Sunday, December 26, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry Christmas, 2010

Dear All,

I was the big news this year—or at least my heart attack was. It came as a surprise while we were on our transatlantic cruise in April. When it hit, I thought I was just having a hard time cooling down after a mild walk around the deck. My heart was clicking at 207 beats/minute, and I couldn’t stop sweating. The cruise doctors stabilized me and patched me up enough so that I could get back to Danville, but pretty soon after that I was getting operated on, open heart surgery in fact. (If you want to read about the heart attack cruise, just click here.)

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It took a while to build myself back up after that, but I’m happy to say that at this point I’m pretty much back to my old self, exercising and writing (I’ve finished my second novel Suitcase Charlie and am looking for a literary agent) and shoveling the snow and all of that other stuff.

And except for that bump in the road, we’ve all been doing pretty well. Lillian and Luciana bought a house, a beautiful two-story brick not far from us and near George Washington High School where Lillian teaches English and advises the school newspaper. When she’s not there, Lillian’s been painting and decorating her new home, and Luciana has been running around her house and playing in their enormous family room.

We’re all enjoying watching Luciana figure out all the stuff that she can do as she gets closer and closer to the Big Two. She loves to carry around books and ask us to read to her, and we love to accommodate her. She also likes to dance and play ball and knock down blocks and walk around with her blanket on her shoulder and her favorite doll Blah-blah in her hands. We can’t wait until Christmas morning and the new toys she’ll be getting from Santa, especially the Thomas the Tank Engine train.

Linda and I – even with all the time spent on my health – have done a lot of traveling this year. Beside our transatlantic heart attack cruise, we’ve enjoyed cruising on the Celebrity Solstice to the Caribbean with our wonderful neighbors Kathy and Mike and more recently exploring Columbia, Panama, and Costa Rica on the Jewel of the Sea. The photo of us in crash helmets is from a white water rafting adventure on that last cruise.

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And we’re planning more trips for the new year. Linda’s checking flights and cruises and accommodations. She’s hoping to set up one trip for each month next year! So far she’s got us heading first to Connecticut in January to see Mabel and Tony and all the Calendrillos there and then the Caribbean in February. After that, I’m hoping to talk her into looking for a European trip. It’s been almost ten years since we’ve visited Rome or Paris or London.

By the way, we’ve also been to Las Vegas this year. I was trying not to mention the two trips we took because we didn’t do as well this year as last, but we did have a great time nonetheless traveling with our Valdosta friends James and Susan (Barron) LaPlant and Mabel and Tony Calendrillo.

When Linda’s not planning our trips, she volunteers at the Danville Free Clinic. This is her second year there, and she really loves helping folks without medical coverage to find the care they need. She also enjoys helping out with Luciana whenever she can. Recently, Linda’s started taking Luciana to the public library here, and both of them love playing with the books and the toys and the puzzles and children there.

It’s been a great year (except for that bump in the road I mentioned earlier), and we hope that all our friends find as much happiness in the coming year as we’ve found this last year.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

What Vegetarians Eat for Thanksgiving

I get a lot of questions (and way too many jokes) this time of year about what vegetarians eat for Thanksgiving. Here's a picture of the meal we had.


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It's roasted cauliflower and brussel sprouts, corn souffle, mashed potatoes with cheddar cheese, apricot dressing, and of course cranberry sauce.

For dessert, Lillian made a cranberry cake and a pumpkin pie, and Linda made fresh whipped cream.


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We all had a great time and ate way too much!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Poems about God after 9/11

The following is the preface I wrote to a gathering of poems about God written in the aftermath of September 11. The preface and the poems by American, Polish, and Hungarian poets were published in the Scream Online in 2005:


Before 9/11, I didn’t think much about God, and I hadn’t thought much about Him for a long, long time.

Oh, of course, I thought about Him on occasion. I thought about Him at Christmas time when my daughter Lillian was young and she’d ask me about who baby Jesus was. And I thought about God when I got interested in Isaac Bashevis Singer and started writing a series of articles about him. You can hardly write about Singer without writing about God—but there, I was thinking about God in a different sort of way. It was the way I thought about Him when I taught the great religious writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and T. S. Eliot and Fyodor Dostoevsky. God was an idea, a concept, that I was seeing through a lens and trying to make intellectual and academic sense of.

After 9/11, all that changed. When the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center came down, I discovered that God was no longer academic. He suddenly became important in my world. Not in the sense that I’ve come to believe what my father believed when he knelt every night and prayed in the darkness, nor in the sense that I came to believe what the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Christian Brothers taught me as I was growing up and attending grammar school and high school.

God became important in the sense that my world was suddenly touched and continues to be touched by those who believe in him firmly and absolutely.

They touch my world when they send terrorists here to the United States, and they touch my world when they send American troops to Iraq to bring Saddam Hussein down; and they touch my world when they take my students from my classrooms and send them to Afghanistan, or when they blow up abortion clinics and threaten those they disagree with; and they touch my world when they argue the centrality of faith in all political and social and cultural decisions.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Americans and terrorists are the same in any way except this one very important way: many of them are firmly committed to and acting out of their belief in God.

This simple idea, that good people and bad people can both be acting from a commitment to a similar impulse, the impulse to act as God wants us to act, has driven much of my poetry these last few years. I’ve been writing poems about God, to try to find and make sense of this simple idea. I want to understand this as much as I’ve ever wanted to understand anything.

When I told a poet friend of mine about this, when I told her I was thinking and writing about God, she told me something extraordinary. She was too. And she wasn’t the only one.


Poets who contributed to this gathering are Jared Carter, Feliks Netz, M. L. Williams, M. J. Rychlewski, Marty Scott, Brooke Bergen, Sara McWhorter, Charles A. Fishman, Margaret Szumowski, David Feela, Michael Knisely, G. Gomori, Joe Survant, Homer Christensen, David Radavich, and me, John Guzlowski.

The poems themselves are available at the online arts and culture journal Scream Online.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Writing is an Incremental Art

When you’re a writer, there are bad days and good days. Some days, you sit and write, and the words feel like they’re in someone else’s head; and some days, you write and the writing is fast and right, and you think that each word is a gift from some muse that really and completely loves and cares for you and what you have to say.

That’s the way it is for all of us, I think, but one of the things that I've come to feel about writing on bad days as well as good ones is that the progress, the movement forward, the work, is all important. It doesn't matter finally if the writing I’m doing is going bad or going good, just so long as I keep writing. Putting one word after another, the bad days will give way to good days because writing is an incremental art. One word after another, and another word after that.

This word-by-word idea came to me from listening to the painter Chuck Close do an interview with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" a couple years ago. I was just starting to write my first novel Suitcase Charlie then; I had finished the first chapter, and I was looking at the tall hill of the second chapter, and the long row of hills and mountains beyond that. Finishing that novel seemed impossible. I had been writing poems for the last thirty-five years and was comfortable working with poems. Unlike novels, they live in little spaces, valleys and small plots of earth. I hadn't written fiction of any kind since I was in college 35 years ago, and I was sure I couldn't move beyond that first chapter.

Then I heard that Chuck Close interview.

I love his portraits, his giant canvases, 15 and 20 feet high and almost as wide. They're a human marvel. Terry asked him how he manages to create those mountains of paintings, and he said something that stopped me. He said that painting was an incremental art, one dot of paint and then another.

I had seen his paintings close up years ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and I knew just what he meant. If you look at those giant canvases what you see is that each one is made up of thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of little dabs of paint, each dab almost a perfect moment of painting in itself. A little Jackson Pollock dab of painting -- one right next to another and another and another.

And I started thinking of my novel that way, each word, each line, each paragraph. One dab of words after another.

I knew I could write a word--it wasn't daunting to do that. And I knew I could write a line. And I figured I could keep going and going, one word after another after another.

And I did.

I finished my first novel and it came to 98,643 words, and all of them are on a literary agent’s desk right now, and then I finished the second novel.
And while I'm revising it, I'm starting work on my third . I’m on word 236 and climbing.

Like the poet Rilke says, “Patience is everything.”


Suitcase Charlie is available as a Kindle or a paperback from Amazon.  Just click HERE.

You can hear a podcast of Terry Gross’s interview with Chuck Close: podcast.

Here’s a link to Chuck Close’s website: click.

The copyrighted painting of Close is from a site about his various self-portraits.


This post originally appeared on Leslie Pietrzyk's blog Work-in-Progress, in a slightly different version.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ode to Paul Carroll

The first writer I ever met was Paul Carroll. He was a poet, literary critic, and editor involved with and publishing the beats. He knew the poets and writers I loved: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs.


I was a kid, 18 or 19, a sophomore at the University of Illinois in Chicago, taking English courses and dreaming about writing. I had discovered Kerouac the year before when I bought a copy of his The Subterraneans in a second-hand store, and I couldn't get enough of his spontaneous bop prosody. When a friend told me that the university offered courses in poetry writing, I couldn't believe it. I had never heard of such a thing. Courses in creative writing!

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I signed up immediately and ran into Paul Carroll. He was a knock out. A writer who loved poetry in the way that I imagined Shakespeare and Keats and Whitman and Yeats and Eliot and Ginsberg and Kerouac loved poetry.

I ended up taking three courses from him, and they probably shaped my writing more than anything else I learned as an undergrad or grad student.

I never saw Paul Carroll after I graduated from the U of I in Chicago, but the lessons he taught me about writing and what it means to be a writer stayed with me.

A couple of years ago, I read an article by Paul Hoover about Paul Carroll's death. It was a sad piece about his last days, his problems with drinking, his personal problems, and his writing problems. It made me want to write something that would recapture what Carroll meant to me and to a generation of young writers in Chicago in the late 60s. The poem I wrote is called "Ode to Paul Carroll."

Ode to Paul Carroll

(dead these many years but still singing in Heaven
with the Irish angels and the Chinese saints
who drowned in their love of poetry)

Remember me, Paul?

I wrote those weird poems that bad summer of '69

about Jesus burning
the prostitutes up
with His exploding eyes

and about being a mind
blistered astronaut
with nothing to say
to the sun except,
Honey, I'm yours


You were the first poet
I knew

the one who told me
to believe all poets
are brothers and sisters
and poetry is all the poems ever written
and that if you're lucky enough
to still be writing poems
when you're fifty
then you'd know the true grace of poetry

Do you remember that guy
in the red plush beefeater's hat?

He said in class the revolution
would send old farts like you
to the camps with the other assholes proud of their money
and their dick pink ties
and all you said to him was

"Maybe you won't be able to get it up tonight
because you're tired or drunk-but
someday there will be weeks and weeks
when your penis
will just stay a penis
and then,
there you'll be"

We were young and nobody
knew what you were talking about, running
riddles past us like some
Irish Li Po from the back of the yards

I still don't get your Ode to Nijinsky, its blank staring page

And what's behind it?

The lesson that poetry and art
Disappear/vanish before
we can see their dance?

But surely that's not the lesson
you wanted to teach us

You always had faith in poetry and poets,
called them your pals, even the dead ones
like Wordsworth and Milton
Dickinson and Yeats,
pals sharing a ragged pencil nub and sneaking smokes
between visions of angels
and teacups and Picasso
bald and 80 among the true Chinese poets

Our brothers and our sisters

You'd tell us stories about poets drowning
in their love of poetry
and you'd lick your lips
And say, Yes, Yes, and Yes
As if some great meal
Had just been served

When you died I read in the Chicago papers
that your last days
weren't so lucky
your wife gone, you
drinking too much and searching for James Wright
in the yuppie bars around Division and Clark

When I read that I thought maybe
you were wrong
about how Yeats's Chinese grace
could keep a man alive
and a drunk sober

But reading your
last poems again last night
I saw you were right

So I went to the library and stole
a copy of Odes, your first poems

and read your Nijinsky poem again


Carroll's books are apparently out of print, but they are available at Amazon. I especially recommend his book Odes and Poem in its Skin.

There's not much about Carroll on the internet. I haven't been able to find any of his poems there, but there is a good short piece about him at the University of Chicago site. Also, there's a youtube posted by Bob Boldt of Carroll talking about poetry.

By the way, I got the opening photo of Carroll at the University of Chicago site. The other guy in the picture is Allen Ginsberg.

The second photo? That's me.

Friday, July 23, 2010

How You Doing?

It's a question that I've been hearing a lot from my friends, so I thought I'd write about it here.

My health? -- it's good.

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I'm coming along as I'm supposed to according to all the current tests. My post-op stress test showed that there were no loose wires in my chest and nothing was bleeding, and my recent cholesterol test was excellent. My numbers, generally very good, were even better, due in part, I'm sure, to the medicine I'm taking and the fact that I'm eating two handfuls of almonds a day (you be sure to eat yours too!). My twice daily blood glucose tests also are generally good, coming in at about 110. (They should be a little better of course--around 90. I think the docs are telling me I have type 2 diabetes.)

And I'm getting around pretty well. I finished up my 8 weeks of cardiac rehab without much trouble. In fact, I was doing less rehab (aerobic exercise and weight training) on the days when I had to attend cardiac rehab than on the days when I just stayed home and exercised on my own. I do aerobic nordic tracking for about 50 minutes a day, and I lift weights and stretch for 30 minutes/day. This is about where I was before my troubles started.

But being a post-open heart surgery patient is in a lot of ways a real drag.

Even though I feel good most of the time (just a few aches when I'm lying down or sleeping or stretching), there are so many things I can't do.

--I can't go out and walk around when it's over 80 degrees (and it's been in the high 90s for the last two months).
--I can't lift my granddaughter because she weighs over 25 pounds.
--I can't mow the lawn (hmm, that's really not so bad).
--I can't drink more than a glass of wine a night.
--I can't drink carbonated drinks (soda and beer).
--I can't drink anything caffeinated (trust me, it's hard to write when I'm not drinking coffee).
--I can't eat my favorite sourdough pretzels, and in general I have to watch everything I eat: the carbs, the sugars, the salts.

Some of these restrictions will probably fall away after my next stress test (August 10), but some I'm afraid are going to follow me around for a long time to come.

But there is good news too.

--My cardiologist said I can fly to Las Vegas.
--We're going tomorrow--July 24.
--There are no restrictions on my gambling.

I'll let you know how that goes.


If you want to read about my Heart Attack Cruise again, it's still here.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Shchav Soup: Recipe for a Hot Day

Back in the old days before anybody had air-conditioning, my mother, a Polish woman from the old country, felt that the surest cure for hot weather was szczawiowa zupa, shchav, swiss chard soup.

She’d get up early on a day that promised to be in the high 90s, and she’d fix schav. It wouldn’t take long and it didn’t require a lot of cooking, so it didn’t heat up our apartment. When she had it prepared, she’d stick it into the refrigerator to cool off. In the evening, she’d serve it for dinner when it was in the 90s both outside and inside.

Believe me, it always took the temperature down 10 degrees.

Here's my recipe :

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped
12 cups stock (I use veggie broth but you can use chicken)
1 pound fresh swiss chard, stems included, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in your soup pot over medium-high heat and sauté the onions for about 10 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Add the swiss chard and season with salt and pepper. simmer until the sorrel is olive green in color, about 10 minutes. If you can’t get swiss chard, you can use the same amount of spinach, but make sure you add a ¼ of lemon juice to give the soup its signature tartness.

Smacznego—good eating.

PS--I've received several notes from readers saying that this soup should be made with sorrel rather than swiss chard. This is in fact true, but unfortunately when I was a child growing up in a refugee neighborhood in Chicago, we didn't have a grocer near who sold sorrel. My mother substituted swiss chard--after complaining how there were things that one could so easily find in Poland that she couldn't find anywhere in America.

Addendum to PS:

I received the following from poet Oriana Ivy regarding shchav:

Yes, it's made with wild sorrel picked at streamside. A rather sour soup -- I didn't like it all that much, but I'm sure it's full of fab nutrients. However, in the recipe I don't understand the omission of a hardboiled egg, cut in half. That half of an egg per large soup plate seemed like a kind of eye staring at me out of all that intense green. It's essential to the shchav experience. The egg complements the taste and the nutrients (the soup is fabulous for eye health).


If you want to read about another of my mother's Polish soups, please take a look at my blog "Simple Polish Soup."

The picture of the shchav is from the blog Fresh Approach Cooking.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

"Subterranean Homesick Blues" Covers

I was talking with my neighbor Cecil yesterday, and he said that he thought the best cover ever of Subterranean Homesick Blues was done by Alanis Morissette. I'm not sure about that. I think maybe Rickie Lee Jones's cover is better. Especially with the photos and film clips of the Village in the 60s.

What do you think?

I tried to get a video of Dylan singing the song but I could only find one of him with a Wii ad in front of it. I guess he really sold his soul to the devil like he said he did.

Here's the link to that version. Just click here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Charles Simic and Me: DP Poets

I got an email yesterday from a friend. He asked me what I thought about Charles Simic. He's a poet that some of you might have heard of. He was the poet laureate of the US a couple of years ago. I think my friend was asking me about him because he figured that Charles Simic and I shared some history. We both came to the US after the war as Displaced Persons, refugees.

My friend's question got me thinking. I wonder how old Simic was when he came here to America, Chicago. I think he was older than I was--he was born before the war and he probably remembers a lot of it. I was born in 1948 and remember only the DP camps and what I heard my parents and their friends talking about. In one of the official biographies, it says Simic's life was "complicated by the events of World War II." I like the way that makes the war sound like something no more important than static on your radio, a couple hours without internet.

I doubt he ever read my poems, but I've read a lot of his.

His poems to me feel European, existential, surreal, funny in a really dark way. Maybe it's because of the different ways we learned our English. I learned it from the ground up starting when I came over when I was three. Coming to the states when he was in his teens, he probablly learned his English from the middle up (and down), and so the words he knows are the words for little plain things and big ideas, frightening and foreign even though they are a lot of times our own.

Here's a poem Charles Simic wrote.


In his fear of solitude, he made us.
Fearing eternity, he gave us time.
I hear his white cane thumping
Up and down the hall.

I expect neighbors to complain, but no.
The little girl who sobbed
When her daddy crawled into her bed
Is quiet now.

It's quarter to two.
On this street of darkened pawnshops,
Welfare hotels and tenements,
One or two ragged puppets are awake.


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Here's a poem I wrote called "A Dog Will." It recently was published in The Convergence Review.

A Dog Will

A dog will
eat a dog

and a dog will
eat a man

and a man will
eat a dog

and a man will
eat a man

and a man will eat
his own father

sister and brother
even the mother

who fed him
milk at her breast

even though
every rule

of his church
and his people

tells him not to
if he is hungry


If you want to see a youtube of Charlie Simic reading at Cornell, just click here.

If you want to see a youtube of me reading at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY, just click here.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Last Heart Attack Update

The above title sounds optimistic, and I hope it's true. I hope this, in fact, is the last time I'll be writing to tell you all about what my heart's up to.

Last week Thursday, I went to see the surgeon who did my bypass. He looked at the x-rays, the blood tests, and EKGs that were done the day before, and he said, "Everything's perfect. You look like the younger brother of the fellow I operated on last week."

Then he gave me more good news. He cleared me so that I could start Cardiac Rehab, and he also gave me the okay to do some mild aerobic exercise.

As you can imagine, I was pretty happy. On April 23, I had a cardiac incident that looked like a heart attack to the doctor on the cruise ship. Two weeks later, I failed my nuclear stress test because my blood pressure went balistic, and a week after that I was in the hospital having a cardiac catheterization and, a couple of days later, open heart surgery and a bypass. And now, a little more than a month after my troubles started, the doctor was telling me I could pretty much go back to what my life was like before all of this started.

I am pretty happy, and I'm thinking a lot about what my mom felt following her surgery for ovarian cancer.

Here's the poem I wrote about it:

My Mother's Optimism

When she was seventy-eight years old
and the angel of death called to her
and told her the vaginal bleeding
that had been starting and stopping
like a crazy menopausal period
was ovarian cancer, she said to him,
"Listen Doctor, I don't have to tell you
your job. If it's cancer it's cancer.
If you got to cut it out, you got to."

After surgery, in the convalescent home
among the old men crying for their mothers,
and the silent roommates waiting for death
she called me over to see her wound,
stapled and stitched, fourteen raw inches
from below her breasts to below her navel.
And when I said, "Mom, I don't want to see it,"
she said, "Johnny, don't be such a baby."

Six months later, at the end of her chemo,
my mother knows why the old men cry.
A few wiry strands of hair on head,
her hands so weak she couldn't hold a cup,
her legs swollen and blotched with blue lesions,
she says, "I'll get better. After his chemo,
Pauline's second husband had ten more years.
He was playing golf and breaking down doors
when he died of a heart attack at ninety."

Then my mom's eyes lock on mine, and she says,
"You know, optimism is a crazy man's mother."

And she laughs.


You can read my post "The Heart Attack Cruise" about how all this started by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Heart Attack Update: Riding the Iron Rooster

I was great yesterday--I walked around the house 3 times for about 6 minutes each time, did these breathing exercises on the hour like I was supposed to, took it easy all day watching the food channel and poker on TV, but the night was terrible.

I couldn't sleep and there was a lots of pain. I gave up around 3 am and took some oxycodone and started reading Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster, a book about traveling through China by train in the 1980s.

Theroux is always wonderful. Especially after open heart surgery. There's something about his prose rhythms and the rhythm of the train trips he's describing that inscribes itself on your heart rhythms, no matter how wild and vacillicious they are. And there's wisdom there too.

Here's what he says about traveling to China by railroad:

"Sometimes it seemed like real travel, full of those peculiar discoveries and satisfactions. But more often it was as if I had lost my footing in London and had fallen down a long flight of stairs, perhaps one of those endless staircases designed by a surrealist painter, and down I went, bump-bump-bump, and across the landing, and down again, bump-bump-bump, until I had fallen halfway around the world."

Theroux could be talking about the heart attack I had or didn't have on the ship and the world it opened me up to.

I read Riding the Iron Rooster till about 7 when it was time for my first 10 pills of the day. They almost knocked me out. I started sweating and couldn't stop. Linda helped me to the couch. I lay there for an hour till I stopped sweating finally.

Friday, May 14, 2010

I made it

Dear Friends,I made it through the open heart surgery. I'm weak and foggy but okay.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Heart Attack Cruise: Update 2

Yesterday, my catheterization hadn't gone the way the cardiologist thought. He figured the blockage in my artery would be minor, and he would be able to put a stent in the artery, but that's not what happened.

Instead, the blockage was severe (about 75%), and it hit at a place where the artery forked, and he knew it would be pointless to put a stent there.

He told me I would need open heart surgery to graft a vein around the blockage. I would need a by-pass.

So today, Linda and I spent most of the morning in the hospital seeing my cardiologist and another cardiologist and the open heart surgeon and his assistant. Individually, they came to tell me about his or her part of the story of the surgery they were going to do on me. Most of it, I couldn't understand. They talked about terms and procedures I didn't know a thing about and had never heard of. They showed me pictures of the heart and pictures of the arteries. They told me what would happen first and what I could expect a couple of weeks from today when I would start to feel better.

It was a lot to take in.

The last person I saw was the anesthesiologist. He was there to evaluate my condition before Thursday's surgery. He looked me up and down and took my medical history and asked me about my life style.

I told him about how I've been a vegetarian for 30 years and exercised every day and didn't smoke and limited my drinking to a glass of wine a night. I even told him about doing yoga and lifting weights.

That's when he shook his head and said, "You know, you're in great shape. You got the body of a 52-year old man."

I said, "Yeah? So how come I'm having open heart surgery at 530 Thursday morning."

He looked at me and said, "Shit happens."


Lillian will be posting updates at my facebook page about the operation.

By the way, the above tattoo of a dagger piercing a heart appeared at TattooSymbol.Com

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Heart Attack Cruise: Update

That's the EKG I got two weeks ago on the cruise ship showing the rhythms of my wayward heart. Since then, I’ve been grading papers for my online course and seeing the cardiologist.

Let me tell you, the former is less stressful than the latter.

Last week, Thursday, 8 days after my heart attack, I went to see the cardiologist my doctor here in Danville, Virginia, recommended. He looked at the EKG tests and blood word and cardiac enzyme counts I brought in and decided I hadn’t had a heart attack.

He felt that the elevated cardiac enzymes I was showing weren’t the significant ones.

This good news was immediately followed by the bad. My heart has some kind of arrhythmia that needs medication and further testing. He told me to start taking 10 milligrams of Coreg CR daily. He even gave me three weeks worth of free samples. I was feeling good about this guy.

We also set up a nuclear stress test and echocardiogram for this week Tuesday.

I was looking forward to the stress test.

I hadn’t had any exercise or even strenuous walking since my attack, and I was hoping that this would be a good workout. I dressed in some exercise shorts, T-shirt, and running shoes and was ready for anything.

First they gave me an echocardiogram (like a sonogram), and then they injected some kind of radioactive mineral into my blood stream. After waiting for a while to make sure it was moving around in my heart, they set me up on the treadmill.

I typically do about 45 minutes of aerobic exercise each day and expected this to be a piece of cake.

It was. It took me about 9 minutes to get my heart to the target rate (135 beats a minute), and I was feeling pretty good. Then,the nurse put a stop to the whole thing.

She had been monitoring my blood pressure, and she thought it was way too high, 190/100. My resting bp is about typically 120/60, and 190//100 was -- to use her word -- abnormal. She slowed the threadmill and asked me to take a seat until my blood pressure went down. It did, but very slowly, too slowly. This worried her too.

When the cardiologist stopped by and saw the blood pressure numbers, he reacted the way the nurse reacted. He immediately raised the Coreg CR dosage to 40 milligrams a day. A week ago I wasn't taking any meds, and suddenly I was doing mega-doses.

Although my blood pressure was high, I didn’t feel woozy, wonky, or dizzy. I did feel a little winded, but I figured that was because I hadn’t exercised in two weeks, and after all, the stress test had me marching up a 14 degree grade for 9 minutes.

Yesterday, Wednesday, the nurse called me with the results of the various tests. The good news was that I survived. Pretty much everything else was bad news. The cardiologist suspects I have a couple leaky heart valves and two blocked arteries. The valves aren’t a big deal, he said, but I needed to get the blocked arteries fixed.

He recommended he do a cardiac catheterization. That’s where he introduces a thin tube into one of my veins and works it up to my heart. He said that this would let him see how much blockage was in the arteries and whether I would need a stent or a by-pass.

At this point, I’m wondering “what’s going on?!?” Two weeks ago, I was living my normal life, exercising without a problem, eating peanuts and oranges (my favorite vegetarian foods), and now I’m listening to this cardiologist who I don’t know from Adam telling me I might need by-pass surgery and that, although he doesn’t do surgery, he could hook me up with somebody who’s really good.

Linda is of course going crazy, but I’m too drugged to notice.

PS--Linda just asked me to mention that the cardiologist wanted me to have the catheterization this coming Tuesday, but I told him that I couldn't because we're going to Las Vegas for a week with her parents Tony and Mabel. He shook his head and thought for a minute and said we could do it the following week.

I said, "Great."

Then he asked, "Didn't you have your last cardiac event on vacation?"

Monday, April 26, 2010

Heart Attack Cruise

“This is not a Death Certificate”

That’s what it said at the top of the Guest Removal Form I was filling out in the infirmary of the cruise ship the Independence of the Sea. The nurse gave me the sheet and asked me to sign it. I was about to when I suddenly saw that statement about how the form wasn’t a Death Certificate. That gave me pause.

I started reading through the form more carefully at that point. On the first side, there wasn’t much that you wouldn’t expect. The infirmary and the cruise line wanted my name and address and such, and I was prepared to fill that in. I had agreed to leave the ship to see a cardiologist in Lisbon, and that was the kind of information I knew the cruise line would need.

I needed to see a cardiologist because just the day before after walking on the ship's jogging track for about 30 minutes something weird happened. When I got down to my cabin to take a shower, I suddenly started sweating. I didn't know where that was coming from. The walking I did on the jogging track was pretty mild, and I hadn’t been sweating earlier when I was walking on the track. There was a pretty strong wind the ship was moving into and it whisked the sweat off me. Plus I was wearing my new micro-fiber hat and t-shirt and shorts and they all promised me that if I bought them I wouldn’t sweat and if I did I wouldn’t feel it.

But there I was in my cabin sweating.

I was waiting for Linda to get back from the fitness center, and I knew I had to stop sweating before she got back and we went off for breakfast. So I figured I would walk onto the balcony and cool off. It was always cool there, getting plenty of that wind that the ship was heading into, and I stepped outside and tried to dry myself off, but I just started sweating more and more, and I realized I was having trouble breathing so I sat down, but that just made my breathing harder and the sweat pour out of me faster.

Then I went into the shower and turned on the cold water, but that didn’t do any good. I was still sweating like an Arkansas hog.

I’d been sweating and having trouble breathing for ten minutes, and suddenly I noticed that my heart was beating at a clip. I jumped out of the shower and grabbed my wristwatch and tried to time my pulse.

But I couldn’t keep track of the beats because I couldn’t count that fast.

Listen, you know you’re in trouble when you can’t time your pulse because the beats are coming too fast. As soon as you try to count 100 beats, you know you're missing dozens of other beats. Nobody can count that fast.

I knew I couldn’t get to the infirmary on the first deck without Linda, so I sat down naked in the middle of our cabin and waited.

Thank God, she didn’t stop to gamble in the casino.

She saw me there sitting on the chair, sweating, naked, and she said, “What’s wrong.”

I said, “I think I’m sick.”

She called the infirmary and told them we were coming down.

I threw on my t-shirt and shorts and started walking down the corridor to the elevators. Linda said, “You don’t have your shoes.”

I didn’t go back to get them. I just kept walking.

We got to the infirmary and the place was packed, but the nurse looked at me and told me to sit down and took my pulse and then helped me to the emergency room. The doctor came in, and she took my pulse too and couldn’t believe it.

It was 207.

They gave me a shot of something to regulate my heart because it was – according to the doctor who was making these motions with her hand – contracting like a crazy octopus when it should be contracting like a languid jellyfish.

The injection was amazing. As soon as the doctor shot it in my vein, she asked me how I felt, and I paused my shaking and beating and sweating to see how I felt, and it was like I could feel whatever it was that she gave me moving through my body like a slow stream, up from the vein in my arm, across my chest to my heart and up my shoulder, and up and over my neck to my lips and eyes and brain. A slow steady rising stream of ease that calmed down all that bounding my heart was doing.

After that, for the next 6 hours they ran tests and had me resting between them, and what they found was that I had had a cardiac arrhythmia with an atrial fibrillation and elevated levels of cardiac enzymes.

After the tests, they told me that I had had a heart attack and that I should definitely see a cardiologist at the next port, Lisbon.

As you can imagine, I thought that was a good idea, and the next morning, Linda and I were in the infirmary, and I was filling out the necessary paperwork for leaving the ship so I could see the cardiologist.

That’s when I was stopped by that phrase “This is not a Death Certificate” on the top of the page, and I started to read the form carefully.

The second page made it clear that if I filled out the form and left the ship it was possible that I might never be able to get back on it. The cardiologist in Lisbon could declare me unfit to travel if he thought I was too weak. In which case, I was stuck in Lisbon.

I didn’t want to be stuck in Lisbon, and I didn’t want to hassle with the rigmarole of trying to find a way out of Lisbon when most of the flights in Europe had been cancelled because of that volcano erupting in Iceland, and ultimately I didn’t want to die in Lisbon.

For that matter, I didn’t want to die anywhere. Death was not something I wanted to be seeing in my future. Three of my friends had died in the previous month, and I didn’t want to die. I had this crazy idea that if I could stay on the cruise ship I would be healthy and swell and the atrial fibrillations would never come back.

I figured that not filling out the form that said “This is not a Death Certificate” and not leaving the ship to see the cardiologist was the best way to go, and I told the nurse that. She was a very nice person, from the Philippines, and had been with me throughout my tests, and when I told her that I wasn’t going to see the cardiologist she said in her Spanish accent, “You must see the cardiologist. I know how you were when you came in. It was bad. You weren’t like this, standing and breathing like a living man. I see you now and you think you are better, but when I saw you then you were very bad, and I feel you still are.”

I said, “I don’t want to leave the ship.”

“I can’t tell you what do to, but if I were you and had been that sick, I would leave this ship, see the cardiologist.”

I said it again. “I don’t want to leave the ship.”

She said, “I see.”

I smiled and shook her hand and said, “I hope I don’t see you again.”

She shook her head and said, “And so do I.”


PS--Linda took all three photos. The last two are of sculptures in Vigo, Spain, two days after my heart attack.

In the last one, I'm sitting next to a statue of one of my boyhood idols Jules Verne.
Like me, he visited Vigo once.

PPS--I'm seeing my doctor tomorrow and the cardiologist on Thursday.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

April is National Poetry Month

Yes, April is National Poetry Month.

You want to do poetry a favor?

Buy a book of poetry by a living poet.

If you don't know any and need some suggestions, buy something by Jared Carter or Lola Haskins or Bruce Guernsey or Charles Fishman or Charles Swanson or me.

It's easy. Just click on one of the names above.

Or if you don't want one of those books take a look through my Writing the Polish Diaspora blog or Writing the Holocaust. I'm sure you'll find a poet you'll like.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Call For Submissions: Finishing Line Press

Leah Maines at the Finishing Line Press is looking for chapbooks by women poets for her New Women's Voices Chapbook Competition.

She and her husband Kevin run one of the best small presses around and produce beautiful books. They published my chapbook Third Winter of War: Buchenwald, and I've frequently recommended their press to my friends.

Here's her call for submission for the Finishing Line Press 2010 NEW WOMEN’S VOICES CHAPBOOK COMPETITION

A prize of $1,000 and publication for a chapbook-length poetry collection. Open to women who have never before published a full-length poetry collection. Previous chapbook publication does not disqualify. International entries are welcome. Multiple submissions are accepted. Leah Maines will final judge.

All entries will be considered for publication. The top-ten finalists will be offered publication. Submit up to 26 pages of poetry, PLUS bio, acknowledgments, SASE and cover letter with a $15 entry fee (pay by check, money order or pay online to pay using your credit card)

Deadline: Feb. 28, 2010 (DEADLINE EXTENDED ) POSTMARK

The address is

Finishing Line Press
P O Box 1626
Georgetown, KY 40324

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Steel Toe Books: Call for Submissions

My collection Lightning and Ashes was published by Steel Toe Books, and I can't imagine a better press for anyone looking for a publisher. Really, I recommend Steel Toe to everyone I can.

Tom Hunley, the editor, is first-rate.

Here's his call for submissions.


Steel Toe Books will hold its next open reading period from January 1, 2010 through February 14, 2010. There is no reading fee, but we ask that you purchase one of our existing titles directly from us when you submit your manuscript.

Submission process:

Send the following:
• a check or money order for $14.50 ($12 for a book, $2.50 for postage and handling)
• a filled-out order form indicating which of our titles you would like us to send you
• a copy of your 48-80 page manuscript for consideration
• an acknowledgements page
• a cover page containing your name and contact information

Do not send a SASE for notification. Upon selecting a new title, we will make an announcement on the web site, on our News page at

Mail the packet to:

Steel Toe Books
c/o Tom C. Hunley
Department of English
Western Kentucky University
1906 College Heights Blvd. #11086
Bowling Green, KY 42101-1086

For information on the manuscripts selected in the last open reading period, or for more about what's going on at Steel Toe Books, see our news page at