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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Episode 5: “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
                There’s no polite way to put it. We live in a noisy world, filled with a constant over saturation of sound. Between media, machines and the people around us, there’re not too many places one can go to give their ears a rest, or even a bit of a break, which makes it pretty rough for us creatives who depend so much upon our ears to make our art happen. I’m Michael E. Russo, and we’ll talk about our ears, hearing, and how one deals with all of the “noise, noise, noise!” on this episode of the Creative Care Unit.

Both of my parents were born in 1930, Children of the Great Depression, and by the time I met them in 1962, both of them were smokers. They were not exactly unique among their generation in that respect. According to the Gallup organization, 43% of the adult population in the United States in the 1940’s were smokers. I’m using the word “adult” in the loosest sense, because I think both of them started smoking when they were 14, hardly an adult in in any society. By the time they graduated high school in 1948, they were full-fledged smokers. By 1971, they’d quit.

                Part of the reason they quit, I’d like to think, was that I was a nine-year-old nudge who was in love with television and was particularly infatuated with commercials. There was something about those short stories that really got to me (there’s a particularly embarrassing story my parents used to tell about me, and my mother still does, about my love of commercials when I was a toddler. If you think I’m going to tell that one here, forget it. Wait until Mom does her own podcast called “Dumb Stuff My Kids Did”.). I particularly paid attention to those public service announcements (also known as PSA’S) that seemed to run more frequently in those days. I remember one in particular about a bunch of teenagers who “borrowed” a car whose owner had left the keys in the ignition, and it ended with all of them dying in a car crash. There were also a lot of PSA’s about smoking, and I must’ve taken those to heart, because I became like the lead character in the comic strip “Curtis”, who every so often gives his father grief about Dad’s smoking at home (Curtis’ Dad also gives Curtis grief about his choice of music, which kinda reminds me of my childhood as well). Now my parents had always given up smoking for Lent, and in March of 1971 they did so again. This time, it was for good. Funny thing is, I didn’t really notice it until my Dad pointed it out to me one day. I guess they enjoyed my not saying anything about it too much to ruin it by giving me a chance to say “I told you so!”

                While they weren’t exactly fussy about what they put into their lungs, they were a lot fussier about what was going into my ears. To say that my parents were not exactly fans of rock ‘n’ roll is a bit of an understatement. Their musical tastes run toward the smoother sounds rather than something a bit more gut bucket. You’d never find any Louis Jordan releases in their record collection, but you WOULD find Bing Crosby, Mantovani, 101 Strings and the soundtrack from “Man of La Mancha”. By the time I was becoming aware of music on the radio, the big band sounds that they grew up with had disappeared from the mainstream pop stations (the older you get, it seems, the more the music you grew up listening to gets segregated away from the general populace. The local oldies station now proudly proclaims. “Nobody plays more ‘80’s!”, which makes me feel older than I should). Rock ‘n’ roll, with its greater emphasis on the backbeat than swing, really turned them off, and no prodding of mine could ever make them converts to these new sounds.

                Their misgivings about my musical tastes notwithstanding, they did indulge me by buying me a set of Slingerland drums, which I still have to this day. They were in our basement for a while, but eventually they made their way into our attic, with its newly installed floor, which is where I played along to Beatles records (the walls weren’t installed until much later.  At that time, the silver backing of the pink insulation was still visible. Dad only put in sheet rock after I kept puncturing the insulation with my drumsticks, the slanted ceilings where the drums were being pretty low in that space). The great thing about having them up in the attic was that once the attic door was shut my parents could hardly hear me, and if they wanted me to come to dinner, all they had to do was turn on and off the light at the top of the stairs and I would be at the dinner table shortly thereafter.

                The thing about playing in that attic, with its low, sheet-rocked ceilings, was that it was LOUD, even with the low powered stereo I used to listen to my records. And as much fun as it was to do all that playing, it also hurt my ears. This wasn’t much of a surprise to me. When I was in the elementary school band, they sat the trumpets right next to the percussion section during concerts, and that snare drum just cut right through me. I even took to putting cotton in my right ear so that it wouldn’t hurt quite so much (I also jammed it in way too deep, which meant that tweezers needed to be employed to remove the cotton when I got home). So, whenever I got behind the drums and cranked up the speakers, I was wearing swimmers ear plugs to minimize the damage. Much easier to take in and out of my ears than the cotton I used in elementary school.

                I got so used to wearing the ear plugs that I even did so at the first rock concert I ever attended: Cheap Trick at the Calderone in Hempstead, NY a 2500 seat venue that used to show movies before they staged concerts. We didn’t exactly have great seats-they were near the back of the house-but we had a great time. There were technical problems during the show (which prompted guitarist Rick Nielsen to say at one point, “Why couldn’t this happen to Fred Zeppelin?”), but otherwise it was a great introduction to the rock concert experience. The next day, we went to Beatlefest, a convention sort of like Comic Con, but for Beatles fans, complete with dealers, lectures, bands and other whatnot. While walking through a very quiet gallery of fan art, my friend turned to me and whispered that his ears were still ringing from the concert the night before. I felt better about having taken the precautions that I did.

Years later my wife and I saw The Marshall Tucker Band at The Colonial Theater, the place where they shot scenes from “The Blob”, that sci-fi classic starring Steve McQueen. My boss had tickets that he wasn’t using and I got to go with my wife and some co-workers. I’d seen Tucker at the Nassau Coliseum in the early ‘80s, and they were playing with the same amount of gear, and the same amount of volume, that they did back in the day, but in a much smaller space. Thank God we had the earplugs! We were in pretty good shape afterwards. My co-workers were in pain, having no ear protection at all. Talk about suffering for art…

                And now it’s time for me to take the headphones off, give my ears a rest and do some bowling. We’ll be back to the Creative Care Unit in just a moment.

                Welcome back to the Creative Care Unit.

                Now with all of the music I’ve listened to on the radio and on record, as well as all of the bands I’ve been in, all of the shows I’ve performed in, you’d think that any hearing damage I’d have incurred would have been from those sources. Nope. While I don’t think that listening to loud music helped at all, I honestly feel that damage from being a phone rep in a call center did far worse things to my ears than did The Who.

                I spent twelve years or so as a phone representative for two different companies. When a call comes in, the first thing that you hear is a rather loud BEEP that’s meant to get your attention. Once you give the stock greeting the company wants you to use without any deviation whatsoever (“Thank you for calling Hernbags Are Us. How may I help you?”), you adjust your headset volume depending on how loud the customer’s phone is. Most of the time you can leave the volume knob alone, but sometimes you can barely hear what they’re saying, so you have to crank it up to ten. Once the caller hangs up, the next customer in the queue BEEPS in, and if you’re like I was, you haven’t adjusted your headset volume down, so that BEEP damn near takes your head off. Now, multiply that by on average one hundred times a day over an eight-hour shift, and you can understand just what the ears get exposed to on that job.

Add to this the ambient noise in the room. If you’ve ever talked to someone in a call center, you can hear in the background other phone reps talking to their customers. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, as most call centers are just large rooms with cubicles whose walls don’t allow one to have much privacy. Everyone can hear everything that’s going on around them. While this is helpful if, say, I want to get the manager’s attention so that they can listen in on a call that I think is suspicious (I was really good at smelling out fraud), it’s hard sometimes to focus on what the customer on the other end is saying to you. In those cases, you compensate by turning up the volume as needed. Is it any wonder that the volume on my car radio when I got home was louder than it was when I left the house that morning?

                I pulled out from a file that I keep old medical information the results of a hearing test I’d taken about a decade ago, which was provided by the company whose call center I was working in. What I noticed was that there was a sharp drop off in the upper end of my hearing range. I knew that something was different, and now I had the evidence to confirm my suspicions.

                These days I’m more conscious than ever about protecting my hearing. Part of that comes from the fact that my wife is extremely sensitive to sound, so much so that if something is too loud, she can’t understand what is being said. The TV volume generally doesn’t go above a particular level when were watching a program, though when the audio is particularly soft, like on the PBS News Hour, I do have to crank it up. Movies are usually watched with the captioning function on, especially superhero movies with lots of explosions in them, so that my wife and I can keep the volume lower overall and not miss a word of dialog when the actors are speaking softly in more intimate scenes. When we’re out somewhere at a place where we have no control over the volume, like movies or concerts, we wear earplugs. It would not be good for me as a musician to need hearing aids, and so I’m vigorously trying to avoid that fate.

                My current place of employment, what I call my Hideous Survival Job, isn’t exactly easier on my ears. The job is in the low end of retail, and no money has been used to make the environment sonically friendly. The floors are concrete with linoleum tiles, the shelves are all metal and the ceilings aren’t too high. We do have a sound system to play music through, but it consists of two speakers that are kinda loud when you’re right near them, but don’t distribute the sound evenly throughout the store. On most nights, my ears are ringing as I fall asleep. They recover a bit by the morning, but then I go back to work and the cycle starts all over again.

                I sometimes wonder if I have an undiagnosed case of tinnitus. Web MD defines tinnitus as “the sensation of hearing ringing, hissing, buzzing chirping, whistling or other sounds.” When I was a kid, sometimes I would hear a high-pitched tone for a few seconds when I was in a really quiet place, like the bathroom. Nowadays the sound is more of a continuous wash of high-pitched white noise, with the occasional long tone mixed in. Or maybe I’m hearing that background wash because my ears are clogged. I’ve always had cheap sinuses, and every time I swallow, I can hear the sound of that swallowing in my ears. Of course, all of the crap in my ears could be a self-defense mechanism against all of the crap trying to damage my ears, kind of a natural set of ear filters where I hear lots of different kinds of sounds with a minimum of damage.

                What I do know is this: like everything else that’s gone wrong with my body, I’ve learned how to deal with it. I do what I have to in order to minimize the damage, and I try to be aware of what’s going on within me and without me. As for as my ears are concerned, I can still hear the clacking of the keyboard as I type this, and in the early hours of the morning, when the meds I’m on insist that I go to the bathroom rather than have an unbroken night of sleep, I lay back in bed and I listen. I can hear the car of the delivery guy dropping off the local paper. I can hear the clicking of the baseboard as the heat comes up. I can hear my wife’s breathing as she sleeps. All of this over a wash of white noise that isn’t as loud as it was when I went to bed.
                If I’m really lucky, I can get a few more minutes of sleep before the day starts. In any case, the silence is a blessed thing. And I enjoy it.  

             Uh-oh! Time to act like an announcer. Roll the credits!

Support for this podcast is made possible by my long-suffering Wife (who lets me do this), copious amounts of caffeinated beverages and listeners like yourselves. If you’ve enjoyed this program, please like our Facebook page, which has links to our transcripts of the show blog and links for you to make a donation to keep this show going. 

Creative Care Unit is recorded in The Danger Room Studios of Glimmer Productions, located in the heart of Bucks County, PA. I’m Michael E. Russo. We’ll see you next time, and until then, stay well.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Creative Care Unit Episode 3: “My silence is my self-defense”

                There are very few things that make me nervous as a performer. I’ve performed for audiences as small as 10 and as large as 6000. I thrive on getting in front of folks to do what I do best. What really makes me nervous is when a medical professional tells me that there’s a problem inside my throat, and that they’ll need to go in there with sharp objects, working perilously close to the two pieces of flesh I use to make a living, to remove it. I’m Michael E. Russo, and we’ll be discussing my tonsillectomy-how I got to that point, the operation and the aftermath-right here in the Creative Care Unit.

                I grew up in a small family on Long Island: my Dad, my Mom, me and my younger brother named Andrew (I used to say little brother, but when puberty got done with the both of us, my “little brother” wound up an inch taller, bearded and barrel chested, whereas I look like I rent what little chest I’ve got). As is the case with most families, I suppose, every one of us had an area of territory that we covered. It wasn’t a conscious sort of thing; it just sort of naturally evolved that way. Dad went to work Monday through Friday, Mom did stuff around the house and took care of us when we got home from school, and my brother and I did the things that interested us, what ever that happened to be.

We usually had dinner around 6 PM or so, and each of us had our usual spots at the dinner table. Mom sat at the spot nearest to the kitchen, I sat across from her, Andrew sat on my left at one end of the table and Dad sat at the head, where he could not only see all of us but he could also watch Jim Jensen and Walter Cronkite deliver the local and network news each night.

There was a healthy amount of conversation at the dinner table most nights. I don’t recall being told to be quiet, unless there was a news story that Dad particularly wanted to hear. Sometimes it got pretty lively. A friend of ours stayed over for dinner one night, and he practically got a case of whiplash as he kept turning his head, trying to see who said what when. My brother didn’t jump in as often as I did, but when he did, it was deadly. Whereas my sense of humor tended to be on the sloppy side, throwing anything against the wall to see if it would stick, Andrew’s struck with surgical precision.

My favorite story about my brother’s wit happened when we were in high school and I had a part time job as a janitor’s assistant in a Lutheran elementary school. The tables in the cafeteria were moved out of place and they needed to be put back the way they were. Andrew was there to help me out. The assistant principal was talking to us, explaining what had been done and what needed to be done. At the end of his monologue, he asks us, “You know how I want the tables, don’t you?”, and my brother looks at him and says, “Legs down?” I thought it was funny; the assistant principal reacted by looking at me as if it was my fault. That was my brother’s territory: being precisely funny.

Another piece of territory he covered, though I’m sure he didn’t want to, was that he became my beta tester for all things medical. He needed glasses in elementary school; I didn’t need them until I was in my mid-twenties. He had his heart attack a decade before I had mine, and when he was in kindergarten, he’d had his tonsils out.

I don’t remember much about that time, other than he’d gotten pneumonia the Christmas before, and that I was almost late for school the day he went to the hospital. I couldn’t tell you the details of his operation or his recovery, but I’m sure that if he ever does a podcast entitled “Here’s What REALLY Happened!”, he’ll tell you. I do remember that there were no complications and that he seemed pretty normal once things healed up. So, when I was told fourteen years later that I had to have my tonsils out, I wasn’t really worried. After all, my brother had his removed when he was a kid. How tough could it be?

                I have a confession to make: aside from my brother’s experience, everything I knew about tonsillitis I’d learned from Bill Cosby. I used to memorize stand-up comedy routines from records when I was a kid, and the two big faves in our house were the Italian comedian Pat Cooper and Bill Cosby. We’d had copies of Cos’ albums “Wonderfulness” and “Revenge”, and we heard them so much that I could recite entire routines by memory, down to the vocal inflections he’d use (this little talent of mine became a two-edged sword when I became a musician and actor. I can learn songs and long passages of dialog if I hear them often enough, but if I hear them too much, I start to sound like whoever happens to be on the recording. This is why I prefer to work from the printed page, rather than a recording. Leonard Zelig ain’t got nothin’ on me…).  I had his routine “Tonsils” down cold, and if copyright laws allowed it, I could recite the relevant portion here, especially since it summarized my condition perfectly: my tonsils, which act as a filter by trapping germs that could cause infections, got infected themselves (after four strep throats and Bell’s Palsy over the last three semesters at Berklee, that was no surprise) and were swollen. The best course of action was to have them removed. We scheduled an operation for Valentine’s Day, 1985, and made plans to get my problem tonsils out of my body.

                And with that, it’s time to give my voice a break. I think I’ll take a walk in the night air. We’ll be back with the Creative Care Unit in just a moment.

                Welcome back to the Creative Care Unit. I’m Michael E. Russo.

                February 13, 1985, the day before Valentine’s Day. I’m in my room in the Pediatrics section of Winthrop Hospital, my operation scheduled for the next morning (nowadays a tonsillectomy is done on an outpatient basis, but back then I spent a few days there. I understand that recovery becomes more difficult the older the patient is, and that a child will bounce back a lot quicker than someone college age. I can’t imagine how long I’d have to stay if I that operation today). I had x-rays taken and I was getting visits from the medical staff asking me all kinds of questions. One in particular stood out, because I was asked this more than once: do you smoke? No, I told them, that’s why I was in the Pediatric wing (this was the section for non-smokers. Back in ’85, you were allowed to smoke in hospitals. Not any more…). After having been asked this more than once, I finally asked what was going on. They didn’t tell you? Tell me what? We found a spot on your right lung on the x-ray, and we’re not sure if we’re going to take your tonsils out or not.

                Now, when I get news like that, I don’t get depressed or sad. I get cheesed off. Really mad. I wound up telling the doctors that yes indeed, we were going to take them out. We’ll deal with whatever is on my lung later, but right now those tonsils were coming out. Spoiler alert: after the operation I came back to the hospital and had a CAT scan done. It turns out that the spot on my lung was nothing but a calcium deposit. I’d totally forgotten about it until many years later, when I was in a different hospital’s emergency room. I thought I was having a heart attack, so I was brought straight in, and once again someone told me they’d found a spot on my lung in an x-ray. I took in the information, pointed to place on my chest where I remembered the deposit being and asked the guy who told me this if this was the spot where it was. Yes, he said. It’s calcium, I told him, and then I told him how I knew that. They asked if I still had the films from back then. Are you kidding?

                After that minor hitch, the operation went off as scheduled. The drugs they gave me to relax me before the operation were very effective, dropping my voice about a fifth lower than normal, and I had no complications during or afterwards (let me give a shout out to my surgeon, Anthony J Durante, who was and is the best around. My Mom is also one of his patients). I spent a week at home recuperating, generally resting and letting myself heal. The only thing that was a disappointment, and this is because of the expectations I had from the Bill Cosby routine, was that I got no ice cream to eat. Instead, I got blueberry Tofutti that came from a little shop at the bottom of the hill from where we lived. Now, I don’t know why I got no ice cream, nor do I know who put the bright idea in my parent’s head that Tofutti was a preferable alternative to ice cream. All I know is that I had blueberry Tofutti for the duration of my recovery. Don’t get me wrong, it tasted OK, and it didn’t make me sick to eat it, but for a guy who had visions of gallons of ice cream heading his way, it was a disappointment. I’ve made up for that over the years, and the Tofutti place is now a Thai restaurant, so I guess things eventually evened out.

                Speaking of recovery, it went well. There were no post-surgery complications (unless you consider the CAT scan I had on my lung a post-surgery complication), and I healed up quite nicely and quickly. Most of that was due to the excellent care that I received, but part of it was due to my attitude. I was cast in a musical written by my former high school English teacher and drama coach, and I did not want to miss out on being in this. I’d also heard that a mezzo soprano friend of mine from Boston Conservatory had also undergone a tonsillectomy before I did, and that it took her six weeks to get back to singing. The competitor in me rose to the occasion. Ah ha, thought I, I’ll do it in three. Sure enough, I was back on the boards in three weeks, singing in a musical and singing HARD. It’s nice when you can will your twenty-three-year-old body into normality sooner rather than later. I fully expected to be back in three weeks, and that’s what happened.

                What I did NOT expect were the changes to my instrument. Without the tonsils back there to fill the space, singing felt…different. Breathing felt different. My sound was different. Worse, I lost my voice, something that never, EVER happened to me before. I didn’t lose it during the show, thank God, and I’ve never missed a gig because of laryngitis, which I’m quite proud of, but I had to learn how to fill the space in the back of my throat differently, how to baby the voice so that I wouldn’t lose it, and that was something that would take me a lot longer than three weeks to figure out.

                Thirty-three years later, I know a lot more about how to properly use my instrument. I do things that keep my voice flexible and avoid things that could potentially damage it, either in the short or long term. I haven’t lost my voice in decades, and I know how to manipulate it to produce dark sounds like this, and brighter sounds like this. But for all of the pampering and babying I give my voice, I cannot prevent ageing from changing the instrument, and it has. This happens to everyone, regardless of their profession, and we’ll talk about that another time.

            Uh-oh! Time to act like an announcer. Roll the credits!

Support for this podcast is made possible by my long-suffering Wife (who lets me do this), copious amounts of caffeinated beverages and listeners like yourselves. If you’ve enjoyed this program, please like our Facebook page, which has links to our transcripts of the show blog and links for you to make a donation to keep this show going. 

Creative Care Unit is recorded in The Danger Room Studios of Glimmer Productions, located in the heart of beautiful Bucks County, PA. I’m Michael E. Russo. We’ll see you next time, and until then, stay well.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Creative Car Unit Episode 2: “I’m The Face”

                The two most expressive parts of an actor’s physical instrument, especially if you’ve ever worked in films or television, are the Face and The Voice. If they’re working well, we can do our jobs.  If they’re damaged or broken, not so much. As performers, we tend to baby our instruments because our livelihood depends on it. To lose control of either their face or voice is every performers nightmare. I had the unfortunate luck to have problems with both my face and my voice within a year, and I’m still dealing with the consequence’s decades later. I’m Michael E. Russo, and we’ll talk about how all of that happened in this edition of the Creative Care Unit.

                Summer, 1984. I was living on Long Island with my parents and brother, having graduated from Berklee College of Music back in May. I’d taken a summer job at a place I’d worked for the past three summers before, just so I could get some income and try to figure out what to do next. The work itself wasn’t exactly taxing my mental capacity, so I had a lot of time to think things over. Here I was, a newly minted graduate from a prestigious college, and I had no idea about what to do next. My major at Berklee was Professional Music, which was as nebulous a track as you can imagine. I did get to take a lot of courses that interested me, but the end result was that I had no clear plan going forward. All I had was a question: OK, you’ve got this degree; now what?

The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to teach. I don’t like teaching, and frankly you have to have both a love of it and a happy knack for it so that you can succeed. I didn’t have either, so that wasn’t an option. I couldn’t imagine myself in a classroom, or even taking private students. The few times I’ve tried it over the years I realized that I had a lot to learn and that I had no patience for myself, let alone a student. Best if I not go there.

One thing I knew for sure: getting this degree wasn’t easy. My main instrument through my junior year was the trumpet , and I was miserable. I hated going down to the practice rooms to work on pieces, because they weren’t soundproof and I don’t like the idea of anybody listening to me trying to work out the bugs in a composition. This made my relationship with the private teachers I’d had less than fun. I went through three, and I can honestly say that I was not exactly the student that they were looking forward to seeing each week.

The ensembles that I had to play in weren’t any better. I’m not a jazz head, and the solos I blew were bland and unimaginative (though I did surprise a tenor player friend of mine once. He was in our room one day, and we had a Richie Cole record on. I was noodling quietly on the horn while he was talking. At one point, he fell silent, looked at me and told me that I’d just played what was on the record. My reaction was like “oh, OK.”).  Even in a big band, I didn’t feel a connection to the music. I was just not having any fun as a trumpet player, and I couldn’t see a future for myself playing the horn. So, in the middle of my junior year, I decided to change my main instrument to Voice.

This was not exactly and easy decision to make, however. I’d been playing the trumpet since 1971, and to tell my parents that I was going to become a singer instead…well, the looks on their faces told the story more eloquently than their words (I could practically see them doing the math, adding up the money spent on lessons and my horn). Still, they didn’t say no, and in the second semester I hung up the horn and became a singer.

The effect on me was immediate. I was more comfortable in a room full of singers than I ever was trying to play jazz. I could work on pieces in my room while playing guitar and no one except my roommates, who were doing their own thing, would be disturbed. I could sing the music I’d liked, which was rock, pop, Broadway, etc., and I didn’t have to scat solo once. Yes, indeed. MUCH happier.

Now the big thing that I had to do was cram all of my proficiency exams into a much shorter period of time than if I’d been a voice major right from the start, but otherwise it was a fun time. I’d gotten all of my requirements taken care of, and on May 19th of 1984, I shook the hands of critic Leonard Feather and pianist Oscar Petersen as I received my Bachelors degree, my parents and girlfriend watching with pride.

Three months later, my face fell apart.

I think that I first noticed the paralysis at dinner one night, I can’t be sure. I might’ve noticed it at work. In any case I had no idea what was happening. I thought that I was having a stroke. My parents told me that it was Bell’s Palsy.

Bell’s Palsy? What’s that? I’d never heard of such a thing. I was in such a panic that my Dad took me down to the emergency room to have me checked out. The physician on duty, who looked at me as a minor annoyance to be dealt with so he could back to the really serious cases, took one look at me and said, “You’ve got Bell’s Palsy.”, and left. That was it. I had a name for what I had, but nothing else. Keep in mind that this was well before the internet, and information wasn’t exactly at one’s fingertips. I had no idea what this was all about, how you got it, how long it would last, anything. It wasn’t like every family had medical journals on their shelf that they could consult. I was scared. Imagine, if you will, siting in church and the first hymn starts playing. Now imagine that you’ve been singing hymns all of your life. This is part of who you are. Now imagine that your ability to articulate the words has been taken away, and your left unable to do what has come more naturally to you than anything else you’ve ever tried. Scared? Hell, I was TERRIFIED.

We did go see a doctor about this a few days later. The first thing I said to him was “I want my face back.” He explained to me what I had and what we could do to treat it. He told me what the medical community knew about Bell’s, which wasn’t much. Thirty plus years haven’t exactly added to the dearth of knowledge about the subject, which should make telling you pretty quick, so here goes.

The most important thing to know about Bell’s Palsy is that it’s caused by a virus, and like any other virus, there’s nothing you can take to get rid of it. You just have to let it run its course. It usually goes away in a few days or so. The virus causes the seventh cranial nerve to shut down, which causes the face to sag and droop. In my particular case, I could feel the effects from the corner of my right eye down through my cheek to the base of my neck. If I tense up my face and neck, looking like a lizard in defensive mode, you can see how uneven my right side is compared to my left.

The odd thing in my case was that I’d gotten this at 22. Most of the time you find Bell’s in older people, whose resistance to disease is lower than younger folks. When people would comment “But you’re so young!”, it hurt a little more than they intended.

So where does this come from, I asked the doctor? We don’t know was the answer. How did I get it? We don’t know that, either (I was waiting for him to tell me that I’d gotten it from a toilet seat). The one thing that we could theorize on was that my tonsils were compromised. I’d had four strep throats over my last year in college, and my tonsils were quite large at that point. This probably made me more susceptible to all kinds of viruses, including Bell’s Palsy. Granted, this was wild speculation on my part, and it still is, but since I didn’t have another explanation, this one would have to do.

Treatment was pretty straight forward. Since we couldn’t hit the virus with any kind of medication to make it magically disappear, all we could do was to try and mitigate the effects. To keep my face from sagging any further, I used tape to keep my right cheek up. I slept with an eye patch at night, because I couldn’t close my right eye fully, and we didn’t want to have damage to the eye on top of everything else. I would massage the area as often as possible, trying to keep the muscles supple.

Part of the treatment involved stimulating the nerves on that side of my face, which weren’t receiving electrical impulses from the brain. To do this, I’d gotten a small battery-operated device that looked like an old-style oil can. It had a square pad attached to a wire, which attached to the round body of the device, and had what looked like a spout with a pad on the other end. You wet the pad and have it touch your back. You then took the other end, touched it to a particular spot on your face and hit the switch. The circuit having been completed, the particular muscle on you face that was being touched by the spout would contract, making you look like you had a muscle tic. I’d do this in various spots of the affected area, and it seemed to help. I even went to a physical therapist who did the same thing to me with a much more sophisticated version of my home gear (I only went once, though. The reason why is a story for another episode).

Brief aside: years later I’d seen that same kind of device, as well as others like it, being marketed as a tool to give you a facelift. If you’re thinking about getting one for those purposes, don’t. They don’t work in that capacity. My device kept my face from losing any more muscle tone, but it didn’t make me look any younger. You’re better off wasting your money at the cosmetics counter.

Aside form that, you want to avoid things that could weaken the muscles further. The Physical Therapist had three recommendations for me: 1) don’t do drugs (not a problem in my case. The drug culture never had any appeal for me), 2) don’t drink (THAT was a problem. I wasn’t a heavy drinker, but I do like having a beer, scotch, etc.), and I’ll save #3 for a future episode about bedside manner and some of the weird stuff the medical community has said to me over the years. Boy, have I got a list for you…

Eventually, the virus went away and most of my face returned to normal. Having the disease as young as I did proved to be a real advantage. I can get through the day without drooling, and my articulation is pretty good (you be the judge). I can’t really play trumpet anymore, however. When I tried to as part of my therapy (something that wasn’t the doctor’s idea), my right eye would close up, which made me look as if I was winking at the music. Worse, the right corner of my mouth had a slow leak, which made the same sound that you get when you’re putting an inner tube in water to find a hole in it (you younger listeners will have to trust me on this one). The effects were less pronounced if I was playing baritone horn, though, so I started doing that. I can now play the trumpet without the side noises, but my tone isn’t great and my pitch is wobbly at best. I went from sounding a bit like Miles Davis to sounding like Chet Baker on a bender. I only haul the horn out if I’m trying to write something, like the theme to this podcast.

The only times I really feel the effects are when I’m drunk, tired or cold. In fact, the only time my face really failed me was when I was a stand-in on a Vanity Fair cover that Annie Liebovitz was shooting. We were on a tugboat in the middle of New York Harbor, it was February and it was bitter cold. It was so cold that the right side of my face shut down. It. Would. Not. Budge. In between setups, I ran into the cabin of the tug, put my face right up to the heater and deeply massaged the area for all it was worth. I apologized to Annie, telling her what had happened, and she was pretty cool with it.

Once the Bell’s Palsy was dealt with, the next question was: what are we gonna do about those tonsils which are about the size of golf balls? The answer was…something I’ll talk about in my next episode. My face is starting to feel a little tired, and I could use a bit of rest right about now. 

Uh-oh. Time to act like an announcer. Roll the credits!

Support for this podcast is made possible by my long-suffering Wife (who lets me do this), copious amounts of caffeinated beverages and listeners like yourselves. If you’ve enjoyed this program, please like our Facebook page, which has links to our transcripts of the show blog and links for you to make a donation to keep this show going. 

Creative Care Unit is recorded in The Danger Room Studios of Glimmer Productions, located in the heart of Bucks County, PA. I’m Michael E. Russo. We’ll see you next time, and until then, stay well.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Episode 1: “Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself”

So, here’s the scenario: you’re a Creative Person-an actor, musician, dancer, etc. so forth. You’re over 40, and your body at some point tells you-sometimes subtly, sometimes less so-that things have irrevocably changed in your life. What do you do now? Well, if you’re like me, you create a podcast and talk about it. I’m Michael E. Russo, and I’ll be discussing all aspects of being an aging artist here in the Creative Care Unit.

            The front lawn had been ignored by the 56-year-old owner of a house in Bucks County, PA for a while, due to heavy rains and scheduling conflicts, and by August 6, 2018 the grass had gotten pretty long.  Around 6 PM or so, having just finished dinner and still tired from work, the owner decided to at least try and mow some of the lawn before the sun set, stopping only whether he or the push mower had run out of gas. At 7 PM, both did just that. After putting the mower away, he came in the house, stripped off his sweaty clothes and laid down under the ceiling fan in the living room to watch “Jeopardy!”.

He couldn’t stop sweating, however, and a shower did nothing to cool him off. At approximately 7:30 PM or so, his wife dropped him off at the entrance to the emergency room of Doylestown Hospital, where he described his complaint to the nurse at the front desk with one word: “Chest”. By 9 PM he had been admitted, evaluated, had two stents installed in his heart’s LAD artery, AKA “The Widowmaker”, and was placed in a room. By midnight he was resting comfortably in his hospital bed, his wife and pastor having left him a little while before, tired and very thirsty after all that had happened to him in just a few hours.

            That man, as you may have guessed, me. It was not exactly the first time that I’d been admitted to a hospital, nor was this was the first time that I’d been presented with a condition that could seriously impact my abilities as an actor/singer/musician, but it was the first time that someone had said to me that I could’ve died.

            I spent a little over three days in the hospital, and there’s only so much reading, sleeping and television watching you can do before you’re left alone with yourself. There was a lot of emotions to process, mostly anger mixed with self-pity and a sense of the bizarre that seems to follow me even in the direst circumstances. Now I dutifully followed the instructions of the staff, running out of patience when I finally had to check out and they wanted to keep me for an extra day. Once I’d gotten home, notified anyone else who hadn’t found out already and settled in to my new normal, all you can ask is: Now what?

            This podcast will attempt to answer that question, and all of the others that came up at the same time. We’ll go walking on my journey as a Creative, documenting the specific issues I’ve had over the years (the heart was just the latest one) and how I dealt with them. We may not get an answer to any of the questions I raised, but we might find a way to cope with all of this, which is an answer itself, I suppose.

            But first, a little background as to how I got here in the first place.

            I’ve always been fascinated with music. My first memories of printed music come from when I was a child attending church with my parents and little brother. We’d open the hymnal to the song selected for that part of the service and start singing. By that time, I could read the words on the page, but I had no idea what all of those little black dots on the lines meant. How do you know which notes to sing? How do you know which words come when? I had no clue. By the first grade, we’d had a lesson on music notation-what a G clef was, the names of the notes on the treble staff, etc.- and I think I aced that test. Music was becoming less foreign to me.

            In my elementary school, you could sign up for instrument lessons in the 3rd grade. I wanted to play the drums, but I made the mistake of asking my parents about this first thing in the morning before the paper was to be turned in. I soon discovered that asking your parents for drum lessons before they’ve even gotten out of bed is not exactly a recipe for getting what you want. One of them suggested I learn to play the trumpet, so I signed up for that. Turns out I had a happy knack for the horn, and within a couple of months of making my first noises on the trumpet I was playing in the school band. I was also singing in the church choir, and I even got to sing a solo, “Wonderful Words of Life”, which I still remember bits of to this day. (Sings: “Sing them over again to me/Wonderful words of life”). But I digress.

            Over the years I kept playing the trumpet, playing in the elementary school orchestra as well as the band (I never sang in the school choir, which frustrated the choir director, Miss Graeber, who also lived down the block from me). I also got a taste of acting in the various school plays I was in. By the time I was in high school, I was playing trumpet in six school bands, singing in the choir and was active in the drama department. I’d also finally gotten a drum set and some guitars and started learning how to play them. I even tried my hand at songwriting, which was not exactly a smashing success.

            When the time came to pick a college to attend, I wasn’t really all that certain what I wanted to do with my life, and nobody was exactly saying to me “You should try THIS!” I had visited Berklee College of Music in Boston during one of their high school jazz fests. I liked it, and without any other options open to me, I auditioned and got in. Thirty-eight years later, I’m doing a podcast.

            And I think at this point I should take a break, get something to drink. We’ll be back with more of the Creative Care Unit in just a moment.

            Welcome back to the Creative Care Unit.

            So why now? Why a podcast? Well, with most things in my life, this starts with an idea from my Long-Suffering Wife.

            Most of the work I‘ve had as an actor in films and television has been of the background kind. I don’t work so often that the jobs all run into one another, and I really pay attention when I’m on set, so I come home with a pretty full picture of what I experienced, so that when my Wife asks me, “How was your day, dear?”, I can give her a fairly complete account. I can also give that account to any friends of mine who ask me what I’ve been up to.

            Problem is, my wife would be around when I told and re-told these stories, and she got tired of hearing them over and over again. She finally said to me, “Why don’t you write these down so that I don’t have to hear them again?” Now I didn’t think that I would, until I’d written a reply to a photographer friend about what it was like to work as a stand-in on a Vanity Fair cover that Annie Liebovitz was shooting. The reply was three pages long. Once I saw that, I thought, “There might be something there”, so I started writing. This later evolved into my blog, “Don’t Blink!”, which I’ve pretty much neglected at this point. You can still find it if you look for it, it’s out there. It got to be a pretty useful exercise, though. I’d write down the stories, I didn’t repeat them as often around my wife, and they made space for any new stores I’d have from anything else I’d have working on.

            Now at the same time, I’d had some issues with my body that needed to be dealt with. Most of the medical issues that I’ve had hadn’t kept me out of action for very long, and they’ve been few and far between enough so that, like the background work, I can remember details fairly clearly and I can tell someone exactly what happened when things went wrong, and I can also tell them how the treatment went. After 56 years on this planet, I’ve acquired quite a backlog of stories about my diseases and how they were dealt with, and a lot of them haven’t been told yet.

Now let’s add to this what my wife calls my tendency to speak in monologues. When someone asks me about something, they get details, lots of them. Even at my Hideous Survival Job (and you’ll be hearing more about that later, I promise), when a customer asks me where something is, I give them directions where to find it that are so clear that they can’t miss it.

For example: a customer will ask me where the bathroom is, and I’ll say to them, “OK, you see that wall of chemicals there?” “Yeah.” “Go all the way down ‘til you get to that wall. To the right of that wall of chemicals there is a door.” “Uh-huh.” “Go through the door, make a left…” “Yeah?” “Go to the end of the hallway. Once you get to the end of the hallway, there is a door. Open the door, there’s the bathroom. You can’t miss it.”

And they never do.

Now this translates into my social media posts, which has led more than a few friends to suggest that write a book about my life. OK. What’s wrong with that? The problem is, over the years my fingers have sustained a lot of damage from the typing that I did at other jobs that I had, so I can’t really do much typing for a very long time. Now on days when it got really bad at this one job I had, it was better for me to hold a pencil in my right hand and hunt-and-peck my way through work. I got through it-pretty efficiently. One of my bosses actually said, “I’ve never seen anybody do that.”, but I know it wasn’t exactly what was needed, and my hands were just hurting, so I really couldn’t do that for too long. And if I do it now, even though I don’t type as much, inevitably it starts hurting. Now, the idea of going through a lot of pain for a book about my life just really didn’t appeal to me.

            A podcast, however? THAT’S a different story! Lord knows I can talk-pretty obvious-so I can tell my stories with a minimum of stress on my body parts, sitting very comfortably in this nice rocking chair I’ve got, thank you very much. And once those stories are told, they can make their way for other stories to come out that I’ve forgotten about, and so on, and so on, etc. and so forth.

            So, I’m inviting you to come along on this journey with me. I’ll talk about the various maladies I’ve had in body and mind, how I dealt with them as well as how I dealt with the medical professionals who helped me deal with the illnesses. Along the way, you’ll learn a bit about me-quite a bit about me, actually-and I’ll try not to bore you to tears too often.

            I also invite your comments about and your suggestions for the podcast. Lately a lot of friends of mine on this one Facebook group that I’m in have been having had all kinds of issues: one friend with cancer, one with a broken hip, Yours Truly with the heart attack, a friend of mine was in a car crash…it seems to be piling up at our age. And I’m sure that there’s a lot of other topics that we can talk about that are not related to anything I’ve actually gone through, so I’d love to hear from you.

The only thing I do ask that you use your real names when commenting, and that everyone please be courteous and polite to each other, no matter what the topic is, or what the opinion is that the person has. This is a very deeply personal area we’re going into, and some things are touchier than others. I have literally no patience for making anyone at a party I throw uncomfortable, so please respect those wishes. My show, my house, my rules.

            I think that I’ve said enough in this first episode, don’t you?
            Roll the credits!
            Support for this podcast is made possible by my long-suffering Wife (who lets me do this), copious amounts of caffeinated beverages and listeners like yourselves. If you’ve enjoyed this program, please like our Facebook page, which has links to our transcripts of the show blog and links for you to make a donation to keep this show going. 
Creative Care Unit is recorded in The Danger Room Studios of Glimmer Productions, located in the heart of Bucks County, PA. I’m Michael E. Russo. We’ll see you next time, and until then, stay well.

Episode 5: “Do You Hear What I Hear?”                 There’s no polite way to put it. We live in a noisy world, filled with a constant ...