Friday, July 31, 2009

Blogging will resume

Blogging will resume as soon as I am out of a hospital bed.

Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, July 26, 2009


It's 9:30 a.m., and I'm at Bonjour drinking my last coffee of the day. At noon or thereabouts I start the "bowel preparation" phase of my laparoscopic myomectomy. I've met with the surgeon twice and with a nurse practitioner, pre-registered, filled out all the paperwork (I hope, because it was left a little vague), and filled four prescriptions. Now comes the hard part—a part I didn't learn about until the second appointment with the surgeon, although perhaps I should have guessed. Since with age I'm trying to hone my philosophical approach and attitude, if this proves to be as unpleasant as many have hinted I'll try to see it as a prelude to the colonoscopy that's sure to be in my future.

There's something I've been reading that puts a day on GoLytely/GaviLyte into perspective. At age 45, Nabby, the daughter of John Adams, underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer without anesthesia. It took longer to dress the wound than to inflict it. As author David McCullough notes in John Adams, her suffering is inconceivable. Four years later, she traveled 300 miles in 15 days so she could be with John and Abigail. Emaciated, she had to be carried indoors, where the only comfort modern medicine could provide was opium. When she died three weeks later, Adams was saddened by her loss, yet relieved at her release. Her calm stoicism impressed all who witnessed it.

Suddenly, the discomforts required by 21st-century medical practice seem as nothing, and my anxieties, like life, are as dust in the eternal wind.

Addendum: If you want to know the effects of four liters of GoLytely/GaviLyte solution, imagine how it might feel to forcefully evacuate the contents of Lake Michigan every two to five minutes for several hours. Feels so good.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dream: My dinner with Dracula

I was called indoors to a family dinner, which I could not miss. I found myself looking up dozens or hundreds of feet at a doorway to a castle. There was no way I could get in that way, but I had to hurry.

I looked for someone to help me. In a dungeon I found what I believed to be the man in charge, who would assist me only if I paid him. I couldn’t. He was poorly dressed for an authority figure, and I mistrusted him and his demands for money.

Next I came across a better-dressed man who really was the manager. He agreed to help me into the upper part of the castle, but then he disappeared.

As I wandered the dungeon, I discovered an enormous bed, much larger than a king-sized bed, that was old fashioned in design and coverings. It flashed upon me that it covered a tomb where a vampire slept—the vampire who was at dinner waiting for me.

I looked up to see that the high doorway had appeared in the midst of nowhere, with the vampire standing in it, beckoning to me. I was terrified but felt compelled to follow even though I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. The vampire and the doorway nowhere mystified, horrified, and paralyzed me.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"Your grandfather's moon shot"

Given the Apollo anniversary, a timely repost from 28 November 2005:

A friend and I saw the Omnimax film Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon narrated by Tom Hanks. The beginning and ending sandwich premise is overdone, butt the middle is wonderfully evocative of the era in which I grew up—the era of the Apollo missions.

To my parents, the Apollo missions were major events, and I remember watching at least a few of them. It didn't matter that much of the television footage was of the launcher on the pad or of the men at Mission Control monitoring grey, flickering screens. We didn't want to miss the critical moment: "10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . 7 . . . 6 . . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . liftoff! We have liftoff!" We sat on the edge of our seats at home and counted along with Mission Control, trying not to get ahead in our excitement and impatience.

Liftoff, that fiery, roaring, thunderous, glowing moment that the television of the day could not do justice to, always signaled the beginning of a letdown to me. There was so much buildup to that emotionally intense moment—and then it was over. The craft would get smaller and smaller, and after the last of the launcher broke away, I felt a sense of both completion and anticlimax.

Even when Neil Armstrong took his first historic steps on the lunar surface, I didn't feel the same sense of relief, accomplishment, and pride that I think many if not most adults did. I was simply too young to understand. Countdowns and liftoffs made sense to my single-digit mind; the historical significance and the national sense of pride did not. Now I can look back and appreciate what I was privileged to witness—a daring experiment that millions of us simultaneously viewed and discussed, each launch an event that brought together people of all politics, faiths, ages, and avocations for "one brief shining moment," glued to our television sets (some of which were still black and white!).

I watched the launch of the first shuttle, but emotionally it wasn't the same experience. The space program had come under scrutiny, many wanted to cut or eliminate the expense, many didn't understand the benefits, the battle with the Soviets had changed, and I was older and perhaps a bit jaded. Maybe we all were.

I was at work when the Challenger exploded; like everyone else, I was stunned as I saw the footage replayed again and again on the news. But I wonder, at that time of day, how many people were watching the launch, how many had planned their day around it, how many would have talked of it for days afterward had it been successful, that is, a routine launch. By then, the sense of wonder had passed, and sending astronauts into space had become so commonplace that all of us began taking it for granted.

At the beginning of Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon, several children are asked to name any of the Apollo astronauts. They can't (although they come up with some amusing current cultural references). As James Loewen notes in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, even the most recent history can be the first forgotten. Once, Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon inspired generations of viewers. Now, even NASA itself seems determined to downplay the achievements of the Apollo crews and to undermine our memories of wonder, just as the countdown to the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 should be beginning. The following is from NASA's Web site:

"Before the end of the next decade, NASA astronauts will again explore the surface of the moon. And this time, we're going to stay, building outposts and paving the way for eventual journeys to Mars and beyond. There are echoes of the iconic images of the past, but it won't be your grandfather's moon shot."

There's nothing wrong with "your grandfather's moon shot." There had never been anything like it before for Americans, and may not be again for a very long time. It was a moment that helped to define us, as World War II defined my father's generation. Rather than downplaying Apollo in their marketing hype, NASA should be reveling in it, taking full advantage of its remarkable emotive and historical power to excite us about future exploration. (Note to NASA: "Building outposts" isn't exactly the most compelling goal or prose imaginable. Take a lesson from Armstrong.)

Let's never allow space or space travel to become ordinary, or NASA to transform it into another dull commodity. "Out there" may be our last repository of mystery and awe.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fair(e) fight

At Bristol Renaissance Faire on Saturday, J. and I came upon these two combatants. The objective is to be the first to pop the balloon on the helmet of your opponent. The smaller of this pairing appeared to be two to four inches shorter than the larger, who, we thought, would win in short order (so to speak). To our surprise, the tiny knight not only was the victor in both duels we watched, but he won them relatively quickly by taking an active, aggressive approach to the bigger but more defensive knight, whose strategy seemed to be to hold his sword up as much as possible to protect the balloon—unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

The match over, they removed their borrowed armor and gear—which is when we realized, to our great surprise and bemusement, that the wee winner was a little girl, and the defeated enemy apparently her older brother. Now that I see the photo I notice the girlish white flip flops. Neither the boy nor the girl spoke, but he seemed ready to move on to the next amusement, while the girl couldn't wipe the ear-to-ear smirk off her face. Truly a Kodak moment I hope she remembers forever.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Milton Ehre, 1933–2009

A measure of age and experience, or simply the passage of time, is how many people we've known who are no more. When you're young, death is extraordinary, but as you age it is expected. Every generation sees it leaders, scientists, thinkers, artists, and celebrities pass out of existence and even sometimes forgotten (I’ve been asked who Clark Gable was by those who had no reason to know). While millions mourn the untimely death of Michael Jackson, I turn to the less surprising passing of Milton Ehre, University of Chicago professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literatures.

Like the late Wayne Booth and Ned Rosenheim, Mr. Ehre was one of a handful of professors who made a strong impression on me, yet of most of those I have only a specific memory or two. Saturday night at Wildfire J. recalled something his father had said at dinner years ago, and I realized how vague all my memories are. I don't remember details or conversations, only sensations and feelings.

Mr. Ehre's name, with its resonance with "millionaire," made some of my classmates titter quietly. He probably knew it and was amused by it. From what I understand, he was no ivory-tower academic, nor were his classes easy. Any pre-med hopeful who thought Mr. Ehre's or Mr. Rosenheim's classes were going to be a free pass to a good grade must have wished they'd pursued something less demanding, like Shakespeare or Anglo-Saxon literature.

I must have liked Mr. Ehre's teaching style because I found myself in more than one of his classes. His beard made me think of him as a human Ursa Minor—a diminutive bear of a man.

Except that he talked funny.

I came from what had to have been the whitest of white-bread towns, where almost everyone I knew from school had the unremarkable flat accent of the western New Yorker. Some parents, displaced by World War II and its ravages, spoke with European accents, but most of us with our dominant British, Polish, German, and Italian ancestries, looked and sounded as vanilla as the ice cream at Dairy Queen. My first few weeks at the small university in the big city, where I met Sikhs, Jamaicans, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans—and New Yorkers. That's right, people with the truly alien accents of Brooklyn and Queens.

I don’t know exactly where Mr. Ehre was from, but it almost had to have been somewhere in New York City. His appearance, his accent, his mannerisms gave him a character every bit as colorful to me as the impression left by turbans and salsa parties.

With Mr. Ehre as professor, I expanded my literary repertoire beyond the safe confines of the British Victorians and the American storytellers. After completing Literature and Society in Modern Russia (1860–1914), a history department class which at first I left with an incomplete, then a B, Russian and Soviet history and even Baba Yaga seemed to make more sense. It was as exotic a world to me as the Japan of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which I no longer recall (time for some re-reading?).

Of Mr. Ehre, of whom my memories are so vague, I can say only, “He was a man, take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dream: The candy store

I was semi-awake for what seemed like a long time, having a featureless dream that resolved into my university campus. On one of its main streets I came across a candy store, which made me sad. How could a candy store, which I associated with little children from a bygone time, survive on such a campus?

In the twilight, I peered into the display window and saw a candy snowman with a permanently sad candy face. The sight broke my heart, but I was distracted when I noticed a child knocking on the door. She wanted to get in not for the candy but to play with the little girl I now noticed in the closed store. Her African-American mother, perhaps the owner, sat nearby in a rocking chair and didn't seem to notice the visitor or the knocking. In a cradle lay a baby with an enormous cartoon head and lots of red hair, like Little Orphan Annie. The inexpressible candy suffering on the face of the candy snowman and the disturbing surreal appearance of the baby, combined with what I felt had to be the inevitable failure of the store, upset me and made me wish I had not seen it.

Yesterday I'd read some articles about senior executives and a few middle managers being laid off, although it was claimed in all cases that the reasons were not financial. I must not believe it. While this recession is different and not as evident as the Great Depression with its lines of hollow-eyed, stony-faced workers, somehow I sense that we can't hide it, or hide from it, forever.

We are the snowman in the window, exposed.

Friday, July 3, 2009

We back the bid and you can too [sic]

I first noticed this proclamation displayed prominently in the building across the street, the pillars of which had been painted in colors complimentary to the logo, then in my building, then seemingly everywhere downtown. This ubiquitous display of Olympic love, it turns out, had been carefully orchestrated to coincide with a visit by the International Olympic Committee.

Who is the "we"? I wondered.

The answer to that in this case is no mystery—every business that needs to stay in the plus column of Mayor Richard M. Daley's ledger. When Da Mare's cruising, you want to make sure you, your business, and your building conform to his mantra, even if you personally pay your taxes in Naperville or don't care one way or the other. It's the wise thing to do.

I live in Chicago, I care, and those signs don't speak for me. I am not part of the universal "we."

I don't back the bid. I don't think I'm alone.

I'm sure many Chicagoans and suburbanites crave the excitement, prestige, and economic stimulus it's claimed that the Olympics would bring to Chicago. I don't. I also don't desire the long-term disfigurement of places like Jackson and Washington Parks for the sake of a two-week event whose benefits are debatable.

I'm jaded enough to wonder if Daley, during whose reign the classic Soldier Field was transformed into a futuristic glass toilet bowl where the regular folks are huddled together on one side of the field while the wealthy and influential take the other, envisions the Olympics as the capstone of his legacy. Perhaps he has Chicago's best interests at heart, at least when they coincide with his.

Rootless, I've remained emotionally detached from Chicago, even as I approach my 30th year here. I missed the regime of the first Mayor Daley and have never been interested in the Machine, whether yesterday's powerhouse or today's more sophisticated and streamlined version. But a recent incident in Hyde Park is a measure of how I feel about the government of the city that works. A local restaurant was shut down by city inspectors for not having the right kind of Dumpster, or for having an outdated one. J. and I had the same thought: "Sorry, we gotta shut ya down until ya get the right kind of Dumpster. Say. I gotta card here of a guy who sells the kind of Dumpster ya need, the kind in the city ordinance. He'll fix ya up good. He's the mayor's [insert relationship here]."

That's how the city of big shoulders works. And that's part of why "we" back the bid, although no one asked us, just like they didn't ask us if we wanted the runways at Meigs Field rendered useless by enormous Xs gouged into them late on a Sunday night. That's just the way it is in "My Kind of Town." The mayor’s way or the highway.

So, no offense, but I hope I don't see you in 2016, unless you're here for the zoo, the aquarium, the planetarium, the museums, the parks, the universities, or the professional sports —all things that Chicagoans are and should be proud of.

2016 would be my 37th year here.