This mortal coil

In the hospital, many devices make noise. They are, presumably, speaking a language that is meaningful to doctors and nurses, although not so much to patients. I lie in bed wondering how many of them refer to me, the patient in room 1008.

It’s a great room, by the way. It’s a single, so there are no other sick people in the room. That’s good, because I hate being around sick people, even when I am one. Especially when I am one. I also dislike tourists and old people.

Every so often, I hear “crash cart to room 705 immediately” or “Code Blue in room 917.” Every time I hear that it’s not my room number, I relax. Because, you know, I think I’m rational, but I’m also in the hospital. I could be crashing without knowing it. I could also be hallucinating. I’ve been given drugs, but are they the good drugs? I wonder.

Also, the room has a big window with a great view of the Bay Bridge. Unfortunately, I can’t see the view from my bed. I am wired tightly to faintly throbbing machines by my bed. I have a large plastic container for urine, but I’ve been denied water since 4:30 this afternoon, so my need for the container has been overstated.

It is 1:45 in the morning. No one is awake except Rose, the brisk but kindly night nurse who has apparently seen everything, and I’m in there right around nothing.  I am sentient, can form complete sentences, and seem unlikely to die. For Rose, that’s a win-win. For me too. I am happy to be a patient of only marginal concern.

The beeps continue. Wires lead from my body back behind the bed. Every so often, the blood pressure cuff squeezes my arm, like a more knowledgeable friend guiding me through a crowd.

I long for sleep.

Yeah, well, not so fast

Tracy and I arrived at the emergency room in late afternoon. We were there because I was feeling like crap. I did not have a theory about what was wrong with me.

Because I was nauseated and in pain, the nurses on duty decided it would be useful to weigh me. Also, they needed answers to many questions read off a list of many questions. One of them wanted to know whether I’d experienced heartburn during my pregnancy.

Then they found me a bed, asked me take of my clothes, and cuffed me. It was only a blood pressure cuff, but still.

Time passed. That’s what mostly happens in an emergency room. “It’s a quiet night,” I said to a nurse. “That’s cursing,” he said. “We don’t allow cursing in the emergency room.” Not that these handmaidens of science are superstitious. It’s just that one careless word about how peaceful it is can cause 14 infarcations, seven gunshot wounds and horrendous accident on 880 to happen simultaneously.

Then the lady from the office came in. She wanted to explain certain things, like how much the hospital would cost each day. (This is Kaiser, so the amount was ridiculously small). Of course, everything else is pricey. The backless gown I’m wearing: $1081. The chips of ice they will finally give me: $878. The Kleenex I will need before the night is out: $403. I made those numbers up, but I think they are indicative of a larger problem. If Trump gets his way, that backless gown will cost $5603 — and there will be no guarantee that it’s backless.

Then there came a confusing conversation about my end-of-life preferences. I have an end-of-life directive, although not with me. I asked if there was any particular reason why I should have it with me. “Oh my no,” she laughed. “Ha ha well, just routine.” I was bored, so I thought I’d be provocative. “I’m not sure,” I said. “I think keeping me alive no matter what would be the best idea. Call me crazy, but I like living.”

“Oh, you don’t want that. They have to crack your ribs and massage your heart, and if your blood flow stops, well, vegetable.”

Her suggestion, as I understand it: Just hang out and wait until death comes along. The old “because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me” theory. Why do emergency rooms make me think of Emily Dickinson? She heard a fly buzz when she died; I imagine I’ll hear many beeps, in many different modes and tones. Sigh.

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Thanks, but I’m washing my hair that night

My nurse in the emergency room was Francis. He was cheerful and amusing. “You’re a really good nurse,” I said. “You’re a really good patient,” he said.  See: validation.

In the beginning, my tiny emergency roomlet was busier than anything. Then it was just boring. I sent Tracy home at 11; I was in good hands. She was glad to go. Every 20 minutes or so, someone would pop in and say my room was getting cleaned. But then…how long does it take to clean a room? But I’m not seeing the big  picture. The big picture:  Many people sicker than me. Plus, people are coding. That’s hospital-speak for “dying.”

So I should count my blessings. Plenty of time: 1,2,3,12, 18, 36, 104…or less. I may have repeated “bacon” and “sexual relations.”

This is the part of the column where I should tell you what’s wrong with me. I would go into clinical detail, describing the spleen or the pancreas or the thymus. I would come up with two fun facts about the gastro-intestinal tract. I might even dwell on the fragility of life, and the comfort I take from my family.

But no. It’s my privacy screen, and I can choose what things I put behind it. Let’s say, because I know you worry, that my condition was neither infectious or chronic, which, in the muted language of the cagey journalist, means not a heart attack, not a stroke and not cancer. (Nor am I embarrassed. Penile yeast infections are a hidden killer, or at least wounder. Everyone should be aware of the 3 warning signs.)

I’m not going to die, although of course I am old, so I may die of something entirely unrelated. We all have a fatal disease. Or, we all have an unimaginably wonderful gift with one large string attached.

Life: Whaddya gonna do?

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Too many wires and noise-making machines

It’s dark in my room, the only sound the beeping and the occasional murmuring of crepe soles in the hallway. I am thinking about death. This is not unusual; I’ve been thinking about death since I turned 60. I hate the thought that I will miss things in my children’s lives. I had my kids real young, so my oldest is almost 51. I have seen the movies of their lives play out, and I am endlessly fascinated, and I don’t want life to end.

Then there’s Tracy. I mean, well, you know. Forty-one years of working on our marriage; I hate to lose that after I’ve invested all the energy. And money. If I die, I’m out a whole bunch of moolah.

Finally, there’s the absence of me. That’s a bummer. No longer will I get to see the sunrise, any sunrise. I can see where promises of an afterlife would be comforting, but I don’t believe them.  So this is my one life. Better get out of the hospital quickly.

I will die. But not today.



Photography by Tracy Johnston

Help on other confusing stuff: Michelle Mizera

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Just to be clear what the stakes are

May your song always be sung

Let me open  a vein for you. See that white fluid there? That’s the milk of human kindness.  It flows freely through my body. It causes me to think the best of everyone, to make allowances, to promote tolerance, to embrace strangers in the street only after asking permission. That’s just who I am.

You may have notice that my milk of human kindness is a little clotted. It feels like it’s past its sell-by date. It’s been hearty and free-flowing since the Eisenhower administration, and now…I worry.

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Humans experiencing kindness

So here’s a story, not a true one but who cares? I was pulling weeds in the front yard of the old widow Jenkins, who has slowed down in recent years and has a bad back. So I like to keep her front yard tidy, because that’s the way she liked it when she was younger. And I’m going along, murdering blackberries, and I notice that the widow Jenkins has a Trump sign in her window.

A Trump sign! Where did that senile old biddy get a Trump sign? Probably down at a meeting of the “Dopey Seniors Who Hate Negroes” club. Gawd.

So I did the best thing I know to do: I took a knee. Then I replanted all the blackberry plants. Screw her.

As various public bigots are likely to say after their comments go viral: This is not me. Yet, it’s clear that it is them, because they did it. And I did it too, or have done something equally nasty that I don’t feel like copping to just now.

Because why? Because the fucking president is driving me crazy. I have cut back on my news consumption; I listen to nothing but podcasts now, because there’s nothing like a three-year-old episode of “Wait, wait, don’t tell me” with its jokes about the polar vortex and the ice bucket challenge. It was a simpler time.

So you may have noticed this blog is late. Really embarrassingly late. Not that it has a schedule, you understand, and it may be that I overestimated my ability to write regularly with no deadline looming, but that ain’t the whole story. The whole story is that the resentment monkey inserts himself into every sentence, every paragraph.

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Art and race and joy and sorrow

Like for instance, I have wanted to write forever about my increased engagement in the arts, mainly plays and live music. This summer I saw a Berkeley Rep show called “An Octoroon,” which was a complex presentation of a nineteenth century melodrama of that name, with many things added or interpolated. It was an amusing, sophisticated, ultimately devastating look at race in this country.

It did everything I want a work of art to do. My brain was buzzing when I came out, but also my heart had heard that melancholy American music and I began to feel so relaxed and fulfilled. Not because institutional racism made me feel good, but because I had seen human beings do the thing they do best, create castles and crevasses and the contours of the human spirit. I felt…kindly. I very much wanted to hug everyone I saw just because we had audienced together.

I believe that a work of art is not complete until in interacts with other human beings. The combination of the two rises like smoke from the sweetest fire ever.

I began to think about…you know who. Because you cannot think about race in this country with thinking about the barely concealed racism of the current administration.

It may be that the Trump administration promotes a flurry of great work in the arts. Resistance should be powerful, and I suspect artists of all types will rise to the challenge, and I look forward to the next two years, assuming the next two years exist in any real way.

But also, art does pure joy as well. At the very same Berkeley Rep, four weeks later, I saw Mike Birbiglia do a 90-minute aria on marriage and children that provided, as they say, non-stop laughs. Stand-up comedy is as demanding an art form as ballet, and when it’s done with honesty and brio, it’s like watching a really funny high-wire act.

And music! Chris Thile is the new host of Prairie Home Companion, which you may know (I didn’t). He’s also a virtuoso mandolin player and, by the way, a MacArthur Genius Award winner. Bet you didn’t know that. And he came to SFJazz with pianist Brad Mehldau, and they gave us two hours of bliss with original compositions and jazz/blues takes on Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why” and Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice”  (absolute stunner of a version). And I was so happy. It just reached a center of my self that appears too infrequently.

And I did not think for 107 whole minutes about Trump, who has contempt for artists and art and, for that matter, the concept of free speech.

In fact, he has contempt for almost everything that makes what’s important and useful in American life. It can make you fucking crazy. I feel so powerless. I try to do stuff, call and write and whatever I can think of, but a small part of me wonders whether, in the long run, violence might be the answer.

And that’s me, Mr. Milk of Human Kindness. What are the less evolved humans thinking?


Less evolved humans

Yeah, but: Despair doesn’t get us anywhere. Despair just makes us take to our rooms with a six-pack of whatever and a television playing endless reruns of “Law and Order,” where our faith in justice is restored every sixty minutes. We need the solace of art. We need, I submit, art in live presentation, at a concert or a theater or a dance hall or a symphony space.  That’s our most basic understanding of community, when strangers assemble to experience joy or sorrow or madness or rueful acknowledgment of our shared humanity.

The mad humans, particularly the ones with guns and don’t get me started, threaten that sense of community, but they must not be allowed to kill it. Because that’s our blood and bone. We are not hate robots.

Last week I went to the San Francisco Symphony. The first thing on the menu was Bartok’s piano concerto number two. I know little about symphonic music; it’s become an emerging taste of mine. I’m an ignorant savage, but I know what I like. I like big and fast and crazy.

I like feeling things that are sublimely unpolitical, but that make me stronger for the politics I must endure. And there were 50 or 70 musicians, flawed and grief-laden and wrapped in joy, coming together to make music and dance in their souls. Together.

Racism will continue to exist. But also this, this will continue to exist. Keep remembering. Keep fighting.

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Photography by Tracy Johnston, who would undoubtedly want me to say that, although she did indeed take these photographs, she did not choose them for this column, nor did she approve the captions, because she has to be in Pakistan, home of the Taliban and the ritual slaughter of vigorous older women.  She’ll be back as soon as we can pay the damn ransom.

Many useful things by Michelle Mizera.