Thursday, May 31, 2012

George Clooney, We Hardly Knew Ye...

Recently, I had the dubious opportunity to check out our local hospital emergency room. According to statistics from a 2010 New York Times article, one in five Americans visits the ER every year. For people over 75, it's one in four. I can certainly attest to that, as I've spent a few long days in the ER with my 86-year-old motheronce when she broke her toe and another time when she was feeling fatigued. As fate would have it, this time the ER bell tolled for me. Why? Because my doctor couldn't see me and strongly suggested that we make use of the ER rather than waiting a day.

“The advantage that hospitals have over other institutions is that hospitals are community-based. You can't outsource your work; you can't move your emergency department to Pakistan.Mark Shields

Steve drove me there. We arrived at the ER at 8:15 in the morning, figuring we would be there for three or four hours and then return home with the problem solved. (Just like George Clooney used to do on television.) How naively optimistic. We waited more than an hour to get registered. That's because there were two cardiac-arrest patients already in the ER struggling for their lives. Everyone gladly deferred to those poor individuals.

Eventually, we were admitted, but because the ER was so overflowing with patients, I lay on a gurney between two nursing stations. It did not allow for much privacy but did offer a ringside seat for everything going on.

A panicked mother arrived in bare feet and pajamas, clutching a five-day-old infant who wasn't breathing properly. A man in a gurney next to me had taken a medication and had a potentially llife-threatening reaction involving rashes and a swollen face and neck. A 95-year-old woman demonstrated surprising lung capacity by screaming loudly for hours, primarily because she appeared to be senile. Another man, who I coincidentally knew from my freelance work, came in with a bad reaction to a new blood-pressure medication. (Small world.) And one man who had been rushed in by an ambulance crew, we overheard, would require a priest.

My husband, Steve, watched an electronic board that listed us all by room number (I had none), age, doctor, and elapsed time since we were admitted. Our total time in the ER clocked out at about six hours, 45 minutes because the doctor was too busy with serious cases to review my tests. Several other not-all-that-serious patients were held hostage to the same low-priority paperwork dilemma. But the staff was good-humored and did their best. My nurse, Susan, cheerfully explained to me that the air bubbles in my IV tube would not kill me because they were too small. Very reassuring.

Every once in a while, we would hear the opening chords of Brahm's lullaby. We later found out that they play those chords on the intercom whenever a baby is born in their maternity ward. About four babies came into the world during our stay.

“There is something so settled and stodgy about turning a great romance into next of kin on an emergency room form, and something so soothing and special, too.Anna Quindlen

Alas, George was not there.
Before I left, I saw the young mother wheeled out with her properly breathing baby in her arms and a relieved husband following. My hallway gurney mate with the allergic reaction was better and awaiting discharge. The screaming old woman was given oxygen, which seemed to immediately calm her down and restore her sanity. On the way out the door, I stopped in and wished my friend a speedy recovery.

Sadly, George Clooney was off that day. My husband amused one of the nurses by remarking sarcastically that I was a great date.

As for me, fortunately, it was nothing seriousjust dehydration from the unseasonably warm weather in May. The remedy was to drink more water and turn up the air conditioner when we sleep. And so ended our eventful and excruciatingly long episode of ER.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Ring Cycle (or) Never Take Gold from a Stranger...

Everyone has a bucket list, and one of the items on mine—and my husband, Steve’s—is seeing Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, known as the Ring Cycle. (Literally, it means the ring of the Nibelungen, a race of dwarves who live underground.) For those who are not familiar with opera, Wagner was an EXTREME composer who wrote a four-part opera that runs 16 hours. Only the strong can last through the entire series. We could not afford to see the Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but fortunately, the Met version was filmed and shown at our local movie theater so that impoverished opera fans, such as we, could enjoy it.

The operas premiered between 1869 and 1876 in Munich and Bayreuth, Germany, both of which are in Bavaria, where they drink lots of beer and wear lederhosen. The composer, Wilhelm Richard Wagner, led a life characterized by political exile, stormy love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His Ring Cycle takes four days to see in its entirety. The story is about the downfall of the Norse gods and it is a combination of Lord of the Rings, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword and the Stone, The Towering Inferno and The Days of Our Lives (Norse style) all wrapped up into one.

The Rhinemaidens from the original Das Reingold production.
Part One—Das Reingold (the gold of the Rhine River) is about three snarky Rhinemaidens who guard a hoard of gold at the bottom of the Rhine River, and an angry dwarf, Alberich, who steals it from them.  Alberich forges a magical ring and helmet from the gold, and tries to take over the world. At the same time, the Norse gods have hired two giants to build Valhalla, a castle on a high mountain where the gods plan to live. (It is not clear where the gods were sacking out before then, but they seem pretty excited about having a house.)

Wotan, leader of the Norse gods, promises the giants one of his daughters, the Goddess of Youth, as payment for the house. (After all, a woman is a woman, but a castle is a place with indoor chamber pots and tuberculosis.) Then some of her brothers point out to dad that if the Goddess of Youth leaves, no one will be able to maintain the enchanted apple trees which give them all eternal life. (Got to think these things through, Wotan. Real estate is not always a good investment, especially versus immortality.) So Wotan and the trickster Fire God, Loge, steal the dwarf’s gold (after all, it was already stolen) and re-gift it to the giants in lieu of Wotan’s daughter. (The dwarf, naturally, has cursed the gold ring so whoever wears it is somewhat doomed.)

One giant puts the golden ring on his finger, decides he doesn’t want to share the rest of the gold and kills the other giant, who is his brother. He finds a cave on the edge of the forest, turns himself into a dragon—because the helmet has magical powers—and makes a career of guarding his gold.

The Valkyries, circa 1870: Wotan's goddess daughters rode
    into battle to bring the souls of dead heroes back to Valhalla..
Part Two—Die Walküre (the Valkyries) is about a brother, Siegmund, and sister, Sieglinde, who fall in love and want to get married, but Sieglinde is already married to a horrible man who kidnapped her when he burned the family house down and killed their mother. And you thought The Housewives of New Jersey was lurid? Coincidentally, Siegmund and Sieglinde are the children of Wotan and a woman he fooled around with behind his wife’s back.

Wotan’s wife, Fricka, who is also the Goddess of Marriage, is not very happy about the incest thing or the violation of Sieglinde’s “sacred” marriage. So Fricka makes Wotan promise he will not help Siegmund in battle against the angry husband. Wotan has left a magical sword imbedded in a tree trunk—a phallic symbol that only Siegmund can extract. But Wotan will have to break that sword and let Sieglinde’s horrible husband impale Siegmund. Eventually, that’s what happens, but not before one of Wotan’s Valkyrie daughters, Brünnhilde, tries to save the incestuous young lovers because she knows that’s what her father really wanted.

(Yes, this is very complex and it gets even worse.) For trying to help the young couple, Brünnhilde is punished by Wotan. She is stripped of her immortality and left in a sleep state, and can only be awakened by a man who knows no fear. (In today’s world, such a man would be known as a psychopath, but in ancient Norse times, he was revered.) The last thing Brünnhilde does before she is left comatose on a mountaintop is to send Sieglinde off to a remote forest because she is pregnant with her dead brother’s baby. (Reality shows be damned!) Thus ends part two.

Part Three—Siegfried, is about that baby. An ugly dwarf, Mime, steals the baby, Siegfried, from Sieglinde while she lies dying after childbirth. He also steals the enchanted broken sword from Sieglinde that Siegfried’s father wielded in his fatal battle. (Coincidentally, Mime is the brother of the dwarf, Alberich, who originally stole the Reingold.) 

Mime knows, somehow, that Siegfried will grow up to kill the dragon guarding the gold and he wants to control Siegfried to get to that fortune. Siegfried melts down the broken sword and forges a new one. Then he runs off and kills the dragon. Upon tasting the dragon’s blood on his sword, he is imbued with the ability to understand people’s thoughts, at least for one scene. He learns his dwarf “father,” Mime, hates him and intends to poison him and take all the gold. So Siegfried runs him in with the magical sword (like any self-respecting psychopath) and goes merrily on his way to find his sleeping bride, whom he learned about from a magical talking bird. He finds Brünnhilde, wakes her with a kiss, and they fall in love. Naturally, there is much singing.

Wagner in one of his happier moments.
Part Four—is Götterdämmerung (the twilight of the gods). Siegfried gives his cursed gold ring to Brünnhilde and she gives him her steed, Grane, who has slept along with her all these years. (Grane wakes up when Brünnhilde does. As far as the viewer knows, Siegfried does not have to revive the horse with a kiss.) Siegfried rides off into the world to do heroic deeds. He’s given a potion to forget Brünnhilde by a sister and brother who want to marry Siegfried and Brünnhilde, respectively. It’s very complicated, but it all boils down to this: Siegfried is stabbed to death, Brünnhilde builds a funeral a pyre for him and jumps into it, and Valhalla and the gods are engulfed in fire. The only happy campers in the end are the Rhinemaidens, who finally, after four days of opera, get their gold ring back and sing joyfully about it. Karma, I guess.

And there you have it. So what have we learned from this larger-than-life soap opera of the gods encompassing sex, power, betrayal, incest, deception, murder and self-immolation—all sung to 16 hours of powerhouse music? If you’re walking along the Rhine River in Germany and see three snarky Rhinemaidens goofing off when they ought to be guarding their gold, back away slowly….

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Riding Out in that Shiny Car in the Night

I recently saw an article on the Internet that seemed too tabloid-like to be true. Sadly, it may have some shred of credibility.

Essentially, the author, Mike Adams of wrote: “…Fukushima reactor No. 4… is on the verge of a catastrophic failure…. The resulting releasing of radiation would turn North America into a ‘dead zone’… from an earthquake in Japan. Such an event could result in the release of 85 times the Cesium-137 released by the Chernobyl catastrophe, say experts.” As you may know, the weather patterns would carry that deadly radiation over to North America on the wind.

“The winds that blow through the wide sky in these mounts, the winds that sweep from Canada to Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic—have always blown on free men.”—Franklin D. Roosevelt

Fortunately, Japan has been relatively quiet lately in the seismic sense. But what if a substantial earthquake occurred before the Japanese had a chance to take care of business at Fukushima reactor No. 4? And what’s taking them so long, anyway? Since Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, that would make North America uninhabitable for, oh, say, about 100 or more years.

That got me to thinking. Let’s say that North America reaped some strange karma by being exposed to radiation poisoning by the people who endured the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki toward the end of World War II. What would be the consequences of the demise of Canada, the United States and Mexico? Well, I can’t speak for Canada or Mexico, but here are a few thoughts about a post-mortem United States of America.

"Despite the goings-on in Congress, I don't believe the USA is bordering on madness. I believe Mexico and Canada are."Robert Brault

On the bright side, as the highest-volume consumers of natural resources, our extinction would have an immediate, positive impact on the environment. However, we are by no means the most populated country in the world, and China and India—fast-developing countries—would eventually fill our shoes in that respect.

Another high note: Monsanto would be dealt a powerful blow and the possibility exists that the rest of the world might gang up on whatever Monsanto employees were left in satellite countries and end their GMO adulteration of our food supplies for good. Then, at least, we will not have made the ultimate sacrifice in vain.

Countries could form their foreign and monetary policies without worrying about repercussions from a testy United States. That could be good or bad, depending on if you are a woman in Afghanistan (our parting agreement there requires women’s human rights be safeguarded), a Chinese government official responsible for buying U.S. debt (that will now never be repaid), or a rival non-USA corporation that will inherit tremendous market share.

What about the joy of blaming the United States for everything bad in the world? With our country gone, the call for blood-thirsty Death-to-America Jihads and the general distaste for our arrogant corporate and political agendas would be deflated like an old party balloon. The remaining world population would have no one to blame but themselves. Not a pleasant prospect.

“If you want a symbolic gesture, don't burn the flag; wash it.” —Norman Thomas

There’s a lot to resent about the United States, but I think there would also be many things that people would miss. No more overseas shopping jaunts to New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles. No more Disneyland or Disneyworld—the parent company of the overseas versions would be deceased. No more touring our magnificent western geography or placing your hands in the cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. No more blockbuster movies or American television—good or bad, depending upon your tastes. No more home-grown jazz, soul or R&B.

The magnificent Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA.
Since the United States is composed not only of native Americans (the people from whom we stole all the land) but also of people from nearly every nation in the world, there might be cause for some international grieving. People might even become sentimental about us, the way people often do at a funeral, regardless of the deceased's actual character. 

My father’s family arrived here from Hungary. My best friend in high school was born in Italy. My co-workers were born in India, Mexico, Egypt, South America, Europe, Japan and China. Americans may be spoiled children, of sorts, but we’re related to just about everyone out there. So, world, if you lose us, remember, you’re losing a small piece of yourself.

“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”—Jack Kerouac

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Buddha in the Window

“Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.—Buddha

Front: Buddha I spotted when I was 13.
Right: Wooden Buddha that came with house.

I really can’t explain why, but I have always been attracted to Buddha figurines and Buddhist doctrine. They possess some inexplicable lure. Even when I was only 13 and had no idea what Buddhism was, I was drawn to buy a small incense burner of Buddha, which I still have to this day. The doctrine appeals to me because it is nonjudgmental (we’re all on the path to enlightenment, some people are ahead of us, some behind), teaches personal responsibility (aka karma) and suggests that it is incumbent upon us all to relieve the suffering of others if we can (the doctrine of compassion). I can’t say I’m a devout Buddhist. I’m actually quite a miserable one. But luckily, there is no requirement to be anything in Buddhism. The goal, in fact, is not to be. So that works for me.

Buddha with the laughing eyes.
It seems wherever I go, Buddha shows up and stares at me with puppy eyes. “Please take me home,” he seems to say. Always, when I least expect it. When we moved into our current house, we discovered a wooden Buddha half buried in mud in a shed in the back yard. I washed it off, rubbed it with teak oil and it looked like new. I have no idea how long it had been out there, but the elements did not appear to have damaged it.

“Buddha Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism…, was born as a prince in 624 BC in a place called Lumbini, which was originally in northern India but is now part of Nepal.” 

This past Saturday, my husband, Steve, and I were wandering around lower Manhattan. Steve spied a store selling used CDs at very reasonable prices. Next door was an Asian antique and furniture store going “out of business.” Yes, I know. Going out of business is a regular business practice in New York, usually for the benefit of tourists, so one can rarely take it seriously. But everything in the store was “half-off,” so I decided to browse in the shop while my husband stalked CD bargains next door.

The antiques—or perhaps nicely crafted reproductions—were like works of art. There was a large round wooden curio shelf as tall as I am—which admittedly isn’t all that tall. I admired a carved wooden bed that had its own ceiling. I’m sure there is a special name for this type of bed, but I don’t know what it is. 

After about 15 minutes of wishing I could afford one of the exquisite pieces of furniture in the store, I walked out and turned to view their display window for the first time. There, sitting in the window, was a silver metal incense burner about the size of a basketball. The sides were surrounded in reliefs of Buddha figures and one happy Buddha sat on top. It had dog faces for handles and three clawed feet.

“In his early years (Buddha)… lived as a prince in the royal palace but when he was 29 years old he retired to the forest where he followed a life of meditation. After six years he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India.” 

Just as I stood there ogling the piece, my husband emerged from the CD store, thrilled that he had found the sound track for the 1933 King Kong for only $6.99. I congratulated him and pointed to the Buddha incense burner.

“It’s probably too expensive,” I apologized, “But I’d like to go inside and ask about it anyway.”

Antique or reproduction? I may never know.
“Go ahead,” he replied. So we entered the store and I asked the man working there if we could see the incense burner and if he could tell me how much it was. He cheerfully retrieved it and showed us the price. The piece was remarkably heavy; even Steve was taken by surprise when I handed it to him to examine. It was priced at a bit more than I would normally pay for something, but at half-price was within a range that, if I felt like being self-indulgent, I could afford.

It has always been difficult for me to buy anything expensive for myself. I would gladly spend good money to buy something for a family member. But for some reason, spending big bucks on my own behalf has always made me feel a tad guilty.

My husband does not share that philosophy. He took one look at it and said, “Do you really want it? Would it make you happy to have that Buddha sitting on the shelf at home?”

I gazed at it longingly. “It is lovely,” I said. The man in the store told me it was an antique that had been used in Buddhist temples in China and was about 80 to 90 years old. Of course, there is a 50-50 chance that it is merely a well-crafted reproduction, but my reason for buying it wasn’t because of its possible monetary worth. I thought it was really beautiful—just as having a nice piece of artwork on the wall might give someone pleasure.

“In the Hinayana teachings Buddha explains how to attain liberation from suffering for oneself alone, and in the Mahayana teachings he explains how to attain full enlightenment, or Buddhahood, for the sake of others. Both traditions flourished in Asia, at first in India and then gradually in other surrounding countries, including Tibet. Now they are also beginning to flourish in the West.” 

Buddha with laptop (right of center) was a gift from a co-worker.
The last thing I expected to do in New York that day was to purchase an expensive “antique” Buddha incense burner, but sometimes the unexpected is what makes life so much fun. After some encouragement from Steve, I purchased it. The man in the store told me if I rubbed the Buddha’s tummy and made a wish, it might come true.

He now presides over a small cadre of Buddhas that sit on a shelf in my bedroom, where they cheerfully greet me every morning and evening. Not a bad way to begin and end each day.

“Look within, thou art the Buddha.—Buddha