Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Familiarity breeds… Boredom? Anxiety? Disdain? How about night terrors?

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

A shadowy figure broke into my house, into my room, into my dreams. In that way dreams have of telling us what’s going on I knew he was a burglar but he didn’t seem interested in burgling anything. All he did was cut me. Over and over he cut me: slices to my ears, stabs on my face, cuts to my arms and hands… painful small cuts, the kind that, added up to 10,000, cause death. Oh, those cuts. They hurt. I screamed.

The scream woke me up. I shuddered, shook my head at the horror of the nightmare and fell back into sleep – and  back into the dream.

The cutting man was still there. Not a gloater, he was nothing like Hollywood Evil. Just a man with a grim task to do. His knife looked like a scalpel, blood ran from my cuts. Why was he doing this? Why didn’t I fight back? If he was the thief the dream insisted he was, why didn’t he just take something and go? (more…)

I could never go through what you’re going through…”

Monday, January 10th, 2011

I’ve heard this comment from friends and family and even strangers for five years now and it always makes me uncomfortable. Something’s off with it; somehow the sentiment just doesn’t ring true.

Thanks to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – I’m carrying out my vow to re-read this magnificent and complicated book – I’m learning why the remark causes such unease. I think I understand how the words do not say what they are meant to say.

It’s meant to be a kindness, even a salute. “I don’t know how you do it! I couldn’t,” someone will say to those of us fighting chronic illness or life-or-death health battles. Our treatments, our pain, the unending doctor visits and hospitalizations – they seem unendurable, impossible to someone looking at it all from the healthy “outside”. (more…)

Why nothing works.
Part 1: Let’s save the park!

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

An outbreak of community activism has turned into a crash seminar in why absolutely nothing gets done in America any more.

I’ve become involved with a group trying to keep a large, “unactivated” chunk of San Francisco’s McLaren Park from being strip-mined into a disc golf course. I have doubts as to how successful the group will be – read on to see why – but the cause is just and true: McLaren Park is an oasis of wildness in a densely urban environment, the last bit of city land untouched by developers, planners, and others who consider unbulldozed real estate “wasted”.

Disc golf, for those not in the know (and I sure wasn’t),  is one of those fake sports made up by bored post-pubescent males. Expensive frisbees, edges honed and hardened like an axehead, are thrown from coffin-sized chunks of concrete called “tees” at chain-link baskets on five foot poles called “holes”. Put 18 tees and holes together and you have a “course” consuming dozens of acres. Add beer and bongs to the discs whizzing by at 50 mph and you can clear a park of trees, picnickers, birds, meadows, hikers and dogs in no time. The city allowed a course in Golden Gate Park a few years ago. Today the area looks like an active Marine Corps training ground.

Park aficionados are very upset with this plan and not just for the obvious reasons. The decision to install the course was taken by the Grand Poo-Bahs of S.F.’s Recreation and Parks Department (affectionately known as “Wreck-Park”) without notifying anybody who actually uses the park – a big no-no here on the Left Coast, especially in this city.


Missing Magic Mountain (no, not the theme park)

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Lots of 19th century “innovations” are gone for good reason: horse-drawn wagons, the Saturday bath, walking across continents, surgery without anesthesia… novelties like these are lamented by no one except history buffs and masochists.

But one 19th century institution missing from our world is a true loss: the health retreat. Back in the day they were called sanatoriums: resorts set up for the “improvement or maintenance of health, especially for convalescents.” Today the  idea of withdrawing from life to recover a bit health is so odd that most people, hearing the word “sanatorium” translate it as “nut house.”

My oh-so-slow recovery from my latest medical travail makes me long for this old tradition.

I ache to check out of my life for a time and into another, one where meals are prepared and laundry is done and my duties consist of napping, reading, and taking long walks through woods and meadows. (more…)

anemia [uh-nee-mee-uh]

Monday, March 15th, 2010


1. Pathology. a quantitative deficiency of the hemoglobin, often accompanied by a reduced number of red blood cells and causing pallor, weakness, and breathlessness.

2. a lack of power, vigor, vitality, or colorfulness: His writing suffers from anemia…

Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrroad trip!!!

The car is tuned. It’s got new tires and is loaded down with jackets and maps and food for doggie and me and of course my camera and the tripod I always take and hardly ever use. The back seat’s converted into Otto’s Command Center so da pooch can survey the world from the comfort of his traveling bed. And we are driving down Highway 101 through the ridiculously green hills of an El Nino winter California listening to Roseanne Cash and Michelle Shocked on our way south to visit family and friends…

That’s what was supposed to happen. (more…)

About all that health stuff…

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

I’ve got this deal going – in my head anyway – with the Three Fates. The Greeks called them Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, and they spin out, measure, and in the end cut the thread of our lives. We are literally in their hands.

My deal is, I get to stay alive for some unspecified number of moments after the liver cancer and transplant. I get to be conscious, occasionally functional, and once in a while I even get to thrive. I also get to experience each and every sensation of a body running down its weave.

I’ve started and not finished a dozen posts on my health trials of the past year. One did refer to my struggle last summer just to learn that I’ve comedown two impossible–for-a-transplantee autoimmune diseases, but that’s it. I feel guilt for not having posted more. (more…)

Coastal California’s seasons explained

Friday, January 8th, 2010

I just posted this picture on Flickr. I took it yesterday in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park after a visit to UCSF Medical Center. The morning was misty and cold, the grass and trees a delightful winter green.

Winter green?

DSC_0093 walk in GGPark copy

Many other flickr photographers (from the Northern Hemisphere anyway) are posting pictures of ice storms, whiteouts, buried snow plows, and barren windswept fields. And here come the Californians showing snapshots of green.

California’s coastal winterscapes can drive the ice-bound crazy. Once again we’re seen as Violating All The Rules and Just Not Making Any Sense. But there is a logic to our seasons, even if it’s obscure. It helps to remember that the planet’s largest heat-sink (aka the Pacific Ocean) is just to our left.

So as a service for those who just don’t get all this green, here’s a short guide to our seasons.


Every hillside is green. A ridiculous, Irish/New Zealand green. So green your eyes hurt looking at it, especially when the sun shines. Green? In the land of perpetual drought? (more…)

Earth 2.0

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

I saw the movie 2012 Sunday. No better way to get your mind off your own problems than to watch a big, messy Hollywood disaster flick where pretty much everybody’s fate is worse than yours.

2012 is exactly like every movie catastrophe you’ve ever seen: an estranged family fights for survival and the meaning of “family”; do-gooders shriek justice and compassion while everybody else panics and stabs each other in the back; heroic rescues give the audience – and the characters stuck in the mess – something to cheer. Bad guys get called-for comeuppance and sacred institutions (religious and secular) are reduced to richly deserved rubble.

Oh, and of course L.A. is destroyed. Again. Poor L.A.; no other city comes close to suffering as much cinematically as the womb of the entertainment industry. Kinda makes you wonder about the folks who run it…

There’s a lie in 2012’s marketing though, and I’m not talking about the bogus science. The movie isn’t really about the end of the world. It’s about the earth – more to the point us, humans – getting a chance at a makeover.

Sure, a good three-fourths of us are knocked off. “Civilization As We Know It” ends. Continents realign, the poles shift (to Wisconsin?), tsunamis scour half the land mass, and on. But by film’s end Things Stabilize and A New Dawn arrives – literally.

In other words, the earth – remaining humans included – gets an upgrade: a chance at a reboot to version 2.0.

And isn’t that exactly what all of us really want?

Our planet’s a mess. We’ve overpopulated it like rats on a sinking ship. We’re running out of resources, we’re only still eating because of hideous meat factories and genetic tricks made to our crops. To keep folks from thinking about all this education’s been turned into pop-culture quizzes and we’ve made a religion out of shopping.

But way down in our limbic brains we all know we’ve fucked up and hell’s to pay. Doesn’t matter who we blame – ourselves, our neighbors, those people over there, the rich, our gods or saints or sinners or politicians or just the roll of the dice – we know we all contributed and we’re all screwed.

Probably the biggest laugh in all the buzz around 2012 is the guilt some critics mention of rooting for John Cuzak et al while 6 billion other earthlings are being offed. Get real, critics! No one laments those people. Too bad about them, we tell ourselves, but when the apocalypse comes we know we’re with the elect. We will survive. This certainty isn’t just in our religions; it’s in our DNA.

What are movies like 2012 really about? What do we really want?

Another chance. And that’s what we want.

What we want is to toss away everything we’ve screwed up – in this case the whole damn world and everybody (else) in it – toss it all out like last year’s iPod and upgrade to the next version. Something newer, something trendier. More intelligent. Something like Earth, 2.0.

And we want more: we want something to force us to act, to do the right thing. Something like the realignment of the earth’s crust in 2012, say. Heaven knows we can’t do it on our own initiative: we can’t even agree whether Arctic ice is melting or if we should choose paper over plastic. Somebody – mommy? Are you there, mommy? – has to make us.

What a movie like 2012 offers is something to force us to act.

There’s another post-disaster movie out right now, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve read the book. Bleak, gray, filled with cannibals and hopelessness, strewn with wreckage, it offers no beginning to the catastrophe and no end. There are no shiny arks of salvation, no secret cooperation among nations. Just forage, disease and death.

The Road’s apocalypse is much more likely than 2012’s.

Which is why 2012 is packing the theatres and The Road will disappear in a week.

Who wants to fix problems when you can just upgrade and reboot?

health (s)care 1: The debate we’re having is not about health care

Monday, September 14th, 2009

I’ve been working on a few thoughts re: the healthcare “debate” we’re having in the U.S. from my perspective as a “professional consumer” of same. I didn’t plan to write this, though.

I have been seething at the treatment President Obama received addressing Congress about healthcare last Wednesday. The disrespect shown him – not just by Addison Graves Wilson of South Carolina, aka. “Joe the Heckler” but by the entire Republican caucus – was nauseating. Almost to a person, these “statesmen and women” of the opposition heckled the President waving sheafs of paper, petulantly pouted, booed and catcalled, and shot him endless hate-filled sneers worthy of a pissed-off 8 year old. One congressman even walked out for benefit of the cameras. It was disgusting.

Their venom has nothing to do with healthcare. It has everything to do with race.

Like the birth certificate flap that entertained us through the Summer, Spring’s anti-stimulus “tea parties” and pretty much every other pseudo-conflict stirred up since Obama’s election, the racial subtext of the health care “debate” is blatant.

Some people cannot abide having an intelligent, thoughtful black man in the Oval Office.

Finally someone with a pulpit has put the obvious out front and center. Maureen Dowd titled her column in yesterday’s New York Times Boy Oh, Boy, putting the missing word back into Wilson’s shout out, as in “You lie, boy!” Think about it for a nanosecond and you know she’s right. The old racist code word for black men was loud and clear.

Now, read carefully: no, not everyone who disagrees with Obama’s health care plans is a racist. Reasonable people have fiscal objections to government-run health care, philosophical objections, objections about his approach, and there are all sorts of worries about what change might do to our precarious status quo.

Are you hearing those people? No.

You’re hearing a U.S. senator boast how he’ll destroy Obama’s presidency by destroying his health care bill. You hear Master Wilson’s “liar liar” and how it’s netted him over 700 grand for re-election. You’re hearing Lindsey Graham – the so-called “reasonable” South Carolina senator – and a gaggle of other legislators calling the President a disaster.

And as always when politicians blow hard at the bottom of the barrel, they stir up muck.

Look at pictures from last week’s “tea parties”. Read the signs. You don’t need a psychic to see the real point of the protests. Obama is a “Fascist Muslim Communist!” (Will someone please tell me how anybody can be all those things at once?) Another shows Bin Laden passing the terrorist baton to Obama. Some of these fine patriots even put Obama’s picture in a pile of horse manure and took each other’s pictures standing in it. That’s a debate?

Death panels, granny-killers, black-on-white racism, a senator (Inhofe of Oklahoma this time) grandly proclaiming “I refuse to read the [healthcare] bill and I’m proud to vote against it!” Guns at town halls. Radio talk – serious – of killing the President. And anybody who has any kind of rational argument for, against, or middling on the actual issue of health care is a terrorist supporting a terrorist.

Don’t agree? Don’t think it’s racism, just strong opinions about a contentious issue? Take a look these photos from the first “tea parties” in April, set up to protest the stimulus package: “Obama’s plan: White slavery.” “The American taxpayers are the Jews for Obama’s ovens.” You look at the rest. I don’t have the stomach. The racial subtext has been front and center for the opposition from the moment Obama was elected.

The Obama presidency has brought out the best and the worst in America. So many of us have a quiet pride in our nation taking such a significant step last November, including many who disagree with him and didn’t vote for him. But at the other bottom of that barrel are those so incensed by his election they welcome him as termites welcome an exterminator. They cannot abide – abide! This! New! World!

Racism is the venom in the veins of America. It’s time to get it out – to call it out – before it kills us.

This “debate” disgusts me. And it has nothing to do with health care.

On Seeing

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. –Georgia O’keeffe

I saw a man on a street corner staring up with such intent he seemed to be studying for an important exam. I think he was.

In his hand was a camera, a Canon EOS, and the objects of his analysis were the powerlines overhead. Or he was noting the angles and shadows of the rooftops on the buildings nearby. Or perhaps it was the textures of the gray clouds left by our last small storm that fascinated. If his exam was an advanced one, he was considering all three.

The man was in the midst of what I’ve come to call the seeing – the act of poring over something, point by point, detail by detail, trying to figure out what is there. What is really there, not the small and disconnected bits we register in our day-to-day and then claim – foolishly – we’ve actually seen something.