Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fear of Cool

Back in the early 70’s, I worked for an electronics company that employed some genuine eggheads. This is a class of people I respect, and whose company I enjoy, but I have never been a qualified member. In the R&D lab of this company, the engineers were working with a new tool – it was a box about the size of two shoeboxes, with a series of lights and toggle switches on the front panel. It was an Altair 8080, the first true minicomputer. There was no monitor, no keyboard, no mouse. It had to be programmed manually, by flipping the toggle switches to define the instructions, one tedious byte at a time.


For reasons I cannot explain, I thought it was cool. I didn’t have a science background, I wasn’t an engineer, and I have always hated math. A few years later, the company wanted to sell the Altair, and I almost bought it. But in 1980, I bought this thing instead – a Sinclair ZX80:


It had one kilobyte of RAM, an awkwardly tiny membrane keypad (I’ve placed a quarter on the case as an indicator of size), and you had to hook it up to a black-and-white TV set which functioned as the monitor. If you wrote a program, you had to store it on a cassette tape player. It wasn’t properly grounded, so every time I touched it after walking across the carpet, it would get zapped by the static discharge and reset. I loved it.

A few years ago, BMW bought the British company that made the Mini Cooper and introduced it to the American market. It was a squat, boxy little car that had about as much curb appeal as a motor scooter. A guy I know who has a normal supply of testosterone confused me when he told me that he thought they were cool.


I now realize that the concept of coolness is irrational and totally subjective. Throughout my life, I’ve met numerous people with irrational fears. One woman I know used to be an Israeli tank commander, but she will run screaming if she sees a snake. It seems that desire and fear are somehow related, and dwell comfortably in the irrational zone of our limbic system.

This would explain a lot of things, actually. For example, it would help to explain why some women date abusive men. Or why some men engage in risky, thrill-seeking activities.

But now that I understand this strange relationship, I’ve developed a new fear: The fear of the next thing that I think is cool.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Stealing Coffee

Before we start, I want to make it perfectly clear that I did not steal anything, nor do I condone stealing anything. I carry too much Catholic guilt to feel comfortable with stolen goods, even cheap office supplies. If I drive home from work with a ballpoint pen in my pocket, I leave it next to my keys to be certain I remember to return it the next morning.

But my brain is always devising little scams, things I would never do in real life. It’s kind of a pointless hobby, like the guy who sits in his basement tying fishing flies during the winter, but never goes fishing in the summer.

Yesterday, my wife and I went to Costco, where she bought a 2-pound bag of coffee beans, despite the fact that we don’t own a coffee grinder.


“Just take it to the supermarket,” she told me. “Use their coffee grinder.”

I stopped at the drugstore next door to the supermarket and bought a few items, which the clerk put into a plastic bag, along with the receipt. I tucked the bag of coffee beans into the bag as well, and carried it into the supermarket.

Now I’ve never bought loose coffee beans at the supermarket, so I’ve never had occasion to use the grinder. The grinder is a component of a display that includes dispensers containing various types of premium-grade coffee beans. You fill a bag with the beans you want, pour them into the hopper, set the dial to the desired grind, put the empty bag under the chute and push the Start button. Then you simply pay for the bag of ground coffee by weight at checkout.

But since I wasn’t buying their coffee, I opened the bag of beans I had brought with me, poured them into the hopper, filled two empty bags with ground coffee, and walked out.

It occurred to me on the way out that someone might stop me and insist that I pay for the coffee. I figured I could just show them the empty coffee bean bag I had brought in, explain that my wife had bought whole beans instead of ground coffee by mistake, and that would be satisfactory.

That’s when the light went on. I realized that if I saved the empty coffee bean bag, the next time I needed coffee, I could walk in with the empty coffee bean bag concealed somewhere. Once at the display, I could make sure no one was watching, quickly fill the empty bag with premium beans from the display, and then just proceed as though I had walked in with the bag of beans. If I get stopped on the way out, the explanation would be the same.

Of course, this won’t work if the aisle is under surveillance. It also won’t work if you’re Catholic. And if you try this, don’t get too attached to that morning cup of Hawaiian Kona - I hear that the coffee in jail really sucks.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Sometimes you hear a song on the radio or on television that won’t stop playing in your head. These are called “earworms,” and there are two kinds:
  1. They start off as songs you genuinely like. But after you catch yourself humming them for the 300th time, they suddenly start to feel like houseguests who have worn out their welcome.

  2. They’re not enjoyable, and they only get worse. These are typically advertising jingles, disco music or hook-laden teen pop songs.
No one has ever figured out how to stop an earworm, but eventually they die a natural death, only to be replaced by something else.

Lately, I’ve noticed that there are visual stimuli that have the same effect – and of course, I’m calling them “eyeworms.” The usual characteristics of an eyeworm are that they are visually discordant, conceptually irresponsible, or emotionally troubling. Take this pizza box, for example:


Can you identify my problem with this image? I can’t stop thinking about it.

There was a lot of Internet anguish over the recent redesign of the Gap logo, which leads me to believe that I’m not alone in my suffering. Would anybody like to form a support group?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Faith and Memories

While I’m not particularly religious, I’m occasionally obligated to attend religious ceremonies of one sort or another. The most recent one included a brunch in the social hall attached to the house of worship. I have attended several brunches of this type in the past, and they all have one thing in common: a high percentage of very friendly older people.

I suspect the high percentage is due to the fact that religion was more popular back in the days when stores were closed on Sunday and only rich people had television sets. The friendly behavior can be attributed to the fact that churches were once the social networking hub of choice before the Internet - which explains the existence of the social hall. Also, by the time people reach a certain age, they’ve lost most of their close friends and crave human contact.

We went through the buffet line and sat at a table occupied by several older people. The couple sitting next to us immediately introduced themselves, and we made the usual small talk.

Eventually, an elderly man left the table. The woman I had been talking to leaned over and said, “It’s so sad that he has to come to services alone. His wife has Alzheimer’s.”

The conversation took on a serious note as we both talked about this tragic disease, and the people we knew who had been affected.

After a somber lull, we gradually returned to casual small talk. The woman asked me where we were from, assuming we had come from out of town for the ceremony. “Oh, we live right here in the Orlando area,” I responded.

“Where do you live?” she inquired, realizing that we weren’t going to enjoy an extended conversation about Chicago or Dallas.

I told her the name of our suburb, and she reacted with surprise. “So do we!” She exclaimed.

“Oh, what a coincidence!” I replied. “What neighborhood?”

A weird look came over her face, and she stammered, “Uhh…umm… it’s… uhhh…”

She turned to her husband and asked, “What’s the name of our neighborhood?”

He looked up from his plate and said, “Umm… it’s called…uhh…it’s near the golf course.”

“Which golf course?” I asked, helpfully (there are three).

“Umm…we don’t actually live on the fairway, but we’re near it. It’s called…uhh…”

Worried now, I asked the name of their street, which she was able to name. Then I asked for the name of the nearest major cross-street, and she named that as well. This was all the information I needed, so I told them the name of the golf course and the name of their neighborhood.

They reacted with relieved glee, happy that the embarrassing moment had passed. But the next time I attend a ceremony there, I don’t expect to see either of them.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dizzy Pills

A couple of weeks ago I developed an ear infection, which caused me to experience dizzy spells. The doctor prescribed a couple of medications for me, one of which was intended to control the dizzy symptoms. They work very well, so I didn’t stop to read the label until today.


For those of you who may have difficulty reading this small image, it says:

“Take 1 to 2 tablet(s) by mouth 4 times daily as needed for dizziness.”

However, one of the listed side effects states:

“May cause dizziness.”

My daughter hasn’t started taking birth control pills yet, but once she does, I’m going to read the side effects very carefully.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Insufficiently Free

My wife and I like to go to a local movie theater that offers a discounted price on Sundays. The normal price for Monday to Saturday is $9.50. The Sunday price is $5.00. It’s a pretty good deal, but I sweeten it even further.

The theater is part of a national chain that offers a “reward points” program. Every time I pay for a ticket, even a discounted ticket, I earn points. The points accumulate and eventually they give me a coupon for a free bag of popcorn, a free drink, etc. About a month ago, I was awarded a free movie ticket that I can use any time. But I never will.


There are two reasons that this ticket will never be used. The first reason is that the theater chain limits the movies for which I can redeem the ticket. If it’s a first-run popular film with a good cast and a big marketing budget, the corporate bigwigs decided that they’d rather sell the seats than give them away. So those films are restricted until they’ve been around for a month or so. By then, I will have paid my five bucks if I want to see it at all.

The second reason that I’ll never use the ticket is that I’m married to a woman who doesn’t completely understand the concept of “free.”

The first time I tried to use it was on one of our regular Sunday visits to the theater. “Don’t use that free ticket!” she scolded. “If you use it on Sunday, you’re only saving five dollars. Use it on a regular-price night.”

“I don’t think you understand,” I explained. “It’s a free ticket. I’m not saving anything. Free is free. The movie isn’t any different whether it costs $9.50 to get in, or $5.00 to get in. It’s FREE.”

“No,” she insisted. “If you use it on a regular-price night, you’re saving $9.50.”

I gave up. I didn’t have the heart to remind her that I have achieved senior-discount status, so by her logic, I’m only saving $6.50. And if I do tell her, I’m afraid she’ll put me to work designing a time machine.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Shoes and Ink

I have a couple of pairs of nice dress shoes. They’re well-made, nicely designed, and they cost $35 a pair. If the heels ever wear down to the point where they need to be replaced, or if I ever get a hole in the sole, it will be cheaper to buy new shoes than to have them repaired.

This is because the United States priced itself out of the labor market for the manufacture of shoes. People in Indonesia will happily make shoes for a fraction of the wage an American worker would demand. Back when I was a kid, we would have a pair of dress shoes re-soled or re-heeled four or five times over their lifespan. I hardly bother to shine them anymore. If they start looking a little scuffed up, I go shoe-shopping.

Over this past weekend, my printer ran out of ink. It’s an all-in-one unit that functions as a printer, a copier and a scanner. But it’s been giving me problems lately, because the printer drivers aren’t fully supported on my new computer, which came with a new operating system.

When I drove to the store, I discovered that a pair of ink cartridges would cost me $55. I took a walk down the printer aisle and found an all-in-one printer for sale that costs $69 and includes two ink cartridges. It’s brand-new, prints faster, works with my operating system and includes a fax in addition to all of the other functions. Better still, new cartridges for it only cost $39 a pair. Guess what I did.

It’s rapidly reaching the point where the cost of production of printers is outpacing the greedy pricing for replacement cartridges. In a few years, I expect to see a printer on the market that has no replaceable cartridges at all. It will come with a “lifetime supply” of ink. I can’t believe that someone in Indonesia hasn’t figured out a way to make printer cartridges dirt cheap.

I don’t want the world to work this way. I should be able to repair my shoes and feed ink to my printer at reasonable cost. But I can’t. People will say this is a flaw in the capitalist system, others will say it’s a symptom of American consumer culture, and others will say it’s a failure of government to impose proper import duties or regulate business. I have no idea. But if you think it’s a problem with government, let me know and I’ll send them a fax.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tire Pressure Procedure

We all assume we know how to perform new, simple tasks, constructing a procedure in our minds before we start. And of course, we often have to revise that procedure once we start and discover what my friend Dan refers to as “the hidden bummer factor.”

My wife told me that a light on her dashboard indicated that a tire was low, and asked me to go out and fill it. I’ve completed this task a hundred times, but I remember the first time. I assumed that the procedure consisted of:
  1. Drive to filling station.

  2. Find out how much air to put in the tires.

  3. Put quarters in the air machine.

  4. Fill up tires.

  5. Drive home.
But after the first trip, I had to modify the procedure, adding a new Step 1: “Bring quarters.”

To determine the tire pressure, I assumed that the tire would be the best source of this information. I tried reading the cryptic embossed codes on the side of the tire, then gave up and looked it up in the owner’s manual. The owner’s manual instructed me to look for a placard inside the driver’s side door jamb – an easy solution.

Once I fed the quarters into the air machine, I discovered that I had to remove the valve stem caps, which consumed time, so the air machine shut off before I was finished. This meant that I had to modify the procedure again, inserting a new step before putting in the quarters: “Remove valve stem caps.” And of course, I had to insert another step before driving home: “Replace valve stem caps.”

I now had a procedure that has served me well for a quarter of a century. When my wife asked me to fill her tire the other day, I gathered a handful of quarters and drove to the filling station. After glancing at the tire pressure placard, I dutifully walked around the car, removing all of the valve stem caps. I set them on top of the tire, so that I don’t kick them away or step on them as I hustle to fill the tires before the time runs out on the air machine.

Ready to complete the task, I walked up to the air machine and discovered that after all this time, I had to add a new step to the procedure. Taped to the air machine was a hand-written note: “Out of order.”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Under 200

One of the side benefits of my knee surgery is that I lost about 20 pounds. This is the result of a combination of factors, including unappetizing hospital food, narcotic pain medication and a lack of desire to stand up, walk to the kitchen and raid the refrigerator. I’ve since gained about 5 of those pounds back, but I still weigh less than 200 pounds for the first time in 20 years. I’m determined to keep it off.

However, I had to put new holes in my belts, because all of my pants have an embarrassing tendency to slide off my hips. Because I’m not completely confident in my ability to maintain this new figure, I’ve been unwilling to shop for new pants.

Last week, I received an e-mail from the Managing Director of my department, who is flying down from the New York office to visit the Florida office. It was an invitation, sent to about seven peon-level employees, to join her for dinner at a tony nearby restaurant. The invitation was marked, “Your attendance is required.”

Our office dress code is “business casual,” but I worried whether the normal dress code would be acceptable for this dinner. I conferred with other employees on the invitation list, to try and determine if it would be appropriate to wear a suit for the occasion. The majority opinion was that I would look like a “tool” or a “dork,” but one person who works with Managing Directors all the time said that it would be “expected.” So I’m torn (so to speak).

OK, let’s be clear about one thing: I never wear suits, except to funerals and certain formal events that I can’t avoid. Because I wear them so infrequently, I have one suit (black wool pinstripe) and one sports coat (brown corduroy). I used to have three suits, but the others were getting kind of threadbare, so we gave them to Goodwill.

I tried the suit on about an hour ago. I can pull the pants away from my stomach about 2 inches. They look ridiculously huge on me, like clown pants. The dinner is tomorrow night, so it’s too late to have them altered. The corduroy sports coat is too informal for a business dinner. So I guess I’ll just wear normal attire and pray that I won’t be underdressed.

I’ve since learned that one of the peons invited to the dinner won’t be attending, due to a prior “religious obligation.” Another individual is aggressively ambitious, and is expected to try and monopolize the conversation – something that the Managing Director is known to dislike intensely. So it now appears that I could show up in Bermuda shorts and a Bob Marley t-shirt, and still won’t attract attention.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Pregnant Robot

My knees didn’t go bad all at once; it was a slow decline over a period of about five years. During that time, I slowly developed numerous coping mechanisms to avoid the pain that occurred when the bones in my knees ground together. This resulted in a stiff-legged hobble, and a tendency to lift my hip to step up over a curb, rather than bend my knee. Now, I’m struggling to ditch those bad habits.

My wife says that with my new knee joints, I walk “like a robot.” This is from a fear of becoming off-balance, and having to make a sudden, possibly painful, corrective move. My physical therapist tells me that I walk “like a pregnant woman,” because I still want to use the stiff-legged hobbling walk, and I tend to splay my legs to maintain balance.

So I use this “pregnant robot” criticism as a motivational tool to try and correct my gait. My physical therapist goads me into walking around the house “like a man,” lengthening my stride, lifting my feet as though stepping over a box of Kleenex, swinging my arms, and swiveling my head from side to side to force me to make balance corrections. It feels unnatural after so many years of cautious pain-avoidance. I feel like a comedian doing an exaggerated manly walk.

Despite my challenge to walk normally, my physical therapist has dubbed me “the poster child for bilateral knee replacement.” One reason she feels this way is that I’ve recovered a great deal of strength, and I’ve developed excellent knee flexion. Normal people can flex their knees to around 160 degrees. The anticipated maximum for knee replacement patients is around 130 degrees (due to limitations in the artificial joint). Currently, I can flex 134 degrees. I’m going to try and achieve even more flexion, because there are so many things I need to do around the house that involve squatting or kneeling back on my heels (kneeling is currently not a pleasant experience).

Unfortunately, I’m falling short of the goal for knee extension. Almost everyone can extend their legs to zero degrees (legs straight). Normal people actually exceed zero degrees when standing, “locking” their knees by bending the leg backward a few degrees. My physical therapist tells me that recovering this ability after knee replacement surgery is crucial, to avoid the possibility of the knees buckling. She also tells me that it’s the hardest goal to achieve, and I believe her. She has me sit on a chair, legs extended, my heels resting on another chair. Then she holds a measuring device up to my leg and presses down hard on the knee. Yeah, it hurts.

I’ve been going a little stir-crazy at home. My wife strictly forbade me to drive a car until my physical therapist said it was OK (my surgeon said it was OK weeks ago). Eventually, the two of them agreed that I was capable of driving, so I gratefully ran errands rather than sit home and watch TV. My boss told me that I’m not allowed to go into the office while on Short Term Disability, because of the insurance liability. So I got my doctor’s office to sign a “Return to Work” certificate, which means that on Monday, I’m officially off Short Term Disability and back to work. I wonder if my company’s insurance covers pregnant robots.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Once safely at home, I made it my business to move around on the walker as much as possible. Sitting on the edge of the bed, all I had to do was grit my teeth and make the transition from sitting to standing, the hardest and most painful part. After I’m vertical, there’s not much pain and I can shuffle around the house pretty much at will.

I was visited by the highly competent Home Health Care nurse, who inspected my incisions, took my vitals, and arranged for my doctor to issue prescriptions for the meds I’d need during my recovery. This included a bag of syringes preloaded with an expensive medication intended to prevent blood clots. She demonstrated the injection, and on her next visit, taught me to give it to myself, into a pinched roll of belly fat (which I have in abundance).

It’s surprisingly easy, although lots of my friends go white-faced at the mere idea of injecting themselves. The hardest thing is avoiding “reflex bounce.” This is where you jab in the needle, but before you can inject the medicine, you reflexively yank it out, and then have to jab yourself again.

The Home Health Care nurse came by daily for about 4 days, then every other day for a little while, and then stopped coming altogether, due to my dramatic improvements.

The Home Health Care physical therapist came by daily as well, giving me instructions on using the walker, and supervising a series of exercises to develop flexibility and strength. She’s a slim Filipina woman, gentle and encouraging, but she makes me work like a rented mule.

A friend of ours from Boston came down to visit for a week, providing much-needed distractions from the tedium of daytime TV. She and my wife shared the duty of ensuring that I did my exercises as required.

I made rapid progress. By the end of the first week home, I could get out of a chair easily, walk short distances without the walker, and leave the house occasionally. Today, nearing the end of three weeks since the surgery, I no longer require the walker (or a cane) for anything. I’ve been encouraged to use the stationary bicycle (with zero resistance) and swim in the pool for exercise.

Strangely, although I’ve always been a strong swimmer, I seem to have lost my flutter kick. I had an anxious moment in the deep end of the pool, where I was holding on to a float and tried to swim to the side, but just hovered there in the middle, not moving, wondering if I should call out for help. Eventually, was able to thrash my way to the stairs.

I can simulate a normal walking gait, though at this point it’s a bit less painful to walk with a pronounced limp.

People in the hospital, the nursing home and Home Health Care have been very impressed with my progress, which everyone attributes to my age. One large Jamaican nurse, watching me struggle to my feet on the walker, said “Dot’s yoof working for you, mon.”

My physical therapist comes by every other day now, and has transitioned me to rubber-band exercises. These are wide bands about three feet long, color-coded yellow, red, green and blue. The colors represent the thickness of the rubber (yellow is the thinnest). She’ll make a loop of one, wrap it around my ankles, and have me fight the resistance of the rubber to spread my legs. Or she’ll loop it around a chair leg and an ankle and have me straighten my leg from the knee. We’ve been moving through the color spectrum for the past week, and we’re on green, which is really hard. “Next time blue,” she threatened me today. Thank God I have my yoof.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rehab, Part 4: The Metaphor

To my wife’s great credit, she took my demands seriously. Her eyes opened to the incompetence, the deficiencies, the indifference. We rang the Call button at one point and waited 20 minutes without a visit from an attendant. My wife stormed off to the desk and found one of the attendants there, who had set down a clipboard in such a way as to cover the Call light panel.

Before long, we had the administrator in my room, apologizing. I demanded to know what plan, if any, existed for my physical therapy. I had been there for 16 hours and nobody had thought to discuss it with me. Her response was, “The physical therapist comes in at 3. You can talk to him then.”

“Four more hours?” I sputtered. “I have to spend almost a full day here before someone is available to discuss my treatment program? Once again I have to ask if anyone in this place knew I was coming.”

The administrator again began a series of useless apologies, and suggested that we might be more satisfied with Home Health Care. I suspect that she would be thrilled to see us leave, since all I had done since my arrival was point out the gaping holes in her carefully-wrought treatment facility.

At that very moment, I became aware of a change in my body – a movement, a gurgle, a pressure – and realized that my long-awaited bowel movement was about to arrive. For six days, this reluctant slug of feces had resisted daily doses of stool softener and laxatives, hindered by anesthesia and pain medication. And now, during the discussions of my release from the nursing home hellhole, it had broken free of its bonds and was cruising towards freedom, a metaphor in transit.

I had to interrupt the discussion and request privacy. The curtain was drawn around my bed, and I painfully slid myself over and onto the commode – a maneuver I had not yet tried. Once enthroned, I had to conduct my business while listening to the discussions continuing on the other side of the curtain.

Within minutes, a great wave of relief washed over me, and I was able to return to the itchy, uncomfortable nursing home bed with a sense of accomplishment. The discussions between my wife and the administrator had resulted in an agreement, and the paperwork for my release was being prepared. The bowel movement was merely the icing on the cake (sorry, that was irresistible).

During the wait for the paperwork, the physical therapist arrived. He was a nice guy, intelligent, committed and probably good at his work. Had our paths crossed the previous day, it might have changed the outcome of this story.

Almost exactly 24 hours after I had been admitted to the nursing home, I was released. A male attendant helped me into a wheelchair, and I literally burned rubber on that thing heading for the exit.

I cannot adequately describe the feeling of returning home. I was able to use the walker to get from the car to our bed, and I lay there in ecstatic gratitude. I told my wife that if the day ever came where she had to decide whether or not to put me in a nursing home, she should just give me list of things to pick up at Costco, and then cut the brake lines on the car.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Rehab, Part 3: Economics

I had a fitful, sleepless night with little relief from my pain medication. Earlier, I mentioned the two unused desks in the room, each of which had an equally-unused trash can in the kneehole. I had asked an attendant to move one of the trash cans near my bed, so that I could discard the tissue I used whenever I employed the urinal.

Early in the morning, a woman came in to replace the plastic liners in the trash cans. This was a fruitless task, because there was normally nothing in either can. She looked slowly around the room for the missing trash can, eventually finding it next to my bed. She replaced the liner, and then, as she had done hundreds of times before, put the trash can under the desk across the room, where it was useless to me.

“Miss?” I called to her, “Will you put the trash can next to my bed where you found it so that I can use it to dispose of these tissues?”

She nodded, picked up the trash can and then, perhaps from force of habit, slid it underneath the bedside commode, where I couldn’t reach it. I had slumped back onto the bed, and didn’t notice until she had gone. I spent the morning tossing used tissues onto the floor in frustrated attempts to make a Larry Bird hook shot.

I use this example to illustrate a sad reality I had begun to observe about the nursing home: After my stay in the hospital, everything seemed substandard, cut back to the thinnest veneer of quality. Nursing homes take the Social Security check of each resident to pay for their care. It's not much, probably less than $30 a day. To make a profit, they have to reduce costs.

The bed was narrow and uncomfortable, the sheets were rough – seemingly a blend of burlap and asbestos. Believe me, you notice such things when you’re bedridden.

There was a pervasive odor – a mixture of urine and cleaning products – that I’ve decided to call “pissinfectant.” The food was all canned glop poured over pasta.

But the worst example of nursing home economics was the staff. There was an administrator and a nurse on duty during the night. Everyone else appeared to be trained zombies.

They were undoubtedly minimum-wage jobs, which were boring, repetitive and demeaning. So the quality of people who take those jobs are the borderline retarded - those who take comfort in routine, unchallenged by novelty or crises. They plod numbly through their days, changing diapers and bed linens, moving patients to the dining room or the TV room, bathing the patients occasionally, and then returning them to their rooms for the night.

Earlier that night, before I tried to sleep, I asked an attendant to strap on my leg straighteners, which are reinforced wraps that are closed by Velcro straps. She held one up and turned it around and around, trying to figure out how to put it on.

“You lay it flat on the bed,” I instructed, “with the foam pad facing up. Narrow end by the ankle, wide end by the upper thigh. Then you lift my leg onto it and strap it closed.”

She continued to turn it around and around, her brain struggling with the complex geometry necessary to distinguish “wide” from “narrow.” Eventually, I had to pull myself up painfully and arrange it for her.

I had complained about the stifling heat in the room, so they sent a maintenance guy later that day. He looked at the air conditioner and declared that it was set to 60 degrees. “Yes, I can see that,” I said, patiently. “But it’s not 60 in here, is it?”

He and I stared at each other, a classic Mexican standoff. He eventually mumbled something and left, but it was a moot issue. I had made up my mind.

When my wife arrived around 10 a.m. to see how I was settling in, I pulled her close to me and said, “I want out of here right now. Right now. Sign any papers you have to sign, get me in a wheelchair and take me home. I’m not staying here another night.”

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Rehab, Part 2: The Call Button

The ambulance team wheeled me down a long corridor to an end room. There were two beds, one occupied by an elderly man with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease, unable to walk, talk, or feed himself. The team lifted me into the unoccupied bed, gathered their equipment and left.

I took a few minutes to assess my situation. My inflamed knees were screaming for pain meds, and my five-day constipation struggle had put me into a foul mood. The room felt absurdly hot, even though there was an air-conditioning unit next to my bed that was set to 60 degrees. There were no amenities near the bed – no tray table, no bedside commode, no urinal, no walker, no wheelchair.

Across the room were two desks, clearly unused by any resident since they were assembled 10 years ago. My roommate’s desk had a small TV, loudly blaring an episode of Little House on the Prairie. At every commercial break, an older man and woman dressed in conservative clothing thanked the viewers for watching the show, “depicting the early pioneer days of American history, based on the core biblical values of faith and family.” They would then ask for donations to enable them to continue such programming. That was it – no other advertising.

I decided to deal with the medication issue first, and reached for the Call button. There wasn’t one. Horrified, I started to call out: “HEY! ANYBODY THERE?” Down the hall I could hear other elderly residents in various stages of dementia take up the call, like so many magpies: “Heeeeyyyy! Hellooooo! HEY!” It occurred to me that the attendants had long ago learned to ignore them.

I yelled myself raw for about 10 minutes before somebody showed up. Red-faced, I demanded to know why there was no Call button. “Were you not expecting me today?” I sputtered. “What if I had a medical emergency?” The attendant listened to me, wide-eyed, and then said she would go get the nurse. The nurse waddled in, an older woman with the spreading thighs of a desk-bound bureaucrat.

“You don’t have a Call button? She asked. “I guess we should find one for you.”

Once the Call button was hooked up, the nurse turned to me and asked the stupidest question imaginable: “Is there anything else you need?”

“Well, we can start with the reason I wanted the Call button in the first place,” I snarled. “I need my pain medication.”

“It’s not here yet,” she said. “We had to order it.”

Once again, I was dumbfounded. “You’ve had all day to prepare for my arrival!” I was red-faced now, and shouting. “If you’re unable to provide the basic essentials for my care, I should never have been transferred here! Has anyone read my chart? I’m not ambulatory! I’ve been constipated for a week, and I could launch this torpedo at any time! How were you planning to handle my bathroom visits? Is someone going to bring a wheelchair and take me to the bathroom?”

“No,” she told me, “we can’t do that because you haven’t been trained how to transfer from a wheelchair to a toilet yet. Too dangerous.”

“OK!” I exclaimed. “Got it! Now what the hell is Plan B?”

“I suppose we could find you a bedside commode,” she suggested hesitantly.

“Excellent idea. Why don’t you do that, and while you’re at it, find out when exactly my meds will arrive.”

I lay there fuming, while the wide-eyed attendant watched me from across the room, fully expecting my head to explode. I get the impression that most residents don’t possess the capacity to complain, and this was a new phenomenon.

The nurse returned shortly with a commode, which they placed next to my bed, along with a tray table and a urinal. By then it was 9 p.m. The nurse told me my meds should arrive within an hour and a half, and then they got the hell out of there.

The meds showed up at 2:20 a.m., by which time I was sobbing from the pain and discomfort.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Rehab, Part 1: Rock Star

After four days in the hospital, I had reached the point where all I really required was physical therapy in addition to basic human needs. So on the morning of the fifth day, my wife drove off to inspect a few Inpatient Rehab facilities. She was back by 10:00 a.m., proudly declaring that she had found the ideal place. But there was just one little unpleasant detail.

It seems that in Florida, there’s no such thing as an Inpatient Rehab center. Instead, there are nursing homes that have a resident physical therapist. Nursing homes love to fill a bed with a temporary rehab client, because insurance companies pay them far more than the Social Security of the other residents (who are also temporary).

Still, I didn’t see a downside. I’ve been inside nursing homes before. Yes, they’re depressing. Yes, they sometimes abuse the residents. But nobody was going to abuse me, and I was anxious to get started on a focused program of exercise so that I could get up out of bed and walk.

I had my wife pack my belongings, and I was ready to go by noon. But for some reason, it took a long time to arrange the transfer. For one thing, they had to schedule an ambulance pickup, because my wife had an appointment and was unavailable to drive me. “Ambulance?” I sputtered. “Why not call a cab? It’s only 5 exits away!” But for some reason, hospitals don’t work that way.

So I sat, fuming and dithering until 6 p.m., when the ambulance arrived with three attendants. One was a snotty and officious small man who liked to bark orders, another was an older guy who had found retirement too boring, and then there was the stoner.

The three of them lifted me on a sheet and slid me onto the gurney. While buckling me in, the older guy leaned across my body and set his elbow down exactly on my left-knee incision. He apologized profusely, declaring that he of all people should have known better.

They wheeled me out of the hospital into the blazing afternoon heat, and loaded me into the ambulance, which was like an oven inside. The stoner sat in the back with me, trying to connect me to a battery-powered device that measures pulse rate and blood oxygen level. The device kept shutting off, and the stoner would respond by smacking it with the heel of his hand until it lit up again. However, the numbers were screwy and unreliable, so after a few more smacks he stuck an oxygen hose in my nose “just in case.”

“I’m not an accident victim,” I told him. “My blood oxygen is fine.”

“Yeah, but I can’t confirm that with this thing,” he explained, waving the sporadically-blinking box. “Better safe than sorry.”

The ambulance, which has the exact same suspension system as that of a dump truck, bounced and rattled up the interstate, sending my knees into spasms of pain. I hadn't anticipated this problem, and hadn’t taken a pain pill since 9 a.m. By the time we arrived, I was writhing.

The attendants slid me out of the ambulance, lowered the wheels to the ground, and tilted the gurney so that my feet were lower than my head. It felt like I was floating six feet in the air. A small crowd of wheelchair-bound residents gaped in wonder and delight at my arrival, waving and smiling toothless smiles. I felt a strange euphoria, like a rock star, threading my way in a limo through crowds of groupies outside the stage entrance. It must have been all that extra oxygen.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Recovery Ward

In the hospital, time quickly lost all meaning. I had a clock and a window to mark the passing of hours and days, but hospitals run around the clock.

Sleep was only possible in short, sporadic increments, because something was always going on. Thanks to my passing-out episode, the doctors decided to conduct numerous tests to eliminate the possibility that I had suffered a stroke, heart attack or embolism. This meant that someone came in frequently to take my blood pressure, pulse and temperature, and I had to give blood samples daily. Before long, I had track marks all over both arms.

However, the nurse presented me with the World’s Third-Greatest Invention. First is fire. Second is the wheel. Third is the bedside urinal. There was a bathroom in my room, but it might as well have been in orbit around Saturn. I never saw the inside of it.

Once the nurse removed my catheter, I was given instructions to drink water as often as I could. I quickly became adept at using the urinal, except for the times that I was strapped in to the mechanical leg benders. Then it was like trying to shoot a target from a moving horse.

Every couple of hours, a nurse would come in and pick up the urinal. She’d swish it around and hold it up to the light to check the color, clarity and quantity like a sommelier, and then she’d empty it for me. I kept thinking how funny it would be if she were to say something like, “Hmm. You had fun in college, didn’t you?”

I have to say that the nurses were all smart, cheerful, and professional, and they’d materialize within seconds to attend to my every need when I pressed the Call button. Whenever the shift changed, the duty nurse would come in with his or her replacement and introduce them, which was nice touch.

Meals were delivered to my bed, and they were all of uniform quality. Not good, not bad, but you wouldn’t want to have to eat it every day. Fortunately, I didn’t have much of an appetite.

My only genuine criticism of hospital operations was that physical therapy was kind of basic and haphazard. I was strapped in to the mechanical leg benders every day for six hours at a stretch, which is just too long. Also, once every day (never at the same time of day), two physical therapists would hoist me onto the walker for a short, excruciating shuffle. The biggest problem was that no attempt was made to coordinate the strenuous activities with doses of pain medication. Sometimes I was properly medicated; other times I was not.

I was in the hospital for five days. By the fifth day, I could walk with assistance up and down the hospital corridor on the walker, which seemed like astonishing progress. I was eager to begin a genuine physical therapy program, so we discussed the two options with the hospital social worker. One option was Home Health Care, where a nurse and a physical therapist provide services to the patient at home. The other option was Inpatient Rehab, where the patient is given a bed, meals and other services in addition to nursing and physical therapy. We chose Inpatient Rehab, because at that point, caring for me would be a huge effort for my wife, especially if it involved moving me.

We chose wrong, as you’ll see in my next post.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Pain Scale

Throughout the recovery process, I’m constantly being asked to rate my pain on a 0 – 10 scale. But they always ask me to define “10” as “the worst pain you’ve ever felt.” It seems too subjective to me, because a “10” for a guy who has never given birth might seem like a “4” to a woman who has.

By the second day after surgery, the anesthesia had mostly worn off. The nurse gave me a gizmo that looked like a bong and told me to suck on it, trying to keep a floating yellow bead between two markers. Supposedly, this would open my lungs and expel the remainder of the anesthesia. “Do that ten times an hour,” she said, and left. Ten times? Every hour? Maybe this thing is a bong.

Later that day, the physical therapists returned to get me up on the walker again. I gritted my teeth for the effort, and was extremely displeased to discover that without the benefit of lingering anesthesia, the pain was easily double that of the previous attempt. One of the therapists kept insisting that I “breathe” and “keep my eyes open” as I gasped and moaned, shuffling over to the chair beside the bed.

Sweating and shuddering from the pain, I waited for the inevitable trip back, the physical therapists constantly asking me to rate my pain. “That was a nine,” I sobbed, believing that a ten would be so intolerable, I’d never live to describe it.

Within a few minutes, the physical therapists hoisted me to my feet again. My head swam from the searing pain. My eyes clouded with floating multicolored spots, and off in the distance, I could hear one of the therapists insisting that I breathe. I was able to blurt out the words, “I’m going to pass out.”

I came to on the bed, one of the therapists waving something under my nose that looked like a paint chip, but which had no discernable odor. After that episode, the physical therapists still visited me every day, but took a far less aggressive approach to getting me up on the walker.

The next day, I was visited by a nurse who told me they were going to remove the “drains” from my incisions. These are small tubes designed to divert any body fluids to collection bags outside the body, preventing them from pooling up inside the incision. “This is going to hurt,” she told me. And it sure did. Maybe a 7. Piece of cake.

“Let me dispose of these,” she said, coiling up the tubes, “and I’ll come back and remove your catheter.”

My what? I groped beneath the blankets and discovered the tube coming out of my penis. How could I not know it was there? How did it get in there?

The nurse returned, and started handling my private parts with practiced professionalism. “Ready?” she asked. On a pain scale, it was about a 4. I’ll spare you the grotesque imagery of the procedure, but I will say that I wish to God I hadn't watched.

Introduction to Medical Equipment

Coming out of general anesthesia is always interesting, although not always pleasant. The symptoms differ depending on the drugs employed. I’ve only experienced it twice. This time, I had a problem with eye roll. It was like an old TV set with a broken vertical hold. Faces of nurses and doctors just floated up from the bottom of my visual field and disappeared off the top.

I was given a button connected to a morphine pump. They told me that every six minutes, I could push the button to deliver a tiny amount of morphine my bloodstream. But because of the anesthesia, I wasn’t remembering instructions very well. My wife broke the rules by taking control of the button to keep my pain under control.

After several hours of fading in and out of consciousness, my surgeon came in and asked if I wanted to try to stand on the new replacement knees. Seriously, doc – would you? I think they phrase it like that so it seems as though it was all your idea.

Nurses gathered up the wires and tubes connecting me to various appliances in the room, two physical therapists held me under the armpits, and lifted me to a standing position behind a walker, which I grasped like a drowning man.

People seem curious about the pain. It was blinding, overwhelming, stunning. But it wasn’t the worst pain I have ever felt; I wouldn’t experience that until the following day.

There was a reclining chair adjacent to the hospital bed, and the P/Ts coached me through a heavily-assisted 90-degree turn, and then I was directed to sit in the chair. I plopped down, gasping from the pain and the effort, and was allowed to rest there for two hours. Then, the P/Ts rejoined me for the return trip to the bed.

It was much worse getting up that second time, because every cell in my body knew what was coming. I cursed and sweated, struggling that three feet back to the bed.

After another short rest, the staff introduced me to four pieces of equipment that I shall hate for the rest of my life. I call them the “squeezers,” the “freezers,” the “straighteners” and the “benders.”
  • The squeezers are two air bladders that are wrapped around each lower leg. A small pump inflates one, which tightens around the leg briefly, and is then deflated. The process is repeated on the other leg, alternating all night long. The purpose of this device is to keep the blood moving on bedridden patients to prevent blood clots. But the truth is that the bladders rub on the skin a little bit when they inflate, over and over, until you want to scream.

  • The freezers are four pads about the size of ping-pong paddles, connected through a series of hoses to small refrigeration units. Two pads are placed on either side of each knee, and refigerated liquid is pumped through them all night long. They reduce swelling, but they also refrigerate the blood of the patient. I suffered from painful bouts of uncontrollable shivering, despite being covered with five blankets.

  • The straighteners are reinforced wraps that cover the entire leg, preventing it from bending. These are strapped on all night, to prevent involuntary movements that might disrupt the healing process. They’re horrible, because they pretty much prevent every other kind of movement, voluntary or not.

  • The benders are machines that slowly bend the leg to a programmable angle, over and over again, up to six hours a day on each leg. There are several designs for these machines, but in my experience, the best ones are those that have no scrotum-pinching parts.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


It starts with a subtle realization that you can’t walk or run as far as you used to. You make excuses, “I’m not a kid anymore,” or “I’m not in such a big hurry.” And then, one day, your wife asks you to take a long walk on the beach.

OK, I’ve always hated long walks on the beach for two reasons:
  1. The beach is the same a mile from where I am now.

  2. Long walks on the beach only sound romantic; real romance is inside you, a very short walk if you know where you’re going.
But when my wife asked me for a long walk on the beach about 3 years ago, I had to discard all of my curmudgeon arguments. I turned her down because I realized my knees couldn’t take it. The knees have gotten progressively worse, a steady decline that most recently found me following my wife around Costco in one of those electric shopping carts. It wasn’t very romantic.

So last Thursday, I found myself lying on a hospital gurney in the surgical prep area of major local hospital. Tubes and wires stuck into me everywhere, and a petite young woman was busily shaving my legs in preparation for knee replacement surgery. I have lots of stories about this experience. Not all of them will be funny. Some are icky.

This one starts just a little icky.

After my legs had been completely shaved, I asked the nurse if it was too late for me to attempt a bowel movement. I hadn’t had my normal morning cup of coffee, because I had been forbidden to eat or drink anything for the last 7 hours. This had thrown me off schedule, and despite my best efforts, I was unsuccessful. I would remain unsuccessful for six days, because anesthesia and pain medication can result in miserable constipation.

Returning in defeat to the gurney, I was visited by my surgeon. About 12 years ago, when my daughter was in first grade, we met a lot of parents, some of whom were outside of our social strata. But we socialized with them anyway, because our kids liked each other, resulting in lots of birthday parties and other get-togethers. My surgeon was one of those parents. I don’t like him, personally – but he’s the best, so I hired him.

He walked away making some notes, and another man about the same age approached, dressed in surgical scrubs. He stepped forward and introduced himself as my anesthesiologist. I suddenly realized that he was the father of yet another of my daughter’s first-grade friends. I’ve been to his house and enjoyed his beer. It was a strange moment as we sheepishly caught up. Later, as my wife entered the building to join me, she ran into an oncologist who was the father of still another of my daughter’s first-grade friends.

Anyway, that’s all I remember until I woke up in recovery 3 hours later, with throbbing knees, a sore throat and a tube coming out of my penis.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Tomorrow morning at 5 a.m., I must report to the hospital to have new knees put in.

The doctor will saw chunks off the bones of my upper and lower leg, and then replace the chunks with parts made of chromium-cobalt alloy. Then he’ll stick in a pad made of high-density plastic to replace the cartilage that has worn away, sew me up and have the orderly wheel me to the physical therapy torture chamber.

I’ve been anxious about it all week, and my mood has not improved as various pieces of medical equipment are delivered to the house:

  • A walker.

  • A bedside commode.

  • A flexible knee wrap with a pump that circulates ice water around my inflamed knee.

  • A Medieval-looking electric appliance that I strap onto my leg while lying in bed. It flexes the knee repetitively, forcing it to bend more than it would agree to, if it were given a vote in the matter. Two hours per knee, four times a day.

For the first week, I expect to be pretty useless, gobbling pain pills as often as the law allows. After that, I may have brief periods of mental clarity, during which I’ll attempt to blog about the experience.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Thanks for the Alligators, Walt

We’ve been trying to come up with things to do for my brother during his visit that do not involve going to a theme park. Theme parks are very popular with tourists in Central Florida, but in the summer they can be brutally hot and crowded. Worse, people aren’t very imaginative, so they feel a sense of obligation to go to the expensive corporate-owned theme parks, which have huge marketing budgets to attract tourists from all over the world. These gigantic tourist traps suck up the available tourist dollars and leave nothing for locally-owned businesses or attractions.

So I took my brother to do something I’ve wanted to do since I moved to Florida in 1995: an airboat ride on Lake Jesup, which is widely regarded as the most alligator-infested lake in Central Florida.

For those of you who might not know about airboats, they are wide, flat-bottomed boats (usually aluminum) with a big automotive or aircraft engine spinning an aircraft-like propeller mounted above the water on the back of the boat. The thrust of the propeller drives the boat forward, and it’s capable of travelling at high speed, through an inch of water, or even across dry land, if necessary. This makes them ideal for swampy or marshy areas.

Here we are on the boat.


And here’s the boat captain, who sits just in front of the huge, loud propeller.


We left the dock as a scary-looking storm gathered on the opposite shore of the lake.


This was both good and bad. It was good because the heavy cloud cover kept the temperature down, with no chance of sunburn. We found out why it was bad a little later.

The captain pushed off from the dock (airboats don’t have reverse), and we slid out into the lake. We hugged the shore for a short distance, and then the captain swung the boat to the left, facing a small channel about 5 feet wide. I couldn’t believe he was going to try and squeeze our big airboat through that gap, but the boat slipped in like magic, into a little hidden backwater channel. If you look closely, you can see a heron, startled by our arrival.


The captain gunned the engine and nimbly spun the boat 90 degrees on its axis, and then motored slowly through the meandering channel. We saw several small alligators and annoyed some more birds, before emerging from the vegetation into the main body of the lake. The captain hit the throttle, and we sped quickly across the surface of the lake, our teeth clacking as we jittered over the washboard-like waves.

On the other side of the lake, we cruised through some more small channels, and saw several alligators.



The captain then told us something I didn’t know. When DisneyWorld was constructed in the late sixties, any alligators that were found had to be relocated, so they dumped them all in Lake Jesup.

As we returned from our trip, two veils of rain descended from the clouds in front of us. The airboat captain sped forward, attempting to thread the needle between them, but the two curtains closed on us as we headed for shore. When you’re travelling at 35 or 40 miles an hour, raindrops feel like someone is throwing nuts and bolts at your face. The captain stopped the boat and grabbed some tarps from a hatch. We covered ourselves and made it back to the dock, soaked from the rain, but giddy from the experience.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Kennedy Space Center, Part 3

From the Apollo/Saturn V Center, we took another bus to the International Space Station building. My brother and I avoided the “space program propaganda film” by entering through a side door. The International Space Station exhibit consists of walk-through mockups of the modules that make up the space station. Each module is about the size of a cargo container, but cylindrical. There’s a central corridor, flanked on either side by standard-sized equipment bays. Everything on the space station must fit into one of these bays, including the bathroom.


I was amused by this bay, which contained only a window, prominently labeled.


Other bays contained computer equipment, science experiments and life support gear.



In one module, there was a refrigerator, a freezer and a galley, each fitted into the equipment bays. The space station modules all had a dreadful gray sameness about them that I found depressing.

After leaving the International Space Station exhibit, we caught the bus back to the visitor’s complex, and we walked over to what they call the “rocket garden.” This exhibit consists of numerous launch vehicles from the early days of the space program.


After visiting the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the collection of Mercury and Gemini-era rockets seemed ridiculously dinky and unimpressive. They looked like projects constructed by a few hobbyists in someone's back yard, which they planned to shoot off at Burning Man. It was difficult to imagine what technical achievements they represented, the army of scientists that produced them, and the massive audience that watched every launch.



I couldn’t help but notice the corrosion on one of the rockets.


Nearby was a Saturn 1B, the smaller cousin of the massive Saturn V.


For my brother, the big moment came when we stumbled upon this F-1 engine from the Saturn V. He stood, mesmerized by its size and complex system of pipes and conduits, wishing he could take it home, mount it in a big aluminum tube and shoot it off at Burning Man.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Kennedy Space Center, Part 2

After viewing the launch complex, we boarded the bus again. This time, the bus took us to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which is a long building about 4 stories tall. The bus dropped us in front of a pair of double doors, where we waited in the heat. Eventually, the doors opened, and everyone shuffled into a room with no seats, and we were forced to stand and endure what I can only call a “space program propaganda film.”

Once the film ended, we were herded through another set of doors into another room with no seats. In this room, there was a display of sixties-era control consoles from Apollo Mission Control, all of which were off – a mausoleum full of long-dead electronics.


Then, another space program propaganda film started. To my amazement, someone had wired up all of those consoles, which came to life with blinking lights and tiny black-and-white monitors.


However, once that film ended, I vowed not to stand through another one. Sure enough, if you look around before going in to an exhibit, you’ll find an entrance that bypasses the movie.

The doors finally opened, and we were admitted to the most awe-inspiring exhibit I have ever seen. Suspended horizontally above our heads was a gigantic Saturn V rocket. It’s as tall as a 36-story building. Each of these main engines is over 12 feet across.


My brother broke into a huge smile, thrilled and delighted.


We walked, gaping in wonder, down the length of the enormous machine. It was broken into stages, so that you could see each component of the launch vehicle in its entirety.




NASA clearly had some help with this exhibit, which was world-class. The presentation of the Saturn V was perfect, and the primary display was surrounded by side exhibits that would appeal to all kinds of audiences. I was intrigued by the display of things designed in the early stages of the space program, such as this helmet with multiple visors, and a spacesuit made like a suit of armor.



Compare that suit with this more contemporary Apollo mission spacesuit.


And there was this display of plaster casts of the hands of three Apollo astronauts, used to make custom-fitted gloves.


Nearby was the Apollo 14 command module, still scorched by re-entry 39 years ago.


And the inside of a Lunar Excursion Module.


The big exhibit for me was an actual sliver of moon rock that you could touch.


If you go to Kennedy Space Center, I recommend saving the Apollo/Saturn V Center for last. Once you’ve seen it, everything else seems lame by comparison, as you’ll learn in my next post.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Kennedy Space Center, Part 1

My brother, despite his struggle with mental illness, has always had an intense curiosity about electronics and mechanical things. You could never enter his room barefoot, because the floor was always covered with a clutter of resistors, capacitors and vacuum tubes.

It’s hard to get him to talk about his interests these days. He takes antipsychotic medication that causes him to stare into space with his mouth open until you ask him a question. If the topic of the discussion interests him, he can often participate with energy and wit, but once the conversation lags, he’s off in another world again.

I decided to take him to Kennedy Space Center. He hadn’t expressed an interest in seeing it, but I figured that something there would stimulate him. On the drive over, we talked a little bit about the space program, and I was shocked when he named all of the rockets used by NASA from the Mercury launches through the Apollo program.

Kennedy Space Center has a visitor’s complex that is loaded with the unpleasant hallmarks of a theme park.



Mixed in with the tourist crap are some impressive displays, including these full-scale mockups of a space shuttle and its booster/fuel tank assembly.


The displays are very detailed. The underside of the shuttle is covered with thermal tiles, each of which is numbered. This is because they’re all slightly different sizes and shapes, to fit the contours of the spacecraft.



Buses run from the visitor’s complex, depositing guests at various stops along the way. The first stop was a large viewing tower, from which you could see the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building.


Not too far away was the shuttle launch pad.


Off in the distance was another launch pad that is no longer being used for shuttle launches. Rather, it’s being refitted for the Orion program. Note the double-lane gravel road curving towards the gantry. That’s the road used by the massive crawling Mobile Launch Platform that carries rockets from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad. NASA is currently replacing all of the gravel, because the incredible weight of the Mobile Launch Platform has pulverized the gravel into dust, which hampers its operation.


As we climbed the tower for viewing these massive objects, my brother spied an exhibit of a shuttle engine.


“Oh wow!” he exclaimed, as we walked towards it. He then began naming parts of the insanely complicated rig, as though he worked on them in his spare time. But he had a bigger thrill later that day, as I’ll explain in my next post.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A One-Hour Cushion

I arranged for my schizophrenic brother, who I call “Dustin” in this blog, to come visit Florida for a couple of weeks. It’s not as simple as buying him a ticket. Someone has to help him pack, to make sure he brings underwear and a toothbrush. The nurse at his group home has to bottle and label 2 weeks’ worth of medication. Someone has to escort him to the gate, or he’ll just wander around in the airport. And we have to make sure he’s on a direct flight.

Of course, I had to arrange to meet him at the gate in Orlando, because there was no way he’d be able to find his way to baggage claim.

I drove to the airport after work to meet his plane, allowing a cushion of one hour in case some unforeseen problem arose. Which of course is exactly what happened.

As I left the office, I realized I didn’t have enough cash in my pocket to pay for the tolls I’d encounter on the way to the airport. This meant a quick run to the bank, where I dug my wallet out of my pocket to get my ATM card. This detour was merely an annoyance, not a serious problem.

Once I got to the airport, I parked in the parking garage. The parking garage is across the street from the terminal, so I had to walk to an elevator, take the elevator down below street level, cross the street in an underground tunnel, and take an escalator up to the ticketing area. The moment I set foot in the ticketing area, I realized that I had left the piece of paper with his reservation number sitting on the seat of my car.

Because the Orlando airport was designed by arrogant engineers with Cal Tech degrees who fly on private jets and never use passenger terminals, you can’t take an escalator down to the parking garage access tunnel. Why? Because it doesn’t exist. Instead, you have to wait in a throng of sweaty tourists with screaming kids for an elevator. Sometimes you have to wait for 2 or 3 of them before you can force your way into one.

Eventually, I got to the car, grabbed the paper I needed and retraced my steps all the way back to the ticketing area. I waited in a long line of sweaty tourists with screaming kids until I was finally called to talk to a ticketing agent.

“I need a gate pass to meet a disabled passenger,” I told her. “I arranged for it ahead of time.” I then triumphantly presented the reservation confirmation.

“Certainly sir,” she smiled. “May I see your photo ID?”

There is a certain feeling that you get at moments of incredible stupidity. It starts in the pit of your stomach, and rushes upwards like vomit, but ends up feeling more like someone smacked you in the face with a 2x4. I realized that in my haste to keep on schedule, I hadn’t replaced my wallet in my pocket after stopping at the bank – I had left it on the console in my car.

I was now running terribly late, but I had to return to the throng of sweaty tourists, force my way onto an elevator, cross to the parking garage, get my wallet, and return to the ticketing area. Once there, I had to wait in line again for a ticketing agent. The ticketing agent asked for my photo ID, of course, so I took it out of my wallet and handed it to her. And she dropped it. I watched in slow motion as my driver’s license fell from her grasp, and disappeared behind the computer monitor into a slot cut into the top of the ticketing counter. She stammered, and said, “I’m so sorry! I have to call a supervisor to unlock the equipment doors. This might take some time.”

Out of time, I stepped up onto the baggage scale and peered down through the slot. I could see my driver’s license resting on top of the computer housing, just within reach. I squeezed my hand through the slot into the forbidden equipment area, grabbed my driver’s license, and slapped it into her hand. She typed on the keyboard for what seemed like an hour, and then handed me the gate pass, with the wrong flight information printed on it.

“This is wrong,” I told her. “It’s the wrong flight.”

“I know, “ she replied. “It’s just how the system works, we can’t change it.”

“But is this the right gate for the flight I’m meeting?” I asked.

She looked at me as though I had somehow lost my mind, and then, as though explaining to a child, she said, “No, none of that information is correct. It’s just how the system works. We can’t change it.”

Trying not to scream my frustration, I asked her, “Then how am I supposed to know which gate?”

The ticketing agent then turned to her computer and typed for another half hour. “Gate 92 sir, have a nice flight.” I guess she forgot that I wasn’t going anywhere.

Frantic about the delay, I had to wait in the absurd security line, and hobble on my ancient, arthritic knees to the gate, where I arrived to discover that the plane was arriving 15 minutes earlier than scheduled. I made it just in time.


Dustin and I drove to my house, I grabbed a cold beer, slumped into a chair, and asked him to bring me his medication. Five minutes later, he came back and said, “I think we have a problem.”

Dustin has several medical issues besides schizophrenia. He takes about 8 different prescription medications a day. If he doesn’t, he could die. Somehow, while fumbling for his carry-on luggage, the paper bag containing all of his carefully bottled and labeled prescription medications fell out, and was now either in the trash or on its way to Michigan.

Fortunately, the next day I was able to contact his doctors and they called in replacement prescriptions to a local pharmacy. He’s only been here for two days, and I’m exhausted already.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Big Charles and the Fish Fry

Our hotel was kind of isolated, so if we wanted to go out to eat, we had to take a cab or ride a shuttle bus provided by the hotel into the Port Lucaya district. On one of the rides, the bus driver told us about a weekly event near Freeport called the Fish Fry.

It seems that a Bahamian woman owned three restaurants on a parcel of beachfront land at Smith Point. However, only one of the restaurants - the most successful - is actually on the beach; the other two sit back from the beach. The owner died two months ago and left the three restaurants to her children, who are now fiercely competing with one another for business.

Most of the time, they cater to tour package deals, and are not open to the public. But on Wednesday, all are welcome. At about 6 p.m., people start to arrive, and before long, there are 30 or 40 people waiting in line at the beachfront restaurant. The restaurants are very basic – shacks, really.

Diners eat right on the beach.


The fish are dipped into Bahamian-seasoned batter and fried whole.


I had the Red Snapper.


As people finish eating, they either go to the bar and hang out, or walk down to the water’s edge to hang out. The big crater is where they have a bonfire later in the evening.


When we finished eating, we hung around for a little while. It soon became obvious that after about 9 p.m., it turns into a young people’s scene, when the throbbing music and sweaty bodies on the dance floor took over. So we grabbed a cab back to our hotel, and the cabbie pulled into a gas station to fill up.

After he filled the tank, the driver pointed out a group of men sitting on a bench outside the gas station. “You see that fat guy?” he asked. “That’s Big Charles. He’s a police officer. If there is one person responsible for keeping peace on this island, that’s him. Big Charles don’t play.”

He then proceeded to regale us with stories about Big Charles. He told us that once, when he was about 12 years old, Big Charles came to his school, walked right into the classroom during a lesson, and grabbed a kid by the shirt collar. “Boy,” he bellowed, “You got to stop thievin’!” Apparently the kid had broken into a house, and had been identified by a neighbor. Big Charles dragged the kid out of the classroom, and gave him a terrifying lecture, accompanied by numerous swats to the side of the head. Whether the kid stopped breaking into houses is unknown, but every other child in that classroom got the message: Big Charles don’t play.

“If Big Charles catches some bad guys, he always shoots one,” the cab driver said. He then told us the story of a high school kid named Lamont. Lamont was an athlete in high school - a runner, and represented Grand Bahama Island in numerous competitions. Everybody knew Lamont as a good kid, but he fell in with some bad company. Two of Lamont’s friends robbed a store while Lamont drove getaway. The getaway car broke down, and Big Charles found them. Big Charles cuffed the other two, turned to Lamont and said one word: “Run.” Lamont took off like a rocket, knowing full well what was coming. Big Charles shot him in the leg, and Lamont doesn’t run anymore.

“We don’t have a shooting range on Grand Bahama Island,” the cab driver explained. “So Big Charles practices on criminals.”

The Fish Fry doesn't end until 3 a.m. Uniformed police hang out to make sure there’s no trouble. But all they really need is Big Charles.