My dear friend, Angie Stiepel Case, challenged me to select my ten favorite books and then I’m supposed to nominate ten other friends to do the same- like a Facebook literary chain letter. I adore Angie but I have a paranoid suspicion that this was invented by some fiendish Facebook employee as a means of getting us all to give up precious, marketable details about our literary tastes that will be exploited by aggressive algorithms that will populate our newsfeeds with ever more highly targeted ads designed to penetrate our very psyches.
So here are my ten, complete with humorous anecdotes and memories attached. Considering all the books ever written, I would say my selections reveal me to be a fairly shallow individual who was basically formed in the 70’s and 80’s and never really grew up. But I’m happy that way.
In no particular order:
The World According to Garp– John Irving: The book was better than the movie which starred Robin Williams as Garp. But the film had a great scene that lives in my memory forever. Garp and his wife are looking to buy a house and as they step out of their car onto the driveway, a small plane crashes through the roof of the place. Garp immediately puts an offer on the home asking what are the chances that happens again.
Little Big Man– Thomas Berger: The film directed by Arthur Penn and starring Dustin Hoffman is one of my all-time favorites. Hoffman is the 104-year old Jack Crabb who recounts a life of “injuns,” (raised by the Cheyenne nation) and savage U.S. cavalry, with real life characters like Wild Bill Hickok and George Armstrong Custer. Chief Dan George was nominated for an academy award. Author, Thomas Berger, passed away last July and I bought the book and it is just as fantastic and touching as the movie. He is a terrific writer. In its day, the book and movie were considered a protest of sorts against the U.S. military during the Vietnam War era, but it stands on its own without that baggage and reads like one of the best historical novels on the American west…ever.
Contact– Carl Sagan: Another book turned into a movie starring Jodie Foster and Mathew McConaughey. They are very different works. The movie does the best job ever of depicting the moment contact is made with intelligent life. The audio representation of the contact is not scientifically accurate at all but the poetic license taken is totally justified. The movie does not have what was the mind-blowing ending in Carl Sagan’s novel. One of the best science fiction endings of all time, in my opinion. Hidden, deep, deep in the calculation of Pi, a super computer discovers a pattern that is an undeniable message from an alien force so powerful, it can alter mathematics; a force so clever that it knows its message cannot be found until a civilization builds powerful enough computing skills to demonstrate the necessary technical proficiency and advancement. Carl Sagan!
Lincoln– Gore Vidal: One of the best historical novels of all time. Vidal paints a vivid picture of civil war Washington, complete with its houses of ill repute, the dusty streets, the stench of the canal that ran behind the White House, spies that crossed the Long Bridge to enter Washington from Virginia. A masterful, memorable work.
Chesapeake, Space, Alaska– James A. Michner: Ok, three books listed as one but it’s Michner. I remember reading just about all his books on various beaches over various summers. This trio are my favorites.
Lucifer’s Hammer– Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: One of my favorite post-apocolyptic novels. Big Meteorite hits the Earth head-on. The build-up is terrific. The strike itself is well-described- like the surfers who paddle into the Pacific to catch the wave of their lives- a full-fledged tsunami that leaves one of them dying spectacularly as he slams into a Los Angeles skyscraper. Good stuff.
Rendevous with Rama– Arthur C. Clarke: Layer upon layer of imagination and mind-bending discoveries aboard a gigantic alien vessel with breath-taking detail, a master work by the greatest science fiction writer of all time.
The Iowa Baseball Confederacy– W.P. Kinsella: One of the lesser known baseball novels by the author of Field of Dreams. A bizarre, metaphysical, mysterious journey through the prism of a baseball game that refuses to end.
The Pillars of the Earth– Ken Follet: You have to love a historical novel about the building of cathedrals that stars as its protagonist a man named Tom Builder. The middle ages in a wonderful mix of palace intrigue, intimate character development and medieval architecture.
Breakfast of Champions– Kurt Vonnegut: The favorite author of my youth. I read everything he wrote and then wrote like him. And thought like him. Biting satire; humor with meaning. He was my literary hero. Breakfast of Champions is notable in my life for the following weird reason. I had a final paper due in college- a dense book review due at 8am. At 10pm, I had not written a word. But I had just read Breakfast of Champions. I plopped a coffee and a bottle of no-doz on the 7-11 counter. The cashier must have sensed I was a young college student preparing for a cram session and magically produced a couple of amphetamines. It was destiny. I swear, it’s the only time I ever took white crosses. But that was 1975 and the statute of limitations has surely run out by now.
Anyway, the journey that followed was a spirited creative frenzy, to say the least. For those who may not have read the book, Kurt Vonnegut himself makes an appearance in the novel and totally freaks out his own main character by revealing himself as his creator. I drew up a three-tiered chart explaining each reality-within-reality that Vonnegut constructed. I wrote whimsically about the hilarious diagrams Vonnegut sprinkled throughout the book like the thing that looked pretty much like an asterisk * – which was Vonnegut’s representation of an asshole. I’m sure I wrote other much more intelligent things that I’ve since forgotten because I really was on quite a roll.
I think I may have also written a review of Welcome to the Monkey House. That was a collection of Vonnegut short stories that features my all-time favorite- Thomas Edison’s Shaggy Dog. The famous inventor creates a head-phone-like device that can measure intelligence. He notices his dog looking a little nervous. Edison puts the headphones on the dog and sure enough, the IQ level is three times that of his own. The dog admits the great scam that has been perpetrated on the human race and later has to pay the price, attacked by all the neighborhood dogs who caught wind that he had betrayed the ancient secret.
I drove to school, turned the paper in at precisely 8am drove back home and passed out. The following week I got an A+. On my final. Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut. Always and forever.
I am currently refraining from naming the ten others I would challenge for their favorite books in case this really is a ruse by evil algorithm creators. I will revisit the matter at a later time. I trust this is not like breaking a chain letter and that I now have 7 years of bad luck or something.
True, I’m about three days late reacting to the breakthrough development over at Fox News but I thought it best to let it ferment for 72 hours or so. The reaction seems to have taken hold and it’s unanimous. What the hell are they smoking over there and can we get some?
Fox News, having just celebrated its 17th birthday, has decided that it has to modernize its news presentation so in addition to a massive revision to its primetime lineup, it has revealed its Jetsons-like view of the future of journalism.
It involves human units called “information specialists” who toil before enormous 55-inch screens which they can be seen touching and swiping as they appear to scour for news on Twitter. This all happens behind news anchor, Shepard Smith, who speaks to the camera and jauntily meanders to a large panoramic-type screen whose visual contents he can rearrange with yet more swiping. You can see the amazing new interactive-ish, information-like newsroom here.
And now a sampling of reaction to the most embarrassing news use of pseudo-technology since CNN tried holigraphically transporting its reporters to its election news set in 2008.
From The Verge:
Fox News has just unveiled a breathtakingly ridiculous newsroom, complete with novelty-sized Windows-based touchscreens, a Twitter wall, and a wannabe Minority Report-style display, which it hopes will connect it with generations of viewers who use smartphones and apps…
Smith later demonstrates a gigantic 38-foot-long video wall with a device “never been used in broadcast television before.” It’s a remote control that allows Smith to shuffle through an image carousel with no apparent journalistic purpose. “For instance, I can take this lady who’s been evacuating from a hurricane zone and move it over here,” Smith says.
Rather than regular computers sitting atop standard desks you’d find spread across any typical newsroom, Fox News has come roaring into the 21st century by replacing those desks with comically enormous touchscreens; one cartoon-sized touchscreen per person.
From New York magazine:
Fox News Has the Biggest Computers on Cable, for Facts and Stuff
In the future, Shepard Smith will control an army of news bots who work 24 hours a day to prove Obama is a Muslim. The future is now: As the new editor of the breaking-news division, Smith will lord over what he’s referring to as “information specialists” — reporters, maybe, kind of, in Fox News speak — and their comically oversize computing machines called BATs, “big area touchscreens.”
From Death and Taxes:
Fox News debuts its new, tiny journalists
Fox News revealed on Monday their attempt to build the newsroom of the future. This apparently involves implementing giant tablet computers, which make it seem like they physically shrank everyone on their staff.
Why Is the Fox News Room Full of Absurdly Giant iPads?
Over on Fox News’ website, Shepard Smith gives us a tour of the Fox News Deck’s upgraded studio which inexplicably features a team of staffers in the background working at what appear to be gigantic tablets. According to Smith, those are actually “information specialists” frantically pawing away at what Fox calls BATS—or big area touchscreens (most likely Microsoft hardware running Windows 8)—that puts 55-inches of Twitter feeds and other news sources at their fingertips. What?
Ok, so if this is the new Jetson’s version of journalism, I have to say that I prefer the Flintstones version better. A typewriter and some clanking wire machines in the background. A fedora with a piece of paper in the band that says “Press” on it. Edward R. Murrow knows what I’m talking about.
The good folks at Georgetown University Hospital sent me a document the other day informing me of the charges incurred for a recent major operation. It was a long procedure, mind you, but in a country where it costs an average of $16,000 to deliver a baby, would it really come as a surprise that the total cost for the surgery and one-week stay came to $83,000? Hell, I’m not sure I’m worth half that.
My part of the bill, thanks to the insurance I get through work, was only $500 and even that was covered by my flexible spending account. I cannot even imagine what the uninsured go through. Anyway, in order to make my claim, Georgetown had to provide me an itemized, highly detailed account of how we got to $83,000.
Turns out my semi-private room was $2,900 a day. Just the bed. I started thinking. If I need to go through this sort of thing again maybe I can make a deal with the hospital. After I wake up in the recovery room, they can tell me how it all went and then call a car service and send me directly to the penthouse suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City. I’ll do green Jell-O for the first three days then switch over to the buttered lobster.
By the way, a hilarious thing happens when you google “hotel rooms for $2,900.” You get dozens and dozens of hits for the following headline:
Justin Bieber & Selena Gomez Share $2,900 A Night Suite In Brazil.
That’s right, a penthouse suite at the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil costs two celebrities as much as one night’s stay in an American hospital.
Then there were the sponges. I saw three of them used for the procedure and each one cost $75. Again, here is another opportunity I can have to make a deal with the hospital. The night before the surgery, I will, personally, go to the local CVS and buy 6 sponges for $4.99. As I hand them to the surgeon the next day (still wrapped, of course) I will explain that these sponges have the very same sponge-like qualities as his special sponges. They absorb stuff.
Just for the record, I have absolutely nothing against Georgetown Hospital; to the contrary, I see them as a magic, healing collection of wise and skilled shaman who happened to save my life and hundreds of other lives every week. But it does seem to be a strange and arbitrary health care system we have where one hospital charges $5000 for a CT-scan and another will charge $8000. Where lying prone in a bed automatically costs you the equivalent of a penthouse suite and where sponges sell for $75. It’s the business side of the health care system and it’s kind of shocking, should you ever have the chance of seeing it.
Here’s to you not having that opportunity anytime soon 🙂
It’s been an interesting journey to say the least but I am officially back at work at NPR today. So far so good. My colleagues have been so very kind and welcoming. I did not wilt in the heat. I did not get hit by cars in the street. My Dr. Seuss imitation will not be beat.
It’s been 7 weeks since the big cancer surgery. It feels like it’s my very first day at school. I went through the checklist before I left the apartment in the morning. Metro card- check. Reading glasses without which I would be blind- check. Cash- check. Sharpened #2 pencils- not necessary but you know what I mean.
My son, Charlie came up from Nashville and visited me over the weekend. “So how do you feel about going back to work, Dad?” The appropriate, manly, puritan work-ethic response would be, “Can’t wait!” The reality is that it’s another transition in a series of them.
First, a day before surgery you prepare yourself as best you can for uncertainty and what will be a long period of recovery. Psychologically, it’s like you get in the fetal position, let them do what they need to do and then just deal with it. I got through my 7 days of indignity at the hospital. The nurses and docs were all great, but it is just not possible to lie in bed with a tube attached to your nose that goes into your stomach or wear flimsy little hospital gowns and maintain any sense of decorum.
Then there’s the transition home and recovery. It’s a tricky business. You need to rest and sleep. You also need to walk and stay active. Too much rest and you just turn into a tub of Jell-O and your aches and pains get worse not better. Too much activity, and you get ashen-faced and literally hope you didn’t just bust a stitch.
A big transition, frankly, is when they take those stitches out. It’s hard to feel normal when you look down and see 36 metal staples holding your stomach together. After those puppies are gone, you start feeling a little less like Frankenstein.
And what did you do with all that time off, Robert? Well, I’d like to say I did research into the mating habits of Bonobo monkees or wrote a paper that helped to further define Einstein’s theory of general relativity. But, no. I read some great books. I watched three entire seasons of the Walking Dead (because who doesn’t enjoy eviscerating zombies) and two seasons of the Sopranos (which explains why I was overly distraught about the demise of James Gandolfini last week). I walked just about every day. Took in a couple of Nats games because, really, what an honor to be able to watch the worst offense in baseball in the past 30 years. And I completed a 5K walk in memory of my late colleague, Brenda Box, and in the process, raised a little money to fight pancreatic cancer.
And mostly, I attempted to accustom myself to the new rebuilt me. I call it Garcia 3.0. They took out a whole lot of my stomach so eating is a different kind of thing now. I can pretty much consume whatever I want, just smaller quantities, more often. I’m sometimes on the edge of nausea but it never lasts long. It happens if I don’t eat enough, eat too much and this is really interesting- when people get repetitive and annoying, particularly people on cable TV.
Next week, I start taking these chemotherapy pills. Hugely better than having to get infusions. The strategy as I understand it from my doctor, is to take 2 pills in the morning, 2 pills at night, Monday through Friday and do the best you can. You get weekends off to recover. On Fridays, they tell me, I’ll be beat and worn to a nub. But this particular regimen rarely results in either nausea or hair loss. Should I be the rare exception and lose my hair however, I’m telling you right now- I’m getting an earring.
So you take as much of this as you can for a minimum of four months, preferably six. Japanese doctors have their stomach cancer patients take the pills for a year. And when completed, presto! Cancer stays gone and 5-year survivability rates increase from 50 to 70%.
Next transition- getting home from work!
I don’t mean to turn this blog into a personal medical site, but God apparently did, so….
We’re just past the halfway point of the short side of the theoretical recovery period after most of my stomach, a piece of my liver and my gall bladder all sacrificed themselves in an effort to annihilate a 5cm tumor that turned up in my stomach 14 years after receiving unnecessary radiation in that vicinity following a bout with testicular cancer.
OK, with the background out of the way, what’s it like to recover from major gastro-intestinal surgery? Meh. Some days are better than others. Some days are high energy, some days are low energy. What is a constant is sleep. This is the magic potion of healing. I can drop a 2-hour nap in a New York minute (I know- that sentence must be a gross metaphorical violation of some sort). The trick is getting 10-12 hours of sleep a day but not turn into a piece of the living room furniture. You have to get out. You have to walk. You have to get in the sun. You have to breathe the air. Sometimes easier said then done.
A few days ago, I made my first distant foray from home besides the hospital to take in a Nationals game that reliever, Drew Storen tried to ruin for me but it’s not really his fault- he didn’t know I was sick. The point is that when I mentioned my outing on Facebook, a friend noted “great you should be feeling so well to get out and about.” In fact, without going into any detail, I will tell you categorically that was the single worst day of my recovery that I have had. And that is precisely why I pushed on and decided it was imperative to get out and get TO the ballgame. And it worked. The field, the wind, the night air, the best game ever invented in the history of mankind- all conspired to make me feel vibrant and alive. It did wonders. Thanks to Drew, I got to leave after the bottom of the 8th and beat a lot of the subway crowd so even the Metro experience was pleasant.
This is about pushing the limits of your physical and mental boundaries.
One of the things I’ve done mentally, is divorce myself from the news within reason. I am in the news business so it goes against instinct. But I’m sorry, there is just too much conflict, violence, blood, natural disaster, evil, ego, banality, superficiality, celebrity-worship and general bullshit out there for it to possibly be healthy in any way to consume in large quantities at this time. I’ll catch up later.
One of the larger adjustments is in the area of nutrition, appetite, food. After leading a life, like most others I think, in which meals are defined by their taste, all bets are off now. Foods that I used to secretly crave (and which are advertised more than any other) like cheeseburgers, french fries, fried chicken, have lost their appeal. Food just tastes different. With a smaller stomach, I also eat much smaller amounts. And my appetite is all over the place. Sometime I have one, sometimes I don’t.
The trick now (and this is too funny for words) is keeping my weight up. After years of trying to watch my weight, I am currently losing about 4 pounds a week. Add it to the weight loss that occurred after surgery and a week of hospitalization and we’re talking nearly 30 pounds. Eventually this has to stop but right now, it feels great to be lighter.
In a couple of weeks I begin a discussion with my doctors about chemotherapy. They seem to be all gung-ho about the poisonous little cocktails they want to give me to prevent any return of cancer. They are going to have to convince me with science, research and logic. The white coats and air of authority will not be enough. Don’t get me wrong. I love my doctors. They have saved my life. I just don’t want a repeat of 14 years ago when the prevailing medical orthodoxy was to radiate the crap out of people. It’s one of my own doctors who tells me he is now constantly running into patients with tumors who received radiation 15 and 20 years ago. A debate for another day. For now, a few more weeks for healing from the sharp, steely knives.
They say God works in mysterious ways. I do believe the dude has tried to kill me several times in order to make me stronger and healthier. Eventually, this time, I think it’s going to take.
I last posted the night before major cancer surgery, expressing both confidence and alarm. It’s now been about ten days and I am doing extraordinarily great, especially considering the circumstances.
Here’s kind of a blow-by-blow:
Arrived at the Georgetown University Hospital Surgical Center Thursday, May 2nd at 6:30am. Everyone and I mean everyone on Georgetown staff is so cheery and positive and kind. Where do they find these people, I ask myself. They are like cheerful mutants from a faraway galaxy where there is no such thing, for example, as road rage.
I pick up my bracelet with my name and birth date so from here on out, no one accidently removes wrong body parts or gives mistaken medications. The bracelet also contains the bar code on which thousands of dollars of medications will be charged in the days ahead.
In the actual operating room I have a brief chat with the chief surgeon and crew. The gentleman performing the operation is the Surgeon-in-Chief of the Lombardi Cancer Center, Dr. Waddah Al-Refaie. I ask the doctor if he had a good night’s sleep and he confirms he is well rested and ready to rock and roll. At this point the anesthesiologists suggest that considering the length and complexity of an operation expected to result in the removal of 60% of my stomach, would I be up for an epidural? Incredibly strong pain killing meds delivered right into the spine and nerves? Yesireee, I would like that, gentlemen!
And that was the last thing I remembered. They put a tube in me to do the breathing while I was gratefully and completely and totally out like a light for the next 7 hours, 6 of which were actual operating time. Operations are like time travel. Your loved ones get briefed once an hour on what’s happening but for those of us on the table there is only before and after. There is no time in between.
I awake in post-op and my girlfriend, Millie is letting me know that while I was away, the surgeon did, indeed, take 60% of my stomach. And, oh, an extra 10% of ye’ old liver. Oh, and the gall bladder. Gall bladder’s gone but they found nothing wrong with it and they put it back. Still groggy, I make a mental note to revisit this analysis. I would be correct. Poor Millie had gotten lost in the fog of war. They don’t put stuff back after they take it out. But she was right that there was nothing wrong with it. They saw something they didn’t like that turned out to be benign. Goodbye gall bladder. Of questionable value as a mere bile creator to help the stomach handle fatty foods, I will not even miss the little guy. “And so…” sums up Millie, “The operation was a great success!”
I smile to hear this; still slightly alarmed they took some liver. But hey, it regenerates!
The next two days were mostly a sleepy haze. The boys with the epidural did a masterful job. Patients in hospitals are always being asked to gauge their pain on a 1 to 10 scale. The first 48 hours after this big a surgery I had pain of 0 to 1. That’s amazing. For all the advances in medicine, the single most important has got to be anesthesia and the art of pain killing.
But, alas, Saturday came and they’d have to stop the epidural- can’t keep that going for long- off to the land of IV drugs!
I honestly didn’t even look at my sutures until day 3. Nice job. Very handsomely done. I counted about 36 staples from below the belly button to the solar plexus. And they all hurt just a little bit! Dilaudid into the veins helped.
All of this stuff, by the way, is measured in small hourly and daily victories. The catheter comes out. Yay! Day 4, a day earlier than I thought, they pulled the NG tube. This is a fiendish device that during surgery is put into your nose and way down into the stomach. A kind of suctioning event is generated and bile and other bad things from the belly go into a vessel and the pressure also helps the stomach in some way no one adequately described to me. The NG tube was an unwelcome addition to my head. It also tethers you as much as an IV does. It’s really fun when they pull it out too. Oh, the laughs.
Run for your Lives- It’s Cable News!
And now here was the part of the hospital visit that sucked the very most. It wasn’t nurses and techs walking into your room at 4am to take your vitals or give you another blood-thinning injection. No, it was no longer being groggy enough to sleep the day away and being awake and alert. And ready to become the unsuspecting victim of CABLE TELEVISION.
This was the day Cleveland police officially arrested Ariel Castro and two of the three women the horrible little man tortured for a decade, returned to their homes. This was the day America’s favorite villainess, Jodi Arias, was convicted in the gruesome stabbing death of her boyfriend. This was the day of the Benghazi hearings. In other words, this was the kind of day that was created for Cable News. And, here I was, comfy in my hospital bed with my right trigger finger on the remote control.
Over on CNN, they covered everything in great detail, concentrating about 70% of their programming on the Cleveland House of Horrors. Nice coverage- couldn’t complain about a thing. They didn’t get any facts wrong. They brought in solid contributors along with their own paid experts and personalities like Nancy Grace. Over on Fox, no developing story of any magnitude could budge the network from its breathless coverage of the Benghazi hearings. One guy at the witness table almost cried. Another had triple the normal amount of emotion in his voice. I didn’t see what else there was to it by way of red meat…or new facts. And this is categorically not a political view on my part. I was just a highly drugged-up guy in a hospital bed switching from cable channel to cable channel.
On one channel, live TV crews watching the Cleveland women arrive home, stunning police news conferences; bizarre, sick revelations about the nightmare decade for these poor women. On the other channel, congressmen getting pissed or preening depending on their political persuasion and more white guys in suits at witness tables. Every now and again, Fox News anchors went away from the hearings to Fox News reporters to explain to people the significance of something that just happened in case they couldn’t discern it for themselves.
And then….the Jodi Arias verdict! This time, Headline News jumped into the fray, primed as they were positioning themselves as the Arias Verdict Network. This hurt them early in the week as they went live to Phoenix repeatedly for two days before there was any verdict or news. But now that the jury was back- Christmas for Headline News!
CNN adjusted and did a pretty darned good job covering both the Arias verdict and the House of Horrors. Over to Fox; continued highlights and analysis of the Benghazi hearings. By 6pm, even a Fox News anchor made reference to the fact there had been a lot of breaking news on this day but maybe tomorrow when it’s her birthday, they’ll let her cover all these other stories.
Then it was off to sports where I simultaneously monitored the Washington Nationals and Caps- the Nats on radio the Caps on the tube. Nats won, Caps lost. And they lost the next night too. I came close, but would later dismiss notions of suing the Capitals for emotional distress.
I wrapped up my TV orgy day with the Science channel and three straight one-hour episodes of Stephan Hawking on space travel, space aliens and wonders of the cosmos. It was an absolute pleasure to watch houses of horror, Benghazi hearings and murder verdicts shrink to their appropriate cosmological scale.
And I Thank You for Your Support!
Within two days I would be discharged. And here we are, about four days at home. I just got back from my first post-op consultation with the surgeon. The tumor was larger and invaded a bit more territory than everyone first thought. But no lymph node cancers. And none to be found anywhere else in the body. I am officially staged at stomach cancer 2b. This gives me about a 65% chance of living through the next five years, odds I gladly accept.
I will likely get some chemotherapy this summer and fall but the all the cancer has been surgically removed. We’re talking preventative measures. Then after a few months of that loveliness it’s just a matter of monitoring until five years from now, we can all declare, “case closed.”
And I do not accept alternate outcomes.
To my friends:
I thank you for the books, the magazines, the musical play lists, the T-shirts, the kind sympathy cards, the wicked-funny cards, the thoughts, prayers, animal sacrifices and smudge ceremonies and as the three words on my blue left wristband say- for the love, the hope and the faith too.
We are beating this together. Thank you for that.