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The Brain Invaders! (Part One)

            Five days after our son Andy graduated UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, doctors at Kaiser Permanente’s Redwood City, California hospital performed major surgery on me to remove a brain tumor.

             The tumor was discovered when I had an MRI to check why my left ear was behaving oddly—notably, exhibiting a high-frequency hearing loss, a little feeling of fullness, and routinely receiving local radio broadcasts from Spanish-speaking stations.

            Following the MRI, a Kaiser doctor sent me a brief e-mail (this is modern medicine) that revealed my left ear didn’t show a tumor, but there was “an incidental finding” of a tumor in the right temporal lobe. Next to the doctor’s name he’d added a yellow winking Happy Face.

            When I saw the neurosurgeon a week later, he pointed to the MRI film where the tumor appeared bigger than my eye.  He gave me the choice of excising the tumor or watching to see if, over the years, it would enlarge.

            Now I’m no dummy. I’ve watched all the 1950’s sci-fi movies about men (almost always men) who are arrogant about science and their personal lives, and as a result, when an alien life form comes to earth, it invades their brain and takes over. I didn’t like the idea of the tumor gradually expanding inside my skull. The guys in the movies with the invaded skulls always became automatons, showing no emotion, and forced to carry out the aliens’ unspeakable orders—- like killing people, taking over a town, or voting Republican.       

             Knowing what I know, from what I learned watching those cautionary tales, the 1950’s movies, I agreed to have the tumor removed.

            My first surprise about the imminent operation was that Kaiser didn’t require I attend a class. I’m a relative newbie to Kaiser, but every time I’ve had a medical issue, they demand I take a class about it. When I developed low back pain, I was signed up for the two hour “Back Class.” When I noticed the peculiar left ear sounds, Kaiser ordered the class for “Tinnitus.” (Pronounced “Tinnitus.” Also pronounced “Tinnitus.”) Because my ears were receiving radio broadcasts from Spanish-language radio stations, I was also required to take “Spanish for Tinnitus Patients.”

            Thankfully, Kaiser did not mandate a class in Brain Tumors. I did have to wait a month before surgery, which was stressful, but I knew if I mentioned that to a doctor, I would’ve been ordered to take the Kaiser class in “Handling Stress” or the advanced class, “Handling Stress When You Have a Brain Tumor That May Grow to Fill and Crush Your Brain. (Meditation, Exercises, and Helpful Suicide Plans.)”     

            Alan and I agreed not to tell Andy about my health before his graduation, so he could enjoy the ceremony.

            Six days before surgery, we drove down to L.A. The following overcast, muggy day, we joined 250 people as well as an abundance of displaced bees and flies out on the lawn of the UCLA campus to watch Andy and his theater buddies receive their diplomas. I tried to keep focused on the impressive commencement speakers and not dwell on the brain tumor. When the Dean of the Theater School  introduced Haskell Wexler, the Oscar-winning cinematographer, I was o.k. until he mentioned filming One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

             I thought about lobotomies. 

             Actress Ellen Geer delivered a concise speech, wishing the candidates good luck and to “take the first job that comes along so you can afford to audition for movies or plays.” Since few jobs are currently open for college graduates, I knew some grads were thinking about waiter jobs, the classic actor’s employment, or bagging groceries. Fortunately Andy’s nude play experience at UCLA gives him a leg up. He can always find some type of temp work, such as temporary porn roles.

            Later when we unrolled Andy’s diploma scroll, we saw it was an IOU for the formal diploma since Andy, like most of his class, still needed to take a couple of courses this summer to make his graduation official. Only five students, in fact, had totally completed all requirements of the School of Theater, Film and Television. They were the actual graduates. The remainder, about 100 students like Andy, on  UCLA’s Financial Exhaustion Plan, were permitted to participate in commencement and pretend they were graduates, just as they had for the previous four years pretended they were students.

            At the reception Andy made the rounds of friends and professors, stopping at length to schmooze with the retiring Dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television. The Dean awkwardly bid Andy good-bye, and later told the Theater Department’s costume designer that he hadn’t recognized Andy with his clothes on.

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Fish I Have Known (Part Two)

              Instead of pupfish, the Monterey Aquarium features “The Secret Lives of Seahorses.” In tank after tank, we study the variety of colorful seahorses with their horse heads, kangaroo pouches, grasping monkey tails, and fascinating fins on their upper back resembling wings in motion or tiny translucent outboard motors. Baby seahorses—sea ponies?—resemble floating pieces of human fingernails, but when we look closer, they clearly have the facial and body features of their parents. To produce these stables of baby seahorses, adult male seahorses puff up their bellies as full as they can to attract a female, or as the Aquarium’s sign says coyly, “Size matters.”

            However, the best news was finding out that for reproduction, the gender roles are reversed: the female pursues the male for a hook-up and, leaving aside the reversed mechanics of mating, the male will be pregnant for ….two to three weeks. (You can’t have everything, ladies.) Eventually the male seahorse will release 100-200 babies, aided both by muscular contractions to expel them from his pouch, and his previous 200 Lamaze classes. Fewer than five infants of every 1000 survive to adulthood, possibly because seahorses don’t care for their young once born. The females want to go back to work and the males are already planning their next pregnancy.

            As I watch the seahorses, I flash back to my grade school days, and finding ads in comic books that shouted: LIVE PET SEAHORSES $1. The ad was usually above the DARLING PET MONKEY $18.95 ad, showing a squirrel monkey in the palm of a human’s hand. (“Simple to care for and train.” “Even likes lollipops.”) I never ordered the seahorses, much less the monkey, because the ad seemed too weird. Besides, how could a seahorse, assuming it survived the postal delivery process, compete with kids who owned dogs, cats, and parakeets? What could I say at “Show and Tell” to one-up my friends’ pets? “These are my pet seahorses. They’re going to die WAY before YOUR pets. I just got them and they have about a year or less to live!”?

            The advertised sea horses at least looked real. I also remember an ad for “The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys,” which showed cartoonish humanoids, apparently naked although private parts were concealed by odd-looking fins and extremities. Judging by their smiles, they enjoyed excellent dental health. The female sea monkey wore lipstick on cosmetically enhanced lips.

            Years later I read The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys were unappealing brine shrimp that hatched within minutes after contact with water. They were the promotion of an inventor and mail-order entrepreneur named Harold von Braunhut [“brown hat”]. He also invented X-Ray Spex (“See through skin! See through clothing!”), Invisible Goldfish (complete with glass bowl, invisible goldfish food and a guarantee their owners would never see them), and Crazy Crabs (pet hermit crabs).

             Billions of Sea Monkeys were sold, and apparently some of that fortune was distributed to Aryan Nation, the anti-Semitic, white supremacist group because Mr. Braunhut, possibly from exposure to too much sea brine, was a major supporter and speaker of Aryan Nation. (The “von” was added to make him sound more German.) The Amazing Sea-Monkeys are unfortunately still around today under new ownership, and despite some illustration tinkering, still look pretty Aryan.

            What is it about fish that brings out this baser part of man? Even in Florida, there is a popular fish called the Jewfish. Whose brilliant idea was this? It’s huge fish that can grow as long as seven feet and more than 800 pounds. There’s been some speculation the name was originally “Jewel Fish” because its scales glisten and glimmer in bright sunlight. Monterey Aquarium does not carry the Jewfish because of its size, the fact it’s an Atlantic fish, and because there’s no rabbi on staff.

            Fortunately or not, the American Fisheries Society, acting on a request from Florida State officials, changed the name to “Goliath groupers.” Monterey Aquarium was not fooled by this name change—they still won’t carry the fish.

            There’s still a problem, though. A bridge crossed by Florida marathon runners is called Jewfish Creek Bridge. Jewfish is also the name of an unincorporated community in Monroe County, Florida, located in the upper Florida Keys on Key Largo. By some accounts, the town now known as KEY LARGO was called Jewfish until 1921. As a serious movie-goer and fish-phobe, I have to ask myself: If the town’s name had not been changed, would admirers of Humphrey Bogart across the country really have watched him in a Florida Keys-filmed 1948 action-packed movie called “Jewfish”?