Saturday, March 31, 2007


He's baaaack.

(That would be Zach. From L.A.)


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Actual Fun

For a class I'm taking at the J-school, I have to write a profile of an editor—any editor. It could be a newspaper editor, magazine editor, book editor, copy editor, whatever. To report the story, we were supposed to arrange to shadow the editor at work for a day. Our professor, who has worked at the New York Times for 20+ years, offered to connect us with someone at the paper if we wished.

Well, I wished.

At first, I asked her to hook me up with someone from the Science/Health section, since that's what I've been spending so much of my time on. I figured it was the strategic choice: a potential future contact, someone to whom I could pitch stories down the road.

About five minutes later, I realized I had made a huge mistake. After all, I've been living medicine, right? Shouldn't I seize the opportunity to take a break from all that and write about something, you know, fun??

Yes. Yes, I should.

And that's how I ended up spending the day with the editor who oversees the Dining, Home, and Real Estate sections at the paper. I basically followed her around all day, which was a pretty cool thing to do. It was work, of course—I had to be in "sponge" mode, and I practically crippled my hand filling a notebook with observations and quotes—but it was the kind of work I'd happily do all day, every day.

I hadn't been in a regular workplace in almost two years, and it was really nice to be around smart, funny, collaborative people again, if only for a day.

Oh, and there was even a bonus: not a doctor in sight!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Communal Empathy?

One of the many things I haven't been doing of late is following the political scrum leading up to next year's primaries and election. (The irony of being in J-school but not being able to stay up on current events—because I'm too busy being in J-school—is not remotely lost on me. It's just that I've surrendered on this point.)

Some stuff penetrates anyway—I do glance at the headlines, at the very least, and I do leave the house pretty much every day, so I get some news just through osmosis. And it is pretty hard to miss the tabloids' front-page headlines on the subway.

I did happen to see word that John and Elizabeth Edwards were going to hold a press conference on Thursday. And I did find out, through Zach, that the left-leaning blogosphere was going wild with speculation—about Mrs. Edwards's health and exactly what it would mean for her husband's candidacy.

I looked through about a dozen posts on this subject, and I could see people really struggling with their emotions. Everyone wished Elizabeth Edwards well, of course, but there was also a great deal of hand-wringing about the election. The comments I read showed people reasoning their way through every conceivable scenario and trying to figure out what each one would mean for Edwards, for the campaign, for the election, and for the country. The scale of collective angst was enormous.

And it occurred to me that in this moment, the public (or its blogging proxy, anyway) might have some sense of what it is like to be on tenterhooks, awaiting the results of a biopsy or a blood test or a CT or PET scan: to have one's mind race with all of the what-ifs, to work oneself into a frenzy, to try—and immediately fail—to think of anything but that test and the very real possibility that its outcome will be life-changing.

It's still one step removed, of course—the comment-writers weren't worried about their own health. They were, however, worried about their own futures. Just a little more acutely than they'd been the day before.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


It feels good to be able to breathe again.

Gradually, over the last few days, I've begun to rediscover my equilibrium. Some of that has to do with momentum—my dad is out of the hospital and back in rehab, my master's project is in, Zach is coming home soon, and the end of the semester (if not my degree) is finally in sight. Just three more significant deadlines to go, and all of them feel completely within reach.

My current level of stress is still well above recommended levels, but at least the needle has dipped out of the red zone, where intractable panic sets in. That panic and its accompanying paralysis are probably far worse than whatever eventuality one is panicked and paralyzed about.

Not that much has changed in fact—life remains way too intense. But it's as if someone opened the pressure valve on my psyche and siphoned off a tiny bit of stress, keeping me just this side of the tipping point/slippery slope/[your clichéd euphemism here]. I'm still close enough to the edge (although, fortunately, not the ledge) that I can see beyond it and know that I do not want to reach whatever you'd call the polar opposite of the Promised Land. (The Broken Promise Land?)

And I am going to fight like hell to stay right here until—someday soon, I hope—I can start retreating even further back, if not all the way to the Promised Land, then at least to safer ground.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Muted Celebrations

I turned in my master's project today. It's the J-school equivalent of a thesis, and I'd been working on it for six months. Six very long months. There were many, many times when I thought I'd never finish it, so this is a significant triumph.

Still, handing it in turned out to be almost completely anticlimactic. I was expecting a surge of victory or a wave of relief or some other kind of onrushing emotion, but none of that happened. No jubilation, nothing.

Perhaps that big release is absent because the master's project is a major milestone on the path to graduation—something that is no longer quite within sight. The achievement is no less real, but to have the gratification deferred—again—robs it of some of its immediate meaning.

I'm proud of the 9,000-word piece, and my adviser is optimistic that I'll be able to publish it once I do a little more work (mainly a serious trim, but some additional reporting as well). She thinks the jubilation will come then, when there is a tangible payoff for all of the effort.

By that time, perhaps life will be less fraught and celebrating will feel more natural.

I hope the same will be true for my mom, whose birthday was today. She wasn't up for celebrating either, so the occasion passed almost completely unheralded—one more rain check to be cashed down the road.

The two of us had a quiet dinner together after visiting hours ended. It wasn't a celebration, but it was at least a bit of a respite.

And both of us were up for that.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Reality, and Bowing Thereto

Sometimes the universe speaks. Other times it shouts.

A couple of days ago, after hearing about my dad's and Zach's sequential hospital stays, one of my professors offered to give me an incomplete in his class, allowing me to defer a massive amount of work (and three daunting deadlines) until sometime over the summer.

Doing so would mean not graduating in May and instead receiving my degree in the mail sometime around October.

Despite the fact that I've been counting down the days to graduation, and the fact that I had an adamant now-or-never attitude about finishing school this semester, the unexpected offer felt so much like salvation that I was left almost breathless.

It took just one conversation yesterday to work out most of the details. And if I had any doubt about the decision, it was extinguished a few hours later, when my mom called to say that my dad had been taken to the emergency room for the second time in three weeks.

The good news is that he is already out of the ER (although that did take 24 hours). The better news is that he is in a far superior hospital this time around. And the best news is that he is not in any danger. It looks like sending him to the ER in the first place was some kind of misguided overreaction.

He'll likely be in the hospital for a few more days, having his medications adjusted and a couple of tests done. My mom has been referring to it as "a tune-up."

Today is exactly six months from his original surgery, so I guess he is due.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Miles to Go

As of yesterday, I am officially on spring break.

In J-school parlance, however, this period is known as "the alleged spring break" or, alternatively, "spring reporting break."

That's because our only real break is from classes, which do not resume until Monday the 19th. We have a huge deadline on that very day, for example.

Now, I am of the mind that you have the big deadline on the Friday before instead of the Monday after, thus not robbing the break of its literal meaning, but no one asked to read my mind before setting the academic calendar. (Shocking, I know.)

Besides reporting and writing and deadlines, the other thing from which I am apparently not getting a break is falling apart. I'm pretty sure I haven't gone an entire day without dissolving into tears in several weeks now. I just had a pretty good jag about an hour ago.

Zach is very sensibly trying to talk me into just doing what I can to get through the next 67 days. You don't have to be the best student in the class, he says.

I'm just trying to stay in the class, I say.

Unfortunately, the effort required to be the best student in the class is not actually all that much more than what is required simply to pass. That may sound crazy, but the workload is so unreasonable that just completing every assignment is a gigantic undertaking.

In my conversation with Zach, I likened it to a marathon. I'm not remotely trying to finish first, I said. I'm not even trying to finish in the top 100. Even if I wanted to, I'm not capable of that right now.

But I still have to finish, and that means doing the full 26.2 miles.

And right now, it feels like I have 25.2 to go.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Thank You

A guest blog from Zachary....

Events turned for the better, and after nearly four days of misery, starvation and gut pain, I was very happily sprung from the hospital this morning. My release came a day or two in advance of what I'd been told to expect, and certainly sooner than I'd had any right to hope for.

For most of my time, I shared a room with a lovely Dublin man in his 50s, who'd come to New York four weeks ago for the first time in his life. He'd planned to go sightseeing and see some shows (Phantom, Les Miz and Lion King, natch). Instead, after only one night in the States, he developed a severe leg circulation problem, underwent two surgeries (including skin grafts), nearly lost his leg (but he won't, thankfully) and wound up stuck in a bed for over a month. It appears as though he'll finally return to the Emerald Isle next Monday.

So am I complaining? No way, José.

Jody came to the hospital early to escort me home; we were both back in Brooklyn before noon. I have to take some antibiotics for a while, but I'll be fine.

Many thanks to all of you for the good wishes. :)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


I have held off on writing this post, first out of sheer exhaustion and then out of a sense that life has hurtled so far into the territory of the absurd that sharing this news would prompt universal incredulity. I started thinking about the boy who cried wolf and wondered what would have happened at the end of the story if the boy had been telling the truth all along.

Then I started thinking about the old episode of M*A*S*H in which Klinger tries, for the umpteenth time, to get out of the Army. He walks into Colonel Blake's office with a letter from home about one or another of his relatives being ill or having died. The letter is fake, of course.

Blake looks at him, unimpressed, then pulls out a file from his desk and starts reviewing all of the other letters that Klinger has presented to him: father dying, mother dying, both parents dying, mother dying and older sister pregnant, and on an on. Then he gets to the last letter in the file.

"An oldie and a goodie," he says. "Half the family dying, the other half pregnant." The camera pans to Klinger's defeated face.

Let me be clear: No one is dying. (No one is pregnant, either.)

But Zach is now in the hospital, with a flare-up of diverticulitis. He started having attacks about 10 years ago, a good 30 years earlier than average. (We are both, it seems, medically precocious.) They were few and far between for a long time, but they began to get more severe and more frequent in 2003.

The worst attack happened that December, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a blizzard, about 12 hours before we were expecting 40 guests for a holiday party. Zach had made homemade gravlax and had smoked a tenderloin for the occasion. It was the first time I ever had to call 911.

A few months later, after a generous supply of Cipro had gotten him through his first leading role in a regional-theater production, Zach finally had surgery. Because of his age and the severity of his case, it was really the only option. The surgery went well, and it appeared to have cured him. He had had no trouble at all in the three years since.

Until last weekend.

Fortunately, he was home for a visit at the time. Unfortunately, it meant we spent about six hours in the ER on Saturday night, waiting for blood tests and X-rays and a CT scan. Once the tests confirmed the diagnosis, we had to wait another couple of hours for a bed to become available. That finally happened at about 2:30 a.m.

Zach is actually doing pretty well, as these things go. He's on IV antibiotics, but he hasn't needed any pain medication since late Saturday night. The major bummer (aside from being in the hospital) is that he wasn't allowed to eat for 72 hours while the infection and the pain quieted down. As of this morning, however, he is on clear liquids, which will give way to regular liquids, probably by tonight, and then, if all goes well, to soft, bland foods tomorrow. He should be home in another day or two and able to fly back to L.A. a day or two after that.

In the meantime, if you'd like to send him a get-well message, you can do that here.

And just because turnabout is fair play, here's a photo of Zach with his IV pole:

I wish I had some hard-earned wisdom to share after this latest episode of life kicking us in the teeth (or, in Zach's case, the gut). The truth is I don't. Maybe that will come in time. For now, I am just trying to keep it together, as much as possible.

And hoping that no one ever again asks, "So, what's new?"

Thursday, March 01, 2007


First things first:

My dad is out of the hospital and back in rehab. We are all, needless to say, tremendously relieved. He is doing pretty well—returning to physical therapy and generally getting back into the rehab routine.

Once the paramedics arrived to transport him from the hospital, I headed home and back to work. I've been writing steadily for the past couple of days, trying hard to meet the twice-extended deadline for the second draft of my master's project. Pretty much the whole rest of the class turned theirs in 10 days ago, which means that our professors now feel that they have license to turn up the already high temperature in all of our other classes. And yes, dear reader, I have been feeling the burn.

To give you a little taste of one of the classes I am taking, Book Writing, here is a link to a story about it that ran Tuesday on NPR. It's worth listening to the audio version of the story—you'll get much a better sense of the class than from the text version. (I am proud to say that I have not—yet, anyway—contributed to the CPP. These are the small victories with which I must comfort myself.)

The story is about four minutes long. I'd estimate that the producer spent at the very least 10—and more likely 20—hours taping our class, and additional time doing one-on-one interviews with the professor and a few students and alums. Comparing the quantity of raw material gathered to the amount ultimately used in the piece yields a ratio of at least 150:1.

Yes, you read that right.

And while that ratio is lower in print than in broadcast journalism, it is still, to me at least, a daunting figure. And it is one of my great struggles with this undertaking: so much panning, so little gold. So much wheel-spinning, so little traction. It is just so, so hard to do this at all, let alone to do it well.

I am going back to my master's project now, to many more hours of flailing about while trying to make sense of a sprawling story, and trying to do it accurately, and fluidly, and without clichés.

Wish me luck.