My Strange Professor’s Wife

ProfessorWhatnotI remember thinking that Professor Rosen needs to shave his silvery neck-beard, more shiny grey hairs running downward under his chin than on his face, but that’s most likely his wife’s responsibility.                                                                                             Professor Rosen is a short, hairy man, in his 60’s, with broad shoulders, large feet, and an extensive neck-beard. He wears light-colored sports coats and khaki pants, brown leather shoes, never a tie. With his typical garb and dull personality, Professor Rosen fits the quintessential college professor mold.

On a September evening last fall, a steady, cool breeze skimming across the lawn at Butler Library, I walked into Hamilton Hall, anxious to begin Scholarly Writing, one of my first classes as a graduate student at Columbia. I wanted to sharpen my academic writing skills and also earn a few easy college credits. And since the course was offered on a pass/fail basis rather than the traditional grading system, I felt less pressure to do well. I only needed to be average, and as it turned out, in Professor Rosen’s course, I easily accomplished my goal.

Professor Rosen is a Mongolist—an expert on Mongolia—and apparently one of the best in the world, although there must not be much competition.

What does that conversation look like when young Rosen comes home from college and announces his new plans to the family?

“Mom and Dad, I’ve changed my major. I’m going to become a Mongolist!”

“What son? A mongoloid? Honey, your son wants to become a mongoloid.”

“What’s that? Your father says you want to become a mongoloid? Why?”

“Not a mongoloid, a mongolist. Geez, it’s a specialist on Mongolia.”

Apparently Professor Rosen is a genius, too, having earned a bachelor’s degree at age 17 and a doctorate at 22. Throughout the semester, I sensed that his experience in college at such a young age warped his brain. He was timid, consistently shying away from eye contact, and when he talked about his collegiate experience, he seemed uncomfortable doing so.

I’ve learned that with some intellectually gifted people, they can lack common sense. It’s as if the part of their brain that stores knowledge has become too big, crushing the rational thinking side. It seemed this was the case with Professor Rosen, since in a course on writing, by the third week of class, we had not been given any writing assignments.

This was strange to me, but by the fifth week, Professor Rosen’s class moved into an entire new realm of strangeness.

At the time, because Brittany, my fiancée, was finishing her bachelor’s degree in Florida while I was here in New York City, she and I were in a long distance relationship. Apart from her each night, I often found myself waking up and scrolling through Facebook or checking my email.

On a Monday morning around 3am, I received an email from Professor Rosen’s Columbia email address stating that Scholarly Writing the following evening would be cancelled.

“Dear All,” it read. “My husband Professor Rosen came down with a flu Friday night and lost his voice on Sunday.  He is reluctantly compelled to cancel class of Scholarly Writing tomorrow. He just wrote to me that he will be ready and looks forward to seeing you all next week. Sincerely yours, Mrs. Rosen.”

Professor lost his voice, but the message was sent from his wife, through his email, I asked myself. And he “just” wrote her, so why didn’t he just write us? Does losing your voice mean you can’t compose emails? How did Professor write to his wife? Did he mail her a letter? Did he send her an email from another bedroom in their home?

The following week, after recovering over a horrible case of laryngitis, which resulted in a loss of voice and an inability to send more than one message or form of communication per day, Professor acted as if nothing had happened. Things were back to normal, but this did not last long because two weeks later, when I entered the classroom, a tiny little woman stood at the head of the room.

Sitting down at the large, rectangular table, I looked up at her, and she smiled, the lines along her eyes bending, her cute white dress with stitched blue flowers along the hem, looked homemade. The woman exuded a sense of warmth, like a grandmother I had not seen in years.

She glanced up at the clock a few times, and when the big hand hit 6, the woman said, “Professor Rosen could not make it tonight, so I am here instead. I’m Mrs. Rosen. I brought fresh fruit and prepared baked goods for all of you,” pulling out a box of cookies and a big sack of grapes from her bag.

I remember thinking that on one hand, the idea of Professor Rosen’s wife filling in for him is absurd, but on the other hand, in light of the strange experience in his class so far, it made perfect sense.

The week before, we had turned in outlines for potential semester papers, and Mrs. Rosen returned them to us. My outline was littered with comments from Professor Rosen, yet not a single one of them was decipherable. I questioned the Professor’s wife, and after trying to translate his chicken scratch, she said, “Even after 46 years, I still can’t read his writing.” I responded, “Is it in English?” She seemed annoyed and said, “yes,” and I replied, “I thought it was in Sanskrit.”

Next, strangely, Professor Rosen’s wife talked for her husband, as if he was in the room, yet mute.

“My husband has a few questions,” she said. “First, what instructions have you been given by your other teachers about writing your thesis? Do the topics and themes fit your subject?”

Since we appeared confused by her questions, the questions her husband asked her to ask us while he is at home, perhaps watching Jeopardy, she said, “I don’t know what my husband is talking about. Never mind these questions.”

The entire situation was surreal.

As Mrs. Rosen continued to teach, she made statements like, “My husband also points out that writing requires determination and persistence… When writing, my husband wants to remind you to avoid personal judgments.”

She repeatedly asked, “Am I going too fast? Am I going too fast? I can slow down so you have time to take notes if you need.”

“No,” I mumbled under my breath, “you’re husband is not going too fast.”

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Couples Counseling Sucks

o-COUPLES-THERAPY-facebookBrittany, my fiancée, calls the rat that scurries through our apartment a mouse, and that’s why she’s in denial. I told her that too, but not explicitly. “Brittany, De Nile in not just a river in Africa.”

“The Nile River is in Egypt, not Africa.”

“You’re right honey.” And that’s all I said because we’ve been going to couples counseling, and I’m tired of getting in trouble there.

The Ackerman Institute for the Family, according to their website, is a premier institution for family therapy and one of the most highly regarded training facilities for family therapists in the United States. Phyllis is an Ackerman Institute trainee, and she was our counselor for the several weeks we attended couples counseling last year, until I put an end to that shit.

“How does that make you feeeeel Brittany?” asks Phyllis, annunciating “feel” like she’s Sigmund’s sister, Phyllis Freud, as if doing so will evoke Brittany’s inner-most emotions, making Phyllis New York City’s next famous therapist.

“Brittany, can you talk about how John’s actions make you feeeeel?”

What about me, I think. What about how I feeeeel?

But I don’t say a word. I learned it’s best to keep my mouth shut, especially after Phyllis said The Team has some suggestions for me.

The Team is a small group of conniving therapists and their judgmental students who sit behind a two-way mirror, watching our sessions and intermittently offering suggestions, but never to our faces. They tell Phyllis in secret meetings that take place after our weekly sessions.

On our first appointment, I described my trouble falling asleep at night, while Phyllis took notes. The next week she reported that The Team thought I might have a sleeping disorder and suggested I seek professional help.

“Well I don’t like suggestions, and now I don’t like couples counseling,” I responded.

“Then you must really love Brittany to keep coming here.”

Nice one Phyllis, I thought as Brittany smirked, saying with her look I told you she was smart.

I only agreed to couples counseling because Brittany and I desperately needed to get along better. For me, pain, especially the kind that relationships can produce, is a catalyst to compliance. In one moment, I’m not concerned with growing my relationship, yet after a huge fight, I’m willing to do anything to maintain peace.

Phyllis doesn’t look like a Phyllis. She’s young, maybe 25, thin, with curly brown hair, the kind that will fall out at age forty.

I have a suggestion for you, I think to myself as she and Brittany continue to talk about feeeeelings. Add a little more iron and vitamin B to your diet, Phyllis. It will help with the female pattern baldness with which eventually you will be plagued.

Brittany and I first met The Team on our third or fourth session—I can’t recall with certainty now, the memories blending together like the stinky contents of a toilet bowl.

I remember it was a Tuesday, though, because our appointments were always on Tuesdays, always at 8am, too early for peaceful and harmonious counseling sessions, if there were such a thing.

Through the doors of the Ackerman Institute, which is located near Union Square in Lower Manhattan, Urlin, a dark skinned woman from Antigua greeted us.

“Ya’all are here lata today,” she says with her warm personality.

“Yes, we are meeting The Team,” says Brittany.

Plain white walls with light fluorescent pillars, contemporary chandeliers in rectangular shapes, straight lines, and dividing patterns, the Ackerman Institute is housed within an upscale building, modern and newly decorated. Its style evokes a sense of achievement and also control. White bookshelves from IKEA contain two small boxes of toys and children’s books, neatly organized, Raggedy Ann and the Daffy Taffy Pull on the coffee table.

Christmas is coming, and I admire the tiny poinsettia plants decorating Urlin’s desk, yellow spots with gold glitter somehow on their green leaves, adding more color to the space.

“They be from Trader Joes,” says Urlin, recognizing my interest in them.

“Ahh, we’ve never shopped there,” I respond.

Today Phyllis leads us to her office, exuding a sense of excitement. “Well are you happy to meet The Team?” she asks.

“Oh yes,” we respond, me lying, although I am eager to see the sneaky rats finally come out for some cheese.

We met the team that day, and the experience was quite different than I expected. A telephone was attached to the wall, and a few minutes into the session, it rang. The Team’s leader, Sharon, a female psychotherapist was on the line. She asked Phyllis to find out whether we would mind if she participated directly with our session. We agreed, and she came into the office, sat next to Phyllis, and offered praise for our continued hard work, acknowledging that couples counseling is challenging. Attractive and in her 40’s with brown hair, dressed in professional business attire, Sharon focused on the positives of our relationship, never asking how we feeeeel, which made me feeeeel happy.

Amazingly, later in the hour Phyllis, Brittany, and I changed places with The Team, leaving the room and taking our seats behind the two-way mirror. From a dimly lit, adjacent office, we witnessed The Team’s session, each member taking his or her turn describing how Brittany and I have improved over the last several weeks and offering ideas for enhancing our relationship.

The experience was enjoyable, and if I’m honest, I have to admit that I appreciated switching sides because doing so gave me the power. Normally The Team was outside of my reach—my control—and that fact made me feeeeel powerless. But in the end, I had the power.

A couple of weeks later, I phoned Phyllis and left her a voicemail.

“Hello Phyllis. This is John Strasser. I’m sorry but I can no longer participate in couples counseling. It’s too hard for me. Anytime I mistreat Brittany or we get into a fight, I obsess all week about what will happen in our next session because of it. I cannot continue. I just can’t. I’m sorry.”

I loved ending with a message, leaving Phyllis no opportunity for rebuttal—no chance to tell me how she feeeeels.


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Missing Darryl

Mating camels (Camelus dromedarius), in the Erg Chegaga, interior Sahara Desert, Morocco.Darryl Fleming is one of those people that you’re embarrassed to be around, but when apart, you miss him. It’s the way he talks, I think… “Now ain’t that some real deal play boy bull shit. Dikkie dow and suckie sow, my peoples.”

This is how Darryl speaks to me. The funny part is that I understand exactly what he’s saying. In this example, he’s responding to me not calling him for a while, which he attributes to me thinking I’m better than everyone else. According to Darryl, I think humankind should “dickie dow and suckie sow.”

But I don’t feel that way, and actually I go out of my way to keep in touch with old friends, especially friends like Darryl. Just because I live in New York City now doesn’t mean that I think I’m better than anyone. That’s what I try to explain to Darryl over the phone.

“Don’t give me your dickie dow, suckie sow shit. I called you. I called you twice.”

“You too busy pickin up Chinese or Indian women or half chink Indian womens. All I got to say John is dickie dow my peoples. Suckie sow, yeaaaaaa.”

“I got engaged Darryl. Remember? And she’s American.”

Darryl Fleming must be fifty-eight or fifty-nine now, and he looks like an ex-Southern California surfer turned construction worker, just beginning to dabble with methamphetamine. He always wears those light brown imitation suede steel toe boots, but he doesn’t do construction. Usually he fixes cars, or paints houses, or whatever you might need him to do for cash. Darryl’s a happy guy, and in between puffs on his filtered Camels, he makes jokes, laughing and showing off his beautiful teeth he takes great care off, soaking them in denture cleaner each night.

“So on the blood raw, I heard in the past you got moneys. Help a brother out. Talking to you makes my penis get soft.”

“You should do something about that.”

“You are the bomb bitch hole my nigger. I was gonna masturbate till you called.”

“It’s always a pleasure, Darryl.”

“You dick jacking killer, actin like you’re listening.”

“I am listening.”

“You been hanging with those half chinkie chink womens. Have you done a camel yet? Them two humps remind me of titties. Do some camels have one hump? One tittie equal a mastectomy, unless she was one of those womens born with one tittie, or they so big and droopy it looks like one big mass of tittie. Now for real, John, come on nigger, don’t try to tell me you ain’t got me.”

“I’m in school. I don’t even have a job.”

There’s actually a formula to Darryl’s language. Typically the first words he spits out express his true feelings. The middle of what he says doesn’t make any sense, but act as a sort of nonsense buffer, allowing Darryl to gather his thoughts and express what he is truly trying to say in the final portion of his comment. The ending expresses his real motivation and in a “blood raw” kind of way, usually in the form of a question.

“Don’t tell me that bull junkie. While you’re at it, suckie sow, and send me some of them good pictures of your wife. I want to see her dickie dow and suckie sow, nigger! What, you quit being a shoe mechanic?”

“Yeah. I don’t work there anymore. I live in New York. It’s shoe repair.”

“Negro please. You apple cobbler, cobbling, sword swallowing mofo. You never even fixed my boots. On the blood raw, can I ship them to you?”

“No way.”

“What you think because you fucked the Statue of Liberty Lady I won’t play you like a champ?”

“I have missed you, Darryl. I sure have.”


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The Betrayal

imagesI’ve spent more money and more time on her than I ever imagined I would. I’ve given myself, I guess, and now I’m angry. We’ve been together nearly two years, and now this. I never saw it coming. I simply could not have imagined she would betray me this way.

I remember the day we met. It was as if she smiled instantly, her beautiful eyes, deep grey, staring into mine. I recall our first night together, her thin, long body spread out across my bed as I rubbed her back and caressed her feet. We shared a deep sense of connection right away.

I had grown up around her kind, actually, so I was used to that level of affection early in the relationship. It felt so right, but it turned out to be so wrong.

We spent almost every night together after that. We would fall asleep together watching TV – she didn’t care what was on.

Every once in a while I would make her something special for dinner. “Forget the canned stuff,” I would announce from the kitchen, “it’s Salmon tonight!”

And now I’ve been betrayed.

Coming home, I found Doll-face hiding behind the toilet, my sectional couch with extended chaise lounge—the one I bought at the Rooms To Go outlet, ruined, covered in cat piss.

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I Know His Name Was David

reebok-pump-omni-zone-3 (1)Horace Grant wore Reebok Omni Zone Pumps throughout the 1992 NBA playoffs when his team, the Chicago Bulls, won their second consecutive championship against Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Omni Zone’s – stadium black upper build, shiny leather with white accents and the basketball-orange pump, those kicks were bad.

That same year for the Bulls, Michael Jordan won the MVP award, his second in a row, wearing his Nike Air Jordan 7’s and averaging 52% from the field. But Horace Grant’s field goal percentage that season—nearly 58—was higher than Jordan’s. It must have been the shoes.

On the Sunday in mid-June when the Bulls celebrated their championship at home, I had just completed my junior year of high school. Back then I had a lot of friends, which was no small accomplishment after transferring to the large public high school in Tampa from a smaller, all-boys private school. But not everyone was so fortunate.

I remember his name was David. He attended my high school, and I occasionally saw him on Sunday nights at Incarnation Catholic Church as well, where I went to youth group meetings for the grace of God and for the pretty girls.

In my imagination, David wears Reebok Omni Zone Pumps, but the white pair with blue trim, sleek and clean. His high-tops, size 11, make his extremely thin calves and short legs appear larger, more normal-sized. Our classmates don’t see anything strange about David’s mangled left arm, the way it twists and hangs downward as he hobbles through the school. I envision him jumping, his feet fast as he drives the lane, a head fake, scoring another basket during an after-school pickup game.

But in reality, I remember seeing him early in the mornings, standing alone near a row of lockers and waiting for first period to begin, his generic sneakers old and dirty. David’s short stature, maybe 5’5”, accentuated his bright, welcoming eyes, inviting me to be his friend whenever we made eye contact. I just smiled though and continued walking. Unlike David, I never had to experience a sense of isolation among a high school with seventeen hundred students.

In my imagination, I invite David to eat lunch at my table, round with 8 chairs, 8 friends laughing over stories of girls and trading food. “I got a piece of pizza for a peanut butter bar,” Dan announces, his favorite dessert giving him energy for soccer practice he says. I see my buddies accepting David, not judging him for his acne scars or disheveled hair or stuttering speech. When he talks, we patiently wait for the words to come out.

But in reality, I remember David eating at the table near the exit to the lunch line, the cafeteria lights shining brightly overhead and illuminating a tack board with silly construction paper cutouts, which reminded us to wash our hands. David ate slowly, concentrating on each bite, hoping to go unnoticed I suspected, as I watched from afar, amid the good times at my table.

In my imagination, when the big sophomore bully who plays on the junior varsity football team pushes David in the hallway that one day, I do something about it. I workout almost everyday, and work even harder to make others think I’m tough, that I can fight. So it would be easy for me to standup for someone.

But in reality, I remember doing nothing, saying not a word as the bully pushed David, his left leg, the shorter of the two, barely keeping him from falling as he tried to keep balance. “Say something retard,” the bully demanded, while I paused for a moment, looking on with fear before quickly cutting toward the men’s room in my Reebok Omni Zone Pumps.


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Holi: Hindu Festival of Colors and Chaos

Holi 2The newspaper collector boy is riding a three-wheel bicycle with an attached wooden cart, containing the day’s proceeds of recycled papers. His cream-colored dress shirt is partially red, stained with liquid dye and colored powder. The boy’s pushbike is timeworn, probably rebuilt numerous times, its patched tires attached to a thin metal frame covered in dust. He shouts words in Hindi while intensely pedaling through the unusually empty street.

The boy approaches, and we wait for him.

He is watching for people like us, yet Brittany and I are high above, hiding behind a ledge on the third floor of a New Delhi flat, overlooking the street. In the distance, I can see the tips of the Lotus Temple, the magnificent house of worship of the Baha’i religion, exemplifying the religious diversity embedded within the fabric of Indian society. The celebration of today’s sacred Hindu holiday, however, feels anything but religious.

Mostly it feels fantastic; the childlike jubilation the festival creates is contagious, steadily rousing our own emotions and infecting the property’s servants standing by with anticipation.

“Get him, get him,” Brittany says as she hands me more water balloons filled with purple dye, urging me to pummel the young Indian.

Back then when we lived in India during the spring of 2012, we didn’t understand the meaning behind Holi. But just like holidays in America, one doesn’t need to comprehend the tradition in order to participate and have fun.

Holi is many things. It is a celebration of the coming of spring, a time of fertility, love, renewal, and rejuvenation of the land. In India, it is harvest time, not just the fruit of the crops, but of human passions as well. Among the celebrants, there is a tremendous sense of excitement and also forgiveness, as partakers let go of grudges and attempt to begin the new season in a friendly atmosphere.

The word “Holi” takes its name from Holika, the demoness and sister of an evil King who wished to kill his son Prahlada because of the boy’s devotion to Lord Vishnu. Believing she was fireproof, Holika took her nephew Prahlada into the fire, but instead she perished and Prahlada survived. Holi, therefore, begins with a bonfire, which symbolizes the end of Holika and the triumph of good over evil. The fire, in a ritual context, purifies the past evil, and out of its ashes arises a new hope for the coming year.

In addition, Holi functions as a New Years holiday. While New Years in America consists of people drinking to celebrate the end of the previous year, similarly in the case of Holi, there is a process of commemorating the disintegration of time—letting go of the past year and marking it with ritual through another form of debauchery.

Following the burning of Holika, participants play Holi by throwing colored liquids and powders at each other. Thus, the elaborate celebration of disorder is known as the festival of colors. This tradition of color play is associated with the Hindu deity Krishna, the first to play Holi with his lover Radha and the other cow herding girls in the Braj region of India.

In the Hindu tradition, then, even God makes time to play. Through his spirited antics, Krishna pushes the customary standards of behavior aside while revealing the universality of Divine love. Holi as follows is a time when strict conventions of society are turned upside-down, and devotees are reminded of the presence of God here on earth, playing in the way Krishna once played.

Holi is also the one occasion each year when the unity embodied in the performed rituals transcends caste, gender, and age, as all are welcome to participate and playfully demonstrate the equality of God’s love.

The rioted day of color play concludes with peacefulness and unity, participants embracing one another in rejuvenation and reconciliation and people drenched in color attempting to get clean before gathering with their families that night.

Two years ago, we didn’t need to get clean because we didn’t play fair, which I realized yesterday during the Holi parade and celebration here in New York City—our entire faces covered in color, ears caked with purple and pink powders, red and purple snot in our noses.

Positioning ourselves on our New Delhi balcony, we were out of reach, beyond retaliation, the only stains from filling our own water balloons.

“You’re next,” Brittany shouts at two youths walking below. She’s a different person. For the controlled chaos that is Holi has corrupted her, corrupted us both actually. Pointing at them with her index finger, Brittany uses it like a scope, aiming in on our next target, as I throw more balloons at their heads.

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Intensive Caring

intensive careI remember the seventeen days my mother spent in the intensive care unit and my mother is lying in bed in a coma and she is wearing a hospital gown with a floral print of sky blue, tiny green flowers, and white trim around its edges and my mother’s lips are in the shape of a kiss, parched and cracking, wrapped around a clear rubber tube and the tube is connected to a machine and it goes beep, beep, beep.

And I remember she has mucus caked around the edge of her nose and on the inside, stuck to her tiny nose hairs and she breathes easier than I have ever seen, a ventilator doing most of the work and it makes a mechanical sound like a sci-fi robot breathing deeply yet falsely and as I sit close to her bed next to her unconscious body in the room alone together the machine’s rhythm calms me.

And I remember the blanket, too thin and small because she gets cold easily, is twisted over her leg and let me straighten that out for you mom and are you thirsty mom you must be thirsty and can I gently rub your lips with ice and this is what I do for you mom and this is my job during the intensive caring times.

And I remember my mother’s hands are cold and dry and she needs moisturizer, Aloe Vera her preference, and I rub some into her hands and be careful of the IV and I wonder what is in those bags dangling from a thin metal pole, dripping clear liquids into her veins and she’s allergic to penicillin, you know, she must know, the nurse discreetly working outside the door.

And I remember the room is tiny compared to the others in the hospital and my mother has been here before and she has been in many different hospitals in the Tampa Bay area and she likes this hospital the best and they have the nicest nurses she would say and they only put one patient in each room and they have room service and they don’t mind if you order extra dessert.

And I remember the intensive care has strict visiting hours and the Christian lady comes to the waiting room and brings crackers and cheese and offers me pamphlets and prayers and would you like me to pray with you and I say sure and she holds my hands and she says heavenly father let us pray and I can’t pray because I’m too scared and I can still taste last night’s whiskey in my throat, fuming from my empty stomach.

And I remember eating the packets of crackers and cheese alone and waiting alone and there are magazines neatly arranged on the table and I like Yachting World and someday I’m going to buy a sailboat and my mother loves the ocean and she lived in Bermuda as a child, you know, and we went there together and she took me to the school she attended and I want to go back with her someday.

And I remember Christmas morning at my mother’s house and Santa does not come and there is no tree and there are no presents and I am alone and Santa all I want is for my mother to get better and all I want is a drink and my mother’s liquor cabinet is nearly empty and she’s going to be furious when she gets home and God please bring her home.

And I remember the new year is soon and I check my voice mail and dude what are you doing for New Year’s Eve and 2006 is going to be great and I haven’t told many people that my mom is sick and I’m all she has left and she is all I have left and it’s 4:53 in the morning and the phone rings and I erupt out of bed and grab the phone in an instant but it feels like hours, everything moving in slow motion, and now I’m all I have left.

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My Family Stole From McDonald’s—A Children’s Story

First“McDonald’s serves millions. They can afford to give a freakin’ transvestite mom a free meal,” my Daddy tells my Mommy.

It’s Mother’s Day in May of 1985, and I’m 9 years old. I love Mother’s Day because we always go to the beach. Along the way, we stop at McDonald’s for the free meal they give moms on their special day.

Usually we stop at 4 of them, only ordering the free meal each time. It’s my Daddy’s idea.

dadMy Daddy was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and he has dark hair, bright blue eyes, big muscles, and a big belly. He also has a tattoo on his right arm, but my mommy doesn’t like it.

“That tattoo is embarrassing, Jack. Please keep it covered in public.”

My Daddy doesn’t listen to her much, and when she’s not home, he shows me his tattoo—a smiling devil, dark blue and faded, with his name underneath. He got it in Juarez, Mexico in the 60’s. I want to go there someday.

the-woman-of-steel_thumb[4]This Mother’s Day is different because my Daddy is wearing my Mommy’s clothes—a big blue dress and her bra stuffed with socks. He also has her makeup on.

My best friend Matthew Newton spent the night, and he’s coming to the beach with us today.

This morning after we grabbed our flip-flops, beach towels, and a football, my father came down the stairs and said, “This year McDonald’s is giving us double free food!”


“Oh no, Jack. Please don’t do this. Matthew’s parents will never let him spend the night again.”

“They’ll be fine, Shirley. It’s ain’t like we’re robbin’ the place. McDonald’s gives a free meal to every mom no matter what. They’re not going to say nothing. You think they want a law suit on their hands?”

father grew up

My Daddy always talks about suing people. He always talks about his childhood, too.

“When I was kid, a chocolate bar was five cents and you could get a freakin’ burger for fifteen. McDonald’s can afford to give away a little extra once in a while, huh.”

My Daddy always says “huh.” It means he wants us to tell him that he is right. But my Mommy never does.

Fat kid

We eat fast food all the time.

I went on my first real diet last year so that I could play football. I had to lose fifteen pounds to make the 110 pound cutoff to play with the fourth and fifth graders. I was in third grade.

I’m still pretty good at sports. On my soccer team, they called me Big Foot because I could kick the ball really hard and really far.

Milking cowThe sun is shining today as we pull into McDonald’s.

On days like this, my Daddy says, “Blue skies above and thank God no blue lights behind.”

My Daddy’s been to prison, and he tells me stories all the time. My Mommy doesn’t like that.

“Do not tell him those stories, Jack.”

Many mealsThe drive-thru line is long. My Daddy lights his Marlboro while we wait. I’m used to the smoke, but Matthew isn’t. He asks my Mommy to roll her window down more.

Finally it’s our turn so my Daddy wearing my Mommy’s heels says, “We only want the free meals for Mother’s Day—we got two mothas in the car.”


“Give us two Egg McMuffins, two hash browns, and two large orange juices.”

“This is wrong Jack.”

“Forget about it, Jesus will forgive me.”

“He might, but when your son follows in your footsteps, will you be able to forgive yourself?”


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The $4,000 Indian Aortic Valve

spring14_magazine-cover“How much does a new aortic valve cost?” I ask the doctor, her clean white coat like the white curtains separating my bed from the others in the crowded examination room.

“Two hundred thousand rupees.”

“Wow that’s cheap. That’s like four thousand dollars! I can’t believe it. In America an aortic valve would cost at least fifty thousand. That includes installation, right?”

Delhi’s National Heart Institute is a modern building with polished marble floors and a contemporary reception desk out in the open, receptionists seated behind, ready to deal with patients. A flat screen TV plays in a small waiting area, while women dressed in traditional Indian clothing and men, a few wearing colored turbans, crowd the whicker couches, several talking on cell phones.

It was 2012, and I was studying world religions in New Delhi, India for college credit. Four years earlier, I contracted viral pericarditis, an illness that causes the sack around the heart to become enflamed. Through two surgeries to drain the fluid from my enflamed heart sack, I spent a month in the hospital. During the related echocardiograms—sonograms of the heart—the doctors noticed that I had a congenital heart condition. My aortic valve contains only two leaflets while normal valves have three. Not a big deal but eventually could require replacement.

In India, I became friends with Jasvir, an extremely kind and spiritual man. Jasvir is a member of the Sikh tradition, and he became my spiritual advisor of sorts. Since medical care is extremely inexpensive in India, I wanted to have an echocardiogram done—it had been a couple of years—so I called Jasvir to ask for help.

“John, I’m so glad to hear from you. You tell me, how is Brittany? How nice to hear from you, man.”

Jasvir is my height, around 5’11” with a long, tan face and a short beard, gray hairs speckled throughout. He dresses well: usually a long-sleeve button-up shirt neatly tucked into khaki trousers with a jet-black turban, skillfully tied, accentuating his warm smile and hazel eyes.

“I can help you with this John. No problem my friend. You can easily go for an echocardiogram. Let me see, do you have a piece of paper?”


“Write my full name down on the paper. Write my phone number.”

“All I have is a copy of my research paper. Can I write on the back of one of its pages?”

“Yes, that’s fine. With my name and phone number, write ‘echocardiogram’ and take that with you to the clinic. If they ask for a referral, show it to them.”

Jasvir is a retired medical doctor, so he fully understands how the medical system in India works.

“And John, don’t forget to spend time in the sun. You should get plenty of sun. It elevates your mood, gives you vitamin D, and that makes your bones stronger. The sun liberates the chemicals in your brain, John. Plus you feel the warmth and its energy… and the sun will remind you of God.”

“Thank you so much Jasvir. I love it.”

I write the mock prescription on the back of the bibliography page of my research paper and the next day, go to the clinic.

Looking back, I didn’t think the paper would work, but having something to show them made me feel better. I suppose that’s why Jasvir had me fill it out.

It was hot that morning, the sun beating down as the rickshaw travels slowly through traffic.

Hustling inside the clinic to feel the relief from the air-conditioning, I cool off for a moment, my black Indian kurta soaked with sweat along the back.

I step through a small crowd gathered around the Heart Institute’s reception area to the counter.

“I’m here to have an echocardiogram,” I tell the receptionist, as a patient dressed in a grey suit and dusty black dress shoes stands to my right.

“Two thousand rupees.”

“What? I’m not paying first. No way.”

The man shrugs his shoulders as if to say oh well.

“I’m not paying first. I don’t want to pay first. Well then let me see the machine.”

At that point, after constantly haggling with rickshaw drivers over rates, negotiating with vendors at the markets, and even telling a doctor a thousand rupees is too expensive for an exam, I was accustomed to arguing.

The man won’t budge and appears to care less about my business. Finally the gentleman to my right assures me that paying first is standard protocol. I hand the receptionist the two thousand rupees, and he immediately slides the cash into his shirt pocket! Annoyed, I want to question it, but I also want to have the procedure done.

During the echocardiogram, the doctor notices the abnormal valve. I was surprised that she found it so quickly since its initial discovery took American doctors several days.

In the midst of writing this, I phone Jasvir because I want to remember exactly what happened during my experience back then.

“John, people get scared by Indian medical facilities,” he tells me, “but remember, there’s a method to the madness. Medical care is far less expensive; it includes more personal contact, and it’s more humanitarian.”

He’s right, and the medical system in India is entirely different than here—it’s simple. Mostly there’s greater immediacy to it, a sense of urgency, which equals better care. I never signed any kind of release form for the echocardiogram, and they never asked to see my bibliographic referral. To me, purchasing an Indian aortic valve is like shopping for Rolex watches here in Chinatown: we got whatever you need my friend.

We employ our Western lens of understanding to make judgments on others cultures, yet often our vision is blurred. While India’s medical system appears less advanced, in reality, it is more progressive and also practical; and sometimes the simpler way is the most effective. They’ve even replaced the cash register with the shirt pocket, although I now wonder if that guy even worked there.

And medical surgeries are inclusive. When I asked the doctor if the aortic valve included installation, she laughed, saying, “Ha-ha sir. Yes it does.”

“Well, let me think about it,” I told her.


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My Father Was Like Philip Seymour Hoffman

combine_imagesEverything is fine and our family is fine and we are fine and that is a lie.

And in 8th grade my father is in a car accident and he is injured and he goes to the doctor and the doctor gives him pain medicine. And my father is a recovering heroin addict and a recovering alcoholic and my father doesn’t tell the doctor and the prescription pain pills with the prescription heroin in them that he picked up at the pharmacy are too much for him.

And my father takes the pills as the doctor prescribes and he takes those pills more than they are prescribed and in a few days those pills are gone and my father needs more pills and my father finds more pills and he takes those pills as the dealer prescribes.

And in 8th grade my father has not consumed alcohol for 12 or 13 years and my father has not consumed alcohol for almost my entire life and I don’t understand alcohol and drugs but I will soon learn more than I ever knew.

And in 8th grade my father needs more pills and my father cannot find more pills and he is desperate and on Christmas Eve he consumes alcohol and I have never seen him this way and he is drunk and I don’t understand what is happening. And he is in the guest bedroom and I hear smashing sounds and my father is smashing everything in the room. And I am scared and I don’t understand and my father is screaming and my mother is screaming and my father is smashing and I am scared and I don’t understand.

And in 8th grade my father consumes alcohol and I visit him in rehabs and he does not drink for a while and then he drinks and he takes painkillers. And I don’t understand painkillers and then my father drives me to the Twistee Treat for ice-cream and he drives down Woodbridge Boulevard and he is nodding out and he is drifting across the lanes and the Twistee Treat is only one mile from our house and I am scared and I begin to understand painkillers.

And everything is fine and our family is fine and we are fine and that is a lie.

And in 9th grade my father consumes alcohol and I visit him in detox units and he does not drink for a while and he is taking painkillers the whole time.

And everything is fine and our family is fine and we are fine and that is a lie.

And in 10th grade my father consumes alcohol and I visit him in psychiatric units because things are getting worse for him and he does not drink for a while and then he drinks and he takes pain killers the whole time and I think he drinks when he can’t find more pain killers because I understand addiction more now.

And everything is fine and our family is fine and we are fine and that is a lie.

And in 11th grade I leave the private high school and go to the public high school because my father is going to lose his job and he is going to lose his income and he is not going to be able to pay the tuition and I don’t want to live in fear anymore.

And everything is fine and our family is fine and we are fine and that is a lie.

And in 12th grade my father consumes alcohol and I attend AA meetings with him and he does not drink for a while and then he drinks and he takes painkillers the whole time. And I am leaving for college soon and my mother is secretly saving money and she has a plan and she is getting herself prepared and I leave for college and my mother kicks my father out of the house and I don’t know this is happening.

And everything is fine and our family is fine and we are fine and that is a lie.

And in my freshman year of college my father lives in a half-way house for recovering addicts and he isn’t half-way and he isn’t even close to half-way and I do not see my father because I am away and he is away.

And in my freshman year of college the phone rings and my roommate answers it and he comes and gets me when I am playing basketball outside. And he says your mom called and you need to call her back right away and I say thank you and he waits and he waits because he needs to bring me to the phone right away and now I am scared because I know it’s bad.

And we walk back to the dorm in silence.

And my mother answers the phone and she says you need to sit down John are you sitting down and I sit down and I am crying and she is crying and now it is all over and I don’t have to worry about him anymore and now I have to worry about my mom more. And I come home from college and we go to the half-way house where he wasn’t even half-way and we see his room and his bed and we talk to the man who found him. And he is nice but he has been doing his job too long and he is used to death.

And everything is fine and our family is fine and we are fine and that is a lie.

And at the funeral people ask questions and we give answers and we can’t believe my father’s heart gave out and he had heart problems and we never saw it coming and at least he died at home.

And everything is fine and our family is fine and we are going to be fine and that is a lie.

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