Paperback Mysteries

Books are recyclable works of art that have transference of ownership. And I love making discoveries in the pages of used paperbacks—books that have been discarded from public libraries, purchased at garage sales, or pulled from bargain bins.

Case in point: my gently used copy of the novel Body and Soul by Frank Conroy. The bildungsroman tells the story of musical wunderkind Claude Rawlings, starting from his childhood in New York City in the 1940s. The late Conroy, who had served as director of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, is known for penning the influential memoir Stop-Time.

Body and Soul by Frank Conroy.

I read Body and Soul several years ago when residing in Phoenix, Arizona. I bought my current copy on Amazon. And stuffed between the pages, I found vestiges left behind by the previous owners—a bookmark and two notes. The first note is dated Oct. 13 (year not included). It’s from CB and addressed to Kristen: “Here’s the book about the piano protege I mentioned in Balto.”

The second note is written on a piece of red paper cut into the shape of a fish. It’s addressed to Rosa from Adam. “Awesome job this week! Keep up the good work. Thanks for listening so well. Have a great year + hope to see you again.”

Multiple scenarios run through my head. I’d like to know more about the people who touched the book I now grasp. I’m curious about the relationships between Kristen and CB and Rosa and Adam. Is Kristen a musician and is “Balto” short for “Baltimore?” Was Adam a teacher and Rosa his student?

I know my questions will go unanswered and the paperback mysteries will remain unsolved. But on the bright side, I still have Conroy’s story to explore.

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Spring Snow: The Last Hurrah

My son Colin stomping in the snow while waiting for the bus. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

A few inches of heavy, lake-effect snow fell over central New York Tuesday morning. Despite the late April occurrence, I didn’t fret the spring storm. I felt invigorated walking to work, as the temperatures hovered near thirty, and I did not need to brush off the car or contend with clogged traffic.

Here are some photos I captured along the way.

Plants covered with snow. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Park bench covered by snow. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Tree branches covered with snow. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Statue in Firefighter’s Memorial Park in Syracuse. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

And I’ll end with a poem that will be relevant when warmer temperatures return and spring kicks into high gear.

Winter Away

While I loathe the
wind, cold and snow
winter imparts,

I’m always sad
when spring comes
and the chill
in the air departs.

With winter leaving,
it’s like I’m losing
a friend at the end
of the season.

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Attitude of Gratitude

This month marks the 25th anniversary of an incident that forever shaped my outlook on life. And it seems fitting to repost this essay in the middle of Holy Week, a time for reflection, faith, and gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The piece was previously published on Medium. I added some photos I took while residing in Toledo, Ohio, during the late 1990s.

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My arms and legs stopped working on a gray April day in 1997. I was lying on the carpet in the hallway of my sister’s second-floor condominium in Toledo, Ohio, staring up at the eggshell-colored ceiling, unable to move.

I was living with my sister at the time and working at a news/talk radio station in the city. On that Saturday I was alone in the house, as my sister, Lisa, had left to run errands and attend a couple of social events. I had stayed behind, watching an early season Detroit Tigers game on television and doing some laundry.

Over the course of the day I became weaker and weaker; I fell several times but was able to get on my feet again — until late in the afternoon when I could no longer move my arms or legs.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I felt relieved when I heard my sister’s keys jangling as she opened the door. She was startled when she walked into the kitchen and saw me sprawled out in the hallway. “What are you doing on the floor?” she asked.

After I explained what had happened, she picked up the phone to dial 911. I asked her not to call, to wait and see if I could recover on my own. “No, you can’t move,” she said.

“I’m calling the ambulance.”

Paramedics came and took me away, carrying the stretcher down the stairs to the parking lot. They measured my vitals and asked me questions about my medical history. I should have been frightened by my unexplained weakness, but oddly I wasn’t. I knew I hadn’t suffered a head or spinal cord injury; I also hadn’t lost consciousness. I suspected a chemical imbalance had caused my paralysis.

The ambulance pulled out of the condo parking lot and sped down the road, and I remember looking out the back window and watching dark tree limbs and streetlights pass by as we made our way to the hospital.

Trees in Toledo. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

When we arrived, a male ER doctor with dark hair, a mustache and a swarthy complexion examined me. An EKG and head CT both came back normal. I still couldn’t stand up, and the doctor kept looking at me and rubbing his chin, appearing flummoxed by my condition. But he soon discovered the cause, as blood tests revealed extremely low potassium levels. The doctor order an IV potassium drip, and my arms and legs rebounded a short time later. I was still weak but could now move my limbs. I lifted my legs from the bed and raised my arms overhead, comforted that my limbs no longer felt like dead weight.

I was admitted to the hospital, as the doctors sought to determine the underlying condition that had caused the potassium levels to drop; they also wanted to rule out any neuromuscular disorders.

The following day a male doctor with a beard performed a test using electrodes to measure electrical activity in my muscles. My endocrinologist also visited me in the hospital and did some medical research on my condition. He later diagnosed me with hypokalemic periodic paralysis, a genetic disorder that he said was unrelated to my hypopituitarism, which I had been diagnosed with at age 15 after having surgery to remove a pituitary tumor.

I stayed in the hospital for about a week while the staff continued to monitor my heart rhythm and electrolyte levels. A physical therapist also worked with me to do some exercises to rebuild muscle strength.

I was discharged on a bright spring day. Stepping outside and heading to my sister’s car parked in front of the hospital, my legs did not fold under me; I realized they could now support my bodyweight. And I rejoiced in being able to walk forward, to execute the simple motion of putting one foot in front of the other. No one had to carry me to the car.

And I took stock of my life in that instant and counted my blessings. My family cared about me, I had a place to live and a full-time job with health coverage (although my radio salary was low at the time).

More importantly, I had survived my medical ordeal with just a couple of instructions to follow — to modify my diet and take daily potassium supplements to compensate for my condition. I did not need surgery, and I was grateful that the outcome had not been a more serious disease like multiple sclerosis or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

This theme has echoed throughout my life. I have faced numerous health crises, and after each one I have reevaluated and recalibrated my priorities.

Since my initial brain tumor was excised at age 15, I’ve had two follow-up surgeries to remove remnants, along with two rounds of Gamma Knife radiosurgery with a goal of preventing regrowth. Today I am not tumor free — the craniopharyngioma still resides in my head, affecting my vision. But for now, the doctors are observing the tumor and have decided no surgery or radiation is needed.

In waking up from my both my second surgery in 1988 and my third in 2011, I remember the dim glow of fluorescent lights overhead and the sound of beeping machines in the surgical intensive care units. In both cases, in the instant when I came back to consciousness, my head felt woozy and everything appeared fuzzy; it was as if gobs of Vaseline had been smeared across both eyelids and I couldn’t see clearly.

A nurse or doctor would stand over me and ask me a series of questions. “What’s your name?” “Do you know where you are?” “Can you tell me the date?” “Who is the President of the United States?”

And in being able to respond verbally and answer the questions correctly, I would realize I had survived the surgery with my health seemingly intact; my brain worked and I could speak and form sentences. And in my post-surgical haze I would feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

Toledo warehouse. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

But here’s the problem. Each time after leaving the hospital, I could not sustain that feeling of gratitude beyond a few days. I would get caught up again in the daily struggles of life, and my “attitude of gratitude” would slip away.

I am now aware of this flaw in me. I recognize that in the pursuit of a better job, a bigger house, a newer car and a richer bank account, I forget to be thankful for the essentials I’ve been given — oxygen to breathe, clean drinking water, food in the fridge, safe shelter, a loving family and the ability to walk, talk, and think. I forget how easily these things can be taken away.

I need to preserve in my mind the freeing power of gratitude, because gratitude puts the focus on being thankful for what you already have, and sharing some of it, as opposed to seeking what you lack.

I need to stop looking around and asking myself, “What else?” or “What more?” Instead, I must try to be content with my life as it is, at this very moment, and be able to say, “This is plenty. This is more than enough.”

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Back to the Blog

It’s been too long since my last entry. I’ve been busy with work, family, creative side projects and a recent bout with a stomach flu (now resolved).

Winter has given way to spring-like weather in Central New York, although I’m not hauling my winter coat to the dry cleaner just yet.

And I wanted to return to the blog because today I made some interesting visual discoveries that I wanted to share. I left my cubicle at the office this afternoon to join one of my colleagues on a B-roll video shoot at Shaffer Art Building on the campus of Syracuse University. Some College of Visual and Performing Arts’ students were working on a professional film shoot for a project written and directed by a VPA professor.

While I stood in the hallway, I took notice of my surroundings and captured these images.

Light hitting wall. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Steenbeck. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I was so excited to see this Steenbeck editing machine. It made me think of Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. I’m sure she edited some projects on a Steenbeck. I actually used one when I was a graduate film student at American University in the early 1990s. The machinery is now a dinosaur in a non-linear, Adobe Premiere/Avid/Final Cut world.

The next two images were terse, profound statements that I consider poetry. The words made me stop, pay attention and ponder their meaning. I wish I had the author’s name to give proper credit and supreme praise.

Selfishness and Loneliness. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Pray to be Loved. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

 

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Post-COVID Winter Walk

I went out for my first real walk since testing positive for COVID, after completing the required isolation.

Branches, sky and building. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I’m still not at 100 percent, but on this Sunday I was grateful for the combination of sun, sky, snow, air in lungs and limbs moving freely. I’m also thankful I didn’t slip and fall on the sidewalks packed down with ice and snow, resembling a Lake Placid luge track. I’m not taking any days or moments for granted.

A stick in the snow. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

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When Positive is Negative

I thought the large-scale photo of Bruce Springsteen hanging in front of me was a good omen when I stepped in a “spit stall” in the Carrier Dome on Friday to conduct my PCR saliva test.

Photo of Bruce Springsteen from a past concert in the Carrier Dome (likely 1985).

Images of rock legends like Bono, Phil Collins, and Mick Jagger—action photos from past concerts—hang on the walls in the concourses in the Dome. So being a huge Springsteen fan, I thought the Boss would bring me some good luck, resulting in a negative COVID-19 result.

For the saliva test, one of the workers gives you a plastic tube marked with a black Sharpie line—the point you need to reach with your spittle for the test to be accurate. I’ve taken the test about a half-dozen times now, and I have developed a routine for generating the copious amount of saliva required.

I rock on the balls of my feet, pretending I am former Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson getting settled in the batter’s box, and then I spit between my teeth as Reggie used to do after fouling back a pitch. And if I’m really having trouble with dry mouth, I imagine I am sucking on a lemon with the seeds squirting into mouth, or else eating a huge, juicy piece of watermelon at a Fourth of July picnic.

Reggie Jackson batting at Yankee Stadium. Photo by Jim Accordino via Wikipedia.

But forgive my banal digression. The important news: unfortunately, I received a university email yesterday informing me that I had tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, I have started my isolation according to the guidelines set forth by the Onondaga County Health Department. I may need a longer isolation period because I am considered immunocompromised.

My son Colin had tested positive earlier in the week, and although I had stayed masked around him, our proximity in a one-bedroom apartment made avoidance of infection nearly impossible. As of this blog entry, my wife Pamela remains negative.

On Friday I had felt a little weakness in my legs. Occasional fatigue and muscle weakness are not uncommon for me, since I have hypopituitarism, rheumatoid arthritis, and hyponatremia (low sodium). But I thought I should get tested to rule out COVID.

So far, my symptoms are mild—slight headache, weak legs, and mild nasal and chest congestion. I’m taking Tylenol and have doubled my dosage of hydrocortisone, since my adrenal glands don’t produce the steroid hormone. But with my underlying conditions, I need to be hyper vigilant about any changes in my health, with the most alarming being shortness of breath and elevated heart rate, according to my primary care doctor.

The reality of testing positive has wiped away the lingering fear of the unknown we have all lived with each day since this pandemic began. My questions about avoiding COVID and about the severity of its impact are meaningless. The invasion succeeded; the likely variant of Omicron now squirms inside my body. But now I can deal with the actual manifestation of coronavirus, instead of worrying about the “what-if” scenarios.

I can say one other thing about COVID. It certainly prioritizes your existence, what you value most in your life. I think for most people it’s personal health and the health and safety of family. That sometimes gets lost amid the daily pressures of work.

And there is one benefit of testing positive—now I don’t need to avoid kissing and hugging Colin.

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Emmy Arrives

So my Emmy statuette arrived yesterday. My Real Bedford Falls documentary co-producer/director Stu Lisson was kind enough to drop it off at my apartment. He wanted to take a picture of me unboxing it, but I refused to give in to his request. I was masked and stayed on the other side of the glass in the lobby, as my son Colin is currently in isolation after testing positive for COVID for the second time in three months. (Fortunately, his symptoms are mild—knocking on the wood of my forehead.)

While walking in the hallway, carrying the rectangular box, hugging it close to my torso, I had a flash; the package reminded me of a cremation urn, similar in size and shape. It gave me pause. The object marks one of the best moments in my career, but it also foreshadows a fate I can’t escape. Dark thought, I know.

Once inside my apartment, I opened the box and took a quick glance, making sure the text at the base was correct and my name wasn’t misspelled. I then tucked it in the back of my bedroom closet, behind extra belts, pairs of long underwear, summer shirts, and miscellaneous computer cables.

Emmy statuette. Photo by Pamela DiClemente.

I didn’t even take a picture of it. And I usually do not post accolades like this on social media. The images you see here were taken by my wife Pamela, who said something like, “It’s worth celebrating. It’s a beautiful memento and you might not win another one in the future.”

I thought the same thing. I don’t want to be covetous, but the goal is to collect a couple more Emmy awards during the remainder of my career. However, I also know one regional Emmy for an indie documentary short could be it for me—marking the highest honor I will ever achieve.

Emmy statuette base. Photo by Pamela DiClemente.

And if that’s the case, I want to acknowledge the moment, let it seep in, and be grateful for it. And then get busy working on the next thing.

I’m also storing the Emmy in the closet to keep it away from Colin. If know if the hardware was left out in the open, he would grab it and line it up next to his other figures. And in a matter of time, the poor gilded woman would be wingless.

Colin’s play area. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

 

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Remembering Bill

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. The holidays were very sad, as my stepfather, William Ruane, passed away on Christmas Day at Upstate University Hospital. He had broken his femur and then had a stroke after surgery. I’m still processing the loss.

I never called Bill “Dad,” but I considered him a second father instead of a stepfather. He played an instrumental role in my adult formation. I could write a lot more about this, but I don’t think I’d find the right words now to express how much Bill meant to me.

So I thought I’d repost an essay from 2013 that was published in Star 82 Review. I remember Bill posing for some pictures while sitting at the kitchen table, and I think this essay captures a little of his spirit.

Bill smoking. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Man in the Chair

It is late in the afternoon on a fall or winter day, and I am visiting my mother and stepfather at their home in Rome, New York. They are sitting in their family room watching TV; if I had to guess, I’d say the show is Judge Judy, Criminal Minds or NCIS.

My stepfather Bill, who owns his own contracting business, is reclining in his favorite chair, wearing a work-stained hoodie and sipping a cup of coffee. I walk into the room and sidle up to him. I put my hand on the bald crown of his head, which has a fringe of brownish-gray hair on the sides, and I feel the warmth emanating from his skull. Often when I do this, Bill will say, “God, your hand is freezing.” But he does not say anything, and I leave my hand on top of his head and take a glance at the television screen while darkness gathers outside the windows.

A sick realization makes me shudder. I pull my hand away because I recognize in the moment that the head of this man I love could, in a matter of seconds, be crushed with a baseball bat or cracked open with an ax blade. Blood could splatter against the walls, and he would slump over in the chair, inert.

And I think this not because I am homicidal or possess a desire to kill my stepfather. Quite the opposite. Fear sets in because I realize the man sitting in the chair, with a beating heart, functioning brain and sense of humor, could be gone in an instant. He could be animated in one moment and his breath snuffed out in the next.

Bill getting a haircut from George, a barber in Rome, New York. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Most likely my stepfather will not be killed by a blow to the head or a tree crashing through the house. A heart attack, stroke or cancer will probably get him in the end. And while I already know this, I pause and allow this knowledge to sink in, so I will appreciate him better.

A year or two after this dark afternoon, my mother would lose her battle with cancer. And her death would remind me that we do not live life all at once. It’s not one big project we need to complete by a deadline or a trip to Europe you have planned for years.

Instead, we experience life in small doses, tiny beads of time on a string. And it helps to recognize them, to acknowledge you are present and alive even in the most mundane circumstances—while you are talking with co-workers in the parking lot before heading home for the day, running errands, doing laundry, baking a chocolate cake, tossing a football with friends, reading to your kids at bedtime. These are subplots that drive our stories forward. They are not exciting. They are not memorable. But they are part of our existence, and we must value them before they and we are gone.

So, after I pull my hand away from Bill’s head, I decide to sit on the couch next to my mother. She hates when people talk during a program because it distracts her, so I look at the screen even though I am not interested in the show, and I do not say a word. But during a commercial break, she mutes the sound with the remote control, and Bill and I converse about something. And I can’t remember the topic we discussed, and it doesn’t really matter.

What I remember is three family members spending an evening together.

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