Daniel Menaker

Onconversations III

Thursday, June 16, 2011

DOCTOR (Regular internist): You’re braver than I would be.
ME: What do you mean?
DR: Well, you don’t seem to be upset.
ME: Come over to my apartment for a house call at three in the morning and see how brave I am. Cold terror. (Doctor has been taking notes, writes something down.)
DR: ______
ME: I mean, what am I supposed to do? Come over here for a routine thyroid and A1C test and weep and wail in your office?
DR: That’s what I would do.
ME: I don’t believe it. Anyway, what would be the point?
DR: ______
ME: I mean, do some of your patients in this situation come here and say, “Doctuh, Doctuh–oy, vut am I goink to do? They diagnosed me, and it ain’t lookink particularly gut . Oh me, oh my, Doctuh.”
DR: More or less–yes.
ME: I find that hard to believe. So they’re sick and they’re facing some unpleasant treatment but they’re not going anywhere soon, and they’re feeling good and have lives to live and yet they cower in the corner in your office. Where will that get them?
DR: _______
ME: And you would do that?
DR: Somethink–I mean, something like that.
ME: Do you think maybe I’m in denial? Because I’m not. Come on over at 3 AM.
DR: _______
ME: _______
DR: So anyway, when you’re on steroids, your blood sugar is probably going to go up, so just in case, you might want to take some insulin with you for the next couple of weeks. Vera will show you how to use this. (Takes out freebie insulin “pen” and needles.)
ME: OK. What larks!
DR: I’ll see you back here in a month or so.
ME: Did you write “cold terror” down before?
DR: Yes.
ME: Don’t write that down! Please. I don’t want that on my record. It’s subjective, anyway.
DR: I need to take notes about my patients’ frame of mind, too.
ME: Come on–I don’t want “cold terror” on my official patient record or whatever it is.
DR: (laughing): _______
ME: Hey, wait a minute–is that a paper towel you’re using for notes?
DR: Um …
ME: Jesus– a paper towel!
DR: Well, this is what happens when you’re in a temporary office and your regular one is being renovated. I’ll put the notes in my permanent records later
ME: Leave out “cold terror.” Especially if you think I’m so brave. Which I’m not.
DR: OK–come back in a month or so–all right?
ME: Yeah, right– I know: capitation beckons.
DR: _______
ME: OK, OK. Thank you…..
DR: _______
ME: This is when you say, “Good luck, Dan.”
DR: Good luck, Dan. Really!

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Onconversations II

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

ME: So, after chemotherapy, surgery is still possible?
SURGEON: Yeah. Definitely. Pneumonectomy [taking the rest of the left lung out, the upper lobe having been removed three years ago].
ME: Not sure I like the idea of life as a one-lung Charlie.
SURGEON (drawing something that looks like half an open wet paper bag): Well, let’s see. These nodules are tiny, but they have a weird distribution. I could do this. A resection. (Draws a line through part of the wet paper bag, as if diagramming where to cut.) No. Well, I could do this. (Draws another line.) Or this. (Another line.) It would be a much simpler operation than a pneumonectomy.
ME: But not as potentially curative?
SURGEON: Nah. (Yawns.) Let’s see. (Draws more lines.)
ME: What do you think?
SURGEON: To tell you the truth, we’d probably have to wait until we got in there to see what’s going on, and then proceed from there.
ME: You mean I might wake up with this, that, or the other thing?
SURGEON: Yeah. (Puts down pencil, runs hand through hair.) To be honest with you, we don’t what the hell we’re doing here. We have to wait until we get in there.
ME: Like one of those abandoned storage lockers they bid for on TV. Open it up and you don’t know what you’re going to find.
SURGEON: (Yawns) Yeah. But technically you’re Stage IIB. Curable. Don’t forget that.
ME: Better than not IIB.
SURGEON I was really hoping you weren’t going to say that.
ME: Sorry.

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Onconversations I

Thursday, June 02, 2011

(Resected parts of conversations I’ve had since a recent diagnosis of a recurrence of tiny-nodules lung cancer, for which I had “curative” (yeah, right!) surgery three years ago.)

MRI NURSE (heavy, jolly, almost slatternly): OK, Robert–you can change into the gown in the bathroom. [My legal first name is Robert–Robert Daniel Menaker.]
ME: In the bathroom?
NURSE: Yes, the bathroom–right there.
ME: The bathroom…. OK.
NURSE (when I emerge): Oh, Papi, you look good in that.
ME: Thanks.
NURSE: I see that ring.
ME: Is it going to be a problem in the MRI machine?
NURSE: No–no problem, Papi. You have a wife, but do you have a girl friend?
ME: Only if you want to be my girl friend.
NURSE (to another nurse): Roberto wants to run away with me. Did you hear?
ME: I’ll run away with both of you.
NURSE: You’re too much, Robert. Make a fist…. Good veins.
ME: Thanks.
NURSE (snaps on a single sterile glove, flicks the hypodermic she’s holding in the other hand): This is the contrast.
ME: Right. If you see something in my brain, don’t tell me.
NURSE: I know what men are thinking about about all the time. (Laughs uproariously)
ME: Not me–not under these particular circumstances, anyway.
NURSE: OK, vamanos!
ME: Vamos a ver que pasa en mi cabeza. Espero que nada.
NURSE: Oh, you speak Spanish.
ME: Solamente un poco.
NURSE: Tienes que practicar, Papi.
ME: Si.
NURSE: Now I know we will run away.

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Live vs. Dead and Flat (And Better, If You Ask Me)

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

In terms of performed dialogue–a kind of artificial conversation–I’m wondering if others share my automatic embarrassment while watching live theater.  I’ve found the nerve to make this confession after a terrific young literary agent in New York, Gillian MacKenzie–she has her own agency–admitted to me that she was often similarly embarrassed at plays, especially musicals. Three times and only three times have I lost myself entirely in a theatrical performance–once two hundred years ago when I saw Richard Burton in “Hamlet,” once only a hundred years ago, when I saw the original production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” (Meta-Hamlet, come to think of it.)  And quite recently–most of “Fela!” Otherwise, I can’t seem to shake the knowledge that the actors are living, breathing people who are, in front of my eyes, pretending to be someone they’re not. They are acting. They almost surely have thoughts in their heads–That babe in the third row will not stop whispering!; My shoes are too tight–different from those thoughts that the characters they are playing would probably be having if they were real.  “I really want that slouch of a husband of mine to be King!” (Lady Macbeth.) “Now that he’s Henry V, Hal doesn’t write, he doesn’t call, he doesn’t stop by….”  (Falstaff.)  Live theater, without its ritualistic and religious (Classical Greek) origins, always strikes me as a little bit like children’s play acting, and there’s always a cringe factor in it for me, even when the actors are good and can make their real personalities part of their roles. I admire them but still half-want to look away.

Movies. Much more transporting, for me. There is no one alive in front of me in the theater. There’s no one who at those moments of speech are having other thoughts.  Movies are in a way dead cultural artifacts, with no  more flesh and blood in them than a painting has. I don’t feel the same discomfort at a movie–the same Oh, please–why are you staring at her that smitten way in real life while you are perhaps thinking about lasagna after-theater, to say nothing of singing about when you’re a Jet and being as far from a Jet as a biplane is? In the movies, the conversations have no chance of stumbling. If there is a stumble during filming they just do another take–or they keep the stumble if it makes sense and doesn’t break up the idea of the dialogue, if it isn’t a comic outtake of some kind. The gestures and facial expressions even of bad actors are done–not quite graven in stone, because they are (or seem to be) moving, after all, but over.  Strangely enough, I find it much easier to believe a movie than a play. Or suspend disbelief, I guess I should say.

And one more thing. The flatness of the screen means that the people in the film are not alive in the same space that I’m in. Thank goodness. They live–or maybe “exist” is better– in a different dimension, I don’t have to try to be psychologically nice and congenial to them in the here and now. Yes, I know the proscenium in a theater is said to create separate spaces for the  audience and the performers. Not for me, I’m sorry to say. Not separate enough.

Well, OK–a final final thought: Much harder to walk out of a play than a movie. The rudeness quotient is much higher, like turning your back on someone in a social setting.  (Has that ever happened to you? It has, twice, to me. A literal cold shoulder.) Theater audiences love the communal aspect of play going, it seems to me–the politesse of it, the buried reminders of those ritual observances out of which modern drama has grown. I can see it, and I’ve even felt it.  But movie audiences often form a kind of community of their own, a different, more impersonal kind, especially smaller audiences (thirty-five people in a big theater), especially with their laughter, especially when they’re laughing at the ridiculousness of a supposedly serious movie, and especially when they are New Yorkers.
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