Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Chamber Music


What happens when the heart in its sacred chambers changes its tune from a Schubert string quartet to a jam session?  From thump tra la - thump tra la ... to Miles and Ornette Coleman riffing with a frenetic Gene Krupa. Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar….except Peggy’s heart went 123 beats a minute at 3 A.M. She called it the jitters. The paramedics called it atrial fibrillation.

Let the fluttering heart wait till Valentine’s Day. Until then be still. No more agitating twitches or oscillating quivers. Enough with syncopated rhythm. We need our metronome.

We were reminded that at 98 all our disregarded organs and assorted body parts have been working away for 98 years. None has labored more relentlessly than the human heart. Both anatomically and figuratively. Peggy’s in particular. Call it capacious. Her heart reaches out and soars.

Once again I stand in amaze how she touches not only the doctors and nurses but the unseen woman who brings the tray, she who takes her blood and he who brought an inflatable waffle to ease her backside. She offers them her full presence and they become more alive in that brief exchange. They walk away regarded. Is this a strain on the heart? No, it thrives in the meeting. So it was that one of her nurses, Cassandra, is now a new friend. One can always use a Cassandra in one’s life to see what’s around the next corner.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet noted the man who is not passion’s slave as one close to his heart of heart (we amended the Bard’s word to make it plural). Peggy's heart, in its chambers, embraces both the Apollonian and Dionysian in a slow dance. Her heart is both a lonely hunter and a joyful finder. She asserts, enthuses and ruminates. Wherever she finds herself, on a gurney or in an ambulance, there is always the now to be cherished, to be grist for the next poem.

Atrial fibrillation refers to the upper chamber of the heart, the atrium. I have a habit of looking for a back story often found in the etymology of a word. So it is that when I chewed on that word, atrium, I thought of the Greek myth. Could it be derived from the cursed House of Atreus in Greek mythology? If so none of us stand a chance.

As it turns out I was on the wrong etymological trail. Atrium comes from the Latin word meaning main room which contains the hearth. Maybe hearth led to heart. The atrium is the northern hemisphere feeding blood into its southern counterpart, the ventricles; literally, little belly.

Strange how the heart belongs to Cupid with his arrows. The pierced heart is depicted as the seat of desire. Peggy’s heart is filled with love and soulfulness, what Donald Trump is missing. Open-heartedness is welcoming and forgiving. It’s got rhythm. It sings and it zings as in heartstrings. It is our core place as in the heart of artichoke. Have a heart, please. Peggy has a rare one. It is the organ which beats a Bolero even in its frenetic chaos.  In its settled state, her heart charms the chaplain, Father Patty, but, alas, he was off duty this time around. I didn’t want to bring it up or she’d have stayed another day.    

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Norm's Pharmacy


I used to tell people my mother was a visionary and named me after the store. 

I seldom write about my days as a pharmacist. In some ways it was my penal servitude. In another sense, the ground I paced and discovered a way into myself. Ultimately I made peace with the profession.  

In high school science and math came easily to me but in college I was soon to discover my aptitude and passions were elsewhere. One could say I majored in cowardice. Over the four years at Brooklyn College of Pharmacy (L.I.U.) I became even less interested in chemistry, physics and pharmacology, with all its structural formulas, laws of reactions and garden of botanical origins. Far too much memorization and not enough challenging ideas. History, literature and geopolitics were my meat but I couldn’t imagine how to put bread on the table with these subjects.    

I became a pharmacist because I didn’t know myself well enough to resist the certainty that a pharmacy license offered. My father’s footsteps called out to be followed. My mother said I would always have something to fall back on. I fell back and stayed there. Those fifty-three years counting and pouring are pretty much of a blur.

When I graduated in 1954 the pharmacy universe had virtually discarded everything I learned about crude drugs and the need for a mortar and pestle. Drugstores had become deodorized. The world I had remembered of my father's drugstore would be consigned to my olfactory vault. 

Our shelves were filled with ready-mades. Big Pharma was Baby Pharma but already dominant with names like Squibb, Upjohn, Parke-Davis, Burroughs-Wellcome and Ciba, many of which have already been swallowed by bigger fish. The pharmacist did the work of a vending machine with the occasional detection of an incompatibility or overdose.

In 1980 I opened my own store in a medical building in Tarzana. By this time I could write poems in between labels. Still, confinement was always an issue. A pharmacist cannot leave that petty space without locking the doors. I was held-up at gun point about five times and broken into twice. The good news was that Pharmacy was about to be redefined again. We were no longer seen as dispensers but as consultants. Of course we had always been that shoulder to lean on and well of information but now it was mandatory……..all without compensation, of course.

This aspect of the pharmacist’s role was my salvation. I took satisfaction listening to woes and weighing in when I had something useful to say. Often it was just receiving the patient’s ordeals and healings. They had my ear and my trust. For doctors I might have been a repository; a cauldron of arcane meds, labyrinth of insurance formularies and regulations governing controlled substances etc…

Into the Nineties another change was underway. Every wallet had an insurance card. We were paid a fee. Like it or not. All the power shifted to the fiscal intermediary. They set the terms. Mail-Carriers walked around with more medications than I filled in a day. By mid-decade many of my loyal customers were gone to mail order suppliers. One day the phone rang and I recognized the voice as Mrs. Benson. How did you know it was me, she asked. I replied, I only have two customers and the other one just hung up.

In 1997 I sold my pharmacy to a Russian family. Maybe they were distant relatives of my ancestors from Vilna but I doubt it. In fact they were from Odessa where courses of aggressive Capitalism must be taught. Any illusions I may have had about life in a communal state with a high value on social welfare were dispelled. Opportunism was in their DNA. The Russian emigres made an easy transition from communism to Medicaid.

At the height of a flu epidemic I might fill 85 prescriptions in a day. When they took over they filled 300 Rxs on a slow day and up to 600 on a busy Monday. I hung around for a few years and incrementally slipped away. I’m not sure anyone noticed. I forgot a fact a week so after a few months I knew nothing. The store still bears my name. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ve become a household word in Odessa.