2007

New York Times

Times piece is up! Big thanks to everyone who's sent a note along.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Cochbla's Greatest Hits

Cochbla (aka Cochlear Implant Blog)was started in August 2005 so friends and family could follow my and my brother Sam's Cochlear implant surgeries and our progress afterwards.

To welcome any people coming over from herewith a listing of some earlier posts.

The First Post

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Checks In

The Wisdom of Michael Jackson

I knows you been down, Foxy Brown

The Miracle of the Bush League Palate, Cleansed


Finally, here's a link to an essay I wrote about Implants and Idols for the Washington Post.


It's up!

After much feverish last minute work (pretty much all of it done by the amazing Jason Liebman) is finally up and running! We still have text to add and kinks to iron out but there's lots of interesting stuff there -- more information on the book of course, but also pictures from Zambia, links to organizations that are working with the disabled in Africa and more.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Waiting. With Frog Poster

The time between finishing a book and waiting for it to come out is a strange one. It’s a lot of different things at once. It's like watching a thunderstorm cross the sky. It’s like waiting at a lottery drawing for that giant number jumbler to spit out the winning ticket. It’s like waiting at a surprise party for the guest of honor to come through the door. Someone sighted him in the lobby, he’s on the way up, do I have time to put down my drink? Should I stand behind the curtain or crouch next to the sofa?

And you realize: life is the waiting, not the arrival. The happening doesn’t determine the quality of our lives, that’s a common misperception, but the waiting.

And can you wait without fear? Without thought of gain or loss?

And then he comes through the door, and you yell and he drops the groceries he’s carrying, eggs splattering the floor like Pollack drips.

In November, on a TV show you slip up and insult the host. You had meant to say, “I’m sorry, I missed that, can you repeat that?” but instead said, “The fuck you talking about?” The live audience stares at you aghast. “My bad,” you say, “Let’s give it another shot.” But there will be no others.

In December, you are a guest on a cable access show in Sacramento. The host wears a cowboy hat and during commercial breaks he paws your leg and asks you to come to his house for dinner. He will make his special veal.

And then in January: Success! Fame! The President gets up at his State of the Union address and says “I was going to bomb Iran and, what the fuck, a couple of the stans too, Uzbakistan, Turkistan or something, not Pakistan I’m pretty sure, but then I read this book about a deaf guy in Africa and I thought nah, better to resign immediately and kick my vice-president in the nuts.” Can you imagine the sales after that? The movie deal? Leonardo will play you in the movie and will spend the weeks before the filming commences following you around, taking notes for his part. He will carry a small flipbook pad and write down notes like “limps slightly, appears to think a swim in the Hudson is as good as a shower, drinks a lot of seltzer.” He wins the Oscar of course, and not just because the academy loves a cripple. During his acceptance speech he says “I’d like to thank –“ and just starts to hum, a low deep hum that spreads through the vast theater and through the air waves, and harmonizes the brainwaves of one billion people and their sleeping spouses who have to get up early in the morning, and in the morning, the streets outside are free of pollution and want. People hug strangers at the corners when the lights change. Dogs play come and get me and stand up and tell you you’re wonderful and the skyscrapers are purple crayons writing out love poems on the stars.

But…it probably won’t break like that, is the thing. And even if it does, how can you be so sure the ever-blooming happiness won’t be marred by the Knicks’ continuing futility? By a nagging pain in your side? What then is success?

What if it’s just the waiting?

So then, taking stock of a moment: a sweat soaked shirt, two sleepy dogs, a waning moon, a bee sting, four remotes on the near table, a goose lamp that glows from within, a good woman with a stiff neck, shiny plastic chairs, caramel ice cream, a poster of a frog.