We’re a family of cultural chameleons, hopping from ethnic branch to branch and sticking out like an NBA first draft pick at, well, pretty much anywhere. And by the way: if you know me, you realize how painful it was to make a sports analogy just then. I got a little pinprick right behind my left eye. Might be some sort of aneurism; let me go and check it out.
Ok, I’m back. Brain still working? Can I type? Wae feiak lajwoi fdaiw. Just kidding. Where am I? Oh, yes.
A bit o’ the short ‘n’ pithy: We live in a supposed cultural melting pot, but the cultures don’t melt. America is less a cheese fondue than a vinaigrette. Stop shaking the bottle and we all separate.
Case in point: I took Ben on Sunday to a Dim Sum restaurant in South San Francisco. Great big place with “Palace” in the name and terrific Yelp ratings. On the inside, it was opulent, cavernous and lit by incredibly bright and flat fluorescent lights. There were no shadows anywhere, just like Beijing when it’s full of smog (which is, apparently, 100% of the time). Home, crowded home. We had a great meal amid about a thousand other diners, most of whom spoke Chinese, and the rest of whom appeared to be close relatives of people who speak Chinese. We were the only roundeyes in the room. As I said, great meal. You know you’re having good Chinese food when you can’t understand a word anybody says.
Unless you’re at a deaf school. Their Chinese food is lame.
After we left our excellent Dim Sum lunch, we went to the grocery across the street, a good Latin American market full of south of the border awesomeness (that is to say, south of the Canadian border. There’s no shortage of good Mexican food ’round here). There, nearly everyone spoke Spanish. The rest of them appeared to be close relatives of people who speak Spanish. We were the only gringos in the room. This was just across the street, mind you. Plenty of Chinese diners probably needed to pick up some lemons on the way home, but none of them were stopping by the Latin American grocery store. And plenty of Hispanics on Grand Ave, but apparently none of them eat Dim Sum.
To cultural chameleons it happens all the time. Back in Texas B.C. (Before Children) we had yearly season tickets to the TITAS cultural events at SMU. Lots of wonderful concerts, dance events, and the like. Marci and I went to see Tito Puente with my BIL and SIL (Brother-In-Law And Sister-In-Law. Let’s just call them BASIL and be done with it). Anyway, we were at SMU for TITUS in the BC with BASIL. Clear?
Awesome event. I’m so glad I got to see Tito Puente bring down the house while he was still alive. Now that he’s dead, his concerts are nothing to write home about, but back then, man oh man! He had us dancing in the aisles. Couple thousand other people too. But again: we were the only gringos in the room. Hey, what’s up? Tito Puente, Oye Como Va. Who wouldn’t dig that?
A month later, we went on the same concert series to see Sweet Honey In the Rock. Beautiful a capella harmonies, great and soulful. Very spiritual, uplifting, fun. And us? We were the only crackers in the room. Or should I say crackah? Maybe that’s less offensive to, uh, myself. Where were all the otha crackas?
Same concert series: The Klezmatics. Funky Klezmer music. And we were the only Yids in the house. No, just kidding. It was Hebrew Central, one of few times outside the walls of a synagogue where “Hello, Rabbi!” is something you might find yourself saying more than once in an evening. But no African-Americans in sight. And no Hispanics. And no Chinese. Just like there were no Hispanics in sight at Sweet Honey In The Rock, and no black people at Kodo Drummers, and no Asians hearing Buena Vista Social Club because they were all having lunch with us at Lucky Empress Jade Palace.
But here’s the thing: being a social chameleon doesn’t mean squat. Doesn’t mean I’m enlightened in the least. As you can tell. Doesn’t mean I’m racially balanced. Surely not. If I was, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed who was around me in the first place. Maybe I wouldn’t have written this story. Maybe it wouldn’t strike me as odd that almost everyone around me at the symphony was light skinned, and almost everybody at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles was dark skinned. And as an aside, if you’re in L.A., there are few things better than a warm plate of chicken and waffles. I kid you not.
Walk down the streets of San Francisco and you’ll see a bit of everybody. Sometimes quite literally. Hey, fella, put a towel over it! It’s not just economics: everyone goes to see basketball. Even, occasionally, me. Everyone eats (except anorexics. They get eaten). But look for Asians in a Taqueria, or Hispanics eating Dim Sum. Go have Indian food, then look for those same faces at a sushi restaurant.
Life’s too short. Why do we put ourselves in little ghettos for the parts of life that really bring us to life?
Or, “How I Spent My Vacation”
Warning: unpleasantness follows, as well as an exploration of my propensity for sharing too much personal information.
The battlefield was a rank and muddy pit that emptied into a sewer lined with the churning machinery of war. Day and night in endless darkness, the blind and stinking machines ground into pulp anything that came within reach. At the end of their deadly production line, the Sentinel stood in readiness, watching over the outer gates. Each arriving package from the front was fully examined, classified, regulated. The machinery of the sewers was deaf, dumb and blind, but the Sentinel had its own way of sizing up danger. It never slept; it never missed.
Down the sluices came a gurgling mess, heading straight for the gates. The Sentinel seized up, its fist clenched tight.
“NONE SHALL PASS!”
At all other times, this message was enough: the machinery would pause, the gates locked tight. The Sentinel would set aside the most dangerous material until receiving final release orders, passing through the gates only those noxious vapors produced by the machinery of war. But not this time.
“NONE SHALL PASS!” The fist clenched tight, the gates shut—but immediately alarm klaxons howled and air raid sirens blasted at full bore throughout the entire battlefield. “FIRE IN THE HOLE!! FIRE IN THE HOLE!!!”
And I awoke with a cry that, translated from the Groanish, was this:
“OH MY GOD! MY ASS IS ON FIRE! MY—ASS—IS—ON—FIIIIIIRE!!!”
* * * * *
Sharon K. had a similar surgery, and succinctly previewed it for me over the phone:
“You’ll be fine. It’s…okay.”
“Really?” I felt a brief glimmer, a tiny forlorn little hope beam, which Sharon promptly extinguished.
“Umm, no. Not really. I’m lying. I’d rather have five more children than go through that again.”
So now I’m sitting in bed, with a pain in my fundament that is apparently on par with giving birth to six children. Where’s my damn epidural? Pass the Vicodin, please. Gimme that Oxycodone.
* * * * *
My brother, Greg, says that now that I’ve got less of an asshole, perhaps I’ll be less of…but I don’t think it works that way. People with enlarged hearts don’t become more generous, do they?
Here’s how it works, medically speaking. And I’m a doctor*, so I should know:
The Sentinel, or Anal Sphincter, is a ring of muscle around the butthole (a non-technical term for a largely unidirectional passageway) whose primary function is to regulate Outflow. (Other directional uses are beyond this discussion.) The Sphincter is an Intelligent, or Magical Muscle, able to distinguish between solids, liquids and gas. Thank goodness.
*Ok, I’m not a doctor. I know several doctors, but let them write their own damn blogs. Or at least comment on mine, the lazy bastards.
As an aside—in a blog posting that’s nothing but asides—or is that butt asides?—I have a vision from my third grade past: Ben K., Tom D. and I were carefully researching the naughtiest terms we knew. Greenhill School had an enormous dictionary, hard-bound in fabric-covered board dyed a blandly institutional beige, so large and heavy it required its own wooden pedestal taller than ourselves, like some religious lectern for the world’s most alphabetical sermon. We balanced atop a stool to look up “fart,” and I shall never forget the precise dictionary definition printed therein:
A small explosion from between the legs.
The Sphincter is connected to a section of brain tissue known as the Posterior Posterior Lobe, which is found in the buttocks. The Posterior Posterior Lobe is generally used for Lower functions, though in some people, notably Radio Personalities, Bloggers and YouTube commentators, this Secondary Brain regulates written and verbal speech.
This Sphincter forms a part of the Autonomic Nervous Under-System (or ANUS), and has no connection to the olfactory or auditory systems of the Higher Brain. Thus the Anal Sphincter allows flatus at inopportune moments: alone on high-rise elevators just before being joined by a group of swimwear models, or during a loud and energetic group conversation whose sudden and inexplicable lull is broken by an ill-timed thunderclap.
* * * * *
Day Two, post Hemorrhoidectomy:
Let’s all share intimate details, shall we? Removal of internal and external hemorrhoids. Thank goodness for general anesthesia, but Yowsa! That’s some impressive discomfort! Somebody hook the IV back up, already. Did you know that you clench your sphincter muscle in your sleep? I never knew that before. Found out last night, about every hour or so. It’s like having a pineapple covered in hot sauce shoved up your rear with a rubber mallet. Hey, don’t pretend you’ve never done it.
Not looking forward to having to void my bowels. Hopefully that can wait, oh, say a week or two. Maybe three.
Ok, back to the Percocet*. Maximum dose every four hours takes the edge off—but only barely. Frankly, I can’t see why people would abuse this stuff. Maybe it has more of an effect if you’re not already in pain.
* Just kidding. Been on a maximum dose the whole time I’ve been writing this post. Can you tell?
But to end on a serious note: my wife has had cancer twice. Several friends have had it, and some have it now. As an adult, there’s a huge difference between painful and scary. I’ll take painful any day over scary.
Couple rows up from me on a crowded plane, a plum-faced baby possessed by Linda Blair squalls in a croaking imitation of The Exorcist, its rubbery arms flailing like an octopus under a sashimi knife. The tyke’s parents avoid eye contact from everyone on the plane including each other, and desperately play it cool. But the reddened tips of their ears tell a different story, and I know, because I’ve Been There. Some animals kill their young.
I just smile to myself and remember. My kids are terrific travelers. But It Wasn’t Always That Way.
Mid-June of 2003. Moving day. We were taken to DFW airport to fly to northern California, the Bay Area, our new home. The weather was typical Dallas in summer: hot as a hell hound hopped up on Habaneros, dry as a saucer of toasted dust. A three and a half hour plane ride to 72 degree daytime highs sounded just fine.
My older son and I were reading the fifth Harry Potter book together. Order of the Phoenix had just gone on sale that day, and the airport was a surreal blue sea of identical book jackets. There were more Harry Potter hardcovers at the airport than bibles at a north Dallas Baptodome. Young or old, pre-teen, pilot or priest: every nose was buried deep in a copy of that book.
Aboard the plane, my wife, our younger son and my mother had adjacent seats. Several rows behind them I sat with our seven-year-old, our bodies bent together in a lopsided A-frame as I read aloud to him and completely shut out the outside world. The continued cries of a toddler broke harmlessly against our cone of silence, successfully ignored in favor of Hogwarts. That is, until my mother suddenly appeared in the aisle.
“I think your wife would like me to trade places with you. Now.” I tore myself away from our book and saw Marci’s fuzzy hair sticking up over the back of her seat, like Bride of Frankenstein after getting zapped by lightning. Was that the foot of our 18-month old son sticking up through her tangle like a fleshy hair pick? Best get up there, I thought, and I reluctantly traded places with my mom.
But I was an accomplished father, and strode up the narrow aisle confidently. As I approached, the wailing grew louder. Marci’s panicked face turned up toward mine. “I can’t get him to stop crying!”
My internal monologue called out, I’ll save you! Clearly, the boy just needed to move around. I took crying little Geran for a walk through the plane. Nothing doing. He let his legs go limp and I ended up just dragging him through aisle like some troglodyte pulling a carcass into the cave. Though this carcass was screaming his guts out like I’d dislocated his shoulder.
I tried bouncing him on my knee. Giving him some milk. Tickling him. Talking soothingly. These had about the same effect on baby Geran as a mosquito standing at the mouth of a howitzer would have on the trajectory of the shell, and left me feeling quite sympathetic to mosquitos in general. Geran kept crying, nonstop. I don’t think he peed the entire flight—any liquid we poured into him came streaming out of his eyes and nose.
Meanwhile, Kishka the cat, the focus of our pre-flight concerns, had remained quiet. ”How’s the cat?” I asked Marci, raising my voice above the level of Geran’s hollering.
“She hasn’t made a sound,” she said. “Been asleep the whole flight.” Kishka was in a box under Marci’s seat, stoned on kitty sedatives.
“Do you think we could…?”
“No!” My wife gave a small laugh, just this side of hysteria, as Geran’s crying intensified. “I wish we could. No, we couldn’t possibly. Could we?” That’s how desperate we were at this point, sitting there avoiding eye contact with everyone else on the plane and contemplating giving cat sedatives to our infant son.
We were saved from the ruin and trauma of poisoning our child by the mere fact of having used up the last of the cat sedatives at the start of the flight. And the flight attendants refused to fill Geran’s baby bottle with red wine. So we gave up. We put the squirming, squalling little guy on the floor beneath his seat with a selection of small toys, hoping he would amuse himself into quieting down.
“Look, Geran! A toy! A little motorcycle! A plastic hamburger! Look, it’s My Little Pony! A rattle—want a rattle? How about a rubber duck? Take the damn duck, already!”
Now, remember he was only 18 months old at this point, and pre-verbal by quite a while. So imagine the next two-point-five seconds in slow motion Instant Replay:
Geran hauls his chubby body off the floor and vaults into his seat like a tiny Sumo-shaped pommel horse Olympian. The momentum propels him up the back of his chair like a champion pole vaulter. It’s the wind-up: he pinwheels his right arm in mid-air and in world-class shot-put style, hurls a plastic toy motorcycle with incredible force and aim over the back of the seat. The small, yellow, two-wheeled projectile cuts through the air with a blurred wake that leaves a small clap of thunder. The toy smacks into the forehead of the middle-aged Asian woman sitting just behind us, knocking her senseless, cross-eyed and thankfully too dazed to bring a lawsuit.
“That’s it!” I cried, grabbing my son by the back of his cotton one-piece. “You have lost all privileges as a human being!” I flipped him around, overpowered his surprisingly muscular contortions, and manhandled him into his car seat, where I buckled his five-point harness and cinced him in so tight it was amazing he could even draw breath.
And yet, he managed. Oh, how that child could draw breath, like Superman blowing out a raging fire in a Metropolis office tower. Geran let loose with a banshee screech of such staggering intensity it blew the hair off my forearms and caused the plane to lurch. And he didn’t stop. His face turned so red I thought his head would pop off, but he wailed so loudly and constantly he must have been drawing air in through his butt in a constant loop, like an air-raid siren warning that we were under attack.
As far away as ten aisles in front of us, frowning women and men turned in their seats and stared back to glare at the Bad Parents. Marci sank down and put her hand over her face in shame, but I just couldn’t take it anymore. I unbuckled my seatbelt, stood up and raised my hands in surrender, crying out to the plane for all to hear:
“It’s my fault! I’m the bad father! I made him! I admit it! He’s mine, you hear me? He’s–MINE!”
I sat down, exhausted. Row after row of knowing parents and experienced travelers nodded their heads in satisfaction and returned to their newly-minted hardbacks of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Not another word was said. Within minutes, Geran wore himself out and passed out in his safety seat, to sleep peacefully for the rest of the flight.
And when we landed in San Francisco, he awoke and smiled, and cooed and burbled and waved joyfully to everyone as I held him up to my shoulder. He blew bubble kisses to all as we passed up the aisle, and when we reached the flight attendant at the front of the plane, she said, “My, what a happy little boy! Why, he’s just an angel! An angel!”
And he was.
Someday I’ll write My Lesion Of Honor. In the meantime, file this one under More Stories About Surgery.
As I recall, our firstborn was a few years old, and very curious. That is to say, he was filled with curiosity, in addition to being strange and unusual. The two of us were outdoors at a family Sukkot celebration, and the then-little guy was asking questions like, “Where is God?”
And I was answering in your standard “God is everywhere” form, because that’s what you do. Benny would point to various places and ask if that’s where God was, and I’d say, “You betcha. God’s there, too. Yes, God is behind those bushes. Yep, those bushes, too. And in that car. Sky? Sure thing. In the building? Sure.”
He pointed to his head. “Is God in here?”
“Uh, yeah. God’s in there as well.” Apparently my answers were incomplete, as he later concluded that if God was everywhere, God may as well be nowhere, and in that case why was I making him go to Sunday school? Anyway, about this time I started feeling pain in my abdomen, which intensified to the point at which I was smiling at friends through my gritted teeth and heading to the car. I rationalized it away as an allergy to questions about God. Either that, or God was also in my abdomen and really, really wanted out.
When we got home, I remember Marci opening the door for us. I remember the look on her face as she saw me get out of the car slowly, as bent over as a pipe cleaner in a hurricane. She was instantly concerned. “Are you okay?”
“No.” Notice the monosyllable there? It’s not particularly characteristic of me.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?”
Now, I should point out that this is not something that Marci normally says, and of course its not something that I would normally answer in the affirmative. So it’s quite revealing of my level of discomfort when I answered, “I might.”
While I moaned in bed she was able to reach the good Dr. B, who asked me several questions and made the quite correct diagnosis of acute appendicitis. Shortly thereafter I was in the operating room, having my appendix out laparoscopically, which means that the doctor stuck three oversized soda straws into my belly and sucked the inflamed organ out without having to slice me open. This is, of course, much preferable to the old method, which was to cut the patient in half laterally with a band saw, remove the swollen appendix with a Hoover vacuum and a pair of tin snips, stuff the wound with straw and then collect the deceased’s insurance.
So the appendix was retrieved just before it burst open like a microwaved hot dog. We had the useless and swollen sac bronzed, and now I use it as a bludgeon against opponents twice my age and half my size. Or: we buried it in the back yard and it grew into a tree that blooms clusters of Addendums every spring. Actually, I donated it to the Masai, who turned it into a coin purse and sold it to the Smithsonian as a cultural artifact.
The surgery was on Monday morning. I spent a few days unable to straighten from the fetal position, rigid and semi-colonic (in the punctuation sense. Not sure what other sense semi-colonic could be, other than nonsense). Then I took off Friday with Marci, Sharon and Ben to go camping in the Ouachita Mountains between Oklahoma and Arkansas.
“Wha??” you say. And well you migh. Makes no sense, but there you have it. Surgery on Monday, tent camping on Friday. To be fair, my companions had to do the heavy lifting and set up the gear, but by Sunday we were hiking through the wooded hills of western Arkansas. I was no longer comma-shaped, and, if not upright as an inverted Mexican exclamation point, at least I stood straighter than a parenthesis.