a pain in the neck

If you’re following along at home, you’ll remember I visited a neurologist recently to find out why my body seems to be breaking down like a car with a just-expired warranty. Like any older car, it’s a little sluggish to respond (especially in winter), and I’ve definitely got some alignment issues. Begrudgingly, I agreed to take their fancy tests, because, well, I’ve always been good at taking tests.

Of course, these weren’t like the exams I used to ace in school. My English teachers never hit me with a hard rubber hammer or poked me with needles or shot electric current into my arms and legs, although that might have given me more incentive to actually read “Paradise Lost.”

I was hoping the tests would be both definitive and reassuring. They were, I suppose, a little of both. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Buried a few paragraphs down, in amongst these 1,689 words, you’ll find what the diagnosis is, but first I should talk about the tests. Whatever’s wrong with me, I still have an understanding of dramatic structure. (If you don’t mind spoilers, the answer is in the twenty-first paragraph.)

The Neuro-Conductivity Studies were done by a very quiet man named Dr. Sharazz, which I kept thinking sounded like the name of a Bond villain (“We meet again, Doctor Sharazz…”). The name of the test had me imagining being strapped into something some gigantic, shiny apparatus like you might find in ‘Star Trek,’ but in fact the device looked like some precocious kid’s Science Fair experiment, very low-tech and definitely not shiny.

After an hour or so of this particular doc putting electrodes on various parts of my body and cranking the voltage to 11 (I’m guessing here), causing my arms and legs to twitch on his command (“You won’t break me, Sharazz!”), he began the EMG, which is like the previous test, except the electric jolts are sent through needles deep into your muscles.

I got an ‘incomplete’ on this one, because frankly, I wimped out. The pamphlet said, “The pain is less than a typical hypodermic injection” and “You may feel a tingling in your muscles,” which was accurate if by ‘tingling’ they meant ‘really disturbing radiating discomfort that will make you believe your leg is on fire.’

So after twenty minutes of this vaguely medieval process I said “No mas” and eventually he stopped. He seemed empathetic, and said he “got a lot of information.” Mostly, I’m sure, about what a wuss I am.

Next up was the MRI. Since I was pretty stressed, I wanted to have a cigarette, but at this clinic, there didn’t seem to be a place where I could have a cigarette in the MRI machine.

The room and the machine were all cool and sterile looking, like the second hour of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Now I was getting the high-tech wonders of modern medicine. Unfortunately, this was another ‘incomplete.’

They were hoping to do four MRIs, two after being injected with contrast dye. I thought it would be just like a flu shot (damned lying pamphlets!), but as they started describing it, I just remember hearing terms like “put you on an IV” and ‘side effects’ and “nausea’ and…you can guess where this is going. I’ll take just the two MRIs for now, thanks.

Almost everyone I dealt with at the clinic had at least pretended they understood my irrational fears. Not the MRI lady. She was thoroughly professional, but let’s just say she didn’t have the warmest bedside (‘tubeside?) manner. I would try to lighten the mood (at least my mood—I suppose she was fine) with a joke, which just seemed to make her more annoyed.

At one point I had an itch and I moved a little, and she seemed genuinely put out when she said “You know, every time we pull you out of there we have to start over, and I’m not going submit crappy test results.” Now, I suppose she could have had a full slate of people she still had to shove into the pod that day, but c’mon—I might be a little easier to work with if I didn’t feel like I was being scolded.

me, looking all cross-sectional...

I had a week to wait for my ‘consult’ with the neurologist, and spent much of that week trying to distract myself from the test results. I even went out to a ball game for the first time in years.

In my somewhat reclusive writerly life, I can go days without real reminders of my ‘condition.’ But at the game, around forty-three thousand other people, I felt a bit more ‘disabled.’ There were two moments in particular that strengthened my resolve to see this medical stuff through.

First, since I can’t lift my right arm above my head, I’m incapable of giving a proper ‘high-five,’ and there’s not much point to watching sports if you can’t do that. I tried left-handed, but that felt really awkward and I knocked over a guy’s beer.Second, when ‘the wave’ came around to our section, I could only sort of half-stand stand and could only raise one arm, making it look like I was mocking the wave, or worse, trying to stop it. This was the compelling evidence I needed to get me back to the doctor.

I suppose sitting in a room with a guy is one of the better ways you could find out scary news. Although it might be cool to have those Publisher’s Clearinghouse people come by with an oversized envelope announcing “You may already have won an invasive procedure!”

But this was just my-far-too-young-looking-to-seem-like-he-knows-enough neurologist. My neurologist is young enough to actually have used Facebook in medical school—I’m just hoping his status updates were along the lines of “Can’t go out tonight—studying again” rather than “Can’t believe how hungover I am again.”

Suddenly I wanted to be in 1972, so that my doctor could be Marcus Welby, M.D., all gentleness and aphorisms, with everything wrapped up in about an hour. I wanted a kindly old doctor who would take my hand and start his talk with “Now, son, I know this has been hard…” I don’t think they even teach ‘kindly’ in medical school anymore.

Actually, by this point, I had gone from dreading the results to hoping I had something they had never seen before—maybe an article in a respected medical journal about my strange pathology, or some grant money. Then I realized the grant money would go to the doctors, not to me.

So, ready for the worst, I walk in with The Girlfriend, and the doc says “Well, you don’t have MS or ALS.” Okay…so we’re going to have me guess, by process of elimination? “Uh…Is what I have…longer than eleven letters?”

Then he says, “I think I’ve figured out what’s wrong.” Keywords: ‘think’ and ‘figured out.’ It’s at this point that I remembered the old saying that medicine is an art, because he sounded exactly like a chef stating, “I think I know what the sauce needed—more tarragon.” Great—now I’m worried I have a tarragon deficiency!

I tried to make a joke about not taking all the tests, and he just sighed and said “Well, I have limited data to work with” with the same resigned but mildly disapproving tone as your freshman biology professor saying “Well, the midterm is forty percent of your grade…”

For some odd reason, he did the Hitting Me With A Metal Hammer test again, and either my HMWAMH responses were ok, or he got bored hitting me, because out of nowhere he said “Your brain is fine.” Not ‘you’re fine,’ just my brain.

"Why, that's a FINE brain you have there, young man. Just fine."

The it was time for the slide show. I saw pictures of my ‘fine’ brain, and he pointed out how the pictures showed I didn’t have MS. “The problem is in your neck. You have severe spinal stenosis.” More pictures, this time clearly showing my spinal column narrowing until, at one point, it looked like my spinal cord was being pushed through a straw. This, it turns out, is not good.

Severe. Spinal. Stenosis. I liked the alliteration, but a long-held theory of mine says that if your diagnosis starts with the words ‘severe’ and and ‘spinal,’ it doesn’t matter what the third word is. I wasn’t gonna be able to just get a prescription for this.

As for how it happened, it was one of those Zen moments in which I got the impression that didn’t matter either. The doc muttered something about “wear and tear,” and since I had been clumsy all my life, he thought I could have injured my neck in a fall, but what he knew for sure was that I would need surgery to fix it.

He went on to say “The concern is, if you get in a car wreck and get whiplash, you’ll be a quad.” I guess he figured it didn’t need any sugar-coating, but…YIKES! Get me Doctor Welby, stat! Look, I’m not sure when I might sign up for spinal surgery, but I know damn sure I’m gonna try to avoid getting into whiplash-inducing car wrecks.

When I left they gave me a CD with all my pictures, though I’m not sure why. I’m probably not gonna look at them again, but maybe I’ll put one of the brain scans on a t-shirt or a hat with a catchy phrase (This is MY brain on drugs.”) Anyway, the next step is a consultation with a neurosurgeon.

After not seeing a doctor for decades, I see a GP, then a neurologist, then a neurosurgeon…you know what, I’m gonna keep going up in the medical hierarchy—see if I can get seen by someone who teaches neurosurgery, or maybe a dean of neurosurgery somewhere. Just to be sure.

Eventually I may even become comfortable enough to have the operation I need. If I do, I know the first thing I’m gonna do when it’s over…I’m gonna high-five the hell out of someone.


Weird name, Elmer. It probably sounded old-fashioned a hundred years ago. But I knew an Elmer once, only thirty years ago. He was my step-dad.

I never knew my biological father, and I deliberately use the word ‘biological’ and not ‘real.’ The man who was ‘really’ my father is the man who drove me to band practice, not the man who apparently just drove away. You know, sometimes language is so limited, and so limiting. ‘Step-dad’ is an awkward construction, implying someone who’s at least one step away from being a ‘real’ dad.

Since I’m a baseball fan, I’d like to suggest a new term—‘relief dad.’ In baseball, a relief pitcher comes into the game, in a tight spot, to help the team out of a jam, and if he does his job, the team has a shot at winning. That was Elmer. Relief dad.

Growing up, all I really knew was that my mom met Elmer when she was a nurse, and that he was a patient at a V.A. hospital. I learned most of what I know about Elmer after he died.

About once a year, I do some searching online to try to find some clues to my  background. There’s a great, if a bit morbid, resource called the Social Security Death Index. Curious about that person you lost touch with from high school?  If they had a Social Security number, and they’re dead, you’ll find them here. Birth date, death date, last residence…all there—along with their social security number (which doesn’t seem to be a good idea at all).

Anyway, I wasn’t finding any clues leading me to the BioDad. But one search led me to a genealogy someone had posted, and there was my mom’s full maiden name. One ‘ctrl-f’ later and I found a paragraph listing my stepdad. Granted, I was trying to find out information about the biological dad, but this was interesting, too. Here’s what I learned from a random stranger’s website:

Elmer became a Catholic in his twenties. He changed his name at least twice. We don’t know why. He abruptly moved to Montana after the war to become a gypsy truck driver. During World War II, he frequented brothels, contracted syphilis, lost his first child and his first wife went insane because of the syphilis, and—wait, what was that last part, after the Catholic thing?

Now understand, I knew about NONE of this, and it felt almost proctologically invasive to read about it on someone’s website. Oh, and I also learned that Elmer adopted me in 1967 (weird, seeing myself described in print as my mother’s ‘illegitimate son.’ Makes me feel all wrong-side-of-the-tracks; turn my life into a movie and the tagline could be “He spent half his life trying to prove he was legitimate!”)

You’re probably thinking, “How could you not have known these things? When you got older, didn’t you ask about any of this?” Oddly enough, no, and I’m not sure why. I never asked questions. I guess I felt that if I had asked about Technically Dad, it would be somehow disrespectful to the guy who actually played the role of ‘Dad.’ Or maybe I’ll find out in therapy that I was afraid that if I messed with that illusion, other illusions would be exposed, turning my safe, comfortable childhood into a maelstrom of drama. But I’m pretty sure it was the respect thing.

Here are some things I remember about Elmer that aren’t mentioned in anybody’s family tree:

  • like a character in a sitcom, he had his catchphrases: “Can’t complain, and it doesn’t matter if you do.” (Yeah. Dad was an existential philosopher like that.) “A place for everything, and everything in its place” (And, thanks for the OCD.)
  • Despite wearing a neck brace and a back brace from war injuries, he would climb on the roof to adjust the TV antenna so he could watch the Oakland Raiders. He was apparently, however, unable to get out of his chair to adjust the rabbit ears on top of the set, because that was always my job.
  • He was the easiest person on the planet to shop for. He never needed material things, so at Christmas it was ALWAYS something made by Old Spice and a can of Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco.
  • Speaking of Christmas, although as far as I know we lived on his Veteran’s benefits and my mom’s social security, there was always a tree, and there were always things under it for me.
  • Even though henever went to college, he did everything he could to make sure I had a shot. When he couldn’t afford to buy me a desk, he built a damned desk out of an unfinished door and four milk crates.
  • Even though he had zero musical talent or even interest, he made sure that I took up an instrument in fourth grade, because on some level he knew it was a good thing. And he put up with someone learning the clarinet, which, in the first few weeks, sounds like someone torturing a cat.
  • The most frustrating thing for this former mechanic was the realization that his adoptive son, though ‘book smart,’ had an astonishing, almost breathtaking lack of mechanical aptitude.
  • He never slept much—but strangely, he was always ‘resting his eyes.’ “Are you still watching this show, Dad?” “Yeah, leave it on, I’m just resting my eyes.”
  • He drove me on my first date, at thirteen, with a girl named Eileen, to see “The Sting.” Dropped us off, picked us up in our ’64 Plymouth Belvedere, and discretely ignored my enormously awkward ‘move’ as I put my arm around her in the backseat. Since I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do once I my arm was there, I didn’t move the arm during the entire drive to her place, and it fell asleep, causing me to wave at her spastically with a dead arm.

The thing I remember most about Elmer is how much he loved my mom. This was no gushy, Hallmark love—I’m not sure I even remember them holding hands. But I always knew. My mom and I had a very…volatile relationship—a lotta love, but there were a lot of arguments. Elmer was fond of reminding me that my mom was the queen of the household, and I was just the crown prince, and that metaphor seemed to be enough for me. The only time I ever remember him crying was when he overheard my mom and I yelling at each other, and he heard me swear at her.

The State of California does a couple of strange things when there’s an adoption. First, there’s the whole not-telling-you-that-your-stepdad-went-to-whorehouses-and caught-syphillis deal. But the real weirdness is that they amend your actual birth certificate to list adoptive dad as birth dad! Okay, I can see some discretion, but it’s a legal freakin’ document! I don’t think it’s supposed to include MADE-UP ANSWERS!

If I had to choose one adjective to describe Elmer, (other than ‘elmeriffic’) it would be ‘stoic.’ He wasn’t the warmest, fuzziest dad, but I remember even as a young boy feeling his strength. I never saw anything faze him, even when he was badly crippled by rheumatoid arthritis  When the pain got really bad, the only thing that gave him any relief was, of all things, acupuncture. Still not sure how Mom convinced him to try it.

But then there came a moment when I knew Elmer was checking out—that his ‘relief’ outing was almost done, and he could give the ball to someone else and go to the locker room. I asked him how he was feeling one day, and instead of “Can’t complain” he simply said “I hurt.”

Elmer was just a good, solid man, and, in this critic’s eyes, he was perfectly cast as ‘Dad.’ He never took me fishing, or had a catch with me, but I will always think of him as ‘Dad,’ no ‘step’ about it. I am a bit more interested in tracking down BioDad than I used to be, though. For one thing, I’d like to know if there’s anything health-wise I should know about on his side.

More importantly, even if he was a total putz, maybe he knocked up someone in addition to my mom, and so I might have some cool half-siblings out there. But see,  now we’re back to language. ‘Half-sister’ and ‘half-brother’ sound so wrong. Honestly, after yet another holiday without any family, if I find someone who’s at all related to me by blood, I won’t be using the word ‘half.’  ‘Brother’ or ‘sister’ will work just fine.


found in translation

Recently, I joined a Facebook group dedicated to my high school, and as we chatted back and forth, the names of my teachers came spinning at me like calendar pages in a film noir. Then I realized that, while I remembered the teachers, I wasn’t as able to remember the things they taught. Oh sure—I remember random fragments—bits and pieces of mid-seventies curricula. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to pass a midterm exam in any of the classes I took in high school.

For instance, I can picture Mr. Simonds (I even remember that his first name was Ira), but I can’t recall much of his American History class. I think the South lost. That’s about it. Or Mr. Hague and Mr. White, good friends (of each other) who taught chemistry and biology respectively, and looked a bit like Penn and Teller. I remember using a pipette to distill something in chemistry, and I think Mr. White had us cut up earthworms. I’m not sure why.

Yet for some reason, I remember most of my two years of high school German. When I went to high school, in addition to knowing the capitals of  all forty-five states, students were required to study a foreign language for two years. Our choices were Spanish, German, and French, and of course, living in Southern California, I picked…German?

What I remember most about German class are the ‘dialogues’–short conversational snippets designed to put you right in the midst of the culture. And the first dialogue in my German I textbook? My initial exposure to these storied people?

Fussball, nein. Limonade ja! (Soccer, no. Lemonade, yes!)

We also learned the following:

Wo ist Monika? (Where is Monica?)

Im Boot. (In the boat.)


Wohin geht Peter? (Where is Peter going?)

An den See. (Out to sea.)

Forgetting that the last two exchanges seem to cast the mostly landlocked Germans as seafarers, the first one is really the foundation on which German literature is based–a long, hallowed tradition of choosing lemonade over soccer.My point is this: The main reason people in other parts of the world hate us is that when Americans visit other countries and try to ‘fit in,’ we never learned any really useful phrases. So we sound like idiots.

If you’re at a restaurant in Paris, and you are able to remember how to say “I have a spoon” in French, your waiter won’t be impressed by your cross-cultural gesture, he’ll think you’re a patronizing buffoon.  It’s classic American ego to think that a handful of Berlitz phrases tossed around allows you to ‘fit in.’

If we want our friends abroad to welcome future generations of rich, spoiled American college kids, foreign language classes should teach phrases we could actually use in Germany, France, or Spain, for example–

Die meisten Amerikaner sind anders als die Leute auf “Jersey Shore.” (Most Americans are different than the people on “Jersey Shore.”

Je souhaite que mon pays ne cesse de se mêler dans les affaires des autres nations et commencer à s’inquiéter de nos propres problèmes. (I wish my country would stop meddling in the affairs of other nations and start worrying about our own problems.)

Fue todo culpa nuestra que la economía mundial colapsó hace un tiempo. Lo sentimos! (It was mostly our fault that the global economy collapsed a while ago. Sorry!)

<the preceeding comedy idea was brought to you by Google Translate>


I’ve always been a student of language–in fact, when I was fourteen I invented my own alphabet. Because as a junior-high kid with a clarinet and a briefcase (?!), I could afford to be even weirder. I also own the book ‘Winnie-the-Pooh‘  in seven different languages, including the Latin version, which is the only book in Latin to ever make the New York Times bestseller list…Anyway, after my zwei Jahre of German, I figured college French wouldn’t be too difficile.

I was wrong. I didn’t realize it would be a ‘total immersion’ class, obviously named for the drowning sensation students feel when they’re only allowed to speak A LANGUAGE THEY DON’T KNOW HOW TO SPEAK YET! It may work for some, but I just kept wanting to scream, “I don’t KNOW how to ask it ‘en français,’ because this is SUPPOSED to be Française 101!” Other than being able to…count things, I’ve retained nothing from two semesters of French class.

Since I switched to Team Judaism a few years ago, I’ve had every intention of learning Hebrew, but it’s a little daunting. I have a hard enough time writing English letters, since I’ve typed everything for the past twenty-five years. To say nothing of the whole ‘right-to-left’ thing. Makes me wonder if there are any dyslexic cantors. Which would be a great name for a band–Dyslexic Cantors.

Having lived in New York, Chicago, and L.A., I’ve had a pretty multicultural life. Based on the random phrases I’ve picked up, I think I can handle just about any situation:

I can say “I want to be your friend” in Japanese, in case I’m in Tokyo and…want to be somebody’s friend.

I can greet someone in Warsaw with a hearty “Jak sie masz,” but unfortunately, I won’t know how to tell him I want to be his friend.

When I travel through Russia, I will only be able to drink or say goodbye to people.

In Italy, I will be able to talk about anything that is mentioned in the song “Caro mio ben.”

It’s worse to know a little bit of a foreign language than to be blissfully ignorant. Here’s why. If you happened to pull out just the right phrase for the situation, the person whose native language you just ‘spoke’ will think you really speak the language and start a conversation. Meanwhile, you’ve already used all the conversaitonal Farsi you remember, so you stand there mute while Guy Who Speaks Farsi thinks you’re either stupid, or that you were mocking him.

I’m not sure how Mrs. Dashiff (again with the names!) did it, but she managed to instill a deep, lasting knowledge of the most pedestrian German interactions (“What are you doing?” “I’m practicing the violin.” “Are you tired?” “Yes.”). But to be fair, and to her credit, I also still remember the first four lines of Heinrich Heine’s lyrical and wistful poem, “Die Lorelei”.

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin,
Ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

I don’t remember what it means, exactly, but if I’m ever in a bar in the middle of Hamburg, I’m using it. At least I won’t be asking where the nearest McDonald’s is.

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