Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Talk Smart and Influence People

Whenever I read John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, I feel a gnawing sense of inadequacy when I come across words that A) I've never seen before, or 2) I've looked up at least once before and forgotten the definitions. Here are some examples from my recent reading:

exiguous: excessively scanty

exigency: that which is required in a particular situation or a state of affairs that makes urgent demands

desultory: marked by lack of a definite plan or not connected to the main subject or disappointing in progress, performance, or quality

cynosure: one who serves to direct or guide, or the center of attention

sinecure: an office or position that requires little or no work but that usually provides an income

Words like this are beautiful, but, at least among the people I interact with every day, aren't going to come up in conversation very often, even if I could remember them for more than 6 hours.

If you like this sort of thing, check out Wordsmith.org and their Word a Day section.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Putting the X back in Christmas

A recent news item reinforced my feeling that Christmas in America has become a pagan holiday celebrating consumerism. I wrote a poem on that theme which was published approximately a hundred years ago in the newspaper, which I think was called Smoke Signals, at Wawasee High School. I don't recall the exact wording, but it went, as a lounge singer at the Holiday Inn might say, something like this:

A long time ago
wise men
followed a star
to a manger

Today
shoppers
follow a blue light
saying
"I got to find a pair of size 46 boxers for uncle Harry."

The blue light referred to the way K-Mart marked special sales within the store. I'm not sure blue light specials or K-Marts even exist anymore.

But I digress. The news item I saw was (those last two words are a palindrome [but I digress further {and become increasingly parenthetic}])that the Marines' Toys for Tots program had rejected a donation of 4000 talking Jesus dolls, on the basis that they don't know the religion of the tots getting the toys. They didn't want an unsuspecting Muslim or Jew pulling the cord and being offended by such dogma as "Love your neighbor as yourself." That's the spirit! Keep Jesus out of this holiday! Alas, my faith in American consumerism has been shaken, as the Marines have now reversed their decision and will find appropriate homes for the Jesus dolls. One can only hope that all this publicity results in more sales of religious action figures this season.

I think Kinky Friedman hit it spot-on in this lyric from his song, "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore:"

They oughta send you back to russia, boy, or New York City one
You just want to doodle a Christian girl and you killed God's only son.

I said, has it occurred to you, you nerd, that that's not very nice,
We Jews believe it was Santa Claus that killed Jesus Christ.


A column in the local paper the other day discussed "Christmas Creep." The display of Christmas merchandise and the appearance of Chrismas-themed commercials on TV occur earlier and earlier every year. Thanksgiving used to mark the beginning of the avaricious shopping season, but now it's closer to Halloweeen. I believe it was the first week in November when I heard the noxious "Little Drummer Boy" on the radio for the first time this year.

So perhaps there is hope that America will succeed in keeping the focus of Christmas where it belongs. BUY! BUY! BUY!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Survival

This is our fifth day back in the rain, grey skies, and cold of Indiana in October after a trip to Maui, the island named for the demigod who pulled the Hawaiian islands up from the sea with his fish hook, lassoed the sun to make the days longer, and raised the vault of heaven so humans could walk upright. We are survivors of the earthquake of 2006, even though we didn't go to Crazy Shirts and buy T-shirts to prove it. On Sunday, October 15, at 7:07 AM Hawaiian time (now that Indiana is finally on daylight savings time, Hawaii and Arizona are the only states that never change their clocks), the earth, and our vacation rental house shook. A quake registering 6.7 on the Richter scale occurred off the coast of the Big Island. It felt like a 300 pound offensive tackle was running up the stairs at first, but the rumble and shaking intensified, and it didn't take long till we knew it was an earthquake. I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's description of the bombing of Dresden as he described it in Slaughterhouse Five: The giants walked and walked. My faultering memory is probably incorrect, but that's how I recall him describing the sensation American prisoners of war felt as they waited out the Allied bombing in the basement of a slaughterhouse. It was like giants walking overhead. Look it up and let me know if that's what he really said. I'm too tired to do it right now. Fortunately, tsunamis don't occur unless the intensity of a quake is greater than 7. Other than losing power for a couple hours, we were unaffected by the quake. Why? Dumb luck. Aloha.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Publication

My poem, The Barns of Indiana, appears in the just released online journal Poetry Midwest.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Arthur Griffith Update

Having found myself guilty of promulgating misinformation, I have put an addendum on my post, "Pooze the Prodigy" of August 24. I have discovered two books, On the Psychology of Learning a Life Occupation, by Bryan, Lindley, and Harter, and The Great Mental Calculators: The Psychology, Methods, and Lives of Calculating Prodigies Past and Present, by Steven B. Smith. Both books have filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge of Arthur Griffith, and human calculators in general.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Lolita and the Monkey Ship

Somehow I reached the age of 53 without reading the infamous novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, which is pronounced "Nab o' kov" with a long "o" in the accented second syllable, unlike Sting's pronunciation in the song "Don't Stand So Close to Me." Regarding pronunciation, I read a statement by Nabokov that Lolita should be pronounced with a short "o" like in "doll," even though the nickname is derived from the unfortunate girl's given name of Delores, and in places through the book is shortened to "Lo." In any case, I am in the midst of reading an annotated version of Lolita. Nabokov's style is complex, heavy with allusions, and I thought I would need all the help I could get to wade through it.

I was struck by one reference in Chapter Two of Part Two, where the main character, pedophile Humbert Humbert is describing sights he and Lolita had seen as they traveled across the country, including "(a) zoo in Indiana where a large troop of monkeys lived on concrete replica of Christopher Columbus' flagship." Sure enough, there is such a structure in the Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, where Mary and I were married and lived for several years. It was a popular attraction beginning with its completion in the 1930's, but in more recent and enlightened times, it was determined that the 1/3 scale replica of the Santa Maria was unacceptable for simean habitation. The boat remains in the park sans monkeys to this day.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pooze the Prodigy

On a farm southwest of my hometown, Milford, Indiana, on July 30, 1880, Arthur F. Griffith was born. Somewhere along the line, for unknown reasons, he acquired the nickname of Pooze. I tried to find a definition of this word, and all I could find was in an online urban dictionary, which defined pooze as either the anus or the female genitalia. I doubt that those meanings applied in the late 19th century. Like most of us from Milford, Arthur might have lived in relative obscurity except for one inexplicable trait. He was a mathematical prodigy. He was able to count to 25,000 at age five, and memorized the multiplication tables through 130. He developed 47 methods of multiplication, 6 methods each for division and addition, and one for subtraction. He could tell you the date of Easter Sunday for any year in the 20th century. He was able to extract cube roots from numbers of 6 figures in seconds. He could watch a train of 100 cars go by on the Big Four tracks in Milford, and memorize the numbers painted on the sides. Arthur had no talent for nonmathematical subjects and didn't go to school beyond the eighth grade. So amazing were his abilities that he was studied by scientists at universities including Indiana University and Yale. His case was presented to the International Psychological Congress in Paris in 1900.

His head was so large, he had to have his hats custom made.

At one point, he said he would publish a book of this methods, but never did. He toured as a vaudeville act, and in 1902 was sentenced to 30 days in the Osceola County, Michigan jail, for failure to pay a boarding house bill. In 1907, he was working as a blacksmith's helper in St. Louis. He became so upset when he wasn't paid for the work he did, he was declared insane and put in the city hospital. He recovered, and was released after a period of observation. He never married, and when he wasn't touring or being studied at a university, he lived with his parents on the same farm where he was born.

Arthur had a history of epilepsy. Were some of his strange behaviors due to a brain lesion? For that matter, was there some structural "defect" of his brain that gave him his incredible mathematical abilities? We'll never know. He died in 1911, at age 31, in Springfield, Massachusetts, presumably on tour. The cause of death was apoplexy, which nowadays would be called a stroke. Perhaps he had a vascular malformation of the brain which ruptured. Again, I can only speculate. Thirty-one was pretty young to have a stroke, even in 1911.

One reason I'm posting this is that there is virtually nothing about dear old Pooze online, and I don't want to see such an amazing character forgotten. So now my vast audience knows his story.

ADDENDUM - 9/11/06:

I have found some more source material and need to correct a couple things in the original post: First, Arthur did publish a book of his methods, entitled The Easy and Speedy Reckoner in 1901. Copies still exist in the Library of Congress and in the Math Library at the University of Illinois. BTW, http://www.worldcat.orgis a great web site that tells you where books are located beginning with libraries closest to your zip code. Second, although Arthur had epilepsy, his seizures started after an unspecified illness at age 7, after he had started to display his calculating abilities, so the two weren't related. Third, he should be called a mental calculator rather than a math prodigy, as he didn't understand or have an interest in learning algebra. He was blessed with a fantastic memory and developed many calculating shortcuts.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

You'll Feel Better About Smoking . . .

Boston Celtic star Bob Cousy advertising Kent cigarettes

While I'm on the subject of asbestos (see previous post "Asbestos, the Magic Mineral"), the makers of Kent cigarettes came up with an exceptionally bad idea in the 1950's. Filter cigarettes were becoming more popular as a means of assuaging smokers' health concerns. In 1957, Kent was recognized by Reader's Digest as having the lowest levels of tar and nicotine among filter cigarettes. Kent's advertising claimed their micronite filters were "developed by researchers in atomic energy plants." Unfortunately, these geniuses used crocidolite asbestos as a component of the filter. The combination of asbestos inhalation and smoking increases the risk of lung cancer about 100 times over the risk of smoking alone. On top of that, there was an epidemic of asbestos-related diseases among workers in the Kent factory.

Remember when tobacco companies advertised on TV? Winston even used the Flintstones in their commercials.


Finally, here's a transcript of a Kent TV commercial:

SCENE: MAN AND WOMAN RIDING BICYCLES. THEY STOP TO LIGHT UP KENT CIGARETTES.

ANNOUNCER (VOICE OVER):
It's a wonderful feeling to be alive and active – to enjoy a beautiful day with a congenial companion and feel that all your senses are alert – including your sense of taste. And with Kent, your taste buds become clear and alive.
. . .
CHORUS (SINGING): You'll feel better about smoking with the taste of Kent – Kent, with the micronite filter. Refines away harsh flavor, refines away hot taste. It makes the taste of a cigarette mild. It’s a wonderful feeling.
(Circa 1960)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Asbestos, the Magic Mineral

The title of this post comes from the sign on the Johns Manville Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair. No kidding. Asbestos has gotten a bad rap in more recent years, to the point of being banned in most consumer products, but how bad is it? Well, it depends. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, and comes in two forms: serpentine, of which the only subtype is chrysotile (white asbestos), and amphibole, of which there are several subtypes. The most common subtypes are amosite (from the acronym AMOSA--Asbestos Mines of South Africa), and crocidolite. Chrysotile fibers are curly, while amphibole fibers are straight. The amphiboles are the bad actors, more likely to cause asbestosis (scarring of the lungs), lung cancer, and malignant mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity, seen almost exclusively in patients with asbestos exposure. Asbestos alone doesn't increase risk of lung cancer much, but the combination of cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure increases the risk about a hundred fold. Fortunately, most of the asbestos in commercial use in years past--about 95%--was chrysotile, which is less likely to have adverse health effects. The EPA doesn't distinguish between the chrysotile and more dangerous types, nor is there any such distinction in asbestos litigation. I don't mean this as an apologia for the asbestos industry. There's no question many, many people who worked in mines, mills, and shipyards have had their lives cut short by asbestos-related disease. The reaction may be a bit overdone, though. Was it necessary to give up completely on a naturally fireproof, durable material (chrysotile) in favor of synthetic substitutes? I don't know.

Well, what I really wanted to talk about is misinformation. If you Google asbestos, you'll see a lot of web sites that refer to the Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman historian Pliny the Elder (and sometimes Pliny the Younger) as the first people to recognize the adverse health effects of asbestos in the first century A.D. They are variously credited with observing that slaves working in asbestos mines or who wove cloth out of asbestos didn't live long, or that they developed breathing problems. At none of these sites have I seen credible documentation backing up these assertions. I found one well-researched paper, "History of asbestos discovery and use and asbestos-related disease in context with the occurrence of asbestos within ophiolite complexes," by Malcolm Ross and Robert P. Nolan(www.rpnolan.com/html/HistoryAsb.pdf). This article contains about everything you'd want to know about asbestos, and more. The authors knock down the idea that ancient writers understood the health effects of asbestos, and they cite a letter to Lancet in 1990, which my friendly local medical librarian retrieved for me. The authors of that letter, entitled "Asbestos and the Romans," make a succinct and convincing argument that people who say the ancient Romans knew the health effects of asbestos are talking through their hats.

Veritas!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

I am not an English major

I once heard a piece of an interview on NPR (seems I hear lots of pieces of shows on NPR since I only listen to it in the truck) with Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, and now Poet Laureate of New York. He said, "If you're majoring in English, you're majoring in death." Reading over the last few posts, I can see I'm going to have to lighten up or people are going to think I'm an English major.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Pathos

The patient's name has been changed in the following post.

I dialed 0 on the phone. It's quicker than looking up a number, and in the hospital, you know you'll hear a human voice immediately and not a recorded menu.

"Hospital operator."

"ICU please."

"One moment."

The phone rings and the ward secretary answers, "ICU."

"This is Dr. Cory in radiology. May I speak to Andrew Johnson's nurse?"

"They're on the way back from radiology." The patient had come down on his ICU bed accompanied by his nurse. The tech had brought me the films before they got back upstairs.

"Could you take the report on Andrew's brain scan, and tell the nurse when she gets back?" I asked the secretary.

"OK."

"Tell her the brain scan confirms that he is brain dead."

"All right. I'll tell her."

And so an eighteen-year-old patient was one step closer to being an organ donor. The kid had come into the ER a week ago, unresponsive. He had had a fairly minor operation ten days before that, and had developed the unexpected and catastrophic complication of meningitis. When I saw the CT scan of his head obtained in the ER, the ventricles of his brain had already started to dilate as the infection blocked the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid, causing increased pressure in his head. I alerted the ER physician to that fact and a neurosurgeon was immediately called. Unfortunatley, Andrew was already too far gone by the time the surgeon put a tube into his brain to drain the fluid. He deteriorated over the next week, suffering several strokes.

Before the plug can be pulled, brain death has to be established by clinical exam, EEG and nuclear medicine brain scan. My job is to read the brain scan, and in Andrew's case it was clear there was no blood flow to the brain. Of all the possible bad news that medical images can convey, this is among the worst, and in a young person it's even worse. This type of case is one reason I chose a so-called non-patient-care specialty. I'm removed from the burden of having to face a family losing their loved one.

I'll close with these words from A.E. Houseman's "To An Athlete Dying Young:"

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

@

In my never-ending crusade against misinformation promulgated by anyone but myself, I refer to an article in the May 2006 issue of The Writer magazine. In a review of a book called What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions about Language, the statement is made that the author says the symbol @ "may be called a logogram or a grammalogue." Actually, the @ symbol is called the "commercial at" under the ANSI/CCITT/Unicode character systems. Logogram is a generic term for a symbol that represents a word or another meaningful unit of language called a morpheme--think Egyptian hieroglyphics or the written Chinese language. A grammalogue is basically the same thing--a shorthand symbol for a word. So technically, yes, the @ symbol may be called a logogram or a grammalogue, as it is one of many, many logograms and grammalogues, but those aren't specific names for the symbol.

There, I feel so much better now that I got that off my chest.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Dannie Abse's "X-Ray"

The August 2006 issue of the journal Radiology has an article in the editorial section entitled, "Radiology in the Arts: Dannie Abse's X-Ray," by Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD and Matthew Ripplinger, MD. Dr. Gunderman followed me as a faculty member at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

I hadn't encountered Dannie Abse's poetry before. He is a physician who is now retired. He was a chest specialist, and wrote poetry throughout his career. His poem "X-Ray" begins by praising men of science, like Freud and Harvey, who would "open anything." He mentions others like Hodgkin, Parkinson, and Addison, who have diseases named after them--"physicians/who'd arrive/Fast and first on any sour deathbed scene." Abse goes on to talk about how he lacked such curiosity as a child and an adult:

My small hand never teased to pieces
An alarm clock . . .

He goes on to say:

And this larger hand's the same. It
stretches now.
Out from a white sleeve to hold up,
mother,
Your X-Ray to the glowing screen,
My eyes look
but don't want to, I still don't want
to know.

This poem resonated with me, because, although I took apart my share of alarm clocks as a child, I was the first to see my mother's chest X-ray which showed her lungs full of metastatic disease from what we would later find out was a kidney cancer. She had a cough that wouldn't clear up treated by her family doctor. By the time we got the chest X-ray it was too late, and in point of fact, it was probably too late to do anything when the cough developed.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Green Genius

After multiple revisions, I am sending off a short story called Parasomnia to the National Medical Fiction Writing Contest, sponsored by SEAK, which is also sponsoring the medical fiction seminar I'll be attending in November. The medical aspect of the story is that one of the characters is diagnosed with sleep paralysis.

In the process of looking for a magazine which might publish such a story, I bought copies of Asimov's Science Fiction, and Fantasy and Science Fiction yesterday. I've never read these "pulp" magazines before, but there's some good stuff in there. Robert Loy is pretty clever. He has a story in F&SF using classic movie monsters (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, etc.), with liberal use of puns. Doh! Why didn't I think of that? He has a web site,Green Genius, which I'm endorsing without having read much of it, just based on the story in F&SF. For my buddy Eben: note that Loy is a policeman in South Carolina.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Of Adverbs and Semicolons

In an article in Writers' Journal (Vol. 26(2), Mar/Apr. 2006), Lindsley Rinard writes, "Mark Twain is credited with telling writers to kill the adverbs." I don't know if Twain ever said that. For all I know, it may rank up there with Twain being credited with calling Kauai's Waimea Canyon the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Although Twain visited and wrote about the Hawaiian Islands, he never went to Kauai. Whether he said it or not, minimizing the use of adverbs is good advice. Somewhere in a pile of papers in my office I have an interview with Elmore Leonard which appeared in the April 2005 edition of Esquire. He said something like if one of his characters was an adverb, he would have it killed, so I guess he heard the Twain quote or pseudoquote at some point, and took it to heart, or maybe he developed a hatred of adverbs on his own.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., writing in his book A Man Without a Country, said, "Here is a lesson creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

So now I resist the urge to use adverbs and semicolons whenever possible.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Alien Abduction

I know what you're thinking--this poor guy is obsessed with a robot and now he's going to start ranting about UFOs. Not exactly. I caught a few minutes of This American Life on NPR yesterday. The show had to do with sons getting to know their fathers. I heard a guy discussing his father's work as a scientist interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). It seems his father started a web site, looking for someone who claimed to be implanted with a probe by aliens, a fairly frequent story among UFO believers. He got lots of responses, but only one that was convincing enough to result in a face-to-face meeting and testing. The son went with his father and other scientists who met up with the alleged probee. The guy said he had an implant in his neck, which sent signals to the ETs. He drew diagrams and formulae on a blackboard, etc. He even had a little circuit board he claimed could pick up the RF signal from the probe. He stuck the device in his mouth and it made noises he said were caused by the probe in his neck. When the guy took off his hat, it was lined with aluminum foil to prevent transmission from his neck to the aliens. He also had applied aluminum foil over his chest. When the scientists tried to pick up a radio frequency signal, there was of course nothing. The guy claimed their instruments weren't sensitive enough. They gave him bus fare and sent him on his way.

This got me thinking that there must be a good piece of fiction in there somewhere. In addition I got notification of a medical fiction writing contest with a rapidly approaching deadline. I started poking around on the web, and found out that a lot of alien abduction stories have elements common to accounts of people with a condition called sleep paralysis, where skeletal muscles, except those controlling the eyes and respiration are paralyzed during the transition between sleep and waking. Turns out that people are normally paralyzed during REM sleep so they don't flail around and act out their dreams. In sleep paralysis, the individual is awake, but still paralyzed. There may be various hallucinations, including the feeling of someone else in the room, often sitting or lying on top of the paralyzed individual. This is probably the origin of stories of old hags, demons, incubi, succubi, and various other supernatural creatures attacking sleepers around the world and throughout history, and ETs entering bedrooms today.

For more about alien abduction, see A Different Pepspective.

Well, in any case, I've started a short story concerning alien abduction and how it is explained by sleep paralysis (or is it?). I hope it will be something I can pass off as medical fiction for the contest.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Reunion 2006

Here is a poem I read at the 35th reunion of the class of 1971 of Wawasee High School.

Reunion

Full circle we have come
to a gym such as this--
once the nexus, the heart
of small towns like ours--
a hardwood-floored temple.

In gyms such as this
we congregated
Friday nights
for the blessed rites
of basketball.

In gyms such as this
the sacrament
of vaccine
on sugar cubes
spared us
from polio's scourge,
from crutch and iron lung.

In gyms such as this
were Jonah Club Fish Fries held.
We shared fishes and loaves:
deep-fried cod
and Wonder Bread.

In gyms such as this
we gathered
for judgment,
costumed for Halloween.

In gyms such as this
we gathered
for drama, for comedy,
for music.

In a gym such as this
restless adolescents
became
robed angels, proceeding,
singing Adeste Fidelis,
mounting risers
to become
a living Christmas Tree.

Outside gyms such as this
our chariots awaited--
the cars of the fortunate sons:
swing low, sweet GTO,
Corvette, Camaro.
And the cars with character--
Mary Ellen's Dragon Wagon,
Susi's Studebaker.
And the mundane rides
of the rest of us--
Volkswagen, Falcon, Rambler.

In gyms such as this
we
sweat,
cheered,
danced,
laughed,
cried,
fought,
loved.

In a gym such as this
we gathered
for commencement--
the beginning to all
that lay ahead
and now lies behind,
beneath the dust
of three decades and a half--
an end to school,
a farewell to friends.

Friends,
full circle we have come
to a gym such as this.
Let us savor our memories.
Let us savor our remaining time.
Let us savor the night.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Acceptance

I'll have to start a new file. This time I got a letter from an editor and IT IS NOT A REJECTION! I wrote an essay entitled "Pimping" about the perversion of the Socratic method used in medical education. Pimping, in the context of medical education, means asking a student a question he has little if any chance of answering correctly in order for the teacher to establish his power over the student. I sent the original essay to Verbatim, The Language Quarterly, which is billed as offering "Language and linguistics for the layperson since 1974." Check out their website. You can read back issues online. There's some pretty clever stuff there. After about a month, I got an email from Erin McKean, the editor, who said she would like to accept the essay if I could shorten it from its original 1900+ words to less than 1500. That night, I pared it down to 1488 words and resubmitted it. She accepted the revision, and I signed the agreement to publish "Pimping" yesterday. Unlike a lot of literary magazines, Verbatim actually pays their contributors. I won't be retiring from radiology just yet, but Mary and I could have a couple nice dinners out, or maybe one really nice dinner with the proceeds.

Monday, June 26, 2006

All Things Elektro










On Palm Sunday, 2006, Mary and I drove to Mansfield, Ohio, to see an exhibit concerning robots built by Westinghouse, which used to be headquartered in Mansfield. The star of the exhibit at the Mansfield Memorial Museum was Elektro, the Moto-Man. I wrote an essay about the trip, entitled "Robot Redux," which I have submitted to a couple of literary journals. Eventually, the essay may show up here, but for now, I can't post it until I find out if it will be published elsewhere.

I have been asked repeatedly why I would want to go to Mansfield, Ohio to see a robot. I don't know, but Elektro may symbolize a simpler time, a time when science and technology were viewed as positive forces, before people thought about the consequences of pollution and alienation that technological advances have wrought. Robots like Elektro would make for a better life in America, or so it seemed when he first appeared at the 1939 New York World's Fair. You can learn more about the 1939 NYWF and other World's Fairs at www.peacethroughunderstanding.org. It's free to register at this forum. There are some hard core World's Fair collectors and aficianados at this site. Another blog that discusses Elektro is that of Kimberly Blessing, who is advocating Elektro for a spot in the Robot Hall of Fame. Click on the link to cast your vote. That's it for now. There will be more about Elektro in future posts.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Frank and Joe Show

Last night, Mary and I went to the Elkart Jazz Festival and saw one of my guitar heroes, Frank Vignola. He was there with Joe Ascione. The two of them are known as "The Frank and Joe Show." The current lineup includes Frank on guitar, Joe on percussion, Rich Zucor on percussion, and Vinnie Raniolo on guitar and bass. They have 3 CDs: 33 1/3, 66 2/3, and the latest, Submarine Bus. During the set we saw, they played the standards, Begin the Beguine and My Prayer, from the 33 1/3 and 66 2/3 CDs respectively, and otherwise played originals like Vinnie the Urologist, Barry's Trading Soybeans, and BBBBBADLP. All good stuff, and funny. The best part is that Bucky Pizzarelli and Jake Hanna were among the jazz players who were to follow Frank and Joe. They were standing in the hall and Frank and Joe called them into the room to sit in for one song. Bucky chose "Sing, sing, sing." It was great! This was the first time I've seen Frank abandon his signature archtop for a flat top acoustic guitar.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Another San Francisco Dead Author


I didn't realize it at the time we were there, but Washington Square Park in San Francisco is associated with a dead alcoholic writer besides Jack Kerouac: Richard Brautigan. While idly web surfing today, I was reminded that Brautigan and his wife posed next to the statue of Ben Franklin (see previous post) for the cover of Trout Fishing in America. It's been quite a while since I read that one, but I think I still have it packed away in a box somewhere. In a more accessible box, I have a collection of stuff my mother never threw away, including a church youth magazine entitled Youth (clever, eh?) dated September 24, 1967. The lead article, "Haight Ashbury and the New Generation," seems even today unusually progressive for the Church of the Brethren. It was written by a minister at the Glide Memorial Methodist Church in Haight Ashbury. One reason I've kept this magazine is that Brautigan's poem, "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace," is reproduced in the article:

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

And so on for two more stanzas talking about pines and electronics and deer strolling peacefully past computers. Pretty crazy stuff for 1967! One of my first composing efforts was setting this poem to music, sitting in my room with my dad's no-name acoustic guitar (which I also still have).

By the way, I wore a pair of glasses pretty much like the guy on the cover of the magazine in the sixties. Eventually mine had the obligatory white fabric tape holding them together after I wore them playing football.

Before I quit for the night, I'm going to post one more relic from the box--my first publication:


It's a riveting tale of our second grade class's field trip in 1961, visiting the local telephone company office, the fire station, and riding on a train. It was neatly transcribed by our teacher, Mrs. Snider and put in the mimeographed yearbook she made for us.

Monday, June 19, 2006

More Dead Author Hangouts

We're back from San Francisco now. While in the North Beach neighborhood, we stopped by the Marconi Hotel, where Allen Ginsberg lived when he came to San Francisco in 1954.We also stopped by 1010 Montgomery Street, where Ginsberg wrote "Howl" in 1955.
And we checked out Washington Square Park, where Jack Kerouac is alleged to have consumed a few bottles of port. The statue is Ben Franklin.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A Visit to Jack London State Park



Mary and I are in California for a week and today we went to Glen Ellen to see the property where Jack London and his wife Charmian lived in the early twentieth century. London proclaimed himself a socialist, but that didn't prevent him from acquiring 1400 acres in the Sonoma Valley. I wonder what he would have said if some of his comrades had showed up wanting to occupy his land? Anyway, he spent his last years here, experimenting with organic farming. London died in 1916 of renal failure. His ashes were buried under this big rock in the woods on his property. That's yours truly posing next to the fence around the grave. I'll add this to my budding collection of pictures of me next to landmarks related to dead authors. So far that includes Edgar Lee Masters's house and grave in Illinois, and an apartment building in Greenwich Village where Allen Ginsberg lived.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Writing Prompts

There are a number of writing prompts that can be used to overcome writer's block or just stimulate creativity. A popular one is timed writing. Just keep the pen moving, without analyzing, rereading, or editing, for a set period of time. Sometimes surprising things can come out of such an exercise.

Another trick is to go to a public place and write down the conversations you hear. I came up with a variation on that theme, which I call the channel surfing prompt. This works best if you have access to a large number of stations through cable or satellite dish. Put the TV on a station and as soon as you hear a complete sentence, hit the mute button, and write down the sentence. Go to the next station and do the same. I did this till I had filled up a couple pages with random sentences. Then I tried to pull out some of the sentences to write a piece of fiction or poem. I wouldn't say this was a wildly successful effort, but I think it has potential, and I will try it again. It might even be more interesting if I don't limit it to complete sentences. This is a work in progress.

Another prompt I have read about is to write a letter to someone--a friend, and enemy, a relative, one of your fictional characters (or have the character write a letter to you). As a variant, I am writing a talk-show style interview with my deceased mother. I'm not sure what, if anything, will come out of that, but it is stimulating a lot of memories.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Chieftains

The Chieftains

The two Chieftains rest,
surrounded by trees
along a creek,
Eyeless,
headlights gone,
wheels gone,
bellies on the ground,
they face northeast, toward Detroit,
like blind pilgrims facing Mecca in prayer.

They are relics
of the twentieth century, named
for Native Americans
who were extinguished
to make way
for industry and agriculture,
for Henry Ford and Cyrus McCormick.

The vehicles’ rusting chrome trim
once reflected
postwar American optimism.
Their substantial steel skins,
now pierced by hunter’s bullets,
are dulled and corroded by the elements,
the once glossy brown of the older sedan
rendered into a palette
of umber, burnt sienna, and russet.

The white top of the newer two-tone two-door,
which gleamed in the fifties,
is now a dirty eggshell.
The lower surfaces
show only muted traces
of the original copper red
amidst the rust.

Helpless against
destructive human impulse,
the windows of both are shattered,
like all abandoned fenestrated artifacts
of civilization.

Exposed to man and nature,
only vestiges of the interiors remain--
tatters of upholstery, rusted springs.
There is no trace
of the cardboard shelves
behind the back seats
which, baked by sun
through the rear windows,
had emanated a peculiar dry aroma.

Gone are the hood ornaments
from these namesakes of Chief Pontiac--
in 1949
an amber translucent likeness of the chief
which morphed into a sleek faceless airplane
in 1955.

The enormous engines,
stripped of some components,
lifeless under skewed hoods—
the straight-eight Silver Streak
and the V-8 Strato Streak--
are monuments to
America’s addiction
to fossil fuels.

One car carried me,
newly born,
home from the hospital,
the other to Little League games.
The Chieftains, like their drivers,
my parents,
roll no more
down life’s highway,
but rest,
forever rest.

Originally published in Children, Churches and Daddies, Vol. 158, March 22, 2006

Rejection Collection

Yesterday I mentioned I am collecting rejection letters. Here's a good one:

Dear Writer,

Thank you for sending your work to AGNI. It received careful consideration here.

We will not be able to publish your manuscript, but we wish you luck placing it elsewhere.

Kind regards,
The Editors

I received this via email two days after putting the submission in the mail. Some careful consideration! I don't know which is worse--instantaneous rejection or waiting for months before getting a response. The best part of this particular rejection was a P.S. offering me a discount if I subscribed to the magazine.

I could just publish my work here on the blog, but then I'd probably have an even smaller audience than I'd have in a literary magazine. Self-publishing removes the affirmation that at least one other human being, besides friends and family, thinks my work should be read be others.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hole in the Head

The article which appeared in the paper had a grand total of one word (poetry) devoted to the writing group. The article focused on a film class being taken by local doctors. The whole project is called the Med Poets Society, and involves Notre Dame professors, or retired professors, teaching classes in the humanities to doctors. I took the writing class last year and the four people who took the class get together once a month to read our work to each other.

One of the things I wrote for the class was a poem about recollections I had while walking the halls of the building where some of my first year medical school classes were held. That poem has been rejected three times--once by The Pharos ("Although much poetry that we do not publish in The Pharos lacks poetic grace, imagery, or rhyme, your piece has much of that. Rather, several of our reviewers have trouble with the content and inferences"), and twice by JAMA, first because it was too long, and the second time, after I shortened it, because it read like "narrative prose." Yes, I'm collecting my rejection letters. Steven King wrote in his book On Writing that when he started sending short stories to magazines as a kid, he put a spike in his wall and hung his rejection letters there. He had quite a thick pile.

Anyway, one of the things I recalled in the poem was a movie, entitled Maganga, we were shown in class. It was about African medicine men, and showed an operation called trephination, or trepanation, where a hole is cut in the skull. This is probably the oldest form of surgery in the world, and has been documented in skulls 7000 years old. Some of the skulls show signs of healing, indicating that people survived. Indeed, some people underwent multiple procedures. It's still done in modern medicine, to drain blood clots around the brain and to implant various devices in the brain. What I find amazing is that there are people out there who are willing to have the procedure done electively for its alleged but unproven positive effect on "brain metabolism." Check out the web site http://www.trepan.com. There are even examples of self-trepanation with electric drills! You can't make stuff like this up.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

First Entry

Well, here I am. This is my first attempt at this blogging thing. I am a board (bored) certified radiologist, seeking fulfillment and enlightenment by trying to do almost anything but what I am trained to do. I build guitars and ukuleles. I take guitar lessons and have performed a couple times. I write fiction and nonfiction, which so far has been rejected by several publications, although I have had a couple poems published in the online and print arts and literary journal, Children, Churches, and Daddies. I make no promise to write in this blog every day. The last time I resolved to write every day was in a noteboook I just dug out of a drawer--the entry was made in 1977 as I was getting ready to enter medical school. It didn't happen then and it's not going to happen now. I am in a writing group locally--four physicians. I read in the paper Monday that we are going to be featured tomorrow. I have no idea what's going to show up in the paper. Guess I'll find out in the morning.

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