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Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Scene I Hate

I saw Up in the Air last night, and by and large I really liked it. It's a movie about grownups, made for grownups. It’s smart and funny, and it reminds you of what a good actor George Clooney can be when he's not trying so hard.

But late in the movie comes The Scene I Hate. If you haven't seen the movie, you should stop now, because ahead thar be spoilers. If you have seen the movie, or don't plan to, or don't mind being spoiled, read on.

The Scene is a movie trope, like the slow clap, or the stalker – I mean romantic lead – showing up in time to stop the wedding. Here, we have a hero who has a Philosophy of Life, which is part of his character, and which he has related to other characters throughout the movie. Late in the plot, he has the opportunity to relate his Philosophy to his biggest and bestest audience yet -- in this case, at a star-studded seminar in Las Vegas. Throughout the course of the film, though, things have happened that make him unsure of him Philosophy of Life. He gets to the podium and sees packed house of expectant faces. He begins to speak... and then ... he has an Epiphany. He can't go on. He leaves the stage to gasps, and perhaps consternation from his hosts. He rushes to his car/plane/horse, newly enlightened, and speeds to the side of his One True Love, or The Child Who is Waiting, or perhaps His Destiny. Under the worst of circumstances, the music swells.

Here's the thing. I'm all for epiphanies, and recognize their value in dramatic structure. In fact, the word has its origin in the revelations of Greek drama. But this scene is inherently false. You never have your epiphany on stage in front of hundreds of people. Unless that epiphany is, "Holy crap, I hate being on stage in front of hundreds of people." In this movie, in particular, there is a scene right before the epiphany, where the character is considering the seminar to come. It is a perfect moment for him to have his reversal, and one that can still have dramatic value without being ridiculous. Worse, up to now, the movie hasn't been overly dramatic. There have been dramatic moments, but they have been natural progressions of the story. We don't need, or want, the Big Moment, especially when it is so obviously tacked-on.

Here's the other thing. One of the reasons we like the character, be it Clooney in this movie or a similar character in another movie, is that was can count on them to get through the speech at the seminar. Or at least to cancel in a timely fashion. We like them because they don't flake out and pursue their Destiny or One True Love without turning off the gas and locking the front door. I'm surrounded with people and their petty epiphanies, and I much prefer those who finish their work on deadline and pay on schedule.

There is a redeeming grace to this scene, as my viewing companion pointed out, and that is that we don't get the Big Speech. The one that begins, "I can't lie to you. I used to believe blah blah blah, but now my eyes are open." The one that ends with stunned silence. Followed by the inevitable Slow Clap.

There's a lot to like about Up in the Air, and fortunately the Epiphany doesn't kill it. But it does inject an unnecessary false note in a movie that, until then, has seemed pretty truthful. And if you're me, it makes you wince, because it's The Scene I Hate.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Too Bad

As I do every year at this time, I'd like to offer my traditional Thanksgiving poem. I am not the author of this ditty, it pains me to say. It was written by a small child who none of you know.

The Pilgrims

When the Pilgrims came to America
They were full of hope and joy
But there was no food
So they starved to death
And that was too bad for them
Yes, that was too bad for them

Then people came from England to see
What happened to the Pilgrims
But all they found
Were the empty houses
And the things they left behind
And that was too bad for them
Yes, that was too bad for them

Granted, this poem seems to have more to do with the Roanoke Colony than the Plymouth Plantation founded some 37 years later. But the simple pleasure it takes in the cruel fate of the colonists runs so counter to the prevailing sentiment of the season that it fills my heart with joy.


The Pilgrims were, of course, a little nuts, a combination of Christian fundamentalists and Jehovah's Witnesses. As I've written in these pages before, they were Puritans, religious conservatives who were upset about the excesses of the Anglican Church. Such as Christmas. And Easter. The Puritans who stayed in England were a driving force in the English Civil War, which led to the rise of (Puritan) Oliver Cromwell and the closing of the theaters (amongst other things). Remember the Restoration? That was the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England. And that's another story.

The Puritans who came to North America believed that Armageddon was at hand and hoped to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in the New World. They saw themselves as the Chosen Elect written about in Revelations, and everyone else – Anglicans, Catholics, and of course all non-Christians (such as Native Americans) – was damned to hell. In their holy war against Satan, you were either with them or you were with the enemy.

They would feel right at home in contemporary America.


The First Thanksgiving was neither a Thanksgiving, nor the First. For the Puritans, "thanksgiving" was a religious observance, which would have been held in September and would have included neither feasting nor games. The Wampanoag, on the other hand, held six such festivals during the year, from the Maple Dance in early spring when the sap began to run to their version of a winter solstice festival. What we celebrate as "Thanksgiving" was a standard harvest festival, which would have been familiar to both the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, and on the part of the Native Americans, would have been held for at least hundreds of years.

Still, it was the first documented harvest festival celebrated by white folks in the New World, and there was plenty to be thankful for (especially considering that the previous winter, nearly half of them had perished). And that's good enough for me.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Too Bad, II

I'm doing something this Thanksgiving I've never done before. I'm observing it alone.

Now before you all get your knickers in a twist, let me assure you that this is not a tragedy. Nor is it a call for eleventh hour invitations. While the situation is not completely my choice, I am not unhappy with the results.

Let me explain.

For the past few years, I've celebrated Thanksgiving with a handful of friends, several of whom are part of my weekly Friday night Salon. You've all read the Tale of the Turducken. For a number of reasons, none of them good, said celebration has been cancelled this year. But for the same reasons, I didn't know it would be cancelled until a couple of weeks ago.

At first, this cancellation was not a cause for alarm. I had several other options.

There is a small family which has become part of my extended family. I spend time with them on a host of occasions throughout the year: holidays, birthdays, summer barbecues. Unfortunately, the father of one half of the couple is in poor health, and they have made plans to spend the holiday weekend with him.

I have another friend whose mother decided, once he got his own apartment, that she was done hosting Thanksgiving, and handed the reins to him. I've had Thanksgiving with them before and hoped to do so again this year. There are several attractive things about this option. The first is that it provides me with the opportunity to cook. When I join this group, I go to my friend's house the night before. Instead of just bringing a side dish, I get up in the morning and help out in the kitchen. Since I enjoy cooking – and since my turkey gravy is a wonder to behold – this is fun for me. The other benefit of visiting this friend is that I spend Thanksgiving night at his house as well, saving me the distinctly unpleasurable task of traveling on a full stomach. Or waking up from a food coma to do so.

Unfortunately, while this option is sort of available this year, it is not attractive. My friend is spending Thanksgiving with his extended family in Kankakee, a mere 70 miles from my house. If I had transportation. Since I don't, I would end up traveling the 45 miles to my friend's house by commuter rail, only to journey an additional 60 miles to Kankakee. Not gonna happen. Especially since I would not have the opportunity to help with the cooking, and I would have to travel on a full stomach, both of which obviate the very reason for wanting to spend the holiday with these people to begin with.

You see my predicament.

Thanksgiving with friends was "officially" cancelled 10 days ago. (I had a sense of its demise a week before that.) I got the news about Kankakee and my other friend's plans last Friday. This still gave me nearly a week to make other arrangements. I have family in the city and nearby suburbs, as well as other friends on whose good graces I could call. But here's the thing. For the past few years, I've been roasting a turkey this week anyway. Having Thanksgiving at a friend's house means you miss out on leftovers, arguably the best part about Thanksgiving dinner. Even if you go home with a packet of leavings, it's rarely anything substantial enough for a second meal, and sometimes not enough for a truly worthwhile sandwich. So I've taken to buying a small turkey I can roast for leftovers and stock. I make enough spiced cranberries to bring some for dinner and still have some at home. And that's a start.

This year, I'm making dinner for myself. Butternut squash soup to start. Then comes turkey, with sage stuffing (not traditional in my family) with sausage and apples, mashed sweet potatoes (a lower fat alternative) and Brussels sprouts (which only I like) roasted with shallots. I have the makings for a pumpkin pie, but I'm not a big dessert fan, so I may skip it. After dinner, I'll watch Miracle on 34th Street, which starts on Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas Eve, or maybe the original Yours, Mine and Ours, with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball (and a young Tim Matheson) on Turner Classic Movies.

Mind you, this is not a new tradition. I'm not such a grinch that I'll want to spend every Thanksgiving alone. (Hmmm. Maybe I'll watch The Grinch on DVD.) But for this year, it's a not unpleasant notion.

The More Things Change

In preparing this holiday article, I took a look back into the files. Here's some of what I found:

Wild About Harry, part II
I've seen it. In fact, I was one of the millions who saw it on Saturday, rocketing it to the highest one-day gross in history.

[The original "Wild About Harry" article, the previous week, anticipated the release of the first Harry Potter film. I didn't expect to see it until after the initial buzz died down, so my attendance on that Saturday was a surprise to me.]

King Harry
"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" opened at multiplexes across the land last Friday. There were special midnight screenings at 12:01 am on Friday morning, for those kids who needed their Harry fix. Since the movie is over 2 1/2 hours long, these kids didn't make it to bed until after 3 in the morning. Thanks, Mom! Now off to school!

[I didn't send a Thanksgiving Reader in 2003 (nor, in fact, from September 2003 until March 2004!), and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" wasn't released until the summer of 2004. But last year's issue opened with a familiar theme:]

This week's issue is mostly reruns. I had my teeth cleaned today and it's 7:30 and I'm just not up for anything new.

[And also:]

As I write these words, I'm wearing the last of my Crest Whitestrips (TM). This Dental Whitening System is guaranteed to give you noticeably whiter teeth in just 14 days. Well, I've followed their regimen for the past two weeks and don't see any difference.

[It's hard to believe that just one short year ago, many of us were mourning the results of the presidential election. Here's a snippet:]

I can't write any more about politics without my head exploding, but I can't think of anything but politics. I'm like something out of Scanners. I need to take this break to wash that president right out of my hair. Come December, maybe I'll be funny again.

[Here are a few other appropriate blurbs from that prescient issue:]

If the message of the first four years was, "If you're a Democrat who disagrees with George Bush, you'd better watch out," the message of the next four years is already shaping up as, "If you're a Republican who disagrees with George Bush, you'd better watch out."

I was appalled to see Arlen Specter, a five term Senator and loyal foot soldier to the Republican Party, slapped down for suggesting anti-abortion judges might find confirmation a tough road. ... Oh, by the way, in the past four years, Democrats have blocked only 10 of Bush's judicial nominations, while passing 203. MORE THAN UNDER ANY PRESIDENT IN HISTORY. Yeah, Specter and the Dems are a real threat.

Meanwhile, House Republicans changed their rules so Tom DeLay could remain in place as House Majority Leader even if he is indicted for a felony and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist plans to change Senate rules so that a judicial nomination could be brought to the floor for a vote by a simple majority rather than the three-fifths majority - 60 votes - now needed to end a filibuster. You are with us or you are with the terrorists.

[This all sounds very familiar to me. Back in 2001, we were a nation at war. In Afghanistan. Remember Afghanistan?]

Nothing like a little war to make the holidays special. It's an American tradition. Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night to take Trenton. The Battle of the Bulge took place during Christmas and New Year 1944/45. Remember the Tet offensive? Now that was holiday spirit!

American forces are going to have a tough time of it this Thanksgiving. With Bob Hope sinking fast, Wayne Newton, in his new position as USO chairman, is threatening to entertain the troops. He's already staged a Veterans Day benefit, "Las Vegas Salutes the Spirit of America," featuring Robert Goulet, Rick Springfield, Carrot Top and Rich Little. Nothing like rounding up a passel of has-beens and second stringers to raise both spirits and cash. Now he's on the road with Rob Schneider, country singer Neal McCoy, Bo Derek and The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. I guess Connie Stevens and Phyllis Diller are staying home.

So let's see ... a new Harry Potter movie, dental problems, controversy surrounding the War on Terror ... it must be Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Pusher Man

As you know, this time last week I was in recovery from dental surgery. Okay, an extraction. The dentist sent me home with two prescriptions: one for Amoxicillin, an antibiotic to cure the infection on one side of my mouth, and another for Vicodin, to ease the pain on the other. In both cases, he checked the "may substitute" box on the prescription.

I filled the scrips at CVS. This is not my usual drugstore, not that I have one, but if I did it would be the Walgreens down the street. But there's a newish CVS in my neighborhood, and so they've been sending out coupons. One offered a $25 gift card with a new prescription. How could I say no?

I should have known something was up when the first response of the pharmacist was, "These are some good meds." She clarified her statement by saying they weren't very expensive, but the cat had stuck its head out of the bag. I dithered about the store while she filled the prescription.

When I returned, another pharmacist – the actual pharmacist? – gave me the prescription, but also a tip. Instead of Vicodin, she had substituted Hydrocodone, which is Vicodin without the sharkskin suit. The prescription was for 8 pills. Since the instructions specified a dose of one tablet every 4 to 6 hours, this was 2 or 3 days' worth of treatment. Sufficient. But the pharmacist informed me that, as with many kinds of drugs, the more you buy, the cheaper they are. 8 pills were $10.99. But my scrip allowed for one refill, and 16 pills were also $10.99. Did I want the double dose?

When I originally went to my periodontist, I had some extensive work done. At the time, he prescribed some Vicodin, but told me that Advil would probably do the job just as well. He was right. He told me the same thing this time, and said I could choose whether or not I wanted to spend the money on Vicodin. He could have skipped the second prescription altogether, but pain is unpredictable.

The druggist was not making any more money by selling me twice as much opiate. Unless she was getting a kickback from the drug company for pushing their product. But it's a generic drug; there is no brand name. As for the sale, it was the same price. For twice as much. I understand the concept of bulk discounts. But it's never the same price for twice as much.

I appreciate her informing me of the savings possibility from a perspective of customer service. But did I need twice as much hydrocodone? Did I need half as much?

Between 1988 and 1998, the number of prescriptions per year for first-time users of Vicodin and similar painkillers grew from 500,000 to 1.6 million.

In animal studies in the 1930s, researchers discovered that hydrocodone, in addition to being an effective painkiller, "induced euphoria, and therefore there was danger of addiction." The drug produced "excitation indistinguishable from that produced by morphine in morphine-tolerant rats." Finally, "Its repeated administration to dogs and monkeys leads to the development of tolerance but more slowly than that of morphine or Dilaudid [a relative of morphine] and to the occurrence of abstinence syndromes that are less severe than with the other drugs." In other words, not only is it addictive, but you don't know you're getting addicted until you're really addicted.

I will not become addicted to hydrocodone. I don't have a doctor that will keep writing me prescriptions for the stuff. But I do have a pharmacist who will sell me twice as much as necessary for the same price. And in a world in which patients are told to ask their doctors about drugs X, Y and Z, and doctors write three times as many prescriptions for the stuff as they did 20 years ago, I am in a growing minority.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Downward Spiral

When I woke up Tuesday morning, little did I know I would end the day one tooth lighter.

This story begins a couple of months ago. Actually, it begins in 1989.

That was the year I lost a filling and decided I should go to the dentist for the first time in a decade. If you are a Bliss, you know that we don't believe in all that new fangled medicine. If you are married to a Bliss, you know how set we are in our beliefs. Passing out on the front lawn is sometimes enough to get us to go to the doctor. Sometimes.

In fact, I think I lost that filling before 1989. But in 1989 I discovered I would not be teaching at Loyola in 1990, so I had better take advantage of my dental insurance and get that filling replaced. A friend recommended a dentist, and though I never actually saw that dentist, I did see his associate. Replacing the filling was no big deal. As it turned out, the associate told me he saw no sign of decay in that tooth, and the filling had probably not been necessary in the first place. He filled the hole with bonding compound (or some such thing; it's been 16 years), cleaned my teeth and took some X-rays, probably not in that order.

Then he told me a version of that old joke: "Your teeth are fine, but your gums have to come out."

This was not the first time I had been told I had periodontal problems. As a small child, I went to a dentist who told me I had gingivitis. On the other hand, he told everyone they had gingivitis. He "treated" me for it, and no dentist ever mentioned it again. But as I saw perilously few dentists in my adult life, I had little opportunity to receive another such diagnosis.

Anyway, my new dentist sent me to a periodontist, which led to a long and unpleasant procedure, the details of which I won't go into at this time. (Said procedure was also terribly expensive, at least for Loyola's insurance company.) In order to avoid going through such an experience again, I've continued going to this periodontist. Three times a year.

I had my last cleaning and checkup in July, so when my tooth starting bothering me, I didn't think much of it. At first it was just some sensitivity in the last molar on the upper right side of my mouth. Because of my periodontal problems, I will occasionally experience some discomfort in my gums. Generally, that means I need to pay some attention to that area when I brush and floss, and in a day or two it clears up. So I paid some attention to that area when I brushed and flossed. It didn't clear up.

It didn't get worse, but it didn't get better. It was very sensitive to cold. And increasingly sensitive to heat. I couldn't chew on that side, because pressure hurt. But I had not yet passed out on the lawn.

Then another tooth started acting up.


Let me tell you something about my teeth. They're heroic. I can count the number of cavities I've had in my life on one hand. While crossing my fingers. And sucking my thumb. Despite my periodontal issues -- which, by the way, never caused me any pain, at least not until after I had them fixed -- I've never had any real trouble with my teeth. Then, a month or so before my appointment last July, I started having problems with the last molar on the lower left side of my jaw. (If you're keeping score, this is exactly opposite the tooth which just started bothering me.) It didn't hurt, but it felt odd. Out of alignment. At first I thought it was a result of how I had been sleeping. Or god knows what. But I cleaned it and flossed it (and marked it with a B), and after a few days it took care of itself.

However -- and this may be a cause of some surprise at this point in the narrative -- I mentioned it to the dentist on my last visit. (We don't like going in, but once we're there we take care of things.) The thing is, it wasn't bothering me any more. So he poked it and prodded it (and marked it with a B), and said there may have been some infection in the gum which had caused some swelling, and that had affected the tooth, but it looked okay now. If it bothered me again, he said I should call him and he'd prescribe some antibiotics.

As should be obvious by now, the other tooth that started acting up was that lower molar. So now I couldn't chew on my right side because of the painful tooth and couldn't chew on my left side because of the misaligned tooth. I finally called the dentist.

Okay, here's another thing. It's not easy to get in to see my dentist. He's only in his office on Tuesdays and Thursdays (periodontal work pays well), and is usually pretty booked up. I go in for cleanings and checkups every four months, and sometimes we're scrambling for an appointment. (The hygienist is only there on Thursdays -- for your convenience -- but she works elsewhere. Hygiene work doesn't pay as well.) And I have an appointment in two weeks. So at first I didn't call because I had just been to the dentist, and figured it couldn't be anything that serious, because someone would have spotted it. Then I didn't call because I figured I'd be going back in a few weeks anyway. So when I called on Tuesday, it was only to arrange to have him look at my tooth on December 1, when I had an appointment.

It didn't turn out that way.

As it turned out, the dentist had to be out of the office by 1 pm on Tuesday. Because of this, he hadn't scheduled any appointments after 11 am. So when I called at 9:30 and told his assistant what was going on, she said, "What are you doing right now?"

I wasn't doing anything I couldn't put off.

The dentist was in surgery, but would be done by 11. Could I come in by 11:30?

I was there at 10:50.


My dentist works in a "professional building" on Sheffield Avenue. I generally end up in one of the little windowless examining rooms, where the cleaning takes place. This time I was shown into the big examining room, where the X-ray machine lives. The chair faces a row of windows which look out on Sheffield. Across the street is a condo building where yuppies live. (Are there still yuppies?) Location, location, location. These fools have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for an apartment with a view of a dentist's office. Compete with X-ray, drill, the whole magilla. With the big ass chair looking right at 'em. Suckers.

Not that this affects them. As the dentist told me while he was prepping me for X-rays, one of his neighbors practices yoga with his blinds up. In his underwear. I'll let you figure that out.

It's been a while since I've had dental X-rays. The dentist hands me a piece of equipment the size and shape of canning tongs and says, "Can you bite down on this?" My first response is, "I don't think so." But I do. He shoots both teeth, the upper right and the lower left. Then goes to develop them.

Before he shoots the X-rays, he puts the lead apron over my chest and soft parts. I can't remember the last time I've felt so comforted. Really. You're in the big La-Z-Boy with the headrest to begin with, then he lays this shield on you that's not too heavy, but has just enough heft. It's padded and it's fitted and it covers you like a big lead security blanket. I want one for my couch.

Anyway, he comes back in a few minutes and says, "This doesn't look good." Which is something you never want to hear from a doctor. It has to do with impacted wisdom teeth -- are there any other kind? Apparently one is pressing against my upper tooth. It is, he tells me, "wrapped around it." Which I believe is an exaggeration. He shows me the X-ray, and sure enough ... oh, who the hell am I kidding. He does show me the X-ray, and he explains what's going on, which is why I like this dentist, but I don't have my reading glasses and it's a one- by two-inch piece of film, and all I see is teeth. Apparently the problem on the lower left is also due to an impacted wisdom tooth, so I'm two for two on that score. There is indeed a pocket between the teeth which has become infected, so he prescribes some antibiotics to take care of the problem "for now." When I ask him when we might have to actually deal with that problem, he says, I kid you not, "The crystal ball is fuzzy." As for the other tooth, the one on top, the best thing to do is pull it. "You want to do it right now?"


Here's another thing about the Blisses. When you ask us, "You want to do it right now?" our immediate response is generally "No." If you ask us, "Do you want to ...?" our response is generally "No." Once we think about it, we come around. But we're not cliff jumpers.

I said yes. Hell, I'm in the office, the tooth has to come out, let's do it! Truth be told, I had a sense the tooth might be coming out. It was not feeling very secure, and neither was I. So I had already gotten past no on my own.

Fortunately for the neighbors, we relocated to another windowless room for the extraction. I'm sure you don't want to hear all about it. The highlights: He thinks he can pull it out with his bare (well, gloved) hands. I did too. The tooth did not. So he goes after it with the forceps. No dice. Finally... You remember Mary Poppins' umbrella? The one with the handle shaped like a parrot's head? He eventually resorts to some tool roughly the same size and shape to yank out this tooth which is already being pushed out of my head by an aggressive wisdom tooth. "You may feel some pressure," he understates. Victory.


So now I am one tooth light. And you know what? It makes me feel old. The good thing is that it's the very last molar on the top, so it's not visible. And he checked my old X-rays, and the other upper wisdom tooth is far enough away from its molar that it shouldn't cause any problems. And for now, the tooth on the bottom seems to be under control.

But this is the first "permanent" tooth I've lost. There's a gaping hole in my mouth. And while its nice that the pain is gone, it's still going to be a while before I'm comfortable chewing on that side. And I'm already rinsing dinner out of the Gum Canyon.

This is the way the world ends, I suppose. Not with a bang but a whimper.