Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Clyde-o, the red-nosed professor

Oh fun. For Halloween I get to go as a leper. Or a teenager.

I don’t like to make light of people whose lives are hell – and I also am not poking fun at lepers. But I’m certainly getting the look.

Like a lot of men my age, my skin is paying me back for the abuse I gave it as a boy. In northern California’s blast-furnace summers, we started the summer with intentionally acquiring a cherry-red sunburn. The theory espoused by our elders is that after you burned once, you healed with a tan that spared you of further sunburns.
It didn’t really work, but even in black-and-white family photos you can see I turned dark as well-worn pair of Oxfords. And in a few, you can see my nose threatening to peel away to a stub.

Lo these many decades later, the blisters of those sunburns are turning into the scaly patches of “sunspots.” Worse, I am indeed a cancer survivor, though in the most unheroic way. I had a couple of basal cell skin cancers removed a few years ago. They are the most common form of cancer (a million new cases a year) and seldom kill you unless they are ignored. Not ignoring them means carving them out with a scapel.

But they start with those sunspots. So every year I have the doc squirt the latest crop with liquid nitrogen. It doesn’t hurt at first, but in a few days it looks and feels like someone stabbed the spot with a hot poker. And like a burn, it heals and away.

This year my dermatologist asked if I would try a new treatment that lasts five years or more and doesn't burn. I just had to put up with a red and spotted face for about a month.

Ergo the leprous look. Each night I rub fluorouracil cream onto my face and ears, and each morning I awaken with spots that are a bit redder. After three weeks of this, the spots – and chance of cancer – are supposed to go away.

Fluorouracil is pretty neat stuff. It’s a chemotherapy chemical that attacks the DNA of screwed-up cell while leaving the good skin alone. Kind of a smart bomb for overly bronzed bodies. No pain but great gain.

By the end of the week, my face should be in full bloom. So now the big question: Do I dab on some of my wife’s makeup or celebrate the season with a ghoulish countenance?

I suppose I could also just put on a geeky plaid shirt and flip-flops. In some of my classes, no one would ever know . . .

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Facing the music with Itzhak

Musicians intrigue me beyond description. They are our access to an alternate universe where countless emotions flow freely on the backs clefs and dancing notes. From thin air, musicians pluck magic that sticks in my brain for days, weeks or a lifetime.

I’ve always wanted to have music, but that simply is not my lot. Words live in me. Music just visits.

Monday I had more than a simple visit; I was treated to a visage. Itzhak Perlman’s face, to be exact.

Last spring my wife asked if I would like a special musical treat for my March birthday. Cecile knows I can’t tell a sonata from a sing-along, but she also knows I love “historical” opportunities. That’s how we ended up with front-row seats for violinist Itzhak Perlman’s scheduled Columbia concert.

A health problem kept the Perlman from playing for my birthday, but the cherubic master finally came to Jesse Hall this week.

I’ve been to concerts of many kinds in many halls. I am often sadly disappointed by classical music performances that seldom seem as good as listening to my own stereo. But this time Itzhak Perlman’s face was no farther from me than if it had been on the television in my living room. That face became the concert for my eyes that his Stradivarius gave to my ears.

Perlman doesn’t play music. He releases it. To watch him tuck his violin beneath his chin and look down the strings is much like watching a pigeon fancier touch the bird to his lips before giving it to the sky.

And when he plays, it is a constant conversation with the score. Some notes he had to coax – furrowing his brow in concentration. Others he welcomed with a big smile. And during a Beethoven sonata, I swear that Perlman seduced the music into the air.

My lasting impression, however, will be of Itzhak Perlman playing Stravinsky’s Suite Italiene. He greeted the piece as an old friend, laughed with it, reminisced with the sernata and danced the jig of friends for the tarantella.

I watched in awe as he cracked open the door to that other place where beautiful sounds eliminated crowds, the exhaustion of touring and even the polio that hobbles Perlman’s legs. He did not read the notes on the stand before him so much as he glanced back to make sure his friends were still following him into the concert hall. His was not the stare of concentration, but the approving gaze of love.

Today I peck at a tuneless keyboard and try to capture some small part of the wonder I experienced last night. I still don’t have music. But at least I’ve come face to face with it.

And that in turn gave me words.