Wednesday, April 18, 2007


The question would have been strange at any time of the day, but at 4 AM on a week night it was positively surreal. "Is this forever?" The voice on the telephone said. Well, no, of course not. Nothing is forever, ol' chap; didn't anyone ever tell you that?

I wish I had said something along those lines this morning to the man that kept dialing my number in the dead of night, but all I could do was mumble, no, and then ask what number he was trying to call. The line went dead in my hand, though, so I never did find out what the guy meant by "forever" and why he thought he could find it by calling me. I went back to bed and tried in vain to get some sleep. I closed my eyes for what felt like a few seconds and when I opened them it was time to get up. It's been that kind of a week.

It's late Thursday afternoon, and the weather is god-awful. The city is buried under a layer of sand and humid wind, a truly hideous combination that makes walking, driving, and living in general pretty unpleasant. I trudged up to the local mall to meet up with a friend and catch a movie but I pulled the plug early. Walking was so difficult I just wanted to go the hell home. The move to Haiti I keep promising myself is beginning to seem inevitable now.

I've been thinking about the play "Da", a play by the Irish playwright Hugh Leonard, which I saw a couple weeks back at MN's place. The protagonist is a successful playwright who comes back home after his father's death and is haunted by his dad's ghost. It probably wasn't the best choice for me, given my father's recent passing, but I've wanted to see this play for a long time and being only the single most passionate person that I know on all matters of literature, art and politics made MN the perfect candidate to watch it with; nobody is quite the patron as she.

The father character was quite unlike my Dad - far too mild and nowhere near as furious or angry. For me, the most disturbing scenes did not occur between father and son, but between the 40-something hero and a younger version of himself. "I have to tell you," said the young punk to his middle-aged self, "I'm a little disappointed. I thought I would have accomplished more by the time I got to be your age." I felt that one land. I could only imagine what the 20-year-old rendition of me would say to her almost half-century self. I'm not sure how I would answer, except shrug and say something deep like, uh, gosh, I don't know, the time kind of flew by I guess, but by then my doppelganger would have picked up the nearest blunt instrument and chased me over hill and dale screaming ,"Die, die, die!"

I was pretty excitable as a kid and in more ways than one I still am, very much so. I have little or no worry of the future. I live in the now and am easily amused. But as I watched on, I shuddered to think of a life of little meaning when I hit the 50 mark. So, I thought about it. A lot. What translated as giving meaning to life at the time escaped me soon after but the feeling lasted.

In addition to late night wrong numbers, there's that dream I had during the week where I lived my greatest fantasy and decided it wasn't all exciting. In the dream, I felt angry and restless, wanting desperately to be someplace else. Even the insufferably fake sweetness about the checkout lady made me want to smash her face in. This was one of the dreams where, upon waking, I literally thanked God it was only a dream and not real life. I didn't need some loser dialing a wrong number to get me out of this one. My subconscious mind apparently pulled the ripcord and got me back to the land of the (semi) living.

So, clearly I've got a problem letting go of the past and forgiving myself for my mistakes - anger and restlessness are my Scylla and Charybdis, a phrase I've been itching to use for a while. Yeah, I should take more risks while I'm still young, do something more about my dreams than just dream about them. Hell, maybe I could pass the buck back to my younger self when I'm older and grayer. You were younger and stronger than I. Why didn't you do something more than just let the time pass? But buck-passing is never good and when you do it to yourself it's a little wacky.

I was very sorry to learn of Kurt Vonnegut's death this past week. Like my father, he was a war veteran. The similarity pretty much ends there, but it's tough to see another member of that generation fade away.

There was a time in my life when it seemed I was reading nothing but Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five, The Sirens of Titan, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, I read them all and wanted more. He had a book of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, which really showed how he evolved as a writer. It's been a long time, but I remember reading a few stories that I would be tempted to call clunkers. There was a story titled "Deer in the Works", which, as I recall, was about a man who works at this huge industrial plant - Vonnegut worked at a GE plant in Upstate New York - and at one point he's watching as a deer runs frantically through this vast, unfriendly place. The story was very simple but the image of that terrified deer was unforgettable.

Sometime in medical school I slowed down on Vonnegut and gradually moved on to other writers. I wonder how he'd write up the current freak show that our society has become. The disaster in Iraq, the Israeli assault on Lebanon - this is great material for a man like Vonnegut. Like a lot of things from years ago, I don't remember his work so much as I remember my obsession for it. He was just so big in my life at one time. Maybe I should dig up some of his old paperbacks and read them again.

I have to confess that one of the first things I felt reading his obituary after sadness, of course, was a strange kind of liberation. I sometimes feel guilty about my father's death, as it happened when I wasn't there. I felt badly for a long time. That feeling slowly faded, but apparently it was still inside my skull someplace, floating around, waiting to come out. I don't know what to make of all that, but I bet Kurt Vonnegut would.

I think of how Billy Pilgrim would move through time and then look at how I carry the past around with me. I still get angry over things that happened years ago, still regret the things I did and the things I didn't do. In a sense I'm unstuck in time, too.

I'm wondering now if that was my younger self on the phone this morning, calling to ask if I - we - would be around forever. No, Younger Me, we won't. We all have to go sometime and, Lord willing, we're not driven by dark forces to hasten the process.

So, a good day to me, to you, to all those reading these words and even those who aren't. Don't fight with the past, don't argue with your youthful ghost, just put on your club's finest and get out there and grab a glass of soda. Here's to a great weekend and remember that nothing lasts forever.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Nothing says freedom more than having a .357 tucked under your armpit or carrying an AK-47 in the trunk of your car. Guns are what make America so great. Of course there are some drawbacks to this freedom, like, oh, I don't know, the occasional mass murder.

In view of the fairly recent slaughter at Virginia Tech, it's impossible not to talk about the trigger. As with other massacres, this incident will spark a lot of debate over gun control and you can bet some bleeding hearts will have the nerve to suggest outlawing guns, yet again; while the neocon pistol-humpers have no problem with gun laws that allow psychotics to get their hands on lethal weapons. Oh, no, of course not. We all know that guns don't kill people, people kill people. The guns are just fine and the gun makers are just nice, decent business people. Makes you love America, doesn't it?

The entire country is sure to have taken a grim familiarity to news footage of the sort and by now people know the drill. The story comes out in bits and pieces, with reports of a shooting at a certain location. Then it turns into multiple shootings and the public gets the shaky news footage of people running or sobbing into each other's arms, ambulances and squad cars roaring up to the scene, cops in SWAT gear running in all directions. Then there's the diagram of the killer's progress, mapping out the assault like a historical battle, rather than fresh carnage. Gradually, the whole story comes out, usually a variation on the disgruntled loner who got his hands on a gun. We learn of the innocents who died, hear about acts of bravery. We also get the rundown of previous massacres, reported as if they were sports statistics. You could probably run the same footage every time and few people would know the difference. To paraphrase the conservative icon Ronald Reagan, you've seen one massacre, you've seen them all. There will be candlelight vigils, speeches by politicians, as people vow they will never forget these terrible events and never let them happen again.

And then it will happen again.

While newspapers around the world ask what the hell is going on in American and why innocent men, women and children are being slaughtered, Americans will be going on about their constitutional right to carry guns, even though the amendment was written at a time when people carried flintlocks, not semi-automatic handguns that can blanket the air with bullets.

Some pundits are actually suggesting that if Virginia Tech hadn't outlawed firearms on campus, the students might have been able to fight back against their attacker. Let me see now: we have a college campus, where young people drink, deal with the pressures of their studies, their families, and their relationships. And sometimes they get really angry. So, of course, letting them carry guns to school is the perfect solution - if you want to have a massacre every weekend, that is. But then, of course, it's their God given right to blow each other's brains out.

Meanwhile, the gun industry has nothing to worry about. In case you're confused, just remember this little ditty: the NRA will always have its way in the USA. As long as the gun lobby continues to stuff money into politicians' pockets, authorities will be zipping innocent people into body bags. And matanza will keep appearing on front pages. Yes, that's America, where they regulate abortions, but not assault weapons. Focus on the fetus, but not the stacks of corpses that continue to pile up.

So get out there and start shooting. Shoot your neighbors, shoot your goldfish, shoot your dentist, shoot your plants, shoot everything that moves and maybe a few things that don't. Let's have more massacres, more senseless shootings, and more grieving families. It's the American way, after all, how could you object to it?

Unless you're some kind of commie.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


You never know where you'll meet a decent human being.

Most days they can be awful hard to find and if I went searching for one, a huge corporation would be the last place I'd look. But that's what happened today when I called the insurance carrier on my car to find out what I could about a claim on the accident I had been in a couple weeks ago.

My mother has always been the one to handle the financial and legal paperwork of the family, although my father always maintained he was the brains of the outfit. Since his death, a lot of records have pretty much gone to hell. I've done my best to keep up, but my hatred of all things legal and financial plus my stunning lack of aptitude in these matters has resulted in some rather sizeable gaps in the family's portfolio. And of course, it doesn't help to have documents constantly exchange hands and move back and forth between here and the family home in Abu Dhabi.

So, I decided to call the insurance company and get it right. I won't mention the name, but they've got cartoon dogs and greed on the payroll so you take it from there.

Naturally, I had to go through the answering service contortions, pressing button after button until I got a real person. Her name was Anna, she had what I think was a Filipino accent and she wanted to know how she could help me today. So, I ranted on for a minute or two without pause for breath. I told her about the state of the scattered papers, explained that my car had previously been registered in my father's name and that I was calling because now I had no way of knowing.

Now I'm not sure what happened next, but somehow Anna went from being another telephone android to this kind, caring flesh and blood woman who really did want to help me.

I know what you're going through.

That's how it started, when Anna said she understood my situation. She told me about her mother, a former school teacher who had Alzheimer's. She was known for her great spelling ability, but as the disease progressed this same woman didn't know how to put her shoes on. She had trouble recognizing her own daughter and then slowly but surely began to fall apart bit by bit and gave in to death. Anna went on and on with this story, pouring all into my brain from some telephone call-in center somewhere in the UAE. It was such a jarring combination of the intimate and the impersonal; I didn't know how to handle it.

Anna finally finished her story and wished me luck. I was almost in tears by then and I thanked her for the kindness. This kind of compassion, real compassion can't be taught in some kind of telemarketing school. You've got to be born with it.

I'm sorry I didn't get Anna's last name because I would have actually written a letter to her supervisors telling them what a gem they had on their hands. I wonder if they would frown upon such familiarity with the clients. You're supposed to be a heartless robot like the rest of us. Get with the program or turn in your headphones. Let's hope not.

So, Anna, I'll thank you through this blog. The few minutes you spent talking to me about your mom meant more to me than you could ever know. And I guess the best way to honor your kindness is to pass it along.

Be well, Anna. I'm so glad we got to talk.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


I promised myself I would take at least two major exams this year and break my back getting a spot in one of the meanest residency programs. But each day I break a little bit of that promise if anything, when I waste more time than I can afford going on quests given to me by kilobytes in the form of night-elf druids that don't actually exist while my books gather endless layers of dust (thankeeverymuch World of Warcraft). Plus I was involved in an accident last week that totally wrecked my car which gave me an excuse to stop attending my study sessions. Plus this bad case of the screaming whatsits is going to give me a hard time transitioning back to study mode when I actually do wish to get serious. Plus to my eternal regret, I find myself surrounded by vultures disguised as friends who're constantly bent on siphoning every last penny out of me. Funny how all these pluses add up to minuses.

Did I ever say that Psychiatry was a load of old guff aimed at the gullible and the desperate? I take it all back as, surely, here is irrefutable proof to the contrary.