Friday, January 27, 2006

Mozart turns 250

Happy Birthday, Mozart - The child prodigy turns 250.

I had seen an ad on the side of a bus a few weeks back advertising a classical music station that was wishing Mozart a happy 250th birthday.

My first thought was, "holy crap, Princeton is older than Mozart."

During my freshman or sophomore year the school celebrated its 250th anniversary (its bicenquinquagenary - a word I learned that year and have yet to see since). It stunned me that the school was older than this country. The United States is still twenty years off before its bicenquinquagenery. It's difficult to imagine anything in America being older than America.

But being older than Mozart?! In my mind Mozart is of the same era as Shakespeare. I think that's the case for most people, even though we're off by 150 years (Shakespeare was of the late 1500s, early 1600s).

Anyway, happy birthday, Mozart, you youngster.

Drama Notes: "Much Ado About Nothing" by William Shakespeare

"Much Ado About Nothing" is a rather appropriate title. Some people have said that the title is the best part of the play. I kind of think it's Shakespeare's coy admission that there's just not much going on here.

Much Ado lacks the storytelling complexity and dramatic nuance that is found in his other works. As a comedy it is occasionally funny but it has a habit of allowing its characters to fly off the handle into rather immature rants and rages. That's not funny as much as it is sad for humanity. Judging by the behavior in this play, we're a sad lot indeed.

Brave Claudio, just returned from a war, has his eyes on a noble's daughter, whose telegraphed name is Hero. Claudio confesses his intentions to the prince he serves, Don Pedro. Don Pedro - for reasons unknown to me - tells Claudio he will woo Hero on Claudio's behalf (why not let Claudio do it himself?) and then convince her father to accept the match.

A minor bit of mischief arises when Don Pedro's evil bastard half-brother, Don John, conspires to foul up the works. With a quick whisper he tells Claudio that Don Pedro confessed to him his love for Hero and that he woos her for himself. Claudio, forgetting his years of service with the good Don Pedro, immediately believes the deceiver and flies into a rage. Don Pedro quickly quells his brother's attempts at deception and delivers Hero unto him. And instantly Claudio is all smiles.

Fast forward to another, more successful plot by Don John. He contrives to make Claudio and Don Pedro think Hero an unchaste woman. Upon seeing "proof" Claudio denounces Hero at the altar. He doesn't think to question the proof offered by Don John nor reflect upon Hero's previously perfectly maiden nature (which is what he supposedly fell in love with in the first place).

Her own father immediately denounces her upon hearing Claudio and Don Pedro's accusations. He wishes her dead as she struggles in vain to defend herself. Fatherly love was ever so fickle, it would seem.

More wackiness ensues (none of which is funny - such vile anger and slander can never be funny) and Hero is exonerated post-humously (she allegedly dies of shame). Claudio is full of remorse and tries to make amends, but really, he can't ever make up for what his quick judgment has wrought. Then it's revealed that Hero's not dead, all is forgiven, and they promptly return to the altar.

All is forgiven? He viciously slanders the woman he supposedly loves and she lovingly re-embraces him after she's exonerated? Her father turns on her and wishes her dead rather than believe the daughter he's loved for years upon years and she forgives him without even an apology?

The problem is that justice has not been served. The crimes outweigh the punishment here. In Romeo and Juliet the punishment is severe (the dual suicides as payment for their family's feud) but well-justified. Justice, no matter how painful, is served. But in Much Ado justice is left on the back burner while these merry fools forgive and forget with reckless abandon.

The play is summed up by a speech at the end that goes, "man is a giddy thing," as if to explain away the gross behavior we'd just witnessed. I'm sorry, but that is insufficient.

The only strength of the play is in two supporting characters and their "B" storyline. Benedick and Beatrice spar with each other at every opportunity, lashing wit against wit. Their wit is so sharp that were they not at least somewhat polite, it would be an all out war between them. And yet, of course, they are destined to become lovers. Their repartee is quite amusing, especially their final jabs at one another at the altar that go along the lines of, "very well, I shall marry you out of pity" and "I shall marry you to save your life, I heard you were quite sickly."

A modest change in storytelling structure would have made the play much more compelling for me. The audience is shown the plan that Hero is to play dead while remorse and grief work their way towards exonerating her name. It would have been much more compelling to let the audience also believe that she were dead. Then we would be invested in her father's change of heart and anger at Claudio and Don Pedro. Then we would be invested in poor Claudio's remorse and grief. Then we would feel Claudio's joy at discovering Hero alive.

Beatrice, her cousin, can be wise of the plan without tipping off the audience. It fits her demeanor to know Hero is not dead and yet still rage in fury at her slander. Benedick need not know of Hero's longevity as his arc would remain the same. The father's rants would seem more genuine if he thought Hero dead. He and his old brother even challenge young Claudio to a duel - this would have more force if everyone believed her to be dead.

I suppose it might make this comedy too serious and sober and sad. But as it is Shakespeare is trying to have it both ways and he can't. His characters go to cruel and nasty places with her slander anyway - sorry buddy, that's not comedy. So if you're going to stray from comedy, at least get more mileage out of your drama.

The ending too would feel more complete and satisfying if we're shocked and delighted to discover that Hero yet lives. As it is in the play, the ending is unsatisfying because this great injustice has only been partially righted. Someone in my class asked, "have Claudio and Don Pedro really learned anything from this experience?" And the answer, I think, is: "not really."

By knowing that Claudio's grief is unnecessary (we know she's not dead), we do not invest our emotional energy into his suffering. Therefore we do not feel that he has earned his second chance with her. He has not exonerated himself. Had Shakespeare made us grieve through Claudio's eyes, we would have felt the anguish in Claudio's soul and relished the release upon seeing fair Hero alive.

But throughout there is this undercurrent of "man is a giddy thing." Perhaps dramatic excellence was pushed down Shakespeare's list of priorities in favor of undercutting man's nobility and reasoning. Claudio and the others are fools - giddy fools - for accusing Hero. Claudio can be mocked as a fool for mourning a woman who is not dead. And Claudio is played for a fool when Hero is revealed to be alive. And the sharp, witty Beatrice and Benedick are fools for each other, fools in love.

"Man is a giddy thing" and I suppose the message is that all of our follies and passions are based on "Nothing". Our lives, our dramas are simply Much Ado About Nothing.

I for one disagree, and so does Shakespeare as his other works will prove. Much Ado About Nothing sums up the play's philosophy but also coyly dimisses all such criticism. "Don't get your panties all in a bunch! This play was about nothing anyway!"

Cheap dismissal, Mr. Shakespeare. Insufficient.

Book Notes: "The Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri

This 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri is really quite lovely.

Yes, I said "quite lovely".

There's really no better way to describe it. Lahiri's excellent prose reflects a serene, charming storyteller. She is patient and at ease, living at a speed that is different from what we're used to. The pacing, style, and quality of her writing conveys the timing and rhythm of the lives of her characters.

The stories focus on different aspects of Indian and Bengali immigrants either living in the United States or returning to their homeland. Every character is utterly real and impressively nuanced. She does not shy away from flaws or weaknesses, and yet she never seems to preach. She reveals situations, lets the stories unfold naturally, and doesn't interject with judgment or moralization.

And the tales she tells are just lovely. Beautifully captured portraits of real people in real situations. Real pain, real confusion, real conflict are brought to life. The characters and stories are immediately accessible and utterly enjoyable. There is no cultural barrier here, not when Lahiri is our interpreter.

What I found most interesting is that she uses so many different facets of the Indian and Bengali experience. Americans tend to group foriegners - or people who just look foriegn - together and assume they're largely all the same. To be certain they may share a particular cultural background, customs, and habits, but Lahiri offers such a wide variety - from the recent immigrant struggling in loneliness in the US to the insufferable second-generation Indians touring India in typical Western ignorance - that one can't help but appreciate the complexities and differences amongst this one cultural group.

And what makes the collection so excellent is that this illumniation of the various facets of Indian/Bengali culture creates an entirely human portrait. Each character has habits or mannerisms that are foriegn to Westerners and yet their undeniable humanity emerges every time. We are introduced to and fascinated by their customs but we immediately understand and empathize with their deeply felt emotions. That Lahiri has the wisdom and maturity to allow her people flaws and weaknesses makes the work all the more convincing.

So it is a fascinating mix of presenting a world we do not understand (which, in most of the stories, is in turn struggling to understand us) and at the same time communicating across cultures, showing just how similar we are after all.

Excellent, excellent work and highly recommended. Each short story only takes about half an hour to read so really there's no excuse. And there isn't a weak story in the bunch.

Quite lovely.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Drama Notes: "The Merchant of Venice" by William Shakespeare

"The Merchant of Venice" is a comedic play but it flirts willy-nilly with other genres and occasionally cannot resist more lofty ambitions.

It is said that Merchant can no longer be performed as Shakespeare intended. This is because the play's villain - Shylock, the Jewish moneylender - is constantly attacked with anti-Semitic remarks. In Shakespeare's time Jews were known but uncommon in England (one source estimates there were no more than 100-200 Jews in England). Anti-Semitism was a matter of fact, though it's worth noting that their brand of anti-Semitism had a different flavor than the all-out racial hatred seen in the twentieth century.

Business and commerce were looked down upon by the nobles - a civilized man would never work for a living - and everyone loathed Jewish moneylenders for charging interest for their loans. Charging interest was considered an entirely distasteful and un-Christian practice. And it would be a long time before even the pretense of acceptance of others and their faiths would emerge in British society.

So against this backdrop Shakespeare writes a play featuring a Jewish moneylender as his villain. What's the likely result? Christian characters looking down on the Jew simply for his faith. Everyone resenting the Jew for charging interest. Antagonistic "Us vs Them" attitudes. Does this make the play, and perhaps Shakespeare, anti-Semitic? By definition, the play, yes. Shakespeare? Doubtful. But is Merchant of Venice so offensive a work that it should be pulled from bookshelves and never studied and never performed? No.

Here's why:

Shylock, from the beginning, thrusts his Judaism into the faces of his Christian neighbors. He himself makes it a wedge that permanently divides himself from everyone else. He actively cultivates the Christians' dislike for him - so much that you have to wonder if they dislike him for his religion or dislike him simply because he is utterly dislikable. This is a crucial point.

If Shylock were a kind, open-hearted man that was still hated for being a Jew, then we would have hateful, anti-Semitic characters. Of course sympathy would then swing to Shylock and that clearly is not what Shakespeare had in mind. Then must we blame Shakespeare for choosing to make the Jew the villain and hold Shakespeare accountable for making Shylock a character so easy to revile? Is this evidence that Shakespeare was a raging anti-Semite?

I don't think so. Romeo and Juliet features two Italian families whose feud is so violent only the dual suicides of their only children can quell the fight. The families behave atrociously to each other and encourage and cultivate violence at nearly every turn, embroiling an entire city in their clash. The punishment to each clan (the deaths of Romeo and Juliet) is stinging and devastating. Is Sheakespeare anti-Italian? Does he have an agenda of disgracing the Italian people and their inherent violent tendencies?

It's an imperfect comparison - no one defames an Italian simply for being an Italian - but there is a difference between having a villain with particular characteristics vs attacking a whole people through a single representative. Shylock is attacked for being Jewish, and indeed all Jews may feel the sting at the remarks, but do all Jews thrust their faith so aggressively into other peoples' faces? Isn't it possible that Shylock's own actions are as much to blame as the other characters' prejudices?

Now is Shakespeare completely exonerated from the anti-Semitic remarks and the strong structural slant against his Jewish character? No, of course not. Is it completely acceptable to just say, "that's how it was back then"? No, of course not. But Shakespeare is not studied because he was a trailblazer in championning equal rights. He is studied for being an artist, and as an artist he is not held to the same standard as presidents, leaders, and world-shakers. If his work was grossly, consistently offensive, he would have faded from attention as the world grew more civilized and accepting.

Would it have been better if Shakespeare had been more progressive and produced a work that was more accepting of others? Probably. But should we discard Shakespeare because he failed to do so? Definitely not.

For those sensitive to anti-Semitism, this will be a difficult argument - and play - to accept. One person in my Shakespeare class got so emotionally involved in his attack of the anti-Semitism that it instantly became pointless to debate the issue with him. He was so desperate to savage the work that he couldn't finish one sentence before flying into the next. His incoherence and agitation brought him to a point that was clearly beyond reasoning. He's got a right to his strong reaction, but he accomplishes nothing by bringing the full weight of his baggage (or that of the Jewish people) into a realm that is only tangentially related.

Paraphrasing Shelby Steele (a sometimes controversial black writer who focuses on race relations), it's important to delineate perceived slights from actual ones. Is The Merchant of Venice an attack on Jews and their faith? No. Does it contain anti-Semitic content that might offend some people? Yes. Keeping a cool head is required here - you can't right all the wrongs ever committed against the Jewish people in a five minute discussion in a Shakespeare class.

Assuming one can get past the is-or-isn't anti-Semitic debate, the play itself is actually something of a jolly old time. It is one part fairy tale as Portia's worldly suitors contend with a riddle left by her now-dead father. It feels very much like a story lifted from the 1,001 Arabian Nights. Then there's the Shylock-Antonio storyline - the moneylender vs the loan-defaulting, anti-Semite, well-respected merchant. The hatred between these two men escalates to the point where Shylock is suing for the right to take Antonio's life (his "pound of flesh"), and indeed has the law on his side.

And yet through this wacky, over-the-top comedy, there are moments that stand out as entirely not comedic, not wacky, and not over-the-top. Shylock's famous speech, "If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" is profound, convincing, and quite moving (not to mention menacing). Those decrying anti-Semitism should take heed of this speech. If Shakespeare was such an anti-Semite, why would he empower Shylock with such an eloquent, effective counterargument to anti-Semitism?

The speech is, as I've said, seemingly out of place in a comedy. It's too beautiful and moving a moment. The insight and depth are too profound. Some describe it as Shakespeare losing control of a character - Shylock is too big for so small a play.

Another moment occurs later with Portia as she implores Shylock to grant mercy to poor Antonio. "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes". She goes on to say that mercy is "is an attribute to God himself". But all of her concepts of mercy are grounded in Christian thinking. It is clear that Christian morality holds no sway with Shylock. He has seen too much Christian immorality in his lifetime. So Portia's speech is completely ineffective (as directed towards Shylock) and again is so eloquent that it's out of place in a comedy. There's no reason for this speech other than to allow Shakespeare to riff on the nature of mercy.

Other notes:

Bassanio gets a bad rap as a golddigging playboy (he's in debt and pursues the very rich Portia). But his feelings for her, and her for him, are genuine and endearing. Her money certainly plays a part in his interest in her, but I give him the benefit of the doubt because he seems, at heart, a good honest man. In fact, much is made of his deep friendship with Antonio. If Bassanio were just a shallow playboy, the depth and heart of his friendship with Antonio would suffer. It's clear that Shakespeare intends that friendship - and therefore Bassanio's potential for deep meaningful relationships - to be pure and undeniable.

It's also lightly debated that Antonio has a homosexual love for Bassanio. I think this is neither here nor there. It doesn't add nor subtract from the story to make Antonio gay or straight. A deep friendship bond with Bassanio achieves the same dramatic impact as unrequited homosexual love in this story. Since there's no additional dramatic leverage to be gained, it's simpler to assume they're just very good friends.

Portia, the amazingly talented, wickedly mischievous superstar of the piece is a bit much for me to take. Though she's supposed to stand head and shoulders above all others in this play, I found her simply too unbelievable. I'll grant that it's a comedy and therefore need not be a very serious portrayal, but she's just too much the superstar and not enough a real person to hold my interest. That she, with tongue-in-cheek, tap dances through most of the scenes - even serious life-or-death moments - just makes her a caricature of a person.

Overall Merchant is probably the easiest Shakespeare play I've read. The language and vocabulary are not nearly as challenging as some of the later works (King Lear was a slog for me). It also helps that Merchant is a very short, efficient play.

Book Notes: "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton

warning: spoilers ahead

The Age of Innocence is an excellent, multi-layered look at late ninteenth century (circa 1870) high society in New York City. It's a love story, but it's not a romance novel. It's more concerned with painting an incredibly detailed, accurate picture of a rigid society that traps and confines everyone in it. Love cannot flourish in such an environment, which should give you a clue as to the prospects of finding a "happily ever after" ending.

Newland Archer is, like Fitzgerald's Amory Blaine, a well-educated, intelligent young man on the rise in high society. What Newland gains over Amory though is a more open mind that is less tainted by vanity. Newland begins to see through the proper facade of society to the hypocrisy and oppression that lies underneath. He even goes so far as to blurt out, "Women should be free--as free as we are." Though he himself is not ready to accept the implications of his statement, he is quite progressive for his time.

He looks forward to discussing books and poetry and philosophy and everything else with his fiancee, May. But May has been raised since birth to be the ideal society wife - pretty, agreeable, unassuming, and utterly submissive and incurious. Initially Newland relishes the idea of "removing the bandage from her eyes", but as his interest is diverted elsewhere he abandons all hope of cultivating May's intelligence.

That diversion is Ellen, aka the Countess Olenska. Fleeing a terrible marriage to a Polish noble, she is nevertheless a compromised woman. She will not return to her husband but New York society will not allow her to get a divorce. That simply was not done in those days. She is experienced, wordly, and too weary to play games. She speaks her mind, she defies conventions, and she pushes limits without flinching.

Of course, this all thrills Newland. They quickly develop a passion for each other that grows increasingly impossible for them to consummate. Society maneuvers and traps the pair, pulling them farther and farther apart. It's never clear if Newland and Ellen would make it as a couple ("flame out" is always a strong possibility when things burn so hot), but becomes clear that they'll likely never find out.

The beauty of this novel is how clearly and how precisely Wharton is able to articulate the pressures and demands of their society. These people really are trapped in an impossible situation. Newland makes various mistakes of his own along the way, but he is as much a product of his society as he is a victim of it. It's easy to blame Newland for much of his unhappiness, but he can't be expected to be able to blaze such a bold new trail on his own. He can see a brighter, better world, but just isn't quite capable of going after it.

The conclusion is devastating and profound - Newland must give up the love of his life and remain in the life he did not want. But he makes a genuine go of it and finds a way to be content, though never completely satisfied. When faced with an opportunity - thirty years later and with all the previous entanglements far in the past - to resume his romance with Ellen, he cannot. Society and circumstance are no longer standing in his way. Only fear of the future and fear of inviting regret into his past stop him.

All his life he has been the type to savor the anticipation of the moment and that anticipation is often more enjoyable to him than the moment himself. But when faced with the real possibility of a complication-free, the-world-is-your-oyster opportunity for happiness, he is just too humbled a man to grasp it. The bold declarations of love and his willingness to shun convention have been replaced by fear and smallness.

This sounds like a character flaw in Newland. But he has carried on with his life - for thirty years! - as a husband to May and father to three children. He loves his children and he grew to love May and genuinely grieved for her upon he death. He invested himself in that life, with that woman. To go back to Ellen after all that would, in a way, signal that those thirty years were just a compromise, a second-best option to be discarded when a better option came about.

Certainly at first his life with May was a second-best option (maybe even third-best), but in order to survive and live in that life he had to make it into his first option. He invested in that life and made it a decent life, built a good family. In a way he had to fool himself into accepting it. Over time that life did become his first option.

With so much invested he could not afford to peel back the curtain and admit to himself that that life never really was his first option, his first choice. He's too far down that road. And therein lies the heartbreak. He probably would have happiness ahead of him, in his remaining years, with Ellen. But the past weighs him down so much that even without society - which was the initial barrier to his life with Ellen - he finds it impossible to be with her.

The novel may be a bit too stiff and slow for many readers' tastes. But coming on the heels of This Side of Paradise (which is similar in its exploration of high society near the turn of the century), Wharton's novel is an obvious breath of fresh air. The quality of writing is remarkable and the characters and situations are infinitely more complex and fascinating.

And also having just read Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice I was already somewhat accustomed to the extreme formality of high society. Austen is a good warmup to this world (even though her high society is England in the 1820s) because her novel is so much lighter and is pure enjoyment. Wharton is more studious, analytical, and somewhat stiffer. Therefore a stiff introduction to a stiff society may make for stifling reading. But with Austen as a primer on stiff society and Fitzgerald as a primer on stiffer writing, the going is much easier on the reader. More importantly, it's easier to appreciate Wharton's abilities by contrasting her writing to Austen and especially Fitzgerald.

Overall The Age of Innocence is an excellent novel and well worth the read. It won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize - the first awarded to a woman - and is no less relevant today, despite the fact that society has changed so much in the intervening century.

Book Notes: "This Side of Paradise", F. Scott Fitzgerald

"This Side of Paradise" was written by a 21-year-old Fitzgerald and often reads like it was written by a 21-year-old.

The story follows Amory Blaine, a gifted product of upper class American society of the early 20th century. His ego and self-assurance guide him through prep school and Princeton, navigating and conquering social hierarchies one after the next. But outside of school, in post WWI New York, he struggles to find his place and purpose.

Amory is a deep romantic and dives into his love affairs with the immature enthusiasm of a little boy. Though he sees himself the greatest lover ever known ("lover" meaning romantic - his society was too proper for physical love) his encounters are entirely shallow and overblown. He is immature but it's not clear if this immaturity is presented tongue-in-cheek or if Fitzgerald believes he is really presenting believable romance.

Or perhaps Fitzgerald is presenting what passes for romance in his day, the cusp of the Roaring Twenties. Whichever the case, it makes for entirely uninteresting and unengaging reading. Amory's effusions of love and subsequent overblown heartache are just silly and unwarranted.

Fitzgerald salvages the work though with his ending. Amory, somewhat more humbled and more adrift than he's ever been, comes to realize that though he doesn't know where he fits into the world, he does at least understand himself. And that, for a man in his early twenties, is sufficient.

This novel is a relic, an artifact of the past. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, not when there is so much more out there that, if not still relevant, is at least more profound and more engaging.

And for those Princetonians who might read it to get a flavor for Princeton of the past (about a quarter of the book takes place there), prepare to be a little disappointed. Amory is chiefly concerned with climbing the social ladder and his view of Princeton society and values at the time is somewhat skewed. And despite his naming various buildings or locations on campus, there's really very little to convey a uniquely Princeton atmosphere to the events. The story could have just as easily taken place at another Ivy League school, had Fitzgerald chosen otherwise when matriculating.

Monday, January 16, 2006

In-Depth Details About the Shoulder Surgery, Part Four: Follow-up

Thanks again for all the kind words before and after the surgery.

I saw my surgeon yesterday and he said I'll have to let the repair heal for 4-6 months while doing rehab. So no sports for me until mid summer. But he did clear me for jogging so at least I won't get totally fat and out of shape.

For at least the next four weeks (when I see the surgeon again), and perhaps for the next few months, I'm not supposed to raise my arm past shoulder height.

And I don't know how gross/not gross this will be, but if you're up for it, you can view pictures from inside my shoulder taken during the surgery! Cool stuff!

This is the least gross one:

And here's a small, safe preview of the whole set:

Oh, and another bonus - apparently women just can't resist a guy in a sling. Who knew?!

In-Depth Details About the Shoulder Surgery, Part Three: The Results

I talked to the surgeon the next day.

He said that part of the labrum was torn and he was able to repair it.

He said that part of the labrum had also been torn away from the bone and he was able to reattach it.

And he said that there was some "fraying" that he debrided.

I was very happy to hear that he had found definitive injuries in there and that he was able to repair all of them. I was very worried that he wouldn't find much of anything or wouldn't find anything conclusive. He sounded very happy and optimistic about it. He definitely considered the surgery a success.

He said that I would have to rest the shoulder for two weeks. I don't have to keep it in the sling but I can't raise the arm to shoulder height. Have to keep it low near my hip.

I have a follow-up appointment with him after that and then physical therapy can begin immediately (which means it is NOT the 8-weeks of healing scenario, thankfully!). He didn't say how long rehab would take.

The injuries all make sense - if you google "labrum" you'll find that it can be injured while doing overhead arm motions (e.g. throwing a baseball). It provides stability to the rotator cuff, especially in overhead motions. This explains why the shoulder only hurt when I was hanging from a bar or trying to spike a v-ball. Other motions didn't affect the injured area.

Post-Surgery Recovery
I've been amazed at how fast and easy the recovery has been. On the next morning I still didn't feel much pain at all. At worst it felt like mild muscle soreness after an intense workout. I kept up with the painkillers, but I could tell that they didn't have that much pain to counteract.

My appetite returned the next day and I could even move the shoulder around a bit without any pain.

The bandaged area was pretty compact, with enough padding to protect the incision points. I had to keep the area dry though, so I couldn't really shower or wash my hair. Picture is reversed since I'm shooting off a mirror.

After three days I could remove the bandages and let water flow over the wounds (finally showering was SO nice!!). The rear incision (there were three) bled a surprising amount into the bandage. You can see a picture of it here, but only click if you're okay with seeing bloody bandages!

Under the bandages were the three incision points (pics are reversed in the mirror):

You can also see the lines they drew on me to mark the various bones and other reference points during the surgery.

And with the little bandages removed the incision points are visible, each are maybe an inch long (pics are front, side, rear incision point):

The surgeon said the sutures were under the skin. I think that's why they're a little bit bumpy and some of them have kind of a horizontal pinch near the middle. After removing the bandages they said to just keep a band-aid over the wounds.

It hurts to press directly on the wounds, but otherwise they never really hurt. After the second or third day I switched to Alleve instead of the hydrocodone to avoid the potential nausea. I'm sleeping just fine - still in a recliner though. It helps to keep the arm in the sling. The area starts aching a bit if I just let the arm dangle on its own.

Interestingly only the surface wounds hurt. The area where my injury is (top of the shoulder) doesn't hurt at all.

Now that it's been a week since the surgery I think I could get along just fine without the painkiller but I'm still taking the Alleve just to be safe.

Conclusions So Far...
I'm very happy with the recovery and I'm thrilled that the sugeon found specific injuries that he could fix. Recovering from the general anesthesia and that damn nerve block were trying, but since then it's been absolutely astonishing how good it all feels.

I'm not quite as helpless as I was afraid I'd be. It's easier to eat with your left hand than you'd think. And the pain is so mild or nonexistent that I can still use my right arm in limited fashion. For example - I can almost pull up my pants with both arms. It sounds funny, but that's much more than I expected to be able to do.

We'll see how painful physical therapy is, but right now I think my chances at a 100% recovery seem very very good.

Overall it's looking like the arthroscopic surgery was definitely the right decision for me.

In-Depth Details About the Shoulder Surgery, Part Two: The Surgery

Part Two: The Surgery

Arthroscopic surgery is a 90-minute out-patient procedure.

I had mine done at UCLA's Ambulatory Surgery Center in Westwood.

I got there at 6:30am Monday morning, two hours before the scheduled surgery time. They asked the usual questions about three different times. I met about four different doctors, two anestheticians, and two nurses (one of which was very cute I'm happy to report).

They had me write "Yes" on the arm that was to be operated on. A wise procedure, I think.

They hooked me up to an IV and gave me an optional nerve block. The nerve block completely numbs your entire arm. It sucked getting it in though. They numbed the area between my neck and my traps a bit and then began digging around with a needle/electrode. It was damn uncomfortable though not quite as painful as it sounds.

The electrode is positioned near the nerve trunk that serves your arm. They then send test pulses down the electrode to make the nerve fire. Depending on where the electrode is placed, different arm muscles twitch violently. It kind of hurt to have my muscles fire so suddenly and repetitively. The whole thing took about two minutes but it basically sucked the entire time.

Once they find the right spot on the nerve trunk they inject an anesthetic directly to the nerves, thereby knocking them out for 8-12 hours.

I was then put under general anesthesia.

The next thing I remember was coming out of the general anesthesia violently dry heaving - over and over and over again. I didn't wake up and then dry heave, the dry heaving is what shook me out of the anesthesia. They injected me with some anti-nausea drug and the dry heaving subsided.

I was completely woozy and totally freezing. Felt like I was lying naked on a breezy 45 degree day. And still nauseaus but no longer heaving. At least I wasn't in any pain.

After 15 minutes my head started to clear up. The nurse had me hooked up to a saline bag and said that the liquid would help fight off the nausea. My mouth was dry but she wouldn't let me drink anything - she said it would just cause me to heave again.

The worst part though was the nerve block on my arm. I couldn't feel anything at all in that entire arm. And certainly couldn't move it. I had a very, very hard time coping with that psychologically. It just completely freaked me out. I wanted to rest and sleep but I couldn't. I just kept thinking about how my hand was missing and I had to keep fighting off the irrational panic that caused.

It helped a little bit to hold my "missing" hand with my left hand, but even then my brain was still in total freak-out mode. And holding your own hand while you can't feel it is... shudder... just gross. It's just this warm piece of meat with dry skin. I would have definitely preferred to feel pain rather than this psychological torture.

My surgeon was already in another surgery so I didn't get a chance to talk to him to find out how it all went.

They released me about an hour later. The arm was already in a sling and my sister was there to take me home. The effects of the anesthesia kept wearing off and I was okay to walk around, talk, etc.

Halfway back to my apartment though I had to have my sister pull over as the nausea returned. A few more dry heaves and I was good to go (the part where they tell you not to eat or drink from midnight the night before is definitely wise!).

At home I tried to rest but the missing arm still bothered me too much to sleep. After a few hours I started walking around more, pacing the room. I figured the nerve block would wear off faster if I got my heart rate up. I had a little sensation near my wrist so I'd just massage that to reassure my brain.

After an hour I could feel a little sensation in my thumb. Two hours later I had a little feeling in my fingers. By about 6pm I think I could just manage to twitch my finger digits.

I slowly tried to drink a bit of water. Then a piece of bread. As the nerve block started to wear off I figured I should take a painkiller (they prescribed hydrocodone for me). The 6-hr painkiller seemed to work fine as the nerve block subsided but it did make me nauseas again. The piece of bread made its way back up.

By the end of the night my appetite was back and I had a small regular meal. I took another dose of hydrocodone on a full(er) stomach and that helped.

I slept in my roommate's recliner - the bit of elevation made a world of difference in comfort. Lying on my back just wasn't an option.

There was a little discomfort in the shoulder but no pain. By then I could make a weak fist with my hand so the psychological issues had mostly subsided. My hand was a bit swollen though.

Aside from the nausea and the brain-freak from the nerve block the whole experience really wasn't too bad.

Next: The Results

In-Depth Details About the Shoulder Surgery, Part One: The Injury

(this is salvaged off the message board that is about to be decommissioned)

This is both a report to my friends about the results/progress of my shoulder surgery and an information guide to anyone who might be considering arthroscopic shoulder surgery.

There are inevitably a lot of shoulder injuries around here, so I figure this info is worth sharing. It's rather in-depth so if you don't care about my shoulder nor have any need of considering arthroscopic surgery, take a pass. Or just scroll down to the cool post-surgery scars.

My Injury:
Occurred on Still Rings in March this year. I did a dislocate when I wasn't warmed up. The dislocate went fine, got plenty of lift and clearance for my shoulders to come around. No jerk at the bottom as I was on a low set of practice rings. There wasn't anything dramatic - no popping sounds or horrible grinding - but it did hurt afterwards. But not so much that I thought I was injured. I tried to do more activity on it and it kept hurting. Probably made it worse.

It hurt when I would just hang and especially hurt when I would swing even gently on a high bar. Didn't hurt much at rest. I discovered later that I couldn't spike a volleyball. When I lay on my back it would hurt when I fully extended over my head (like a diver turned 90 degrees). In that position it hurt too much to lift the bad arm off the ground.

When standing I could hold my arm straight out from my body and hold weight without pain.

My Remedies:

1. Complete Rest
I gave it a good month or two of complete rest. Didn't try straining it, no stretching, no nothing really. It didn't improve at all.

2. Light Stretching, Range of Motion Work
I started stretching it every day, pinwheeling my arms, lying on my back and going through the whole range of motion (as far as I could with the pain). It started improving. Range of motion increased. Strength increased. Pain was still there but it was more specific to particular positions.

The physical therapist would later say that this was exactly what I shuld have been doing. Joints don't heal if you just let them sit still. They need motion to encourage proper healing.

3. Visiting the Doctor
My General Practitioner didn't know jack. He just handed me off to Physical Therapy.

4. Physical Therapy
The PT was excellent (Sarah at UCLA PT). She knew the shoulder joint very well and did a number of specific tests to identify where the pain was. She found that my lower traps muscles were much weaker than they should have been. That caused instability in the joint, leaving it more vulnerable to injury. She also found that both shoulder joints had more mobility than they were supposed to (too loose) and that my injured one was even looser than the good side.

She identified that the pain was in or near the AC joint.

2-3 months of therapy focused on strengthening the lower traps and adding stability. It worked. I was able to use my shoulder more and more without pain. I even could start to spike a volleyball if I was careful to keep the strike ahead of me rather than directly above or behind me.

However the injured area was still injured. The strengthening helped me do more with the shoulder, but didn't heal whatever was wrong in there.

She guessed that it was a labrum tear (the labrum is cartilage inside the ball-and-socket joint that adds stability while allowing broad range of movement). She told me to urge my GP to order an MRI.

5. MRI
Twenty minutes inside a freaky claustrophobic tube and nothing. The MRI showed some minor tendon damage (tendonosis) in the infraspinatus and supraspinatus but nothing that would be causing the specific, sharp pain I felt while fully extending and exerting my arm over my head.

6. Orthopedic Surgeon, Cortisone Injection
Along with the MRI my GP handed me off to an orthopedic surgeon (Dr. Motamedi at UCLA Santa Monica). He said the first thing to try was a cortisone injection to the area. Cortisone immediately reduces inflammation in tendons and can allow them to begin healing (inflammation prevents healing).

The cortisone shot was no big deal at all. He numbed the back of my shoulder with a spray and then did a quick, painless injection. I was told to gradually increase activity over the course of a month. The cortisone shot didn't do jack.

7. Orthopedic Surgeon, Final Options
My final options were to take an injection dye and do another MRI. But the surgeon felt that we may as well just go ahead with arthroscopic surgery.

Arthroscopy involves sticking a camera inside the joint and seeing for himself what's going on in there. As an added bonus he can also usually fix what he finds in there.

There are always risks, but they seemed minimal. He said that in most cases arthroscopic surgery is 85% successful at achieving a full recovery. In my case the odds were a little worse since my pain was so specific and only under "extreme" circumstances (swinging on a bar or spiking a v-ball is considered "extreme" relative to our sedentary population).

He said that one of two things will happen:

1. He'll debride the injured area - meaning he'll scrape away scar tissue and uncover the wound, forcing it to re-heal itself, but this time heal properly since it'll be guided by physical therapy. I would be able to use the arm immediately and being PT immediately.

2. He'll have to repair something. In the worst-case scenario I wouldn't be able to use the arm at all for 8 weeks! Then rehab will take six months. During that 8-week healing period he didn't think I'd be able to drive my stick shift car (since it's my right shoulder).

He suspected that it was either a tear in the labrum or in the rotator cuff.

Final Decision:
I decided to go for the surgery. I'd lived with this injury all summer and felt that I'd tried everything I could to help it heal and regain use of that shoulder. But it was still injured - and still hurt just as bad as when it first happened in March. It obviously wasn't going to heal itself.

Many of my friends here tried to talk me out of it - mostly the stuntmen whose careers depend on healthy appendages. I was grateful for their advice and especially their concern, but I was quite sure I'd explored and exhausted all my options.

I'll break this up since it's already getting very long.

Next post: The Surgery!

How to: make a tape grip

(this is salvaged off the message board that is about to be decommissioned)

Tape grips allow you to swing with a rip, sort of. Takes some of the pain off and reduces the direct rubbing against raw flesh.

Rip off a length of trainer's tape that's more than 2x the length of your hand and wrist:

Fold it in half lengthwise:

Then curve it around itself, forming a loop at the middle, leaving both ends lying flat:

Line up the ends and tape them together, leaving a gap at the top near the loop:

Do the same for the back side:

Now slip your finger through the loop (pick the appropriate finger so that the tape grip covers your rip):

Then tape it to your wrist:

It should be taut against your palm when your wrist is neutral (it should be just tight enough that you can't quite extend your wrist up past neutral):

Then wear your wristbands and grips on top of the tape grip. The tape grips can be re-used a couple of times before they get torn up or bent out of shape.

Oh - the last thing I forgot - we usually folded the long bottom end back over the wrist tape and then taped it down. That (somewhat) prevents the tape grip from sliding up away from the wrist tape.

The whole thing takes a little practice (especially taping the grip to your wrist with only one hand) but eventually you can do the job in under a minute.

The Bears flail in the Bizzaro World

The 2005 Bears defense: supposedly best in the league.

The Bizzaro World defense: surrenders 29 points with a beat-up secondary that plays at the level of a preseason game.

The 2005 Bears offense: slow, plodding, ineffectual. Can only score when the defense delivers the ball to them at the opponents' 5 yard line.

The Bizzaro World offense: picks up the slack for the defense and answers back three times and scores touchdowns on long, sustained drives. The run is used sparingly and most of the damage is done through the air. Each time the defense gives up another score, the offense takes the field and narrows the margin.

Quick points:

- Steve Smith's touchdown on the second play of the game was crap. He ran through Charles Tillman - who has a right to his spot on the field - causing Tillman to fall down and leave Mike Brown alone to make a difficult tackle. Tillman was even called for pass interference. They got it wrong. That's offensive pass interference.

- That being said, Charles Tillman has been a weak spot in the Bears' defense all season. Excellent play by safeties Brown and Chris Harris have covered for him. Excellent pressure by the defensive line and blitzing linebackers have protected him. But when asked to do his job without the supporting cast's contributions, he failed miserably and could easily be labeled the scapegoat for this disappointing game lost in uncharacteristic fashion.

- The Bears defense keeps Vasher on the defensive right side with Tillman on the defensive left regardless of which receiver lines up where. This is obviously a mistake when there is a superior corner (Vasher) that could be matched up against a superior receiver (Steve Smith).

- The problem with this role-first approach was further emphasized by the foolhardy pairing of no-name corner Thompson against Steve Smith as Vasher slid into nickel/slot coverage. The Bears like to think their players are interchangeable in their defense schemes, but they are not. They would never rotate Brian Urlacher out for Leon Joe (yeah, how many of you can even name Urlacher's backup?!), so why can't they recognize that Thompson is no Nate Vasher (he's not even on par with Tillman). That mistake led to the Smith's second embarrasingly easy touchdown.

- That touchdown broke the game. The defense had clamped down and was only allowing field goals or forcing punts. The offense showed signs of life and scored a long touchdown drive. At the end of the first half it was a manageable 16-7 game. Chicago opened the third quarter with an impressive scoring drive that made it 16-14. Then Smith easily escaped Thompson's non-existent grasp for another touchdown.

Yes, the Bears' offense was able to answer back (absolutely shocking and impressive for this team) and yes the Panthers scored yet again, but Smith's second TD really was the backbreaker. It didn't have to happen. It was a single, terrible lapse that cost them the game.

- The same could be said of the Panther's next and final touchdown - Charles Tillman runs in at the last moment, looks confused, and then Jake Delhomme passes to a wide open tight end in the back left corner of the end zone. Very likely Tillman should have been covering either that man or that part of the field (no one was there). But this TD was not the game-breaker - the offense had already made it to the Bears' 1 yard line so a TD was more likely than not.

Other, more minor points:

- The offense is driving for an attempt to tie the game. On 4th-and-2 Grossman tries to hit Muhsin Muhammad on a slant. The play goes awry and the game is over. All game the Bears had gotten away from the run. This was the time to get back to it. The Panthers were in a pass-defense look. The Bears have a run-first offensive line and Thomas Jones averaging over 4 yards per carry. Indy can pass on 4th-and-2. The Bears are a running team and should have relied on the run to extend their potential game-tying drive.

- Rex Grossman started off poorly but hit his stride and led three long touchdown drives. And he did it with progressively fewer and fewer healthy players. The final drive stalled on that 4th-and-2 play, but had been showing promise. Next season when he's got Muhammad, speedy Bernard Berrian going deep, and the athletic, sure-handed Mark Bradley (out with an injury) he'll actually have a strong compliment of weapons at wide receiver. Mix in tight end Desmond Clark over the middle and Thomas Jones out in the flat and Grossman should be able to tear up the decimated NFC North division. Next season, the Bears will have offense!!

- The defensive line obviously did not generate much pressure against Delhomme and left the secondary exposed. But it's still the secondary's fault. Yes, they were supposed to have help, but they still performed terribly. Losing safety Mike Brown on that second play absolutely decimated the secondary. One player does make that much of a difference.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

First reactions: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

I just finished Wharton's 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in a marathon session tonight.

The only word that comes to mind is "heartbreaking". On so many levels. Profound, immeasurable heartbreak. But not the melodramatic, "how can I ever go on" heartbreak. It's a stunned, numbed, resigned surrender. Resignation of the deepest, most noble kind.

It's too much to digest immediately. It's going to take some time.

My recent reading has produced a most serendipitous sequence - Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" and Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise" were perfect primers for "The Age of Innocence". They are exceptionally complimentary to Wharton's work and immeasurably aided in my appreciation of her novel. More on this later.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The people you meet... in the men's bathroom

I was out at a local bar with a friend and excused myself to make a bathroom run. My shoulder was aching a little so I had worn the shoulder sling out that night.

While waiting in line for the bathroom a guy behind me asks, "what did you have done to your shoulder?"

I turn and see this short, scruffy guy who looks familiar. He looks like three-time US Men's Olympic gymnast and silver medalist Blaine Wilson. He's even shorter than I am.

I tell him, "arthroscopic shoulder surgery".

"What was wrong with it?"

"Torn labrum."

Man-who-might-be-Wilson responds, "yeah, I know about that."

I was next in line and a spot opened up so I couldn't continue the conversation (you just can't hold up a line of guys by having a conversation with some dude in the men's bathroom). I didn't see him again after that.

Later I googled Blaine Wilson and found out that since the Olympics he's moved to Hermosa Beach, CA (just down the coast from here) and that in early 2005 he had "another shoulder surgery." And he's listed at 5'4". So I'm pretty positive it was him.

It's too bad I couldn't talk to him more. He's not someone that the average person would recognize at all so it would have been cool to congratulate the three-time Olympian in our midst.