Thursday, December 29, 2005

half-deaf

As if being diagnosed with bursitis and cancer this year weren't enough, now I have more good news: I'm half deaf.

The hearing loss, which is about 10 percent worse in my left ear, is an indirect result of the cancer surgery two weeks ago. The anesthesia and breathing tube apparently conspired in an effort to give me a sinus infection. That sinus infection has conspired with cleft palate surgery I had as an infant, and now I have fluid in my inner ears and can't hear well at all. To add insult to injury, I had to ask the ear doctor what he had said when he told me I was half-deaf.

In a healthy person, when fluid gathers in the inner ear behind the eardrum, it drains naturally down a part of the ear called a station tube and enters the person's nose, where it's blown out sooner or later. Because my cleft palate required corrective surgery when I was still an infant, the muscles controlling my station tube don't work quite right, and sometimes the tube remains shut, so my ears can't drain. It's a lot like the feeling you get when you're on an airplane and your ears won't pop. (Same principle, different application.)

So the doctor has put me on a new prescription that he hopes will help. If it doesn't, I may need tubes put into my ears for the first time in about 25 years. If it comes to that, with my luck, the doctor will trip and poke me in the eye, leaving me half blind.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

chuck e. cheese

I just took Rachel to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese today. I asked her afterward what her favorite part of the party was, and she said, "The part where we were eating cake." (I have to agree -- that was better than the part where we were eating pizza.)

This was, I believe, the first time Rachel has ever been invited to a birthday party anywhere. We arrived just before the birthday boy himself arrived, and for the entire time until it was time to eat, they were inseparable. They ran around the place like a couple of maniacs, and spent most of their time in the skytubes, that oversize Habitrail for children. After pizza and cake, the kids were a little more separable, and Rachel spent most of her time on the rides, including five or six trips on the car where you get your picture taken with Chuck E. Cheese.

I barely knew any of the adults, especially since only three other preschoolers came, and consequently was bored out of my mind most of the party. Mostly I went around with Rachel, giving her tokens to put into the rides and watching her enjoy herself. I did chat with one of the mothers who was there, and she told me how great it was that I was so loving and affectionate with my children, and that she wishes more fathers were like that.

We finally left about two-and-a-half hours after we arrived, went to Target and tried unsuccessfully to exchange one of the two copies of The Simpsons season six that we received for Christmas, and then went home.

And here I am now.

Monday, December 26, 2005

an arachnophile christmas

This was the year Christmas at our house was bitten by a radioactive spider.

Although the day had highlights besides the presents, and even though there were presents that generated more enthusiasm than these, there was no doubt that this year, Spider-man did very well at our household. Virtually everyone received at least one present with everybody's favorite wall-crawler on it.

The big winner was Evangeline, who has been carrying the Spider-man torch high enough for three children her age ever since last Christmas, when I received a handful of Spider-man trade paperbacks. Evangeline's favorite present this year was the "Matilda" movie-and-book combo from her New York aunt and uncle, but she spent the entire day wearing a new Spider-man winter hat and a pair of Spider-man slippers. Other web-spinner gifts included a Spider-man place mat for meals, a pair of Spider-man pajamas, and a Spider-man comic book intended to introduce him to young readers.

Rachel fared less handsomely with the Spider-man gifts -- her fan identity is less known that Evangeline's -- but even she got the place mat and a pair of slippers. Thankfully, the slippers are noticeably different. Evangeline's pair, which Rachel bought for her, incidentally, have little Spider-man heads that poke up and look forward from a vantage point above the toes. Rachel got a more basic pair. They're red, have a web design on them, and say Spider-man, but don't make her look like she has little bobbleheads on her feet.

Even Natasha got into the act. When I took Rachel out Christmas shopping a few weeks ago and she picked out the Spider-man slippers for Evangeline, she also glommed onto the idea of buying a pair for her mother. As I said at the time, it's not exactly the sort of present that Natasha would expect, but it was Rachel's gift, so we bought it. Natasha was a good sport about it, and wore them all day yesterday, even though she got another pair from my parents.

Interestingly, I was the only one not to get anything remotely connected to Spider-man. It appears the good folks down at the Marvel Comics merchandising department are a few years behind the times. They seem to have missed out on the fact that it is now socially acceptable for boys to read comic books, and even grown men occasionally get something out of a superhero now and then.

That gender imbalance is something they can work on getting straightened out before next Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

disappointment with narnia

Now that I've seen the new, live-action version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," I better understand what critics like Polly Toynbee have been saying.

Toynbee, writing in The Guardian, is one of a few critics I've read lately who accuses the movie specifically and Narnia in general for supporting a militaristic interpretation of Christianity, viz. Christ as the fierce lion Aslan rather than as a meek lamb. Toynbee specifically linked the movie to the ongoing war in Iraq and suggested it offered a spiritual justification for the presence of coalition forces there.

This entry contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie and intend to, stop reading now.

The movie begins during the London blitz of World War II. Starting here, a few days or weeks before C.S. Lewis' book does, gives moviegoers some context for why the Pevensie children are at Professor Kirke's house in the first place. This is all the more important when you consider how removed children in 21st-century America are from the blitz, especially compared with the English children who were Lewis' immediate audience.

More importantly, though, it provides some important insights into the characters of the Pevensie children, particularly Peter and Edmund. Their father, it appears, is away from home and serving in the British military. It's his absence that makes Peter the bossing sort of older brother that we see elsewhere in the story, and it's Edmund's resentment over Peter's efforts to assume their father's role that leads his act of betrayal later in the story.

But as important as this is for context and character development, it does a lot to bolster claims that the movie provides spiritual justification for Bush's war on terror. For American audiences, particularly here in the shadow of Ground Zero, images of an invading force dropping ordnance on the innocent residents of London can't help but conjure images of 9-11 and the carnage unleashed when the jets flew into the Twin Towers.

Suddenly the horror of World War II is real to us. We don't just understand the fear that drove the children from their homes out to strange houses in the countryside, we feel it ourselves. And of course it's in the idyllic English countryside, where the movie reminds us repeatedly that they have fled to escape World War II, that the Pevensie children are swept up into another battle, in Narnia, between Good and Evil.

The movie reinforces this connection repeatedly. Both Susan and Peter complain that they just fled one war and don't want to enter another. Peter, mindful that he's already assumed his father's role in protecting his siblings, resists assuming his father's role as a combatant, and by the time all is said and done, it's impossible not to see the war the Narnians are fighting against the White Witch and her evil invading forces as a parallel to the one England is fighting with Nazi Germany, nor even to the one the United States is in with the insurgents in Iraq.

That's a connection I've never made in at least four separate occasions when I've read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." I realize that's just my experience, and it may not be true for other people who have read Lewis' children's books, but I can't help but feel a little saddened to see the movies making that connection at all.

While the battle between Good and Evil is central to "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," in the book it's clear that the physical battle is hardly the main event. For the main event, we turn to the events on the Stone Table on the eve of the battle, where Aslan takes Edmund's traitor's death upon himself and so fulfills the requirements of the Deep Magic. It is there that Lewis lingers, and after the Stone Table is broken and Aslan is restored to life, Susan and Lucy celebrate his resurrection, putting flowers in his mane and thrilling at his impossibly glorious resurrection.

The movie shifts this focus away from the spiritual victory and toward the earthly one. The Beavers and other talking beasts of Narnia are more excited over the Pevensies' arrival than they over Aslan's approach, and it's as though they and not he are credited with bringing Narnia its first springtime in a century. Throughout it all is the growing expectation that Peter will lead an army to victory against the White Witch and deliver freedom to Narnia; even as he walks through the White Witch's castle and restores all those she has turned to stone, Aslan urges Susan and Lucy to find every statue they can, since Peter will need all the help that he can get.

Peter's battle against the Witch and her army, in other words, is the climax of the movie, and his ascension to the throne with its siblings is its end. Aslan's sacrifice on the Stone Table is just a step toward that goal. And why not? It is the children who are the stars here, not just of the movie, but of the story the movie tells. The Aslan of film is less than the Aslan of the books. He's big, but he's not larger than life. In fact, you can't help but get the impression that he's been waiting for the Pevensies to arrive, rather than their arrival simply serving as a forerunner of his return.

Still, if the movie fails at transferring some of the nuances of Lewis' book to the silver screen, it surpasses him in character development and turns the Pevensie children into more fully developed people, with pasts and futures that can be seen from the vantage of the present. In her talk with Professor Kirke echoes the voice of an older Susan who is more concerned with popularity and appearance than with Truth; in her resistance to the weight of the Beavers' expectation we can see the future Susan of whom Peter one day will say "My sister the Queen Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia."

And if Peter falls easily into his role of the bossy oldest child, and Edmund into the role of resentful and overshadowed younger sibling, the movie's Lucy expresses an easily seen childlike faith in the impossible world of Narnia, just as she points to the arrival of Father Christmas as vindication of beliefs held in her own world.

The more I think of the movie, the more disappointment I feel over what Narnia lost in its translation to the big screen. It's not that it's a bad movie, but it never really captures the feel of the book. Most of the pleasure in reading Lewis' book lies in its simple charm. A lot of the charm got lost amid the spectacle and pageantry as the filmmakers turned a G-rated book into a PG-rated movie.

This is not the Narnia that I fell in love with fifteen years ago, nor is it the Narnia I want my children to remember.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

okay, this is amusing

A week or so before the operation, Evangeline and I were making a series of trips around the area to get some chores taken care of, and to let Evangeline buy Rachel a Christmas present. As is often the case, we passed the time talking, telling jokes and singing.

Evangeline is thoroughly sold on the virtues of Bugs Bunny, so it was no surprise when we started signing -- perhaps "warbling" is the better term -- the libretto from "What's Opera, Doc?", the classic Chuck Jones spoof of Wagner's "Niebelungenlied" opera, with Elmer Fudd cast as the mighty hunter with the spear and magic helmet. (Magic helmet?) You know the one.

Well, when we got to the part where Elmer Fudd realized that his true love was the rabbit he had been hunting, and he summoned all those scourges to kill Bugs, culminating in a loud summoning of "smog," Evangeline interrupted with this observation:

"Hey, Daddy, I bet he was calling on the dragon Smaug."

It's good to see that she's been paying attention.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

a thyroid in every pot

I feel lifeless. I'm sleeping about 14 hours a day.

I'm told that might drop to even more reasonable levels as I get past the surgery hump and even as the thyroid medicine gets nailed down better, but my profound lack of energy bothers me, especially since I'm supposed to be watching the girls. It also feels like my energy level is dropping further, not returning.

How long is this going to last?

narnia negativity

Polly Toynbee at British newspaper The Guardian has written a most interesting critique of the new "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" movie.

The movie, which appeared in theaters last Friday, is based on the popular children's book of the same title by C.S. Lewis. The book is especially popular among Christians, who love its allegorical elements, with Aslan representing Christ; the White Witch, Satan; and her castle with stone statues, the grave with all those who died in the time before Christ came and broke the power of death.

I won't be seeing the movie until tomorrow, but still, I got a kick out of reading Toynbee's piece, because it's so laden with irony. The writer, who obviously has a serious grudge not just with Narnia with Christianity, nonetheless deserves high points for spiritual perception. She seems to understand the gospel very well:


Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus's holy head every day that you don't eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told. So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion's breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged.

It's not the first time I've heard such complaints, but I don't get them where the faith is concerned. Jesus is revealed in the book of Revelation as the Lion of Judah, and (paradoxically) as a Lamb. The lion's glory and power is manifest in the Lamb's weakness and humility, but he's still a Lion -- and while he's not militaristic or fascist, I don't think Lewis' Narnia, for all its failings, depicts him as such.

I'm curious to see how well the movie treats the subject matter. I've heard a few people express concerns that it might be too violent, upsetting or scary for the girls in a few parts. I guess we'll find out this weekend.

(Personally, I thought Toynbee's article would have been well served with a headline like "The Chronicles of Narnia: Why I hate God, Christians, Jesus, America, and you.")


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

escape from the planet of the thyroid

I look like someone tried to slit my throat, and missed.

Surgery started a little over two hours late, owing to what I presume are standard delays in hospital operating rooms as one procedure after another takes a little more time than was alloted. They thought my request for my thyroid in a jar (or, failing that, a photograph of it) was odd but amusing, but it was not something they could accomodate in any event.

I'm told the actual procedure went smoothly; thankfully, I was asleep for it. I remember being strapped down to an impossibly narrow operating table, and teasing one of the surgical crew that they must get an incredible urge to tickle patients' feet at this point, but not much else. Around this time I was getting lightheaded, so I said, "You put the anesthesia in the IV these days, huh?" The anesthesiologist said yes, and then I was out also immediately.

When I woke up, it was around 10 p.m., and I was in a post-op recovery room. Natasha, who had not been told that I had gone into surgery late, had been waiting for me for almost three hours, and no doubt was even happier to see me than I was to see her, since her brain wasn't still addled by drugs.

They moved me upstairs to my own room around 11 p.m., and Natasha left to get the girls, who had been staying with friends.

The next seven hours were brutal, not just because I was wearing a drafty blue dress, not just because it was getting increasingly uncomfortable to swallow, not just because it was cold and the nurse on duty couldn't find me an extra blanket, and not just because the fellow next to me had his light on all night so I couldn't sleep except in 15- to 20-minute increments. No, it was brutal because I was hooked up to an IV drip potent enough to keep a herd of camel traders hydrated in the desert heat, and I had to keep getting up so I could pee into a bottle, since there was no way I could make it to the bathroom with that stupid IV attached.

Around six o'clock in the morning Friday, I had two visitors. The first drew some more blood, and the second changed the dressing on my throat and removed the drains they had placed there to keep the blood from gathering. If I had been less worn out, I suppose I might have found this second one discomfiting, as it is, I think I fell asleep while he was at work.

Around nine o'clock, I convinced the daytime nurse that I was ready to eat solid food. I ate breakfast, got unplugged from the IV, and around four that afternoon, I finally stopped having to pee every 20 minutes.

My family visited for two hours, starting around four. Rachel, predictably, thought it was a really exciting new experience, and came up to me right away. Evangeline, predictably, was still upset by the whole thing, and waited nearly an hour before she would do more than sneak forlorn looks at me when she thought I wasn't looking.

Much to my surprise, I was discharged from the hospital Friday evening, less than 24 hours after the operation. (I had been told a few times that Saturday evening would be the earliest I would get out, and that Sunday was more likely.)

Since then, it's become less uncomfortable to swallow, and I can honestly say I've taken nothing stronger than Tylenol since I was discharged, even though I was given a prescription for something stronger. It still hurts a little to lean forward and kiss the girls, though, and when I sneezed the other day, it was like I had been kicked by a horse. My worst problem painwise cropped up last night, it's a persistent pain that runs from just below my right shoulder down my right side, in front. I have no idea what's causing it, although I doubt I'm growing a new thyroid. If it persists, I expect I'll go see the doctor and probably find I have some other carcinoma unrelated to my thyroid problems.

More directly related to the thyroid surgery is the fatigue I feel day to day. Generally, I can make it about three or four hours without needing to take a nap. Tonight, I went to bed early, having skipped the late afternoon nap, and probably would have done all right, except Rachel woke me up when she came into bed, and that damnable pain in my right side has kept me from getting back to sleep, since it's worse when I lie flat.

The scar on my throat is about three or four inches long, just about the length of a newborn Oompa Loompa, if I remember correctly. I don't see any stitches, so I guess they used surgical glue to close it up. It's healing pretty nicely, and when it's all done, it'll blend in naturally with the normal lines and creases people have in their necks anyway.

In the meantime, though, like I said, it looks Jack the Ripper had bad aim.

Friday, December 09, 2005

return to the planet of the thyroid

After telling me Thursday night that I would be going home Saturday evening at the earliest, the surgeon had me discharged this evening, Friday. If you were planning to visit me, you may still do so, but I advise against trying to do it at the hospital, as I am not there.

My throat is sore, and it's still a little uncomfortable to swallow (and I have no thyroid), but otherwise I'm OK.

And to my considerable disappointment, not only did they not let me keep the thyroid in a jar, they also did not take me a picture of it. One of the operating crew said a thyroid looks like a blob of used tissue; the surgeon himself said I could find a picture of somebody else's thyroid on the Internet.

I am very tired now, and I am going to bed.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

beneath the planet of the thyroid

I go under the knife next Thursday.

Surgery, to be held at St. Peter's University Hospital, is supposed to run about two-and-a-half hours. The chief downside is that this is approximately how late the doctor was getting to see me for my appointment on Monday. I have fears of the anesthesia wearing off just as he arrives, and me wanting (but unable) to scream: "I'm awake! I'm awake! Look at my finger. Can't you see my finger thumping on the table?" like a classic episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

The operation is fairly straightforward: just go in there and rip it out. Possible side effects include continued bleeding after the operation, bruising to neighboring glands, and the doctor "accidentally" severing the nerve that leads to my vocal chords. That last one, although it has some people extremely excited, is unlikely.

More likely is that the nerve will take a beating during the operation. Dr. Camarotta said I may lose my voice for a few days afterward, or, if I can still speak normally after the operation, will find it tires out easily. (As a result, I'm canceling my scheduled address to the Democratic National Convention and all appearances before the British Parliament before February.) In any event, the damage would be temporary and I would be annoying old self in no time.

I'll also have to take calcium supplements for a few weeks, since the surgery also is going to affect my parathyroid glands. My chief thought on this aspect is that "parathyroid glands" sounds like a great poker hand, and since we're built with four of these glands, that means I actually have two pair. (I can only imagine what a straight flush would look like.)

The calcium supplements are needed because the parathyroid glands somehow are involved with the body's ability to process calcium. I had always thought we mainly need calcium for strong teeth and bones, but apparently a shortage of calcium can lead to seizures and numbness, in the span of a single day. So, even though it's purely precautionary -- you can lose three of the four parathyroid glands and still process calcium just fine -- I like the idea that calcium supplements are my friend.

Recovery from the surgery is supposed to last about six weeks, including two or three days in the hospital, longer if they forget to give me anesthesia or remove the wrong body part by accident.

Lastly, the doctor himself seemed like a decent fellow. His hands showed no sign of a tremor, he didn't scratch his butt the entire time we were talking, he didn't ask me what a thyroid is or how he could find it, and best of all, he never interrupted our conversation to scream anything about purple hippos wearing his pajamas.

So, eight days. The countdown has begun.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

fall days

I think one of the chief reasons God gives us children is to remind us how much beauty and wonder he's given us that we've come to take for granted.

Today, I asked the girls if they wanted to come outside with me to do some work in the yard. Now normally, there's no interest and I end up doing whatever I came out to do fairly quickly, and a few things besides, or if there is interest, it peters out in a little more than ten minutes, and I end up pushing Rachel on the swing. It wasn't like that today.

Today, the girls took to raking leaves off the patio with a vengeance. I helped a little, by moving patio furniture out of the way, lifting fallen chrysenthemums and showing them how to rake, but they both engaged themselves quite busily in the task. And then, once the leaves were off the patio, Evangeline decided we should make a pile and jump into it.

The past three or four years, I haven't really bothered raking leaves. I've been content to let them fall and then to run them over with the lawnmower, creating leaf fragments too fine to blow into the neighbor's yard, and small enough that they quickly decompose and disappear into the yard, if not during the fall than certainly in the early spring. It's basic human laziness masquerading as environmental sensibility.

I raked leaves with a vengeance, creating a big pile that the girls could jump into, and then raked it up again so that they could jump in some more. And jump in they did, again and again, and again. They would stand at the far side of the yard, and then when I gave the signal, they would burst into full speed and ran toward the pile, shouting "Banzai!" at the moment of decision, and then laughing with childhood's full innocence.

After they tired of running across the yard, we made a separate pile at the foot of the slide, and they took turns riding down and splasing into a sea of fallen leaves, sending foam of red and gold flying when they landed. And what that grew old thirty minutes later, they began a new game that involved burying one another (and me) in the autumn.

In 35 years, I have never enjoyed raking leaves before. Today, I would have raked not just my leaves, but my neighbors' as well for these girls.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

ray

Natasha and I watched the movie "Ray" Saturday night, and it was good.

"Ray," as I'm sure everybody knows, is the 2004 biographical movie about legendary musician Ray Charles. I'll be the first to admit that I don't know much about Ray Charles -- in fact, the song I thought I chiefly knew him for wasn't one he wrote at all -- but his impact on music in America is legendary. (I won't embarrass myself by displaying my ignorance and trying to describe it, since I'm not going to do it justice.) I've wanted to see it ever since I saw the preview two years ago, and I'm glad we finally took the chance to borrow a copy from the local Blockbuster's.

The movie, which I'm sure took its share of artistic license with the story of Ray Charles' life, had a curious portrayal of the man. You couldn't help but like Ray Charles the way Jamie Foxx played him, but at the same time, it was hard to respect him much. (Which, of course, shows what a good actor Foxx is.)

The movie shows Ray Charles' steady rise from playing small acts with the McSon Trio in Seattle, moving up to a solo career with Atlantic Records before ultimately landing a lucrative and unprecedented contract with ABC Records.

In that sense, it's uplifting because he's succeeding despite his obvious disability, and it's also uplifting because he was so good at his music, whether it was country, gospel, reggae and blues, or the fusion of those styles and others that made him so famous. And unlike many other artists' careers, at least on screen, there was no moment where his career utterly fell to pieces. He just kept going higher and higher, up to the point that his recording of "Georgia on my Mind" became Georgia's state anthem.

On the other hand, it was hard to think too much of Ray Charles as a person, whatever you might rightly believe of him as a musician. The movie showed him as having at least one long-term affair with one of the female singers in his band, which is kind of hard to view as anything but a moral failure, considering that he was married. And he was also a heroin addict, a habit he initially tried to conceal from his wife and that he repeatedly made excuses for, even after being arrested twice for drug possession.

In the movie at least, the heroin addiction was linked to the death of his younger brother, George, whom he had seen drown in a wash basin when Ray was only 5. The movie depicted Ray as simply watching his brother drown without trying to rescue him or calling for help, as though he thought George were playing a game; according to CNN, he tried to pull him out but couldn't. Either way, I can see why a memory that horrible could lead someone to try to escape through drugs.

And there were other things that made me respect the man wholeheartedly. During the Civil Rights Era, he was scheduled to play a concert in Georgia, but he refused to perform, in protest of the segregation laws in effect. That ended up being a costly move, since he ended up being barred from playing in Georgia for years afterward, but there can be no question it was the right thing to do. It's hard not to respect someone who takes that sort of principled stand.

And as awful as his infidelities to his wife were, the movie shows that he had a measure of character even there. When his long-term mistress in the movie dies, we discover that he's been sending her money every month to help support her and their child.

The movie, to make a long story short, presents Ray Charles as a complex and musically brilliant man. The story it tells isn't a pretty one, but its honesty makes it worth seeing.

Friday, November 11, 2005

losing myself

Sometimes I wonder if I've forgotten how to write worth a damn. The rest of the time, I'm convinced I have and wonder if I ever knew.

There used to be a time when I thought I was a good, even an above-average, writer. I churned out stories like clockwork. Working for a newspaper gave me the ability to focus on a story, settle on the main talking points, order them, and then get them written under deadline, sometimes a tight deadline. At my peak, I remember writing six news stories in a single day.

I used to write humor too. While I was working a full-time job, I could still help churn out three Brothers Grinn mailings a week, and usually produce a humor column and a set of editorials for the newspaper as well. I have no fewer than six awards hanging on my study walls from the New Jersey Press Association for my writing. The one I'm proudest of is for an editorial I wrote calling for equal treatment for gay couples and their families at the municipal pool.

And was it really only a few years ago that I was on the verge of completing a novel with my best friend?

It was. It seemed like a major dream of mine was about to come true, and now ... now, I don't know what's happened. I can sit at the computer for hours, staring at the screen and having nothing to show for it, or idling away the time online, skimming the Internet and visiting one site after another. I thought things would get better after I left CHRefugee, and maybe things did, but I still spend a lot of time visiting blogs written by friends of mine, reading things by people I've never heard of before, and pouring over material I have only the slightest interest in.

Writing? I don't know how to do it anymore, and it drives me crazy.

Oh, I can still edit all right -- most of this blog, for instance, is simply edited versions of e-mail I've written to other people, although another sizeable chunk of it was cobbled together from posts I made to the aforementioned CHRefugee -- and I appreciate the irony of complaining in a written medium that I can no longer write, much as John Milton once composed a poem that his blindness kept him from writing poetry.

But still, it's frustrating. As I recently remarked to a close, personal friend of mine who is also a writer, we do not write because it is a hobby, or an interest, or an amusement. We do these things because we must. Artists who do not create succumb to despair; writers are not fully alive unless we write. Unless we can disappear inside a story or a character for a length of time and then surface only to discover that we have actually created something worthwhile, that we have strung together our words in such a way that we have communicated a piece of ourselves to the world at large, we are not fully human.

Writing was never a job to me. It was, and remains, an act of worship. It is the place and the means by which I draw closest to the Divine, where I grasp the eternal and surrender the temporal, where I slough off corruption and feel, for a fleeting moment, the exultation of Christ.

I can't do it anymore, and that's killing me inside.

I've had a book that has been sitting, undeveloped and waiting for me, for five years. A humor list my best friend and I run for a while reached a distribution of about 1,100 people. I have a graphic novel I'd like to write with another friend, and I can't get a single four-page sequence written out, even just the dialogue. For about three years, that has laid mostly dormant.

I've been fighting hard to revive the Brothers Grinn list, but the spark isn't there like it was before. We used to get three mailings a week; nowadays we're lucky to get two. I labor for an hour or more on an entry for a mailing and my partner writes back: "This is crap."

And it is crap. I really can't argue with him. I tried to do a piece on the Bush administration's morally inexplicable refusal to forbid torture during interrogations of enemy combatants, and it wasn't funny. It was obnoxious. I've rewritten the damn thing three times, drastically, and it still doesn't work. I'm stuck on obvious jokes, cheap sarcasm and one-liners instead of actual wit, and I try to cram in every possible wisecrack I can, with the result that even I can't tell what the piece was supposed to be about.

I'd like to blame this on my old job. Working at WCN, quality writing wasn't possible. I had to churn out articles to fill space and not to report news, and I wasn't able to sit down and concentrate on a single piece. There was always other stuff demanding my attention. I had editorials to write, layouts to do, story development to work on with a reporter, story editing so my reporter could go home at a decent hour, phone calls to take, press releases to edit, and on and on and on. By the time two years had passed, I had lost the ability to lose myself in a story, to edit my own work, and to write succinctly.

I used to be a good writer. I wish I could remember how it worked.

pat robertson rides again

Pat Robertson is an idiot. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. So why in the world do reporters still think he's worth quoting, and report on the crazy things he says on air?

Robertson's latest run with run-at-the-mouth disease was to warn the people of Dover, Pa., that they're risking God's wrath because of the way they voted in their recent school board election. Dover, which has received worldwide news coverage because of the recent court hearings over the school board's decision to teach Intelligent Design alongside evolution, voted out eight board members who voted in favor of that new policy.

So, says Robertson, if disaster descends upon Dover, the people there should appeal to Charles Darwin for help, because they have poked their finger in God's eye, and voted him out of town. God's patience, Robertson says, is exhausted.

Quite frankly, who cares what Robertson said? In the past few years, this guy created an international flap by calling for the assassination of a foreign leader, he suggested detonating a nuclear warhead at Foggy Bottom, he warned of divine judgment on Florida, and he joined Jerry Falwell in blaming 9-11 on liberals, homosexuals and abortionists. He opens his jaws and says ridiculous things so often that I've lost track of how many times The Wittenburg Door has made him a favored object of ridicule.

Robertson is good for an idiotic soundbite, but these comments place him well outside the range of mainstream Christianity in America. Conservative, liberal or moderate, most Christians view Robertson with the sort of embarrassment we all feel toward Uncle Buck. We'd like to forget about him entirely, but like the proverbial village idiot, he keeps reminding us.

So, unless the media is going to start using David Duke as a spokesman for conservatism, Gus Hall as a spokesman for liberalism, and Osama bin Laden as a spokesman for Islam, perhaps it's time to recognize Robertson for what he is: a bonehead with enough business savvy to keep himself in a really big pulpit, long past the time he had anything worth saying.

If the media want someone to speak for Christians, can I suggest Jim Wallis of Sojourners? The man's authentic, articulate and is fairly representative of the large and emerging Religious Left here in America.

Please. Anyone but Pat Robertson.


Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Thursday, November 10, 2005

waltzing through 'matilda'

If I needed any more proof that Evangeline was going to be as big a reading geek as her father, I have it now.

I checked her out a copy of Roald Dahl's book "Matilda" from the library about three weeks ago. After some initial foot-dragging with the opening chapters that required her parents to read the book to her at bedtime and once or twice during the day, the reading book finally bit and Evangeline finished the entire book last night, reading 120 pages in a single sitting. She literally stopped reading only once -- just long enough to go to the bathroom. (Given time, I don't doubt she'll learn to take the book into the bathroom with her so her reading enjoyment is not interrupted at all.)

If you've never read "Matilda" -- I had never heard of it until two months ago -- it's the story of a child prodigy who teaches herself to read before she's a year old and has that Dahlesque quality of triumphing over the stupid and mean adults in her life, including her parents and the headmistress at her school. The teacher, Miss Honey, is as sweet as her name, and Matilda ends up leading her to victory over her own bitter circumstances before winning the proverbial chocolate factory.

Evangeline really seems to go for Roald Dahl's books, which is fortunate, since she got about four of them for her birthday. She and I read "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" at the end of the summer, and she couldn't put that down either, once we got past the initial hump of establishing the characters and setting up the plot. That seems to be all she needs with Dahl, actually -- just that initial activation energy from somebody else's reading to sink her teeth into the story, and then she's set.

It took her longer to get into "The Hobbit," when we read the graphic novel adaptation over the past few weeks. She initially started out on her own with a fair degree of enthusiasm, but then she petered out around Rivendell. I had to read her the rest of the book, with her looking at the pictures to see who was talking, but by the time we got to old Smaug, she hated it when I put the book down for the night. I figure we'll probably read the real book in about four or five years.

The new book we're working on is "Freedom Train," a biography of Harriet Tubman, and she's rooting something fierce for Harriet to make her run for freedom. After that, we have library books from the children's room about Joan of Arc, Madam Curie and Jane Goodall, just to continue her homeschooling.

And of course we still have those other four books by Roald Dahl.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

post-election thoughts

So now it's all over, and Jon Corzine is the governor-elect in New Jersey. Hurrah.

That may sound somewhat anti-Corzine, but it's not. I don't particularly want Corzine to be our next governor, but I didn't particularly want Doug Forrester. Neither candidate inspired with much confidence, much interest, or much enthusiasm for this whole sorry election. As a result, I find myself largely indifferent to the final results of Tuesday's election. Honestly, the campaign as a whole was rather disappointing. It was an embarassment not only to the state and its voters, but to the two major political parties as well.

The GOP probably could have won if it had run U.S. attorney Chris Christie, who has made a reputation for himself by prosecuting several high-profile corruption cases, but he sensibly enough wouldn't give up his position without assurances from party officials that they would back him. They wouldn't do that, so he dropped out of the primary early on. In the end, the GOP went with a multimillionaire (Doug Forrester) whose chief qualification for the office seems to be that he's rich and wants to be governor.

Forrester hasn't been able to articulate clear positions on the hot-button issuesof the day, such as stem cell research, and has historically displayed an inability to answer simple questions simply. When he has put forward great ideas, like cutting property taxes 30 percent over the next three years, he's been unable to explain how he plans to deliver on those promises, except through useless generalities like "eliminating waste" and "cutting unnecessary state jobs.".

My own party, the Democrats, have a popular incumbent governor who popularly is seen as restoring integrity and respect to an office tarnished by former Gov. McGreevey. Acting Governor Richard Codey has steered the state through some austere budgetary times, and he's done it without resorting to the financial chicanery of the previous administrations. During the year he's been in office, he actually DID draw attention to nepotism, stupid appointments and needless jobs that should be cut;and he's fielded some tough times with the State Police and Attorney General's Office over couterterrorism. And, despite being in office over a year, he's yet to have a scandal. That's a record in New Jersey.

Unfortunately for Codey and for voters, he was shut out of the primary process early on. Jon Corzine, a multimillionare who got bored with the Senate seat he bought a few years ago and decided to spice things up by buying himself a governorship. Early in the primary, Corzine bought the loyalty of party county bosses — not essential to winning a primary, although it's a definite advantage — so that Codey's chances of winning the primary were greatly reduced.

Corzine is a man of conscience -- witness the attention he has brought to genocide in the Sudan -- but even though he hasn't had any major scandals per se, there's plenty of reasons to be concerned about Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger calls his "ethical blind spots." Corzine had a romantic entanglement with the leader of the state's largest public workers labor union, which may be nothing in itself, except he lent her the money for a new house, and then forgave the loan, about $470,000. (Sounds like a likely conflict to me, come contract negotiations time. Let's hear a big "ugh" for the ethics of that arrangement.)

And as a U.S. senator, he joined real estate mogul and wealthy Democratic donor Charles Kushner in an attempt to buy the Nets basketball team. The partnership then sought a state subsidy from a Democratic administration here in New Jersey while Corzine was a Democratic senator from New Jersey. While that may not be illegal, it certainly seems shady. He also helped to funnel $1 million to a Democratic county boss who was tape recorded discussing ways to cut off contractors who don't play ball, arranging phony jobs and all sorts of other contemptible political stuff.

Yet Corzine bristles when these things are mentioned and says he sees nothing wrong with his associations.

And so I'm not thrilled about the way this whole election went. I think we were given the choice between someone who is underqualified on the one hand, and someone else who will invite scandal on the other.

I cast a write-in ballot for Codey, as did my wife. To the cynic, those were "wasted" votes, but if enough of them were cast -- and there were enough rumblings about it that the Star-Ledger said they would prefer that option in their endorsement editorial, and plenty of other people were writing letters urging a Codey write-in -- I'd like to think the state Democratic Party would get the message that we're really tired of the jackals and jackasses who keep the party rife with corruption and inbreeding deciding how to do things.

A little honesty and a decent candidate would have been a nice change for once. Of course, this is New Jersey. Reform is impossible.

too bad codey didn't run

Another piece from the Brothers Grinn mailing list, sent out today. It's true that if God meant for us to vote, he would have given us candidates.


Important lessons from the New Jersey election

Closely watched because of its potential significance for setting the tone and expectations of next year's congressional races, the state of New Jersey has just wrapped up its race between multimillionaires Jon Corzine, a Democrat, and Doug Forrester, a Republican. Take heed, gentle reader, and learn these important lessons from the New Jersey gubernatorial campaign:

    1. New Jersey: Putting the "goober" back in gubernatorial.
    2. Poor ethics? No ethics? No problem!
    3. Insults and personal slurs are great filler material when you've misplaced your list of talking points (or never bothered to draw one up).
    4. Any schmuck can roll up his sleeves and work at resolving issues like tax relief and political reform, but it takes a special type of candidate to draw more than 40 percent of the vote with vague and insubstantial promises while having no clue about how to implement them.
    5. Unemployed multimillionaires bored after buying a U.S. Senate seat can still add a little spice to their lives by buying a governorship.
    6. Party solidarity, high-ranking connections, and a personal fortune to oil the party machinery trump popularity and quality every time.
    7. Contrary to the popular wisdom, nuclear power and toxic waste are not the most hazardous risks to living in New Jersey.
    8. Maybe it is wasting your ballot to vote for an acting governor who's not running, but it is infinitely more satisfying than going with one of the official choices.
    9. Purchase a house for the boss of the state's biggest labor union -- heck, even make a habit of repeatedly "christening" it with her -- and by Election Day, still no one will care.
    10. Remember, you're not spending $73 million on campaigns filled with mean-spirited, personally offensive attack ads -- you're using millions of dollars to stimulate the economy!
    11. If this is democracy, maybe Iraq was better off without it.
    12. You're better off living in Sandusky, Ohio

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

planet of the thyroid

I saw the endocrinologist on Monday for the second time, and she was able to answer a number of questions I had about my thyroid cancer and the treatment I'll be receiving.

First, the cancer is papillary cancer, not follicular. This makes it the single most common and most treatable form of thyroid cancer that exists. Chief Justice William Rehnquist died from a completely different, much rarer, and far more aggressive, form of thyroid cancer. So if you were hoping to inherit my Spider-man comic books, my twenty- and twelve-sided dice, or my cassette tapes of white Christian rap, I'm afraid you're out of luck. Papillary thyroid cancer is also extremely slow-growing, which means there is no hurry to have surgery. I should have it sooner rather than later, but it doesn't have to be done before I go to bed tonight.

Because the recovery time for a thyroidectomy is about three weeks, we're planning to have the surgery done shortly after Thanksgiving. The endocrinologist gave me the names and phone numbers of two surgeons based at a hospital here in the city. Once I get the insurance madness lined up, I'll schedule the appointment, probably in the next few days. The surgeon will remove my thyroid and will check my parathyroid glands for any indications that the cancer has spread. That is considered unlikely.

About four to six weeks after the operation, I'll be given radio-tagged iodine. Any thyroid cells that are left in my body -- including thyroid cancer cells that were spread elsewhere -- will light up under a scan. If any do -- and they almost always do in the first scan after an operation -- they'll give me a dose of slightly more radioactive iodine. The thyroid cells will suck up this iodine and blow themselves to kingdom come. (Thyroid cells absorb iodine, an ability passed on to cancerous thyroid cells, and an ability that makes thyroids uniquely treatable for cancer.) After about a day or two, I'll pass this iodine out of my system and out into the sewers, and everyone will be happy.

There is no evidence that the radioactive iodine poses a health threat to my other, healthy body tissues. Nor will there be enough radiation to give me superpowers. Forty years of data indicates the exact opposite.

About six months after the operation, I'll be taken off thyroid hormone for three weeks. As the levels of thyroid hormone in my body plummet, my pituitary gland is going to go nuts, urging my thyroid to get its act in gear and produce more hormone. (I'm afraid I'll display record levels of sloth during this time.) After this three week period ends, I'll have a blood test done to see what traces there are of thyroid hormone in my blood. If there's any evidence that any part of my body is producing thyroid hormone, we'll repeat the iodine treatment since all my thyroid cells should be gone by that point. I'll also go back onto thyroid hormone pills.

After that, if I remember correctly, there's one more six-month checkup, then it's annual checkups, if even that. There is no evidence at all that having thyroid cancer raises my risk of cancer elsewhere in my body, so I should be as healthy as anyone else, at least where cancer risk is concerned.

Lastly, the doctor prescribed me thyroid hormones to start taking now. This will have the effect of telling my pituitary glad to stop producing thyroid stimulation hormone, which in turn will get my thyroid to stop producing its hormone and should have the effect of slowing any growth of my thyroid nodule even further.

Weird factoid: From what the doctor told me -- and doctor is so much easier to type than "endocrinologist" -- autopsies have revealed that about 50 percent of all dead people have some sort of thyroid cancer, and yet that's not what they died from. Pretty wild, huh?


Sunday, November 06, 2005

still processing the news

The news came the day after my daughter turned 3. The test results were in, and they left no room for doubt. At some point in the recent past, a part of my body that has kept me alive for the past 35 years turned traitor, and started growing in ways it shouldn't have.

I have cancer.

When I talk about it with friends and family, I'm cool as a cucumber. It's only thyroid cancer, I tell them. All it takes is an operation and some radioactive iodine, and I'm done. There's no chemo, no nausea, no hair loss, and no more cancer. With a lifetime on medication, I won't even miss my thyroid. I crack jokes about the emotional capital this gives me in arguments and get-togethers, and I leave them in hysterics. Who knew that having one of the great medical scourges of mankind could be so much fun?

Away from others, my emotional guard lowers. I watch as my daughter plays happily with her new toys, and I find myself looking white-knuckled into the future and wondering if she will grow up without a father, or, what may be worse, with a father other than me. Without warning, a veil of silent tears falls and I sink again once more into self-pity.

Unspeakable fears assail me. How long has my thyroid potentially been pouring cancerous cells into the rest of my body? What if the cancer has spread? What if it's not just in my thyroid now, but is growing somewhere else, unnoticed and biding its time? That could mean chemotherapy, radiation treatment, debilitating sickness and annual bioscans, wondering how long it will be until my body turns me again.

Cancer. The word itself is a disease. It spreads from one thought to another, mushrooming into every corner of my mind, growing larger all the time and infecting every area of my present and my future.

Every ache, every pain and every cough comes with sinister overtones. I've always had a bad cough, but hasn't it been worse the last few months? Didn't I feel that hard lump in my throat before and just assume it was my larynx? Did we catch this early enough, or did we lose precious time because I was too ignorant to notice the telltale signs that my body was starting to turn on me? How long has this thing been there anyway?

Endocrine Web, one of many places on the Internet with enough information to scare the layman senseless, noted that the most treatable thyroid nodules are 1 centimeter across, or smaller. Mine is twice that. Has it grown to the point that it's no longer easily treatable, or am I reading too much into it?

I realize I'm being ridiculous. I've lost track of how many people who have told me about their friends and loved ones who have survived thyroid cancer, and I know many others who have survived far worse cancers than this. My former pastor had cancer and survived; and a friend of mine was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkins lymphoma, but he's been in remission for fifteen years. My wife's aunt has had skin cancer and oral cancer, and she's fine. Next year at this time, I'll be looking back at myself and thinking "Putz" for being so rattled over something that in retrospect will appear minor and not worth fretting over.

Right now, though, I unconsciously touch the solid mass in my throat every hour as if I hope it miraculously will have disappeared on its own. I feel the extra hardness there whenever I cough, and sometimes I just stop what I'm doing, and out of the blue I put my arms around my children and tell them how much I love them.

I'm scared, but I'm going to win.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

revenge of the thyroid

I'm touched by the outpouring of good will I've encountered since I broke the news today that I have thyroid cancer. I think other people are more upset about this than I am. I will admit to wallowing in self-pity off and on today, and moping about and feeling sorry for myself, but the endocrinologist who drew the cells for the culture told me that thyroid cancer is eminently treatable and by no means should be considered something that will cut me down in the prime of my life.

At some point in the next few weeks, I'm going to be given some radioactive iodine to drink. This will destroy the nodule, as well as any other cancerous growths that may have spread from my thyroid to other parts of my body. The thyroid itself will be surgically removed, and I'll be left taking a drug that substitutes for the thyroxin my body naturally produces at this point.

I'm looking at the bright side to this
  1. I have a ready-made excuse for anything. If I'm rude, tired, late, worried, gloomy, ill-tempered, whatever, it's because I have cancer.
  2. Nothing that goes wrong when the whole family gets together for Thanksgiving will be blamed on me. I have cancer. (My older brother said he wants to shave his head and wear a scarf so he can say, "Look, I have cancer too!")
  3. We have tons of material we can mine from this for the Brothers Grinn. Maybe we can even find a way to pin it on Bush.
  4. God's greatest mercies are always extended to us in the most painful ways. My experience with losing Isaac three years ago taught me more about God and my place next to him than anything I've ever learned in church. This seems to be less dramatic than losing a foster child, but I have confidence we will see God's hand when it has passed. "Shall we accept good from God, and not evil?"
  5. If I get to keep my thyroid in a jar, my daughter will have the best show-and-tell project EVER at her preschool. My older daughter can draw the best picture for "news" EVER at her charter school.
  6. If I'm laid up in a hospital bed for a few days, maybe I can borrow a laptop and actual get something written.
I've been working so hard at seeing the bright side of this that I had my older brother and an old friend of mine laughing hysterically as we talked about the ways I could milk this, or the ways they could benefit from it if it proves to be terminal. As my friend and I wound down, I pointed out that she was at work, and I had just left her with the awkward task of explaining to her co-workers what was so funny that she had been laughing for20 or 25 minutes. ("Well, an old friend of mine called to tell me that has cancer...")

Now if I can just parlay this good will into the labor and materials I need to have an addition built onto the house...

attack of the thyroid

I guess there's no point in beating around the bush here. I have thyroid cancer.

As cancers go, thyroid cancer is one of the most treatable sorts, and my life does not appear to be in any serious danger, although it's expected that I'm going to be on medication for the rest of my life. I'm working on setting up an appointment with an endocrinologist at the hospital so I can work out the full details of my treatment, such as when surgery will take place, and whether I get to keep my thyroid in a jar for the kids to take to show-and-tell.

I first learned that I have a lump on my thyroid Oct. 4, when I went to the doctor's office for help kicking a cold that had had me down for over a week. Thyroid nodules are fairly common. About 30 percent of adults get them, and usually they are benign. Only 5 percent are considered malignant and require any action beyond monitoring the nodule for any changes. (As is typical for my luck, I once again have beaten the odds. The way I beat the odds is exactly why I like to keep away from the roulette table.)

An ultrasound taken on my throat on Oct.10 revealed that the nodule was a solid mass, and not a cyst; a biopsy taken last Friday determined that the cells unequivocally are cancerous.

Where I go from here is setting up that appointment. My understanding is that the cancer was caught early on, but I'm going to seek assurances that it hasn't spread any to other parts of my body. From what I've read and what's been explained to me when I've asked questions, the next step is going to involve killing the thyroid with radioactive iodine and then having it surgically removed. Once that's done, I'll be taking thyroxin for the rest of my life. Among other things, thyroxin helps the body to regulate its metabolism, and helps set the body's thermostat. I'm not sure what lifestyle changes this operation is going to require. It's quite likely I'll never pitch another game in the World Series.

Obviously, I'm a little rattled by this, but I'm not too worried. I've been laughing with friends and my older brother about the situation, and looking at the bright side. If you're the praying sort, I appreciate prayers for my family, who surely are having to adjust to the specter of cancer. If you're not the praying sort, please feel free to send large quantities of cash to assuage any guilt feelings you have over not being able to help. (See? I told you there were good things about having cancer!)

Oh, and it wouldn't hurt to check yourself for any strange lumps.

Friday, October 28, 2005

the phantom thyroid

And now the waiting begins.

Today at one o'clock, I had the unusual experience of having a needle inserted into my throat not once, not twice but three times with the goal of removing cells from the nodule on my thyroid for culture purposes. And no, I don't mean they'll be taken to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra, though it would be my luck for body cells of mine, even less intelligent than those in my brain, to get that experience.

The procedure was brief, and relieved somewhat by the graphic depictions on the walls of the anatomy of the throat and face. The artist rendered these pictures in such loving detail that I remarked to Dr. Van Hosen that it hurt just to look at someone whose right side of their face had been peeled off, or their throat gouged open to reveal where their different structures were. Trimming the top of the wall were wild animals gleefully stalking patients in the examination room.

Essentially, all that the procedure involved was my laying my head back and exposing my throat to the doctor. Under normal circumstances, the doctor would be considered attractive, except for two things: one, I am married; and two, she was about to stick a long, thin needle into my throat. The insertion was, she assured me, relatively painless, and I must agree. It hurt far less than middle school did.

All told, she did this three times. My throat is a little sore, and I hate it when I cough, burp or turn my neck too far because of the discomfort and swelling. The cells -- I am told they are in fact "follicular cells" -- will be centrifuged and all sorts of other medical things to develop a proper culture. I got to see them after they had been stained, but the magnification on the microscope wasn't very inspiring. They looked like purple dots. (They seemed amused that I wanted to look at them, but how often do you get the chance to see cells from your own thyroid?)

Work on the culture begins this afternoon or evening. By Monday or Tuesday at the latest they will know the state of my thyroid and we will decide what to do about this nodule then, whether to let it be or to remove my entire thyroid. A news editor I used to work with, writing about his bout with cancer, once remarked that good news is given over the phone. If it's bad, they want to see you in person.

I'll let you know what happens.

a milestone

Today, this blog received its 1,000th visit. Considering how eclectic it is, with everything from personal tsursis no one but me cares about, to odd humor and religious musings, and GOK what else, that's quite an honor.

What's neat about the traffic is where it's coming from. Most of my link traffic appears to be coming from Christian, Gay and Confused, a fascinating and well-written blog by a woman who is well, Christian and gay. For someone who claims to be confused, though, JJ writes astonishingly well and clearly. Can't recommend her site highly enough. The second-biggest source of link traffic is "Life in the Gaps," another blog written by a good friend of mine.

Yes, everyone should link to this blog, in order to aid my conquest of the world.

What's really fun, though, is the odd search terms people use to stumble upon this blog. Hydroencephalitis remains the most popular search term that leads here, a phenomenon I fuel each time I mention it. I can't help myself, though. It's too odd not to enjoy it. But at least I have a link to a useful site for people who are looking for information.

My favorite new search phrase turned up today. I've had people find this site by looking for information on rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, and all sorts of unexpected search phrases. Today, someone found me by asking the question "how do you draw daffy duck when he's coughing."

It's a good question. If anyone finds the answer, please let me know.

capitol news

Some people express their politics through serious op-ed pieces and impassioned arguments. Me, I just like to have a few laughs. The whole process, when it is not contemptible, is still laughable and more than a little sullied. I half-expected Bush to nominate his personal CPA to replace Greenspan, and can easily see the events of the following spoof (from The Markle City WOW, which I co-write) to make the nation's leading newspapers.

Bush nominates 'people's justice' for nation's high court
WASHINGTON (Oct.28, 2005) - Once Harriet Miers had withdrawn her nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court, the nation began to wait with baited breath for the person Bush would name to replace her.

Would he name a winner, a justice the entire nation could fall in behind, someone with experience, knowledge, name recognition and actual ability? Would it be a woman, or another minority? Perhaps Bush would nominate the first Asian, Arab or Hispanic, or even the nation's first openly gay justice?

Or would he blow it again and pick a loser?

"Loser," David Robinson, political analyst with the Center for Public Thought, predicted Thursday evening. "Definitely a loser."

Robinson and the rest of the nation didn't have long to wait. Bush's announcement came Friday morning, with the start of the work day at the White House.

"It gives me great pleasure to put forward the name of Judge Wapner for the U.S. Supreme Court," Bush said Friday before a press corps that has become increasingly numb with each day of the Bush presidency.

"I believe we're all familiar with Whopper's legal rulings and his proven track record of interpreting the law in a quick, concise manner on weekday afternoons. He will be justice for the people of this country, and I have no doubt he will get the court to issue rulings faster. I've been assured that if the nomination goes through by Christmas, we can get his complete crew to come along and present us with capsulated summaries of court rulings as soon as they're made.

"I wish I had thought about old Whoppy first."

Andrew Card, spokesman for the White House, was quick to deflect criticism of the nomination, which ignores the fact that Wapner, 86, has been off the air for years and fails to consider other equally untalented judges, such as Judge Judy and Mike Judge, creator of cartoons like "Beavis & Butthead" and "King of the Hill."

"We're hopeful that the Senate Judiciary Committee will ... oh God, I can't do this," he said, breaking down into tears. "For God's sake, how am I supposed to make George sound intelligent when he pulls this crap one day after another? Someone get me the Canadian embassy on the phone. I want to move."

Card was whisked away by officers of Homeland Security and has not been seen since.

Officials in Canada, Mexico, and forty other countries indicated they would be unable to process any asylum requests by Card for months or years, owing to the backlog caused by the heavy emigration from America over the last five years.

Students await results of inquiry into tattletale
MARKLE CITY, Utah (Oct. 28, 2005) - Students at Washington Hills Elementary School remain on edge today as they wait for the shoe to drop in a lengthy investigation into the leaking of confidential schoolyard information to teachers.

Third-graders Carl Rovers and Scooter Libby are under the most suspicion for taking part in the tattling, back when they were in first grade. At the time, classmate Georgey Porgie had kissed several of the girls and made them cry on the precept that the girls were smuggling cooties into the school and had to be stopped before they could cause an outbreak.

Another classmate, Joey Wilson, earlier that day had looked inside the girls' purses and claims to have found no trace of cooties anywhere. When he published his findings in an assignment for composition class, another of the classmates told teacher Miss Miller that Wilson had been playing Cops and Robbers with little Valerie Plamingo, in violation of the school's Zero Tolerance rules, and had even said, "Bang bang, you're dead. I shot you!" to her.

Wilson and Plamingo were suspended from the school for three days and forced to attend violence sensitization classes for another four months. Wilson believes that he and Plamingo were outed to punish him for criticizing Porgie's pre-emptive kissing escapades.

Emmett Fitzgerald, the first boy in the classroom to learn how to tie real shoelaces and not just Velcro, was commissioned by his classmates toward the end of the school year to determine who the tattletale was. Rovers and Libby are considered prime suspects.

If Fitzgerald names either boy today as the guilty party, it is likely he will be beat up during recess and will go back inside wearing his underpants on his head. Unnamed sources say that this will be an improvement.

well, that's embarassing

Somewhere down at Evangeline's school, there is a list of member families. I am sure that next to our name is a black mark that says "bad parents."

Sometime yesterday morning, a water main in the city broke. Water service to the school temporarily was disrupted, and even after it was reinstated, the water was dirty and unsafe to drink until the lines could be flushed properly. So around 11 a.m., school officials made the decision to close the school and send the students home. School employees started calling parents, using the emergency contact information we gave them at the start of the year.

The first problem was that Natasha was home and on the computer. The incoming call kicked her offline, but since there's no way to switch over to an incoming call once it goes into voice mail, she just logged back in and finished what she was doing. Meanwhile, I kept busy making lunch since Thursday was the big Halloween event at Rachel's preschool and I was supposed to help, especially since it also was her school birthday party.

Around noon, as we pulled out of the driveway, Natasha told me she thinks we might have a voice mail message. I quipped that it was probably Evangeline's school calling. Natasha told me that wasn't funny, and we went to Rachel's preschool, had a great time and left around 2:40 p.m. so we could be reasonably close to Evangeline's pickup time.

A little past 3 o'clock, we roll into the school lot. I was surprised to see it empty already since there's usually a few stragglers, and school only gets out at 2:45 p.m. anyway.

Natasha went inside to get Evangeline and discovered that school had been closed for more than three hours, and Evangeline had been the only student there for about two hours. Evangeline's teacher was pleasant but (I'm sure) slightly annoyed. When we got home, I found a voice mail message from her teacher making the initial call, two followup phone calls on our answering machine, and an e-mail from a member of the board of trustees. Natasha went to her office and found another message or two waiting on her work voice mail.

This morning I took Evangeline to school, groveled some more, and was told by the teacher and the teacher's assistant that they need the number for Rachel's preschool in case this happens again. Natasha and I are racking our brains to decide whom we know well enough in the area to ask them to pick up Evangeline in an emergency.

Being stabbed in the throat looks better all the time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

alone

It's the second day since my wife went out of town on business. She's due back this evening, just after dinner, and we're all looking forward to her routine.

The girls have been fairly upbeat about it, and haven't been pining after her since she left, but to be honest, I didn't expect they would. I've been doing the stay-at-home routine for the past year, and the girls are pretty well accustomed to having me in the role of the only parent around during the day. It's just that that's been temporarily extended into the evening as well. (That's not to say it's been without incident of we-want-Mommy-itis. Since my wife usually comes home for lunch, Rachel was excited to hear the mail carrier at the door Tuesday, since she thought that meant it was her mother.)

Night time has been different, though. For starters, both girls have decided to sleep with me. I don't mind that, to be honest, even though the elder child is turning 6 this week and I'm sure there are some busybodies who hate the notion of co-sleeping with a passion, and would be appalled that somebody else's 6-year-old might want to join her parents in their bed periodically. (As long as there's room, I don't mind.)

Monday night went pretty smoothly. We were all in bed, lights out a little past 9, and we were all out cold not long after that. We slept smoothly, too, until 6 a.m., when R. woke up and started hitting me for being on the wrong part of the bed and keeping her from where her mother usually sleeps. Yes, it was milk time. Rachel took it pretty badly that her mother wasn't available, and got out of bed to go looking for her. At last she decided I was telling the truth, and at 6:30 a.m., she went back to bed and back to sleep. I stayed up, and got an early start on the day, since I would have to get Evangeline up at 7 a.m. anyway to get her ready for school.

Tuesday night was not as smooth. We were all in bed, lights out at 9, and R. was out cold almost immediately. E. lingered a little longer, but was gone by 9:30.

At 11 p.m., R. either awoke or started having night terrors, but she screamed at the top of her lungs for a few minutes. I moved her back into her own room, so she wouldn't wake her sister, and stayed with her until the screaming subsided and she was mostly quiet, except for the occasional noise that indicated she was self-comforting herself back to sleep. Once I was satisfied she was OK, I went back to bed.

At 2 a.m., she came back into my bedroom, asked for her mother, and then went to sleep on the floor by the bed. I covered her up with a blanket, and let her sleep there, until 5:30 a.m., when she climbed into bed, got upset to discover that her older sister had moved during the night to the spot where R. had started, asked me for a drink of water, and then curled up beside meand went back to sleep.

E.'s contribution during all this was to moan in her sleep, "But now we'll never know what the recipes really are!"

And now it's time to rouse the elder child to get ready for school.

Monday, October 24, 2005

return of the thyroid

All I have left to look forward to now is being stabbed in the throat this Friday.

My initial consultation with the endocrinologist today about the nodule on my thyroid went swimmingly. The results of my blood work are in, and I am not suffering from hypothyroidism, which means the fatigue and lethargy that dog me really are just laziness. (Damn.) The doctor had other reassuring news: About 30 percent of adults get these nodules, only about 5 percent of them are malignant, and virtually no one dies from thyroid cancer.

Sorry if you were getting your hopes up.

On Friday, the doctor will aspirate the nodule with a thin, thin needle. (I just love medical words like "aspirate." They make me sound so educated.) The cells she collects will be studied for malignancy, at which point we will consider our options, namely leaving it alone, performing a second biopsy for more throat-stabbing excitement, and scheduling a thyroidectomy, which again is exceedingly unlikely. Because of the nature of thyroids and their nodules, the statistical likelihood of a false negative or false positive is negligible. (I thought to ask.)

So like I said, the appointment went nicely. Rachel went along because Natasha is out of town for work today through Wednesday, but she was even better behaved than I was. (Seriously. She colored in her coloring book and sang, and played quietly on the floor. I was busy making jokes, like when the doctor was checking me for symptoms. "No, no memory loss. What were the other things you asked about?")

So, Friday it is. With any luck, she will remember the nodule is in my thyroid, and no one will convince her to check my jugular or heart instead.

spider-man

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before that my elder daughter loves Spider-Man. She enjoys him so much that she has seen both Spider-Man movies, has got me to borrow DVD collections of the most recent cartoon show, has a Spider-Man futon she loves, and has even made some construction paper Spider-Man window decorations with help from her father. Her upcoming sixth birthday party is planned around a Spider-Man theme, complete with Spider-Man crafts, gift bags, and games like "Pin the Mask on Spider-Man."

Her enthusiasm has gone noticed at school, where she has a Spider-Man backpack and where she wears Spider-Man sneakers. Not one but several other children have mentioned to her that Spider-Man is for boys, and girls can't like him. So she told me Friday, while we were waiting to be seen at the dentist.

I hate gendertyping, so I love it when it's easy to poke it in the eye.

"They're wrong," I said. "Do you like Spider-Man?"

"Yes," Evangeline replied.

"And are you a boy, or a girl?"

"A girl," she said, and then it hit her: Her classmates really were wrong. Girls can like Spider-Man too. Her smile was like the sunrise climbing over the horizon in the morning as the realization set in. It was nice for me, too. I got to reassure my daughter that she's OK.

I just hope it's this easy next time, too.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

the thyroid strikes back

Investigation into the nodule on my thyroid has advanced further. The ultrasound revealed it is a solid mass, about the size of a pingpong ball. It is not filled with fluid, which means it is not a cyst. I'm scheduled to see an endocrinologist on Monday for an initial consultation, a medical form of a premeeting to establish the agenda for the actual meeting, and if necessary, they will arrange for someone to stab me in the throat next Friday for the biopsy.

The doctor, upon my followup visit, was impressed with my layman's knowledge of thyroid nodules and conditions -- what was I supposed to do, wallow in ignorance? -- and had me go get some blood at LabCorp., to see if I'm suffering from hypothyroidism. Hyperthyroidism seems unlikely since I've been more lethargic than overactive, and haven't really had any unexplained losses in weight. (I wish.)

The fellow who drew the blood must have had a hard time finding the vein. I have a bruise about the size of a dime where the needle went in. It's still mildly sore, too.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

parent-teacher conference

We had our first real meeting with Evangeline's teacher Tuesday, as part of a parent-teacher conference to set goals for Evangeline's education during the first trimester of school.

I don't remember anything like this in the schools I had growing up. Back then, if there were a parent-teacher conference, it would be in response to a problem academically, behavorially or socially. Here, we actually got to help set Evangeline's goals and provide feedback on what the teacher was thinking.

To say I was pleased with Evangeline's academic performance to date is something of an understatement. She is not just doing well academically, she has blown the bell curve out of the water. Some of this surely is due to our decision to homeschool her last year, for kindergarten; I'm sure much of it has to do with the wonderful preschool experience she had at Somerset Presbyterian when she was 3 and 4; and a lot of it just has to do with how she's wired.

Evangeline has a Renaissance brain, and is equally good at this time at artistic expression and mathematics. Creativity and logic are both tasks she can handle easily.

One of the things that Evangeline's teacher has been impressed with since the beginning is her reading ability. When Evangeline learned to read last fall, she took to it immediately, and rapidly moved from "Dick and Jane"-level books to chapter books. When school started in Septemeber, she lacked the patience to wait for me to read the next chapter of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and usually would plow on ahead, reading three or four chapters on her own.

Zoë remarked that she has been amazed how well Evangeline reads aloud. She's not just reading, mind you; she's reading with inflection and feeling, and when she reads dialogue, she even uses different voices for the different characters. (Not surprising, since Natasha and I have done that whenever we've read her stories, since she was an infant.)

She also is impressed with Evangeline's spelling prowess. Last week, she asked Evangeline to spell California, and her only error was to spell it with a Y instead of the second I. That's largely because Evangeline is a visual learner -- she sees the words written that way when she reads them, and remembers it for future reference -- but we encourage that by encouraging her to figure out the spelling herself when she's writing something.

Other areas where she's exceeding expectations for her age include the well-developed stories she tells, the artistic detail she brings to pictures she draws (no surprise, since she's been taking formal art lessons for the past year), her attentiveness during circle time (she was familiar with that from preschool), her ability to work well with others, and her math skills.

It turns out that Evangeline's math and language skills are so advanced that her teachers don't have the materials in the classroom to challenge her adequately. I'd suspected as much, since the math work she's been bringing home has consisted of really simple addition problems, like 2 + 3, and the English work has involved things like words with the short-I sound. Evangeline has been doing double-digit addition and subtraction for months now, and I've been giving her extra math problems at home in order to keep her skills up.

What they're going to do is to borrow some material from the third- and fourth-grade teachers and give Evangeline reading assignments from there. She'll get to do dioramas and reading comprehension questions for reading; for math, they'll be sending home more challenging worksheets, also culled from the older grades.

The downside to all this is that, although Evangeline is well rounded, her artistic side is a little too predominant. Drawing usually is a part of the assignments Evangeline brings home; she's supposed to draw an illustration for the math word problems, and draw another picture for her reading response, and so on. The instructor at the art academy has stressed from day one that Evangeline should take her time when she's drawing, since good art requires patience, hard work and time.

I'm sure you can see the problem. The school assignments are geared toward students who will finish drawing in something like 10 minutes. In 10 minutes, Evangeline has maybe figured out what exactly she wants to draw, and where to place the elements of her drawing. If she's moving really fast, she may even have started her sloppy copy. This leads to a lot more time being spent on art at a move-at-your-own pace school than is really necessary or wise.

On Tuesday, Zoë told me, Evangeline spent 75 minutes coloring a drawing everyone else had finished on Monday. She still wasn't done. It had a lot of detail, though -- individually colored raindrops, and a night sky behind them that had been very painstakingly filled in with black crayon.

Time management, obviously, is one of the areas where Evangeline needs improvement.

So the deal we struck, with Evangeline's full agreement, is that since good art takes time and should not be rushed, Evangeline gets 10 minutes to work on the drawing at school, and then after that, she gets to take the drawing home, where there will be plenty of time to finish it.

(I had suggested they should head the whole time management problem off at the source, and teach me better skills in that area, but they weren't much moved by my proposal.)

The other problem they commented on is that Evangeline doesn't participate fully in gym class. This completely failed to catch me by surprise. When I try to get Evangeline to walk some place with me, she starts complaining after a block that she needs a break, that her legs are falling asleep, and so on. She apparently has done the same thing in gym class, but Zoë and the teaching assistant, Anna, had no ideas to offer on getting improvements.

Besides time management, Evangeline's goals for December are to master money concepts and to do a research project on Barbies. The money is important because she doesn't "get" the money thing. She's forever forgetting which coins are worth which amount and doesn't get the connection between dollars and cents.

The Barbie project was her idea. I suggested Roald Dahl since she's enjoyed the books of his that she's read, but she wanted to do Barbies, so Barbies it is. My brain is melting already from the mere thought of helping her research this.

By and large, I've been pleased with how well Evangeline has done at school. I was a little nervous about how well she would adapt, since she can be quiet around people she doesn't know, and I wondered how well she would assert herself and the knowledge she already possessed at the start of the year. (That was one of the reasons I let the teacher know myself that Evangeline was reading "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," that she could do double-digit arithmetic, and a few other things.)

I also had some concern over how Evangeline would fare socially. She's an intelligent girl, but she's also creative, independent and her own creature, all things that can count against her in school, where the unwritten rule so often is "You're different, and that's wrong." Adults usually consider her a cutup, because she'll shout things like "Help, help, I'm being oppressed!" when I tickle her, knows the Éowyn-Nazgul exchange, and says "have fun storming the castle!" as a form of goodbye.

Well, it also helps that she's witty, engages in word play with a startling facility for a 5-year-old and ... well, you get the idea. She's one of a kind, which can be a tremendous liability in school, even if it's not a liability at home.

Still, Evangeline is hitting it off very well with a number of children. There are a few she complains are mean, but she has friends, and whenever she leaves school at the end of the day, there are plenty of kids who say goodbye to her by name.

Monday, October 17, 2005

really cheap dvd's

I have in my possession what must be the cheapest new DVDs available for purchase in the continental United States.

Rachel and I bought them this afternoon after taking a meander down to the Stop 'N Shop supermarket in Hoover Point to grab some groceries while Evangeline was at art class. The store has a cardboard display case with about a dozen DVD titles for sale, each for one buck.

Not surpisingly, most of them were movies I'd never heard of, like "Huey Junior," a non-Disney "Aladdin" and one that looked it might be a live-action "Thief of Baghdad." Neither of those really appealed to me, although that's generally true of most of the Arabian night stories, actually. (They mostly seem to be stories of chance and fate, where the heroes rise or fall based on the whims of a djinni, rather than due to any character flaw, virtue or hard work of their own.)

What was neat was that three of them were titles I would be interested in. One of them was the animated Rankin and Bass movie, "The Hobbit"; another was a collection of Daffy Duck shorts; and a third was "Asterix and Cleopatra," which I haven't seen since I was in New Zealand. All for a buck each.

I half-expected the DVDs to be trash, and to break or freeze up ten minutes into the movie. To my surprise, no such thing happened. The girls watched Daffy Duck while I got dinner ready, and the disc played the whole time, with a clear picture and clear sound. They were older cartoons, and weren't even in icolor, but that didn't matter. It was vintage Daffy Duck in his heckler days, making life difficult for Porky Pig and others.

The gimmick, of course, is that these disks are as no-frills as you can get. They come in clamshell cases, and have no foreign language tracks, subtitles, special features or easter eggs. If you put the disk into your DVD player, it starts playing the feature immediately, with barely a minute for the copyright notice.


A menu does appear if you press the menu button, but your choices are "Play Movie," "Select Scene," "Also on DVD" and "Web site." The Also on DVD link takes you to a list of other titles available from East-West Entertainment LLC, apparently all Warner Brothers properties, and as far as selecting a scene, well, there are three of them.

That's right. "The Hobbit" is broken into three chapters, each untitled, and even the Daffy Duck scene selector doesn't let you choose a specific cartoon to start at. It's section one, two or three, and try your luck figuring out where the girls were when you turned it off.

Still, they were a buck, and there are no commercials to skip through. I can deal with it.

the artist in her element

I took a trip to an utterly alien world today on behalf of my daughter. I took her to the art supply store.

Evangeline is taking weekly art lessons at the
Academy of Art of Hoover Point, where she's learning the foundations of art in a classic setting, or something like that. At 5 years old, she's learned to draw with perspective, to use shading, and a few other techniques I don't understand. She's done triptychs, inking, wash pencils and a ton of stuff I never learned until eighth grade in the public school system, if even then.

Today it was time to buy supplies for her third-level drawing class, and I found myself walking up and down the aisles of Pearl, trying to figure out what the heck all these different graphite pencils were for. We had to buy five of them, all with a different number-letter name, and to keep myself amused, I kept wisecracking "2B, or not 2B?" as though it was the funniest joke in the world and there was anything greater than a snowball's chance in Haiti that the girls would get it.

Evangeline, of course, treated the entire trip with the utmost gravity. Normally she complains that she's tired, or that it's too heavy, if I ask her to carry so much as a grape. On Monday, she carried the handcart all around the store, and never complained once when we had to walk all the way back across the store because I was going down the list in order, and didn't realize that we had to buy light tracing paper when I was picking out 80-pound weight acid-free drawing paper.

What was truly impressive to me was when she took it upon herself to educate me about the different kinds of graphite used in pencils, and their different uses. When I wondered out loud why on earth an art student would need a blender, let alone why it would be only ¾ of an inch thick -- thinking of course of the kitchen appliance that we don't have anyway -- Evangeline immediately explained not only what blenders are for (something to do with the edge of a picture), but she told me what they're made of, what they look like, and pointed them out to me on the hook.

At art class, Evangeline continued to work on a liquid graphite drawing of a fish. (I'm not sure how the graphite is liquid, but I guess it's a soft graphite that is made even softer with water. Am I right?) She loves this class, and her teacher has told me that Evangeline is one of the most talented young children she has -- doubly impressive, since Evangeline is also possibly the youngest. I can't help but feel a little amused when I consider that her art classes at school probably involve crayons, scissors and construction paper.

The art academy is great for her, precisely because the instructors expect so much. The higher you set the bar, the more the students'll achieve.