Author, teacher, father of seven, really swell guy. I'm a professor at Boston University, where I teach courses in literary journalism, the history of journalism and the history of rock'n'roll [taught for the Department of History].
I used to think dreams were our doorway into the next world. I thought that because after my father died, he kept coming to me in dreams.
I remember once in a dream, we were walking and suddenly he stopped. I asked if he was coming with me. He said, “No, I stay here.”
Then I woke up.
I just woke from a different kind of dream. As it was coming to its conclusion, I found myself in a gas station that a couple was converting into some kind of restaurant. There were tarps between the bays in the old garage and the woman in the couple — an extremely friendly person, eager to talk and easy on the eye — kept me company while I waited.
I didn’t know what I was waiting for until Merle Haggard walked up. I was surprised by what a small man he was. I towered over him — something that just doesn’t happen to those of us of supremely average height.
He was thirsting to talk though and I was so pleased because it’s so rare that you get to tell an artist — especially one who is dead — how much their work means to you. We talked about various songs and their composition and some of his performing stories.
I talked about my daughter Mary, who works in the music business, and what an odd strangely-scheduled life it is. He began talking about the inspiration for some of his songs, and he couldn’t make it through reciting the lyrics to “(Mama’s) Hungry Eyes,” without sobbing.
We were both heaving, unable to speak because of our crying. Then I told him how much I enjoyed that album of his called “Let Me Tell You About a Song,” that came out in 1972. Each song was prefaced by its origin story. That album was my gateway drug to Merle. The songs I remember from that album spoke for racial tolerance and justice.
Talking about those songs, Merle collapsed again and I helped him up and he composed himself. After a bit, we dried our eyes and decided we needed to go our separate ways. I hugged him and told him I loved him and he smiled and said it’d been a pleasure.
I go out front of the former gas station and start walking west, toward the sun. It is blinding me, but I see a caravan of three cars heading my direction, going too fast. Next to the third car is a boy riding a bicycle, banging on the window outside the back passenger seat. I look inside the car — as best I can, considering the blinding sun — and see six riders, three in each row, stoic, looking straight-ahead, ignoring the boy. I jump back on the curb just before the kid would have run me over, and keep walking.
Behind me I hear a crash and turn in time to see one of the cars sailing through the air, and into another construction site across the street. I turn around and run to the crashed car nearest to me and pry open the door. The passengers are as before — steadfastly stoic, not at all upset by the crash. Still, I pull them from the car one by one. No sign of the boy on the bicycle.
I get the six people into the former gas station, for the accident has occurred right in front of the place, and ask the woman half of the couple of help me get water for the crash victims. I get each of them settled in one of the former car-service bays where I had been opening my heart and soul to Merle (and vice versa) just moments before.
I need to go find the other two cars and take care of those passengers. Just then a stretch pulls up in front of the station, driven by my former girlfriend Lisa — a woman I dated more than 20 years ago and haven’t seen since. I tell her what happened and she immediately parks the car and gets out to help. We find the six people in the second car, but they are wedged in too tightly to easily remove, so we bring them cups of water until we can free them.
I’d begun losing weight on the run-up to gastric surgery. The change
in my controversial girth was noticeable and it was remarkably easy to
maintain the pre-op diet. I saw light at tunnel’s end.
You can do anything if you know it’s going to end soon. So I quickly
developed a taste for protein bars and spoke at length on the virtues of
one brand over another. God, I must’ve bored the shit out of people.
I cut back on the beer and, although my diet was far from being a
well-balanced ideal, it was helping with the goal: reducing my bulk, so
there was less of me on the operating table.
After the surgery, I left the hospital and had the most splendiferous
recovery of any of my multitude of medical procedures. The weight fell
off in regular intervals. Within four months, I was buying significantly
smaller pants — down eight inches. The wall in the kitchen where I
measure family height showed another change. I appeared to be getting
taller by an inch or two. I suppose it was a change in posture brought
on by not carrying additional weight.
There was another possible bodily change about which I was curious.
I’d always struggled with weight. At one point, still in my twenties
and living in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I joined Weight Watchers. There
were about 85 regular members at the meetings and aside from me, only
That male was an unusual bloke. Feeling outnumbered, we developed a
habit of sitting together. He was like a character in a John Updike
story. Like the protagonist in Updike’s novel A Month of Sundays,
this fellow — Milton was his name, if memory serves — was a pastor who
ministered to the women of his flock in secret and carnal ways.
He was much heavier than me and was in a long struggle with his body.
I would estimate that when I knew him, he was circling 300 pounds,
about ready to land. He’d been in Weight Watchers longer than me and had
already lost sixty.
We shared a table and talked about our different lives. I was a young
married professor with a new baby at home. He was a single, randy
member of the clergy. This is when he bragged, under his breath, about
his many physical and spiritual conquests.
“Have you noticed,” he asked, his eyes darting around the room to see
if any of the women were in earshot, “that for every twenty pounds you
lose, you gain an inch of your manhood?” The way he studied me from
under his eyebrows told me that this was his main motivation for weight
I lost about forty pounds during that Weight Watchers stretch. After gastric surgery, I lost 85 pounds and unfortunately can neither confirm nor deny that in either case the horny pastor’s speculation on genitilia was accurate.
I think about him now and then and wonder if he’s still alive, or if
he was discovered by the husbands of his flock and summarily plucked.
Despite that relative disappointment, I had no complaints about other
changes in my body. I’d often overcompensated by purchasing too-large
clothes, even when I was at my biggest. I now floated in my garments and
began to enjoy buying smaller shirts, going from an XXL in some clothes
down to an L, and — in one shirt at least — an M.
The body changes helped my sleep apnea. Soon, I not only set aside my
C-PAP machine, but I began sleeping straight through the night.
The hernia too seemed to go away.
The knee was another story. I wasn’t carrying as much weight, so the
walking was easier. But Dr. Ghushe said two out of three wasn’t bad and
that I should see an orthopedist. I did and we tried cortisone shots and
physical therapy, with little result.
My mother had left me some cash that she wanted me to use to travel. “Take the boys on a trip,” she told me in one of her lucid moments near the end. “Take a real vacation. Show them the world.”
So two years out from my cancer summer, I arranged for a driving trip through Scotland, England and Ireland. It was a lovely and precious time with the boys. It was life-defining in a lot of ways — and perhaps the subject of a different story. Nothing conveys “I love you” as effectively as a road trip. It’s a nice way of saying, Hey, I love you so much that I want to spend a whole month confined with you in a hurtling piece of machinery. Man, was it great.
But when I came back from traipsing over Europe on two bum knees, I decided that I had to do something. I felt too good to feel so bad. We tried further treatments for several months, then decided we could no longer put off the inevitable.
I scheduled replacement surgery for my right knee in mid-August the
year after the European adventure. The week before surgery, I took the
boys to Washington, DC — again with the show-them-the-world mantra — and
was in horrifying pain from walking. Hiking through the National Zoo, I
felt so awful that being heaved to the hyenas would have been a relief.
I was glad to finally have my knee replacement scheduled. I had to go
to a lot of classes, watch videos about the surgery and be able to
explain the process to civilians. They really wanted me to know what I
was getting into.
That was the plan. I would be out of the hospital after two days,
with Jack as my live-in caretaker and visiting nurses to help with
But the moment I came out of the anesthetic, I could tell something
was wrong. Though he’d been dead forty years, I could hear my father the
surgeon speaking to me: “There’s no such thing as routine surgery.” Every time you introduce anesthetic into your body, dad always said, you’re risking your life.
When I woke in the hospital, I had an odd sensation in that place
that was of greatest concern to that carnal pastor from years before.
It’s as if it was gone.
When I complained of numbness — something I’d never felt before in
that region — following surgery, the nurse said it might be a reaction
to the anesthetic.
A day later, everything was fine, except there, down in the valley. Still numb, it seemed that things just weren’t working.
I was sent home catheterized, since I was not functioning on my own.
Physical therapy nurses kept showing up at the house, but they were
not conversant with catheters. Jack occupied my mind with endless
episodes of The Simpsons — he wanted me to watch all thirty-plus seasons in sequence — and generally fetching things that needed fetching.
Finally, a catheter nurse showed up and removed the catheter. Still,
not everything seemed right. In the middle of the night, unable to go, I
called the nursing service. A nurse came over at three in the morning
and hooked me up again. After the struggle to urinate for a couple of
days, the catheter was a relief. A few days later, it was taken out
again and a day later needed to be replaced. It was a merry-go-round of
Soon it was time for Jack to go back to his mother’s. School was
starting. I needed to get back to work soon but wondered how that would
be possible with this tube and its attendant bag. (A bag — again!)
That’s when the Lost Weekend descended. I still had the catheter and
was unable to stay awake. I retired to my room and went into another
dimension, one absent of sight and sound but fecund with nightmares and
bleached souls of memory.
I writhed in bed with the cold sweats. I woke up once because my son
Charley was at my bedside, with his mother standing in the doorway. Was I all right? Did I feel OK? Did I need anything?
Oh no, I babbled. I’m fine. I’m all right.
They left. The next thing I remember: opening my eyes, and seeing my daughter Sarah there. This was the baby from all those years before, in my days with the carnal pastor.
Sarah was a grown woman now and she’d come in from New York. Nicole, standing behind her that night, had picked her up at the airport.
Apparently, by that point, I’d been in bed two full days.
“Dad, are you all right?”
“I’m fine, fine. You didn’t have to come.”
“You don’t look fine.”
I was clammy with sweat, my T-shirt stuck to my body. My face was covered in droplets.
“I’m good,” I said. “Don’t worry about me.”
Pause. “I think you need to go to the emergency room.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m all right. I have my checkup with the knee doctor tomorrow. I’ll talk to her.”
It was around that time that all hell broke loose. To describe it
accurately would trigger a lifetime of terrifying dreams for you.
Suffice it to say that it involved the part of my body affected by
cancer and from that orifice suddenly burst strange rodents and mythical
beasts in a Biblical torrent, all to a Wagnerian soundtrack. On the
sheets, on the floors, utterly without concern for shame or modesty or
any attempt at human control.
I hoped that no one would notice, but of course that was impossible,
as the foul waste unrelentingly spewed forth. I set about cleaning my
wreckage and staggered naked into my shower stall, to cleanse. I was
still unsteady from the surgery and slipped in the shower. I then saw
myself from above. I’d become an Escher drawing: a different part of my
body filled each corner of the square stall and I could not move.
Befouled, doomed by the evils of geometry, it took the pulling and
tugging of strong young Jack McKeen to extricate me from that tiled
By this time, Sarah and Nicole had disposed of all of the bed
coverings — there was no possibility of salvation — and Nicole had
cleaned the floor and was mopping it with bleach.
I was pretty sure that I had ripped open my knee incisions when I
fell, but no blood gushed from that joint. I got into some pajamas and
got all parties to agree that I would re-examine my situation the next
day after meeting with the orthopedic surgeon.
I promised. Before admitting defeat at the hands of my uncooperative body, I wanted to talk to the doctor.
Sarah said she would sleep in Charley’s room, across the hall from me. Assured, Nicole took the boys and went home.
I got out of bed every ten minutes, attempted urination, failed, returned to bed.
Sarah[from the doorway] : Dad? Are you all right?
Me: I’m fine, don’t worry, I’m fine.
In the morning, I struggled — at 16 revolutions per minute — to get dressed and prepare for the doctor’s visit.
It was a long night, which is like saying black is dark.
Sarah backed out my car and I stood at the open passenger-side door,
reading her the address of the orthopedist’s office so she could plug it
into the car’s GPS.
Then I was again — suddenly and without provocation — visited by the
strange rodents and mythical beasts, which streamed down the pants leg
of my jeans, onto the asphalt, and into my shoes.
“Oh, Jesus, Sarah,” I gasped. I staggered into the garage. “I’m so
sorry.” The rodents finished their revolting journey in the darkness,
while she stood by the car in the blinding sunlight.
I called to her, giving her the name of the doctor, and she looked up
the number, calling the office them from the sanctity of the driveway,
cancelling the appointment.
Meanwhile, I extricated myself from my loathsome clothing in the
garage, thanking God that there were rags and bath towels on a shelf
there. I tossed everything in the garbage, wrapped myself in a towel and
told Sarah that I would go through the house, take a shower upstairs,
then meet in the family room.
I envisioned an afternoon of sloth and recovery. When I got
downstairs, I saw that Sarah had made other plans. She‘d conferred via
phone with Nicole and made a decision.
“I called an ambulance, Dad.”
“That wasn’t really necessary,” I said, sinking into the couch. I’d
brought down a towel from the linen closet, in order to protect my
cheap-ass discount furniture sectional from further degradation.
A few minutes later, the ambulance crew appeared at the back door.
I have two questions:
Why are all emergency medical technicians so darn good looking?
Why must all emergency medical technicians fawn over my daughter?
As long as they were here, I expected the EMT crew to have some interest in me.
They began checking my vitals. I still had a fever. Heart rate was elevated.
Then the questions. I don’t remember the exact questions, but it was something like this:
EMT:Mr. McKeen, what is this? [Holds up set of keys] ME: [After a thirty-two second pause] Keys?
A few other questions followed — simple questions, with me struggling
for answers that were not simple to attain, that required spelunking to
the deepest recesses of my brain to find. I’d never felt so lost and
I’d never been so unable to function, so unable to process the simplest of thoughts, so totally adrift on a sinking raft in a sea of unknowable knowledge.
And I was sinking. I could feel the water up around my ears and into my mouth and finally I realized I was drowning.
I had died before and I felt it coming again.
“I think we need to get you in the ambulance,” the handsomer of the
two handsome EMTs said. “Call now,” he told his partner. “Tell them
we’re bringing in a 63-year-old male, disoriented, dehydrated, high
fever — hundred and three. Possible septic shock.”
That got my attention. The EMTs snapped the stretcher together, strapped me to it and carried me out into the front yard.
Reader’s Digest used to have a feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” When Sonny Bono died, Cher delivered the eulogy and said that Sonny was her nominee for that role.
Mine is Jerome Laizure. I knew him for only four years in the mid-eighties. We wrote or called only sporadically in the years after I moved away from Oklahoma, but he was always on my mind.
He ran the printing operation of the Oklahoma Daily during my years teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma. His office was on the other side of the building, and we’d often hang out in the no-man’s-land in between, in the journalism school’s main lobby.
Jerry was fearless. The man had no filter, and I loved him for that.
“Hey, Jerry,” I’d say. “Ed Carter wants to talk to you.”
“Well, he can just kiss my cracked ass,” Jerry’d say in that deep-gut twang.
Didn’t matter who was standing within earshot. Jerry was Jerry and he said whatever was on his mind. He never worried about what people thought. He was ill-disposed to kiss any ass on the planet.
He was one of the strongest, most ethical people I ever knew.
I realize that this kiss-my-cracked-ass thing doesn’t endear him to you, but context is everything. You had to be there. He was a Picasso of profanity. I should solicit our shared friends for more examples of his brilliance with blue language, which put him in the same rarefied and profane air as Hunter S. Thompson. But even if I compiled a three-volume catalog of his swears, it would detract from what I want to say.
Rough on the surface, he was unsentimentally sentimental. He could go zero-to-60 with curses in record time. Above and beyond these theatrical qualities, he was an intelligent, sincere and wise dude. He shepherded scores of students into careers as journalists and was, during a difficult time in my life, my conscience and my great friend.
He left the university and started a weekly newspaper in a nearby small town and later went on to a distinguished career in photojournalism. I was gone by then, but could still admire his work. If anything happened in Oklahoma — and lots of things did that made the national magazines — look at the photo credit. Good chance it was Jerry’s work.
He and I were about the same age and so I have to say that when he died some years back, he was much too young. Much.
He’d been dealing with a number of health issues and in our infrequent communiqués, he’d tell me of all the things he could no longer do.
His death was a shock to me, but perhaps not so to those closest to him. He was not tall, but still managed to be a towering figure, larger than life. I didn’t understand how fragile he was.
He was deeply loved. When he died, his Facebook page turned into a tribute, a virtual temple of bouquets left by those whose lives he touched. In the days after his death, I’d look at his page every few hours, to read the new bouquets left by friends. The family posted pictures of the funeral, and his children wrote about how fortunate they were to have him as a father.
A week or so after his death, I checked his Facebook page on a Sunday night. Peggy, his wife — now widow, I suppose — had posted: “Damn it, Jerry. Where’d you leave the remote?”
Man, they loved each other, and they set a high bar. We should all be so lucky to have a relationship like theirs.
Back in the old days, back in the eighties when our children were small, I used to love to hear Jerry talk about his kids. “I got three,” he’d say. “One of each: a boy, a girl, and Jackson.”
Maybe that’s a subliminal reason I have a son named Jackson. (I’d been pushing for Elvis, and the family history is murky on how he became Jackson, but Jerry’s son might be the reason I didn’t put up a fuss when the name was suggested.)
Jerry’s death shook me as much as a death in my biological family. There were few pre-cancer times when I had such a sense of fragility.
I hadn’t seen him in years, but he was there, in my head, and at the other end of the keyboard when we’d exchange messages.
I’d moved away to Florida and always wanted him to come visit, telling him to bring the family, to stay at my house, and have a cheap-ass trip to Disney World. He said he’d come, but it never happened. He was always working.
I wanted to take myself back to the old days, when Jerry would saunter across the lobby to my office. I was doing a term as assistant director of the school, stuck in an windowless box in the administrative suite. I’d hear the outer door open, but couldn’t see who was there. Then I’d hear him gently growl at the receptionist.
“Is that useless dipshit in?” He was from Bartlesville and had an oilfield twang. The receptionist giggle would follow, no doubt accompanied by her finger pointing toward my office.
Then he’d darken my door: “Are we going to eat or what?”
So we’d amble across the street — Jerry never went anywhere with dispatch — to our local burger joint, the appropriately named Mister Bill’s. We had the menu memorized and each day had a different special — the California Burger, the Grandma Burger, the Salsa Burger and so on. We ordered in kind and, now and then, committed that work-day sin of a lunch-time beer.
Those long lunches and conversations were my graduate education in human studies. Jerry was so much smarter than me when it came to understanding our fellow beings and their psychology. I wrote about people and what they did, but Jerry seemed to know what people would do before they did it, before even they knew what they would do.
Those afternoons at Mister Bill’s were my Paris in the Twenties or my Algonquin roundtable, but with a limited cast of characters. Jerry and I never tired of talking or ran out of subjects to consider, or world problems we were called upon to solve. We were fine on our own, but now and then we’d ask someone else along.
Of course we’d eat, but the point of the meal was to share time, that most precious of commodities.
When I think of childhood dinnertimes, I don’t think of the food — though both of my parents took great pleasure in cooking. I think of the time spent.
At the time, lunch with Jerry was lunch with Jerry. Only later, decades later, did I realize what Lunch With Jerry had meant.
He always busted my chops. He’d see my empty plate and do a double take worthy of Curly in a Three Stooges two reeler.
“McKeen, you don’t fuckin’ eat — you inhale.”
What I wouldn’t give to have him good-naturedly berating me right now. He always used the expression “stacking shit.” So he would want me to say what I miss is him stacking shit on me.
Yeah, that’s more Jerry-worthy.
What I want to say: Eating is more than nourishing our bodies. We show our humanity across the table, and over food. We break bread. We dine with friends. We talk. We show our love.
I find myself thinking of the song “Bob Dylan’s Dream”:
How many a year has passed and gone? Many a gamble has been lost and won And many a road taken by many a first friend And each one I’ve never seen again I wish, I wish, I wish in vain That we could sit simply in that room again Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that
Jerry has been gone for years now. I’m here in the kitchen. The boys are with their mother tonight and this large house is too quiet. It’s raining outside and I stand over the sink in the pathetic dance that we single men do — eating, standing up, trying not to make a mess, trying not to dirty a dish. Now, with my innards rearranged, I no longer have the capacity for a meal. I eat only to stay alive.
The gastric surgery has changed my life, and quickly. Eating too fast or too much means pain. My new body can’t do the job my old body used to do. I must retrain this carcass yet again.
I’ll figure it out, but these first weeks are hard, especially as I stand there at the window, doing the single-man dinner dance I thought I’d left behind.
I think about the great meals of my life — at an open-air bar in the Florida Keys, a table in the courtyard of Joe Garcia’s in Fort Worth, the upstairs at Commander’s Palace, or a long-gone burger joint in Norman, Oklahoma — and think about those moments and those friends and think those are the moments that will unspool (assuming I get the chance for that final midnight showing) on my deathbed.
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain that we could sit simply in that room again
Yet here I am — standing over the kitchen sink, alone.
What I want to say:
Eating is more than nourishing our bodies. We show our humanity across the table and over food.
I grew up as a nomad. We didn’t wander the tundra in mastodon skins with spears — we weren’t that kind of nomad — but we moved a lot.
It was my father who dubbed us nomads.
Growing up in the Air Force made for an interesting life. We moved, on average, every 18 months. Sometimes, it was just a matter of being assigned to new quarters on the same base — a move of a couple of miles, or sometimes just one street over. (At Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, we moved from Louisiana Avenue to Texas Avenue, across the expansive, shared, unfenced back yard. I still play in my head the little song I made up to learn my new address: 1569 Texas Avenue, 1569 Texas Avenue . . . . ’Twas a lovely little melody.)
Sometimes the move was more drastic, moving from America to Europe or back again. We lived in Weisbaden, Germany, in 1959, and relocated to Bellevue, Nebraska, home of Offutt Air Force Base, headquarters of Strategic Air Command. I once got to see the command-center underground with big screens showing the location of every B-52 bomber on the planet. It was the kind of war room later depicted in Doctor Strangelove. But that’s another story.
So I never developed a life-long friend until I was an adult, and by then — due to the late start — could they really be called “life-long”? My childhood friendships were as deep and intense as anyone else’s, but they were of short duration.
(I wonder where my old pals are today. Sometimes, I’ll spend an evening trying to track them down through Google or Facebook, with no luck. Mary Savage … Alan Rinehart … Paul Franks — are you out there?)
I’m often in awe of people who still, as adults, hang out with friends from kindergarten. My son Graham’s best friend (and best man) is the same guy he’s known since they were six. I envy the profound depth of their friendship.
My transient life affected me in so many ways that I probably don’t realize. It’s given me an ambivalence toward routines. I work hard to establish routines, but after a few months I find myself restless and impatient — and, occasionally, enraged — by these routines, and then I indulge in radical change.
I had a 15-year gap between marriages and for many of those years lived in a nice, conventional house in a nice, conventional subdivision. (I prefer the word neighborhood, but this place truly was a subdivision.) We were expected to conform, to develop routines for lawn-mowing, gardening and exterior painting.
I used to come home from work every Monday — garbage pickup day — and see my gigantic garbage bin tossed back into the yard. Seeing this every Monday depressed me. It made me think of the week before, with the garbage bin tossed in the yard. Then there was the week before that. And the week before that, always with the garbage bin.
That garbage bin represented the passing of life. Is this it? I kept asking myself. This routine, this sameness . . . is this what my life will be until it ends? I’d roll the garbage bin back into the garage and go inside, gulp down three or four beers, and wonder how long my life would be defined by routines and garbage bins and lousy beer.
I did my best to escape from this trap of routine. When I married again, my routine was affected by the shifting deck of another person’s steerage. New routines emerged: waking a second generation of children, getting them fed and off to school. I drove the same route every day, but then rebelled by snaking my way through different streets, just for some kind of change. I could never stand same for very long.
So now, here I was on the precipice of major life change — of surgery that would radically alter my body. I’d go from the perennially-rotund me to some-other-kind of me. It would require, my doctor said, a whole new routine.
That fucking word.
I wondered if I was up for this. I was on the cusp of being a candidate for this surgery, navigating the tightrope between eligibility and rejection. I could conceivably lose enough weight on my own to no longer be a viable subject for weight-reduction surgery. But I wanted it — I needed to do something radical, even though at 62, there was little chance to suddenly become a marathoner, a ballroom dancer or change my face into something handsome and desirable. I’d survived cancer and was a year cancer-free. It was time to do something to take care of this loathsome vessel of mine, to turn it into a thing worthy of preservation.
And if that meant a mind-numbing routine, then so be it. I could suck it up for the interminable months of pre-surgical routine.
I vowed that I was going to do this right. In addition to the routine, there was the add-on nutritional program. Fuck it. I knew the rule: eat good stuff, don’t eat shit. Did I need that drumbeat into my head?
Though it cost more out of pocket and required more of a time commitment, I decided to suck it up again and sign on for the nutrition program that went along with the surgery.
As soon as Doctor Ghushe (goo-shay, remember) told me he’d do the weight-loss surgery, I was ready to go. Hell, I’d drop trou right there in the examining room and let him start cutting on me — with a butter knife, for all I cared.
Let’s go, Dude.
I’d joke with Ghushe: “Hey, I’ve got a couple days off this week — want to cut on me now?” But he never took the bait.
I was joking but I was serious. I wanted to do this before the routine pushed me off the cliff.
So I immersed myself in the long process of waiting and education. It’s an agonizingly long waiting period. You’ve decided to do this, but now take a couple of months to read about it and study it.
(Weird, of course, that such a period of contemplation isn’t required for, say, buying a gun.)
I began my course of study: reading, films, web presentations. If I really was going to do this right, then I’d have to bite that bullet. The accompanying nutritional program included Shelby, a young woman in Ghushe’s office, and other nutritionists. I confess: I learned a lot.
I was, first of all, put on a diet. Since this was somewhat short-term — until the surgery, scheduled four months away — I had no trouble sticking to the regimen. I was proud of my newfound willpower. I could make hamburgers and hot dogs and spaghetti for the boys, but confine myself to salad and protein bars. I wasn’t ordered to cut out beer, but I did anyway. Beer wouldn’t be allowed for several months after the surgery, but I decided to go ahead and start my sabbatical from hops and barley.
The protein bars became a good part of my diet and I soon developed fondness for certain brands and composition. Several of them tried to mimic the taste of Reese’s Peanut-Butter Cups. None came close, but they were edible, enjoyable and filling. I also had six packs of protein shakes in the home and office refrigerators.
I turned into one of those guys who ate to stay alive, not for pleasure. I was particularly pleased that when I cooked for the boys, I didn’t snitch any of their food.
Within six weeks or so, the effects of the diet started to show. As I said, I was never over-the-moon overweight, but I was always at the least on the chubby side — as in chubby cheeks. Weight goes first from the face, so my porcine appearance began to fade and cheekbones emerged. My belly began to recede and I became reacquainted with my feet and some other estranged parts of my body.
I began to think that maybe I had finally found the right diet. Did I really need this surgery?
Yes, I did. As the weeks wore on, protein bars lost their allure. My hatred for routine began to take over. I was restless and irritable. Let’s get started on this fucking surgery, doc!
Doctor Ghushe wanted me to lose a little weight to make it easier to perform the surgery and, as I continued my regular checkups with him and nutritionist Shelby, I was advancing toward the goal. But I knew a changed diet was not enough for me, because my need to rebel against routine would emerge. I needed to do something radical — like cutting off part of my stomach.
That would do the trick, I thought. I needed a fundamental change to my body because of the hatred for routine embedded in my DNA.
I was out of my element for the surgery. Ghushe booked me for the mothership — Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the heart of Boston, not South Shore Hospital, where almost all of my surgeries had been done. South Shore was affiliated with Brigham and Women’s — and Dana Farber — so it was all one big health-care industrial complex, but it was weird to be in a strange hospital for something so intimate.
Ghushe was / is a decent, affable, extremely skilled guy. There wasn’t the slightest whiff of bullshit about him. He’d described the surgery and on the day of the operation, his face appeared over prone-and-gurneyed me and ran through again what they were going to do. We’d talked about it for months, but protocol required he tell me again, from the beginning, what would happen in the operating room.
“We’re going to perform an operation called a sleevectomy,” he said.
“That sounds made up,” I said. “That sounds like a word Scooby Doo would use.” The stuff the nurses had given me to relax me had obviously kicked in.
“No,” he smiled. “It’s a real thing.”
The sleevectomy required removal of a significant portion of my stomach. Then he’d seal it up, and my life would change.
“What do you do with the part of the stomach you cut off?”
Ghushe looked at me, puzzled for the first time in the year I’d known him.
“Could I have it?” I asked. “Could I encase it in Plexiglas and keep it on the coffee table?”
“No,” he said. “I would advise against it. It’s bio-waste.”
I scowled. “You’re not as much fun as Corwin.” Christian Corwin, my cancer surgeon, was partner in a practice with Ghushe. Alas, he’d also declined my request to keep part of my removed rectum as a surgical souvenir.
I’ve always loved anesthesia. I love that moment when you feel yourself fading, falling off the end of the world into nothingness. Is that what death will be like? Then, afterward comes the awakening, the giddy grogginess, the sounds of the hospital suddenly rising as God turns the volume knob to the right.
I awoke. I took my meal in the hospital room, chasing it with the hospital’s delicious butterscotch pudding. When I finished, I moved the tray aside and looked out on the trees freckling this Boston neighborhood. It was a lovely spring day, with that impossibly blue sky that seems to favor Boston. Here’s where we insert cliches about new beginnings.
Ghushe came to check on me and the nurses were, as always, kind and attentive. Of course, I developed a crush on Jeannie, the nurse who came into see me every hour or so. I often believe my life was defined by the last sentence in “The Open Window,” a great short story by Saki: “Romance at short notice was his specialty.” (I changed the gender.) I’d spent so much time in hospitals, met so many nurses, had so many crushes.
The next day I was free. I was wheeled out of the hospital, as was custom, and when I stood, there was no wobbliness or frailty. I felt tremendous. There was no surgical hangover. Twenty-four hours after having my guts rearranged and I fucking felt great.
Maybe I was getting good at this — the being-a-patient stuff. I looked like the same guy who had been admitted to the hospital the day before, but now change was imminent. A good portion of my stomach was gone and life was about to be redefined.
I’ve never taken good care of myself. I had medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol, but did I use them? Fuck no. I was always so intent on tear-assing out of the house in the morning that I never took any meds.
Hannah Armstrong, my nurse practitioner, got me on the right track. “Medicine won’t work if you don’t take it,” she said, and it was hard to argue with that.
She also thought Xanax might be a good idea for me since I was largely incapable of relaxation and prone to long periods of depression.
“It’s time you have a full physical,” she said during one spring visit. A odd smile curled the corner of her mouth.
Immediately, I panicked. Would this mean I’d have to be naked in front of her? At another time in another life, that would be a wonderful prospect. But not in this “dumb patient” / “medical professional” relationship.
“Get the front desk to book you for a full physical in six months. And between now and then, you’re getting a colonoscopy.” Again the smile. “You’re overdue.”
Oh, God. Would I really have to discuss my ass with this beautiful woman? It was still theoretical and at least six months away, but I was already in the grips of shyness panic. I saw widescreen, Technicolor embarrassment in my future.
Maybe it was time to switch my health-care provider to some liver-spotted old dude. I didn’t want anyone to be poking around in my ass, but if someone had to do it, I guess I’d rather it be a guy — no matter what kind of great listener a woman might be. It wasn’t misogyny; I was just a shy asshole with a lot of hang-ups and insecurities.
Months passed … nearly a year. The daily blood purges began but I kept my health issues secret. I often had to brace myself when I stood up. I’d feel faint and watch spots Macarena in front of my eyes. I’d lean against a wall until the world stopped spinning.
The bladder issue was presented and resolved. The anesthesiologist mentioned the anemia. Nicole began hectoring me about following up, especially about the colonoscopy.
Finally — and almost as if I was watching someone else do it, I dialed the phone and made an appointment with South Shore Gastroenterology, an invitation to allow a stranger to stick his medical instruments up my butt. The first appointment I could get was a month away, so I’d have a long time to fret about it.
The good news was there was always a chance I could die during that month and not have to go through with the colonoscopy.
I trudged along, figuring constant misery and blood and goo would be my lot in life. I did nothing.
Then I finally did.
“I can’t live like this anymore,” I told Nicole and then drove to the office of my primary-care physician.
Hannah was out that day but another one of her colleagues — a nurse practitioner named Alexis Klock — said she could see me.
“What brings you in today?” she asked.
“I was having surgery a couple of weeks ago, bladder surgery. The anesthetist said I was dangerously anemic and that I should come see my primary. So here I am.”
“Have you had any abnormal bleeding lately?”
Now or never; embarrassment be damned.
“I’ve had, uh, had some rectal bleeding?” Adding a question mark made my voice rise a little.
“Some?” Alexis arched her eyebrows. “How long has this been going on?”
I pretended that I had to think about it. “Oh, I don’t know,” I lied. “Couple weeks maybe?” I wrinkled my nose, an approximation of me in deep thought. It had been more like five or six months.
As if shortening the time would make any difference.
“Can you describe it to me?”
I mentioned the fluid, but only some blood. Later, I’d wonder why I’d diminished my description of what had been happening. Would she think me an idiot for not coming in sooner?
Of course she would.
“Okay,” she said, reaching for a glove. “I need to do a rectal exam.”
“Is that really necessary?” I asked. “It can’t be pleasant for you. I mean, look at me.”
At least I got a smile from her. “Don’t worry. It’s my job.”
I bent over the table ashamed, embarrassed and suddenly afraid. Alexis was in and out before I could register a complaint.
I was proud of not spewing my horrid waste over the exam-room floor. I was pleased that she didn’t see me in that position and scream “great mother of break-dancing Jesus!”
She began to speak as if nothing extraordinary had just occurred. Of course, for her there was nothing extraordinary. For me, it was as if I’d crossed over into another dimension.
“There’s definitely something there,” she said, removing her gloves. “A mass. I’ll give you a choice. Do you feel up to diving to the hospital? Or should I call an ambulance?”
“Is it that bad?”
“You need to be checked. They can do tests I can’t do here. I can’t let you just leave and pretend nothing’s wrong.”
She was obviously clued in to my modus operandi. “I can Drive,” I said, resigned to my fate. “Will I have to stay overnight?”
“That’s a decision they’ll make in the ER. I’ll call over to South Shore and tell them to expect you.” She looked me in the eye. “If you don’t show up, I’ll hear about it. They may examine you and turn you loose in an hour. Or they may admit you. That’s their call.”
I was admitted to South Shore Hospital that afternoon and several more strange hands were shoved up my ass. I dressed in a back-door-open johnny, settled into a nice, private room and offered up blood and fluids on command.
I called home and told Nicole what was happening, but that she didn’t need to come see me. It was hard to leave our volatile kids — the four of them under one roof — alone.
My nurse, a lovely young woman named Elena, spent a half hour asking me questions and requesting enormous amounts of details on the foul operation of my carcass.
I was in a hospital and people regarded my problems as serious. I was therefore totally straight. There was no fudging of details or down-playing my symptoms. For once, I told the complete truth. Since the hospital had me by the short and curlies, I figured I had to be totally honest.
We discussed the specifics of my bleeding, my dizziness, my aggressively lousy health.
When Elena was done, she went out to the nurse’s station and returned with something that looked like a white plastic colander. This was fine with me, because I love spaghetti.
“I need a stool sample,” she said. “I’m going to insert this under the toilet seat. so that when you go, it goes in this receptacle and not in the toilet. Call me when you have something.”
“Jesus, that sounds horrifying. You sure you want this?”
“We need to see what it is you’ve been dealing with.”
I figured I’d suffer performance anxiety, but within a half hour, I was on the toilet.
I did not have one of my hand-sanitizer-and-blood specials and instead produced a dense, orange goo, similar in color and texture to Campbell’s Bean with Bacon soup.
I should note here that Bean with Bacon is one of my favorite Campbell products and in those years between marriages I’d spent many mealtimes standing at the kitchen sink, eating it cold from the can. I kept up this practice after remarrying, a guilty pleasure I hid from my family, the way some errant dads hide their booze consumption.
What I produced in the hospital that night reminded me, in shape, of the living-room sculpture of Devil’s Tower constructed by Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But this was a mountain constructed from Bean with Bacon soup. It was, in a word, substantial.
I wiped, lifting the befouled colander, and tossed the paper in the bowl below, and flushed. I summoned Elena with the button at my bedside.
“Before you go in there, I must apologize. What I have produced is horrifying and rank and certainly not premeditated. Will you ever forgive me?”
She scoffed. “No worries. This is what I do.”
I thought: she’s much too nice to have to study someone else’s bowel movements as part of her job. But I had to admit, finally, that I was getting worried. What was this “mass” and what did it mean? And what tale would the Devil’s Tower of orange poop tell?
Note: Dick Dale died yesterday. I recall the night we met: my then-19-year-old son Graham and I were taking a trip down Highway 61, following the celebrated highway of the blues from the Canadian border to the French Quarter. The resulting book, Highway 61, came out in 2003 – words by me, photos by Graham. One of the memorable nights on the trip was at a wonderful hole-in-the-wall in St. Louis called the Broadway Oyster Bar, where we witnessed a performance by Dick Dale, King of the Surf Guitar. This is adapted from the book.
By dusk, the patio is filling, and Dick Dale’s bus
pulls up on the street separating the Broadway’s patio stage from the White
Castle next door. He stays on the bus until announced, and when he steps onto
the sidewalk, my son is there with his camera. Dale points at him and says, “I
don’t want to see that shit on eBay!”
In the early days, Dick Dale was movie-star handsome
in that anonymous television-actor sort of way, resembling Robert Horton, Ward
Bond’s hunky sidekick on Wagon Train.
Now in his sixties, Dale is striking in a different sort of way: a tall man,
still with a sculpted face, with a high forehead and gray hair in a pony tail
to the middle of his back. He wears a headband in keeping with the tribal
themes in his recent albums, and he dresses entirely in black.
As soon as he hits the stage, he grabs his guitar
and starts playing. The bottles of whiskey and vodka across the bar from me
rattle with the thunder from his Showman amplifier. He has a drummer and a
sleepy-eyed bass player as his perfunctory rhythm section, but the show is all
his. In a lifetime spent listening to rock’n’roll music, I’ve never heard
anything as loud as Dick Dale. Not only are the bottles rattling – my heart
reverberates in my chest and my testicles resound with each gut-wrenching low
run on the strings. It’s as much a sonic assault as a concert.
I’m content where I’ve been the last few hours,
sitting at the corner of the outdoor bar, at the other end of the patio from
the stage. The St. Louis night is still muggy and the city’s glow fades the
stars overhead. Graham is over by the stage, stalking Dick Dale with his
camera, worming his way through the crowd up front and, for part of the show,
standing onstage, trying to get a shot of Dale’s mobile face as he plays. Dale
looks his way and playfully jabs his guitar at his direction. Graham’s eyes glow.
I’ve seen that look before, when he was little and I took him to Spring
Training. The first Major Leaguer he saw up close was Orioles pitcher Rick
Sutcliffe. Another time, we ran into hall-of-famer Bob Feller underneath the
bleachers at an Indians game. He looked like any other retiree snowbird except
for the fact that he was wearing a baseball uniform.
But as Graham grew up, baseball players gave way to
musicians in his pantheon of greatness. As a guitar player, he worshipped Dick
Dale, the man who nearly single-handedly invented reverb.
The Broadway is packed. I’m surprised that people
in the nearby apartments and upscale remodeled homes haven’t called the cops to
complain about the nuclear war at the oyster bar.
Dick Dale doesn’t mess around between songs – no
long introductions, no background on his inspiration, no philosophical
“Hey you,” he nods toward a girl about 12 yards
back from the stage. “You come up front, will ya? I like to see pretty girls up
front while I play.”
He’d old enough to be her grandfather, but when she
comes up to the stage, he kneels, offering her the neck of his Stratocaster.
She runs her fingers suggestively down its long neck.
“I’ll stick around and sign autographs and talk
after the show,” Dale announces into the microphone. “Anyone who wants their
tits signed, line up over here at the side.”
His signature tune, “Misirlou,” is known to the
youngest of the audience through its use in Pulp
Fiction and Domino’s Pizza commercials. Old people like me remember when he
was the baddest-ass in music, during the surf music days of the 1960s. He
doesn’t play the standard version of “Misirlou” – he improvises, toying with
the melody for 20 minutes. On one of his recent albums, he did the same thing
with Duke Ellinton’s “Caravan.”
I stay at my perch at the bar, enjoying the night
air and the crowd, not really watching the stage, where my son is playing cat
and mouse with the guitar god. But then I notice a change in the texture of the sound – not Dick Dale’s
sound but the sound of the audience. When I turn to look, Dale is walking off
stage, toward the street. He’s got a wireless guitar. It still rumbles through
his amplifier onstage, but he’s on the prowl and my star-struck son is right
behind. Dale struts across the street to the White Castle parking lot.
It’s a surreal scene: There’s a car at the White
Castle drive-thru window, and right behind it is a pony-tailed banshee wailing
away on his guitar. Behind him is my son and a few other fans. When the car
gets its order of bellybusters and drives off, Dale walks up to the window. He
doesn’t say a word, but begins jamming his guitar neck at the bewildered
minimum-wager at the cash register. What
the hell is this, her face says.
Dale keeps walking. He’s out in the middle of Broadway
now, dodging cars. Imagine the drivers’ fright when they see this tall monster,
all in black, with his Rapunzel hair, walking down the centerline, all the
while booming music from the amps back on stage. He turns and comes back
through the front entrance of the bar, where all of the people who couldn’t fit
into the patio-stage area are startled not only that they can finally see the
guy – but that he’s elbowing them for space at the bar.
He comes back out on the patio and sits on the
stool next to me. He hasn’t missed a note. He nods at the bartender that he
wants a beer and she pours it down his throat while he continues to play.
Graham has been stalking him the whole time, eyes big as pie plates, like Dick
Dale is his pony-tailed pied piper.
True to his word, Dick Dale sticks around
afterward, talking to anyone who wants an audience with the King of the Surf
I tell him about our trip, about the free fall
we’re doing from Canada to New Orleans and how lucky we were to be in St. Louis
when he hit town. Talk about serendipity.
“You tell your friends to come out and see Dick
Dale sometime,” he says.
A blonde woman with mascara sweat-pasted to her
cheeks pulls down her shirt and presents her breast.
“Oh baby,” Dick Dale says. “You don’t know what
this means to me.” He signs, “All the best, Dick Dale” in Sharpie across her
I lost my father when I was 20 and had just turned the corner to 60 when my mother died.
One would think, at such an advanced age, I’d no longer think of myself as a motherless child. Yet most mornings I woke, and would lie there a moment and reconnoiter with the world, remembering that I was alone.
And I was. My parents were gone and I was, as I say, untethered.
I had finished cancer treatment and found myself suddenly single. I was still defining myself as a solo act, concentrating on work during the week and managing the blossoming social schedules of three young teenage boys every weekend.
Life unfurls in unexpected ways. If ever there was a time to start over, this was it. God had given me another chance.
I’d had a lot of second chances.
Once, as a boy, I was playing at a construction site with some friends — it was a different time, kids — and I fell off a mound of moved earth and nearly down a bottomless (so it seemed to us) hole.
Another time, I fell backward off a swingset and banged my head on the concrete support that had uprooted from the ground. I was unconscious for nearly an hour before I woke up in the emergency room.
A man lunged in front of my car in a suicide attempt once on an Oklahoma Interstate, but I managed to disappoint him but nearly kill myself. Yet again I survived.
And how many times had I driven all night and fallen asleep, to be awakened by the road’s sudden change in texture and the sound of spitting gravel.
And now I’d had cancer. Note tense. To hear my surgeon and oncologist talk, I was cancer free. I always added “for now” in my head because I knew it was a long road. But if those guys were optimistic, that was a good sign.
Had they given me another chance, or had God? I wasn’t one of those people who’d gotten the diagnosis, then found God. I’d always believed in God — I’m from Indiana, where the license plate reads, “In God We Trust.” But I had not always practiced religion.
I’d had an ambivalent relationship with religion, which was a human construct. Though I grew up in a home with reverence, and been baptised a Methodist, we’d never gone to church and in adulthood I drifted toward Catholicism, mostly because I kept dating Catholic women. I converted at age 34, and for a period I was even a lector at our church back in Florida.
No matter my wavering attitude toward religion — and I often found myself on the apathetic end of the continuum — my belief in God did not flag nor fail, and I felt in debt.
What would I do with this second chance? I’d take better care of this thing, my body.
I met with Neil Ghushe and we contemplated another hernia surgery. He had just repaired a hernia not even a year before, using laprascopic technology to insert a screen in my belly on my left side. Now I had a hernia on my right.
That’s when I decided to call attention to the elephant hunched in the corner of his examination room.
“It’s because of my weight, isn’t it?” I asked.
He nodded, smiling. The guy had luminous eyes and a movie-star smile. If I’m ever due for some really bad news, I want him to deliver it.
“Could be,” he said, nodding. “Being overweight doesn’t help.”
“And walking hurts like hell,” I told him. “It’s like someone’s been hammering roofing nails into my knees.”
“It’s hard on your joints when you carry some extra weight,” he said. “No doubt about it.”
“And my sleep apnea. My wife used to say that if I’d lose 20 pounds — and I was always up and down on diets — but if I’d lose 20 pounds, my buzzsaw snoring would stop.”
“No doubt about it,” he nodded again. “Extra pounds exacerbate apnea.” He smiled and I felt the sudden urge to put on my shades; the glare, you know.
And that’s when the creature in the corner unrolled his massive trunk and began to bleat with the thunder of a thousand butterfly sneezes.
“What about that other surgery you do?” I asked. “Would I be eligible for that?”
Blinding smile. It’s like he was a surgical vampire — he needed an invitation. This isn’t something he’d bring up; he could only respond to my questions.
The “other surgery,” of course, was weight-reduction surgery.
I knew I fell into the “morbidly obsese” category because I weighed 20 pounds more than I should for my height. Hell, I was 60 or 80 pounds more than I should be.
I rarely used that other F-word, the one about weight. I felt that I was self-aware of my body and its myriad faults.
But I also knew I was not grossly overweight. The kind of surgery Ghushe (it’s said goo-shay, by the way) did was for those extremely large people who couldn’t get out of bed or leave their houses.
But it was also for the rest of us who’d not taken care of ourselves and gotten into situations where the simplest walk was painful, whose guts could no longer be held in and who snored like a motherfucker.
Ghushe agreed to do the surgery and set in motion the approval process from my health insurance provider. Since it was likely that this surgery would solve those three chronic health problems and other yet-to-be-experienced maladies, it appeared to be a good investment.
There were a lot of varieties of gastric surgery but Ghushe thought a sleeve gastroectomy was best for me. It would require removing 85 percent of my stomach so that I simply could not eat much at all. I grew up in that prosperous post-war clean-your-plate generation and I always did what I was told.
I liked sweets, but that wasn’t what made me gain weight. I had issues with portion control and sloth.
As I said, I was able to carry the weight well. I was overweight, but never looked can’t-leave-the-house overweight. If I’d told people my weight, they wouldn’t have believed it. I looked big, but not as big as I really was. I took only minuscule comfort in this.
Because I was overweight, I’d made myself into a wallflower — from junior high school on. I just avoided life because I worried about how I’d look doing what the other “normal” people did.
I thought I’d once been a normal kid. I played baseball pretty well and had a healthy bike-riding childhood.
One day my mother had company when I came in from an afternoon playing around the canals that ran though our South Florida air force base. When I came in for a glass of water, my mother introduced me to her friend. “My, what a husky young man,” the woman said.
I handled the minimum of courtesies then went outside and told my pal Paul Franks what the visitor had said. I wasn’t sure what it meant but it sounded grown up. And when you’re nine years old, you desperately want to be grown up.
“That’s not a good thing,” Paul said. “That’s not nice thing to say at all. It’s like she’s saying you’re fat.”
From that day forward, I began to think that’s how others saw me. My mother never talked about it.
Looking back on my school pictures, even up through high school, I see a kid that falls this side of overweight. With my aged eye, I see a kid who’d isolated himself because of a warped sense of self. I was not overweight, not really.
The weight came later.
Being a newspaper reporter was a mixture of a generally active life with long periods of sedentary work, because I doubled as a copy editor.
But I also began drinking in college — some nasty swill, like Strawberry Hill wine — and I began gaining weight.
And that’s when I started my up-and-down career as a dieter.
My first diet was a popular 1970s plan called the Stillman Diet. I drank 64 ounces of water a day and ate one meal – a geometic piece of ‘fish’ every day at 4 pm. Sundays, I’d go home to my parents’ house, do laundry and eat whatever I wanted.
I lost 60 pounds in six months. Once, years later, my brother was showing slides — we used those things then — of some family pictures. I saw a figure on the screen wearing a familiar T-shirt.
“Who’s that?” I asked innocently.
A beat. “That’s you.”
I could not reconcile that emaciated young man with the thick-middled man I had become.
For the next 40 years, there was a frequent weight fluctuation, driven by stress, goofy diets, and random spurts of exercise. Once a decade, it seemed, I’d get in reasonable shape — though I still saw myself as fat, no matter how much weight I’d lost.
The women in my life seemed to accept me as I was and if the issue of weight was raised, it was usually in relation to health.
One girlfriend urged me to try the grapefruit / high-protein diet, which I really liked. She also took walks with me four or five times a week, I was in great shape and she seemed to like my body. I dropped 60 pounds, again, But after five years, we broke up and I again fell into bad habits.
So here I was, post-cancer, grateful for another chance. I was in the downhill run and it was up to me to choose how I wanted to close out my life.
Did I want to be that man who groans walking upstairs, snores on the commuter rail, unable to keep up with the daily demands of life.
Fuck no, I didn’t.
I decided I would enjoy what life I had left, and to do that required something drastic.
I beheld the elephant on the other side of the examination room, and I felt kinship with the beast.
For a week now, I’ve been immersed in the 50th anniversary edition of the White Album, the record officially known as The Beatles, released November 22, 1968.
It was the first Beatle album that I bought new. My sister was at the right age when the Beatles hit in 1964. I watched them on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ that February and sat front and center for A Hard Day’s Night at the theater that summer.
I liked the music, but music itself hadn’t really hit me. Not rock’n’roll at least. I was still into Henry Mancini and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals — but that’s another story.
Things had changed by 1968 and I was ready when the White Album hit. Back then, young sprogs, our parents didn’t just buy us stuff and we didn’t get handed an allowance. The folks expected us to work for money. And since the White Album was a double-album, I’d need to work extra hard.
That fall, my parents had moved to a new house on a heavily wooded lot outside Bloomington, Indiana. They’d paid to have a few trees removed around the back deck, but the massive stumps were left behind. Stump removal was my job. My father’s going rate was five dollars per.
Owing to blisters and exhaustion, I couldn’t do too many stumps at a time. Gradually, using axes and shovels, I cleared all but a few. In order to buy the White Album, I needed to find a big bastard out in the yard.
I found something suitable and asked my father if I could have $10 for it, since it was such a large and sprawling fucker. The old man agreed. I think he knew I had the hunger to buy something that was otherwise out of reach.
I attacked that thing with the ferocity of Alan Ladd in Shane. He and Van Heflin took on a monster stump and together pulled its stubborn carcass from the ground.
Without help, I spent a day working in the back yard. When I called my father outside at dusk, he marveled at my work, then handed me a $10 bill. I rode my bike to the Woolworth’s — luckily, owing to the early sunset of November — only a half mile away. The album was mine.
I’m not sure I can make a Sophie’s Choice with Beatle albums. I’ve always been partial to Rubber Soul. Revolver still sounds great all these years later. Then there’s Abbey Road. On the day it was released — a year after the White Album — I remember tear-assing down to Discount Records on lunch break to pick it up. I held it , still sealed, in my fingers on my desktop, the envy of my social set, since I had it first.
But the White Album was something unique. It both pleased and mystified me. Every note and every sound became part of my sinews. Over the years I haven’t needed a device to play the record. It’s always there, ready to unspool in my skull.
The 50th anniversary edition — six CDs, one BluRay — is a worthy presentation for such a vital album. The Beatles always so well captured the essence of their times, and they matched the brutality and change of 1968 with an album that was chaotic and magnificent.
I not only rediscovered this great old album. I found things I didn’t know I was looking for.
The box arrived in the mail and almost immediately I hit the road for a drive to New York for the weekend. For my road music, I grabbed only the last four discs — the demos cut in the spring at George Harrison’s house, and three discs of studio outtakes, including songs that never made it on to the album, including ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘Sour Milk Sea,’ ‘Child of Nature,’ ‘Across the Universe’ and others.
I was alone, so I played the discs one after another at thundering volume. I’d had most of the stuff on bootlegs, but the quality of this set is superior. I’ve always enjoyed these archival sets. Bob Dylan has 14 volumes in his Bootleg Series, and it’s great to hear his early takes — to hear, say, what ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ sounded like about six minutes before genius showed up. There’s a Jimi Hendrix archival set that makes his music sound ordinary, right before his brilliance caught fire.
The Beatles have not done the ‘official bootleg’ thing quite as much, but the White Album is a great place to show the anatomy of the creative process.
Here are some highlights (for me):
Hearing John work through ‘Julia,’ the song about his mother. To hear him on the talkback with engineer Chris Thomas … to hear his voice again … chokes me up. The same happens when you hear George order a sandwich before recording ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’ It’s sad those voices are no longer in the world.
I never much liked ‘Helter Skelter’ because of its lumbering sound, and began to actively hate it after Charles Manson co-opted it. Oddly, on this set it’s one of my highlights. After blasting through it, Paul says, “Mark it ‘Fab,’” and it is.
I always wondered about that ditty (‘Can you take me back where I came from’) that Paul sings as the sound montage of ‘Revolution 9’ begins. Here you hear him work through it, trying to develop it into a full song. Turns out it was perfect as a fragment.
Hearing all four Beatles sing ‘Good Night.’ On the original release, Ringo sings it with an orchestra. I could never decide if — since it followed the madness of ‘Revolution 9’ — the song was intended to end the album on a reassuring or ironic note. On one of the takes, Ringo sings and the other three lean into a microphone to harmonize. It’s not the greatest performance, but to hear those four voices together again is deeply moving.
Hearing three Beatles (Ringo, depressed, took a break during the sessions) playing ‘Back in the USSR’ in a lower key. They sped up the tape to give the song its sonic magic.
Hearing John finger-pick his way through ‘Dear Prudence’ and Paul do solo run-throughs of ‘I Will’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son.’
All the way down to the city and all the way back, I blasted those four discs.
Listening to the White Album itself was sort of an afterthought for me. My ears are not sophisticated and when people talk about new remixes, I sort of glaze over.
So it was more out of a sense of duty that late the night of my return, I went downstairs to my basement office and music room to put on the remixed White Album, just so I can say I listened to it.
Do you remember the old Maxell tape advertisement, from back in the Seventies — the windblown and mindblown guy in the easy chair? That was me as ‘Back in the USSR’ boomed from my speakers. I listened to the whole thing straight through. It was brilliant.
‘Tis the season, apparently, for expensive box sets.
Just the week before, I’d been spelunking through Bob Dylan’s back pages. As the first victim of bootleggers, he began bootlegging himself back in 1991 when he launched his Bootleg Series. He’s up to Volume 14, More Blood, More Tracks, six discs collecting the 1974 recordings leading to his classic Blood on the Tracks.
As with the White Album outtakes, I’d had bootlegs devoted to the Blood on the Tracks sessions. He recorded much of the album on the day I turned 20 — September 16, 1974 — and ran through monstrous numbers of takes.
After a few furious days of recording in New York, an album was assembled. Columbia Records designed a cover, commissioned liner notes from Pete Hamill, and readied the album for release.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the hit parade.
Dylan had second thoughts. He played the acetate of the album for his brother while visiting Minnesota in December. David Zimmerman told big brother he could do better. Or something. But he hired a studio, found some local musicians, and got Big Brother Bob to re-record half of the album.
Columbia Records had a collective coronary and the album was delayed a month. To save time and money, the record company went with the original album cover, meaning the Minneapolis musicians did not get credited, though they had recorded half the album.
Eventually, the original recordings — some of them, at least — leaked out.
Conventional wisdom — meaning bullshit spewed by clueless fans such as myself — held that Dylan withdrew the original recordings because they so well chronicled the pain and suffering of a man mired in heartbreak and despair. The album supposedly told the story of his abandoned love as his marriage crumbled. Dylan, his voice strained, was a testament to vulnerability. (Dylan denied this, of course, saying the album was inspired by the short stories of Anton Chekhov.)
Now, however, Dylan has shared all of the takes — they are legion; six discs worth — from the New York sessions. Alas, no outtakes from the Minneapolis sessions exist, but we do get all of the master takes, minus the echo added in post production.
Both the White Album and More Blood, More Tracks show deep-dive insight to the creative process. Both the Fabs and Dylan show us how songs grow and evolve. But these huge collections are more than mere curiosities for music geeks. These are further explorations and discoveries of this music we’ve carried within us for a half century.
Listen again to the acts we’ve known for all these years. You’ll be surprised by all of the things you haven’t heard.
When I heard about the shooting at the Capital Gazette in Maryland, I had the feeling that I might find connection to a victim.
Journalism is a small family, after all. I’ve been teaching for more than 40 years, so I figured that one of my students was there, had been there, or had some connection there.
I awaited the names of the victims, fearing I’d find a name from a long-ago class roll on the list. When I saw the names, I was punched in the stomach, and all I could say was, My God.
I didn’t know Rob Hiaasen, but for years I’d heard from those former students lucky enough to work with him. He was their mentor, dean of their newsroom grad school, the man responsible for their continuing education.
I didn’t know him, but I knew what he did and that he was much beloved.
I’d also known his brother, Carl, and his nephew, Scott, for 30 years.
Carl was an esteemed graduate of the University of Florida program I served for 24 years, and he was always generous with his time — for students and for faculty members such as me.
Though a best-selling author and media celebrity, he gladly helped provide succinct and snappy quotes for the dust jackets of my books. Coming up with something good for someone else’s book jacket is an often-thankless job with no reward, but he kindly — and regularly — did so.
Scott is my argument for the hypothesis that writing talent is genetic. Even as one of my freshman students, Scott had a gift, which he has since shared with thousands of readers.
So though I didn’t know Rob Hiaasen, I knew of his work — thanks to the legions of grateful young journalists who shared with me tales of his generosity and kindness. I could only imagine the anguish of his family, people I cared about deeply.
And I hurt for the families of the other victims — Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Gerald Fischman and John McNamara.
The gunman had no argument with any of them, but they were caught in the brace of his rage.
In the aftermath of the shooting, a lot of newspaper journalists recalled dealing with the public — those members of the public who walked through the newsroom doors and presented themselves at our desks.
In one of my newsrooms, office geography dictated that I was usually the guy who dealt with the walk-ins. When the other reporters saw someone wandering into the newsroom, they’d bolt for the canteen or the head.
Lacking social skills, I never really knew how to negotiate myself out of such situations and often ended up listening to a reader endlessly rant. But once in a great while, I was able to find the seam of a great story in these diatribes.
Years passed. I was going to visit a student intern on the job, when I made my first newsroom visit that required a security checkpoint. I had to empty my pockets and go through a metal detector at the door of the newspaper building.
Has it come to this? I thought.
Yes. And now: this.
Stunned by this horrific news, we turned to social media for minute-by-minute updates.
I heard from a lot of students who’d been touched by Rob’s kindness. I read tributes from people with whom I had no connection but the common denominator was that the man freely shared his talent and gifts with others to better this profession.
The next day, still reeling from the news, I heard from my colleague Noelle Graves. She knew that her four years of former students were shaken by the on-the-job murders and asked if it was all right to send them a note from her university account. She’s cautious that way.
Of course, I said.
As usual, Professor Graves spoke with eloquence and grace, articulating what we felt about these deaths in our family.
With her permission I post her note below:
I’ve been thinking of you all since the news in Maryland broke yesterday.
Some of you were students of mine four years ago, some just this spring. All of you, though, are close to my heart.
We stand shoulder-to-shoulder, you and I. Whether your path has taken you into news or another field, we shared a time of learning about this great tradition of providing the truth in context to the public.
On Thursday, five of our colleagues who shared that mission lost their lives to a gunman apparently bent on mass casualties and destruction.
We talked in class about the beauty and value of life, that each person is unique and irreplaceable. We stand in grief with the families and loved ones of the five – Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters.
This unthinkable loss of life is difficult to fathom, impossible to comprehend. The loss, as with all the similarly horrific events our nation has seen, is truly senseless.
Overarching this event is the environment in which we find ourselves today. These are such perplexing times to be in journalism with headwinds from Washington and the amplifying effect of the Internet.
We’re not alone in these times though – history indeed repeats itself – and the framers of the Constitution enshrined a free press anticipating its vital role as a bulwark against tyranny.
The five who lost their lives in Maryland were part of that proud tradition of a free press.
And so, our hearts are broken, but our resolve remains. We are committed more strongly than ever to find and report the truth to the public.
We will not be cowed into submission. We will not forget our Constitutional mandate. We will not abandon our public trust.
We stand together. Shoulder-to-shoulder.
Take care of yourselves, and I’m here if you want to talk.
I don’t really know too many of my neighbors. In that regard, I’m probably like many of you.
There are a few neighbors with whom I converse, but mostly I have smile-and-nod relationships with the people in the houses around me.
Last Sunday — Fathers’ Day, it was — I was sitting in the front yard with son Jack — Spawn No. 4, Son No. 2 — and we were spending a magnificent afternoon discussing the German philosophers, the state of modern cinema and Lego — our usual topics.
The girl from across the street tiptoed up my driveway. I saw her and waved and smiled, but she just continued tip-toeing, never breaking eye contact with me the whole time.
This girl is in second or third grade, I would estimate, and her younger sister I would guess is in kindergarten. Their parents are nice in a nod-and-smile way, and her father is the only person in the neighborhood, other than me, to do yard work. I am his Brother of the Bramble. Everyone else hires landscape companies.
That other dad and I nod and smile on those Saturdays when we’re out with our mowers, while our neighbors take off for an afternoon on the water.
So anyway, this little girl comes up the driveway, puts something on my stone wall, then backs away. I wave, but don’t immediately get up.
When I do get up, a half-hour and one beer later, I go to see what she has left me. It’s a stone, on which she has written ‘breeth’ and ‘kind.’ She wrote something else that I can’t quite decipher.
I thought it was sweet, and put the rock on my kitchen sill. For the last week, it’s given me pleasure to look at it.
Today, when I checked the mail, there was another stone, propped up against the mailpost. It had ‘love’ printed on one side and ‘fly’ on the other.
I thought about when John Lennon met Yoko Ono. He went to a gallery opening to see her work. He saw a ladder in one part of the gallery. There was a note tacked to the ceiling but it could only be read by climbing the ladder. So he climbed, fearing the note would be some joke or something negative. Instead, the note said, ‘Yes.’ That message of positivity helped him fall in love with Yoko.
So maybe my little neighbor just wants to share a something positive with me. She knows I have teen-age boys around every weekend and occasionally she sees my adorable grandchildren.
But maybe she sees me alone a lot — she’s often waiting at the bus stop when I leave for work and I give her a wave — and she just wants to do something to make my life better.
She has done that.
She’s kind of like Boo Radley in reverse. I think her parents should be proud to be raising a child concerned about other people and what they might be feeling.
When I see her parents out front next time, I think I’ll do a little more than nod and smile.