Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Writing Gig

Well, I'm off tomorrow to see Ella. I still haven't packed, need to shower, and want to finish cleaning up the place before I go to bed in 45 minutes or so. In other words, it's business as usual for the night before a trip.

The temp job goes on, but I've moved on to a new part of the filing routine, so it was a little more fun today. I've got a line on a good job that will give me a lot of freedom for writing and whatnot. I hope it will pan out.

In other news, I've gotten a paid writing gig (of sorts). AOL has hired me to write on their youth-oriented finance website, Walletpop. I am the resident go-to guy for bargain hunting and generally living on little to no money. In other words, most of my professional life has been informal training for this job! Please check it out if you get a chance.

I've tried to drop in on your blogs in the last couple of days, but it's been hectic. I will try to catch up when I return on Sunday or Monday.

All the best,


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Monday, December 17, 2007


Whenever I take a little time away from blogging, my brain fills up with all sorts of weird useless screeds that I feel the need to download. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of time to do so right now, so here are three things that are currently floating around, in no particular order:

1. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had started reading Raymond Chandler. Well, last week I finished. Having now read all of his books, I would strongly recommend him to anyone who likes tight, philosophical, inspiring, and generally outstanding writing. I really got a kick out of his last two novels. The Long Goodbye is a depressing but honest contemplation on disillusionment and betrayal. Although it's a downer, it is also an honest end to Chandler's oeuvre, and would have been a good place to stop. However, a few years later, he wrote Playback. Much more energetic and lighthearted, it seems shallow after The Long Goodbye, but is a lot more fun to read. Best of all, Chandler writes his main character, Philip Marlowe, an awesomely hopeful ending in it. I liked it so much that I had to read the last ten pages twice.

That having been said, you need to eat dinner before you can get to dessert, and without The Long Goodbye, the ending to Playback doesn't make any sense. Together, though, they are a perfect meal.

2. I am working in a temp job that I really don't like very much. As I was financially strapped after the Jerome incident, I needed a job quickly and took the first temp assignment that came down the pike. It doesn't pay very much, and is in Human Resources. My job is refiling the entire employee records of a large company. In the process, I have to go through every record, which makes me feel a little bit like God. More precisely, I feel like a sad god, as I have to read these little biographies that detail the constant struggle for security and job satisfaction, which is so often undermined by drinking, divorce, cruddy superiors, and other problems. Added to this, I want to shoot most of the executives in the company, as they keep giving themselves gargantuan bonuses while dickering over $.50/hour raises for their employees. It's really pretty despicable.

3. Ella is having another operation on Friday. I am going out to see her on Thursday night, and will hopefully be back on Saturday or Sunday. They're going to put a drain in on the right hand side of her liver. She's strobing between anger, humor, irritation, and sadness, which seems about appropriate for the circumstances. Afterwards, she is coming up to the city to spend Christmas with us. One of my best friends, the infamous John, will also be coming up and is bringing his sons. Although it's going to be a cheap Christmas (we're all broke), it also looks like it'll have a lot of joy.

So that's it for now. I'll hopefully get the time and distance to write something more coherent in the next few days!

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Bottomless Well of Raw Stupidity

Last week, Verizon screwed up and wiped out service for my entire building. This being the Bronx, and Verizon being...well, Verizon, our phones and internet were out for four days or so, during which I was only able to access the internet through the generous offices of the New York Public Library.

Added to this, I am currently doing a temp job in the Human Resources department of a large advertising company. It's not bad work, per se, but I have to agree with Michael Malice, who once said that HR is what sorority girls do with their business degrees. Long story short, I can only get to the library about fifteen minutes before closing, which is why I've been absent lately.

By the way, I was great at making excuses in grade school.

There's a lot to write about, but one thing's been rolling around my head lately, and I need to get it out. Basically, I've been working on the proper epithet for the fine folks at Verizon. This is not as easy as it sounds.

As I mentioned, Verizon knocked out our telephone service then apparently failed to make the leap of logic to figure out that all the complaints that were coming in were all directed from the same building. They then claimed that they had come by for a service call and that our line was fine, when it was still not working. Subsequently, they fixed the problem, but not until we had called them repeatedly and complained until we were blue in the face.

Unfortunately, Verizon is the only company that offers phone service in our area of the Bronx, so we are caught in a difficult place. However, the wife and I have determined that we will switch as soon as possible.

Verizon supposedly is a combination of the words "veritas," which is Latin for "truth," and horizon, which is a popular term with business people who think that they are particularly forward thinking. After a great deal of thought, I have come to the conclusion that Verizon is actually short for "vertical horizon," a somewhat obscure euphemism for the rectal crease.

When I was thinking about the proper epithet for Verizon, my mind initially went to standard terms like "cocksuckers," "butt-pirates," "pillow biters," and "cum-guzzlers." However, I immediately realized that I was using these terms because I grew up in a homophobic environment and, on some level, I revert to form when I am upset. In a calmer moment, I decided that, were Verizon actually staffed with homosexuals, they would run much more smoothly, would take pride in their work, and would have a far more stylish logo.

I briefly played with terms like "idiots," "morons," and the ever-reliable "retards." However, thinking about my two retarded cousins, I recalled that mentally retarded people tend to take their jobs very seriously and do them quite well. In point of fact, calling Verizon "a bunch of drooling, inbred retards" was not only unfair to the many highly-conscientious retarded people out there, but was also giving Verizon too much credit. Even the inbred part was a little more than they deserved, as most of the inbreds that I've met at least have a strong work ethic.

I also played with terms like "dicks," "cocks," "fucksticks," "fuckholes," "stain-sticks," "mindless boobs," and "assholes," but realized that, like my earlier insults, these were unfair. Penises, vaginas, and anuses are fine, respectable organs, and do not deserve to be denegrated. Truth be told, they usually do their jobs to the best of their respective abilities, and comparing them to the folks at Verizon is patently unjust.

I also had a fair amount of completely illogical insults that I could add to the batch: "turd burglar," "butt muncher," "dipstick," and "ass-master." However, these terms were absurd. While they captured the surreal absurdity of Verizon, I think they missed the point somewhat. None of them really touched upon the certain something that makes Verizon the masters of their game.

It became apparent to me that my hatred of Verizon had become a sort of Rohrshak test, holding up a mirror to my own respective prejudices and vocabulary of slurs. To truly find the perfect insult for Verizon, I would need to dig deeper, to come face-to-face with my real problem with them, to dance with the demon, as it were.

And, oddly enough, a demon was a good place to start. When I imagined Verizon's phone employees sitting in a call center, I kept thinking of The Exorcist. Toward the end of the movie, after Father Merrin has had his heart attack, Father Karras is beating on the older priest's chest. The camera cuts to the demon, perched on the edge of the bed, staring at the tableau laid out before her.

In the book, the demon is brilliant, and regards Merrin's death as an unfair cheat. For the book demon, Merrin has escaped from the game, and the demon is infuriated. However, in the movie, William Friedkin took a different tack. As Karras tries to save Merrin, the demon's face is an unfeeling, empty mask of idiocy. It is clear that, denied an adversary to push against, the demon is nothing, a box of mirrors, an endless echo chamber of nothingness, a bottomless well of raw stupidity. It is, in short, the face of a pre-teen boy going into his seventh hour of an MTV Real World marathon.

I realized that I'd found the ultimate metaphor for Verizon. I imagine the soulless, empty stupidity of their call center, the employees staring vacuously out to the middle distance as they half-heartedly rub their genitalia and drool on themselves. These people are beyond humor, beyond sexuality, beyond argument, beyond redemption. I realize that the purest evil, as Friedkin no doubt argued, is the hopelessness of a truly empty mind.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Edison Arms

Recently, I was reading about my area of the Bronx, and I came across an interesting historical tidbit. It turns out that Thomas Edison's largest movie studio, which was built in 1907, was located on the corner of Decatur Avenue and Oliver Place, only a few blocks from my apartment.

In 1910, the Edison company filmed the first Frankenstein movie in this studio. Later, they used it to film the first serial movie. In 1915, Raoul Barre produced some of the first animated movies there. He was later followed by Walt Disney, who filmed Steamboat Willie in the building, and the Terry brothers, who made the first full-color cartoons, "Terrytoons," on the site.

According to McNamara's Old Bronx, the studio hosted some of the most famous Broadway stars of the day, and residents of the area would often be surprised by the famous people strolling down their streets. One of Ethel Merman's earliest films was made here, and Milton Berle used to hang around the place looking for a job.

By 1972, the studio had been razed. Since then, the building that replaced it, the Gramercy Boys Club, has also been destroyed. Today, the only reference to the landmark studios that once occupied this site is the "Edison Arms" Apartment building. Here's what it looks like (the studio site is on the left):

And here's what it looked like in its heyday:

Here's the interior:

And here's Steamboat Willie:

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Everyday Miracle

Well, I'm back from Pennsylvania. When I got to Lewisburg on Friday, I quickly visited Ella at the Geisinger Medical Center, where she was staying. She was pretty energetic, given the fact that she was sporting a tube that entered her upper abdomen, threaded behind her abs, and punctured the left-hand side of her liver. This tube was attached to an equally nifty ostomy bag, which was collecting her bile.

Bile, by the way, is an interesting yellowish-green color. It looks a little like Jagermeister.

By the time I got there, Ella was roughly Lisa Simpson yellow, and the "whites" of her eyes were sort of a canary color. Her bilirubin had dropped from 9.5 to around 7 or so. 1.5 is normal.

Ella was also having a hard time dealing with her body's failure. She was trying very hard to be brave and strong, but this is a lot to deal with at 24. At times, she was unable to sit down, take a shower, or even walk without help. It was incredibly frustrating, and she clearly felt betrayed.

I was having flashbacks to the last time this happened. Ella was about 12 weeks old, and had been diagnosed with Biliary Atresia, a condition in which her connective bile duct was severely blocked. Her bile backed up, causing cirrosis, a deterioration of her liver and duct tissue.

Ella ended up having a Kasai procedure, which was somewhat experimental at the time. In this operation, the surgeon cut away at her liver until he found bile ducts that hadn't been damaged by the blockage and subsequent bile backup. He then brought part of the liver and small intestine outside the body. We used to collect Ella's bile and drain it back into her body. Sometimes we would not do this immediately, and my mother would store the bile in the fridge. Often, my sisters and I almost would almost drink a glass of green stuff, only to realize that it wasn't limeade. We learned to be really careful.

Ultimately, the doctors connected Ella's liver to her intestine. This was intended to be a short-term solution, used to keep her going until she could get a transplant. However, the temporary fix held and Ella thrived.

For 24 years.

When we were kids, our parents often reminded us that Ella's survival was miraculous, that she was "one in a million." Ella had a scar all the way across her belly and a slightly smaller one below it. We would often look at her "cross-stitch" and try to remember the days when she had nearly died. It was difficult, because Ella was anything but frail. Simply put, she got into the same trouble as any other kid, and passed her medical checkups with flying colors. She thrived through her childhood, the death of our parents, high school, and college. She double majored in Sculpture and Painting and Printmaking, earning a Summa Cum Laude in both majors. She went on to a graduate assistantship at Bucknell, where she's been for the last year.

As it turned out, Ella wasn't one in a million. She was more like one in six billion. Simply speaking, kids with Kasai procedures usually need transplants within a couple of years. Kasai livers just don't last into the twenties.

We forgot about this, only to be reminded last week. The left side of Ella's liver is currently blocked. The tube is draining out the bile, but she's going to need a permanent solution. The next step is to explore the bile duct on the left side of her liver in search of the blockage. If that doesn't work, Ella will probably need a "Kasai revision," which involves clearing out her bile ducts directly and reattaching them to her small intestine.

At this point, everything is somewhat experimental. Revisions aren't generally done on 24-year old Kasais, as 24-year Kasais don't generally exist. Further, bile duct explorations aren't usually done on scarred, 24-year old cirrhotic bile ducts, as these are also incredibly rare. Whatever happens next, it will be somewhat revolutionary.

The Gastroenterologist is trying to determine the chances that the exploration will be successful. If it looks good, we'll pursue it after the holidays. If not, we'll start looking into the Kasai revision.

Ella's spirits are high, although the pain creeps up on her, especially since she's trying to avoid hitting the Percoset too hard. Laughter can be particularly tough, as it irritates her abdominal muscles. Ysterday, after we got her home, she tried to keep the pain at bay with some over-the-counter meds. It didn't work too well, and she got pretty ticked at me for making her laugh. I offered to discuss the Holocaust with her, but she gave me a steely glare.

By the time I left this morning, she'd gotten her pain management under control. I'm counting the days before she starts to chafe at having to lie on a couch. I give her about half a week. The doctors have told her that she can do pretty much whatever her body will handle, but that she should be careful to avoid overdoing it.

I think that "overdoing it" might have been printed under Ella's picture in her high school yearbook. To put it mildly, the kid tends to live on the edge. However, with her sisters and I all hovering nearby, I think she'll try to keep it under control. Besides, it's only a couple of weeks before she'll be up here for Christmas. How much trouble could she get into in a couple of weeks?

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Recent News

So, it's almost one in the morning and I have to get on the subway at 6 to catch a 7:30 bus to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

And I can't sleep.

My youngest sister Ella, the one I raised, is in the hospital. She had some liver problems when she was a baby. They were very, very serious, and we were amazed that she survived. Yet, survive she did, and she has thrived for 24 years now.

A few days ago, she woke severely jaundiced. She ran to the local hospital, which subsequently transferred her to a larger, regional medical center about 40 miles further away. Apparently, one of her liver ducts was blocked, which was causing bile to back up inside her. Right now, they're not sure if it was caused by scar tissue, swelling, or a stone, but they've installed a drain, which she will have for about a month. After this, the problem will (hopefully) have gone away. If not, they will operate again.

It doesn't look like this will be life-threatening, but it put a huge scare into all of us. My other two sisters are with her right now, and I will be trading off with them tomorrow. We've contacted all the various relatives, and have gotten back in touch with the doctors who operated on her over twenty years ago. It was a nice reunion, but I can't help wishing that it had occurred under other circumstances.

When she was a little baby, we used to call her "Yella Ella" because of her jaundiced skin and yellow eyes. Even after she healed, the nickname still lingered, and we dragged it out from time to time for shits and giggles. Now, of course, Yella Ella has made a comeback. True to form, we have pulled out the graveyard humor and revitalized the nickname.

It's terrifying, but this whole situation has reminded us about how much we care for each other and how far we are willing to go to help one another out. It's kind of beautiful and terrible and humbling, all at the same time.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007


A few days (weeks?) ago, the wonderful and ever-generous Glamourpuss nominated me for the "Roar for Powerful Words" award. The people who get this award are required to list three things that they consider vital for good writing. They then must pass the award on to five others.

So, here we go. First off, here are three things that I consider vital for good writing:

1. Thought: Not to get too florid about this, but every art begins with raw materials, to which it applies tools. In the case of writing, particularly blogging, I think the raw materials are day-to-day life events, and the key tool is thought. Everyone has things happen to them, but good writers apply thought to those events. They look for connections, seek significance, and draw conclusions. In short, they turn the quotidian happenings of life into something transcendent and meaningful.*

Or, at least, they try to do so.

2. Humor: Another thing to consider is the fact that most of the events of daily life are not all that happy. Most of life is a struggle, and we often have to look hard to find moments of beauty, happiness, or humor. Good writers, though, are willing to go through that struggle. They work hard to find ways to laugh at themselves and the world around them. Sometimes the humor is light, and sometimes it is black as a cat's ass in an unlighted mine, but it's always there if we've got the energy to look for it.

3. Editing: Okay, as somone who tends to ramble, I should probably just keep my mouth shut, but I really appreciate writers who carefully edit their work. By doing so, they tend to add structure and energy to their writing and, generally, keep me from getting bored.

I clearly need to work on this.

And here are five writers who really impress the hell out of me:

1. Hearts in San Francisco is not only an outstanding writer, but she also demonstrates the three things I mentioned above. Her energetic, thoughtful writing often finds humor in the most unlikely places. Sometimes it's heart-wrenching, but it's always amazing.

2. In his blog, Mystic Wing records his daily struggles with finding balance in his life, coming to terms with his own weaknesses, and generally striving to uncover meaning. He seems inclined to view himself as an oldster, but I think that his struggle to learn keeps his mind pretty young.

3. I've only recently started regularly reading Echomouse, but I've already found her to be a thoughtful and energetic read. Her ability to honestly and bravely examine her emotions really blows me away.

4. Lex at On Second Thought has also been exploring a lot of things that most people take for granted. Sometimes painful, sometimes funny, always honest, her blog shows me how the online space can really become a little extra area for us to deal with our internal realities.

5. CEO of The Morning Meeting has had a pretty tough year, what with the deaths of friends and pets, not to mention health problems and construction issues. Through it all, he's taken the time to throw out a lot of support for his fellow bloggers. He's also tried to use his words to work through his pain, which, I think is the whole point.

*I really, really wanted to use the word "quotidian." My day feels complete now.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Highly Scientific Study

One of my first experiences with courtesy in New York occurred the summer before last, roughly a year before I moved to the city. George, the wife, and I were all on a car, and I was trying to juggle the baby, the stroller, and myself, all while dealing with the rocking of the train. An older Jewish woman, seeing my difficulty, offered me her seat. Obviously, I couldn’t take this lady’s seat, but she insisted. Searching for an out, I tried to get my dear wife to take the kid and sit down, but she smirkingly decided that she really felt like standing. Torn between exhaustion and courtesy, I glared at my beloved as I took the Jewish lady’s seat. I felt like a total heel.

I’ve since learned to get over it. There is a clearly-defined hierarchy for seating on the subway and, as a healthy male in his mid-thirties, I am definitely at the bottom of it. On those rare occasions that I get to sit down, I almost inevitably find myself getting glared at by all the people in the area. It’s not a pleasant sensation. Luckily, I always pack a book.

There is, however, a loophole: when I am carrying my daughter, I shoot right up to the top of the seating list, just below pregnant women, people who are near death, and ladies who are carrying their kids. This doesn’t mean that people will give me their seats; as with so many other things, possession is nine-tenths of the law, and people are loath to give up a seat to a healthy white guy. That having been said, I’m surprised at how often George snags me a seat. Best of all, when I’m carrying her, I can sit down without getting glared at by everyone in my vicinity.

I have also discovered that there is a definite hierarchy of the giving. In other words, some people gladly give up their seats, while others refuse to budge under any circumstances. I have also found that this hierarchy breaks down into clear gender and ethnicity lines. Here are the results of my exhaustive six-month study:

I am ashamed to say that, generally speaking, the rudest group is white males. Not only do they not hesitate to push people out of their way to grab seats, but they don’t actually seem to even see the people that they are shoving. It’s kind of embarrassing to watch. I will also point out that, in my effort to elevate la raza, I try to give up my seat if I see anyone who needs it more than I do. I am not alone in this; I find that white males in their early thirties, particularly those who wear sweaters, not suits, often seem willing to give up their seats.

The best group, far and away, is Hispanic males. Regardless of age, these guys tend to hop up at the slightest hint of need. A little taciturn, they seem to become almost gallant when it comes to helping out people in trouble. In fact, my friend Joey, a self-described Nuyorican, has told me that he never sits down on the subway, as he always ends up giving his seat away, and the bouncing up and down is hard on his knees.

Another great group is Black males, particularly ones in their teens and early twenties. I remember the first time that my wife experienced their extreme subway courtesy. She called me that evening to tell me that some thuggish guys in gangsta clothes had given her a seat. Later, she reported, another group of young men cleared the crowd on the icy stairs and helped her carry my daughter’s baby stroller out of the station. I was blown away at the time, but have since come to realize that these guys are just amazingly courteous. Also, they tend to be more talkative than the Hispanic guys.

After white men, the second rudest group is black women. With younger black women, it's pretty simple: they stubbornly refuse to give up a seat, no matter how badly another person seems to need it. Older black women, on the other hand, tend to be downright shameless about it. Even when I’m clearly holding Georgia, if I'm sitting down, I have to endure the angry stares of women who are standing. Sometimes, they’ll even glare at me after they sit down, as if they're holding a grudge. It can get a little disconcerting.

The rest of the subway riders are all somewhat mediocre. Asian men rarely give up seats, but they have neither the angry defiance of black women nor the aloof snottiness of white men. Frankly, I think they’re just totally clueless. The same goes for Arabic men, who often seem inclined to stretch out over three or four seats. White and Hispanic women are pretty good, and will sometimes give up a seat. Older Jewish women, of course, are outstanding, even if they are inclined to humiliate you into sitting down.

Oy veh.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

A Pause for Station Identification

Well, I've made it through NaBloPoMo and managed to post every day. I didn't do quite so well with NaNoWriMo: between one thing and another, I only wrote about 20,000 words, to a goal of 50,000. Still, hell, I did manage to get out 20,000, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Unfortunately, my internet is still on the fritz, which means that I only have about 45 minutes per day (thank god for the New York Public Library system, without which I would be completely cut off!). I'm going to use the remainder of today's time (about 28 minutes) to check out your blogs. I'm sorry for being an absentee commenter of late!

In other news, I will try to keep up a pretty agressive posting schedule, although I won't be able to post every day. Much, of course, will depend on the regularity of my internet access.



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