26 June 2015

Jot and Tittle

In several of my blog posts about my genetic heart condition, I mentioned how the tests did not show my condition at first, but finally spotted it three years later once it had gotten worse. I asked my cardiologist for copies of those EKGs so I could show you the difference.

You will see a certain jiggle on the graph above the arrow in 2011. That’s basically normal. But that same jiggle is quite different in 2014. That was my illness.

15 June 2015

Coincidence or Foreshadowing?

In May 2009, I had my first symptoms of what was later determined to be hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

In November 2009, we traveled to Burbank to attend the filming of an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” (season three, episode eleven: “The Maternal Congruence”). When rewatching the episode last night, we noticed that Sheldon observed, when the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes, that “enlargement of the heart muscle, or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, is a serious disease which can lead to congestive heart failure.”

I nearly fell off the couch.

It wasn’t until nearly five years after we attended that taping that my doctor diagnosed my issue.

Was Sheldon trying to tell me something?

You can see the clip here.

06 June 2015

Symptomatic Symptoms

I recently read an article about seven symptoms that could signal heart problems. It got me thinking about the long journey I traveled from my first symptoms to my heart surgery in January.

Nearly six years before my operation, I had my first symptoms: crossing a street, my vision began to narrow, my hearing nearly disappeared, I could barely breathe and had trouble walking. I nearly fell over in the middle of the street. I went to my doctor and told him I thought I’d had a mini-stroke. Tests ruled that out.

That incident -- which occasionally recurred -- began a years-long odyssey of visiting doctor after doctor: my regular doctor three times, a pulmonologist, a gastroenterologist, two different cardiac specialists. In each case, tests were done and nothing was found. After a couple years of this, one doctor suggested he should give me a referral to a psychologist because clearly these symptoms were all in my head.

I ended up at an endocrinologist who discovered I had bouts of low-blood sugar after eating. I stayed away from bad carbohydrates and the symptoms seemed to abate. Along the way I found out I had a heart murmur that was, over time, getting more pronounced. Five years after this all started, my general doctor recommended I return to my cardiologist. That was the suggestion that saved my life.

The cardiologist repeated many of the tests he had done a few years before. This time, they found it: hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). It’s genetic. It’s the thing high school football players suddenly die from. It hits before the age of 20 or after the age of 50. When my symptoms started, I was 49 years old.

Upon researching this, I found out HCM can be very hard to diagnose. Its symptoms mimic many other illnesses (like low blood sugar) and it takes a long time for some of the symptoms to be bad enough to be found in normal testing. In fact, despite HCM being relatively common, my cardiologist told me I was the first patient he’d ever seen who had it. (I presume that’s because most people discover they have HCM when they suddenly die from it.)

I don’t want to say I was lucky to find a diagnosis and life-saving surgery before I dropped dead. Rather, I want to show how persistence is important when it comes to our health. NO ONE will advocate for you. YOU have to advocate for yourself all the time. My years as a journalist have taught me to continue to ask questions until I understand the answer. Ask. Ask. Ask. If your doctor won’t answer, find another doctor. Keep asking until you understand.

It’s not overreaching to say that, had I not kept asking, my HCM would have ended my life by now. And it would have been only then that someone would have seen the damage to my heart and said: “Hmm. I guess he was right. There was something wrong.”

02 June 2015

Broadway To Hollywood

I love theater; but then again, I hate theater.

Unlike almost any other art form, theater is transient: it is there one moment and then gone the next. Many of these ephemeral stage productions are preserved on film or tape, courtesy the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive which records Broadway productions, but this only started in 1970, and these recorded productions are not readily available for viewing by the average person. And, what about everything else?

For example, you can’t see the Broadway production of “Bus Stop” (1955) that made Elaine Stritch a star before her star-making turn in “Company” (1970). And you can’t see Jessica Tandy’s Tony Award-winning performance of Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947). And no one will ever see the theater performances of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in “The Guardsman” (1924) which was apparently the greatest theater experience since the invention of the wheel.

So, what to do? Thankfully, this is one of the rare times Hollywood has come to the rescue by allowing brilliant actors to turn brilliant stage performances into brilliant film performances that are still available for the average Joe to see.

Here are five examples of great Broadway performances that were transferred (perhaps not exactly) to film, allowing future generations to see what all the fuss has been about all these years:

Shirley Booth: I grew up watching Booth on the television show “Hazel.” I was amazed to find out she had acted in films. Then I was more amazed to find out she acted on Broadway and even won two Tony Awards -- one for “Goodbye My Fancy” (1948), the other for “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1950). She was brought to Hollywood to reprise her roll in Come Back, Little Sheba and justly won an Oscar and a handful of other major awards. [Photograph: Booth with Sidney Blackmer in the 1950 production of “Come Back, Little Sheba]

Marlon Brando: What can I say about the young, hungry Brando that hasn’t already been said a million times before? He fought for and won the role of Tennessee Williams’ Stanley Kowalski for the Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) and won raves. Wisely, Hollywood cast him in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire and he was nominated for an Oscar. [Photograph: Brando with co-star Jessica Tandy in the 1947 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”]

Joel Grey: Grey won a Tony Award for his performance as the Master of Ceremonies in the Broadway production of “Cabaret” (1966). He then won an Oscar for recreating his performance in the film version of Cabaret. [Photograph: Grey in the 1966 production of “Cabaret”]

Katharine Hepburn: Hepburn was a movie star. Then, in the 1930s, she became “box-office poison.” Determined to prove Hollywood wrong about her, she went back to her Broadway roots and signed on to do Philip Barry’s play “The Philadelphia Story” (1939). It was a huge hit. Hepburn starred in the film version of The Philadelphia Story and was nominated for her third Oscar. [Photograph: Hepburn and Dan Tobin in the 1939 production of "The Philadelphia Story]

Robert Preston: Preston won a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway production of “The Music Man” (1957). The musical’s creator, Meredith Willson, insisted Preston be brought over to Hollywood. Despite the objections of Jack Warner (who wanted Frank Sinatra), Preston appeared in the film version of The Music Man. [Photograph: Preston and co-star Barbara Cook in the 1957 production of “The Music Man”]

25 May 2015

Who were the Murphys?

Sara and Gerald Murphy were incredible people who led incredible lives at an incredible time. They counted among their intimates F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Benchley, John Dos Passos, Philip Barry and many, many others who were part of what we refer to as The Lost Generation.

Here’s the story of how I came to write a novel very loosely based on the real lives of real people Sara and Gerald Murphy:

I'm a voracious reader -- biography and history. I love the 1920s and 1930s and have read biographies of all the movers and shakers of that era. In nearly all of them, over the years, I would encounter at least one mysterious reference to a fabulous but tragic couple called the Murphys -- just a word or two but nothing in depth. I would mention this to my spouse, Matt, every time it came up. Who were these people? How were they everywhere with everyone all the time?

One day, we were in a used bookstore (where I find most of my books) and Matt found Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill. He handed it to me and said "This sounds like the kind of book you'd like." When it dawned on me that it was about THE Murphys I started jumping up and down, there, in the used book store, screaming something along the lines of "Do you know what this is about? Who these people are? It's the Murphys! It's the Murphys!" It was one of the most exhilarating moments in my life. I read it several times and then dug in to research their lives in earnest. It was only then that I realized how obscure they really were and set out, with my humble little novel, determined to change that, if only a little.

My book Sarah & Gerald, a novel of Paris in the 1920s, came out in 2012. It’s enjoyed good sales and received good reviews. Soon, I’ll have some wonderful news to share with you about by book, so stay tuned over the next few weeks.

03 May 2015

Number 999!

I started this blog in December 2005. Back then, everyone was doing blogs. I kinda felt left out not having one of my own so, on a lark, I started one. And now, here we are nearly ten years later and the little blog that could is still chugging along, singing a song, side by side. (Sorry, I got off on a little Sondheim tangent there.)

As I was saying, it’ll be ten years this coming December and now here is my 999th blog entry. Everyone writes about their milestones, like their 500th blog. I wrote about my 499th entry back in June 2009. They also write about their 1000th entry but, as you can see, I’m celebrating my 999th entry, instead.

As you would expect, a lot has changed for me in that near-decade since: I married my longtime companion, Matt (we’ve now been together almost 21 years), I left my longtime safety-net job to return to writing full time (which I’ve been doing since the late 1970s!), I’ve published ten books with an eleventh due this summer, I was diagnosed with a potentially fatal genetic heart ailment that was corrected with surgery, we lost a cat, we gained a cat and a dog, and so many other things. Kinda hard to believe so much can happen in so little time.

I plan to keep up with my blog -- even though social media has been stealing the thunder of blogs and replacing it with photographs of cats.