23 May 2010

Insomniac Dreams

I’m awake now, when I should be asleep. Irrelevant images run through my head—an uncaring doctor scrawling the wrong dosage on a clipboard, Spiderman taking on the Vulture with a broken arm, a small white dog running excitedly around in the back yard. I’d like to bury these images in the darkness of unconsciousness, to not think and not worry. But I’m worrying about my little dog, and I’m also worrying about how in hell I’m going to pay for her surgery. Nothing is ever simple, it seems.

Earlier this week Zephyr, our miniature American Eskimo dog, started losing energy and stopped eating. It was really noticeable Tuesday, when I hand-carried our ballots to the drop box, a longish walk but nothing out of the ordinary for Zephyr and me. We weren’t even half the way there when Zephyr began hanging back and refusing to continue; I was beginning to think I might have to carry her. (Where is Spiderman when you need him?) At one point some North Portland denizen stopped to ask, “You all right, man?” I was—it was my dog that was the problem.

By Thursday it was obvious that she was in some sort of difficulty, though she was still enthusiastic about going on walks and willing to eat special treats. She was just getting tired too easily and not eating her regular food. Not eating her regular food isn’t totally surprising—she’s learned that people will give her treats or scraps of food for doing tricks, and there are a lot of people in the house, so many opportunities for begging. Honestly, I just figured she was pigging out on treats and I’d need to watch her more closely. But her slowing down—well, she is approaching eleven (next month), people pointed out, and maybe she’s just beginning to feel her age.

But damn it, old age doesn’t normally creep in between say Thursday (when she was running ahead of me, tugging on the leash, chasing squirrels, generally excited), and say Tuesday (when she was dragging behind me, wanting to go back home, ignoring other dogs, and generally listless). That’s comic-book country, where Dr. Doom invents some sort of aging ray to incapacitate our hero. I had the same sort of argument—and with the medical authorities at that—when my father was dying. “He’s just old,” one alleged physician told me when I wanted to know why he suddenly couldn’t get around, couldn’t remember things, couldn’t function. Well, he hadn’t been “old” two weeks before when he was working on the KOBP transmitter, tools in hand, sharp as ever. You don’t get old overnight, damn it. (Although it feels like it sometimes.)

So Friday we got an appointment with our veterinarian (whom we haven’t been seeing as regularly, damn it, since the money got tight) and managed to get her there, my grandnephew and I, thanks to my brother (his grandfather). And that’s when things turned nightmarish.

My little dog had a condition called pyometra, which apparently is essentially an infection of the uterus. It is, it seems, extremely dangerous, and the treatment of choice is immediate removal of the organ—rather like appendicitis, I guess. (It is, of course, obvious that I am not a physician—actually, I barely remember what little anatomy I learned in school.) But it’s Friday night, and I have sixty dollars in my pocket and my credit union is closed till Monday, and I can’t get hold of anybody who might be able to help.

So emergency treatment was out of the question. Even though my grandnephew’s parents had now arrived and taken over, neither of them had resources available for the task, and we all bombed on the credit-rating front. (I apparently have no credit rating of any sort, as I’ve never bought anything on payments. Go figure.) Our own veterinarian could handle it, but not that night, so we ended up scheduling surgery for the next day and then went home to spend the night sleeping fitfully in the music-room while sort of taking turns watching the dog to make sure that nothing ruptured during the night.

Well, she seemed fine—if I hadn’t seen the x-rays I would never have guessed that she was in serious trouble. Zephyr seemed fairly pleased with all the attention, and when I put my shoes on to head out in the morning she got excited, figuring that we were going for a walk or ride. She was happy with the trip there, and only mildly concerned when I handed her over to go off for her operation. She watched me to make sure I thought it was all right, and I attempted to be reassuring. My niece and grandnephew and I had originally planned to hang around till the operation was done, but once we’d put Zephyr into their hands all the tiredness seemed to catch up with us, and we broke for home and sacked out, did laundry, and tried to catch up with other activities that had abruptly come to a halt. The basement drain backed up—well, actually it’s the main outflow for the entire north side of the house, but it shows up as the bathroom drain backing up—and my nephew and I snaked it out.

Somewhere in there we got the call that the operation had been successful, that the uterus was greatly enlarged (it weighed four pounds—this from a twenty-four pound dog), and that it had come out cleanly and successfully. We could pick Zephyr up in the afternoon.

We did. We were actually waiting for her in the same place we’d handed her over, and Zephyr seemed unsurprised to see us—she actually seems to be taking the things that are happening to her in stride a lot better than I am, though of course she’s on drugs. We’d had an earlier discussion on how to handle Zephyr’s recovery, and we’d decided that my grandnephew’s father should look after her for the moment, his house not having stairs, other pets, and suchlike hazards. We were hoping to get Zephyr to urinate before we took her anywhere, but once outside she walked determinedly over to a car—not ours as it happened—and indicated that she wanted to go home now. We took her to our car, where my niece’s cat River was waiting (Zephyr and River for some reason seem to be fond of one another); River was obviously pleased to see Zephyr, and Zephyr clearly recognized River, though once she was in the car she seemed mainly to want to rest.

When we got home Zephyr seemed to acquire a sudden burst of energy and would have leaped down if my grandnephew hadn’t caught her and gently lifted her to the driveway. Zephyr sniffed the lawn with interest, picked a place, and finally peed—which was reassuring, in a way. She then lay down in the grass, so I gathered her up in my arms and carried her onto the porch. She lay quietly in my lap, but was very interested in the people that passed by periodically along the sidewalk, and the household residents that came out to check on her. She wanted off my lap after a bit, and alternated between standing up on the porch, and lying back down again. I think she wanted to be up and about, but her exhausted body wouldn’t bend to her will, strong though it is.

We hung around there waiting while my niece got stuff ready for the drive and my grandnephew decided between finishing his weekend here or staying with Zephyr. (He decided to stay with Zephyr, which meant cutting short his stay, but also that there is somebody else to keep an eye on the dog during her recovery.) Both their pet cats (River and Tiberius) remain here in my care. River is surly—she likes rides, Zephyr, and my niece—but it’s probably for the best. River went outside with me for a walk in the evening, but she spent it jumping into mud-puddles and getting wet and muddy. Once I got her back inside and she’d dried off she came downstairs and tried tapping the keys on my keyboard with her paw while watching the screen; I don’t know why unless she was trying to figure out what I find so interesting about the activity. She kept tapping the F1 key, which brings up a help screen—it looked purposeful, but was no doubt coincidence.

Anyway, after looking after the pets that are here, I sacked out, visions of hospitals and waiting-rooms dancing through my head. I slept well—at least till I woke abruptly and the day’s worries returned. I really ought to be asleep now—well, I suppose I’d be waking up fairly soon at this point—but I’m worried about my puppy. And I’m worried about the goddamn bill for this operation. It would be something if Spiderman and Iron Man and the rest really could come to our rescue. A pipe-dream perhaps, but—I can’t help wondering if maybe those silver-age comics I have stashed away are worth something.

16 May 2010

Very Bad News

There are only a handful of intelligent, skeptical, rational bloggers out there who can also write well—and who are equally at home with portraiture via scalpel or meat-cleaver. One of them is Dan J of Relatively Unrelated, whose relatively recent web log has rapidly become a favorite of mine. I admit, one reason is that he seems to share my enthusiasm for picking on the clueless, as his posts on the woman who was trying desperately to get by on only $300,000 a year (“I’d like to welcome some people to the real world, but they aren’t here yet”) and the writer for Renew America who describes biology as the science of magic and madness (“Congratulations and Kudos to RenewAmerica.com”) show. Or the way he recalls the glorious life and cruel death of one of my favorite historical figures (“Sometimes Persecution ends in Death: Remembering Giordano Bruno”). And how he neatly eviscerates certain primitive theologians who masquerade as scientists in pieces like “What is Biological Evolution? (and Why Do Creationists Not Understand the Answer)” and “Your Religion is Not Science”. And who can forget his depiction of the despair of poor troglodytes forced the consider the possibility they may have to someday treat gay, lesbian, or transgendered people as, well, people (“Won’t Someone Please Think Of The Bigots?!?!”), or the pitiful attempts at something resembling rational thought by the delusional (“How Fucking Thick are These People?!?!!?”), done with equal facility and a kind of foul grace. And there was his savage demolition of a certain internet troll who masquerades as a concerned christian—I couldn’t find it at the blog, so maybe it was on one of the comment threads he’s also contributed to. (As a matter of fact it was his comments somewhere or other that led me originally to his blog.) Clarity—he likes to cut through the bullshit to zero in on the actual point of an argument—succinctness—a point I’d dwell on in a three-part series Dan J disposes of in a sentence or two—and the willingness to call a spade a fucking shovel (as somebody once called it) are the hallmarks of his writing.

He hasn’t been writing much lately. On 28 March we had this note:
Yes, I’m still here. I haven’t been feeling well lately, which leaves me with little enthusiasm for making posts that scathingly blast one thing or another. Back to the doctor on April first, then maybe I can get back on the road to posting regularly.

Well, I’m in no position to criticize, with my erratic performance here at Rational Rant, and god knows I haven’t been feeling well either, what with horrific panic attacks and sporadic vision loss (apparently visual migraines but not entirely reassuring). Still, I’ve been looking forward to Dan J’s posts resuming—and now I learn from a post by Jason Thibeault (“That Helpless Feeling”) that he has more pressing things to worry about: he “likely has lymphoma. He’s been getting the runaround from a clinic for the past two weeks in that country with ‘the greatest health care system in the world’, America.”

Damn. I don’t know what to say. Part of it is the fucking uncertainty, of course—I looked up lymphoma on various internet sites, but nothing there has any meaning without knowing its type or how developed it is, or for that matter even if it’s lymphoma at all. We’ll just have to wait and see. (And of course Dan J may not wish to share his medical situation with the world at large; please forgive me if I’m intruding here.) But the personal catastrophe aside—and that is by far the most important part of it of course—anything that takes a voice like Dan J’s from the Babel of the Blogosphere is to be regretted. It’s very bad news. And I hope that proves to be transitory and temporary, and Dan J is once again up eviscerating the demons of unreason soon, and not just for the sake of his friends and family and acquaintances, but also for those of us who value the all too few voices of reason and sanity in a world increasingly hostile to both.

13 May 2010

"Son, Let's See Your Identity Card"

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has just released an appalling new survey that says that nearly three-quarters of Americans polled approve of a law requiring all Americans to carry documents showing that they are in the country legally. Two-thirds think the police should be allowed to detain anybody who does not have such a document on him or her.

Now I have to say that this requirement is something I’ve always thought of as characteristic of a police state. I don’t even have such a document, unless you count my certificate of live birth, and I normally keep that locked away safe somewhere. I sure as hell don’t carry it around with me. Is the government supposed to issue some sort of new universal ID card certifying to our citizenship? Or are we all supposed to get passports? Or what?

For no good reason I’m reminded of somebody’s—James Thurber’s maybe—description of a scene from a French novel set in the American Old West. The setting is a small town somewhere in the southwest. A stranger has arrived, and people are wondering who exactly the newcomer is. Some of the townsfolk are convinced that he’s the notorious Billy the Kid. The sheriff comes by, listens for a moment, and then says, “I’ll settle this.” He strolls over to the newcomer, and says to him, “Son, let me see your identity-card.”

The humor in this is that nothing of the sort could possibly occur on American soil. And yet, and yet, apparently damn near three-quarters of the American people now think these sorts of police powers are just dandy. The American Way incarnate. Prove that you’re a citizen on the sheriff’s demand, or spend the night in jail—or however long it takes till you can get a copy of your birth certificate mailed out to you.

Actually I don’t think appalling begins to cover it. What are we trading our rights for, here, exactly? What the hell are we so afraid of? I’m just asking—because I, for one, don’t see anything whatsoever to justify this level of response. As somebody-or-other is supposed to have once said, anybody who trades in his liberty for a little gilt-edged security deserves to be walled up in a dark cell with the rats and the spiders—or words to that effect. If America can’t do better than this, it doesn’t deserve to survive. And it probably won’t.

07 May 2010

Pete Tchaikovsky’s Blues

P. I. Tchaikovsky came up here one day
With something he called the “Swan Lake Ballet.”
Man, what a drag! It was real bad news,
Till we changed it to “Pete Tchaikovsky’s Blues.”
Allen Sherman, Peter and the Commissar

When I was young I used to celebrate—well, observe, anyway—my heroes’ birthdays. 15 February was Galileo’s birthday, for example, and I usually made a point of observing something celestial with a telescope, even if it was only the girl next door. (Okay, we didn’t actually have a girl next door—on the one side we had a vacant lot with an abandoned or burnt-down house, depending on the year, and on the other a gravel pit.) For some reason it always seemed to be overcast on Galileo’s birthday. It didn’t stop me from dragging out my telescope and trying to observe something, though. 7 May was Tchaikovsky’s birthday, and at least one year my mother baked him a cake and we threw him a party—though I think that was also partly because it was the last day of our extracurricular Spanish class. Anyway, whatever the reason, I have a photograph of me and my friends gathered around Tchaikovsky’s birthday cake to prove it. Or prove something anyway.

I don’t know when I first discovered Tchaikovsky—it seems like I’ve known his music all my life. The first piano concerto, the sixth symphony, Romeo and Juliet, even the Nutcracker—these were the soundtrack to my life at one time. I was listening to the Nutcracker when the Columbus Day Storm knocked our power out. (My memory tells me that I was doing homework at the time, but as it was a Friday, I’m very much inclined to doubt that.) I was blown away by the (reconstructed) seventh symphony in the early hours of the morning when it was played on KPFM’s all-request Music Out of the Night. The third movement of the sixth symphony inspired me to an act—well, anyway, I have many memories associated with the Russian composer’s music.

One of the curious things about the library at John Rogers school (K-6) is that it actually had interesting books in it. It had at least two books about Tchaikovsky, one of which was the story of his relationship with his long-time patron, Madame von Meck. At least one of them, maybe both, were open about the composer’s homosexuality, a subject that usually didn’t come up in the 1960s, at least not when children (such as myself) were present. I learned that Tchaikovsky suffered from horrendous bouts of depression, that he had irrational fears, that he was downright neurotic in many ways, if not actually psychotic. Artistic temperament is one thing, but a story that stuck in my mind over the years is the one about his first attempt to conduct a piece in public. As he faced the orchestra he became overwhelmed with the belief that his head was about to fall off and rolling down into the string section, something that would no doubt cause considerable alarm and confusion among the musicians. To prevent that eventuality, he grasped his head firmly with one hand, while with the other he gestured with the baton to direct the orchestra. It worked; at least he managed to keep his head and get through the piece without mishap, but his unusual conducting style became the subject of some comment. It wasn’t until decades later, when reading a review of his performance in the New York Herald, that he began to think he might not be utterly incompetent as a conductor. The reviewer noted his self-effacing manner, but added that he was a changed man when he took the baton and showed his entire mastery of the orchestra and control over the piece. It was only then that he began to think that he was not as bad as he’d always thought he was.

Okay, I probably have it all wrong—this is stuff I read as a child filtered through many years of memory fog and dust. But I felt affection for the guy who created the music that moved me then, and I enjoyed celebrating—or at least remembering—the day of his birth. “How old is Tchaikovsky?” my father asked one 7 May long ago as we sat at the table for breakfast.

“I don’t know,” I answered, not having figured it out.

“Well, what year was he born?” asked dear old Dad.

I always knew the dates of everything; my memory was sticky like that, but put on the spot I couldn’t remember that particular information at that particular moment. I knew Tchaikovsky was a younger contemporary of Lewis Carroll (1832) and Mark Twain (1835), but the year of his birth escaped me. Then something came to me—the number thirteen. You see, I’d learned a trick for testing divisibility by three and had been randomly checking out numbers that came to my attention—

“I don’t remember the actual date,” I answered cautiously, “but I do remember one thing. When you add the digits of the date together they total thirteen.”

My father stared at me. “Okay,” he said, “I always thought that kind of thing was so implausible when it came up in one of those mathematical puzzles in Scientific American. It’s so obviously a device—people don’t talk like that in real life. That’s not how people’s minds work. It’s one thing coming from Martin Gardner; I don’t expect it from my own family.”

Since then I’ve never forgotten the year of Tchaikovsky’s birth. He’s 170 today. Happy birthday, Pyotr Ilyich.
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