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

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

100,000 CDs!!!

Music has always been a big part of my life but I'm sure I'll never amass anywhere near 100,000 CDs. One person who did though was legendary Radio One DJ John Peel who is shown in the January 2006 issue of Uncut, standing in front of a wall of music, a "small part of his 100,000 + record collection."

Here's how the magazine describes his annual ritual of picking the year's best music: "Each November, as the nation's thoughts turn to unrepeatable Christmas discounts, and the office-party death squads ready themselves for another season of drinking and driving, I commit myself to three or four weeks of serious tedium by inviting listeners to my Radio One programmes to write listing their favourite tracks of the year. About 5,000 of the scoundrels oblige, thereby condemning me to nights in an ill-lit corner of the scullery entering their votes in a ledger. At the end of this proto-Dickensian routine, we have what we call, I fear, the Festive 50."

In honor of Peel's untimely death a year ago, Uncut magazine presents in the January issue's free CD JOHN PEEL'S FESTIVE 15, fifteen tracks from previous Peel selections. My favorite is 1986's The Trumpton Riots by Half Man Half Biscuit. With a name like that, does the music really matter?

In the same issue of the magazine is a review of Peel's autobiography (his wife actually wrote 230 pages to Peel's 160 -- when he died he had only reached the early 60s). The title is Margrave of the Marshes and I have no clue as to where that comes from. One thing though is eminently clear -- Peel truly loved music and was one-of-a-kind.

Though I'll never amass a collection that could compare with Peel's I wonder if he were still alive what he would think of all the live music that is being made available. I just found out that I can download enough live music that if the discs were stretched end to end they'd run from New Jersey to a point somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Thankfully my technical ineptitude and impatience have kept me from figuring out the arcane downloading procedure, so for the moment at least I'm safe and there's no need yet to add another shift at the blank CD factory.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Disappearing Village

A Birthday and a Requiem

Well, it's that time of year again -- the start of a new year and the coming of another birthday. This year I do what I've been doing for the past several years -- I take the day off and head for New York. Although I'm in New York at least once a week, today there will be no shopping. The day will be spent exploring my favorite place -- Greenwich Village. Though I may have missed the golden age of the Fifties, I've been wandering around the Village since the mid 60s and my love for it has not diminished a bit.

I start the day by walking the length of Bleecker Street. It seems there's a few more upscale shops every year but thankfully most of them are pretty tastefully presented. The most disturbing change in the recent past was a CVS pharmacy occupying the site of the former Village Gate. There's still a Village Gate sign sitting atop the sign for the CVS which only makes it look even more out of place. This affront has been eclipsed this year by the demise of a legendary beat generation hangout -- Carpo's Cafe -- on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal (one of the most famous addresses in the city) -- which has now been replaced by the Butterfly Grill, a Vietnamese restaurant! One can only imagine what Beat poet Gregory Corso (who lived in an apartment above it) would think if he saw it. When this site was the San Remo it was the hangout of the beat crowd-- Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al. In my forthcoming memoir, I'll recount how, although very young at the time, I helped Kerouac with On The Road. Since I'm sure you're all breathless with anticipation, I'll just toss out one little tidbit: it was on a roll of toilet paper that I provided that he wrote part of it. I'm currently looking for a publisher for my memoir. If any of you know of one that also needs a fact checker, please let me know.

It'll be pretty hard to top this indignity but I have no doubt that rising real estate prices will make more unpalatable changes a reality. I'm glad to see that some places like Cafe Wha (where I spent quite a bit of time) are still here if not quite the same (sadly I arrived there a bit too late to see Hendrix play there but if I were writing my memoir, I'd try to work it in). On the internet I find a cool site (songlines.com) which shows me the name of every business on Bleecker Street with a little history mixed in.

Early in my exploring I spot legendary chef Mario Batali on his motor scooter. Batali was wearing his trademark shorts and looked like he could have been tooling around Rome instead of a frigid New York. Wish I had his thermostat!

Next I spot a guy reading a book while he's walking. Wish I had noticed what it was that was so hard to put down (hope it wasn't A Thousand Little Pieces). I have enough willpower to resist the siren call of the cupcakes at both The Magnolia Bakery and the Polka dot Cake Studio. I have to go into the Porto Rico Importing Company though to treat myself to the overpoweringly wonderful smell of all their coffee.

Another change is that Joe's Pizza has moved a few doors down and has been replaced by (can it be possible?) yet another pizza place. Abitino's seems to be doing a helluva lot better than the other new pizza place (how can there be so many?) half a block away on Carmine Street. This forgettable place seems to have little style and less customers. Bleecker Street Pizza is still holding on but I have yet to try it.

I end up where I always do -- at John's Pizza. I had my first pizza at John's in 1961 and I've been going back ever since. I've tried them all and John's is still my favorite. For me, only one thing has changed about John's in 45 years -- I might as well be trying to pass Confederate money there since I can no longer pay for a pizza. When I moved three years ago I found that I had hit the pizza jackpot when the owner of John's (a more gracious and generous guy there never was) turned out to be my new neighbor.

Today I am truly honored to have as my lunchmate an 84 year old former NYPD detective who had his first pizza at John's in 1951. For the second time in as many months I meet someone who seems to be much younger than their real age (though he's not nearly as attractive as the first one).

One thing has not changed about John's though -- the decor remains stuck in the fifties. In what seemed to be some previous epoch, the enlightened management let kids carve their initials and messages of love into the wooden booths. There has been a moratorium on that only because there is no longer any room left (just as well in these terror stricken times not to see knife wielding youts as Joe Pesci would say) . The two murals on the walls have been there as long as I can remember and as god awful as they are I would probably start a picket line if they were ever replaced. The work of a truly bad artist on a really bad day they lend a comfy feel to the place that no high priced art could improve upon.

As the day ends I make a resolution to pull out the books I have on Greenwich Village and actually read them. That should keep me occupied at least until next week when I get a chance to visit again.

P.S. As I write this I am listening to Tracy Chapman's debut album on my iPOD. I never got to see Tracy Chapman perform in Harvard Square but if I were writing my memoir you can bet I'd work her in somehow. Maybe I'd even do a duet with her. And since it's my memoir I'd even sound good.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Patient From Hell

I promise that this is the last medical book I will read for at least three months. It'll be pretty hard to top this one anyway. The full title is The Patient From Hell: How I Worked With My Doctors To Get the Best of Modern Medicine and How You Can Too by Stephen H. Schneider, Ph.D with Janica Lane (DaCapo Press, 2005). As a climate scientist, Schneider is concerned with the effects of global warming and all those other nasty things that are happening to the planet as we continue to despoil it. He's also concerned with something particularly nasty that's affected him a little more personally -- mantle cell lymphoma which is right up there near the top of the list of the things you don't want to experience. As a scientist Schneider has a great advantage over the typically afflicted patient but none of that really helps him in his battle with the medical establishment. Starting with the premise that "no doctor has all the answers" (there are often no answers, only odds), Schneider sets out to obtain the best possible treatment for his cancer.

With the exception of one rather slow chapter in which Schneider discusses his work as a climate scientist (he can be forgiven for this), this book is pretty hard to put aside. All the gruesome details of his struggle with a bone marrow transplant are here and they provide a valuable resource for anyone who finds themself in his situation. Even though Schneider as a scientist has a definite advantage in his knowledge and his affinity with doctors, his struggle to get the best treatment is by no means an easy one. Scientist or not, doctors view any patient who expects individualized treatment to truly be "the patient from hell." If you follow his trailblazing efforts, you can learn the following:

  • how to obtain and interpret odds
  • how to seek better treatments that may not fit the usual "standard of care"
  • how to get treated as a unique individual and not the mythical average patient
  • how to recognize the decisions that you, rather than the doctor, must make
  • how, most important of all, to build a partnership with sometimes reluctant doctors

The most fascinating part of the book is the information about cancer and remission. I have never read anything that lays out the situation so clearly or so compellingly. Before he began his treatment, Schneider had 800,000 cancer cells per microgram of DNA in his tumor and 200,000 cells per microgram in his bone marrow fluid. As incredible as that sounds, later in the book Schneider contrasts two possible treatment options. The starting point for the patient is 100 billion cancer cells. Now that's a lot of cancer!

One course of treatment reduces the amount to 100,000 cancer cells, the second treatment reduces it to 1,000 cancer cells. It's pretty obvious in looking at those numbers that no course of treatment is going to completely kill all those cancer cells. Remission is a relative thing. You can only hope that your treatment gets the remaining cancer cells to a level low enough for your immune system to keep them in check. And here Schneider throws out an interesting idea -- "it is possible that everybody has a very low number of cancer cells all the time; the key is to make sure your body's natural defenses continue fighting them."

Knowing that by the time a CT scan can detect a return of your cancer, when it may already be too late to beat the recurrence, Schneider relies on PCR (polymerase chain reaction) -- a test on the blood using PCR can detect very low cancer cell counts and by monitoring your PCR level you can see how the cancer is progressing or being held in check. PCR is obviously the best way to monitor this but my impression is that its use is not as widespread as it deserves to be. This bears a lot of further research.

A highly recommended book that I simply cannot praise enough.