The Alternate Reality We Live In

In light of this past week’s incomprehensible ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States, and since I am still intellectually stuttering in my attempts at a reasoned response, I instead present a very old essay that pays tribute to another of our Supreme Court’s auspicious decisions.  Hindsight is easy, I know, so please take this with the sense of irony with which it was conceived.  Have a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday.


REALITY  (JANUARY 22, 2001):

“Gee, Dick, is this the first damn meeting in this office?  The tags are still on the chairs.”

“You know, Bill, now that you mention it, I think it is.”

“Well, Dick, I want to just say how great it is to finally have a couple of real Americans running this country.  And Texans, to boot!”

“Not just Texans, Bobby, Texas oil men!”

“Gentlemen, thank you.  And I know you know how much me and George deeply appreciate all you’ve done to make this a reality.  Now you know why you’re all here–our country needs an energy policy, and we’re here to write it.  This is our first and highest priority.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to participate at such an early stage.”

“Hey, Dick.  Since we’re talking about oil–you and George ever notice how Iraq is just about the same size as Texas?”

“Yeah–we could call it East Texas, Dick!  Way East Texas–I think Jeb’s gonna need a new state to run soon.  Term limits, you know.”

“Whoa, whoa.  This would be a prudent time to point out that this meeting is being transcribed and will be subject to discovery under the rules of the Freedom of Information Act.”

“Yeah, Dick.  Like you’d let that happen in this century…”

ALTERNATE REALITY (January 22, 2001):IMG_1114

“Mr. President, I appreciate you seeing me so early on in your Presidency.  I know you’re very busy.”

“I certainly am, Mr. Pickens. My staff tells me you’ve been calling nonstop since I finished my acceptance speech. You’re my token meeting with Big Oil.  Talk fast.”

“Yes, thank you Mr. President.  Please call me Boone.  Mr. President, our country’s highest priority is a new energy policy.  I believe our very survival as a nation will depend on what we do in the next decade.”

“I couldn’t agree more, Boone.  I said as much at my inauguration.  But drilling for more oil all over ANWAR is not the approach this administration is going to take.”

“I’m not here to talk about oil, Mr. President.  I’m here to talk about natural gas.”

“Gas?  I was hoping for something a little more imaginative from you, Boone.  Nothing renewable about gas. At least pretend you listened to my speech.”

“Mr. President, the technology does not yet exist to obtain any meaningful relief from our nation’s energy crisis from renewable resources.  That’s just reality, Mr. President.  What we do have, sir, is a breakthrough in our ability to tap our nation’s reserves of natural gas.  I believe that my plan will make our country independent of foreign sources of oil by 2020.”

“You have a plan?  Do your buddies in Texas know about this plan?”

“Mr. President, I think it would be best not to involve too many oil execs during these early critical months.”

“Hell, couldn’t agree with you more.  Let’s ask the Secretary of Energy to come in and listen to your plan.  I think we can find some extra time in the schedule–I only pencilled you in for five minutes.  Not wind power, huh?”

“Not in our lifetime, Mr. President.”


REALITY (September 12, 2001 AM)

“Bill, you’re my goddamn head of CIA.  How in God’s name could you let this happen?

“I’m sorry, sir.  We screwed up.  We had these guys on the radar.  FBI, too.  We didn’t know they were this close.”

“Close?  There’s a goddam smoking hole in the ground where the Trade Center used to be!  Over three thousand people dead, probably more by the time this is over.  On my watch!”

“Yes, Mr. President.  Let me just say that the CIA feels devastated by this.  I’ve got senior analysts in tears at their desks.  But we are all over this.  Nobody has gone home since this happened. We’re working our assets and configuring our response–”

“That’s just bull and you know it.  After the fact.  Hell, they should be in tears.  They failed.  They let down America.”

“Mr. President, it’s not that simple.  But if that’s how you feel, sir, you will have my resignation on your desk in the next hour.”

“It is that simple and that is how I feel.  But Dick and Karl and I have been talking and now isn’t the time to change horses.  No resignations, not right now–that would just send the message that we screwed up.  No–you stay.  But, Bill, I want a good old-fashioned house cleaning.  I want everybody who failed our country out!”

“Mr. President, it’s not like that.  These people are professionals, they are the best in the world.  I stand by my–”

“House cleaning!  Or I’ll put somebody over CIA who’ll do it.  And Bill–”

“Yes, Mr. President?”

“Don’t go signing any long-term leases in this town, you hear me?”

ALTERNATE REALITY (September 12, 2001 AM)

“What happened, Bill?  We’ve been talking about this coming for over a year.”

“Yes, Mr. President.  We knew.  We knew these guys–we just didn’t know enough.  And CIA didn’t know they were in country.”

“What are you saying?”

“FBI knew they were in the country.  But they didn’t know who they were.  We blew it–we all blew it.  Three thousand dead.  My God.”

“Mueller told me the same thing just now.  My God.”

“It’s not the people, Mr. President.  We’ve got the best.  Mueller’s got the best.  It’s the system–the system failed.  It’s gotta be fixed.”

“Can you do it?”

“I’m not your man–you need a systems guy.  Somebody younger–I’ve got a couple of names.”

“Thank you for not making me  say it.  Mueller’s getting me his letter in the morning.”

“You’ll have mine in the morning as well.  I’m sorry, Mr. President.  We let down the country.”

“I know it wasn’t your fault, Bill.”

“Three thousand people dead–you tell me whose fault it is, Mr. President.”


REALITY (September 12, 2001 PM)

“Gentlemen, America has been attacked.  I know it’s soon, but I want to go around this table and have your thoughts.  Please speak freely.”

“Mr. President, as you say, America has been attacked.  This is our generation’s Pearl Harbor.  We are at war.  We must respond.”

“That’s easy to say.  But at war with who?  How do we respond?  Dick?”

“SecDef is right, Mr. President.  We’ve pussyfooted around this too long and this is the result.  Clinton wouldn’t do it, last time around.  Hell, the last guys who tried to knock down the Trade Towers are eating three squares in San Quentin.  This changes the game.  We take it to the next level–no more police actions, no more trials.  They wanted a war–let’s give it to them.”

“You mean bomb those bases you showed me pictures of?”

“No, Mr. President.  That’s not enough.   That’s what the last administration did. This is a game changer.”

“Yeah–a game changer.  I get that.”

“Mr. President, we need a new policy on terrorism.  The Bush policy–we bring the full force of the world’s most powerful military to bear on any country contributing to terrorism.”

“Dick, that’s half the countries in the Middle East.”

“We know where these guys came from–we hold the state responsible for the actions of its citizens.  Providing safe harbors, that sort of thing.  And we don’t stop there–we take the offensive.  We go after them before they do this again.”

“The Bush policy?”

“Yes, Mr. President.  Pre-emption.  Offense, not defense.”

“There’s still the problem of which state to hold responsible–hell, you told me half these guys were from Saudi Arabia.  You’re not saying we bomb Riyadh, are you?”

“No, Mr. President, not at all.  But there are targets worth considering.  I’d like you listen to Mr. Wolfowitz, from the Pentagon.  I asked him to prepare a short presentation.”

“Thank you, Mr. Vice President.  Mr. President, gentlemen.  While the events we are discussing this morning are truly tragic, I believe we are now presented with the opportunity to directly confront the greatest danger currently facing our country–I am referring to Saddam Hussein and Iraq.  Could I have the lights down, please?”

“Did he say Iraq?”

ALTERNATE REALITY (September 12, 2001 PM)

“Mr. President, the people of the United States demand a response.”

“I know that, Mike.  But I’m the President and I’ll tell you something–this is not Pearl Harbor.  We are not going to treat these guys like the Imperial Empire of Japan.  This was horrible, I know.  But we’re not the first country to be attacked.  I’m going to weigh our options.”

“We have very few options, Mr. President.  I believe it is imperative that we immediately respond with overwhelming force.”

“Where?  Against whom do we respond with overwhelming force?”

“To start, Afghanistan.  We know Bin Laden was behind this.  We know he’s there.”

“So we bomb the whole country?”

“Not just bomb, Mr. President.  It will take a major land force to take out Al Queda.  Not to mention toppling their government–the Taliban have been supporting them all along.”

“Invade Afghanistan?  Are you nuts?  My Secretary of Defense is recommending I recreate the biggest military fiasco of the twentieth century?”

“No sir, I’m just saying…”

“Is that what you’re saying, Joint Chief?”

“Absolutely not, Mr. President.”

“Well, maybe you could share your thoughts, then.”

“As the Secretary said, we know who’s behind this, Mr. President.  We know where they live.  Al Queda isn’t an army–it won’t take an army to take them out.  We know how to do this.  I need additional assets, additional funding–and time.  We’ll take them out, completely and permanently.  But there won’t be any headlines.  It’ll take six months, maybe a year.”

“A year?  The American people won’t wait a year for revenge for yesterday.”

“Revenge, Mr. President?  Revenge I can do in six weeks–very loud, lots of explosions.  It’ll look great on the evening news–shock and awe, the whole works.  But if you want us to really take care of this–six months, at least.  A doubling of funds for special forces.  Creation of a new special forces command, complete international integration–the Israelis, the Brits, the French, the Saudis.  And no headlines–completely dark.”

“Can we sell this, Mike?”

“Your’re the president, Mr. President.  You tell me.”


REALITY (August 25, 2005)

“Mr. President, I’m sorry, I know you’re very busy.”

“Not at all.  Just getting ready to head to the ranch for a couple weeks of R and R, you know.  Gawd, I hate this town in the summer.  Feels like we’re living in a swamp.”

“Yes it does, Mr. President.  I wanted to just quickly mention one thing.  I’ve got a guy over at the National Weather Center who’s called about a hundred times about this hurricane in the gulf.  He’s bending everybody’s ear about a real disaster scenario.”

“Really?  Did you know about this, Karl?  Does this mean the weather’s gonna suck down in Texas?”

“Yes, Mr. President, I heard about it.  He’s called about every department in the government.  He thinks New Orleans could be hit hard.  It’s just one possibility–he’s a weatherman.  Twenty percent probability sort of thing.

“What do you think, Karl?  Get a task force together like we did in Texas?  Let’s get FEMA on it–who is FEMA, anyway, Karl?

“Michael Brown, Mr. President.”

“You’re kidding!  Brownie?  That Michael Brown?  Couldn’t find his office for the first six weeks when he was head of the racing commission?  Head of FEMA?  You have got to be kidding.”

“No Mr. President.”

“Karl, this is bad.  You’ve got to get Brownie some help.  Hell, he probably couldn’t find New Orleans on a map.  Put together an emergency task force, mobilize the Guard.  Let’s get on this!”

“Of course, Mr. President.  But could we discuss some of the other aspects of this, Mr. President?”

“Other aspects?  Karl, it’s a hurricane.  We’ve seen our share while I was governor.  We know how to do this.”

“This isn’t Austin, Mr. President.  There are bigger ramifications to how we handle this.  A big difference between state and federal authority.  This is a problem to be handled at the state level.  If we go charging up at the federal level, what kind of message does that send?

“Your losing me, Karl.  The man said this could be really bad for New Orleans.  What if they can’t handle this at their level?”

“Of course, Mr. President.  But we’re talking only possibilities.  Nothing’s definite.  Do we want to send a message that the federal government is willing to charge in, take care of all your problems?  That’s not us, Mr. President.  Remember, smaller government.  Compassionate conservatism.  Responsibility to the states.   Let’s see how this plays out.  If things look bad, we can always have Brownie come to the rescue.”

“Gee, Karl, you’re always seeing the political side.  It’s just a hurricane, for crissakes.”

“That’s what you pay me for, Mr. President.”

ALTERNATE REALITY (August 25, 2005)

“Mr. President, one more thing.”

“If I had a buck for every time somebody said that…”

“Yes, Mr. President.  It seems the Chief Meteorologist at the National Weather Service is having a conniption over this storm in the Gulf.  He’s called everybody with a phone, telling  a doom and gloom scenario about New Orleans.”

“When?  I haven’t heard about this.  What’s he saying?

“Evidently, this guy’s an authority on New Orleans.  He says there’s about a twenty percent chance that this is the big one–broken levees, massive flooding, hundreds of thousands homeless.”

“Holy cow!  When?  How come I’m just hearing about this now?”

“It’s not definite, Mr. President, just a possibility.  Nobody really thinks it’s gonna happen.”

“You don’t think so?  This is just the kind of thing I’ve been talking about for twenty years, dammit.  This is global warming taking a swing at us.”

“I’m sorry, sir, you’re losing me.  Global what?”

“Are you kidding me?  You’re my Chief of Staff?  What are you doing about this?”

“Well, nothing yet, sir.  I wanted to get your take on how you’d like to proceed.  As I see it, there are two approaches.  Traditionally, this sort of thing falls to the states.  We could let them handle it.”

“Have you ever been to Louisiana, Elliot?”

“Uh, no sir.”

“What’s your other approach?”

“Well, just the opposite, I guess.  Full court press.  Activate FEMA, call out the Guard.  Though, of course, we’d have to do that in cooperation with the governor and all.  Don’t want to offend–”

“Offend?  Don’t you think the sight of a few hundred bloated bodies floating in the bayou on the six o’clock news might offend?  Listen, Elliot.  This is what you’re going to do–who’s at FEMA, anyway?”

“Actually, I don’t know, sir.”

“Oh for crissakes!  Remind me to look for a new Chief of Staff.  Find FEMA and light a fire under his ass.  I want bigger than full court press–you put together a damn federal emergency task force.  I’m talking the army, not just the reserves.  Put somebody you know in charge–don’t screw this up.  Get a general, somebody in uniform.  I want helicopters and those big Starlifters we use when there’s a disaster in Somalia or whatever.  If we can send them to India every time there’s a goddam monsoon, we can sure as shit send them to Louisiana.  Use less gas, too.  And I want press notified–get them on this hard.”

“But, Mr. President–he’s a weatherman.  What if he’s wrong?”

“Then we’ll call it a damn training exercise for when the big one really does come.  You’re kidding about not knowing about global warming, right?  And Elliot–”

“Yes, Mr. President?”

“If this guy’s right, I’m gonna give him a medal in the Rose Garden.”


Dog’s Got an Attitude

Bob Barker, the Tibetan Terrier who sublets from us, is giving me a bit of an attitude.  My fault, actually.  I left the Times out on the coffee table where he can see it from his side of the couch.  Unfortunately, the Sunday Magazine was on top, the one from last weekend with the cover story about the lawyer suing in NY Supreme Court to grant “personhood” to NY chimpanzees.  No way the dog was going to let that go unremarked upon.  Turns out, worst luck of all, that two of the chimps in question actually live in our little town here on Long Island, at the University.  What are the chances?  So, of course, this initiates a very uncomfortable discussion, which leads to raised voices, considerable barking–you know where this is

I can’t claim that I didn’t see this coming, mind you.  The dog has a pretty high opinion of himself.  Not at all like our last dog, Mack (may he rest in peace).  Mack was a Wheaton Terrier, a terribly bright but completely psychotic houseguest that had the unfortunate habit of launching himself through screen doors if anything moved within 500 yards of our property.  Pretty high strung.  If you’ve ever met a Wheaton, you know what I’m referring to.  When excited (which is constantly), they have this amazing ability to jump straight up in the air to approximately eye level.  Rather unnerving in a forty pound animal with teeth. In twelve years of living with us, the dog never slept.  Wheatons do  become somewhat more mellow with age; which is to say, they settle down about two weeks after they’re dead.

Bob is not nearly as excitable.  Being a Tibetan Terrier, he is much more spiritual than most dogs.  He is always going on about the fact that Tibetan Terriers are not really terriers at all, but were misclassified by some English dog slaver that kidnapped his forebears from their homeland in Tibet, where they were originally bred (he always says “formed,” a la the training of a Jesuit priest) by the Dali Lama himself.  You know how most dogs (every other dog, really) can’t wait to be let outside in the morning so they can run around and relieve themselves?  Not Bob Barker.  This dog must be aroused from slumber each morning and enticed to take the morning air.  Upon finally sauntering outside, he assumes a Yoga pose on the porch, stretching and turning his muzzle to the sun, eyes closed and doing some kind of deep breathing exercise for about twenty minutes.  He may or may not empty his bladder, depending upon the scents he detects swirling in the morning drafts and his overall karma.  When called, he tilts his head and stares at me, but he doesn’t return, instead exhibiting a look of disdain for a moment before trotting off again to roll about in a patch of sunshine.  He is a very strange dog.

Which would be okay.  I wouldn’t begrudge the dog his nearly burning down the house with his incense burning every night, or finding him just staring into the refrigerator at 3 am, then leaving the fridge door open after finally deciding to steal the last beer I’ve hidden all the way in the back behind the milk.  I mean, he lives here.  I get it.  But some consideration is to be expected.  Maybe not taking-out-the-garbage type consideration, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the dog come back from a walk and just saunter right past the empty trash cans without even considering bringing them back.  Don’t tell me he doesn’t know where they belong, the dog is obsessed with those cans when they’re full.

Some quid pro quo is necessary.  If our pets are going to be granted “personhood” status ( ), I expect a little more responsibility on their part.  This isn’t Neanderthal cave living, where just barking a couple of times whenever a saber tooth tiger was in the area was enough to earn your place by the fire and a few leftover bones.  Inappropriate barking at the mailman is not going to cut it anymore.  Don’t give me that crap about instincts, either.  Get over it.  Time to start doing the dishes on a more consistent basis, not just licking the food off the plates after they’re already in the dishwasher.  It’s a dishwasher, idiot–welcome to the 21st century.  And if you’re going to be making brown spots all over the lawn, the least you could do is try peeing on the dandelions every once in a while.  Don’t tell me that takes much effort.  And don’t give me that “can’t see colors” excuse–that got old after you insisted on turning off The Wizard of Oz once they got to Oz just so you could watch the WWF.  What kind of Buddhist watches professional wrestling, anyway?

Oh, and spelling out “union” with your chew toys?  Not amusing.


A Hard Place To Live–Part Two

The new Chairman of Surgery had only been in town for a few weeks when he asked me to accompany him for a drive to visit a friend in Westchester.  The new Chairman had just moved to New York after a distinguished, meteoric career at a famous medical center in the South.  Not the south side of New York.  I mean the South; where people are friendly and the pace is peaceful and life is grand.  He was, shall we say, new to New York.1-new-york-city-1270751697

The new Chairman had a research buddy in Westchester that he wanted to visit and it was a beautiful, sunny Sunday.  He thought we should drive his BMW the couple of hours it should take and I could help navigate and I’d surely be interested in the research project they were to discuss.  I had to explain that I had never been to Westchester and that my sense of direction is limited to up and down, and that only on a good day.  He was undaunted.

We started off confidently, driving down the Long Island Expressway at a good clip, discussing the new Chairman’s grand plans for the department.  As we began to navigate the sinuous and subtle exchanges of the various parkways and expressways of the city proper, our conversation lagged as we quickly realized that we didn’t know exactly where we were going.  This was confirmed when we passed under a large sign reading “New Jersey.”  Westchester, we were quite sure, was still in New York. Unfortunately, we were now on the rather intimidating approach to the George Washington Bridge and it appeared that our fate lay in crossing the Hudson River despite our reluctance.  As we paused at the toll booth, the new Chairman expressed to the toll worker that we really were going to Westchester.

“But you’re going the wrong way,” the toll booth attendant informed us.  We acknowledged this helpful bit of information and inquired how we could avoid crossing the bridge.  “You can’t,” she said.  “What you need to do is take the first exit after the bridge, get off the expressway, make a left and cross under to the other side, then get back on the expressway and come back over the bridge.  That’ll be sixteen dollars.”  The new Chairman thanked her for her helpful advice and got change for his twenty.  Now certain of our path, he did exactly as she recommended.  As he crossed under the bridge, however, a police officer standing just past the left turn waved him over and told he to stop the car.  The new Chairman pulled over and rolled down the window.

“Is there a problem, officer?” the new Chairman asked politely.

“License and registration,” the officer replied.

“I’m sorry?” the new Chairman asked.

“You will be if you don’t give me your license and registration in the next two seconds,” the officer replied.  The new Chairman looked at me.  I shrugged.  He gave the police officer his license and registration.  The officer disappeared to his cruiser.

“What’s going on?” the new Chairman asked.

“Haven’t a clue,” I answered.  “I’m sure we’ll find out, though.”  So we sat and waited to find out.  We sat for a half hour.  At last, the officer reappeared at the window.  He began throwing traffic tickets through the window at the new Chairman.

“Illegal left hand turn, obstructing traffic, expired license,” the cop rattled off, throwing the new Chairman’s license and registration back into the car. “Absent front license plate, failure to use turn signal,” the officer droned on as he continued to fling tickets into the car.

“Hold it, hold it,” the new Chairman spluttered, flabbergasted.  He reached down on the floor to retrieve his driver’s license.  “My license isn’t expired.  I just renewed it before I moved here three weeks ago.  Look,” he held up the license for the officer and indicated the back of the license where the renewal was documented.

The cop took the license and looked at the indicated sticker for a moment, then tossed it back in the car.  “They don’t pay me to look on the back.  Tell it to the judge.”

“Now hold it–” the new Chairman began.

The officer clamped his hand on the new Chairman’s forearm which was resting on the door sill, still holding the dollar bills he had gotten in change from the toll lady.  “And if you say one more word, asshole, I’m gonna arrest you for trying to bribe a police officer.”  He nodded at the four dollars in the new Chairman’s hand.

“You’r not serious,” the new Chairman said.  He turned to me.  “He’s not serious, is he?”

“I think he is,” I advised.  “I think you should stop talking now.”

The officer agreed.  Finally, we were allowed to resume our journey to Westchester.

“This place,” the new Chairman said as we drove on, “is a very hard place to live.”

I had to agree.

Are We Not Men?

While unavoidable personal circumstances have reduced the periodic percolation of new content on this blog to a mere unusual ooze, I will not insult you with any claim that I’m pursuing instead a plan to restore both Ukrainian unity and Wonder Woman’s starring role in the upcoming Avenger’s movie with a single email to Putin, cc’d to Joss Whedon (though this may well prove true with time). Just a bit busy, is all.20140423-141726.jpg

This is not a problem with my internal wiring. Though, lately–many people I know are having problems with their intellectual busses. Their bandwidth, it seems, is suddenly inadequate to allow them to respond to calls/texts/emails/hails from across the street in a timely fashion. I was recently astonished to read that this new bioelectronic cyborgian malady has even affected the august annals of The Economist ( Didn’t know we were recently obsoleted. I await an upgrade. With greater bandwidth.



The young resident was flabbergasted to learn, in casual conversation, that the attending radiologist sitting next to him all morning had been in the Marines prior to going to medical school.

“Wow,” the student exclaimed in open admiration.  “Did you kill anyone?”

The radiologist shook his head.

“Not until I became a doctor.”


~CB, 2013

Trust No One

I’m so proud of my  Mom.  She told me last night that she had gotten a call earlier in the evening (middle of dinner, of course) from a woman asking her to confirm her banking and credit card information.  Despite the woman insisting that it was perfectly fine to tell a complete stranger on a cold call your every vital identifying fact, my mother demurred.  At 87, she’s still too polite to just hang up on the pirate, but she knows a scam when she hears one.  Good for you, I told her.  But listen to this.  Here’s a new one.Minolta DSC

I’ve had my “identity” stolen at least four times over the past five years.   The first time, I was upset.  I got a call from my credit card company asking me if I was buying a lot of stuff in Tennessee.  Never been there.  The nice guy from the bank actually was able to tell me the name of the guy who was buying stuff on my account and the address that he was having all the stuff sent to.  “So, you’re going to have the police in Tennessee pick him up?” I asked naively.  “Naw, of course not,” the bank guy said.  “We’ll just cancel out the card and send you a new one.”  At the time, I was rather indignant that no one was going after the guy who had stolen my “identity.”  Having gone through this process a few more times now, I’ve come to be more blasé about the whole deal.  Happens every day, I know.

But this is different.

A close relative called up the other day, quite upset.  It seems that she had just received an email from her bank notifying her that the credit card that she had requested was in the mail to her home.  She hadn’t ordered any credit card.  She immediately called the bank and spoke to a representative.  “Oh,” he admonished her, “you probably filled out the application the last time you were in the branch and just forgot.”  “No way,” she said.  “I haven’t been inside a bank in years.”  She does all her banking online.  He agreed that something was amiss and cancelled the card.  He went on to recommend that she sign up for the bank’s credit monitoring service, in view of this near-miss identity theft. Only $14/month.  She was so upset by the incident that she agreed to the service, grateful that the whole mess had been caught before any real damage had been done.

“Hold it,” I said, interrupting her story at this point.  “The email said the card was in the mail  to you?”  “Yeah.”  “But that makes no sense,” I said.  Being old, I am an expert in all things.  Including having one’s “identity” stolen.  “Why would someone have the stolen card sent to you?  They steal a bunch of identities and have the cards sent to a post office box.  Then they use the cards for a day or two before they’re cancelled.  Makes no sense.”

She was quiet for a minute.  “I’ll call you right back,” she said.  She called the bank again, getting a different service representative.  She explained her previous exchange and asked, rather pointedly, what was going on.  There was a pregnant pause before the bank guy responded.  “It seems,” bank guy explained, “that one of our employees initiated the request for the new card.”  He went on to explain that it was not the bank’s policy to do such a thing, of course, but there were incentives to move more credit cards, you understand, and of course he would be certain that the card was indeed cancelled.  Oh, and he’d be reporting the entire sordid affair to his supervisor.

“Of course,” my close relative said.  “And what about the credit reporting service that you guys just sold me by scaring the shit out of me?”

“Oh, you sure you don’t want to go ahead with that?  Just in case?”

Blind Man Blogging

I’m sure that you’ve noticed the lack of meaningful posts to this blog in the recent past, and I’m sorry that your lives have been sadly devoid of the warm glow that makes life worth living as a result.  (My wife assures me that you haven’t noticed.)  “We understand completely,” I hear the throngs acclaim, “how could we miss the recent evidence of the overwhelming effort that was obviously required to bring The Problem With God to fruition, now available at Amazon and for the Nook?” (They have no idea what I’m referring to, my wife informs me, trying to set my mind at ease.)  Or perhaps it was the press of getting ready for the craziness that is the holiday season, you conjecture.  (They don’t conjecture, my wife interjects, because they haven’t noticed.  If they noticed, they wouldn’t care, she reassures me.  And by the way, she adds, there is no ‘they’ anyway.  There is only the empty, black nothingness that lives behind my computer screen, she smiles.  She’s my rock.)eyeball5

While I certainly appreciate your willingness to excuse my lack of creative fecundity (or should that be, fecund creativity?), I feel compelled to explain the real reason for my paucity of posts.  I can’t see worth shit.

It’s true.  I’m writing this by sensing the individual letters by pressing my nose against the screen.  (Consonants smell like toast, vowels like fruit.  The letter ‘y’ smells like wet dog.)  Obviously, this is a slow and inexact practice.  Actually, this post would’ve gone up three days ago except the ‘save’ button smells exactly like ‘delete.’

Here follows a tale of yearning, fear, and cosmic payback; certain to stimulate your need for schadenfreude and ‘thank-God-it’s-Geller-and-not-me-or-someone-I-really-care-about’ relief that is so especially appropriate for this holiday season:

Yearning:  I have worn glasses since I was seven years old.  My mother actually claims that I was born wearing glasses, which made for a particularly painful delivery for which I was never properly appreciative.  I don’t believe this, however, as one of my most profound childhood memories is of that exact day in the third grade at Einstein Elementary School when I joined the rest of my fresh-faced classmates in lining up for eye exams in the cafeteria during recess.  How clearly I recall the looks of sad compassion on the faces of the grownups as they shook their heads and announced that I had failed my exam.  Failed!  That was the exact term they used, the word they checked off on the mimeographed form they made me hold all day, staring at it (cruelly blurry, all those mimeos were blurry), finally carrying it home to present to my disappointed parents.  They shook their heads in consternation and I burst into tears at the kitchen table.  It was the first test that I had ever failed.  Not to worry, my parents reassured me, you can just wear your bother’s hand me down glasses.

Since that day, I have worn glasses.  I never complained, despite seeing the world through someone else’s corrective lenses.  Since I didn’t know any better, I accepted the distortion of the world about me, the crazed funhouse mirror appearance of the adults looming over me, the facial expressions of those I loved always looking like something out of that Twilight Zone episode that gave everyone nightmares.  (In the Eyes of the Beholder, I think it was called.  This will prove ironic.)  A lifetime of watching my glasses fly across the room whenever some perceived insult led to a slap in the face, of watching my glasses fly onto the infield grass of the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland (a story for some other time), of a hard packed snowball with my glasses in the middle thrown into the windshield of the principal’s car as it sped from the parking lot.  The principal returned my glasses but he was not happy about it, not one bit.  And they never quite fit right after that.

For just shy of a half-century I happily accepted my facial appendage. I must admit, however, that I yearned to see the time on the bedside clock every morning.  I yearned to actually see through a telescope, a microscope, an otoscope, an opthalmoscope, and not just to pretend I could see what everyone else could see.  I yearned for clarity.  But I always kept this yearning to myself.  And I never let this yearning get so out of control that I ever, ever considered getting contacts.  Never.

Fear:   The entire concept of contact lenses horrifies me.  The name horrifies me. I mean, the “contact” the name refers to is your eyeball.  I don’t do eyedrops, no way in Hell I’m sticking a piece of jellied plastic in my eye unless it’s kicked up by the rear wheel of a passing cement truck.  I’ve cleared out my eye doctor’s waiting room on several occasions because of the screaming elicited every time he tries to measure my intraocular pressure.  “Just a puff of air,” my ass.  That thing is a medieval torture apparatus.

There came a day, however, when the yearning for clarity was joined by a dangerous disability to see certain items at night; things like moving cars, traffic lights, and pedestrians.  A certain small dog, I think.  Enough is enough, I believed.  I deserve, I need, to see!  This feeling was only strengthened by an unfortunate episode in the operating room recently.  I had the privilege to operate upon an optholomologist.  Nothing major.  As he was lying on the OR table before surgery, I engaged him in lighthearted banter, in the fashion of reassuring him and setting him at ease.  (Doctors are the worst patients.)  I’m thinking of having surgery soon myself, I said to him conversationally.  Really, he asked, what kind of surgery?  Well, I admitted, these cataracts are really starting to bother me and I was thinking–the guy sat bolt upright on the table.  “You can’t see?” he asked me.  “I think we should cancel this surgery.  You should not be telling me such things.  I think we should reschedule.”  I’m pretty sure he was kidding.  It didn’t really matter anyway, since at that moment the anesthesia hit him and he fell back, unconscious. I don’t think he remembered the conversation afterwards.

It bothered me though.  He might be right.  I should be able to see.  I want to see.  So I went ahead with the cataract operation.  The world went dark.

Cosmic Payback:  The surgery went fine.  Before the operation I told the anesthesiologist, a friend of mine, that if I’m awake, I’m screaming. (Doctors are the worst patients.)  When I eventually awoke face down in the parking lot, my old milky, calcified lens had been plucked from its dusty lair and replaced with a shiny new piece of plastic.  Never felt a thing.  The next day, my blurry ophthalolomomolologist was pleased with the result.  [Brief Aside:  It is my theory that while constantly smiling and chipper, all opohthlolkmologistolists are secretly angst ridden and angry because even they really have no idea how to spell the name of their profession.]  I was also fairly pleased, except for the little inconvenience that I couldn’t see a thing.  “Yeah,” he explained, “that’s to be expected.  You’ll need to wear a contact lens in the other eye for a month until we operate on that one.”  “I’m sorry,” I said, “I thought you said something just now about contact lenses.  So much for my other senses taking up the slack, huh, doc?”  “No, really,” Blurry Bob confirmed (I don’t think I actually called my opthalcomologist that to his face, I was just upset and it seemed an appropriate moniker at the time.  I may have called him “The Butcher of my Eyes” once or twice, though.  Like I said, I was blind, and upset.)  He explained the dark, arcane science of quantum optical physics that made no sense to me but ended with the cosmic certainty that my glasses were now useless.  My mind could not reconcile the new view from my left eye, soon to be perfect in viewing things on the horizon but only magnified fuzziness anywhere within shouting distance, with the lifelong image from the right eye, nice and sharp up close but gelatinous and unformed beyond the end of my arm’s reach.  An insurmountable dichotomy that will destroy my mind, he explained.  “We’ll just set you up for contact lens instruction.”  Yeah, right.

I stumbled into the optician’s subterranean lair and began screaming at “Hello.”  The instruction did not go well.  While the instructor was nice and patient (at first, though with a disturbingly evil, maniacal laugh), I knew she was starting to get a bit testy with my lack of ability to shove my hand in my eye when she suggested that my wife, a veteran contact lens user of decades, could do it for me.  Sure, that sounds like fun.  Then they started to talk about “plungers” and showed me a rusty ice pick she uses to remove “a displaced lens,” whatever that means.  Something about the lens ending up behind my eye and stuck to the frontal lobe of my brain.  Hers was a unique and effective teaching technique.  I left sightless, wounded, and with a jelly blob folded into my one good eye.  But I’m still reluctant to let my wife of thirty years scrape this thing off my eyeball.  She is enthusiastic to help, however.

I can’t wait to get the other eye operated on.  In the meantime, I’m coming up with reassuring new explanations when my patients ask why I was just led into the OR by a seeing eye dog.

GSW Head: 22Nov1963

During my training, I spent a couple of months at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Parkland has always been a leading institution in trauma care and I was there to learn from the best. It was, of course, the hospital that cared for President Kennedy when he was assassinated fifty years ago today. I still clearly recall that day decades earlier, and the pervasive sadness that followed for weeks thereafter. It was a sudden and tragic wrenching of the world for all of us, even those too young like myself to fully comprehend what had happened or why. Actually, the most harrowing part of the whole ordeal is that none of the grown-ups seemed to know why, either. I recall still the sense of confusion and of becoming unmoored from our previously happy lives.  Whenever I confront this event, I still feel a deep sense of loss and unease.  We still don’t know why.IMG_1278

Parkland does not shy away from its history in this event. I worked for two months in the large Emergency Department, lovingly referred to as “The Pit.”  It was still run by the surgical residents.  When I was there, I worked in the same resuscitation rooms where the victims that day were treated.  A plaque recognizes the event.  During my rotation, I had the privilege of listening to one of the participants relate the events of the tragic day.  His story, as I recall it, follows.

The work in the Pit was steady, as was usual for a Friday.  We were all aware, of course, that the President was in town, but nobody gave the fact a moment’s thought.  We were just doing our usual work when a clerk came over to tell me that she had just gotten a call saying that the President was being brought over by ambulance.  It was 1963–there was no radio communication between the hospital and the ambulance services.  She didn’t know who had called or if it might be a prank of some kind.  I called over my Chief Resident to tell him about the phone call.  “What do you want to do?” I asked him. “Should I call the attending?”

“We better wait and see,” he said.  “Probably somebody’s idea of a joke.”

So we waited.  When we didn’t hear anything more, I went back to taking care of the minor injuries that was the usual fare in downtown Dallas.  Suddenly, the PA announced that a trauma was at the dock.  I looked at my chief, who had suddenly become very pale.  We positioned ourselves to receive the patient and the big double doors burst open.  A patient on a stretcher was pushed in rapidly by an army of ambulance technicians.  My chief stopped them to assess the patient, a middle aged white male with an obvious severe gunshot wound.  With relief, he announced, “It’s not Kennedy.  Take him to Trauma Bay One.”  The nurses wheeled the man into the resuscitation bay and we began our assessment.  None of us recognized the victim to be Governor Connolly.  As we were working, somebody announced through the doorway that a second victim was arriving.

“You take it,” the Chief said to me.  I ran out just as another victim was wheeled into Trauma Bay Two.  I bent over the man to see President Kennedy, the back of his head nearly shot off from a severe gunshot wound.  I started the resuscitation protocol.

Within minutes, attending surgeons of every specialty flooded into the emergency department.  We were quickly pushed aside.  Amidst a flurry of activity, Kennedy and Connolly disappeared up the elevators to the operating rooms.  The chief and I sat at the desk in the Pit.  The ER was quiet and empty of patients, as they had all been removed during the crisis.  With no patients to care for, we all just sat, many of the staff crying.  I just stared at the trail of blood that was still on the floor leading out to the elevators.  “Somebody should clean that up,” I thought.

Why I Don’t Carry

The reason I don’t carry a gun has nothing to do with my political views, the NRA, or the second amendment of the Constitution.  It has nothing to do with the fact that my professional life has involved caring for hundreds of victims of gun violence.  I’ve operated on a lot more people that have been assaulted by McDonald’s fries and bacon cheeseburgers than guns.  There are three reasons that I don’t own a gun.  These reasons are fact, are unassailable arguments against my owning a gun, and almost never come up in discussions of gun ownership.  The three reasons that I don’t own a gun are:

i.    Guns only work when you pull the trigger.

ii.   Guns only do one thing.

iii.   I have children.10120753-shooting-with-handgun

Very early in my surgical training, I was standing next to one of my fellow residents in the OR locker room as we changed out of our scrubs at the end of the day, both getting ready to head home.  We were working at an inner city hospital in the late eighties, the place and time of a significant peak in gun violence.  During summer on-call nights, I remember sitting on the loading ramp of the ER hanging out with the cops and paramedics, shooting the breeze and listening to the steady pop of handgun fire from across the city, the occasional tat-a-tat of an Uzi; some of it sounding like just a block or two away.  It was Mogadishu, but with more snow and great Coney Island hotdogs.  Anyways, I remember being in my first year as a resident and standing next to this second year as we got ready to leave, putting my keys back in my pocket as I noticed the other guy take a small handgun from his locker shelf and tuck it into his pants.  I was shocked.  I don’t think I had ever seen a “regular” person with a gun before.  “You carry a gun?”  I asked him.

“Yeah,” he said, slamming the locker.  “You don’t?”  I shook my head.  “Well, good luck with that,” he said.  As he left, I considered the fact that we were working  in a very dangerous area, that my apartment a ten minute drive away was in an equally dangerous neighborhood, that one of our surgical attendings had his Camaro stolen twice in the past six months from the hospital parking garage.  Just that day, there had been another newspaper article on the rising frequency of carjackings on the expressway I took home to visit my parents.  Actually, I thought, he might have a point.  The night before, I had been forced to circle my apartment building for twenty minutes, because when I pulled into the parking lot three dudes with Uzi’s slung on their shoulders were standing in my parking spot conducting a business transaction.  One of the guys had politely suggested that I come back a little later, and I had taken his advice.  Maybe having a gun wasn’t such a bad idea.

I briefly thought about the concept of owning a gun.  It certainly wasn’t difficult as a physician to get a concealed carry permit.  But after further consideration, I realized that for me, a gun would be a mistake.  At that time, I came to my conclusion based upon Reason Number One:  Guns only work when you pull the trigger.  If you are carrying a gun, you have to be willing to use it.  And by use it, I don’t mean pulling out your piece and waving it about at a possible assailant, saying “Back off, asshole, I’ve got a gun here.”  That doesn’t work.  That will get you killed.  Carrying an unloaded gun doesn’t work.  That will get you killed.  No, if you decide to carry a gun, you have to be prepared (ie., trained and practiced) and willing to shoot a person.  If you are not prepared and willing to shoot a person, you are worse than foolish to carry such a device, because the other guy must assume that you are carrying your gun because you are prepared and willing to shoot him with it.  He will act accordingly.  Which, by the way, also applies to any interactions with cops that you might have while carrying.  If you carry a gun and you are pulled over for a traffic violation (see my previous blog post Trunk Full of Human Tissue), you must maintain both hands on the top of your steering wheel, window down, and greet the friendly officer with the statement “Good evening, officer.  I have a loaded handgun under my seat for which I have a license.  I will not move my hands from this steering wheel until you tell me to do so.”  And say it all with a smile, or else you may be shot dead for speeding.  I know this, because a driver was killed in my city during my residency under just this circumstance.  Carrying a gun is a responsibility that must be carefully considered.

When I considered the implications of Rule Number One, I realized that it was stupid for me to have a gun, because I wasn’t willing to use it.  Oh, I know what we all think, that you’ll find yourself in a situation where a Bad Person is spraying bullets at a busload of nuns and you’ll pull that gun out and blow him away, saving the day for all.  But I knew better, and I still know better.  Malice of intent is not an obvious condition. If you have a gun for protection, you have to be willing to shoot first.  It is not a straight forward equation.  Consider the following more likely scenario:  You are walking to your car in an empty parking garage after a long day at work, your family waiting for your return home.  As you approach, you see a man standing next to your car.  You are carrying your gun.  You yell, “Hey!  Get away from my car.”  The guy just looks at you with a defiant and threatening expression.  Do you: 1. Say to yourself, “Screw it, I’m going back inside and getting security,” or  2.  Pull out your loaded weapon and aim it at the individual.  Perhaps you choose option number 2, hoping that your show of force will convince the guy to leave peacefully, preferably by raising his hands in the air and muttering something apologetic.  But what if that doesn’t happen?  It’s pretty dark, maybe the guy doesn’t see your gun.  Maybe he didn’t understand your warning because your voice has become a falsetto, or he’s not an English speaker, or he’s hard of hearing.  What if the dude instead bends down?  Is he reaching for the twenty dollar bill he saw on the ground and that’s why he’s next to your car in the first place, or is he now removing a loaded gun from his sock?  How long are you going to wait to find out before your shoot?  At what point do you feel sufficiently threatened to pull the trigger?  Because if you say that you will wait until the other individual has decided to persist in his threatening actions despite being warned with your raised gun, that you will wait until he straightens up and points his own gun at you, that you would wait until he starts to approach you in a threatening manner despite your repeated warnings, then you should not be carrying a gun.  You will die.  If you have a loaded gun, you must be prepared to use it at some point before you are fatally threatened, or you are just making the situation more dangerous for yourself.  I realized with great certainty that I would never be able to shoot somebody just because I felt threatened.  Which meant that a gun in my hands was worse than useless–it was dangerous. Bad idea.  If you are carrying a gun, you will have to decide to pull the trigger. You also will have to spend the rest of your life living with your decision, right or wrong.

The second fact is that guns are designed to do only one thing:  Kill the person they are aimed at.  These machines are very effective.  Trust me, as I am an expert in this regard.  I have seen the effects in great detail and on many occasions.  Do not believe, when you decide to pull the trigger of your gun, that the result will be anything other than a loud noise and the other person being suddenly dead.  If you don’t believe me, please ask any police officer, federal agent, or soldier.  Even the most skilled and practiced professional does not claim to be able to disarm, incapacitate, or neutralize the threat of another individual by shooting to wound.  And you are not a professional: If you shoot at someone, you’re going to kill him.  You will spend the rest of your life living with the knowledge that you killed a person. Not comfortable with this fact, buy a Taser or carry pepper spray instead.

Finally, it is a fact that I have children.  If you have children, your child will find your gun.  It is inevitable.  At some point, your child will know you have a gun, will know where the gun is kept, will know where the ammunition for said gun is kept, will know where the key to the trigger lock or gun cabinet is kept.  Do not kid yourself into thinking that your weapon will be a secret or completely secure unless it never enters your home or car.  You may realize this fact and choose to address this challenge head-on, teaching your children gun safety, that it is strictly forbidden for them to touch the weapon without your permission.  Admirable, but not always sufficient, I’m afraid (see “Children and Guns: The Hidden Toll,” New York Times Sept 28, 2013 .  Children, particularly children of the male type, will feel a strong urge to disregard your rules.  If you were once a male child or are the parent of a male child, you realize this fact.  Not only will your child be aware of your gun and capable of obtaining it, loading it, and discharging it in your absence despite any and all of your efforts to the contrary, your child may at some point have the desire to do so.  Of course, you say, I would never have a gun in the house if my child were in any way mentally or emotionally unstable.  This, sadly, is a fallacious argument.  Your three year old son is capable of discharging your gun but is not mature enough to consider the consequences.  Your teenager is emotionally unstable by definition.  If your child were to develop a mental illness, you may not be aware of this fact until it is too late. The first warning sign of your child’s depression may be the sound of a gunshot from their bedroom.  You may not be aware of your child’s mental instability until you hear his name on the local news.  If you have children, a gun in the house is dangerous.  Period.  You may choose to reduce that risk by taking all appropriate measures, but you will never eliminate it.  Of course, the same thing applies to that bottle of prescription pain killers that you have on your bathroom shelf.

So that is why I don’t carry a gun.  You are encouraged to come to your own decision, no problem.  Just don’t ask me to let my kid have a sleep over at your house.