Book Heaven

Where the world of books and life intersect

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Location: South Amboy, New Jersey

I am deeply involved in trying to solve the discrepancy between being interested in zen and trying to acquire all the things I've been accumulating

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Brain Scan Sunday Afternoon

(with apologies to Dog Day Afternoon)


Our story begins on a windswept autumn afternoon with yours truly racking his brain (an organ that will be featured prominently herein) for a way to get out of raking leaves. Fortunately I notice a neighbor in the cul-de-sac teaching her grandchildren how to ride a bike. Since conversing with neighbors is one of the few spousally approved excuses for abandoning one’s chores, I felt safe in knowing I could put down my rake and engage in a little friendly tete-a-tete (also the title of a wonderful new book about Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir).

The conversation goes swimmingly enough until the very end when my neighbor drops the news that causes a chill to run through me -- she has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Bad news indeed but coming on the heels of two other acquaintances being diagnosed with brain tumors, it is positively frightening news. Neither of the other two turned out well either -- one is blind with the end apparently near, and the other is faring badly too, never having left the hospital since her surgery.

As someone who regularly reads both The New England Journal of Medicine and JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) and any other obscure medical publication I can get my hands on, I have reached the point where there is little that truly frightens me anymore. After a moment’s reflection though, I realize that most of my expertise (such as it is) is in heart disease (my most feared enemy) and the more common and less terrifying cancers.

What in fact do I know about brain tumors? Let’s see, I’ve read Jimmy Breslin’s I Want To Thank My Brain For Remembering Me and The Healing Blade (about noted neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Spetzler), and most recently illustrator Suzy Becker’s humorously told tale of her brain surgery misadventures (I Had Brain Surgery, What’s Your Excuse?). Oh sure, I’ve got some two dozen books about preserving and enhancing brain function, but that’s about it. The bottom line: I don’t know squat about brain tumors.

My neighbor tells me she wants to go to an upcoming brain tumor seminar at NYU Medical Center but unfortunately she’ll be in Florida at the time. I file that information away in my real short term memory and then a funny thing happens -- I notice an ad in The New York Times for Brain Tumor Awareness Day. As if a full day’s program of brain tumor related topics is not enough inducement, they are also offering a free brain MRI! This folks is an offer I simply cannot refuse. Give me a bargain (it doesn’t have to be free) and you can poke, prod or scan me most anywhere.

Brain Tumor Awareness Day (this is the fourth one) is sponsored by the Brain Tumor Foundation (www.braintumorfoundation.org) an organization founded by Dr. Patrick J. Kelly, chairman of neurosurgery at NYU Medical Center and a man who has 6,500 brain surgeries under his belt. After sixty seconds with Dr. Kelly I would sign on to let him do surgery on me with silverware if necessary. Such is the confidence that Dr. Kelly exudes that I cannot image having anyone else perform brain surgery on me. Dr. Kelly is obviously a man for whom time is precious yet he has dedicated himself to the early detection of brain tumors and founded this lifesaving organization. God bless you, Dr. K.

Believing as I do that patients should shower their surgeons with gifts every year on their new “birthday” I make a note to send Dr. Kelly a copy of a wonderful new book that I found impossible to put down -- Wendy Moore’s The Knife Man, about noted anatomist Dr. Robert Hunter. It’s never too early to start charming the good doctor just in case, and anyway I’m already feeling guilty that I’m getting all this for only a $45 donation.

A couple of speakers into the day and I’m already treading water. This is pretty complex stuff! Most refreshing of all is that everyone seems to agree that they don’t have all the answers. And no wonder. I now realize all too well the meaning of the phrase “it ain’t brain surgery.” Nothing is evidently quite like brain surgery. Brain tumor treatment makes NASA and spaceflight seem like paint-by-numbers. Lest you think I’m exaggerating here, please check out the forums at www.braintumorfoundation.org. Have your aspirins handy or prepare to bail out early. This stuff is quite intense.

All of the speakers were uniformly wonderful. The single most memorable line during the day was “we cannot live with our mortality twenty-four hours a day,” a comment obviously intended for brain tumor patients but applicable to everyone else as well.

At lunch I have a rather unusual experience that may yet turn out to be life changing. As I eat my lunch I am listening to the people next to me recount their tales of courage and hardship. Three of the five people next to me have had brain surgery and I am mesmerized by their stories. Not so mesmerized though that I fail to notice a very attractive woman at the end of the table. She immediately looks familiar but I cannot figure out where I know her from. As someone who once lost sleep over trying to recall the name of the alcoholic St. Bernard in the tv show Topper, I know this is going to bother me.

I am thinking brain don’t fail me now but am still drawing a blank. It isn’t until I am in the solitude of the MRI that it comes to me. The woman in question was in a couple of my classes in college, thirty-five years ago! I no longer remember the classes or the teacher. Let’s be honest I don’t remember too much about college any more after thirty-five years have elapsed. Someone once said they never forgot a pretty face but let’s face it I’ve forgotten plenty of them. How then could it be possible that I would remember her after almost forty years?

The answer though is the reason why I am having a hard time believing it’s really her. I’m happy when people tell me I don’t look my age but I’m only cheating Father Time out of about ten years. This woman however is cheating him out of at least twenty. In fact, she looks so much like she did in college that she almost looks frozen in time. She doesn’t look to have gained an ounce and it looks like thirty-five days have slipped through her hourglass not thirty-five years. It’s positively scary but she could probably slip into a college classroom today and no one would think she was appreciably older than they were.

I can never seem to remember what I ate even a few days ago, yet I seem to remember that she was only eating an apple and some water. The food was surprisingly good and she wasn’t really eating any of it. I didn’t notice anybody else with similar restraint. As someone who is toying with the idea of caloric restriction as a way to enhance longevity, I'm wondering if that could possibly be her anti-aging secret. As a student of longevity I'm dying to know but please don't let me know you can escape aging and look like that without spending endless hours in the gym. Life isn't fair but that would simply be too much to bear.

After I leave the MRI I go back to look for the only person I’ve seen from college since I graduated. She’s gone though and with her the secret of her youth.

My brain has gotten a good workout though and as I leave I think this is a day well spent. I make a mental note to mark my calendar for Brain Tumor Awareness Day 2006 (November 12th, 2006). These people are so organized that they already have it scheduled. Hope to see you there!

P.S. One never wants to hear that their brain is unremarkable but when you’re waiting for the results of an MRI of your brain those are just about the sweetest words you can hear (even if you weren’t previously concerned about the results). I had my MRI on Sunday and on Thursday they confirmed that my brain was indeed unremarkable. Thank you Brain Tumor Foundation!

If you’re in the New York area (or Massachusetts or Houston), you can get a brain MRI for only $169 at brainscans.com. Everybody else might be well advised to investigate the opportunities in your area. Brain tumor rates have apparently doubled and there may be as many as 500,000 people walking around with undiagnosed tumors. If you're still not convinced about the value of early detection (before symptoms appear), I'll leave you with a rather sobering statistic: the 5 year survival rate after diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor is only about 30%. Not nearly as terrifying as pancreatic cancer but pretty scary nonetheless.

Coming Next: The recognition level was so low I could have been looking at mugshots. This was my college yearbook though. Who Are These People? A Wee Bit of Yearbook Archaelogy

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Zzzzzzz ......

There is another new book out about sleep. Of course I've already got three books about sleep that I haven't read yet -- The Promise of Sleep, Power Sleep, and Losing Sleep. The truth is although I spend quite a bit of time trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle, I never really give much thought to sleep. I average six hours a night -- five hours in bed and an hour on the bus. It might be good to get a little more but there's just so much to do. Of course there are those who will tell you that sleep isn't really all it's cracked up to be. Martha Stewart says she averages 3.7 hours a night, and at a Barnes & Noble appearance I quizzed health guru Gary Null about his claim of only getting two hours a night. And now I see in a New York Times Science piece that sleep times range from 22 hours a day for the lemur to -0- (yes that's zero) for the bullfrog. Hmmm ....

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Nevermore!

By the time I finally decided to break down and buy a copy of the first issue of Sylvester Stallone's fitness magazine, Sly, I couldn't find a copy anywhere. The reason for my change of heart was Stallone's first editorial which reached one really simple yet profound conclusion. Stallone came to the rather startling realization that based upon his remaining life expectancy he had only 800 odd weekends left. A sobering thought for all of us and a message to spend our time wisely. In Stallone's case it was readily apparent that he wouldn't be spending much of that time writing more editorials.

Now comes word of a Stallone movie project even more unlikely than the prospect of another Rocky (can the news of a new Rocky really be true?). The new project in question is reported in the September/October 2005 issue of creative screenwriting. Get a load of this:

"Nu Image/Millenium Films has made a deal to produce Sylvester Stallone's Poe, based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe. Stallone will also direct. Stallone has always been fascinated by Poe and finished the script several years ago."

We can only hope that he doesn't decide to play Poe himself. Nevermore!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

How Could I Have Missed This Book?

Since I was eighteen in 1966 when this book was first published I can probably be excused from missing it as I no doubt had more important things to do than read mysteries. It would probably have slipped by me again if not for the front cover blurb from Anthony Boucher: "A Wild Novel of Black Humor ... Wonderful." Boucher heaped even more praise on the novel on the back cover: "A mad fantasia of the Freeway Age which happens in a kind of Southern California-cubed and begins (at least) as a mystery ... Wonderful (I admire a man who can conceive a murder suspect who goes around disguised as a giant tree sloth)."

The book in question is Gascoyne by Stanley Crawford (The Overlook Press, 2005 tp $14). If you're still not convinced to seek this out, get a load of the description of what the book is about:

Meet Gascoyne, a new breed of hero, a man who spends whole weeks in his car, eats there, sleeps there, and conducts his business -- wielding power, pinching pennies, and fostering corruption -- by mobile phone as he somehow manages to drive through bumper-to-bumper traffic at fifty miles an hour. But he's found a new preoccupation, hunting down the killer -- last seen slithering away from the crime scene in a tree-sloth costume -- of his business associate and finding out how the southern California megalopolis has suddenly slipped out of his grasp.

Whoever wrote the copy for this book certainly deserves an award. How can you resist a book described like this: "A tour de force blending of genres -- Alfred Hitchcock, jungle-war novels, science fiction, mad doctor movies, Westerns, James Bond, 18th-century mock epics, Greek tragedy and hardboiled detective stories -- first published in 1966, Gascoyne is a hilarious look into a future that looks remarkably like the present."

No alligators but you can't have everything.