Thursday, February 9, 2012

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

In my last two years at SUNY-Binghamton, I was General Manager of Slipped Disc, the school’s record store that carried everything from Asia to Aztec Camera, from The Modern Jazz Quartet to The Modern Lovers. Those were fun years. We were at the center of campus music along with the superlative radiomen and women at WHRW, and the live music titans over at Binghamton Concerts. Good times.

Here’s what I remember of Will Hermes: backpack laden, rushing into the store at high speed, very friendly, extremely enthusiastic and, for some reason, I always see him carrying a pita stuffed with hummus from the upstairs food co-op. I think that’s all accurate; it’s been a while, coming on 30 years.

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Will’s new book, is an eminently enjoyable read, short pieces making a narrative whole. Will’s snippets skip from genre to genre like a top notch radio show, an eclectic group of word songs with intermittent first person reflections from DJ Hermes. The panoramic presentation of earth-shaking music erupting from New York from 1973-77, and how it influenced all that would follow, is almost too much to grasp. There was so much going on in such a small area.

Will’s personal asides are a treat. His account of riding his bike along treacherous Queens terrain to buy records from Korvettes made me flashback to my own quasi-daring rides to my local branch of the store, much further east in Lake Grove, Suffolk County. After a well thought out purchase, I would return home, scanning the cover intently, hands off the handlebars, occasionally checking traffic. It was self-created danger.

That’s as close as I get to similarity. Will mentions that from the apartment building rooftop he could see Manhattan. From the top of my suburban house in Long Island, I could see the top of another suburban house in Long Island. Maybe that’s why, at comparable ages, he was taking the subway to see Springsteen and I was listening to Top 40 on WNBC.

Here’s a secret: I never really loved the sounds of 1970’s New York, never feeling the same deep thrill for Patti Smith or Talking Heads as I did for The Clash or The Jam. (Springsteen is the lone rock exception, though he is both part and apart from the cool crowd). Well, maybe for The Ramones, though for reasons inexplicable to me to this day, I never had the urge to see them live. There was something about the New York scene I couldn’t wrap my arms around and give a big hug. A little cold, a little affected. There’s a quote in the book about how David Byrne didn’t twitch unless he said to himself, “time for a twitch.” I paraphrase here. It’s a better comment than that, but exemplifies my take on the band. Even the King of New York rock, Lou Reed, doesn’t really do it for me (though The Velvets did).

Talking with another college pal, I put forth the notion that The Jam was a better group than The Clash, despite the Strummer hagiography. That led to a discussion on the Top Five of the era. I think I had The Jam, The Clash, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols. My friend Jimmy said, “What about Talking Heads?” I was a tad stunned. I never think of them in that light, as among the cream of the crop. But I know that out of my peer group mainstream thought.

(A Talking Heads aside. They played the arena in Broome County at the height of their Speaking in Tongues popularity. Someone I knew from school offered me coke and I declined. I was never a drug taker, though not from any position of morality. Just wasn’t interested. Anyway, my pal, shocked, said, “It’s free,” as if finances were the only logical reason to demur. I still said no. The next day, he (I wish I could remember who it was) told me that I was the only person he’d ever met who said no to free cocaine).

There is one musician of the period I did revere: tenor man David Murray. Will’s descriptions of the emerging jazz loft scene are my favorite parts of the book. I first saw Murray at Binghamton, acting and playing in a post-apocalyptic drama written by Amiri Baraka and picketed by Jewish student groups. (I’m betting Will was there). I was hooked on the man. Whether solo, big band or in the World Saxophone Quartet, Murray became my go-to guy. His album The Healers, recorded with Randy Weston, was my most played album of 1987-88.

Like any great music book, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire has me checking on artists I’d long ignored, like Steve Reich. I used to feel bad about not knowing everything, or not being cutting edge, but I realize there was only so much time to listen and, back in those days, only so much money to buy records. Choices were difficult to make. I’m not quite ready to dive into salsa, but I’m sure I will, ‘cuz Will Hermes thinks I should.

Get the book, read it, and learn. Then listen.

Monday, December 12, 2011

You Go Scorsese!

Hugo is not simply the best movie I've seen this year, but it has immediately gained entrance into the Jeff Katz All-Time Greats list. It's touching (though not cloying), funny (though not buffoonish), effect laden (though not empty) and educational (though not pedantic). Hugo is as magical as the films of Melies it brings back to life.

I'm not going to recount the plot; you can look that up elsewhere.

After preview upon preview of CGI movies to come (I'm looking at you Tin Tin), it was a big adjustment to Hugo. Here was a large movie, an epic of imagination, that had a cast of humans! And big time humans like Ben Kingsley, Jude Law and Christoper Lee. It took a while for me to get used to it, like those 10-15 minutes of Shakespeare that one has to pass through to reorient their ears and get the hang of the language. That sense of semi-reality only added to the storybook experience.

Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector. Is there anybody funnier? He brings a sly and somewhat perverse characterization to the movie which gives it great depth. All the characters have something happening; there's not a useless member of the cast.

Seeing Georges Melies' films, even in clip form, on a giant screen is pure heaven. The hand tinted frames bleed gloriously and still, over a century later, you wonder "How did he do that?" My lord, it's wonderful. Scorsese manages to infuse screen history into a child's tale and, in doing so, makes the best film about the spell that movies weave. (No disrespect meant for Sullivan's Travels). In great part, Hugo is about film preservation and restoration, a cause dear to the director's heart. He makes a tragedy out of something long forgotten, and that isn't easy. The scenes of Melies' studio and the filming of the filming of the films is spectacular.

It's been said that Hugo makes the most of 3D. It does. The special effects are totally organic. There's no flash, no in-your-face moment. There's a point being made here, and that point is subtly and quite cleverly played out not once, but twice. Train Entering the Railroad Station, one of the first silents, is simply that: a train entering the depot. Much has been made of how the audience of 1898 recoiled in horror as the steaming locomotive approached, fearful that it may leap from screen to lap. Scorsese shows that two times.

Think about that. An audience of sentient adults, all clearly in three-dimensions and in color, could not separate themselves from a flat screen presentation of a black and white train. They were truly frightened that the one world would infiltrate the other. It worked, and set the table for the cheap 3D jolts to come: the thrown spear, the reaching hand, any old protuberance that would make the audience jump.

Scorsese's 3D does none of that and yet results in more genuine emotional reaction than any stunt. It does what it's supposed to, presenting depth with reality, not as a hoax. In that way, Hugo feels real and swallows you up in its world. It was a shame to leave it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Avant le déluge

My cultural world has been taken over by 1963. It wasn't planned, it simply became. My recent records, books and DVD watching have made me wish I were alive in the year before the 1960's began. Technically I was among the living, but what does a newborn know in his world of diapers, baby food and cribs. You call that living?

Kookie!, an album of almost music by Edd Byrnes, was actually released in 1959, but Byrnes' show, 77 Sunset Strip, ran until 1964. The entertainment, as it were, of a record like this, filled with anonymous studio rock 'n' roll of the period and the talk-singing of the Kookie character is pure hokum and innocence. Byrnes' street rapping hipster, whose innocence makes The Fonz seem like Tupac, splutters enough "babys," "daddy-os" and "like, wows" that I wondered how this was mistaken for edgy beatnik talk. Songs titled "Kookie's Mad Pad, "The Kookie Cha Cha Cha," and the boffo hit "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)" are sweet in their faux-cool. All is not as it seems in retrospect, we all know that, but somehow the kind of world that could produce an album like this made me long for a happier time.

That hackneyed time travel sentiment is the subject of many a Twilight Zone. I'd always wanted to see Season 4, the year CBS executives forced the creators into one-hour long episodes. Having now seen all 18, I can say that the doubly long programs have been unfairly maligned over the years. Everything I've read about the January - May 1963 run has damned them as too long and unable to hold the quality of the 30-minute versions. Not so. The weaknesses of the shows are similar to those of all lesser Zones. There are several purported comedies; Rod Serling never did funny very well (though "The Bard" is a hoot, highlighted by Burt Reynolds' spot-on Brando impersonation).

I've been working my way through Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, published in '64 but set in '63. Similar to Faulkner, Kesey jumps from first-person to first-person without a heads up. That's where the similarity ends. Notion is just alright. It's not particularly difficult, or interesting, but I'm only half way through and, perhaps, there's good stuff ahead. The novel was seen by some critics as a "work of new consciousness" and, perhaps it will be by the time I close the covers. So far, I don't see it. Kesey has his counter-culture cred intact with Cuckoo's Nest and the Merry Pranksters, and with that in mind, his story of The Stamper family's generational conflicts presages what lurks right around the corner, the schism of the second half of the decade.

"Passage on the Lady Anne" is the penultimate show of Twilight Zone Season 4. It centers around a young couple, probably in their late 20's, trying to save a rocky marriage. They're a typical pair of the time, young people who look, dress and act twice their age. What was it about 25-30 year olds of the mid-60's that made them so beaten up and overly mature? Was it the Mantovanni records? The couple is headed to England by cruise ship, a decrepit vessel populated by ancients on their last voyage. You can guess where this one goes.

Would Allan and Eileen even know what was waiting for them in 1963 Swinging London? Would they even guess that a band of four boys from Liverpool was driving the Old Sod insane? How could they know that in a mere few months The Beatles would hit America and change the world? 1963 was the last year before the culture cracked. It's been fun to visit.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Scorsese's Missed Opportunity

George Harrison's eponymous 1979 album has always been a favorite of mine. It's soft, to be sure, but the tunes are all of high quality and show him in his best light: sweet, thoughtful, funny. George Harrison was also my go-to record when I wanted to fall asleep. It's a great listen AND a fine sleeping pill. That's just my personal example of the dichotomy that was George Harrison.

Martin Scorsese's much anticipated documentary on George, Living in the Material World, presented itself as the same mixed bag that was the ex-Beatle. It was sloppy and acute, focused and chaotic, touching and superficial. All like the man himself. Scorsese, or his underlings, couldn't quite grasp the man they chose to exalt. In the early segments of Part 1, the film focused on John Lennon, who is hands down more funny and clever than his younger band mate. Still, that's not why we were all watching. And to have both of George's brothers wasted in a one-off snippet that told the story of John spilling beer on a wedding guest, well that was unforgivable. What a wasted resource.

Why tell the Beatles story at all? Scorsese goes on the assumption that most viewers know the details anyway, otherwise why mention Stu's death, without noting who he was, how he may have died (or did die) and why his demise was so devastating to John? True, Dhani Harrison reading his father's letters was a solid device to show how Hari was, even at the beginning, jaded by the mania. It's unfair to judge the movie on what I think it should have been, instead of what it was, but telling the tale from the breakup onward, with flashbacks to the few pertinent Beatley moments, would have made a more effective and sharply honed narrative of George's quest for spiritual growth in a perverted world.

Part 2, the 1970 and onward period, was better, though still scattered. It bounced from All Things Must Pass, to the ill-fated Dark Horse tour of 1974, to George's creation of Handmade Films, his obsession with racing, the Traveling Wilburys and, ultimately, the outrageous attack in his home and death. The clips from what seemed to be a film made during the tour, which found George with poor voice, bad judgment in song selection (changing lyrics to Beatle songs, putting Ravi Shankar on twice), and happily, for critics, the target of venom after his "do no wrong" run from his debut album, to Concert for Bangladesh and the album which gave Scorsese's film its name, were eye-opening. George sounded horrible at first, though in fine voice a bit later on. The behind the scenes moments with a wise-cracking, throat-gargling George made we wish for a revisit to this period. not a revision, per se, because I've heard the bootlegs and the music is pretty weak, but a deep look at an interesting moment in rock history. Drummer Jim Keltner's take, that George, though struggling, was "loved" by the crowd, was an insightful look from a participant.

But even Keltner's anecdote about George putting a plug for the Jim Keltner fan club on the back cover of Living in the Material World, was missing a key fact. It wasn't a funny poke at Keltner; it was a nasty rebuke of Paul McCartney, who had a tag for a Wings Fan Club in the same spot on Red Rose Speedway. Scorsese's film had room for George as curmudgeonly, but not for George as vicious and nasty, which he could very well be.

There are powerful moments sprinkled throughout. 1976 George watching a 1964 clip of The Fabs singing "This Boy" was worth the price of admission. Tom Petty's eyes-welling account of George's call to tell of the death of Roy Orbison was touching. Eric Clapton provided thoughtful commentary throughout. And when was the last time anyone saw real emotion out of Ringo? With all his "peace and love" superficiality, Ringo has made himself a self-parodying joke, but when he tells of his last visit with George, and begins to cry, well, it was beautiful. McCartney was, as always, a tad inscrutable. His tales of his youth with George, as two young mates, came across as genuine, but at other times, when he explains his late-period dictatorial ways, it was simply another edition of the last decade's "Paul Revisionary Tour." Macca is lucky to be the last one standing who can shape the tale of The Beatles. Ringo was never in the trenches in the same way as the other three.

Olivia Harrison provided depth, the sole person who was willing to delve into her husband's foibles, however briefly. And her account of the knife wielding madman who broke into Friar Park is harrowing. A short take of George mixing a Ringo song at his home studio is made touching by a lovely hug that Dhani gives his dad. There are more wonderful bits scattered over the 3 1/2 hours but, as a friend said "vignettes do not make up a narrative."

So, what are we left with at the end? A jumbled view of an interesting man, a film that felt both too long and too short, and the empty feeling of an underwhelming effort. The hardcover companion book does a much better job of fleshing out the man. Did I like it? I have a hard time criticizing The Beatles and their projects, though I do know when the product is weak. Living in the Material World is mediocre at best, but any time I can spend with George Harrison is time well spent. I'm hoping for really good bonus features when the DVD comes out.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Beat the Rush?

When I was a kid, my Dad would take us, usually once a year, to Shea Stadium for a Mets game. It was thrilling to be at the ballpark and, regardless of what was happening on the field, it was completely joyful. Even when I got pelted by a half-grapefruit thrown from the upper deck smack into the stomach area of my new Mets’ shirt, leaving pinkish citrus ooze, I was happy (once I got back the wind that had been knocked out of me).

Except if we went to Shea on a weekday. Then, no matter the score, we would leave. “It’s a work night,” my father would pronounce. Or, “It’s a school night.” Or both. It was eminently more important to out-exit the hordes and get home at a reasonable time. My collection of scorecards is marred by games that were left voluntarily, the results of the Mets-Astros game, at 2-2 going into the ninth, suspended by our departure. I’ve never forgotten that crushing, sinking feeling of being outside the park, the halo of lights behind and above me, hearing the roar of the crowd who either didn’t work, didn’t go to school, or had the proper sense of priority to realize that the rare game they got to see was worth a little less sleep. When I got older and had season tickets at Wrigley Field, I watched each game to its conclusion, and still managed to be a productive person the next day. It was false that beating the rush was important.

I swore I’d never do that to my kids, whether it was at a sports event, a concert, whatever. Joey wanted to see The Avett Brothers on Tuesday night. It was pouring. I mean buckets, but I wasn’t going to tell him no. Even my recent back surgery was no excuse, though Joey was sweetly solicitous. I had spent Monday night undergoing my first real test - an 8-hour Board of Trustees meeting. I was physically sore at the end, but, on the whole, in fine shape. Standing at a concert would be easier, I thought, and it was, though my feet hurt during the last hour.

Nicole Atkins was the first act and she was OK. Her lead guitarist, Irina Yalkowsky, was a stellar soloist. That girl knows the proper use of dynamics! Brandi Carlile was next. I don’t know. She’s pretty popular, but left me un-won over. There was something too stagy, too false, a bit overly enthusiastic for my taste. Atkins and Carlile share a vocal trait that I dislike, the sudden switch to upper register that always strikes me as affected and out of place. Anyway, the two lead-ins didn’t bother me. I was focused on the rain that never let up.

When Joey and I saw Wilco in June, he asked if we could be up front. I told him that nothing stops determined people from getting to the stage. The Avett crowd had scores of those types, healthy young college aged folks who strongly made their way wherever they wanted. It caused an occasional scene. Early in the Avett set, there was a lot of pushing. I held my ground for my own benefit, but also was keenly aware of where Joey was and what threats surrounded him. There was fun too, with much throwing of beer cups, one which ended up landing perfectly atop an umbrella

At one point, I overheard a guy yell “Joey Katz.” It turned out to be someone Joey worked with two years ago at The Hall of Fame. I listened in, especially when the guy’s girlfriend was talking to Joey. After a while, I heard Joey say to her, “I’m 15.” To that, the girl replied, “No way dude, I thought you were 21! I’m 21!”

I turned around at that point, and she said to me, “Are you his friend?” When I told her I was his father, she was dumbfounded and then began to heap praise upon the boy. It was pretty cool. By that time the crowd had settled into position, but there were some points of fun and violence to come.

In front of me stood a 20-something man who early on struck me as a douche, egging on a guy pissed off at someone trying to cut ahead of him. When the rain stopped for about 2 minutes, he began to elaborately disrobe, taking off his jacket, then his backpack. From his bag he brought out, and began to assemble, a pipe, a very long pipe. It was ridiculous. Pipe Guy grabbed some tobacco from a metallic pouch, bits sticking to his wet hand. He lit up, began puffing away like a 19th century burgomaster, and offered it around. I couldn’t believe Joey didn’t try some, and told him so, jokingly.

“What would you have done if I did?” I told him I probably wouldn’t have cared. Having shared a passed bottle of Jack Daniels at a Rolling Stones’ show in 1981, who was I to talk.

When a cowboy-hatted scruff-beard tried to make his way through the tightly packed audience, causing strife for some, Pipe Guy couldn’t quite get the negative vibes. I told him that perhaps not everyone had achieved the serenity he gained by taking up the pipe. He liked that.

The occasional rough stuff was a good thing for Joey to see. I told him that in packed concerts one had to be very vigilant and aware of what was happening around them. Soon after, a very out of it drunk or drugged dude came barreling through. The same person who had been taunted by Pipe Guy was not happy and viciously grabbed the intruder by the neck and literally threw him backward. Angry Guy was steaming, but Fucked Up Dude was unperturbed. He was so out of it that no signal would have been recognized.

I understood Angry Guy’s reaction but not his follow-up assault. Fucked Up Dude tried to bash through again, far from Angry Guy. FUD succeeded and was well past our area, when Angry Guy went deep into the crowd after him and pulled him back. “Why are you looking for a fight?” asked Joey’s former co-worker. It was odd.

The Avetts were truly spectacular. They seem a little mentally challenged to me, with their quirks and tics and verbal outbursts. All to good effect. Joe Qwan, their cellist, looks like an evil Mongol extra from a bad Genghis Khan movie. I was happy to have seen the show. Afterwards, the parking lot was a muddy morass and, to add squelching insult to the soggy injury of the evening, we got stuck. We weren’t alone. Happily, college kids are young, strong and willing to do goofy things for fun; packs of them were gleefully pushing cars out. We took full advantage of their services. The road never felt so good.

Was it worth it? I don't know. The headliners were terrific but standing for four plus hours in a monsoon, with painful feet and a soaked 1970's Atlanta Braves cap that became as heavy as a space helmet, made it memorable and that may be the better. We hung tough in miserable weather, Joey learned how passionate crowds operate, and we had awesome sugar waffles. We’ll be talking about this one for a long time.

Monday, August 29, 2011

La tragica vita

I sat down to watch La Dolce Vita a few night's ago (or, as Nate said, "it's the classic La Dolse Vita). It'd been many years since I'd seen it, during a period where I caught up to every Fellini film (I may still need to see 1 or 2). I remembered a lot of the movie, knew I loved it, but was in no way prepared on how staggering its impact would be on me this time around. Maybe it's because I'm older; maybe I just forgot a similar reaction on last viewing. I mostly couldn't believe I didn't remember Nico was in it, but there she was talking like she sings, just as she sings like she talks.

Marcello's gossip columnist character has quickly found that the empty, glamour chasing life has gotten him nowhere. However, if you pursue your true love – in Marcello’s case literature, the arts - then you’re screwed too. A life of domestic simplicity, taking on a real job and settling down to a routine, like the father you have romanticized, or the girlfriend who romanticizes you – well, that’s a dead end as well. ("This isn’t love; it’s brutalization!" Marcello famously tells his Emma). When even a sweet angel, from heaven by way of Umbria, beckons you across the smallest of chasms to your salvation, a physically easy walk but an emotional leap as vast as the widest Alpine valley, so vast that there’s no hope of crossing, there remains no choice but to refuse. That is the saddest moment of all.

Each set piece – Hollywood-type party, aristocrats cavorting in an ancient villa, moneyed class boringly flaunting their riches - is empty, each group offering their own vacuous existence as an alternative. Nothing is as beautiful as it seems. Anita Ekberg's classic wade through Trevi Fountain, with Fellini painting her as otherworldly, magical, a statue come to life in unbelievably large proportions, turns tawdry and washed out in the light of morning. Night is where the magic happens and where, usually, one can be convinced, falsely, that there is beauty and purpose in life. All hopes fade with the sun.

Everyone is a whore in their own way, selling their soul and selling it badly, never getting what they thought they’d get when the bargain was made. The Chicken Girl, who, like Marcello, came from the sticks to Rome with a dream, will do anything, be abused in anyway, if it helps her reach her goal. Marcello is a true coward and maybe she is too. He makes her into a symbol, covering her with feathers from a ripped pillow. It's his final act of realization; he's at his most cruel when he's attacking his alter image.

The final scene, at the beach with the monstrous fish/ray who's been caught in a net and is likely to fetch a high price, hits hard. Why does the sea creature insist on looking, wide eyed? Doesn’t he know it’s all over for him?

The dead are always the last to know. Aren't we all?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

This is Spinal Surgery

Six years ago, I had a lot of back pain, the result, I assume, of two decades, give or take, of standing in trading pits. I went through a series of MRIs and found out I was a mess: stenosis, arthritis, cord compression, and a few more bits. I had surgery scheduled, but knew enough guys back in Chicago who went under the knife to cure back pain. It never worked. So I cancelled.

With much doubt, I started seeing a chiropractor, and the back pain disappeared. In its place arose a new set of symptoms: leg numbness, pain, a constant sense of having pins and needles. I have a high pain threshold, equal to that of a dairy farmer a friend said (high praise) so I bore with it, but when my knees started buckling and I suffered an occasional fall down the two steps to the computer room (invariably while holding a full cup of coffee), I knew I needed to revisit the ol' MRI machine to see what was causing my 48 year old body to pose as an 80 year old's. (I wrote about that two posts ago, I believe).

With the results in, I saw a neurosurgeon on Tuesday. He was alarmed at the progression (or is it regression?). My spine was so pinched, like an indented pool noodle, that he feared a fall would cause some serious damage. I needed surgery and this time I was up for it. This wasn't for pain, this was about functionality. Not that I love to walk, but I do like having the option. The surgeon left to call the operating room as to their schedule, and Karen and I were shocked to find upon his return that two days later, on Thursday morning, I was going to be cut.

On one hand it was a comfort to not have time to think about it. On the other hand, it would've been nice to have some time to think about it. Didn't matter though, the wheels were now in motion.

With the market behaving with the same lack of control as my legs, I thought about how much this might cost me. What could a little spinal surgery come to - $30,000, $40,000, $50,000? I had no idea and was afraid to call my insurance company, even though I assumed I wouldn't have to pay the full boat. I assumed they'd try to tell me not to have the procedure. The hospital, Bassett in Cooperstown, was very helpful, filling me in on their conversation with Allied Benefits and, it turns out I have a cap on cost. I did call Allied, but got the feeling they were just spitting back what I told them Bassett had told me. I nervously await the bill.

The surgery was moved from 11 AM to 9 AM, which was good since I couldn't eat after midnight. We checked in and, in the waiting room, which had floor-to-ceiling black and white baseball shots which I'll have to investigate further (there was a nice one of Maury Wills backhanding a grounder), Karen and I went through the paperwork.

"What's PACU?" she asked the woman at the desk.

"Oh, that's the recovery room."

It was clear Karen wasn't going to get what she wanted, which was what the acronym stood for. It became a running gag: everyone she asked told her "Oh, that's the recovery room."

I've found that having friends as doctors makes the hospital experience more relaxing. I never would have thought that in the past. Down on the operating floor, we talked to my anesthesiologist, who was the first person to give me the lowdown on some of the risks.

"You're going to be prone for five hours and, though we are very careful, you may develop pressure sores from the weight distribution. Chin, knees, hip bones. Sometimes there's pressure on the eyes that could lead to blindness, but that's never happened here."

There was more: a breathing tube, which when removed would leave me with a temporary throat problem (I have a Vito Corleone thing going on still) and a catheter, which I dreaded. I was told the tube would come out before I was awake, but the catheter would remain. It wouldn't hurt, I was assured. It would feel weird, like having an earthworm pulled from my penis.

This was scary stuff. "Could I back out now?" I asked, with no real intention of doing so.

"You wouldn't be the first."

The surgeon came in, and reiterated my problem. The spinal cord is supposed to be an oval looking downward, but mine looks like a three-cornered hat. The Tea Party strikes again! I was to undergo a laminotomy (still don't know), a discectomy (removal of a disc) and a cage fusion (either an exotic wrestling match or a newly built metal and bone support).

By this time I wasn't very nervous. Having had a colonoscopy a long time back helped. Before that delight, I was told I wouldn't remember anything. That was hard for me to intellectualize, but having undergone the experience I know it to be true.

Finally the moment came and I was wheeled into the OR. I remember the lights, and some people milling about, and then it was about 3:30, I was in PACU (Peri-operative Acute Care Unit, we eventually found out), and it was all over. Some people visited me to check me out and fit me with a new plastic brace/corset. Reports were that I was very cooperative.

The worst was over, and I wasn't even aware of how it played out, but the recovery was going to prove problematic. Not physically, I could already feel my legs were better. I had the worst roommate imaginable: a cantankerous, complaining, snoring evil Oz behind the curtain that divided the room. All night long his machines were buzzing. He couldn't figure out why, but I could here that he wasn't interested in how to fix it. The nurses told him how to avoid having his IV tangled but he insisted he had faulty equipment. Even when no staff was present, he would complain out loud. I had no problems with anyone and if they arrived a little late on my behalf I was fine with it. Cranky Neighbor bitched on my behalf. Thank God for earplugs.

The night went reasonably well despite the black cloud to my right, and I learned something important about myself. I can't pee lying down. You're given a jug to use, which was some relief accident wise, but I need to get up and that would prove a chore. Two strong guys were brought in to help me up and I made it to the bathroom, a heroic achievement. It was a struggle to get from lying down to sitting up. As the night wore on, I was able to leave bed with only a little help.

All signs pointed to a lunchtime discharge. I was feeling fine, though sore, as if someone had sliced their way through my back muscles. My wound was draining into a white hockey puck device that was connected through a tube into my back. This too, upon removal, would feel weird like the evil earthworm of the catheter.

Karen and Nate came to visit. Nate was worried, on edge a bit, but soon, with no real sense of my comfort, hopped into bed with me and started watching TV. "You're not dying, are you?" When he saw my puck, he asked, "Is your blood brown?"was very sweet and comforting.

Karen, who was as wonderful as I would expect, had put in a lot of hours the night before and came back as soon as Joey got off to work. She took Nate for pizza in the cafeteria, and it was only a matter of time before I was released, leaving my nemesis behind the veil cursing and screaming at his lazy, good for nothing wife who couldn't do anything right. At least that was his take on her; I was glad to leave.

I slept on the couch last night, finding my down to the floor and bathroom. It's truly amazing that I had back surgery two days ago, and have already improved dramatically, enough that I'm sitting at the kitchen writing this. No pain, all gain.