January 28, 2006

The Risk of Challengers: Where Were You 20 Years Ago Today?

Twenty years ago today. Where were you. This type of question has often been asked about "defining" moments of generations. For some, it's the Kennedy assassination. For others, the shooting of John Lennon has served as a defining moment. In fact, I recently saw a play called "The Day They Shot John Lennon," in which a variety of characters representing a diverse swath of New Yorkers gather around the entrance to the Lennon's apartment building on the day he was killed and swap stories, remembrances, and philosophize what Lennon's death means to their lives and futures.

For many, September 11, 2001 will be a defining moment, and "Where were you when the planes hit?" or "Where were you when the towers fell?" will be a question they answer multiple times in their lives. I also have no doubt that for a number of people, the question that gets to the defining moment of their lives will be "Where were you when Katrina hit?"

But for me, one of my first defining moments was the Challenger disaster -- January 28th, 1986. I was a senior in college, walking in to class when I got the news. We were supposed to be watching a video that day, but as I walked in I noticed the professor toward the back of the class, and the launch of the Challenger was playing. I thought that it was strange that we would be watching it, and then the explosion occurred on screen. It was a repeat of what had happened earlier, and the day would be filled with images of the Challenger disaster.

The disaster was magnified in that the crew was such a representation of America. Of the crew of seven, two were women, one was black and one was Asian. While most of the crew were connected with the military before becoming astronauts, two were civilians including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who had been selected to participate in the Teacher in Space program.

Nobody suspected that anything could go wrong, and in fact, shuttle flights had become so commonplace that television had stopped broadcasting them almost entirely -- the only reason they were there on that day was because of McAuliffe's history making flight. The explosion touched America, because that day started full of American pride, achievement and hope that we could put aside our cultural and racial differences and celebrate our united taming of space. Instead, we spent it united in sorrow for a dream deferred.

The moment inspired me to write a poem. I had been participating in a poetry writing workshop that semester, but I undertook this poem outside the auspices of the class. Later, I submitted the poem along with two others that I had written in the class to a campus contest which was judged by English department professors and was very competitive. To my surprise, I won the contest and the $250 prize that went with it.

I haven't really used this poem since then, other than donating it to an artist in San Antonio who had a piece of art incorporating what he believed was some insulation, found on a Florida beach, from the Challenger. He put the poem on the back of the art piece.

So, on this 28th day of January, 2006, on the 20th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, I am taking the liberty of posting that poem, dedicated to the Challenger astronauts and their families and loved ones.

The Risk of Challengers
by Michael L. Hess

A bright flame,
it rises into the
morning sky, burning
a path through the air
like an inverted matchstick.
The hopes of mankind rest on this
match, descendent of the first glowing
embers that he found would broil his meat,
warm his body, run his engines, propel
his projectiles, destroy his world.
Reaching out in light and smoke,
man conquers space with fire,
whose glory occasionally
will consume the
most intrepid

Written February 1986 in memoriam for the Challenger.

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January 23, 2006

Check out Megan's review of the Revolutions Theater Festival

Albuquerque's Revolutions Theater Festival, hosted by the Tricklock Theater Company, has been very good. Megan wrote up an article on New West's website about it. You can access it by clicking on the link in the title of this blog, or navigate to:


Highlights of the article include performances by Billy the Mime, Paul Provenza (director and producer of The Aristocrats), the Acco Dance Company of Israel, Dean Cameron's "The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam" and Tricklock's own "The Glorious and Bloodthirsty Billy the Kid."

Check it out!

Greg Brown: a voice of America

Last Saturday night, 1/21/06, my wife Megan and I went to see Greg Brown in concert at the Lobo Theater in Albuquerque. It was probably the 3rd or 4th time we have seen him, but also the first time in at least 10 years.

Megan introduced me to Greg Brown's music when I first met her. I was sort of an uncultured rube then, and Megan brought to me the joys of listening to public radio. She was surprised that I had never listened to such radio programs as Prairie Home Companion, which revealed itself when I professed that I never heard of Greg Brown. "But he's a regular guest on Garrison Keillor's show," she exclaimed. "What's that?" I answered, thereby revealing my ignorance of a whole segment of American society.

So, Megan set about opening to me a world that I had missed, and one of those things was Greg Brown. I confess I did not know what to think of him at first. His singing voice is unique, moving from an extremely low, powerful and almost menacing rasp to a high rough tenor, often in the same song. His guitar playing can be powerful, chopping cords or sweet and delicate finger picking, again, in the same song. He is a quiet stage presence so that if he is not miked, you might have to strain to hear him, yet his presence is unmistakable.

You also never know what you are going to get with a Greg Brown concert. You don't know what his mood is going to be. Sometimes he spends a lot of time, like singer-songwriters often do, weaving sad and funny stories throughout his performance. At other times he simply moves through his sets with a purpose, playing song after song in his extensive repertoire one after the other with little fanfare. Sometimes he appears alone, and sometimes he might have another musician or two with him, as in his Albuquerque concert where he appeared with Jason Wilber (who often accompanies John Prine) providing an extra guitar with melodic counterpoints. Sometimes he asks for requests, and sometimes he gets annoyed when someone in the audience shouts out a favorite song that he or she wants to hear. The music style changes with each appearance. For me, this latest show was perfect because he was predominantly melancholy and bluesy, and I like that combination in him. However, with his huge song-list, he can fashion a concert to sound like anything he wants.

Greg Brown is from Iowa, the son of a Pentacostal preacher, the combination of his midwestern upbringing and his exposure to both the worldly and the spiritual aspects of life pervade his music. His songs are always fused with a down-to-earth, and sometimes earthy component, but to me they soar with something else as well. Maybe its a wonderment about life throughout its ups and downs, or the sense that there is a magicalness to the seemingly mundane. He can take a song about a seedy hotel in Ottumwa, Iowa and describe it with such growling menace that you just know that it is the last refuge of the damned. But he can also make you enchanted with the simplicity of home-canned goods in the cellar.

It is astounding to me that he often flies under the radar of public consciousness, yet his peers know him well. A tribute album exists, in which a bevy of well-known female artists such as Lucinda Williams, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Ani DiFranco and his current wife Iris Dement sing their favorite Greg Brown songs. And he has a coterie of devoted fans, which almost ensures that he sells out smaller venues wherever he goes. The Lobo seats probably around 150-200 people, in my estimate, and every seat was full with 30-50 somethings, with a handful of 20 somethings thrown in. In fact, while in the restroom after the concert I overheard two college-aged kids marveling at how he tore up Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." "To cover it that well in his own style...," one kid exclaimed, trailing off into respectful silence, to which the other could only say "yeah!"

I have three Greg Brown CD's, and two old cassette tapes. I don't know why I don't have more. The CD's I have are "In the Dark with You" (1985), "One Big Town" (1989) and "Covenant" (2000) The cassettes are "One More Goodnight Kiss" (1988) and "The Poet Game" (1994). I don't know why I don't have more, and I should. But I do know that to me, Greg Brown's songs, his styles and his presence reveal America in all its complexities to me and for that I am grateful to Megan for introducing him to me.

January 11, 2006

What I Did on My Christmas Vacation

This was the year we finally did it. After talking about how much fun it would be to drive across country to my mom's in California, we finally decided to take the plunge thanks to high air fares and our closer proximity in Albuquerque to California. So, after really not much planning, we hit the road. I now include for you a day-by-day blow of our trip:

December 22nd:
Leave Albuquerque at about 7:00 p.m. in our car, a 1995 Infiniti G20 which has had a terrible habit of breaking down with mechanical problems that even our auto service professional has never seen. We leave our dog Hannibal in the care of our neighbor Rick . Hannibal is 15 and not in the best of health, but has been on a regimen of antibiotics to prevent sickness while we are gone. We have packed the car to the gills with our clothing, some rudimentary gifts (my family is not exchanging Christmas presents this year), and food for the road. Our plan is to drive as far as Flagstaff, AZ and spend the night in a Quality Inn. We make it in around 1:00 p.m. to the motel. No car problems!

December 23rd:
Leave Flagstaff around 10:30 for the drive to Los Angeles, well actually Glendale, where we will stay with an old high school friend of mine. We wind through the beautiful Arizona high country, and then start a long downhill slope that ends in the Los Angeles basin, traveling along portions of old Route 66. The day is brilliant.

We make a detour at Lake Havasu City because I had heard the London Bridge was there, transported brick by brick from London. Indeed it was, and let me say that Megan and I agreed that it was a picture of everything wrong with America. First of all, Lake Havasu City lies in the middle of the desert by a relatively large lake. Water issues aside, it seems to be a retirement community that was someone's brainchild in the 60s and that really shouldn't be there. As we drive through town, which seems to be full of boat dealers and marine outfitters, we come upon the London Bridge. It is over a lagoon of sorts and you enter to see it through a "London" town square, full of old London replicas such as the Hawaiian Shaved Ice shop, a gondolier poling a gondola with two tourists out among the bridge supports singing "O Sole Mio," a beautifully restored and historically accurate old London attraction, the Dixie Belle paddlewheeler, and other curio shops and such. I got a kick out of the kid doing yo yo tricks to the immense satisfaction of a cowboy with an eyepatch named Kenny (his name was on his belt). In other words, as Megan puts it, this whole attraction symbolizes America's ability to take the history of others, claim it as our own, and put all kinds of irrelevant shit around it.

We got into Glendale around 7:00 p.m. and went to dinner with Fred and Elizabeth and their daughter Mia. After that much driving, dinner, beer and bed felt great! Car continues to work!

December 24:
We awoke and after taking some time to actually get ourselves mentally and physically ready, we went to breakfast with the Genges and then hit the road. We decided to drive up US 101 instead of the faster I-5. This allowed us some ocean vistas, and we were able to visit a mission in Lompoc. We hit San Francisco around 7:00 p.m. and stopped for some Vietnamese Pho in the Sunset District. We then drove the rest of the way to Fort Bragg, arriving sometime around midnight. We went to bed pretty much immediately after tired hellos to my mom and sister who were awake and waiting for us. Car still working!

December 25:
Oh jeez, guess what. That family injunction against Christmas presents? Well, let's see...Santa (aka Mom) broke the injunction as did one sister (Mari). So other sister and Megan and I look a little like idiots for not bringing anything. "But you're present is that you came," said my mom. Yeah, thanks. We had breakfast, meeting Mari's new boyfriend Rick, and then opened the gifts that shouldn't have been.

Pauline wasn't feeling well, so we couldn't do the new tradition of going to see the seals. Nor could she accompany us to the ultimate of family traditions, the extended family dinner and poker game. Dinner was not heavily attended with numerous cousins out of town, but 100 year old Papa John was there. We did not win in poker this year either -- between us Megan and I lost $10.

Car did not break down!

December 26 - January 1:
It rained.

Okay well, there was some clearing at times, during which Megan and I went to the Pacific Star Winery and bought a case of wine, and we managed to get out and on the bluffs a couple of times. We met some of my old friends in a bar. We went down to Mendocino and walked around. We had a whirlpool bath in a spa that opened in the old company store where I had bought my first set of workboots when I became a lumber mill employee in the early 1980s -- can you imagine the grizzled old mill workers faces if they were told that one day in the store where they bought their equipment, that they would be able to buy a ginger bath for an hour for $40?

But it rained and rained. And the roads closed because of landslides and flooding, meaning that we couldn't leave town on January 1st like we planned.

So we sat around with my sick sister and watched 48 episodes of Scrubs -- the entire first two seasons on DVD. And I must say that Dr. Perry Cox is my new hero.

On my birthday, Dec. 29th, we got a call from Rick. Hannibal was really sick. Vet was called, and she came by the house. Hannibal needed fluids and was generally feeling crappy. There wasn't a need for us to run home immediately, not that we could, but we were worried all the same.

At least the car seems to be running okay!

January 2:
Roads finally open. We leave after tearful goodbyes with sister and mom. Okay, maybe we all were slightly relieved to be out of each other's hair! Megan and I drive down to Marin County, stopping only at a winery that caught our eye, Nelson Family Vineyards, and then a quick drive through chi-chi Healdsburg. We arrive at Megan's brother's house at about 5:30, driving up just about 5 minutes after they came in from a spa vacation. We were treated to their new plasma screen television, and a nice dinner whipped up by April, Michael's wife.

Hannibal still feeling crappy, but seems to be doing better.

Starting to feel spoiled by the car. Still running!

January 3:
We drive into SF and go to the new DeYoung Museum, which looks from the outside like a Sams Club warehouse. We saw the Hatshepsut exhibit, which centered around Egypt's only female pharoah, and it was quite good. We then met my college friend Richard for dinner, and then back to Marin.

Hannibal doing better.

Car still hanging in there!

January 4:
We spend a lot of time hanging around Michael and April's house, then make a mid-afternoon hike in Devils Gulch on the road toward Point Reyes. It was a nice hike up to a waterfall, and with all the water lately there was a lot coming down. We then went and grabbed the Larkspur ferry to San Francisco and met Megan's brother and his wife for dinner, stopping in at City Lights to peruse books and Vesuvio's for a drink. Michael took us to a Greek place for dinner, which was really good. He felt like celebrating because he just found out that after surgery he was completely cancer free.

Hannibal got annoyed and ran away from Rick when he tried to feed him -- always a good sign!

Car still going -- might we hit a homer?

January 5:
We drove over to Oakland to see a Hall of Fame traveling exhibit on baseball, and to say hello to a former roommate of mine, Amy Billstrom, when I was volunteering with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. She now works at the Oakland Museum, where the exhibit is located, and so we were able to kill two birds with one stone!

We then met Michael, April and my friend Richard for a movie in Fairfax. We saw Syriana -- dense, complex and leaves many questions. Tearful goodbye to Richard, who went back to his teaching gig.

Hannibal progressing steadily. Needs steroids to help combat his deteriorating hips.

Car still going -- I'm hopeful.

January 6:
Got up early and met Megan's friend Dean in San Francisco for breakfast. Then we were off to LA. We made an afternoon stop at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, which was well done and would be especially satisfying to Steinbeck fans. Then on to Glendale for a dinner with the Genges and blessed sleep.

Hannibal better still.

Car still running. Will miracles ever cease.

January 7:
Had some breakfast and went to the Huntington Library Botanical Gardens with the Genges. It was a beautiful day. We left LA around 4:00 p.m. for long drive to Flagstaff. Road is all uphill, and thanks to late start, most of it is in the dark.

We pull into a Burger King in Kingman, Arizona, and the car craps out on us. Yes indeed. I cannot get it into gear when the car is running, though it works fine when car is completely off. We manage to wrestle into fifth gear (first just doesn't work at all) and drive to Flagstaff.

Hannibal's doing better though -- but I'm not happy about the bill we'll get.

January 8th:

Car didn't magically fix itself. We get going around 10:00 a.m. We considered stopping at the Meteor Crater, but a $15 apiece fee to get in and car worries scuttle that plan. We do stop for ice cream in Gallup, but the gears seem to be more reluctant than ever and we get back on the road quickly for the run into Albuquerque. We arrive home at around 4:00 p.m. to grateful dog.

You know it's sad when your mechanic even feels sorry for you after awhile. Something is wrong with the clutch, though he doesn't know exactly what. It is one of those wierd things that continue to plague us with this car. The bill was around $750 to replace the clutch. We have now put about as much money in two years into fixing it as we did in buying the thing.

Hannibal really perked up on our arrival home. He's weak and skinny from lack of food, but shows improvement in appetite each day. At fifteen, and at the rate he's deteriorated, we know we don't have a lot of time left with him, but his ability to rally from bad sicknesses is inspiring.

Megan's back to work, and I'm back to writing on the dissertation. It was a mixed bag of tricks, this driving trip to California, but I'm glad I did it.

Confessions of a genital teaching assistant

I am a simulated patient, or "standardized patient" as we are known at the medical center where I do such work. When people ask what a standardized patient does, I immediately remind them of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer plays a man with gonnorhea for medical students. While my job is not exactly like what Kramer did (he hammed it up quite a bit), it often involves a bit of acting -- becoming a character with a certain ailment or condition and allowing the medical students to interview me in order that they can a) work on their doctor/patient relationship skills and b) diagnose whatever my malady might be.

But sometimes, no acting is involved. Occasionally being a simulated patient means simply being a body upon which medical students can practice various diagnostic techniques. These clinical skills workshops are important to the students because it allows them to put into practice what they have been learning in the classroom. The techniques are often things that you think doctors were born knowing how to do -- taking blood pressure or performing an abdominal exam. Yet a student's first time at these procedures can be very frightening. It may be the first time they touch an actual patient. When I served as a "body" for students learning how to take blood pressure and pulse, one young woman's hands actually trembled when she put the cuff on me.

For me, all of this is paid work. I make $10.00 per hour playing a patient, and as I can have up to four two-hour trainings and 2-3 eight-hour exam days per patient I play, the money can be pretty good.

But the gold is often in a special type of clinical skills workshop, where one serves as a "genital teaching assistant," or GTA. What is that? In essence, a GTA serves as the model for students to learn how to conduct genital exams and, in the case of men, rectal exams. GTA's get paid the $10.00 per hour, and also extra per procedure. Women get $25.00 per pelvic exam, and men get $20.00 per genital exam and $20.00 per rectal exam. Since you can see up to 8-10 students per time, the money adds up nicely.

I know what you're thinking. "Uh, Mike, uh, how can you do that?!!!" Some guys are probably thinking, "What, are you into that thing Mike? Is there something about you that I should know?" Believe me, I didn't quite jump into this enthusiastically. I'm not normally given to going out of my way to seek out such experiences. And, I really hate going to the doctor's office because I'm concerned that I will have to undergo just these types of procedures. Despite my misgivings, however, I recently performed as a GTA for the first time. The money, to a poor graduate student, is appealing and helped me will myself to tough it out. The experience was actually humbling and empowering at the same time. While I would like to say that I was calm and collected, the thought of newly minted medical students coming at my private parts was a bit intimidating, and I almost didn't accept the assignment.

Usually, the encounters go something like this. The examinations take place in small groups, usually 3-4 students and a physician, in an examining room. The physician demonstrates the various techniques for examination on the GTA. The students then follow with their own examinations, one at a time, under the watchful and helpful gaze of the physician and the eyes of their classmates. I did two of these groups, and you can do the math. Or I'll do it for you. I had two genital and rectal exams demonstrated by the physician upon me. I had eight students all take their turn at doing the genital and rectal exams. That's 8 pairs of student eyes upon areas that only my mother (when I was a young boy), my wife, and a few other assorted individuals have ever seen. Of the students, five were women and three were men. So, my genitals were dangling in front of all these people. I also had to bend over and show the least flattering part of myself to them. 10 fingers were inserted into my rear end, one at a time, over the three-hour time block. How's that for a compromising position?!

The funny thing was, that after the first demonstration by the doctor, I began to realize that this wasn't going to be too bad. After awhile, I forgot my self-consciousness, even in front of the women. The students had learned the drill quite nicely. "Can you please pull up your gown? Okay, can you lift your penis up so I can see the skin color underneath. Okay, I'm going to feel your testicles now for any abnormalities. Great! Looks good. Now I'll check for hernia...turn your head and cough please. Okay, now we'll do a rectal exam. Can you place your feet about shoulder width apart and bend over the table here resting on your elbows. Skin around the opening looks okay. I'm going apply some lubrication and it's going to be cold. Now you'll feel some pressure." All the while, the doctor exhorted the students encouragingly. "Turn your finger to the side, then push up and in. Good job!" And what was I doing? I was just kind of there. Another guy who was also a GTA said he usually went off into various thoughts about other things, only coming back to reality when asked a question or addressed. I found that I mostly did the same thing.

After I got over the embarrassment, I began to crack a joke or two to lighten their nervousness between exams. "So, you trim your fingernails?" "I feel I've gotten closer to all of you somehow!" And other stupid stuff like that, though I resisted the old gag "so now are you going to take me to dinner?" When you have people coming at your privates, the last thing you need is for them to be shaking and quaking with fear.

The difference between the genders in their examinations was an interesting discovery for me. Men were more gentle when dealing with a sensitive physical area, such as the testicles, than women! Maybe innate instinct and personal experience with what actually happens if the family jewels are mistreated was the explanation for this surprising experience. Women were a bit rougher. Once, I had to tell a woman to not squeeze a particular sensitive area so hard. On the other hand, the women were more likely to be compassionate and inquire of my mental and emotional feelings, even outside of the examination. At least three women, after an encounter, asked me how I was holding up with an expression of genuine concern, even though they did not perform the examination. The guys, on the other hand, tended to not say much. I don't think that they were being derisive of my sacrifice for their education, but were probably sensitive to my position. After all, women have much more experience having yearly exams on and in their nether areas than men do.

So, how does it feel to have done this service for medical students? The money is nice. I made about $450 for 3 hours of work. But beyond that, I feel good that 8 future doctors now have some sort of skill at conducting such exams, and relied on me to tell them when I was comfortable or uncomfortable during the process. I was able to tell them afterward my thoughts and feelings on their performance. I feel that in some small way I have helped create better and more sensitive doctors. Of course, not everyone wants to perform like this, and I had major qualms going in -- I told the students and doctor that it was my first time and that I was nervous. But I told them that in a way, their experience with me would be like an experience with an actual patient who doesn't know what to expect and is nervous about it.

At least one person I told about my experience asked me if I was worried about an uncontrollable response that would become physically evident to everyone. I can guarantee you that in this situation, there is no sexual tension at all. Charlize Theron or Uma Thurman or any other sexually attractive female could have been doing this procedure on me in this type of setting and there would have been no physical response from me. It's just too exposed. I've been asked if I would do it again. I do not have to make that decision for another year, thankfully, and I'm not sure I will repeat the experience. If I do, I won't be as nervous next time, and I'll know that a new generation of doctors, male and female, will learn how to be sensitive to the vulnerability of a man, in this case me, standing in front of them and putting his junk on display. I'll also be able to grade the performance of my own doctors when the time comes for me to have these examinations in earnest. As long as they don't have big fingers, and they trim those nails, I'll be okay!