Monday, April 30, 2012

Fiction as Non-Fiction

There are readers who devour mostly fiction and there are those who mostly read non-fiction.  Although I enjoy the occasional non-fiction work, mostly biographies, and, even then, tend to read biographies of writers or musicians, I happily settle down with a novel as my window to the world.  My non-fiction friends tell me I am wasting my time as they lecture about their newest insight into what makes the world tick, or how politics is evolving, and what history really means, from whatever non-fiction work they are reading at the time. 

Except for unassailable facts, what occurred and when, fiction and non-fiction can be topsy-turvy, with fiction being closer to the truth.  Most of my daily "non-fiction" consumption is reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, with an occasional Washington Post article for good measure. The WSJ has always had a conservative bent, even more so now that Murdoch's empire has annexed the newspaper and of course the NYT has a more liberal bias.  What the two newspapers have in common, though, is that they are well written.  However, it is amusing how they might look at the same issue, particularly when it comes to politics.  And they have become more polarized during the last four years as we've skirted a near economic depression and our government has moved to a state of immobilization.  That polarization has been further amplified in the media of radio and TV, and has become exponential on the Internet.  People seem to line up to read or view whatever seems to fit their belief system, a form of cognitive dissonance.  So much for so-called "non-fiction."

But writers of fiction and drama drill down to an inner world of their characters, trying to make sense of life from within.  Other artists, those in the performing or visual arts are doing the same, perhaps more abstractly.  What these authors and artists have to say about our world  matter as much as the journalists and non-fiction writers, perhaps more so.  The writers of non-fiction are filtering information even though it is purported to be fact.  The filters of fiction are more intangible leaving the reader not necessarily with neat conclusions, but frequently only with questions.  One has to actually think, something becoming more alien in our sound bite, "facetweet" cyber world.

So I find it fascinating when writers are asked to comment, directly, not through their fiction, about the state of the world.  The P.E.N. (poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists) American Center is hosting a World VoicesFestival  beginning today and A. O. Scott, a critic for The New York Times asked Margaret Atwood from Canada, E.L. Doctorow from the United States, and Martin Amis from Britain "to consider the question of America and its role in global political culture." 

Margaret Attwood writes a playful parable by trying to explain the state of American culture and politics to a group of visiting Martians, Hello, Martians. Let Moby-Dick ExplainShe uses two well known short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne "The Maypole of Merry Mount," and "Young Goodman Brown" to make the point that the bickering over individual freedom vs. the rights of the group and the American quest of finding satanic elements in the enemy du jour is deeply ingrained in the American soul (witch hunting then, and "right now it’s mostly ‘terrorism,’ though in some quarters it’s ‘liberalism’ or even ‘evil-green-dragon environmentalism.’ ”) 

The Martians are TV and Internet savvy.  They come to their own conclusions about the US: "Though American cultural hegemony is slipping, we perceive: newly rich countries such as India and Brazil have developed their own mass media. Also, America’s promise of democracy and egalitarianism — the mainstay of its cultural capital, widely understood — is being squandered."

Attwood urges them to read Moby Dick, which they do in an instant (Martians are very bright) but  "then they consulted™ for an expression that would best convey their reaction. 'Holy crap!' " --- coming to the conclusion that the novel was a predictive metaphor for the very state of America today (check the link for details).  In short, to understand America, one must look to its literature.

In contrast to Attwood's playful but insightful piece, E.L. Doctorow writes a scathing prescriptive "primer," Unexceptionalism: A Primer  

This is a four phase process (we've gone through the first three and are in the process of completing the final phase argues Doctorow) "to achieve unexceptionalism, the political ideal that would render the United States indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world...."

Here is one of America's leading novelists, works such as Ragtime, World's Fair, Billy Bathgate, and Homer & Langley, who is plainly disgusted at the direction of the country.  His "primer" is clearly an invective borne out of the same sense of powerlessness and frustration many feel.

Finally, the UK's Martin Amis weighs in with Marty and Nick Jr. Go to America about when he first visited America as a child with his family in 1958, (he and his brother wanting their names to "sound American" hence, "Marty" and "Nick, Jr.")  I like to read what visitors have to say about their impressions of America and once got caught up in Charles Dickens' first trip to America, incorporating some of his "American Notes" in my 2005 edited collection, New York to Boston; Travels in the 1840's

Amis' family came because his father was a visiting professor at Princeton.  Martin Amis says "We came from Swansea, in South Wales. This was a city of such ethnic homogeneity that I was already stealing cash and smoking the odd cigarette before I met — or even saw — a person with black skin." 

Some people would like to think that we live in a post-racial era but Amis reminds us of the entrenched racism, not only when he lived in America as a child (when he returned to the UK in 1967 his father wrote a poem about Nashville which ends But in the South, nothing now or ever. / For black and white, no future. / None. Not here.) but now as well, concluding with a reference to the Trayvon Martin case, with a cynical twist at the end, "Leave aside, for now, that masterpiece of legislation, Stand Your Ground (which pits the word of a killer against that of his eternally wordless victim), and answer this question. Is it possible, in 2012, to confess to the pursuit and murder of an unarmed white 17-year-old without automatically getting arrested? Ease my troubled mind, and tell me yes."

I wrote about the Trayvon Martin tragedy soon after it occurred.  Mine wasn't a race to judgment, but that is what the conservative press would have you believe is happening. A man is indeed innocent until proven guilty, Amen to that I say.  But who speaks for the "eternally wordless victim" as Martin Amis so forcefully posits? 

We live in volatile times and need to listen to our creative writers.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wedding Anniversary

I'm feeling very nostalgic today, our 42nd wedding anniversary.  But melancholy also intrudes because as time permits (the irony of that phrase weighs on me) I've been going through the thousands and thousands of photographs I scanned, leaving behind the world of silver halide prints for digital and more manageable copies. Although a smidgeon of the way through reviewing the scans, my life is literally passing before my eyes and I have mixed emotions, some opportunities perhaps lost, but others seized.

In retrospect, though, my childhood, education, first marriage, even my career, is dwarfed by my forty two years married to Ann.  Today, relationships, and even more so jobs, seem to be kaleidoscopic, frenetic, relatively short-lived.   I've lived with a good woman for nearly half a century now and had two jobs in my lifetime of working.  But when did pulsating youth become, well, "old age?"  I use this expression somewhat disingenuously, in deference to when I was younger and the thought of turning 70 meant being really old. Nonetheless, I still feel like I did decades ago, at least mentally. 

And how does one fathom 42 plus years of living with one person?  Prosaic as it may be, the words trust, humor, patience, and friendship immediately spring to mind. And, so, to celebrate our anniversary, here are a few of those scanned photographs from over the decades, admittedly an idiosyncratic selection, ones that amuse me for the moment, not necessarily the best photographs (I can hear Ann saying "Why did you use that photograph!!??).  And they are mostly scanned photos, with the drawbacks of that process. 

PS Blogger (Google) has changed its blogging interface.  It's awful, and the ability to handle photographs is even worse than before.  Another learning curve, sigh.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Boys of Spring

The boys of spring turn into the boys of summer. If there was ever an argument for the existence of a God, it has to be baseball. Imagine, just the dimensions of the infield, not to mention the nuances of the game, would seem to argue divine intervention. Could man alone have set the distance from the pitching rubber to home plate at exactly 60' 6" and not just 60'? OK, bases are 90 feet apart. That sounds like man-made, but much of the game seems to have been handed down from the Gods.

I played some organized baseball as a kid, pitching because I couldn't hit worth a damn. As a lefty I had movement on the fast ball, tailing away from a right handed batter, like a mini screwball. I was a "crafty left-hander," with slow stuff to make the fast ball seem faster.

Although occasionally I'll still "throw" a ball with my neighbor (who batted against Herb Score in high school), I just follow the game when I can, especially the Yankees simply because they were "my team" as a kid. While the game itself hasn't changed much, the players and the business of baseball has. It's big business but obviously the public is willing to pay up, monstrous salaries and baseball franchises being supported by obscene ticket prices and concessions and huge cable TV revenues.

Does that mean the boys of summer play the game only for money? Of course not, but change has its consequences. Like earlier this month when my friend Art and I, with great anticipation, planned to go to the Yankees' penultimate spring training game in Port St. Lucie to play the NY Mets. What could be better, a preview of a NY rivalry? The tickets had been bought months in advance by friends of ours who found they couldn't use them, so we bought them at face value ($70 total). They were selling on the web for more than twice that amount as the game neared, the stadium seating only about 7,000 and the demand for those tickets far in excess of that.

So the day of the game we drove up to the park early to watch batting practice, get our obligatory hot dogs, and just soak up the ambiance. Walking up a ramp to our seats we saw a bus, the driver standing nearby, and Art cried out, "is that the bus for the Yankees?" (thinking they probably flew and this question was rhetorical). "Yup," he said.

We didn't think Jeter, A-Rod, Teixeira et al would be busing it from Miami after the night game in Miami's new stadium the day before so we began to wonder who exactly would be playing. But they do bus the "B" team, and that is what the Yankees mostly fielded. Not known to the fans, most of the Yankee "A" team flew to Tampa for their last spring training game, also against the Mets.

Some "A" players were there, notably Ivan Nova who pitched, the jovial Nick Swisher, and swift Brett Gardner, but that was about it. I knew the "A" team would not have played many innings, but wanted to get some good photos while they did. No such luck. So instead we watched the "other" Yankees, Almonte, Hall, Castro, Bernier, Wilson, not exactly murderer's row. Sad, Cervelli was the catcher, joking with his teammates, not knowing he would be consigned to AAA ball just a couple days later.

While it was nice being at the ball game, any ball game, I could have passed on it given the crowds and the expense, but I was able to get some pictures of Nova (who pitched poorly) and of the Met's lefty, Niese, who didn't fare any better than Nova, both giving up 5 earned runs in the Yankees 7-6 loss. Swisher hit a home run and I was able to capture the swing and the ball with a timely photograph. But, we left well before the end of the game.

Happily, though, last night was our first minor league (Class A) ballgame at Jupiter's Roger Dean Stadium where Ann and I have "Silver Slugger" season's tickets. What a deal, 19 games, a hot dog and a soda all for $25 each (not per game but total!). How can you go wrong? Farm clubs of the Cardinals (Palm Beach Cardinals) and the Marlins (the Jupiter Hammerheads) play there during the summer. And Class A ball is played every bit as professionally as their Major League counterparts. And the joy is there, the hope of one day making it to the "show." A couple of years ago we watched Giancarlo Stanton (then known as "Mike") in action, recognizing he was destined for the majors.

Last night the Cardinals played the Pirate's affiliate, the Bradenton Marauders. And in an ironic twist, having seen mostly minor leaguers at the spring training game, the Bradenton starting pitcher for this minor league game was none other than major leaguer A.J. Burnett, who was making a rehab start after having been injured in spring training. I've always thought Burnett was long on talent but a head case, and pitching like golf gets in one's mind. You need both the physical ability and the mental attitude to succeed.

As a Yankee fan, I had "suffered" with Burnett but I had hoped that a new venue would bring him out of his stupor. While he seemed to have his velocity last night, his pitches were not well placed, unlike those of the Cardinals' starter, Seth Maness who pitched seven shutout innings, most of his pitches in the low 90's and at knee high. Burnett looked dazed most of the time, ignominious as a starter in Class A, and left forlorn after giving up seven runs in less than 2 innings. It was sad and hopefully he has better success in the future. Palm Beach went on to win 10-4 but just being out at the beautiful Roger Dean field and soaking up the crack of the bat and the pop of the catcher's mitt made it a grand slam evening.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

About a Bear

Here is a satiric fable, an extended parable for our times, making hilarity of the foibles of human nature, a change of pace from my usual reading fare, The Bear Went over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle. My Cousin Joan recommended this book to me, surprised I had never heard of it as it was published in 1996 and the publishing industry is the main setting. Joan and I share the same sense of humor, not to mention grandparents.

Simple story. Bear (who adopts the name of "Hal Jam" the last name coming off a jar of jam of course) finds a manuscript (intended to be the Great American Novel") written by an English professor who is on sabbatical in the woods of Maine, makes his way into the big city (the bear that is), poses as a human (you have to throw any sense of reality to the wind) to the extent that he can, and becomes the toast of the publishing world. He happily indulges in honey and other sweets, meeting important people, women pursuing him as if he is the reincarnation of Hemingway. The real author, meanwhile, in a fit of depression realizing he has lost his great novel, also loses his professorship, stays in the woods and, in fact, becomes bear-like, sleeping away part of the winter. I will not give the ending away, but who do you think Kotzwinkle thinks made the better trade of lives?

Meanwhile throughout the novel, the stage is set for some very funny moments. But one thing I cannot get out of my head while I read this is Jerzy Kosinski's novel, Being There, where the simple minded "Chauncey Gardiner" (the gardener at the estate of a well known man) is mistaken by the press to be a wise philosopher in his simplicity. "Plant the seeds and the garden will grow" -- Of course, if we make our investments and some tough decisions, the economy will revive! (Sort of like now.)

Here are but a few examples from The Bear Went Over the Mountain:

Ms. Boykins, a literary agent pursuing Hal, says "The sales forces will insist on a tour..." Hal Jam puts his paws over his ears as the din from the restaurant is overwhelming his "animality." "The racing stream of human speech glistened as it curved around obstacles and glided on, relentless in its gradient, while he panted in animal stupidity And then his nose twitched, the olfactory bulb at its root a thousand times more sensitive than that of a human. He straightened and moved his head around to isolate the natural scent he'd found within the synthetic veil of perfumes. There it was, moist, cool. 'Salmon.'"
Boykins says: "Yes, they do it skewered with tomatoes, mushroom, and green peppers."
"'Raw,' said the bear with resurgence of primal authority."
"'Raw female. Lots of eggs. In my teeth.' The bear tapped at his incisors."
"My god, thought Boykins, he is another Hemingway."

Or when Hal Jam goes shopping in a supermarket... "The skyscrapers of Manhattan had astounded him, and now the endless amounts of honey that man had available to him had humbled him to the ground. The intelligence, the inventiveness, the time and courage, it took to lay in this much honey was the final proof that man wore the crown of creation. 'Bears are just along for the ride,' he said to himself as he filled his cart with honey...."

Or his meeting with a Hollywood agent, Ms. Zou Zou Sharr at whom the bear looked "from under the peak of his baseball cap. It was the first time he'd been this close to a human female for any length of time, and he liked the experience. If she had some fur on her face and the backs of her hands she might be good looking."

Zou Zou misunderstands just about every brief phrase the bear utters as being a demand for a larger take from movie rights, saying "'Believe me, Hal, your piece of the pie is just what it should be and so is CMC's.'" "When I eat a pie, I eat it all," says the Bear. Zou Zou replies: "Of course you do, and I understand. The book is yours, it's your creation, and you want your fair share." Eventually, Zou Zou offers herself to the bear to get the contract. They "do it," the bear tossing her around the room. She's enthralled by being ravished -- he's an animal! Yes, another Hemingway! And they do it in a taxi -- "He'd passed a great human milestone. He'd done it more than once a year."

Eventually, the bear meets the Vice President and the President, again, another hat tip to Kosinski's novel.

As a former publisher, I laughed at almost every page. Indeed, these are the trade publishing people I saw flitting around in Frankfurt every year absorbed by their self importance.

In many ways the book is also reminiscent of Firmin which is about a rat who lives in a bookstore. And a rat figures near the conclusion of this book as well. That Kotzwinkle can keep up the conceit of Hal Jam being part of the American literary, political, and New York scene for the entire length of the novel is a testimony to his satiric artistry. Lots of fun reading this one. Thanks, Cuz Joan!!!!.......

Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Master Harold"...and the Boys Triumphs at Dramaworks

Dramaworks has produced yet another classic, in keeping with its mission statement of "theatre to think about." In fact this riveting story is heightened by the Director Bill Hayes' passionate belief that this drama and ones like next season's A Raisin in the Sun need to be performed again and again while we, as a society, still suffer prejudice and intolerance. This new production, in its new home on Clematis Street, solidifies Dramaworks place as the premier serious theater in Southeast Florida. I call it Broadway South.

So much is packed into this production that the simplicity of the plot belies its profound intensity, the action slowly building and escalating on two phone calls. Sam (W. Paul Bodie) and Willie (Summer Hill Seven) are servants in the early years of South Africa's apartheid system, 1950, in a St. Georges Park Tea Room where all the action takes place on a windswept rainy Port Elizabeth afternoon. Sam, while not having the benefit of a formal education is nevertheless possessed of a strong native intelligence and kindly disposition, while Willie is somewhat slow, more sensitive and dependent on Sam's guidance. They are casually cleaning the room, but mostly they are playfully teasing each other about an upcoming ballroom dance competition. Enter the son of the couple who owns the tea room, a 17 year old student , Harold, known to Willie and Sam as "Hally" (Jared McGuire). The off stage parents loom significantly in the plot, particularly the father who is both crippled and an alcoholic, an embarrassment to Hally.

The three on-stage characters have a close relationship, even a loving one. In a twist of societal relationships, Sam has become sort of an ersatz father to Hally, recognizing the boy's conflicted feelings towards his father. Sam tells Hally about his mother's phone call. His father is coming home from the hospital. This is strongly denied as a possibility by Hally until he receives the first of two phone calls from his mother. He implores his mother to keep the father there (not wanting him home).

Hally's demeanor changes after the phone call. He becomes obsessed with his homework assignment which is to write about a significant cultural event and Sam suggests the upcoming dance competition as being a worthy subject. Hally is instantly caught up in the possibilities; with the dance competition becoming a metaphor for a perfect world, where people glide in unison, without colliding with others, where there is no hurt or abuse. This good time is interrupted by a second phone call in which Hally's mother tells him that his father insisted on leaving the hospital and now he is expected home immediately after locking up the Tea Room. It is at this turning point that the play goes from benign to dark. Hally is consumed with anger, knowing the consequences and the humiliation of his father's return, and the multigenerational nature of racism rears its head as Sam suddenly becomes the target of "Master Harold." Sam at first feels betrayed. Although this confrontation becomes volatile, the essential goodness of Sam prevails at the end while Hally departs into the symbolically stormy night. Life goes on. Willie and Sam rehearse dance steps to the strains of Sarah Vaughn on the juke box, Willie wanting to believe that nothing has really happened. They have their dignity at the end.

This drama works on so many levels, one hardly knows where to begin. The consequences of family abuse and shame, apartheid, racism in general and how that reverberates throughout society, witness the recent Trayvon Martin tragedy or the virulent anti-Obamanism that seems to be part of today's political landscape, and the multigenerational nature of racism and family abuse. The abusive, alcoholic father in literature and theater is pervasive. The impact on their families is always disastrous and a son's need to find substitute fathers is profound. And what happens when the substitute father is perceived as your inferior? Ironically, who is really in bondage, Hally or Sam?

The innocence and even nobility of Sam is sorely tested by Hally's demeaning and malevolent invectives, but Hally is caught in the irresolvable conundrum of having to become a man at the expense of treating noble Sam as society (and Hally's father) expects a white man to treat a servant in the system of apartheid. And how different is that from even post Civil War America where Afro American's were merely stereotypes and those of us who grew up in the south, such as my wife, were accustomed to segregated schools, buses, bathrooms, lunch counters, everyplace one went, well into the 20th century. Not surprisingly, Sam mentions Abraham Lincoln as one of history's most significant figures, Fugard's veiled reference to America's race problem. But Sam also mentions Jesus Christ as such a figure and in Sam's goodness and forgiveness and careful nurturing of Hally he too is saying "forgive them for they know not what they do." This is a very autobiographical play. Fugard was 17 in 1950 as well, and this work is his exculpation of the guilt he felt being raised in the system of apartheid.

It is a delicate play to stage successfully. So much depends on the nuances of the set and the acting, the lighting, the ambiance. One thing out of place would be easily noticed and distracting. Here Dramaworks excels as usual, selecting the ideal actors and relying on the behind the scenes talents of the people supporting them.

Under Director Bill Hayes' careful direction, the three actors shine. The pacing of the play is just about perfect. My criteria of pacing is to be completely unaware of time passing, the audience caught in each moment, everything seeming to happen at precisely the right time and place on stage. I love the metaphor of the dance (of life), a leitmotif that weaves throughout the play, Hayes highlighting those at appropriate moments.

Jared McGuire who plays Hally has played the part before. He knows Hally well and although Mr. McGuire is older than 17 (no seventeen year old actor is going to have the experience to play this pivotal role so well), he passes as such, his boyishness coming through in his relationship with Sam as well as the raging testosterone that gives rise to his misguided attempt at "being a man" -- his trying to become one in a corrupt society and a dysfunctional family. This is a difficult role to play and McGuire nailed it.

W. Paul Brodie turned in a bravura performance as the compassionate Sam, a person who is sorely tested but emerges noble at the end. He is on stage 99% of the time and while there he is a force, either of drama, sadness, or, even laughter in his kidding of Willie and sometimes Hally.

Summer Hill Seven's portrayal of dim-witted Willie is perfect, even his glances at Sam and Hally during their confrontations. But Willie lives in the dream world, looking forward to the dance competition, reconciliation with his girl friend who he has abused (all of society is caught up in being abused and passing it on), and Seven effectively plays this role.

The scenic design by Michael Amico is exacting, recreating what a 1950 Tea Room in South Africa must have looked like, using the full stage of the new Don & Ann Brown Theatre to its greatest advantage. Even the detail of making a real on stage cream soda is portrayed. Everything is so authentic. Outside, upstage, the pane glass windows of the Tea Room reflect the falling rain, the dreary reality that the Tea Room symbolizes, and, if I'm not mistaken, the rain becoming more intense as the denouement of the play approaches and Hally goes out into the storm.

A wonderful play by a master playwright, performed by one of America's most professional regional theater companies equals dazzling drama.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April Fool Anniversary

It is a one year anniversary of sorts for me today. Ironic it should be on April Fool's day, as it was no laughing matter. Some of the details of what I write about below were also covered by the entry I wrote not long after that day but I purposely did not revisit it before writing what follows, not wanting to be influenced and knowing that I would repeat some of what I wrote. But I recall not revealing some of the details and my feelings when I wrote that entry. I was too close to the event.

I had entered the hospital in late March for what I thought would be, yet, another stent, perhaps butting a stent inside one that had collapsed. A tricky operation, yes, but more routine than the dreaded alternative, bypass surgery. In spite of being in good shape all my life, eating healthily (well, at least relatively speaking), exercising, and, even having low cholesterol, my parents both had heart disease and I've resigned myself to being the victim of bad genes. Of course I'm not unique in this regard and I do the best I can.

But surgery did not go well, my returning to consciousness soon after I went under. The nurse in recovery looked somber, saying the surgeon would be in to explain. I knew what was coming. The interventionist cardiologist said he was referring me to a thoracic surgeon, the best in the area, as he could no longer address the widow's maker blockage with stents. Back in my hospital room I met Dr. Katz who was to operate on me.

He said I needed a dual bypass and he intended to do this surgery off the heart lung machine. In other words, on the beating heart. Open heart surgery. Images sprung to mind of his having to work quickly between heart beats, conjuring up a scene from a Woody Allen movie.

"Don't worry," he said, "I've done this before, in fact many times before. But here's the problem, we have to wean you from Plavix before the surgery because of the risk of excessive bleeding. It'll take days to work it out of your system but we can't discharge you as we wait because your artery is so blocked that you could have a heart attack anytime and you should be here. In a sense, we have to balance the risk of early surgery against the one of you having a significant heart event."

Nice euphemism, "significant heart event," not the words one wants to hear. So the wait began. Tests were taken at regular intervals which revealed I had acute sensitivity to the blood thinner so it would take days, how many they didn't know. Finally, on March 31 they said, surgery tomorrow, they couldn't wait and they were hoping the Plavix factor had diminished.

Happy April Fool's day I thought as I was being wheeled into the cardiac surgery theater. All I can remember is the cold, the high tech monitors, and a team of medical personnel ready for a full court press, March madness still being in the air. The thought went through my head that I might not survive this surgery and these might be my last conscious moments of my life, with strangers, in this sterile room. But the human psyche is innately optimistic and I looked at my surgeon and saw how confidently he was orchestrating his team, and I went under.

I woke up four days later.

My previous entry recounts much of those details, but essentially, excessive bleeding and traumatic intubation mandated not only opening me up a second time, it also required that long period of controlled unconsciousness. Ann says at times I wildly gestured to her when she visited, none of which I can remember. Mittens restrained my hands so I could not pull out myriad tubes entering my body, but, in particular, the Tracheal intubation tube down my throat. I was not a pretty sight, as the gruesome photograph clearly depicts. (I'll not post it again, but a link is here).

Did I see my life flashing before me, lights at the end of a tunnel? I don't remember anything of those four unconscious days.

But when I did awaken, I was in cardiac intensive care. Jon and Ann were there. The surgeon visited and recounted the details. My body felt bludgeoned. I was given a "cough bear" -- a little teddy bear to hold to my chest in case I had to cough up anything, something to press on the wires holding my sternum together, more of a reminder not to expand my chest for any reason. I was told that I would be in intensive care for at least two days before I could go to the cardiac wing and as I was in a coma induced sleep for four days, to expect not to be able to sleep during that entire time.

After my family left for the evening, there I was, alone, clutching my bear. I didn't have the strength or the inclination to read. Just trying to get comfortable and minimize the pain was enough of an effort. So I was left with either my thoughts or the TV to pass away the agonizing long hours of the nights. I found my thoughts somewhat depressing. Will I recover and be able to resume my life as if this never happened (it didn't seem possible at the time)? Why me? (I've asked that question many times regarding my heart issues, and blockages and high blood pressure are not the only ones, as I also have a pacemaker; my body's electrical system was shot by the time I reached my mid 50's.)

So, I turned to the TV. Do you have any idea of what is on basic cable channels during the wee hours of the night and early mornings? I had to suppress a laugh watching the numerous ads for mattresses, sleep aids, etc. Those lucky people in the real world who can't sleep only because of insomnia. I'd trade places with them in a heartbeat (no pun intended).

While the TV was on low to keep me company, I closed my eyes most of the time just to pretend a sense of normalcy.

Night "life" in a cardiac intensive recovery wing consists of hearing other patients sometimes moan in pain. I don't think I did that, although the sense of discomfort on the one to ten scale was eleven most of the time. Worse, I heard a doctor and a nurse nearby saying the patient in the next room had just died and to contact his family. Right next to me. It could have been me, I thought.

Then, there was the night nurse from hell. I suppose nurses fall into the bell shape curve like any other group of human beings, there being a few exceptional ones, most merely competent or average, and a few very unexceptional ones. In my case, I would draw the curve with many more on the exceptional end, especially the cardiac nursing staff.

But first, nurse from hell. I don't know her name (AKA Nurse Ratched, "NR"), but she was on duty my first two sleepless nights, the ones when I was in the most pain, and, frankly, most fearful of the outcome of all of this.

NR obviously took enjoyment from her position of power over her patients. I don't want to cast aspersions at the airport TSA personnel, but, face it, some enjoy the same relationship with the travelers they control.

This woman had an acerbic flair for mockery as well. That first night of interminable consciousness, after my wife finally went home exhausted, NR had obviously overheard Ann referring to me as "Bobby," a moniker I don't particularly like, but Ann (I call her Annie though) uses it and therefore some of my closest friends who have been around us a long time, call me that as well.

NR obviously took a jealous aversion to my wife and in the middle of the night I could hear her at the nurses' station (they don't realize that their chatter at night drifts down the hallways a long distance, sort of like being downwind of an anchored boat in the middle of a calm night), mocking "I wonder how 'Bobby's bear' is doing" (meaning the bear I was hugging to keep my chest together). She noted my wife's jewelry (some pieces jangling when she walks, Ann arriving like a brass band) to her co-workers, something that I guess incensed NR.

Then, one of the few times I buzzed the nurses' station in the middle of the night because of the extreme discomfort I was in (or pain, I hardly could tell the difference), and needed someone just to move me slightly to one side or the other (I was incapable of moving myself with all the tubes coming out me, the catheter, etc.), she reluctantly assisted me, but menacingly whispered in my ear, "you ought to back off that buzzer, we have other patients here."

So besides the insufferable but benign TV, I had this real life John Claggart from Melville's Billy Budd to deal with. I really saw her in those terms, not that I was the embodiment of innocence, but I was at my most vulnerable. These thoughts raced through my mind: If I ring for help, might she take vengeance for bothering her? If I report her or tell my wife to report her, what would those consequences be? I was determined to make it out of intensive care alive, and then deal with it. I asked Ann to "dress down," cryptically saying "I'll explain later."

In retrospect, I should have said something then and there, but when you are that vulnerable, your mind works differently, and believe me, in the middle of two sleepless nights, you are really ALONE.

So I clutched my bear and bore it, the sleeplessness and the terror of Nurse Ratched (although the one in the film based on the Ken Kasey novel was a lot more attractive but equally evil). But she was not the only nurse on duty, thankfully; all the others were wonderful.

For instance, on the opposite end of the spectrum was a day nurse who was the model of efficiency and good humor. Why? Because her first comments to me was that she was somewhat dyslexic (just my luck I thought) but, as a consequence, everything she needs to do for each patient is on a checklist (she showed me her personal clipboard). Sure enough, she methodically went through her list each time she saw me and didn't miss a thing, and she had me laughing to the extent that I could.

When I finally graduated to the regular cardiac care unit (and to my first night of sleep), I was greeted by the nurses who I already knew as I was in the cardiac rehab program before my surgery because of my prior stents. It felt like going back to family, all wonderful nurses who are in the unique position of following their patients from the nadir of their hospital stay, to their eventual discharge, to their offsite rehab. I still go to the rehab gym to this day, one year later, to get on the treadmills and the exercise machines, back to form before all these cardiac problems enveloped me. I can't say enough about the help and encouragement of that nursing staff, the higher end of the bell curve I described earlier.

Once out of intensive care, I took my first steps with the help of these nurses, very tentatively, my legs feeling like rubber bands, with their arms around me. They said, "don't worry, every outing will get easier and longer." And they were right.

So here I am exactly one year from the day I went into a four day coma, and a brush with death. To say I am grateful is an understatement, to my surgeon, Dr. Katz., to the young Anesthesiologist, fresh out of medical school I thought, Dr. Carroll, who prepared a checklist for any future anesthesia caregiver in the future, to alert them to my difficult intubation, and the need for a fiberoptic bronchoscope. So I carry this checklist around with me in my wallet to this day and on a USB drive attached to my keychain as a PDF along with other essential medical records.

But most of all I am grateful to the nursing staff that brought me along, and continues to work with me to this day so I can indeed resume my normal life. In fact, with my new "pipes" feeding my heart much needed oxygen, I feel more healthy and productive than I did before. Anyone reading this blog regularly would recognize that as I went on a home repairing spree when we returned from last summer's travels, including painting much of the house myself. Even the scar has pretty much disappeared, although the left part of my chest is still somewhat sensitive because so many nerves were severed and they take a long time to heal.

I did not mean to dwell on the one rotten apple to mark this one year anniversary of my coming back from the nearly dead, but, at the time, she loomed large in my mind. I reported her at the end of my hospital stay so I hope other patients were spared.

My wonderful surgeon, Dr. Katz, is also a gemologist and he has made it a tradition of giving his patients a heart shaped stone specimen of his hobby in their follow up visit, one I had a couple of weeks after getting out of the hospital. You choose one and then he reveals the "story" behind the rock. I choose a very heavy, beautifully polished one.

And the story behind my choice, which turned out to be Hematite, mined in Brazil, is that metaphysically, it is said to be "excellent for calming and relief of stress....a good stone for 'grounding', meditation, dissolution of negativity, and bringing peace and inner happiness," ironically, all my weaknesses, and so I go on hoping it works and grateful for this reprieve. No April fooling.