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.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Leader For Our Troubled Time

As I watched the market crumble this past week, and our political leaders range from idiotically crazy (GOTeaParty) to impotently weak and purposeless (Obama and Dems), I realized that I'd also seen, with my own two eyes, a leader who we need, a leader who is willing to lead and isn't afraid to do so.

He's smart, capable of things his peers could never dream of, and he revels in his intelligence. When his homeland is threatened, he summons up great strength in its defense, though is filled with contrition when confronted with the fact that he may have crossed a line between protection and aggression.

This is a leader who understands his own, who realizes what they need to succeed and isn't afraid to fight for those beliefs. For those incapable of helping themselves, he's there for them, not in words but in deeds. His goals are achieved by the means suited for the particular situation: kindness, cleverness and, when necessary, a literal thump in the head. But it's all for the greater good and he knows it.

Even when he has nearly reached the mountaintop, has almost reached his goal, he doesn't gloat and wreak violent revenge on his defeated foes. Even among his enemies, he sees there are friends, good people who can be reached. Never, never does he rule out interaction with an entire class of people because of the mistakes of the few, even the vicious few who have mercilessly tortured his compatriots. That takes strength of character.

This is that leader:

Caesar: In Your Heart, You Know He's Right.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Havin' a MRI ol' time

Six years ago I went through a series of MRIs. I was experiencing a lot of back pain, something I was used to after nearly two decades standing in the trading pits of the Chicago Board Options’ Exchange. What I wasn’t used to was the weird tingling and soreness in my extremities, something that troubled me, and my doctor, who suspected multiple sclerosis. So I went in for an MRI.

The first one was acceptably uncomfortable. Sliding into the chamber, I was given a mirror to see outside. I could also peek out on my own to see the ceiling. I’m not claustrophobic, and it was a reasonably short test. What I wasn’t prepared for was the loud clanging of the magnets, a sci-fi metallic banging that changed its rhythm when a different scan began. It was disconcerting, to say the least. The test was inconclusive and I was scheduled for another, a bit lower than the first brain scan. It was spinal time.

Number two seemed easy, until I was shoved in to the gaping maw of the machine and found I couldn’t see anything, nothing but the glowing white innards of that seemed pressed against my face. I freaked and pressed the panic button, signaling to the operators that I needed to get the hell out of there. I was a wreck, but they guilted me into going back in. “Sir, we really don’t want to have to reschedule.” I composed myself and was conveyor belted back inside. There, I occupied my time thinking of baseball, trying to name every Mets’ manager (I forgot about Art Howe).

They ask before the exam whether you have any metal in your eye. Seems like there was a case where someone had an industrial accident of some kind and the powerful magnets contained in the Magnetic Resonance Imaging device tore the metal shards from his or her eyes. I think that was later used in a Saw movie. I realized I had my wedding ring on, which didn’t count as dangerous metal, but I didn’t know that at the time and flung it across the room. It took a while to find it. That test was also without result.

Once more into the breach and this time it would be a double whammy: 90 minutes inside the giant tube. No way. I knew couldn’t hold out that long. Then a surgeon friend suggested Valium and, though I shy away from pills, I was eager to fill that prescription. The longest test went the easiest. I slept through most of it, and when I woke up I was calm, though extra-toasty. That thing heats up.

The results were definitive - cord compression, disc compression, and arthritic conditions up and down my spine. The solution was vaguer. I had back surgery scheduled, though the two neurosurgeons that looked at me had varying opinions. Eventually I backed out. I knew enough guys from the pits who had back surgery that ended up badly. One died, though, to be fair, it was in a car accident years later. But still.

Lately I’ve been feeling lousy, though my back pain is virtually gone due to weekly chiropractic work. I have what is called “All Shook Up” disease: my legs are shaky and my knees are weak, so weak that I have the occasional knee-buckle that leads to near-falls or completed falls. My legs are a constant combination of numbness and pain, like the tingling you get when you’re coming out of pins and needles. I deal with it but, when a doctor friend commented as he watched me walk, “Dude, you’re all fucked up.” Not much of a clinical diagnosis, but enough for me to act on. With much reservation, I went back last night for both thoracic and lumbar MRIs, a double whammy redux.

I left my wedding ring at home this time, but not my pills. I had my Valium in hand, and upon arrival one hour before the test, I was fairly relaxed. At 6:30 PM I downed my little round friend and watched Modern Times in the waiting room. I felt very much at peace. I was called in to change, and, upon lying down on the tongue of my old nemesis, began to sweat. I thought I’d be near-sleep by then. Instead I was near-panic, and very much concerned I couldn’t go through with it. Dan, who would administer the test, talked me through it before he sent me into the mouth of the machine with panic button in right hand, and wouldn’t leave until I said so. He’d given me earplugs which expanded and muffled him as he spoke, so I may have missed something.

To my surprise and joy, the white plastic roof above my head seemed much further from my face than I recalled. Maybe an inch or so away, but it felt downright spacious. The incessant banging of the magnets hammered their discordant melody. To occupy my mind, I visualized my future publishing success: the call from my agent telling me my proposal had been sold, the glowing reviews, my appearance on The Daily Show, the follow-up Maybe Baby book, and so on. I even had a new idea or two. Before I knew it I heard Dan announce that the first part was finished.

He put me further into the machine, where the white became beige and gave me even more room. I worried that this might put me in more confined space, but it felt like Howe Caverns compared to what I was expecting. When I was slid back I almost lost control of my distress button, but I quickly tightened my grasp.

There’s a bit of a pause when the imaging area changes. It’s short, but, for a moment, a gap struck me as far too long. The night before we had all watched Liam Neeson’s Unknown and there’s an MRI scene where Neeson’s character is on a gurney, a bit drugged, and in danger of his life. That was on my mind during the long silence. At first, I thought it unlikely that Dan had been murdered and I was in a perilous situation, but a terrible thought crossed my mind. He could have had a heart attack and died, leaving me bound in the machine, the buzzing of my signal screaming “let me out” left unheard. I wondered if I could squirm out, whether the strap that held my head down would prevent me from escape. The Valium helped lessen the growing stress, but, though I never thought I’d think it, I was relieved to hear the pounding of the magnets start up.

By then I wanted out, though not in a wild way. I’d had enough, it was getting warm, and I was running out of things to think about. Finally, I could feel the cool air from an opened door and then Dan’s presence. I was done.

Back home, the family gathered around to watch The Concert for Bangladesh, one day after its 40th anniversary. I needed the sound of “Awaiting on You All” to wash away the clanging of the MRI and the memories of an unpleasant 90 minutes. Thanks to George Harrison, all things passed.