Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Healing Ridge

I went to see Doctor Cough today so he could have a look at the incision he made two weeks ago.

Better him than me, though. I'd left the final covering, a square of gauze over my navel held in place by a large bandage, right where they'd put it. I didn't want to fool with it. What if I pulled the wrong string and it all came undone?

In the waiting room, the morning show on CNN blared forth a story about a poor trapped dog that the reporters had discovered in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. When no one claimed him, the one reporter adopted him and took him home and named him "Sunny."

Some other folks came and went, some showing up after me and walking right in which I never understand. There's a triage of existence that we're not meant to understand, I guess.

The first thing the nurse did after ushering me into the examining room was remove that final bandage. She seemed surprised that I was still hanging on to it. Interestingly, the awful itching that had been plaguing me there recently disappeared as soon as she removed the thing.

When my gaze stayed firmly forward, she asked "You don't even want to look at it now, do you?"

"Not really," I said.

Of course, as soon as she was gone I went for it.

A two-inch scab, curved like an eyebrow, lay right above my middle with five thin gauze-like strips branching out like rays of sun from my navel and spread wide across the incision.

I was a little startled at first. I hadn't expected it to be that large.

Doctor Cough quickly showed up and asked if I hadn't had a beard when he'd operated on me. Ah, well done, Doctor. Indeed, that was my "sick beard," the appearance of which was meant to clue you in to the fact that I was too sick even to shave. I'd only done away with it the night before.

He took a look, declared everything ok, and asked a few questions about how I was feeling and if everything seemed "back to baseline," as he put it. I assured him that everything was fine. He went into some detail on what exactly was done and why (hopefully, I'll never have to hear the phrase "trapped fat" again) and discussed the slim possibility of a recurrence.

Did my weight gain ultimately cause the hernia? Well, no, said Doctor Cough, at the most I may have speeded up the process, like someone with a chronic cough, but it would have happened eventually.

My big question, though, had to do with the way it felt. When I would touch the area, it felt like the piece of mesh that they dropped in for repair was sitting just below the skin. It felt as if there were a small square plate just underneath. I hated the idea that this could be permanent.

Not the case at all, said Doctor Cough. What I was feeling was not the mesh, which was as thin as a sheet of paper in any case, but rather what they referred to as the healing ridge.

It's a combination of the scar tissue, fluid and other things all involved in the healing process. After a couple of months it starts to soften up and eventually return to normal. But I wasn't in danger of going Vader on anyone, "more machine than man," as it were.

I liked the idea of a healing ridge, though, that point at which one could look over the horizon and see that you'd made it through the worst of it and were now on the way to recovery. That point at which hope became less of a ghost and more like flesh. A little like being born.

I never told you what happened to the dog. The young woman who was Sunny's original owner eventually tracked him down and the reporter drove the dog all the way to Nebraska to be reunited with her. They showed footage of Sunny licking the woman's face and excitedly jumping on her.

The woman called the dog by his original name, Nevaeh, which they explained was Heaven backwards.

I walked out of the examination room and back into the waiting room where the triage continued, almost everywhere.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Santorum To Jesus: Drop Dead !

These are sad days indeed for the ID crowd.

You know, the gang that believes that dinosaurs roamed the earth in 1952 while Jesus ran the local grocery store and handed out root beer candies to all the kids.

Something like that, I'm not clear on all the details as I've yet to read all of the rigorous scientific evidence that's gone into proving the existence of Intelligent Design.

First the voters of Dover, PA decided to throw out the school board that had worked so hard to push Creati...I mean, Bamboozilum, onto the educational agenda.

Then a federal judge ruled that the district's policy on Bamboozilum was unconstitutional, adding insult to injury.

But the absolute worst, the lowest of low points, had to be when the erstwhile Senator Rick Santorum, author of Women Should Be Saddled And Ridden Like A Horse Because Jesus Said So, champion of all things Biblical and Jimmy Olsen to Jesus's Superman, turned on the Bamboozilites.

Santorum, who had earlier praised the Dover School Board for teaching "the controversy of evolution," told the Associated Press, three days before Jesus's birthday yet, that he was troubled by testimony indicating that religion might have been a motivating force behind the adoption of Bamboozilum.

According to the AP, Santorum said ''I thought the Thomas More Law Center made a huge mistake in taking this case and in pushing this case to the extent they did," and he said he would end his affiliation with the center.

"Santorum was on the advisory board of the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, which defended the district's policy. The law center describes its mission as defending the religious freedom of Christians."

Rick had this startlingly secular vision one day after US District Judge John E. Jones ruled that the Dover district's policy of requiring students to hear a statement in biology class about intelligent design was ''a pretext . . . to promote religion."

Et tu, Santorus?

I've got to tell you, Rick, you've got a lot to learn about gift-giving. If it was three days before my birthday, and you went to the press and said that you'd been having second thoughts about teaching that I created the heavens and the earth, well, you might not receive another invitation from me.

In fact, that already seems to be happening. The American Family Association of Pennsylvania, one of those groups that seems to be dedicated to posting poor reviews of Brokeback Mountain, has already accused the Senator of "backwatering on this issue since August when he stated he did not believe Intelligent Design should be taught in the classroom."

"The majority of Americans understand what is at stake and want the controversy to be taught. They want their child's teachers to have the academic freedom to openly discuss Evolution, Intelligent Design and even Creationism. The majority of Americans, and especially Pennsylvanians, do not agree with Senator Rick Santorum or Judge John E. Jones."

I'd be especially interested in attending those classes that detail the huge canyon-like gulf of differences between Intelligent Design and Creationism. That must be a semester's worth of study right there.

In the meantime, forge ahead, brothers and sisters, forge ahead. Ignore those tribulations on either side of us and the roadblocks on the horizon.

Onward, to the new Bamboozilum!

Friday, December 23, 2005

This Blog Could Be My Life

One of the sad side effects of my unfortunate incarceration was that I had to miss the Fall/Minutemen documentary double bill mentioned below. I was out in time for that second evening, but in no shape to go.

I mention this in part because there's a great tribute to the Minutemen over at the Huffington Post today. It's well worth reading and will have to take the place of the doc for me for the time being. A nice job, though.

It's actually a little spooky, poring over some of the posts that immediately preceded my trip to the ER. The way they seem to foreshadow what was about to happen makes me wonder who's writing who: posts that talked about abdominal pain that made you double over, the ennui and boredom of living too long...

...and, of course, pee.

Which is to say that one jettisons the ennui and boredom pretty damn quickly when someone's trying to help you urinate.

Not to make more out of it than it is as the procedure's about as safe and common as getting a tooth extracted these days, but when they take your clothes away and put that shower cap on your head, you do begin to feel awfully grateful for the simplest things. Melancholy seems very much like a luxury.

It's almost as if the powers that be decided that they'd had enough of my complaining and decided to show me some real belly-aching.

That should wake him up.

Well, consider me awake, for the time being anyway. Because if there's one thing I've learned about these kinds of lessons, it's that their effects evaporate quickly.

I stopped off at the pharmacy to get my percocet prescription filled and ended up waiting in back of this couple in the "drop off" line.

They were giggling at everything on the counter and you got the feeling that they both thought they were terribly funny and clever. A woman would come and go and speak to them about some kind of refund and it appeared as if their transaction had nothing to do with dropping off anything.

Still feeling weak and achy from the hospital I quickly became impatient, and when the couple, after about ten minutes of this, turned around to me with my rather obvious prescription in my hand and told me "Oh, we're not dropping anything should probably wait over there," nodding to the empty line next to them, my head nearly exploded.

All the way home I nursed a blinding hatred for these two, how smug and thoughtless and stupid they were. I was white hot with anger. Until I stopped and thought for a moment:

You idiot!

Do you remember where you just came from? Do you remember what just happened?

You were afraid for your life. You were afraid you weren't going to make it and that you'd die alone on an operating table.

You moron! You stupid, ignorant bastard! What will it take? What will it take to appreciate what you've got?

Are things getting better now?
Are things getting worse?


Trusting in an endless sky

I remembered where I left off.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Hard To Swallow

Tim Russert: Good morning everyone, and welcome to the first half hour of Meet The Press during which our guest will be Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Good morning, Ms. Rice.

Condoleeza Rice: Good morning, Tim.

TR: Let's get right to it, then. This week the New York Times came out with a story that they say they've been sitting on for quite some time and it's one that's sent shockwaves through most political circles. According to the Times, it seems that President Bush has a fondness for eating babies.

CR: That's right, Tim.

TR: What do you have to say about that, Ms. Rice? First of all, does the White House really believe that President Bush has the right to gorge himself on tiny infants?

CR: I'm not a lawyer, Tim, but it seems to me that the right of the President to eat babies is implied in the Constitution. You know, "life, liberty and the pursuit of tasty newborns."

TR: I think that's actually "happiness," but no matter. Are you saying, Ms. Rice, that President Bush, merely because he is President, should be allowed to do anything he wants without having to answer to anyone?

CR: We call the President the "Commander-in-Chief," Tim. "Commander" means "boss," as does "chief." So he's the Boss of all Bosses. They get to do what they want.

TR: Sort of like a...Mafia kingpin?

CR: That's right, Tim.

TR: Moving on, is the President's appetite for cherubic flesh something that's at odds with the Republican Party's dedication to work for a "culture of life"?

CR: Not at all, Tim. These children are actually alive when he eats them.

TR: Isn't that drawing a fine...line...

CR: Not at all, not at all. I'm not a lawyer, Tim, but technically speaking, President Bush is not responsible for anything he does when under the influence of an ancient god whose name roughly translates into English as "He Who Must Digest Child Meat."

TR: My god. Does that happen often?

CR: Often enough.

TR: So it's the position of this White House, then, that the President is breaking no existing laws when he indulges in these, shall we say, macabre snacks?

CR: That's absolutely right, Tim. If God didn't mean for us to eat children, he wouldn't have put so many of them here.

TR: Words to ponder, Ms. Rice, words to ponder.

CR: Their pliant, tasty flesh also gives the President the energy he needs to face the terrorist threat that has been gathering like a dark mushroom cloud on the horizon since that dark day of -

TR: - the attack on our freedoms and way of life on 9/11?

CR: Correct.

TR: So no apologies here? The President of the United States will continue to chow down on America's best and brightest hope for the future?

CR: They knew the danger when they enlisted, Tim.

TR: Well, strictly speaking...

CR: And, by and large, he's leaving the Christian babies alone. Those are God's children, to consume as He sees fit.

TR: Good to know. Next up, a candid roundtable discussion on the general putrid horribleness of people who tell the truth, next on Meet The Press.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Please Stand By

Sometime in the early hours of last Thursday morning, Count Screwloose was suddenly seized with a desperate need to become acquainted with the glamorous world of catheters and hospital gowns. He blames this surprise surgery, quite naturally, on George Bush and the Republican National Committee.

Although he is now at home and resting comfortably, his puny and laughable recuperative powers mean that it may be a little while before he is once again able to man the rudder of this mighty vessel.

Although communications may be sporadic for a time, you may be confident that they will always be less than coherent. And that's a promise that you can always count on Team Screwloose to keep.

All the best,


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

My iPod Lies Over The Ocean

Ever since Sheva left for England, I find that I’ve been living in two time zones simultaneously. It’s weird, my whole time-sense has been thrown off and I feel kind of constantly jetlagged.

I’m busy doing the math in my head all the time, i.e., it’s noon now so it’s 5 o’ clock for her, etc., and feeling like the day is over when it’s just begun.

It’s that Libran indecision, I suppose. I’m unwilling to commit to a single time zone.

As for the innocent abroad, it sounds like she’s having a terrific time. First couple days were spent shopping and sightseeing in London, then it was on to Glasgow for the first clutch of Pogues shows.

Most importantly, of course, contact was made between the fan and the entertainers, which is always a thrill. She even managed a hello to the elusive Mr. MacGowan, who I’m made to understand comported himself as a gentleman of culture. No doubt he, too, had a sense of the gravity of the occasion.

Oh, I almost forgot. Apparently, British gentlemen are very easy on the eyes.

If you’re interested in reading more about it, as they used to say on those afterschool specials, be sure to visit the wife’s “travelpogue,” posted at More to come!

Staying in the general vicinity, not long ago a good friend in the UK attempted to make a DVD copy for me of a documentary about The Fall called The Wonderful, Frightening World Of Mark E. Smith. Unfortunately we never seemed to be able to get our formats to align, despite our best efforts. Luckily, and extremely oddly, the doc gets a local premiere here in Philly at our International House this Friday and Saturday night.

Also on the bill is another feature that sounds equally good, We Jam Econo: The Story Of The Minutemen. Truly inspired and ahead of their time, The Minutemen were one of the best bands to come out of the West Coast scene for my money, neck and neck with X. If you’re in the area and would like more info, check out their site here.

I’m still waiting on my giant package of new Michael Nyman stuff from Amazon UK. Just to backtrack, composer Nyman recently started his own label and started putting out new stuff right and left. When I realized how far behind I’d gotten on my Nyman (and that’s never good for anyone), I decided to just order everything as a holiday present to myself, kind of like a do-it-yourself box set. Then, when it arrived, I could wallow in all of it like a pig in modern minimalism.

Unfortunately, there’s a French import in the group that seems to be gumming up the works. Hopefully diplomatic efforts will soon bear fruit and the various recordings will be able to come to a common understanding.

In the meantime, I’ve been listening to a good deal of the Nyman back catalogue in preparation. What beautiful, shining music. It puts me in mind of some lyrics from a non-LP Bowie track, Safe:

Are things getting better now?
Are things getting worse?
But I’m standing in the sunshine
And it lifts my heart and feeds my mind


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Masterpee Theatre

All these mentions of Joyce, here and recently over on Miss Templeton’s site, got me to thinking about the times I have seen people urinate on stage.

In an artistic way, of course.

Way back in the early 80’s, my girlfriend of the moment and I were taking in the sights of New York City on a warm and lovely day. As we turned a corner, we noticed an adboard that was trumpeting the merits of an adaptation of Ulysses by a small theater troupe. The idea was that this limited company of 3 or 4 actors would present a sort of “digest” dramatization of the novel, frequently and frantically switching roles throughout.

Now I was intrigued, obviously, and I soon conned, that is, convinced my girlfriend that it was worth a look. We’d luckily arrived just as another show was about to start, so we quickly entered the cavernous space and found a couple of seats. The venue appeared to be the inside of a large former warehouse, with seats scattered around the non-descript performance area.

The show promptly commenced and you had to immediately admire the skill with which this group had managed to condense the events of that infamous day in 1904, especially without the aid of any backdrops or props. We galloped quickly through Stephen Dedalus’s opening section, and then it was on to Bloom frying his kidney as his wife made mewling sounds from the bedroom.

All the time the actors were changing identities. Buck Mulligan became Bloom became Blazes Boylan, a kind of appropriate metempsychosis considering the novel in question.

At long last, when we came to the arrival of Stephen and Bloom at 7 Eccles Street it was time for the pair to urinate outside the house. Well, I thought, no doubt they’ll be cleverly pantomiming this.

But no. All of a sudden the show became very literal indeed, as the two actors proceeded to produce two yellow arcs of dancing water with their backs turned to the audience. No offending appendages were on view, but it was nonetheless quite clear what was producing this particularly convincing special effect.

It hadn’t occurred to me that they would do that, but in the end it seemed entirely appropriate, even sacramental. It was not to be my last encounter with the theatrical use of the euphemistically entitled “Number One,” however.

This time it was less surprising, as we had gone to see sex worker/monologuist/performance artist and former porn star Annie Sprinkle. Indeed, each of the programs came with a condom attached.

During the course of her intriguing show, she demonstrated the correct use of a speculum and then invited audience members to come up and take a peek at her uterus. Many did, although I busied myself with the playbill.

Before this took place, however, Annie needed to void her bladder and so we were witnesses to this procedure in all of its natural splendor (hence the familiar doggerel heard around our house ever since, “Annie Sprinkle, watch her tinkle”). It was very similar to what I was used to experiencing on a daily basis, if a little harder to make out. Certainly the familiar sounds of micturation were present to assure us of the artist’s intentions.

Of course everyone’s heard of Andy Warhol’s “oxidation” paintings, which sported unique designs created by people having relieved themselves on them, and there’s Andres Serrano’s notorious Piss Christ, a photograph of an image of Christ submerged in urine.

When I first saw it, I think my mind traveled back to that performance of Ulysses that day. Something about the conflation of the holy and the human, the spiritual and the mundane.

At any rate, it’s obviously a medium whose potential has only begun to be explored. Let future generations look back and honor the place where this generation began to inscribe its name in the snow of artistic creation.

Ask not for whom the bowl swells…it swells for thee.

Monday, December 12, 2005

What Is A Booty And How Would I Know If I'm Shaking It?

I really intended to fly like Dedalus out from beneath the nets of sadness and hopelessness after that last Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Depressive, and back into the sun of some kind of comic (strip) vision. But I’m hoping you’ll indulge my mood.

I dropped the wife off at the airport on Saturday night and, after loading her up like some sort of pack mule, sent her off to check her baggage as we waved goodbye to each other until I was actually pulling away from the curb.

I needed to pick up some blank VHS tapes so that I could capture the TV viewing she would miss over the next two weeks, so on the way back I stopped off at a nearby shopping complex, you know the one. It’s always got a Best Buy, a Target, a Barnes and Noble and a Bed, Bath and Beyond. It’s the regulation set-up now. You’re not allowed to drive 5 miles without hitting one.

I grab the tapes, but I also pick up the latest George Clinton/P-Funk All Stars disc, a double set for the price of one called How Late Do U Have 2BB4UR Absent? I hadn’t picked up a Clinton disc in a while and, prepped by the last P-Funk show I saw not long ago, it looked worth taking a chance on. The truth is that even though I don’t buy that many CD’s, I’m desperate to hear something that excites me. Unfortunately, I’ve decided that there isn’t much chance of that these days. So, you go with the name you know.

Then it was over to the Barnes and Noble where tables were piled away with the season’s most promising offerings: the latest musings from Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie, Jenna Jameson, and other literary luminaries.

I strolled around endlessly, hoping my eyes would be taken with something interesting or original but it all looked tired. Or I was tired. All the same old spines glared back at me as if to say, “Go home, Jake…It’s Anginatown.” And a truth I’ve been trying to avoid settled on me with the decisiveness of a falling rock:

I was bored. Finally, after all of my efforts to stay interested in what was going on in the world around me, I was horribly, horribly bored. By it all.

Besides which, why should I have to look so hard? I understand that one has to dig for that rare diamond, but either the artists have run out of gas, I have, or the consolidation of the media has now prevented anything of quality and distinction from appearing in the ugly glare of the spotlight.

It’s depressing.

Which is why I thank god for the wife. You could take all the books away, all the records, and as long as I had her to entertain me, I’d be all right. She’s the smartest, funniest, cleverest person I’ve ever met and she constantly makes me laugh and smile.

She’s entertaining even in spite of herself. “What are you laughing at?” she’ll ask and all I can say is “Nothing, dear.”

“What do you mean, nothing? I can hear you laughing and I want to know what’s so damn funny!” And I laugh harder.

But she’s not here. Not for two weeks. Which leaves me to make my own fun.

The Clinton helps. Sure, there’s some misses along the way but there’s gonna be over two CD’s. But it’s mostly compelling, with a handful of things that are endlessly repeatable. So I go on to repeat them. Endlessly. Late into the night.

Look both ways before you cross my mind

George still sounds interested and he’s older than me.

I am Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk in the Zone of Zero Funkativity. I will never dance.

Then again, there is nothing that the proper attitude will not render funkable, right? Perhaps I can relearn to patriotically pledge allegiance to the booty.

I mean, ain’t nothin’ but a party. Right?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Panic In Year Zero, or: The Last Man On Earth

This is real:

I’ve just finished addressing the main, adult congregation of my church. I’ve been asked to speak about my experiences at Bible Memorization Camp and, for some reason, I’m totally on.

Material, timing, build-up, everything is working. My short speech has them in the aisles and the more I go on, the louder they laugh. I can see a woman in one of the front rows dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief.

My mother, who had slipped out for a moment, returns at the end to find people with broad smiles on their faces walking over to my father and shaking his hand. She can’t figure out what’s happened…

The day after my epiphany in the bunk, I stayed after the daily Bible Studies meeting to talk to the instructor, a near-sighted old lady who peered out from behind thick lenses.

“I think I was saved last night,” I told her.

“Really!” she said. “That’s wonderful!”

“Yeah, I was really suffering and then felt overwhelmed by this sensation of peace.”

“Well,” she said, “that sounds like the Holy Spirit entering your heart.”

You ever wonder about the high number of people doing time in prison who experience a religious conversion?

I don’t.

At some point, the mind and body simply isn’t up to enduring any more and it flips a switch and does whatever it needs to do to survive.

My body declared that my sentence was over and it devised a scheme whereby I could stop the suffering. I would be what they wanted, I would become this person I needed to be to live here and, in so doing, enjoy the extra benefit of this sense of calm that I’d been told was part of the package.

It did this on a deep level that I didn’t know existed. Later in life I would learn that panic and anxiety also worked this way, creating distress for the purpose of removing me from stressful situations. Someone who can’t function can’t be expected to deal with stress. He’d have to stay in the nest, wouldn’t he?

My problem now was that I was in a double bind. The truth was that I was actually feeling worse than ever. Having completely forfeited my identity in an attempt to stop the pain, I was in a state of extreme emotional turmoil, even though superficially I was convinced that everything was now all right.

Simple, right?

On some level I suppose I believed that I had been “saved.” But deep inside, in a place where I couldn’t acknowledge it, I felt as if I were in someone else’s skin and I was screaming to get out.

I needed help, desperately.

(March, 2005: Los Angeles. The palm leaves that litter the sidewalks start to look sick. Nausea bends me in half as I slowly make my way down Sunset Boulevard, desperately trying to figure out what to do. A drink? Food? My head is spinning. Am I going to faint here, right on the ground until somebody notices?)

That night I lay in the bunk again, trying to understand what was happening. There was a need to release all of this pain, all of this poison I felt was coursing through my veins.

(I see that I’m not far from a McDonald’s. The pain stabs me in the stomach again.)

I’m shaking on the mattress, nauseous and dizzy. Where can I put all of this? It needs to go somewhere, but where?

(Suddenly, I know exactly what’s going on. I dash into the McDonald’s and search for the Men’s Room.)

Oh, god, no…don’t let me…not on the…

(Locking the door, I make it just in time and sit down, wrapping my arms around my stomach.)

I run to the bathroom and it all comes out, everywhere, everywhere anything can come out. My body held back as long as it could until it told me, “This is all wrong. Stop it.”

When I’m finished there is nothing left, all the fear, all the nervousness, all the poison had been purged. It was time to be myself again.

In retrospect, maybe this was the first of the many panic attacks to come, attacks that would come in the form of fake heart attacks, sudden disorientation, and agoraphobia. Certainly it made plain that I localized my emotional pain in my lower abdomen, which bothers me to this day.

Did I start constructing my fortress that day? The ramparts that protected me from the Night Of The Living Dead outside its walls, keeping me safe from the zombies and vampires?

I was still a few years away from discovering Joyce and Stephen Dedalus’s cry of profane joy at the sight of the wading girl, a scene in which I recognized myself and that showed me there was only one place I would ever really belong. But even before that, there was the speech before the congregation.

They’d asked those of us who’d made the trip to say a few words about the experience. Lightning shot through my newly adrenalized bloodstream and I crafted a humorous speech that transformed the pain into comedy.

I killed that day like I never have before, all four cylinders hitting perfectly.

And as I looked out at the audience, eyes wet with tears of laughter, and my father’s broad smile, I felt so far away from that suffering shell in the woods. I felt more like myself than I ever had before. I felt like I was coming into my inheritance.

I felt born again.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pitchforks At Dawn

They say that men hunt and women nest.

I’ve never understood that, frankly. All I do is nest. I’m absolutely happiest when in a familiar room filled with familiar books around me on all sides, with toys and records and anything else filling up whatever space is left, so that I am cocooned inside a place very like the inside of my own mind.

I’d just as well someone else do the hunting. Unless we’re talking about a rare CD or something.

Whenever I’m going to be away from home for any period of time, I feel better bringing along some sort of talisman to remind me of who I am and where I live. It can be a book or some music, anything that assures me that home was not a dream and that I’ll eventually get back again.

Otherwise, I feel too lost and alone. Without something that confirms for me that the world as I know it is still stable, I can quickly and easily tailspin into despair, into the belief that the world is cold and hostile and without mercy.

The parameters of my reality are delicate ones. I don’t survive very long outside them and it’s still far too easy for them to be blown away by the simplest things.

I’ve created, to the best of my ability, a world I can live in, and it has very little to do with 98 percent of the reality we share. It’s a birdcage of my own design, but it allows me to sing in safety.

You get the idea. I’m a delicate little hothouse flower.

I know all this now. But I didn’t when I entered Bible Memorization Camp. That’s what it was going to teach me.

Now I was never what you would call a “country boy.” I would have eventually freaked out in any camp after about 20 minutes. It was situated in a cozy alcove in the woods, with a mess hall and sleeping quarters and a nearby lake. On the simplest level, I’d been kicked out of the nest and thrown into the jungle, the bucolic world of the hunt. The loss of my space and its protective buffer zones, the abundance of strangers, and the absence of any familiar identification markers made me feel as if I were slipping off the edge of the world.

But the Bible angle put a particularly vicious spin on it. There were morning prayers, afternoon Bible meetings during which the importance of being washed in the blood of the lamb was impressed upon us, and nightly Bible readings before bed. There were no discussions about the possible virtues of other faiths here. There was “one way.”

Slowly, the walls were closing in and, somewhere inside me, I began to be absolutely terrified. I didn’t even realize how terrified I was. I might as well have been on Mars without my glasses and yet, I acted for all intents and purposes as if everything were normal, as if I were normal.

And I’ve learned through painful trial and error that the greatest mistake I can ever make, in any situation, is to pretend that I am normal.

I was bluffing my way through it, smiling, nodding my head. I had no other choice.

I’d lay on the bunk at night feeling claustrophobic, unable to breathe. In some ways, it felt like the first stirrings of the anxiety and panic disorder that would begin to plague me in the years to come. All I knew at the time was that I desperately needed to remove myself from where I was and that that was completely impossible.

Lying in the dark, the same words kept running through my mind: What have I done? How did I allow this to happen? I am allergic to this place, mind, body, and soul. I don’t belong here. I can’t breathe here.

Someone help me. Save me from the abyss!

Please, God, Jesus, help me!

March, 2005: Los Angeles. I’m overheated as hell and don’t think I can make the walk back to the hotel. I wish I were anywhere but here. This was a mistake, the biggest one I’ve ever made. A shiver of fear travels down my back and into my stomach. I start to cramp and double over on the sidewalk. The black hole begins to open.

Somebody help me!

Back at the camp, just as I feel as if I can’t bear any more suffering, the horror reaches a crescendo in the dark and seems to crest, revealing a placid landscape of peace and contentment.

I was saved!

Through the sacrifice of my Lord Jesus Christ, I was saved!

Next: Panic In Year Zero, or: The Last Man On Earth

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

In The Beginning Was The Weird

I can clearly remember a conversation I had with a friend who attended the same church I did when we were kids. I had been wrestling with the fact that one’s religious convictions seemed dependent upon where one was born. If I’d have been born in India, or Israel, or Ireland, I’d have been holding quite a different banner, it seemed to me.

Given that we can’t all be right about God, didn’t it seem to him, as it was beginning to seem to me, that since you can’t control where you’re born, this matter of what faith was “correct,” regardless of whether it was ours or anybody else’s, was a moot point? Wasn’t it all the same? Weren’t we all trying to get to the same place? Maybe we Presbyterians didn’t have a monopoly on Heaven?

“Nope, never worried me,” he said. He’d never questioned it. God said it, he believed it, and that was that.

Not that this was a traumatic conversation. It merely made it plain that I was not long for the church. No, my most traumatic childhood conversation occurred when I was much younger and first realized that I would one day have to die.

The thought chilled and depressed me, not to mention setting me on the personality path I’m still traveling on. I told my father about this realization and he told me, looking a little shaken as he did so, that he never wanted to hear me speak that way again.

I don’t blame him, really. It must have been a little surreal to have these existential statements coming out of such a tiny mouth. And I was too young for him to offer me a drink.

As I grew older and began attending Sunday School, questions of mortality came up, but I became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that the only reason to behave kindly to others was to avoid the Land of Fire and Brimstone after I’d kicked the bucket. It didn’t seem like a spiritual concept at all. It seemed like a threat, something I never responded well to.

This other idea, the one that proclaimed that we had to convert everyone else to our way of thinking lest they go to Hell, was just another threat. Still, I went every Sunday because that’s what we did. I’d get this free comic every week with a Bible story in it (the art didn’t seem that different from that in my Superman comics) and then we’d all go to the Linton’s restaurant afterwards for breakfast. It was minimal suffering for maximum gain.

So the idea of participating in a Bible Memorization program didn’t seem so odd at the time. It was a challenge that would get progressively harder, I’d get free books (even if they were all devoted to Christian subjects), and it wasn’t like I was making a commitment to any particular religion, I reasoned. It was just a way to have some fun and make Sundays a little more interesting.

Each module of the program featured a slim volume in fake leather binding that nevertheless smelled very good. I’d commit a hunk of Bible verses to memory each week and then recite it to the fellow at the church who was in charge of witnessing these performances. Each week, I’d go up another notch as the length of the passages increased and the language became more difficult.

I still remember this large book with a blue and white cover called Heaven that I’d won early on. The writer had taken all the references in the Bible to Heaven and tried to construct a reasonable scenario of what one might expect. I still wasn’t sure where I was going and, in fact, began to suspect that I might not be going anywhere at all. I could still summon up that chill from childhood when I saw the abyss in front of me, a great emptiness that engulfed the world regardless of what any of us tried to do about it.

Whether we called our response Religion, Community, or Civilization, I could see how feeble these would be in the face of The Great Emptiness, a black hole that invalidated human existence, laughed at our attempts to become more than the animals we were, and that could burn it all down as quick as a thought.

It was all pointless, pointless and endlessly sad. Life was an abattoir that we did our best to laugh off.

And you never knew when the abyss would open its gaping maw.

Fast forward to Los Angeles, March 2005. I’m walking down Sunset Boulevard, dazed by the sun and the heat. I’m 3,000 miles away from home and I don’t recognize anyone or anything. My fear of nothingness faces me on every block in the form of the homeless and destitute.

A cold chill runs through me. Where do I know this feeling from?

Next: Pitchforks At Dawn

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Chapter And Worse: A Prelude

I think it’s finally sinking into the wife’s brain that she’s going to England.

It’s bad enough when she goes on a short trip somewhere. A wire gets tripped and she becomes a bundle of nervousness, certain that she’s forgotten something. Her anxiety is palpable.

Now multiply that by ten.

There’s still lots to do yet: figure out how the rented cell phone works, not to mention the digital camera, make sure she has the proper wardrobe and the luggage to carry it in, and on and on.

I can already tell she’s going to have to fight through the anxiety to get to the place where she remembers why she wanted to go in the first place. I sympathize. I went out to the West Coast by myself earlier this year and there was this low-level wrenching feeling going on the whole time. Why did I do this? Where the hell am I? I found out a long time ago that my body doesn’t do well when taken out of its usual environment.

There was a period in my young life when I participated in a Bible Memorization program. Each week I memorized a certain number of Bible verses and, as I did so, I received more and more rewards in the form of religious books, many of them published by the Zondervan firm in Grand Rapids, and other Christianity-related prizes.

I did this for a couple of years, until I was offered the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks at a Bible Memorization Camp. Now, ladies and gentlemen, I cannot tell you why I agreed to this. I cannot tell you why I was not wise enough to know what would happen if:

a) I were removed from an urban environment


b) placed in the middle of a cult-like group who, firmly but insistently, wanted you to be “Saved.”

Honestly, I should have understood what lay in store for me if I agreed to it. I am astonished, looking back on the events I’m about to relate, that I didn’t have a clue what a recipe for disaster this was. It’s like I don’t know who that kid was.

If I’d known him, I would have said, “Hey, kid! What the hell’s the matter with you? Stay home and read your comics. Buy a Slurpee or a Duncan Yo-Yo.”

Would I have listened to the 50-year old stranger?

Or would I have quoted Bible verse at him and ask why he doesn’t dress better?

Next: In The Beginning Was The Weird

Monday, December 05, 2005

Stranger Still

It was always easy to typecast Donovan as the essence of the Summer Of Love, the mystic mellow-yellow hippie with flowers coming out of his caftan, a relic from an era of love and togetherness.

But this never gave him enough credit, not only for his own individual style, but the way that he absorbed folk, jazz, and rock and turned those influences into a unique brew that has never lost its appeal.

This was all reinforced last Friday night as I caught his 40th Anniversary Hurdy Gurdy Tour. Largely motivated by the need to back up the recent release of both a box set and a book, it featured an eclectic selection of songs, many of which came from those 70’s albums that I played once and filed away. Yes, I was a stalwart fan, but my enthusiasm gradually disappeared as album after album seemed to leave me unsatisfied. But I never lost my love of his classic albums, many of which have been recently re-released with the usual bumper crop of extra and alternative tracks.

This wasn’t the sensitive troubadour of black light poster fame – right out of the box, he and his electric band bashed out Hurdy Gurdy Man and Barabajagal, with the lead guitarist playing the original solos note for note. God, they sounded good.

Even the 70’s stuff sounded good, fresher for my having ignored them for so long, including the title tracks from Slow Down World and Cosmic Wheels. The early years were represented by Catch The Wind, Universal Soldier, and Colours, all still timeless and lovely.

It was all wonderful stuff, every song you’d want to hear one right after the other, Lalena, Young Girl Blues, Epistle To Dippy, Sunshine Superman, Wear Your Love Like Heaven and Atlantis. But the song that made the night for me was one I always forget about when I’m considering Donovan: Season Of The Witch.

The moment they started to play it, it sounded like one of the best songs ever written. Everything about it seemed so completely fresh and classic at the same time, from the teasing riff that anchored it to the mystery and languor of its lyric:

It’s strange
So strange

You’ve got to pick up every stitch
You’ve got to pick up every stitch
Beatniks are out to make it rich
Oh no

You wanted it to go on for hours.

The next night, the wife and I attended a 50th Birthday party for a very close friend of ours. The friend, a gynecologist, rented out a room at a downtown bar and festooned the tables with condoms and plastic speculums. During the course of the evening, various friends of the guest of honor, most of them old enough to remember when Donovan was in the charts, made speeches and it was a very warm and pleasant evening.

It did make me wonder a bit if I should have been a little more celebratory about my own 50th. I know a few people who saw their 50th in with large events, invited lots of friends, and generally made a big deal about it.

The more I thought about it, though, I realized I preferred spending it the way I did, in a more solitary fashion. If I had thrown a party, I think it would have been more for the invitees than for me. I’m not really a party guy. I don’t dance much anymore and I like to watch people do things more than do them. I’m awkward with hugs. I don’t wear my love like heaven.

Sure, there are better ways to live. I envy those who can open themselves up and make their lives a freer, more approachable place to be. That’s a healthier way to be, I think. But for now, I feel better sailing paper airplanes out of my cave and pulling the covers up to my chin.

The next morning brought a lesson in the kindness of strangers, though. It was a Surprise Birthday Brunch for my Dad, who’s still recovering from some medical difficulties. The fact that it had snowed the previous night probably made him think his companion was crazy when she suggested they go out to eat, and she no doubt had to spill the beans to get him there, but it was still all of us together.

We caught up on the latest family news, a rare commodity ever since I became nominally estranged from most of my siblings, including the word that the one nephew is now doing a college radio show (that talent runs in the family, apparently). The niece with too much gothy eyeliner, who calls me “Uncle Pudd’nhead,” was there, as well as the tiny one whose little set of Christmas antlers made her look like Cindy Lou Who.

More than once, though, people we didn’t know who saw us awkwardly trying to fit The Family Screwloose into various photos offered to snap the desired shots with the 5 or 6 hungry cameras arrayed on the table.

It was oddly moving, in a way, these strangers jumping into the breach. Maybe people aren’t so awful. Maybe I could let a few of them into the cave, after all.

I’m working on it.

In the meantime, if you’d like to see how I did spend my 50th…

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Fall Of Grease, or: A Short History Of Pop Artery

I had a long chat with Bob last night in which the subject eventually turned from books and bootlegs to our latest medical news, so I brought him up-to-date on my experience with the flu and pneumonia shots.

It turned out that he has a flu shot every year and that, yes, even though they make you feel awful for a few days, they really do seem to ward off those long winter illnesses. So I felt as if I had done the intelligent thing.

Now let me bring you up-to-speed with what I told him.

During this entire inoculation effort, during which we lost some good men I don’t mind telling you, some blood was drawn for a long-overdue peek at my cholesterol situation. I’d had it looked at before, but the doctor wanted this particularly fine-tuned test done to see what was what.

So a couple days later I come home to a message on the answering machine. It’s the doctor’s office.

The nurse says, “Uh, Mr. Getz? This is Dr. ****’s office calling regarding your test results. Could you call us back at your earliest opportunity so we could discuss them with you? Thank you.”


I never get these kinds of messages from my doctor’s office. I just show up every few months and he usually tells me how all the results were fine, etc., and here’s a free sample of Apoplexocon, let us know what it does to you, if you wouldn’t mind.

For the first time, I tasted real fear in connection with a medical test. As many things as have gone wrong with me, they’ve never been anything terribly serious or mysterious. This made me very, very nervous.

I grabbed the phone and called the office, getting the same nurse who had left the message. She told me, “Oh, hold on, please!” and disappeared, no doubt to get the doctor who would deliver the crushing blow personally. I waited. And I waited.

What was going on? Did no one have the courage to tell me what was wrong?

Finally, the voice returned. “It’s about the results of your cholesterol test. They’re a mess.”

“What? Do you mean someone messed them up?”

“No, no. I mean, they’re a mess. They’re a long way from where they should be and the doctor would like you to come in to discuss it.”

“Um, can you tell me exactly what’s wrong?”

“Well, your total cholesterol, which should be around 150?”


“It’s closer to 300.”


“And your LDL, which we like to see around 130 or less, is around 150, while your HDL, or what we call ‘good cholesterol,’ is 35, as opposed to the 45 or more we like to see.”

“So all together, it’s not a very good picture, huh?”

“No, so the sooner you could get in here, the better.”

So I made an appointment for next Tuesday. All of a sudden, my jokes about My Inevitable Coronary or being a Heart Attack Waiting To Happen didn’t seem so funny anymore. All those cheeseburgers felt suddenly lethal.

Somewhere, somehow, I’d have to find the will power my wife found this year when she decided to lose weight and eat decently. How was this going to happen?

“Well,” said Bob as we wrapped up, “I’ll let you go put your mask on and get some sleep,” referring to the mask connected to the CPAP machine that allows me to sleep without being abused by Sleep Apnea.

“My god,” I said, suddenly feeling overcome with age, “I’m going to be one of those people who walks around wearing a mask and wheeling an oxygen tank around with them.”

“Hey,” said Bob, “you can always put a ‘Ramones’ sticker on it.”