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Hello, friends

My Hospital Stay


This Thanksgiving didn't go as planned. I spent the day and night at Eden Memorial Hospital in Castro Valley after checking in for chest pains and high blood pressure. They wanted to observe me, so installed me in a private room with a big TV bolted to the wall--you know, standard hospital set up--where I watched an amazing cable channel program called Blue Marvel. Slow nature scenes without human voices calmed me down and made me wish I were a moose, that big antlered one dipping his head in the river in Maine. What a moose! I also wanted to be a wave on the Atlantic coast and another wave on the Pacific coast, rising and breaking and rising and breaking. I watched repeats of each program and didn't tire of the scenery, the natural sounds, the lack of human voices. Yellowstone figured in, and the big island of Hawaii. It was all gorgeous and soothing. Catch it if you get cable. I don't. Not the deluxe package anyway. Blue Marvel.

The turkey was almost done and our guest was almost here and the house looked warm and cozy and everything was going superbly for our best Thanksgiving dinner ever, everything timed perfectly, my son Ben helping out, Jackie a star in the kitchen, me an adroit helper, the music on, the news off, the day cheerful and honest, a bright fall day, with enough gray to make the leaves stand out autumnally, and smoke in the air from a neighbor's chimney when I stepped outside to get air. I did this often because inside I worried and fretted and battled anxiety, a looming sense of dread, of unavoidable catastrophe. I took my anxiety pill ("as needed" says the bottle, and I popped 'er open), and walked around the block and saw neighbors strolling post-prandially, perhaps, the early eaters, and jovially, everybody happy and thankful. All this unfolded around me so splendidly and movingly and authentically American, so naturally and kindly, not a worry in the air, only that wisp of smoke, I should have taken off my shirt and pretended I was an Indian coming out of the suburban bushes ready to partake of the national feast. I'm Indian enough! I can play both sides! I chuckled and stayed busy and still, I felt it, a pain in my chest.

Once, I think I almost had a stroke but kept it to myself, so tight and awful was my chest in that time of high stress, about five years ago. I'm sure I almost had a stroke. Well, this time I decided to check my blood pressure. Next thing you know Jackie's on the phone, calmly, with me sitting outside, calmly, giving the numbers and the symptoms to the right people ("170 over 100, his chest hurts a little bit"). Next thing you know I'm in the hospital because of the chest pain, which wasn't severe but persistent enough to concern me, obviously, and I'm still unfazed but a little upset that I just fucked up Thanksgiving dinner.

"I fucked it up, didn't I?" I told Jackie.

"No, don't be silly. Ben's home with Jim. They're talking at the kitchen table having a good time."

"Is the bird out?"

"I don't know. How are you feeling?"

"Like a champ." I'm hooked up to the EKG machine after another blood pressure check, which proved worse, 180 over 100, but nobody seems too concerned. I've got the wires stuck to me and the machine is producing a graph of my ticker and the RN's are pros and the hospital is well lit and Jackie is sitting next to me attentively and I said bye to Ben earlier without a hint of major perturbation but with a dose of love, and it's not a bad place to die, really. I don't think this is going to happen, but oddly enough, if you go back three blogs or so, you'll see that I had a mild premonition many years ago that I would croak in my 57th year, or something eventful would happen, and it is kind of weird, you know? I'm sitting there thinking, Well, fuck, maybe this is it, the beginning of the end, my departure, my death. "Good thing I got all in order."

"What'd you say?"

"Nothing. You know where everything is, right? Our papers, our important stuff."

"Oh, shut up," she said. "They just want you in because of your chest, otherwise they would've just prescribed some medicine for the weekend to get your blood pressure down."

"That's what they said?"

"Yes. I already told you."

"Think I'll be able to go home in time for the turkey?"

"This usually takes a long time," the RN behind the machine said honestly. He gave me a meaningful look. Like, Buddy, just relax.

He smiled. And I almost broke into tears. I was so fucking tender.

And Jackie picked up my hand and squeezed it. And he got busy printing out the findings and keeping me comfortable with slight adjustments of my tubes and wires and asking me a lot of questions about my recent moods that brought me here.

"Anxiety. Tension."

"Over what?"

"The election."

"Oh, that?"

"Yeah, that. It tipped me over. I'm on the floor of the Democratic Convention wearing a big Independent sign just screaming and blathering and blubbering and finger-pointing and looking up in the auditorium and seeing the Klan sitting in the second tier, watching me in their hooded arrogance come apart. I make a speech on capitalism and democracy but it just comes out in Spanish even though I don't speak Spanish and the migra busts in and hauls me away to some unspeakable internment camp. I don't want to go on, man. Do you get me?"

"You got an imagination, don't you?"

"Yeah, I write, I scribble. I'm kind of torn up about it all."

"I see that, friend." He patted my hand, my other hand, a chubby guy with Southern roots evident in the slightest of drawls, a tattoo on his meaty bicep obscured by his medical blouse, a kind face with a light beard, greenish eyes, and sweetness in his every move.

"I voted for the other guy," he said.

"That one?"

"No, the other guy, the loser."

Ah, a Johnson man, I thought. A diehard Libertarian. Right on. He was almost done with some papers at the small desk in the corner, gabbing away, filling out forms.

"It's gonna be all right, man," he said, turning to look at me. "Let's get you out of here and set up in the next room. The doctor is coming to see you and you better behave."

"I don't need no doctor." I recited a line from the great Humble Pie song, mildly, under my breath, and walked strongly to a nearby room to await results after an imperative chest x-ray and blood test.

"Better call Ben and tell them to start eating."

"I'll wait here with you," Jackie said. "Everything's fine."

"Hey, thanks, man," I told the dude as he left the small room he set me up in. "You've been real helpful and comforting."

"I try my best, man. You just relax. I think you're gonna be just fine but we don't know anything till we know something, do we, sir? Just sit tight. You've got your lovely wife with you. I'm gonna run around and poke my head in when I get a chance."

"Okay, David." (I believe that was his name.) "I'll sit still here in Eden Hospital and listen to the birds chirp around me." I pointed to the air filled with birdsong. "And enjoy the show. God is with us, isn't he?"

"I don't know about that, sir."

"Me, neither. Go do your thing, man. I'm here. I'm fine."

I heard him whistling down the hall and talking to his friends and cheering up patients and laughing loudly and making sure life went on.

"Oh, man, how long are we gonna be here?" I said.

"For a long time, probably," she said.

And we waited.


We waited so long but it wasn't so bad, not nearly as long as the time we waited for Jackie, another time, another problem, a goddamn gallstone that nearly knocked her over in pain until the doctor arrived and medicated her. We muttered pleas for the head doctor to show up and release me. Meantime, things happened. I got a chest X-ray that showed the cross I wear on the daily, so I had to get it redone, and I got my blood drawn and my blood pressure monitored and talked to a lot of medics who begin to blur, all of them kind and professional, not an indifferent or off-putting one among them.

And it was California. Jeez, every nation represented on earth in some capacity, all to help me. "This place works!" I thought.

And it wasn't the California I grew up in, not close. That one was white, with some Mexicans doing this and that, mostly that, and some black folks doing a little bit more in the this and that department, and I slight them both, unintentionally, because professionals and workers and mid-level employees in all fields came from both principal minority groups, and when I say Mexicans I mean Mexican-Americans, of course, as well as Mexican nationals working the fields and wherever they could get in and earn a living. And Asians played a role, mostly Japanese-Americans in my part of L.A., but Chinese, a few Koreans, a few Filipinos (I'm sure I'm forgetting somebody; sorry) – they all lived in Southern California then, but in smaller numbers compared to the whites around them.

And now I was in Northern California but the changes represented the state, not a region. I saw many people from all over the world around me. European ancestry was fairly represented, but not predominant in the faces. Whites didn't define the workplace, let alone the leadership.

And the alt-right hated this change in demographics. They wanted it to be mainly white again.

And it wasn't going to happen. And they scared me in their fury.

And depressed me. And sent me over the edge into the hospital.

And I counted the new arrivals in my home state and wondered when they got here, how, and whether they felt threatened in the current climate. I seemed to be the lone paranoid man missing out on Thanksgiving dinner because of deep fears of madness in the air, of hate unleashed, of chaos triumphing. (Give me the good chaos of the blank page, of the improvised recipe, of the sudden road trip, of the experimental romp in the sack with your tried and true and tested--uh, oh!--partner, of anything but the death hue of resentment and anger. Give me the loving chaos of fruition. Keep the rest.)

And I saw new faces, faces from the Middle East and the Mediterranean and the different parts of Asia and of Africa, too, and Central America. I beheld a California utterly changed, and the same. English came out of all mouths, and when the thick accent of Africa spilled out of the lips of the lithe immigrant orderly who cleaned my room after I knocked my damn tray over, spilling juice and crackers all over the floor, it was music, not dissonance that reached my ears, and we talked and bullshitted, and he was lovely and kind.

And I don't exaggerate or sentimentalize. Everybody worked together. It was a well run hospital staffed by ultra competent and intelligent people, from the bottom up, I would say, keeping in mind that "the bottom" is just a convenient label that comes to mind automatically but doesn't mean much, at least not to me. (My dream retirement job is still to be an unmolested janitor in some part-time gig where the sight of shiny floors turns on the inhabitants of my building, say the emotionally challenged, the broken, the slow, the deranged, the ancient, the appreciators of a good bucket of ammonia and water and the smooth swabs of a pro; I have some skill in the trade. I enjoyed my time at the bottom. I hope to rise to those heights again.)

This new California crew impressed me. Everybody knew what they were doing at Eden Memorial, and took pride in it. On the question of language, I did note a few mejicano janitors conducting their business in Spanish, very professional in their comportment and bearing, and if that isn't eternal California, I don't claim there's one. Give up the myths of the laid-back state and the gnarly waves and the Hollywood stars and the goofy trends and all the rest. If there ain't two Mexican janitors in the building, we're on Mars instead. That goes back to my childhood.

I got my x-rays back and they looked good and my blood tests ran fine and my blood pressure did run up to 204 over 100-and-something (yikes!) but fell after I went into my deep yoga meditative trance right there on the bed with the iron rails in full hospital sight for all the passing patients and infirm to heal by. It dropped to an acceptable level and already it was getting late (I got in there around 3:00) and just because doctors are thorough types unlike poets who throw commas and dashes randomly on the page and laugh madly for the big paycheck coming in, and imaginative prose writers who do the same with impunity and gluttonous disregard for the exactness required of any right activity--just because doctors know their craft better than I ever knew mine they demanded another EKG, and what could I do but bare my chest and say, "Stick me, doctor, let's get the machine pumping!"

I maintained the lotus positioned as they charted my ticker's progress or retrogression.

And Jackie stayed by me, patiently, but by and by I shooed her away. Ben called, and I'd be here for a while yet, and the bird was past steaming but still waiting to be eaten warmly with the meat so tender and juicy (apologies, vegans and vegetarians: I eat meat, but I don't salt it anymore!) and the sides not yet cold and the agreeable guest ready to admit hunger even with his high WASP patrician training that would never say so directly. He would never make anybody ill at ease. Such was his upbringing, what they used to call breeding. Which he would toss out in a second and laugh about, and demonstrate instead its universal applicability, bringing out by his actions the best in people. There are princes found at the bottom and the top, and squeezed in between, and radiant princesses from all walks of life. And Hazard happens to be one of them. He is a good egg all around, to use the clubby speech of his immediate forebears. (You better believe Hazard's got an ancestor on the list of Mayflower passengers, why, sure! My people pissed on a bush in the California desert that turned into Joshua Tree National Park, so potent was the urine of the Tribal Twelve. It's in the National Registry.)

So sing I the virtues of Hazard! If I can't include a high WASP patrician college chum of Jackie's in my medley of ethnicities and nationalities and just plain people making up the state I live in (he's originally from back east, a New Englander, as denoted), I have accomplished nothing. I sat and brooded on the blank wall when she left me alone to go feast and make merry with Ben and Hazard. I was happy for them all.


I spent Thanksgiving evening watching The Last Waltz on public television on its fortieth anniversary. I had never seen it before, so got a treat, all right; you all have seen it before and know it's great. I know so little. But I do know even before witnessing it live that "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is a masterpiece, a rare thing, a desperately brave appeal for recognition that soars so grandly I want to wrap myself in a Confederate flag and sing: "Oh, shit! What happened to me?"

And I do not joke about the Confederate flag. I understand the hurt and anger it provokes, and empathize with the call to bring it down. I see it the same way a Native American might see the American flag, when viewed through the black South's eyes, which is black America's eyes: "Why do I want to look at that for one second? How dare you hoist it in my sight, let alone honor it? Take it down, take it down, please, for the love of God and the bones of my enslaved ancestors."

I imagine a Native American might feel the same revulsion upon looking at the American flag. "It symbolizes broken treaties for me, and genocide. Why do you want me to salute it?"

But great art is the ultimate tonic for the fractured soul. The damn song is about humiliation and defeat, the failure to mention the peculiar institution that brought Dixie to its knees not a significant oversight, but a canny inclusion of all that haunts it: the song doesn't cop out. Dixie is burning, the bells are ringing, everything is terribly wrong because of one bad thing that brought it all down.

And yet the plaintive voice ruing it emits a brave vulnerability that is touching and ennobling.

And this line gets me every time: "They should never have taken the very best."

Goddamn, there was something good inside those Southern people after all. Dixie had a heart, and to refuse that simple truth is to invite the never-ending judgment that leads to eternal hell. But hearts are fickle and awful and hateful and murderous and empty at times. Figuring my own is no different from the average, I just keep looking for the best characteristics of that bloody, pumping organ whenever I step out the door into America, shell-shocked and grief-stricken.

I find it everywhere I go, too, in smiles and kindness. It's enough to keep me up, to keep me going, to keep me on the right track away from a breakdown. I bullshit not. It's been rough sometimes, rough, with fucking Bannon in the inner circle and the alt-right loud and heiling Trump in that annual meeting held in Maryland, I believe, and Trump unable to disavow any of it genuinely, and hate crimes on the rise. Things are getting better, a little better, as I write, but the feeling that not a leader, but a need is in charge, a man who can't bring people together but needs his own ego served constantly is scary.

So far, no presidential qualities seen in Trump, none. But you know this and don't need it repeated ad nauseam. I can only add that he seems more clownish than sinister. I am forced to admit that clowns can wreck a room faster than The Who in its hellbent, hotel-room destroying prime. I got rock 'n' roll on my mind thanks to The Band and Scorsese.

Emmylou Harris. Neil Young . . .

I need to highlight at least one other giant on that stage in San Francisco. Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters without a guitar. Muddy Waters commanding the microphone with his voice so strongly. Muddy Waters on stage with The Band leading it, giving them boys a little lesson in musicianship. Muddy Waters surviving Dixie and rising above it and teaching it how to suffer and go on, and all in the right key.

It was genius. And Robbie Robertson of The Band playing behind Joni Mitchell with such evident awe on his face it stirred me. And Neil Diamond, the rogue pop singer among the heavyweight rock stars demonstrating why he belonged with anybody on that stage. I like the outsider. I cheer him on every time. I go nuts for her when she shows her stuff.

I sat up in bed from 9:30 to 12:30 watching it. Jackie had come and gone again, sneaking in a slice of pumpkin pie that went down tastily. I love pumpkin pie. It's my favorite.

This was my second piece of the night. I had eaten a decent turkey dinner courtesy of the hospital cafeteria as soon as I got settled into my swank, grayly appointed monitored quarters on the second floor. I spent Thanksgiving night alone in the blue-black of the raised TV set battling much emotion as I saw star after star occupy the stage and do it.

"Do I still got it in me to do it?" I asked myself. "I don't know, man, I don't know." Not to say I got that caliber of juice, but I trickle interestingly enough, I venture to say. I made myself comfortable and was not lonely, but alone. I crashed at 12:30 a.m. after clicking the TV off. I sat up at 4:00 a.m. when the nurse hooked me up again for the proper recording of my vitals. Everything looked good. I'm all right. I got discharged mid-afternoon with a new health regimen prescribed by a fine cardiologist, Dr. Lee.

"Where are you from?" he asked, shocking me.

"Los Angeles," I said.

"Oh." He stood at the foot of the bed. He told me what I needed to do and listened to me and gave the numbers to call and the signs to watch out for and the assurance that he thought I was in pretty good shape if I took care of myself.

"I do. I work out."



"Stop it. Go moderately."

"Okay." He stuck around a long time. Jackie sat next to him in a visitor's chair as he lectured me, very patiently, very knowledgeably.

"Just do as I've told you and I think I won't see you here for another thirty years."

"That's it? I only got thirty more?"

"Or less." Over his head on the big TV screen showing a spectacular slice of the Maine woods in autumn, a moose lifted his head out of the river, shook its antlers dry, and bent its lips up in a grin. I swear this world is magical. I know its ins and outs and don't fear its surprises.

Trump can't stop me. Bannon can't kill me. The hate can't slow me.

This animal is just getting started. I can kick like a mule and snarl like a tiger and swipe like a bear and type like a man. I can write loving hieroglyphics around swastikas incorporating them into the heart of forgiveness. I can make that silly symbol on my chest mean something. I can cry in the night and laugh in the morning and greet the day with a bright open face that judges not, and asks nothing but understanding of my own frailties. I can live on my own terms as long as they're honest and cloud not the day. I can call it as I see it. I can yell Fuck the right and the left and say I support those principles and policies that protect and regard the individual as an inviolable entity under American law, a living amalgamation of so many different streams and impulses it's impossible to categorize any of us cleanly, no matter where that protective shield comes from. I can stand up against Nazism, totalitarianism, incipient tyranny and all forms of outrage against our traditions of respect, utter respect for the guiltless citizen. And singular rights for the legal and illegal alien; definite protections and safeguards. I can face the cowards and the bullies head on, and say, "What's wrong with you, man? What's wrong with you?"

Steve de East L.A. We got our ways. We get old and mellow. We say, Easy, man. It's just a thing. Slow down.

Then when they don't listen we mark on the walls and shit. Fuck so-and-so! Down with you-know-who! Only we know how to write now, some of us, and are sitting down at computer screens instead.

We're not going down without a fight. I'm a mean fucker in a scrap. Well, not really. But I'm not afraid of mixing it up on my turf, here, now. Breitbart. Will you publish me? Huff Po. Are you down?

I mean no harm. I mean to do good.

I'm a fool for you, America, and that is why I bother.

I got wheeled out of the hospital in my civilian clothes, of course, a bit rumpled but fresh enough. Jeans and a rich red and yellow flannel shirt that reminds me of the pomegranate tree outside my grandparent's house in Montebello, down there in Southern California where I grew up. Fall. The colors. I thought of those two fine people and their immaculate barrio lot with a beautifully kept, two bedroom home near what had once been a brick yard, a major California supplier of bricks that used Mexican labor to amass a fortune and build up California, Simons Bricks. They planted a wonderful garden and sat out in the sunlight in the spring and summer and shooed the flies away and worried about nothing when it came to government. They had made it here with their parents, my great-grandparents who I never met, as children, and met and married, like my other grandparents in L.A. They had worked hard and thrived and bolstered the economy and trusted the United States government to take care of them, always, as long as they did right.

They did right. They came legally in another age, but got persecuted nonetheless for being different, for being Mexicans, for being Indians, for being brown; for not being purely European, at least in appearance, though some looked very European and some less so, etc., etc. – an extended Mexican family. They heard hateful things and got shamed in myriad blunt and piercing ways, and still believed in the goodness of the American government, that it would never let them down, that it would always protect them, that it was a bastion of sanity against the cruelty and murderous lawlessness they had seen as children in Mexico and heard enough about since to shudder when they heard the words, "Mexican government."

"What government? You got the money, you got the law on your side. You got the power, you got the say in everything. Here, at least they respect the little people like us. We got our rights like them. Nobody can harass us for no reason. This is America, los estados unidos. This is why we came here. Government for the people, by the people. The rule of law."

I stood up in the sunshine outside the hospital with much on my mind. This country felt threatening for the first time in my life. My government posed a menace against me and my kind, down the line, after the wetbacks had been taken care of. Call me paranoid. Call me hallucinatory. Call me prescient. Call me anything but dumb. I think my noodle is fair. I think the air is bad.

I got in my car. I drove home with Jackie at my side. I turned on the radio. I caught the latest news report. I turned it off. I couldn't take it anymore, any of it, for a while. The lies, the outright fabrications tweeted out by our President-elect, the sudden cheapening of the presidency, the madness of an unbalanced man at the nuclear helm, the cowardice of the acquiescent Republican party, the silence of the churches and the synagogues and the mosques, the unreal acceptance of the unreal fact that a reality show TV star occupied the oval office, a man with no political experience, nothing to prepare him for the intricacies of diplomacy, of running a fucking country semi-competently. The complete abasement of our greatest institution in one campaign season. The threat to our way of life and our lives.

My heart began to pound in my chest again, but I breathed out with relief when an old lady with a gray-haired black poodle crossed in front of us at a stop sign and beamed at us. She wore a tattered brown coat and bright red galoshes and walked with a hunch behind her dog, who trotted insouciantly, nose in the air, just like an aging poodle should. She topped it all off with a Make America Great Again hat. I smiled back at her.

"Let's get home and make dinner," I said. "I'm hungry."

"Me, too," Jackie said. "I love you."

And my heart beat strong. And I knew nothing could scare me today, nothing.

And nothing could defeat our country that we love, the one that permits this expression and requires it, that revels in artistic madness and spiritual boldness, that loves to love because it's right and calls America the greatest country on earth because it shelters the weird, the deformed, the strange, the unholy holy singular genius in us all, you and me and everybody else wounded and hurt and sorrowful and strong in our weakness, our holy, holy weakness, our sacred vulnerability, our irreducible humanity. No force could level this worthwhile America but our own cowardice. Fight on.
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