Influence Numero Uno, 1960s Style

R. Crumb Was My Guru in Dem Days

The 1960s were a difficult time for me. I was all set to start graduate school in film history and criticism in September of 1966, when, quite suddenly, I was in a coma at Fairview General Hospital, with my body surrounded by ice to bring my temperature down. It was then that my pituitary tumor decided to make a major incursion on my optic nerve and brain that almost carried me into the next world. Somehow, I struggled back to consciousness, received the last sacraments of the Catholic Church (the aptly named Extreme Unction), and was ready to remove a “cyst” (that’s what the doctor called it) from my pituitary.

Did I even know what the pituitary gland was? Not really. Within a few days, my brain was hinged back to allow a surgical suction device to remove the enlarged and inflamed gland. When later I saw my neurosurgeon and asked how big the tumor was, he answered, “About the size of a grapefruit.”

When I finally made it to Los Angeles after Christmas in 1966, I noticed some changes to my ways of thinking:

  1. I felt that because of my weird ten years of illness that I was, for all intents and purposes, from Mars.
  2. Quite suddenly, I lost my faith in religion.
  3. I found myself with a really weird sense of humor.

Self Portrait of Cartoonist R. Crumb

Since I was now in Los Angeles, I drifted toward certain local influences, such as The Los Angeles Free Press, an underground newspaper that mirrored my own sense of disillusionment. Then I made the discovery of R. Crumb, whose Zap Comics, Fritz the Cat, and other series were required reading. There was Mister Natural, Flakey Foont, and a whole galaxy of characters. Admittedly, there was a lot of misogynistic sexuality, which was a Crumb trademark, but that was the way I was feeling  about myself. It rubbed me the wrong way that women seemed to lie so casually and hurtfully. It was years before I understand that was a defense mechanism from weirdos like me.

Some of Crumb’s Early Misogyny

Oddly, I never outgrew my admiration of Crumb’s work. I no longer accept all of Crumb’s own neuroses and psychoses, but I believe he was a great cartoonist, and that his work will be remembered long after I am gone.


Why No Children?

Southern California Schoolgirls

Yesterday, as I was sitting in an armchair in the literature department of the L.A. Central Library when a group of Mexican school children—all holding hands—trooped by with their teacher. For a moment, I had a good feeling about the future. Los Angeles has thousands of attractive school children of all races, ethnicities, and creeds. That is one of the things that makes me love my town. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat’s Cradle:

Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device.

So then why do I have no children? It all goes back to my childhood during which, for a period of ten years, I had a pituitary brain tumor without knowing it. When I graduated from college in 1966, I looked like an eleven-year-old, as my growth hormone, along with all my other hormones, was not functioning. As you may recall, the pituitary gland, which lies midway between the ears and under the brain, is the master gland. All my other glands were fine, except that they were not given any orders from the pituitary to produce any hormones, so they didn’t, at all.

It was not until I was well into my sixties that my endocrinologist said, “You know, you can now have children if you want.” I had lived my entire adult life with the sure knowledge that I could not have children, and I live with my girlfriend, who most certainly does not want to bear or raise children. For some forty plus years, that worked out fine for me. Dr. Sladek’s offhand comment just reminded me how old I was.

Please allow me to cringe as the following five words make their appearance: “But you can always adopt!” I have never been interested in adopting, though some of my friends have gone in for this with mostly good results. What I wanted, though, were children that were my true biological descendants. At times, I have been abrupt with people who suggested this, answering them, “I am not interested in raising other people’s mistakes.”

That is an awful thing to say, I know. But I feel that adoption was never for me.

So do I not like kids? Far from it. I have accustomed myself to thinking of myself as the last of my line. Those were just the cards I was dealt in this life.


Bad Alumnus

Omigosh, Is It Time for My 50th Reunion Already?

Omigosh, Is It Time for My 50th Reunion Already?

On June 3, 1966, I graduated with an A.B. from Dartmouth College. What’s an A.B, you may ask? Well, as my diploma is entirely in Latin, it stands for Artium Baccalaurei, or Bachelor of Arts.

Although I am besieged with mail from the college, asking for money, participation in local and national alumni events (such as my 50th Reunion), and deluxe trips around the world with other alums. Will I participate? Uh, no. That despite the fact that I was awarded a four-year alumni scholarship, for which I am grateful—but not in any material way.

What bothers me is that none of the people I knew and liked at Dartmouth are active with the alumni. Instead, it’s all the same gladhander crew that was active in the fraternity system (which I loathed), student government (for which I was not popular enough), and/or sports (for which I didn’t qualify). I went through four years of Dartmouth with a brain tumor, which was not operated on until September 1966. Until then, I looked like an extraordinarily pale and sickly middle school or high school student.

It’s not that I didn’t make friends easily. My oldest friend was one of my classmates who now lives only 25 miles from me in San Pedro. There are others, but they were all like me in one way or another—and none saw fit to become active with the alums.

Somehow I managed to survive the college years, and even enjoyed them despite a level of pain that would sink me into my grave today. Those frontal headaches were almost constant, the result of a pituitary tumor pressing against my optic nerve. Today I am a different person altogether.

The one debt I feel I owe Dartmouth is actually to the Catholic Student Center there. When I was lying near death at Fairview General Hospital in Cleveland, my parents were shocked to find that my student insurance had just expired. They told Monsignor William Nolan of the Center to pray for me, which he did—and more. He went to bat for me and bullyragged the insurance company into covering me. Imagine that happening today!

Monsignor Nolan has since gone to join his ancestors, but I still owe him. And he gets paid in full before anyone else at Dartmouth gets dime one from me.

Such a Nice Boy

I Had Developed a Reputation

I Had Developed a Reputation

It’s odd the way the past keeps getting dredged up. I had forgotten about Minichiello’s Pizzeria which stood opposite the Nugget Theater (above) on Main Street in Hanover, New Hampshire. I had managed to get a doctor’s letter absolving me from eating at Dartmouth College’s student dining hall, on the grounds that the food there nauseated me. So I usually ate at the restaurants in Hanover, of which there were about ten at the time—at least including those in my price range.

One of the places I ate was Minichiello’s: They had good pizza and were friendly. The only problem was they thought I was such a nice boy. You must remember that when I was a college senior, I looked as if I were still twelve; and I was subject to bullying by the local high schoolers until they saw I was carrying a college ID. So there I was, munching away at my pizza, when they introduce their daughter to me. She was very cute in a bad girl sort of way, and here her parents were holding me up as an example she should follow—instead of those bad boys who worked at the local garage.

God knows, if it weren’t for the fact that I was seriously ill with a pituitary tumor and, as a result, had not yet physically reached the age of puberty, I would much rather be doing with her those things her parents feared she was doing with the bad boys.

I was a good boy because I had no choice. I would much rather have had fun exploring her anatomy in a dark place rather than holding myself up as some sort of role model, which I was not. (Of course, nothing would have happened in any case because the girl thought I was a dweeb, and she was just being nice to her parents.)

In the end, the Minichiello girl went on to have her life, and I, mine. It was just one of those moments in which I was being nudged by fate into acting a part I did not feel was really mine.

As you all know, I am really bad to the bone.


The Hands of Hegarty

In Those Days, There were No MRIs or CAT Scans

In Those Days, There were No MRIs or CAT Scans

One of the most galling things about the Internet is that I can’t find any pictures of the people—other than my immediate family, of course—who had the greatest influence on my life. Two Catholic priests who taught me English in the 9th and 10th grades at Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio, have little or no Internet presence. I am referring to the Rev. Gerard R. Hageman SM and the Rev. Raymond E. Healy SM. (The SM refers to Society of Mary, Marist rather than Marianist.)

Next are the two doctors who saved my life in 1966 when I was in a coma at Fairview General Hospital in Cleveland. If you want some background on my strange medical history, check out this posting I wrote a year ago under the bland title of More Personal History.

My family doctor just happened to be an endocrinologist: Michael J. Eymontt MD. In those days, there were no MRIs or CAT Scans. All that doctors had to detect a brain tumor was the very imperfect X-Ray. Fortunately, Eymontt guessed I had a pituitary tumor.

Nowadays, a pituitary tumor, or chromophobe adenoma, is no big thing. They operate through the nostrils or the roof of the mouth. Back then, they had to disconnect part of my brain tissue and go in from the top. The pituitary gland is located directly in the center of the head. The chances that I would wind up dead or paralyzed or at least blind were overwhelming.

That’s where my neurosurgeon, William M. Hegarty MD came in. On that September morning in 1966, he had a very good day. And I had a very good day. He went in where angels feared to tread and sucked out the tumor (which was benign, like almost all pituitary tumors). When I came to and asked him how big it was, he smiled and said about as big as a grapefruit.

I know that Fathers Hageman and Healy have passed on, as has Dr. Eymontt. But I wonder if Hegarty is still alive. I would like to thank him for letting me have an interesting life. I keep searching on Google….