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Another Kind of Broken Heart or Facing It Down at the Gym

It’s been lurking over my head like the Sword of Damocles for years. It started in 1966, just an ordinary day when I was a junior in high school. I was in a study hall in the cafeteria with a friend, when another kid, clearly a messenger type, came over:
“Mr. West wants to see you.”
My friend laughed. “Oh. Oh. You’re in trouble!” Mr. West was the principal.
But I wasn’t in trouble. At least not the disciplinary kind that usually led to an “audience” with the principal. No. Mr. West asked me to sit down. Then he told me that my father, a history teacher in the school, had a heart attack while teaching. I learned later that Mr. West had given him mouth to mouth resuscitation.
The changes in my family life were swift after his heart attack. The cigarette smell in the house disappeared. And all these years later, what really sticks in my mind is how our time-honored early Sunday afternoon Italian dinner changed instantly. It became a shell of what it once was: Most of the ingredients that gave my mother’s mouth-watering tomato sauce its flavor disappeared: Gone were the meatballs, the sausage, the pork, the hardboiled eggs, the salt. We all adjusted to the forced changes in our world. Except for my father. I believe his heart attack was the last straw: Between my first and eleventh years on Earth, he suffered five operations for kidney stones. After this heart attack, he seemed to become a shell of the laughing, joyful father I used to know.
Five years later, he underwent coronary bypass surgery to save his life at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. It did…temporarily. Four years later, at fifty-four, I found him dead of a massive heart attack on his favorite chair. “Your father lived a life of hell,” my father’s doctor said to me after he died. The sword of Damocles dangled over my head just a little more.
It was harder this time; but my mother, my brother and I adjusted again. Taking care of my father had been my mother’s life. Now she was alone. She had her job; but could find no real purpose. And then she got sick. A diabetic, she suffered a stroke when she was sixty. Ten years later, she started to feel pain in her jaw and right shoulder and underwent a cardiac catheterization, after which her doctor told me “Your mother is in grave danger.” They took her by ambulance to a hospital from our local hospital to Beth Israel in Newark, New Jersey that night, where she underwent surgery the next morning to save her from the same fate as my father. It didn’t. She survived the surgery; but not the infection that consumed her. I’m not sure I ever felt more helpless as I sat day after day next to her bed as she languished on a ventilator. I don’t remember what made me think of it, but I came back one day with a recorder and played Frank Sinatra music for her. And in one of those musical moments in her room, lit only by the dim lights from the hallway, I was sitting next to her, staring at her beautiful face, and I still swear I saw her eyes smile.
When the brutal truth that she wouldn’t survive hit us, my brother and I got a chance to say goodbye alone. I didn’t plan on it; but I recounted my life with her, and told her I was sorry for anything I had done that hurt her, and asked her forgiveness. And when she immediately shook her head yes, which I knew she would do, I was her baby, she always protected me. And even then, in the few remaining moments before the end of her, she still protected me. She died an hour later, as my brother and I stared at the monitor’s flat line of extinction. And I remember thinking the machine would have gone on forever telling us she was dead, if the nurse hadn’t finally shut it off. And the sword…

I told one of my doctor about ten years ago that I didn’t smoke three packs a day or eat salami sandwiches at two in the morning like my father so I believed I could avoid his fate. But he said “I know. But you still have those genes.” I knew he was right. It would be my turn someday, I imagined.
Today, I live with my wife Alexis as vegetarians and I exercise strenuously at a gym five days a week. Fear, for me, has been a great motivator. A few weeks ago, I started going to a new doctor and when I told him about my family history, he said “you have a lot going on with those genes” and ordered some tests. One was a CT Scan with Calcium Scoring. When the results came in, he told me that I was a high risk for a heart attack, and that I had significant calcium buildup in the left anterior descending artery. The slang for that artery is crushing: “The widow maker.” I was in shock for two days. I lived under a dark cloud. Yet it confirmed what the cynical part of me seemed to know, that no matter what I did or how well I took care of myself, that the death sentence my mother and family had was coming for me, that my family history had finally come home to roost.
That night, I woke up at four in the morning and was alone in the cavernous space inside my head, even though my wife Alexis and our dog Sophia were on the same bed. My anxiety soared like a Saturn rocket. For the first time in my life, I saw my death not as some abstract future event but as a reality staring me in the face. I felt mentally naked. Helpless against this invisible killer. My life was in the hands of some mysterious bodily process, devoid of human empathy, a droning workmanlike march that would lead to my extinction. In my ruminating that night, I had no control of my mind, as it wandered in the dark and quiet of the night, ravaging me with all of my failures and regrets. I didn’t need a near-death experience to see my life flashing in front of me. It came at me like a meteor shower. Somewhere in the midst of my anguish, I saw my father lying dead in his favorite chair and my mother dead with the ventilator still lodged in her mouth and the monitor flat lining. Where would I be when it happened? When would I feel the shortness of breath, the radiating pain in my left arm, the crushing pressure on my chest, and what would the last few seconds of consciousness be like, when the horror strikes that you can no longer breath? My impending death that night seemed inevitable. I hoped it would be quick for me as I hoped it had been for my father. It hadn’t been for my mother.
“Is this reversible?” I asked my new doctor after we talked about the calcium scan results. He just shook his head no: “This is sixty-eight years of buildup.” I had an immediate image of my arteries stockpiling dangerous calcium deposits while I cavorted through life, and when he explained the different risks of the hard and soft plaque, I understood why they could unleash a catastrophe inside me. At any time.
There is something hard to explain about how I felt with the sudden realization that I could die at any moment from a heart attack. Insignificant events seemed important, as if they were magnified under a microscope. I actually felt more alive. Each moment seemed precious. While at the same time, even the most joyous events were tarnished. And so these days I find myself hugging Alexis more. And I worry about leaving her alone after I’m gone.
“I know you’re going to be alright,” She tells me over and over. There is a certainty in her voice that makes me want to believe her with all my heart. Her optimism consumes me and lifts my spirits. And I feel great physically, regardless of this invisible threat. Two mornings later, her optimism was in my thoughts as I fearfully stepped foot into the gym for the first time since I found out. I’m not sure when it happened or why; but I felt an urge to take charge. I couldn’t accept this threat passively while I was sitting on an elliptical trainer. It was the place I really pushed myself. As I started to warm up, the fear subsided and I began to push myself harder. And harder. Before long, my heart was pumping over 140 for each 30-second interval. I pushed like this during my entire 30-minute workout. At one point, I thought about what my new doctor had said about exercising: “Just don’t push yourself too much until we find out more.”
Fuck it, I thought. If I’m gonna’ die of a sudden heart attack, at least this gives me some control over where and when. Let me induce this fucker, challenge it, look it right in its coronary eye and push my heart into overdrive, get the blood flowing like a tidal surge after a hurricane, crashing through plaque, cholesterol and anything else. I’ve been pushing every day since, and I feel a thousand times better about my condition.
So in a few days, I’m going for that Coronary CTA scan to find out the percentage of blockage in my major arteries. I got a call from a nurse to ask me some questions and to tell me how to prepare:
“Do you have any chest pain or shortness of breath?”
“Have you ever had a heart attack?”
“Have you ever had angioplasty?”
“Have you ever had a stent?”
“Have you ever had cardiac surgery?”
“Do you have diabetes?”
“Do you have high blood pressure?”
“Have you ever had a stroke.”
“May I ask why your doctor ordered this scan. Usually people have some symptoms.”
“Family history,” I said.
“Oh. Okay. You have to come two hours early because we will put you on an I.V. Then they will inject you with iodine. You’ll feel a bit warm after this.”
During that first sleepless night, I wrote a last will and testament so Alexis would know, above all else, that during my cremation funeral service I wanted just three things: A Philip Glass musical piece called “Facades;” my guitarist friend Ed playing Neil Young’s “Old Man;” and absolutely no sign of anything religious. While I really did want those things, I had to inject some humor, because it was the only way to relieve the anxiety.
I’m ready for this new scan. I approach it with confidence. But even if there is another shock in store for me, if after the scan they tell me that I have major blockages in my coronary arteries, and that I’m in grave danger as others told my mother years ago, here’s what I’ll say:
“Fuck it. I’m going to the gym right now.” I ain’t going under the knife while I feel so good. Instead, I’ll keep facing it down at the gym.


It’s Only a Matter of Time…

The free press. Nixon learned what it can do. And he was a savvy politician. A political neophyte like Trump is no match for the Press. Reporters are everywhere, watching, like a dog with a bone, ever vigilant to expose his secret machinations. They shine the “floodlights” on his every act, exposing him to the American people. His pathetic characterization of the “fake news” media is laughable. It only drives them harder.

Then there is Congress. Transforming before our eyes, flexing its legislative muscle. It happened during Watergate, when loyalty to a political party slipped away in favor of patriotism. It’s happening again.

It was the foresight of Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and others to protect the people by placing Congress on an equal footing with the presidency, to limit the power of the president…as if they knew that Russia would be coming someday.

Exposed by the Press; handcuffed by Congress, Trump now stands naked in front of the investigative and prosecutorial dream team led by Robert Mueller. It’s only a matter of time…


How Poison Ivy can help the Russia Investigation

I’m suffering through an attack of poison ivy. To say that the itch from a mosquito bite and the itch from poison ivy have something in common is like saying a firecracker and a nuclear bomb are both hot.  To say, “don’t scratch that itch!” is like saying don’t drink water after you’ve been stumbling around lost in Death Valley all day.

Steroidal cream, prednisone, Calamine lotion, Benadryl. I’ve got them all in the works! It’s still spreading, and what concerns me is that gravity has the rash making a beeline for my groin area…and the itch continues, and I don’t want to be caught scratching my genitals in public.

But I’m not looking for your sympathy. I have an idea for Robert Mueller in his investigation of Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election. Got a person of interest who refuses to talk? Hiding behind the fifth amendment? Begging for immunity from prosecution?

“So, you won’t talk?” Special prosecutor Mueller asks.


“Okay.” Take a look at this picture.”


“Hey Joe. Bring in the poison ivy plants,” Mueller orders.

“Okay! Okay! I’ll talk. But please don’t give me poison ivy!*

“Turn the recorder on Rosemary.”


*Not really torture. Let’s call it VPT (A vegetarian persuasive technique).

What My 50th High School Reunion Meant

There we were. A bunch of kids transformed into old men and women by fifty years of living. It’s hard to believe, but with the exception of my friends Ed and Nick, I hadn’t seen any of them in half a century. As I wrote in a poem prior to going, for those few hours, we were young again. Old stories in high school, buried in the archives of our memories, suddenly were front and center. New memories were created. Maybe even new relationships. I remember talking to people whom I didn’t talk to in high school, because we travelled in different circles. But we all walked in the same hallways and classrooms and had many of the same teachers and coaches, so we had that in common.

And when I talked to people I knew then, I saw that they weren’t different. That whatever happened in their lives, they hadn’t really changed. And the heart-break that is part of living, didn’t show…at least for that night. In a way that seemed magical, they became the kids I knew in high school.

And the people who were gone – on display in our memorial – were a stark reminder not only about the shortness of life; but that we are fortunate for the time we still have. I could hear my friend  and classmate John, gone two years, say to me, “Don’t waste it!”

I know I’ll never see most of them again. But for those few hours, we revived a lost world…and were young again. It was a rare opportunity that I’m glad I didn’t miss.


What do Conservatives Want to Conserve?

Conservative: Tending to emphasize the importance of preserving traditional cultural and religious values, and to oppose change, esp. sudden change. – Cambridge Dictionary

There are definitely things worth conserving. As long as that conservation doesn’t fly in the face of facts…or preserve the discrimination of groups of people. I do a lot of wondering about this. For example…

I wonder how long it took conservatives of the time to accept that the Earth is a sphere, an idea first put forth by Pythagoras in Ancient Greece?


I wonder how long it took conservatives in Copernicus’s time, to accept that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the Solar System?


I wonder how long it took conservatives after the 1956 call for massive resistance to the civil rights movement to accept civil rights, even as they slowed progress toward this goal?


I wonder how long it will take conservatives in our time to accept equal rights for the LGBTQ community, even as they slow progress toward this goal?


I wonder how long it will take conservatives in our time to accept the science that human activity is changing the climate of Earth and endangering human existence, even as they slow progress toward this goal?

Climate change

I really do wonder…

Because the conservative road, according to history, could lead to a dead-end.

Breaking News: Andrew Jackson Supports Donald Trump!

Recently, CNN reporter Coyote Spritzer travelled back in time to visit former President Jackson at his home, The Hermitage, in Tennessee.

Coyote Spritzer: Mr. President, you said you have experience removing large numbers of people, and could advise Republican candidate Donald Trump on how to do it. I’m referring, of course, to the Indian Removal Act that you signed in 1830, which led to the “Trail of Tears.”


The Trail of Tears

President Jackson: Trail of Tears? That’s what the media calls it. Believe me, there were no tears. I saved the Cherokee by removing them. A tremendous number of Americans were crossing the Appalachians. They were coming like a colony of red ants. They needed a place to live. Many people wrote to me and said, hey Andrew, you have to get rid of those Indians. I was humane. I made them leave or the settlers  would have killed them. That I can tell you. Believe me. I support Mr. Trump’s plan to get rid of illegal Mexicans.

Coyote Spritzer: But many Cherokee died on the way to Oklahoma. Do you feel bad about that?

President Jackson: Listen. More would have died if they stayed. Besides, nobody liked the Cherokee. That I can tell you. Go talk to the Choctaw Indians. They hate the Cherokee. They tell me the women are fat and the men are lazy and just go around smoking tobacco.

Coyote Spritzer: But it was their home. They had a sophisticated government and a written language. They were one of the five “civilized” tribes.

President Jackson: Gimme a break. They wrote a few words down on parchment. Listen. They were going around banging on drums and sending up smoke signals. Civilized? Plus, you go to the Indian country now. Oklahoma? Where the hell did that name come from? You talk to the Cherokee. They all love me. Many of them write to me and tell me how happy they are that I removed their ancestors.

Coyote Spritzer: So tell me what advice you would give Mr. Trump about his plan to remove more than eleven million illegal aliens from the United States?

President Jackson: It’s simple. You get an army together and you get them the hell out of here!  I know more than the generals do on how to do this. Believe me. Those Mexicans have to go. That I can tell you.

Coyote Spritzer: But you were a general, Mr. President, and you tried to get the Seminole Indians in Florida to leave as well. What happened?



President Jackson: You can’t blame me for that! You know that the Spanish owned Florida first, right? They pampered those Indians and made them feel like they belonged there. Many people in Florida wrote to me saying get these Indians out of here! They’re thieves and rapists and they kill all the birds to make headdresses.

Coyote Spritzer: So why weren’t you successful in removing them?

President Jackson: Are you kidding me? You ever been to Florida? They ran into the goddamn swamp. It’s all swamps down there. White people hate swamps. They wouldn’t live there. So I said, fine. Let the Indians live with the alligators and mosquitos. I’ll tell you what. Go there today and talk to the Seminole. They love me down there. They actually come and put flowers on my grave here at the Hermitage. That I can tell you.

Coyote Spritzer: So you think if Mr. Trump wins, he can successfully remove all those people?

President Jackson: If he takes my advice. Of course, I won’t get any credit for it. I still haven’t gotten enough credit for all the Indians I got rid of. Believe me.

Coyote Spritzer: But you’re dead Mr. President! Why do you want credit?

President Jackson: What does that have to do with it? I still want the credit!


Tribes subjected to Removal

What Should America be?


Trump is a rascal

A grown-up Eddie Haskell

He would build a wall between us and Mexico

While Hillary takes money from Texaco

Trump doesn’t give a damn about facts

And Hillary sold herself to Goldman-Sachs

The truth is dead, lying on a gurney

So whatever happened to Bernie?

Flawed candidates, no doubt. So whom will I vote for? It’s easy for me, because ultimately it’s about more than the candidates. They represent two vastly different philosophies of life. Two visions of America.

Here’s my vision for America:

  • I want to see equal rights for all Americans. I don’t care how they look, where they came from, what their sexual orientation is…or anything else.
  • I want to see action on the most serious problem of our time – global warming. To hear Trump say that it’s a Chinese hoax is appalling.
  • I want to see a thoughtful and humane solution to the immigration problem. Building a wall is as offensive to me as the Berlin wall was to the world.
  • I want to see common sense gun control. Period. Fuck the NRA.
  • I’m sick of trickle-down economics and its time-honored tax breaks for the rich. It’s never worked. Except for the rich.
  • I want to see policies that promote the growth of the middle class.
  • I want a country that tackles poverty and racism head on.
  • I want to see a serious respect for science.
  • I want to see religion out of politics, as the founders intended. Christian extremism is as dangerous as other types of extremism.
  • I want to see the role of money in elections reduced – and Citizens United overturned.
  • I want to see term limits for Congress.

Hillary Clinton is certainly not George Washington. But if you believe as I do, you must vote for her, or put the country in the hands of a power-hungry narcissist and a Christian evangelist who once proclaimed that cigarettes don’t kill.

What’s your vision for America?

Can Trump Make America Great “Again?”

I have a problem with Trump’s campaign slogan. The problematic word is ‘again.’ In my view, America has to be great for all of its people to be really great.  Has it ever been that way? Trump isn’t specific about when America was great; but it’s a good guess that he means during the economic boom following World War II and beyond.

Let me point out a few groups for which America wasn’t so great back then:

It wasn’t great for African-Americans in so many ways I don’t have enough space to write about them. But here’s a few: Yes, Jackie Robinson was playing ball in the majors; but black people couldn’t use the “whites only” bathrooms in many of the stadiums in which they went to see him play. And they couldn’t vote or eat in the same restaurants as their fellow white citizens…in large swaths of America.


And it wasn’t great for gay people, because they had to hide in “closets” to avoid being bullied, beaten, killed or coerced into “cures” for homosexuality.


1953 Thinking

And it wasn’t great for many women who had to hide from the sexual advances of their bosses at work or the abuse of their husbands at home, because they had little financial means to escape from either. How many of them numbed themselves with Miltown?


And it wasn’t great for many catholic schoolboys, because they had to hide from priests who coveted them sexually as they preached the word of God and while church “fathers” turned a blind eye.


And it wasn’t great for many African-American WWII soldiers who came home and wanted a bit of the American dream by owning a small house to raise their families. Levittown, that great post war social experiment, was perfect for returning soldiers – but only if you were white.



Whew! America’s greatness excluded millions of Americans, didn’t it?

So who did enjoy its greatness? For the most part, white heterosexual men who could take advantage of the open road of opportunity called the American Dream.

Until that road is open to all Americans, it can never be really great. It never was, by this definition. I believe Trump’s greatness has more to do with American power and influence in the world of nations and little to do with quality of life and equal opportunity for its people. There is a balance we can achieve and find greatness in both.

I don’t believe that Mr. Trump gives a damned about balanced greatness. So I say I don’t want you as our leader.

What do you say?

The Door that Keeps Opening

Justice Antonin Scalia called yesterday’s Supreme Court Decision on same-sex marriage a “threat to democracy.”

Here’s a guy who defended the Supreme Court decision to allow the super rich to pour millions into campaigns to get their candidates elected – called Citizen’s United. Now that’s a threat to democracy.

Let me put this up here, just in case Justice Scalia hasn’t read this in recent years:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Mike Huckabee, would-be President:

“I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.”

Mike would have been jumping for joy if the Supreme Court had ruled against same-sex marriage. Take your ball and go home Mike, like any spoiled kid who doesn’t get his way.

Let me put this up here for Mike, just in case he hasn’t read this in recent years:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron said that catholic bishops would continue to teach that marriage remains solely between a man and a woman. But the Catholic Conference of Bishops also urged “compassion for gay individuals.”


That’s like saying we’re going to keep you in chains; but we will give you good food to eat.

Let me put this up here for Bishop Vigneron and all the other catholic bishops who urge compassion for gay people. Just in case they haven’t read this in recent years:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And for the Republican candidates for President who threaten to push for a constitutional amendment to allow states to deny same-sex marriage, maybe they haven’t read this in recent years:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And for all those who purport to know what God intended or to point to history or religion or whatever cockamamie justification you use to try to keep the door shut on full equality for all people, the door keeps opening. And while it’s not yet open enough for everyone to walk through – all you can do, as you have always done – is to stand behind the door and try to push it until it closes.

You know who you are. You have always been on the wrong side of history; a.k.a. – The Door… that keeps opening.


Cuba Mc-Libre?

Lately, there’s been a salivating epidemic in America. But curiously, it affects only CEOs of major American corporations. And it’s not because of the aroma wafting through their corporate food courts. It’s because they smell a gigantic untapped market of over 12,000,000 people. We call them Cubans.

Since Presidents Obama and Castro met and forged a new direction for their countries, the salivating CEO’s want to forge a new relationship with the Cuban people. It would go something like this:

We sell a lot: You buy a lot. We make jobs for you; you buy even more.

Fast-forward a bunch a years to a free Cuba. One of the triumphs of freedom, of course, is freedom of choice. And the choices for the Cuban people will go something like this:

Want a burger? No problem. Big Mac or a Whopper. There’s a McDonald’s or Burger King on every block. Want to try some Mexican food to expand your palate? No problem: Chi-Chi’s or Taco Bell. Want some Italian food? No problem: Olive Garden or Pizza Hut. You live on an island. Want to try something new from the sea? No problem. Red Lobster or Long John Silver’s.


Need a new dress? No problem. Check out JCPenney or Macy’s. Need some tools to fix up your house? No problem. There’s a Home Depot or Lowe’s in your town. You say you need a one-stop shopping place? No problem. Wal-Mart is everywhere! And if you crave a good cup of Cuban coffee? No problem. Just walk over to Starbucks and try their Cuban Blend.

Even with the most private issues, the salivating CEOs will give you the freedom of choice. Men – can’t get it up anymore? No problem. Just go to CVS or Rite Aid and get your prescription for Cialis or Viagra. Are you depressed? No problem. Get your Lexapro or Cymbalta or Prozac or nine million other antidepressants and be like Americans. What? They don’t work for you? No problem. Top off your antidepressant with Abilify.


It’s incredible how far we’ve come since the Cuban Missile Crisis, isn’t it? Too young to remember it? No problem. “Thirteen Days in October“ will be coming soon to a Regal or AMC cinema near you. Buy some popcorn, drink a coke, sit back and watch the movie.

Enjoy the freedom of choice – just like an American.


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