january - february 2003
|26 february 2003
All kinds of stuff happening.
On Tuesday, I called my closest friend to discuss the day's happenings. She too had a difficult mother. Our conversation went like this:
Me: ... and after all that, the phone rings and this voice
says [wavering, death's door intonations] 'Marta...'
Indeed my mother was, having had two heart attacks which, she reported with displeasure when I saw her yesterday, didn't hurt a bit. It's difficult to get coherent information from her: she repeated the same thing five times in the course of fifteen minutes, but just shrugged when I asked her if they had suggested a reason for the heart attacks, and whether she had arterial blockage. The charge nurse was busy and didn't have much information to offer, and my brother, of course, would withstand torture if it meant he didn't have to talk to me. As far as I can deduce, she'd had problems for some undetermined amount of time but ignored the symptoms; there is no talk of surgery and certain medications have an adverse effect on her blood pressure; the medical staff are trying to stabilize her condition in order to release her in the next few days. As best I could tell from her incomplete responses, she had been in the hospital for at least two days.
This lack of information from her shouldn't be read as a sign of weakness: she enjoys being hospitalized and was pleased to lie in bed, chat with the staff as they came through, complain about her neighbors, tell me how wonderful men are and how useless women are, and generally chatter endlessly about trivia. When I arrived, she was telling anti-Catholic stories to the chaplain, who prayed for her anyway.
She's either eighty-four or eighty-five, depending on which of her stories she's promulgating at the moment, and considering the amount of damage she's inflicted on herself, it's not surprising that she's having heart trouble. If I sound callous, it's probably because I have become so over the years: this is not the first such event and "I'm sick because you aren't good enough" is an old game in this family.
* The longer schtick is, perhaps, titled "You Never Call, You Never Visit" and is very much a work in progress. Some of it goes like this: Hello. It's me. I don't want to worry you. I'm in the hospital. I broke my arm. Five weeks ago. But it's okay. It healed. It's a little crooked. The bone's poking out. But now I have a place to hang my hat.This month's visit to UCSF went smoothly. C's liver enzymes are within normal range for the first time in many years, and the docs made a change in medication which should give him more energy.
Now comes the wait for the Big Visit on March 26, when
they take the test that provides the viral count that determines whether
he stays in the study or not. We're trying not to think about it.
|23 february 2003
Finished Barbara Ehrenreich 's Nickel & Dimed this morning. It's a quick read, and shallower than I would have wished. I have a lot of respect for Ehrenreich: God knows I wouldn't have the stamina to join the working poor for three months and her heart is very much in the right place. Nonetheless I am bothered by what, back in college in the 60s, some of us called the Baby Bolshevik syndrome: back then it referred to kids from solidly middle-class or better families, who waved the flag of revolution and mouthed rhetoric while funded by Daddy back home. These were kids who went hungry or poorly clothed only by choice; who had extensive safety-nets cradling them from the worst of their own rhetorical excesses (for the most part. There were those who took their political opinions far enough to outgrow the Baby Bolshevik tag, but they were the minority. Most of these kids grew up and went to graduate school and became lawyers and teachers and doctors and etc., as solidly middle-class as the parents they used to curse). Those who came from backgrounds where hunger wasn't a life-style choice weren't Baby Bolsheviks.
Ehrenreich's father came out of the mines to become a
union organizer, which might excuse her from the Baby Bolshevik tag. And
it's probably true that the working poor would be hard pressed to find
a publishable voice, if only because publishers don't seem to be really
interested in the poor themselves, so much as they are in pop-sociology
or scholastic examinations of the poor. You don't expect amoeba to speak,
do you? So it's good that a well-published and economically comfortable
writer takes the time to explore and deplore the lives of the working poor.
I'm glad she did it, and I'm glad the book sold well, and I hope that it
made people think a bit more deeply about the broader implications of,
e.g., welfare reform (although I suspect that there is a fair amount of
preaching to the choir in all of this). But the words "Baby Bolshevik"
still whisper through my head.
|20 february 2003
We're into Week 20 of C's therapy - only 28 more weeks to go! I say this to him and he repeats it back in a grumpier tone. This reversal of our usual roles is strange to me: I'm supposed to be the pessimist around here. But then, I'm not the one whose (new side-effect!) tear ducts itch. This causes him to rub his eyes -- carefully, so as not to hurt them. But the rubbing (together with sleeping 10+ hours daily, especially on one side) is training his eyelashes downward, so that the great movie of his life sometimes appears behind a fringe.
Only 27 1/2 more weeks to go!
|15 february 2003
Yesterday millions of people turned out to demonstrate against Bush's egotistical desire to kill Saddam Hussein by bombing the Iraqi people. Hundreds of marches all around the world, except in San Francisco where the march was set back a day in deference to the Chinese New Year Parade (gung hey fat choy, by the way) (am I pronouncing that properly?).
This reminded me, via circuitous reasoning, of Dick Tuck, who was the Democratic Party's merry prankster aimed at Richard Nixon -- with some success. The circuitous reasoning had to do with a story I remember reading in Herb Caen's column years ago, during Nixon's unsuccessful campaign against John Kennedy in 1960. Nixon's brother Donald had received a highy squiffy loan from Howard Hughes, a loan of sufficient squiffiness to become a campaign issue. The link mentions one of Tuck's uses of this loan, but the Caen story I remember has Nixon speechifying at a Chinese New Years rally, standing in front of Chinese banners that, unbeknownst to him, read "What about the Hughes Loan?"
And all this started by the image, in my head, of a peace
march complete with firecrackers and dancing dragons. It would have been
|14 february 2003
man is a true patriot. Any chance we could talk him into running for
|13 february 2003
C continues to lose weight. From a starting point of just under two hundred forty pounds (admittedly high for him) 19 weeks ago, he has come down to 212 with absolutely no effort on his part -- with, in fact, anti-effort. His appetite is excellent and, in an attempt not to lose too much weight too fast, he is indulging in a diet of spaghetti with meat-balls, beef stew, pizzas, tri-tip roasts, sauteed chicken with noodles, mashed potatoes, enchiladas, carnitas, fudge brownies, and gallons of ice cream, and still he continues to lose weight. His cholesterol level is good, too.
This puts me in a moral quandry. I love this man as the breath of my body, but as he loses weight, I gain it. I try to tell myself that if I emerge from his therapy looking like a blimp, it will be in a good cause. So far, I have failed to convince myself.
Pass the cream sauce.
|12 february 2003
A recent comment at Post & Riposte about D.H. Lawrence reminded me of this, which I originally posted at Readerville in September of 2002. The quotation is from the start of Chapter XV of Sons & Lovers:
As the day wore on, the life-blood seemed to ebb away from Ursula, and within the emptiness a heavy despair gathered. Her passion seemed to bleed to death, and there was nothing. She sat suspended in a state of complete nullity, harder to bear than death.Let's see. Ursula's suffering leads her to desire death, and leads her to believe that death isn't that bad after all. In order to get this point across, Lawrence does the following:
the desire to die
what is death?
|10 february 2003
Amazing how much reading I can get done when I'm sick. I read Elizabeth McGregor's The Ice Child and promptly stuck it in the "I don't want it" box. It started well: a double-story linking events on the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage, with a modern-day story about a newspaper reporter and her romance with a marine archaeologist who is obsessed with the Franklin Expedition. Unfortunately the book bogs down in sentimentalism about half-way through: shocking deaths, unexpected births, a nasty ex-wife whose sole reason for being in the book is to complicate the uncomplicated, sick child, and an ending which ties past and present together by managing a double rescue, the Victorian one screamingly improbable and the modern one only slightly less so.
It makes me wish, grumpily, that only writers of whom I approve be allowed to write about the bees in my bonnet.
So started Ian Frazier's Great Plains to cleanse my palate. It's working very well so far.
We have embarked on Week 19 of C's treatment. Week 24 is the next major hurdle: at that point the MDs will run a viral count, which they have not done since he entered the program. If his viral count is down he will continue in the program; if not, not. Dr. Terrault assures us that if he leaves the program, she will arrange that he continue the best treatment she can manage, and we believe that the "new" drug, Pegasys, has been approved by the FDA for general distribution. If it has, then not being in the program will mean only (only!) that we will enter Health Insurance Hell for the remainder of the treatment, and will have to fight about reimbursements for medications, lab procedures, and so forth. So we are both hoping for good results from the Week 24 test, over and above an indiction that the medication is actually knocking out the virus.
His mood is much improved from last month, but the exhaustion
is still with him, and the skin bumps, and the insomnia, and the itchy
eyes. This treatment had damned well better work.
||9 february 2003
Another flash reading, this time of Larry McMurtry's Paradise, which is supposed to be a combined travelogue about Tahiti and the Marquesas, and a rumination about his parents' marriage. My foot. What this is, I think, is something spewed out in haste and briefly (the hardcover is 159 skinny pages long) in order to justify deducting a trip to Tahiti from his income taxes.
The writing is just plain sloppy. Play "track the tenses" with this, from p.156 but typical of the rest of the book:
At about six the moon, very distinct and very white, appears above the cloud cover, as if to light our way home. I kept an eye out for the coastline. On Fatu Hiva our planet had seemed very large, but now it is beginning to seem small to me again. Sunset began to color the clouds below us gold, and then a pale rose, almost the color of the wine I had drunk aboard the Aranui. The moon is rapidly lifting itself out of the spread of sunset colors, but for a time, it became a little rosy too. We crossed the shoreline just north of Newport Beach and curved right into the incoming traffic, which was almost as intense as what was happening below us, on the 405.He talks about his parents marriage early in the book, before he leaves Tahiti for a two-week cruise on a freighter. In the last line of the book, his mother dies. Between then there's not a hell of a lot about his parents. He Pronounces on everything from the French administration to cannibalism, but nowhere in any depth. He makes passing reference to items of interest and never follows through on them. He goos and gaws about all the Europeans who have come to the South Pacific and makes much of the clips from two works by Gauguin on the front and back covers of his book, mentions (damn near every time the painter's name crops up) that the painter tried to capture innocence on canvas, and that's the art criticism segment. He mentions in passing that Paul Theroux covered the same territory in The Happy Isles of Oceania -- and did so, I hasten to add, with wit and charm and depth and a wonderfully dyspeptic eye. McMurtry should not be allowed on the same ocean as Theroux.
So, why did I finish the thing? (1) Because I'm sick and
have a hard time getting out of bed, even to get another book; (2) it's
short; and (3) I had a cat asleep on my shoulder.
|8 february 2003
I spent yesterday evening, and my reading-in-bed time this morning, devouring all of Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things and need to read it again. I haven't been this impressed by a book in a long time. I think I am embarking on an Auster binge, and hope that his other books are as powerful as this one.
|7 february 2003
Last November I sent the first 60 pages of Mapping Winter off to Jennifer Jackson at the Donald Maass agency. After Richard Curtis' insistance that the book is a "category fantasy" and his praise song about the Rhapsody books and how I should write something just like them, I figured it was time to look for a new agent.
Jackson also thinks the book is a fantasy. This just baffles me. There is no magic in the book; there are no icons of power, no hidden princeling to be revealed, no dragons or elves or other such creatures, no talking inanimate objects -- it's not even about the goddamned Struggle Between Good and Evil. The only thing it shares with "fantasy" is that it takes place in an imaginary land, at a time when people still ride horses. Maybe I should just set the damned book in Bavaria and call everybody Hans and Gretchen.
I think that Curtis and Jackson think the book is a fantasy because they are looking for a fantasy. I have no idea how to get it into the hands of a non-genre agent, though, and at this point think I will just withdraw the thing. Maybe my heirs and executors will find someone willing to publish the book as it deserves.
|5 february 2003
I went to Tully's for coffee this afternoon, afterwards
crossing Broadway together with a young black teenager. He wore an extreme
version of the current regulation teenage male costume: a pair of baggy
pants whose waist came to well below his hips, and whose crotch came to
just below his knees. He also had a basketball, which he dribbled with
more exuberance than control; he waddled and hopped across the intersection,
moving like nothing so much as an enthusiastic penguin.
|4 february 2003
C's 58th birthday today. After spending much of November and December trying to find a pocket-sized pepper mill as a holiday gift for him, I finally found one in early January by dint of typing "tiny grinder" into Google, and there it was. We gave it to him last night, at Dempsey's. May he never have to grumble in restaurants about inadequate pepper again.
K's birthday card to him said, among other things, "I
am extremely grateful that I wasn't switched at birth." Funny kid.
|3 february 2003
It's RKB's 36th birthday today. He should be celebrating it on a train somewhere in the Rockys, on his way to New Orleans to pick up a yellow 1963 Dodge Dart convertible. Happy birthday, kid!
Technology has finally made it difficult to spot the loonies. Used to be, I could reliably pinpoint the loonies who talk to themselves as they walk through downtown Oakland, simply because they were talking out loud. Then I had to check to see whether they were holding their ears or not. Today, though, I passed a woman who was seated on a planter box at City Center, shouting "I got a charley-horse, mother fucker! I got a charley-horse!" I was pretty sure that she was a self-talking loony, until I spotted the hands-free headset. Of course, shouting that in the middle of a phone conversation is pretty strange on the face of it, but its somehow just not the same.
It used to be that, in crowded situations, I could guarantee
that people would leave me alone just by muttering to myself. Technology
has stripped away another defense.
|30 january 2003
Finally received my first copy of The Readerville Journal
with "Managing Helen" therein. Had the usual reaction: unutterable despair
at the awfulness of the story and fury at the editor who italicized a word
that shouldn't have been. I should know better than to read these things
once they are in print.
|29 january 2003
This month's visit at UCSF. C's AFP level continues to fall as do other nasty levels; his red and white blood cell counts, while low, are still not low enough to cause concern. It appears that women are more likely to feel such side-effects as depression and the infamous flu-like symptoms, both of which they always ask about; men are more likely to suffer anxiety, insomnia, and the other problems that have beset C - and about which they rarely ask.
The Gotham SF2 class has canceled out, to my great relief.
The Barnes & Noble University class starts on Feb. 5th, goes on for
four weeks, and another one starts right up in early March. Lots of work,
but the money's good.
|12 january 2003
Back home. After worrying, both for the flight down and the one back, about traveling with C's syringes, needles, drugs, etc., nobody even seemed to notice. The only security issue we faced was in Mexico on the way back, when a security agent decided that C was traveling with too many batteries and made him leave some behind.
K and B picked us up at the airport. It's great to be
|11 january 2003
It's entirely likely that we are experiencing the slowest
passage of time in human history. We were packed and out of the room by
ten fifteen, arranged with the concierge for half an hour of hospitality
suite at 3:00 pm, bought a newspaper, read for a while, had a long, late
breakfast, strolled through the grounds again, sat for a second time at
the lobby bar, I finished Quammen's Wild Thoughts from Wild Places,
C is sleeping, and it's still only 1:30 pm. At this rate it will take forever
before we leave.
|10 january 2003
Drove south today, first to South Puerto Vallarta, at Playa los Muertos, in search of a used book store called A Page in the Sun. I bought a copy of Mark Helprin's Memoir from an Antproof Case to keep me company on the flight home tomorrow. We wandered the streets for a bit after that, in a futile search for something truly bizarre. The town crowds up to the beach, which is lined with small, older hotels and businesses, and stuffed with people. Just behind that first block the hills come down and the streets wind up them, houses fronting directly on the sidewalks, vistas through doorways of bright patios, cobblestone paving interrupted by asphalt, mellow pastel stucco. I had a pleasant fantasy of renting a small apartment there for a couple of weeks.
Later we drove further south along Bahia de Banderas to
Mismaloya. We had a late lunch at a hillside restaurant called "The Sets
of Night of the Iguana" which may (or may not) have been the house that
either John Houston or Ava Gardner used during the filming of the movie.
Good food (nouvelle Mexican cuisine), good service, spreading brick patios
under huge trees, view of the bay. Banderas is Mexico's biggest bay, a
wide sweep of beach and jungle; the northern end was invisible from the
patio where we ate.
|9 january 2003
Obligatory bird log: Boat-Billed Flycatcher, Scrub Euphonia, Brewers Blackbirds (noted in Howell & Webb's Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America as non-breeding winter visitors). Brown pelicans cruising the shoreline, but H&W notes that white pelicans also frequent the area we'll have to watch out for them. More Magnificent Frigatebirds than I remember seeing in Cabo. The vultures are either Turkey Vultures or Black Vultures. The hummingbirds are either Rufous or Allen's.
We spotted a Great-Tailed Grackle and what we both agree was a black Grosbeak, although the one described in H&W as the "Black Headed Grosbeak" has cinnamon markings that we didn't notice on this one, and the Blue-Black Grosbeak isn't noted in the area. Also, a duck that I think may be an American Coot black with white beak, white tips visible under wings, and a triangular or V-shaped white patch on the butt. Couldn't see the legs. [Later: saw legs. Yellowish.]
A Snowy Egret, black legs and wonderful bright yellow feet, pacing along a lake shore keeping an eye on a couple of ducks, who were in turn looking for dinner in the shallows.
We watched a splendid film last night on the t.v., a BBC production of Orwell's 1984 starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. Unremittingly dreary sets, costumes, lighting, with just a hint of color now and then to remind you that the film was not black and white, but that the world it portrayed was. The film had Spanish subtitles; as far as I could tell the Newspeak was not translated: "double plus ungood" was "no es verdad."
Finished reading Thomas Wharton's Salamander yesterday. A good book with an interesting driving conceit (bookmaking) that reminded me a lot of Edward Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet. If I have a major quibble, it is that the end is too obviously left open for a sequel. Pity, that: it means that instead of delivering a sense of completion, the book leaves the reader hanging. Not too badly, though. I want to check on-line to see if he has, as I suspect, a sequel in the works.
The weather report about scattered thunderstorms was apparently mistaken, because it's a lovely day out there. It started to cloud up in late afternoon. We have done very little aside from some desultory birdwatching; checked email and weather, revised the client letter a bit, had a late and very leisurely lunch at Tumteh (ceviche and Gorgonzola salad), watched the beach goers. C seems more relaxed, although he's had a couple of obsessional episodes and exhibited some tharn anxiety over the client letter. We have one more full day here; it's not enough. The tic in my left eyelid is still active; sometimes it feels as though it almost pulls my eye closed. C and I discussed combining a vacation with a two-week course at a Spanish-language institute. There are many of them: two in Puerto Vallarta, one in Ensenada, and one in San Miguel de Allende. We need to learn more, but we're both eager to pursue this.
K's email asks that we bring her "something bizarre." I certainly won't be able to top the dead-frog purse I found for her last May.
At dinner tonight, the table next to ours (just behind me) was occupied by a foursome from D.C., including one gentleman with a speech defect couldn't pronounce his "r"s which caught my attention. He served aboard submarines and had interesting stories to tell. This, to the best of my recollection, is one of those stories.
After joining the Navy and before being assigned to his first sub, the sailor adopted a tiny monkey as a pet. The monkey fit inside a coffee cup but grew rapidly, although it never got very big. The sailor had a small Navy uniform made for it and took it with him everywhere, including aboard his first submarine.
A sailor's first duty aboard a submarine is to spend time in each compartment learning everybody's job, so that should a someone be killed or incapacitated, any other sailor can perform his job. The monkey, of course, accompanied the sailor through these duties. At the end of this course each compartment's commander tested the sailor and, when the tests were passed, the sailor was awarded a "double dolphin," the submariner's breast patch showing a sub's conning tower flanked by facing dolphins.
The sailors had their own form of graduation ceremony. At the next port (or perhaps their home port), a small Scottish town, the sailors took over a pub. The new submariner was given a large glass into which each of the others poured a measure of whatever he was drinking: beer, whiskey, rum, wine, liqueur, soda, etc. They dropped the double dolphin into the cup. The new submariner was expected to empty the glass in one long gulp, catching his double dolphin in his teeth. Since the monkey had been through the same training, a small cup of the horrible mixture was provided for it, too. The new sailor emptied his cup and caught his double dolphin. The monkey, after a few sniffs, emptied his cup too.
The party grew loud and happy and in its midst the monkey suddenly went nuts, flying through the pub from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling, bouncing off furniture and sailors, screaming and chattering. The sailors couldn't catch it. Eventually the monkey leaped onto a light fixture hanging from the ceiling, froze there, and could not be coaxed down. The sailors piled tables and chairs together and sent the lightest of them up the pile, where he had to peel the monkey's fingers, one by one, from the chandelier before he could bring him back down. The monkey was dead.
The sailors, drunk to a man, were heartbroken. They wept and swore and vowed to bury the monkey with full military honors. To this end, the Chief Petty Officer stole aboard the sub and requisitioned six rifles. He hid them in his seabag and smuggled them off the ship, and the drunken sailors about 20 of them took the monkey to the top of a hill in the little Scottish town, buried it, and attempted a 21-gun salute with the six rifles. When they fired off the first salvo, the little town erupted with lights, sirens, people, and vehicles rushing about in the streets.
The sailors scattered. Five were caught, court-martialed,
and discharged from the Navy for, I guess, stealing armaments, firing them
off without authorization and in a civilian setting, and god knows what
all else. The new submariner had a girlfriend in town and successfully
hid out at her house, and crept back aboard the sub the next day, disavowing
all knowledge of the proceedings and silent on the absence of his little
|8 january 2003
C slept well and appears to be in much better spirits this morning. I think we're going to try getting out of here for a while today I need to find a bookstore, and we want to see something of the area. There's an expat colony here, so they must have an English language bookstore. I regret leaving Apsley Cherry-Girard's The Worst Journey in the World at home, but it is a great, thick book and in a pinch I can steal C's copy of Catch-22.
A few high, misty clouds this morning against a pastel sky. Certainly no sign of bad weather, at least not from this room.
When we checked in, they gave us a very nice room on the seventh floor of the main building, with a view across the golf course to the mountains, and a view straight down to a huge palapa that forms the entrance to the hotel. They play a continuous loop of drum-heavy "Mayan" music in the entrance: the big palapa channels the drumbeats right up to the room on the seventh floor, 24 hours a day. By pleading C's illness, we arranged a different suite. This one is a little smaller and shabbier than the first, and about as far away from the main building as you can get, but it's on the ground floor and the sliding doors face the garden, river, then the pools and beach. Despite the closeness of the pools, it's much quieter here and we can hear the surf. My own spirits have lifted along with C's. I'm looking forward to a drive today.
Evening: The day was rather nice, fairly clear. We drove north for a while over a two-lane mountain road, watching Mexican truck drivers pass each other on curves. Many trees down or broken from the hurricane three months ago. Drove through the town of San Francisco, known locally as San Pancho, which was charming but like many places, brought out my own galloping agoraphobia.
Went south past the resort and to Puerto Vallarta the Elation, the cruise ship Peg and I had been on last year, was in port and stopped in an American bar for a Corona (me) and a Coke (C), and the bathroom. Walked a little on the malecon, came back to the resort, stopped at the mercado for over-priced supplies.
It has clouded up and feels hot and very damp. I expect
thunder any time now.
|7 january 2003
C and I have been in Nuevo Vallarta since Saturday, at another hyper-flossy Mayan Palace resort.
In the weeks preceding this trip, C developed anxiety as a side-effect of the Pegasys-Ribiviron treatment he's been on for fourteen weeks now. The anxiety accompanies the insomnia and hyperactivity he developed earlier. The insomnia is being treated with Ambien, and for the anxiety the doctor has put him on a combination of Zanax (for immediate relief) and Paxil, which takes one to two weeks to kick in. The effects of the Zanax, at least, have been positive: he is no longer paralyzed with anxiety. He still has a hard time dealing with people, which is entirely unlike him and which is yet another side-effect of the drugs, but God only knows which one.
And me? I live off antacids and haven't slept in weeks.
When we get home I'll learn whether I'll be teaching three on-line courses or two: only two students had signed up for Gotham's SF2 class by the time we left the States and I won't be heartbroken if it is canceled, leaving me with SF1 and the new Barnes & Nobel University [sic sic sic] class.
I miss K.