Saturday, September 24, 2011

Vaccine Nation's Characters

I had a dream the other night about a Martian easing the door to our bedroom open from the adjoining guest bedroom. It got to the point I felt I had no choice but to go in there and confront him before he entered. I had to protect Manette; as I started to pull the door open I also realized that Superman was off dealing with some other emergency, so it was all up to me. I don't remember whether Styles was there, and I don't know if Martians are afraid of pitbulls. Styles isn't much of a watchdog anyhow, and we've never seen him attack anyone or anything (he chases squirrels, but we're convinced he wouldn't know what to do with one if he caught up to it), although I like to think that if he saw Poppy in hand-to-hand combat with a Martian that he'd rise to the occasion and help me out. As I stepped around the moving door, my heart pounded. I awoke, gasping, to Manette shaking me and calling my name.

In a way it was refreshing, because I've been living--and sleeping--with the characters from Vaccine Nation, my upcoming thriller, all summer. I conked out on the sofa in the library the other day, and, half asleep, told Manette, "I need to get some drackume from Dani's ducks." She thought it was so funny she wrote it down on a blue post-it and stuck it to the top of the kitchen island. I saw it when I came down the next morning for my run, vaguely remembering it, and certain Manette didn't understand the profound significance of the words. Whatever.

Now it's fall and Dani North, Grover Madsen, Hunter Stark and Richard Blum are still inhabiting my brain. I've spent the last three days grinding through my editor's line-edits on Vaccine Nation. Now the hard part comes, muscling through his broader comments. That will involve reworking or completely rewriting key scenes, manipulating some plot elements, and, most importantly, pulling things out of the characters. I say pulling things out, because at this point I can't make anything up about them, or change them, because they are who they are, as evidenced by their visitations--waking and sleeping--throughout the summer. Tomorrow I'm heading up to the weekend house in Milford to isolate myself with them for 12 to 16 hour workdays. I still have things to record about their pasts. They need to tell me more about their passions. They need to reveal more of what their souls ache for and why. They have to show me why you should care about them as much as I do.

I'll be back when I'm done.

Read a sample of Vaccine Nation

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Blue Ball Incident -- Part Two

[Spoiler alert: you might want to read Part One before Part Two.]

Read The Blue Ball Incident -- Part One
The next morning, Saturday, I was up early, and worked on The Gravy Train upstairs in my attic study.  Later, I went downstairs to edit on my notebook computer in the library.  On the way down I checked in on Styles.  Still asleep.  I had decided the night before not to tell Manette and Zac about Styles: they couldn't do anything about it, so why have them worry?
At 9 a.m., like clockwork, Styles came downstairs for his breakfast.  He was drowsy as usual, but did his normal morning routine.  Stretching with his front paws extended, his chin on the ground and his butt in the air.  Standing up again, yawning, wagging the entire back half of his body along with his tail, stretching again, yawning some more.  I let him outside before breakfast.  I felt my heart start to race as I saw him squat.  He pooped.  I checked, but nothing.  I remember thinking at that time that parents of infants are immune to the process of changing their babies' diapers, or having them throw up all over them.  I guessed it was the same with Styles; he was a rescue, but didn't that mean we loved him more?  Why would I give a damn about running my rubber-gloved fingers around in some warm turds for pieces of turquoise rubber when the little guy risked going under the knife?
I gave him another big breakfast with about half again more meat than usual, some broccoli, olive oil, and then afterward, a few pats of butter.  He still hated the tummy drops, but now seemed resigned to them and rolled onto his back when he saw me approaching with the vial. 
About forty-five minutes after his breakfast, Styles stood by the door.  I let him outside and watched from the kitchen window, ready to follow him if he wandered toward the bushes, out of my line of vision.  My heart started pounding as he squatted again—the little man is a champion pooper—and even from that far away could see flecks of turquoise hit the ground.  I went outside.  Two pieces!  Styles must have sensed my elation because he strutted around with that stiff-legged pitbull walk like he was proud of himself.
I decided it was time to focus on figuring out how far along we were in the process.  I taped the two pieces he'd chewed off the ball and not swallowed back to it, then donned my rubber gloves again, pulled my bleach bucket into the basement utility sink and scrubbed the retrieved pieces off with some more bleach and an old brush.  An hour later I taped them to the ball.  I guessed that my original estimate of 40% of the ball consumed was right.  I retrieved about 20% of that, so by my calculations, about 12 more pieces to go.  He's gonna do it.
I came back upstairs and played with him.  He ran around the house again like a madman, and then I gave him a marrow bone in his crate.  I sat down on the library sofa to go back to work.  Styles finished his bone and climbed up next to me.  He put his head in my lap while I worked.  All was right with the world.
About noontime he wanted to go out again, so I walked around the yard with him while he sniffed, stomped in the mud and scratched at some remaining piles of snow.  We were just ready to go back in when he hunched over again and squeezed out two more pieces of the ball.  Now we were really getting someplace.
Before dinner, more tummy oil.  Now when he saw me coming with the vial, he hung his head, looking like he was feeling betrayed.  I felt guilty as I rubbed the oil on him.  About two hours after his dinner, Styles did two more big poops—I was overfeeding him, but still couldn't believe where it was all coming from.  Nothing.  I went to bed anxious, yet more hopeful than the night before.
The next morning, Sunday, Styles still seemed perfectly normal when he awakened.  The usual routine.  Stretch, yawn, butt-wag; same thing all over again.  My hopes fell when he did his business, a big one, with no turquoise joy.  I wondered if he sensed the growing feelings of defeat coming off me in waves as we went back inside.  He was oddly quiet all day, sleeping a lot, and not really engaging when I picked up his ball and tried to play catch inside the house.  I wondered if Dr. Buchoff would consider this lethargy.  Images of walking Styles up the ramp into the vet’s office, only half the lights lit on a Sunday evening, Dr. Buchoff suited for surgery, flooded into my mind.
That evening it was pouring rain.  I felt a creeping dread.  Styles hated the rain, and the only way I could get him to go outside in it was to carry an umbrella with me.  After his dinner, I put him on the leash and walked with him around the lawn, the two of us protected by my biggest golf umbrella.  Sort of protected.  The wind was blowing and we were both getting soaked.  We sloshed around in puddles and mud for at least ten minutes to no avail, but I wasn't giving up.  We kept going.  Finally he stopped and looked up at me with sadness in his eyes.  "Okay, let's go back inside," I said.  We walked around the pool and as we stepped off the bluestone onto the grass, he stopped, sniffed and squatted.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  A festival of turquoise.  I brought Styles inside, donned my gloves.  I could hear my pulse pounding in my ears.  I was too excited to worry about bringing the umbrella.  Four pieces.  Unbelievable.  I dropped them in the bleach bucket and ran back inside with it, down into the basement.  I cleaned them off and taped them onto the ball.  We had to be more than halfway there.
I was buzzing with emotion when I came back upstairs.  I checked the weather report for the next few days.  Clearing Monday, with bright sunshine on Tuesday.  I texted Joyce to reconfirm Styles' play-date in our back yard with Rosie, her rottweiler, for Tuesday.  I threw the ball around with Styles in the basement for about an hour, Styles going at it like I’d shot him up with amphetamines.  I went to bed knowing we were over the hump.
The next morning, Monday, I decided I needed to be more scientific about the ball.  I cut all the tape off it, and lay the pieces out on a piece of wax paper on the kitchen counter.  I got out my Gorilla glue and some pins, started piecing the ball back together, remarkably finding that I could figure out where most of the pieces had come from.  I glued and pinned them.  I watched Styles running around in the yard through the kitchen window while I worked.  The pool cover had about three inches of water in it; the pump had died, but run long enough to get a siphon going down the grade into the woods to drain most of the water.  Styles would rush in and out of the water, pick up a stick, throw it in the air, grab it from the water, then do it over again.  Making his own amusement.  A funny little guy.  Well, not so little; he weighed in at 51 pounds at Dr. Buchoff’s on Friday, which now seemed like an eternity ago.  51 pounds of muscle.  Three days of nervous tension.
It took me half an hour to finish gluing the ball together, some of the pieces swollen and misshapen from soaking in the bleach, but they all fit.  I was stunned.  Only one or two small pieces were missing.  They were either still inside Styles or in the woods.  Either way, crisis averted. I felt the tension flood out of me.
When Manette and Zac got home that evening, Styles greeted them like they’d been away for six weeks, jumping up, wagging his whole backside and licking their faces.  It took Manette an hour to notice the reconstructed blue ball sitting next to the Vitamix on the kitchen counter.  Over tea I told Zac and her the story.  Styles got another full round of strokes, pets and treats after that.  Afterwards, Manette walked over to the ball.  Manette, a mother who had wiped Zac’s butt and had him puke all over her when he was a baby, picked up the ball by her fingertips like it was radioactive, wrinkled her nose and said, "We don't still need this do we?"
I shrugged and shook my head.
"Good.  That's gross," she said as she threw it in the garbage can.  She washed her hands, then pulled the peroxide spray out from underneath the sink and sprayed the counter next to the Vitamix.  All I could do was smile.
That night just before bed I walked into the library to see Manette down on the rug on her hands and knees, fishing around for something.  "What's up?" I said.
"Styles chewed the zipper off the cover to his bed."  She looked up and held a piece of something out to me between her fingers.  "I only found a piece of the zipper pull.  The rest of it's gone."
"That's tiny," I said.  "It'll pass right through him."  After the last three days I felt like I knew what I was talking about.
Manette sat back, crossed her legs Indian-style.  She nodded, seeming satisfied.  She pulled the bed cover toward her, then showed it to me.  "You can see where he pulled the zipper right off the end of the teeth."
I looked at it and tensed.  I bent over and took the bed cover from her, scrutinized it.  I felt myself go cold.
"What's wrong?" Manette said.
"Remember he chewed this once before?  I put a safety pin on the end of it so he couldn't slide the zipper off the teeth again.  Did you find the safety pin?"
"No," she said.  "But wouldn't that pass right through him, too?"
"Look at this," I said, showing her the fabric at the end of the zipper.  "It isn't torn.  That means the only way he could've gotten the safety pin off of there was if he opened it."  I felt a sharp tug of anxiety in my gut.  "That means he must've swallowed an open safety pin."
Manette and I just looked at each other.
 Here we go again, I thought.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Blue Ball Incident -- Part One

It was early March and Manette and Zac had gone away for some vacation while I stayed home to finish writing The Gravy Train and take care of Styles, our 9-month-old rescue pit bull puppy.   The weather had warmed up; the yard was sloppy with water, half-melted snow and mud.  And the driveway was too wet to play catch with the ball outside.  So I took Styles into the basement to play with his blue, rubber pull-toy ball.  It was an eight-inch hollow ball constructed of a series of hexagons.  It bounced great and it gave him lots of surfaces to sink his teeth into, allowed me to get my fingers through it for a good grip, and stretched to about a foot long for some serious tugging and exercise.  After about a half-hour of it we both got tired.  It was around 4:30 p.m, and low blood sugar also got the best of me so I napped on the sofa in the basement while Styles continued to work on his blue ball on the floor.  He'd done it hundreds of times before and the thing was indestructible.
Or so I thought.
About a half hour later I awoke to the sound of Styles chewing on his ball, then looked up to see a few pieces of it on the floor.  Damn.  I got up and pulled the loose pieces away from him, then grabbed the ball and saw that about 40% of it had been gnawed away.  I looked around the floor; the pieces were nowhere to be found.  He had to have swallowed them.  I sighed.  Styley-Wiley up to his tricks.  He'd eaten pens, notebooks, TV remotes, tissues, smaller chew toys and CD cases when he was younger, but by nine months-old was growing out of it.  I gave him a little extra dinner, thinking it would help him pass the pieces of the ball.
The next morning Styles was completely himself: energetic, and alternately picking up one of his Chuck-It balls and licking me so I'd take him outside to play.  I gave him a bigger than normal breakfast.  By mid-morning he'd pooped twice but hadn't passed anything.  That was when I started to worry.  I called Dr. Buchoff's office and they told me to bring him in.  I brought the ball and the extra pieces with me to show him how much Styles had eaten.  He listened, then took one of the pieces into the x-ray room.  He came back with a smile on his face.  "We're in luck," he said.  "It shows bright white on the x-ray."  When he commented that the rubber must have some metal in it to show up that well, I thought, Great.  Wait till Manette hears about that.  Dr. Buchoff went on to say that Styles should be able to pass the pieces easily, unless because of their structure they could clump together in the bottom of his stomach so they couldn’t enter his intestines, causing a blockage.
I didn't ask what would happen in that case.
It took four of us to position Styles on the stainless steel table in the x-ray room.  Shelley and Diane, Dr. Buchoff's assistants, and I lifted him up and held him while Dr. Buchoff manned the x-ray.  They didn't have enough lead protective vests and Dr. Buchoff suggested I leave.  No way:  I figured I could take a few for the team while I stroked Styles’ head and muzzle, and whispered to him to keep him calm.  He's a good boy, but he was being forcibly held down and I could see him eyeing the equipment above him; he was freaked out, struggling against Shelley and Diane, panting.  Then he was making eye contact with me, his eyes wide as if appealing to me for help.  I felt like someone was clamping my heart, like I was betraying him, now gritting my teeth and just praying he'd lay motionless so they could take the x-rays.  I continued stroking him, telling him, "It's okay, it's okay."  And then either he believed me or gave up.  He went still.
I saw Dr. Buchoff's face after the first x-ray and knew it wasn't good.  And even an investment banker-turned-novelist could see the clump of white in the monitor at the bottom of Styles’ stomach, with nothing in his intestines.  When we got back to Dr. Buchoff's office, Styles was himself again.  Sitting on the stainless steel examination table, he licked Dr. Buchoff's hand every time he got near enough, wagging his tail, panting, his tongue sticking out of that broad pit bull mouth.  I got my share of licks, too, so he obviously wasn't holding it against either of us.
Dr. Buchoff said, " It's the worst-case scenario.  We'll have to wait and see how it goes this weekend.  I'll give you my cell number, but if he starts becoming lethargic, vomits or has any diarrhea, you'll need to call me."
I felt my stomach muscles tense.  "What do we do then?"
"We'll have to surgically remove the pieces."
"Is it risky?"  My legs were starting to tingle.
"Somewhat.  If it stays in his stomach, it's pretty easy.  If some of it gets lodged in his intestines and I have to go fishing around for it, the risks are greater."  When I didn't respond right away, he added, "But I've done this more times than you can imagine."  He smiled.  "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff these guys can swallow."
He instructed me to feed Styles more than usual, add some olive oil to his meals and give him extra water.  He also gave me a little vial of an oil to apply to Styles’ stomach a few times a day.  He said it was like Pepto-Bismol, that it would loosen him up.  I got Dr. Buchoff’s phone number for over the weekend and walked Styles out to the car.
When Styles and I got home, I gave him a small meal even though it was only early afternoon.  He hated it when I rubbed the oil on his tummy, probably because it had a pungent scent like the herbal oils some of the artsy-fartsy girls wore in college.  We played ball and he was as obsessed with it as usual.  Afterwards he slept and hung out until dinner.  I put extra bowls of water around the house: his regular one in the kitchen, one in the library, and one by the back door.  I even lifted the basement and first floor toilet seats so he could go have at it whenever he wanted.  After his dinner it was raining, so I put him on a leash and walked him in the yard with a golf umbrella over both of us.  And then he finally squatted, and Eureka!  A piece of turquoise blue showing in the mound in the grass.  My heart started pounding as I brought him back inside, put on rubber gloves and went out with a Maywood's Market plastic bag to pick up the poop and retrieve the piece.  There was only one, but it was a start.  I had already put a plastic bucket of bleach water on the gas grill standing next to the back door.  I dropped the retrieved piece of the ball in it to soak.  I walked back inside, humming to myself, elated.
That evening, Styles actually barked (he almost never does), and ran around the house like a wild man.  But then after another nap he woke up antsy and whiny.  I started to feel that same pressure on my chest I’d experienced when he looked up at me, scared, in the x-ray room.  The rain had stopped and I let him outside, then found him eating sticks and some of the ornamental grasses, which he usually only does when he has to throw up.  When he came back inside he was still whiny.  Not like him, but at least he isn't lethargic, I thought.
At about 10 p.m., early for him, he stood by the stairs.  I asked him, "Up, up?" but he didn't want to go up to sleep, just sat there, looking antsy, then started pacing.  Finally, he trotted upstairs, banged the master bedroom door with his nose, went inside and jumped up on the bed.  I wanted to keep an eye on him, so I kept one of the bedside lights turned on, bent low so as not to disturb him, and worked on my Mac for a while.  He was restless.  At 1 a.m. he got down off the bed.  I opened the door and got ready to take him downstairs to go outside, but he wouldn't come down with me.  He looked back at me over his shoulder where I stood in the hallway, then tried to jump back up on the bed.  He slipped off.  After that I had to help him up.  I'd never seen him do that before.  Either he was completely exhausted, or something was wrong.  I felt a wrench in my stomach and that pressure in my chest again.  Now I was really worried.

Read The Blue Ball Incident -- Part Two

Friday, September 2, 2011

Hank Lender's Photographic Legacy

"The Man in White"
Copyright 2005 by Herman J. Lender
Dad was an accomplished man on many levels, including having a good sense of humor.  I was with him when Dr. Kimmel, his cancer surgeon, visited him the night before his final surgery.  The odds weren't good, and one of Dr. Kimmel’s final comments was that Dad’s chances of survival were, "miniscule."  After Dr. Kimmel left, Dad said, "Well, at least I don't have to worry about running out of money."

Then he got serious.  He made a rueful comment about "all this knowledge" he'd accumulated, and that it would pass on with him.  Dad seemed to be interested in just about everything—classical music, photography, opera, The Beatles, bread baking, gardening, finance, running; the list is endless—and after high school was totally self educated.  We talked about his legacy and I made the point that the knowledge he accumulated, his interest in things, and his intense approach to learning about them was something that would be carried on through his four sons and all his grandchildren.  Ironically, one thing we didn't talk about was his photography, a life-long interest of his.

Copyright 2005 by Herman J. Lender
My brothers and I grew up hearing about Leicas, Nikons, Hasselblad's, telephoto lenses, light meters and f-stops.  Dad built basement darkrooms in each of the three houses in Mt. Tabor we lived in growing up, then another in New Canaan after I went off to college.  We all experienced the magic of going into the darkroom with Dad and watching under a dim yellow bulb as Dad's 35mm black-and-white images appeared in the developer bath.  He taught us how to pick up a photo from the developer bath by the corner with the plastic tweezer, let it drain, then dunk it in the fixative, then in the water bath.  Sometimes I detect a scent that reminds me of those chemicals and it always takes me back to those days.

After Mom died a year ago, we went through all of Mom and Dad's things to close up her apartment.  They had tons of his framed prints on the walls and stacked in boxes in the closets; they’re still sitting in my attic because my brothers and I haven't finished divvying them up.  Most of Dad's 35mm negatives and his color slides are upstairs in their house at Twin Lakes.  But after we closed up Mom's apartment, I put all of Dad's digital collection—he converted to digital in 2000—on 16 GB USB flash memory drives and sent one to each of my brothers.  So that's another part of Dad's legacy we can all carry on.

Copyright 2005 by Herman J. Lender
The cover photos for all three of my books—Trojan Horse, The Gravy Train and Bull Street—are Dad's.  Dad's originals are presented here, before I cropped and Photoshopped the first two so the lettering would stand out on the covers.  Most think the pictures are of Wall Street, which was the image I intentionally tried to evoke based on the content of my books, but they're actually of Second Avenue and the 59th St. Bridge, taken from the balcony of Manette’s and my 24th floor apartment at 58th St. and Second Avenue in New York City.  Dad titled the photo for the Trojan Horse cover, at top left, "The Man in White."  If you look closely, you can see a man dressed completely in white jaywalking through the heavy traffic (he’s inside the “D” of “Lender” on the book’s cover).  The photo for the cover of The Gravy Train, at center, is about the same shot taken at night.  The Bull Street cover photo is at left, a night shot of the 59th St. Bridge.

Hank Lender would have been 88 years old today.  Happy Birthday, Dad.