Chapter One – Facing the Hangman
“Nothing will focus a man’s mind so quickly as the prospect of being hanged at dawn.”
– Samuel Johnson
My “hanged at dawn” moment came July 3, 2008. The hangman was a doctor in the operating room at Kaiser Permanente Hospital on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. He had just performed an angiogram – an exploration of the arteries leading to my heart. He looked at me and said, “We have a very dangerous situation here.”
Until that day, I was just a guy, who went along enjoying life, eating anything and everything I wanted to eat in great restaurants and cooking pretty much whatever I wanted to cook at home.
The transformation of my life actually began a few weeks earlier – June 11, 2008 – at a practice round of the U.S. Open Golf Tournament at Torrey Pines near San Diego California. That was the day I first felt the symptoms I should not have ignored. I purchased my tickets for the tournament more than a year earlier and after a particularly stressful five months at work I was looking forward to this week-long get away. I was going to spend the days at the tournament, while Jennifer, my wife, hung out with my late sister, Elisa. In the evenings, we would have some good dinners together.
That whole plan would have come apart if I had listened to the signals my body was sending and headed for a hospital emergency room. Instead, I ignored the symptoms and stayed around for the golf tournament.
Torrey Pines Golf Course is about a 30-minute shuttle bus trip up the coast from where we were staying in San Diego. As I walked across the parking lot to catch the shuttle that gray June morning, I had trouble breathing – serious trouble. There also was an ache in my left shoulder and my left hand was tingling. I stopped walking for a few minutes, caught my breath and then resumed walking slowly toward the line of people waiting for the buses.
By the time the bus reached the drop off point at the course, I was feeling fine. But there was a long, steep incline that led to the actual entrance to the golf course. I walked up that incline with no problem the day before. This day I had to stop half way up to rest. I leaned against a railing for a while, caught my breath again and slowly made my way to the top. Once inside the course, I sat down on a bench for about 15 minutes to once again catch my breath. Then I walked over to a nearby snack stand, got a cup of coffee and sat down to drink it.
Things settled down and I slowly made my way to the opposite end of the golf course, where I found a seat in the bleachers at the third hole. I stayed there, watching a succession of golfers come through. An hour and a half later, feeling fine, I wandered over to the Trophy Club for breakfast – bacon and eggs with fried potatoes. Somewhere along the way, I noticed my left ankle had swollen considerably. But I was able to wander around the golf course at a leisurely pace the rest of the day with no problems.
I told Jennifer about the incident that evening, just before we left for dinner at di’ Medici Cucina Italiana, a great restaurant in the Gaslamp District of San Diego. We started with cocktails; I had a Perfect Manhattan. Then we switched to wine with the meal. We had Caesar salads made tableside extra anchovies. I talked the manager into letting the waiter use a raw egg in the dressing Then I had some cheese filled tortellini, followed by veal piccata. I capped the meal off with wonderful canolis. That’s the way I ate in those days. A friend once said of me: “He doesn’t eat; he dines.”
My ankle remained swollen the rest of the week but I had no other symptoms. My energy level was low, so I took it easy, opting to spend most of my time sitting in the bleachers at various holes to watch groups of golfers come through rather than try to follow any particular golfer around the very crowded course. The weather was beautiful; I was getting a great sun tan; the golf was exciting; the bacon and egg breakfasts and the lunch time hot dogs were just mediocre but Jennifer, Elisa and I were having some wonderful dinners.
We were back home for just one day after the tournament, when we packed the car for a drive to Issaquah, Washington, to visit our son, John, daughter-in-law, Julie, and grandchildren, Ella and Miles.
On the way home a week later, we stopped in Sacramento to visit our other son, Lloyd, and have dinner with friends. Mine was a rack of ribs at Rio City. Fires were raging throughout northern California. So, when I found myself gasping for breath after loading our two suit cases into the car for the final homeward-bound leg, I shrugged it off as having to do with the smoke in the air. I was more concerned with how Jennifer’s asthma would react to the smoke than anything that was happening to me.
Jennifer, however, said I had been having the same breathing problem after loading the car every morning going north as well as south, even in Oregon and Washington, where the smoke from the California fires had not reached. Then I remembered the time when Ella said, “Grand dad, let’s play jumpy jump.” It’s a three-year-old’s kind of game, where we stood opposite each other, waved our arms and jumped up and down while yelling “jumpy jump.” I couldn’t get off the ground, not one centimeter, no matter how much Ella urged, “Jump, Grand Dad, jump.”
“OK,” I told Jennifer. “I guess I better go see the doctor. I have a golf tournament to play in Monday. I’ll go in Tuesday.”
Monday, I played golf in 90-degree weather and walked the course without incident. Whatever was wrong couldn’t be very serious, could it?
Tuesday, I went to the doctor, had an EKG, which was fine. Then I failed a treadmill stress test miserably. Before I could turn around, I was calling my friend Amanda to cancel our sushi dinner for that night and tell her I was being admitted to the emergency room. The next morning they did a nuclear stress test and informed me I was headed for an angiogram in the cardiac unit at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Hollywood. I assured everyone – Jennifer, sons Lloyd and John, sister Elisa, nephews David and Bryan – not to worry. “They’ll probably do an angioplasty or stent and I’ll be home tonight.” I really believed that.
To say I had been the picture of health up to that time would be only a slight exaggeration. I was carrying around about 20 extra pounds, most of it right where I could look down and see it. I looked at that belly in the mirror with disgust and kept promising to get rid of it. My neck size had grown from 15 or 15 ½ inches, depending on how the shirt was cut, to 16 inches. My waist was at an all time high of 36 inches. There had been a few times, when I would walk off the first tee at the golf course, dragging my pull cart behind me and I would feel a little short of breath. But they were fleeting moments; a couple of swallows of water and they would pass. I still was able to walk a full round of golf and feel I could go out and do it all over again after I finished. Flights of steps were no challenge. And when Jennifer and I would go out hiking, I could walk forever.
I was still on the operating table after the angiogram, when the hangman said those words to me: “We have a very dangerous situation here. You have a 90 percent blockage in one artery, 60 percent in another and 40 percent in two others. We are going to have to do bypass surgery.”
When the doctor went to the waiting room and told Jennifer the news in those same words, she said, “That can’t be. You have the wrong man.”
I don’t remember many specifics from that point until the second or third day after the surgery. Mostly, I slept. That’s my hiding place, my defense mechanism. When I’m not feeling well, I sleep. From the hours before the surgery, I remember seeing John, who flew down from Issaquah. Lloyd was a member of the California State Assembly; he arrived from Sacramento later. Elisa flashed before my eyes and I was aware that Bryan was around somewhere. David had taken me at my word and gone off on a July 4 weekend camping trip.
I remember someone with a razor starting to shave my chest, groin and leg. Then I fell back to sleep. They came to wheel me away and I remember calling Jennifer over and dramatically whispering for her not to worry, “If it’s within my power, I’ll fight this with everything I have.” Pretty corny, but I was in a weakened condition, mentally as well as physically, and already well sedated.
I’ve long had a cavalier attitude about death. I would enjoy life as long as it lasted, and when it ended I wouldn’t know it. But I wasn’t ready for it to end now. Ella was 3 and Miles was 1. They were too young to lose one of their Grand Dads. Their stories hadn’t been written yet and I needed to see them grow up. Lloyd and his then-fiancé, Edie, were getting married in a couple of months. It would kill the mood at the wedding if I were to die before that. Jennifer and I had gown together into a very nice married life. Now wasn’t the time to quit on that. There was traveling we hadn’t done yet, rounds of golf to be played, deep and fascinating conversations to be had with John, puns and public policy discussions to be had with Lloyd. There were people I wanted to see again, meals to be shared with friends and family, operas to attend. I was still having too much fun to check out. I wasn’t even 70 yet.
Well, I didn’t check out. I have a vague memory of being strapped to a gurney in the recovery room and of Jennifer, John, Elisa and Bryan being there. I have virtually no recollection of what happened the next two days, except I remember a nurse telling me I would feel a lot better once they took the drainage tube out of my chest. She was right. Two days later, they took the tube out. It was like someone flipped the feel better switch. Two hours after that I got out of bed, with assistance, and walked to the bathroom. They were the first steps back along recovery road.
Jennifer told me that while I was in the recovery room, John walked in to see me. He turned right around and left, thinking it was the wrong room; I didn’t look anything like the guy who had been his father for 35 years. I was swollen from head to toe and there were tubes coming out of places where there hadn’t been holes before.
Two weeks after the surgery, at a checkup visit with my cardiologist, she looked at me with a grave expression and asked, “Do you know how lucky you were?”
That’s when my fear peaked. A 90 percent blockage is about one plate of foie gras from a heart attack. I dodged that one. I knew something was wrong at Torrey Pines. Yet, I ignored it so I could visit my grand children and duck in an extra round of golf and an extra rack of baby back ribs before seeing the doctor.
The lucky part? They fixed me before I had a heart attack. There was no damage to the heart muscle. I just needed to wait for my sternum to heal and then get on with my new life. I had no idea what an adventure that would be.
Chapter Two – The Journey Back From the Operating Table to the Dinner Table
Here’s the deal. I love food. It’s one of the great passions of my life. I love to shop for food, cook food, eat food, talk about food and write about food. I even created a web site that features restaurant recommendations and this online food magazine.
If I ever arrive at the Pearly Gates and St. Peter is a guy in a tux who greets me with, “Your table is ready, sir,” then I’ll know the hereafter won’t be such a bad place to be after here. And if he adds, “The lady is already seated,” then I’m good for eternity. That’s why I titled my forthcoming food memoir COOKING FOR A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN / the tastes and tales of a wonderful life.
To me a super market is a community center – a place to meet people and socialize. I swap recipes and cooking techniques with other shoppers; we help each other find ripe melons and select the best piece of fish. I’ve been known to get into conversations about food with strangers on the phone. A friend once said if there’s a good restaurant within 100 miles I’d find it.
So, when a dietician told me on July 6, 2008, two days after my quadruple coronary bypass surgery, “you are going to have to be on a low fat, low cholesterol, low sodium diet,” it struck terror in me.
“For how long?” I asked.
“The rest of your life,” she answered.
The quadruple bypass surgery had gotten my attention. But, yuk. Was I doomed to eat cardboard forever more?
The words kept coming at me from doctors, dieticians and nurses – low fat, low cholesterol, low sodium. They gave me a stack of material to take home from the hospital a few days later – a lot of very preachy and somewhat technical stuff about healthy eating.
Under strict orders to do nothing but rest and take short walks in the neighborhood for the next six weeks, I had plenty of time to plunge into reading the recovery material. The more I read about my new diet, the more terrified I became. Those words – low fat, low cholesterol, low sodium – seemed to be on every page. My culinary soul was in shock. Had I eaten my last sub sandwich? How about foie gras? Was there never to be another lox and cream cheese on a bagel? Roast duck l’orange? Escargot? Calamari fritti? Was it good bye to pastrami on rye, salumi misto and my favorite restaurants – Biba, Melisse, Musso & Frank Grill, The River Cafe …? Would I never again see the blue flame of Kirsch flowing over a mound of baked Alaska?
And then there was all that stuff about exercise. They wanted me to start a regular program of exercise. Exercise is boring. I never exercised for its own sake.
On the other hand I had a firm commitment to living. Going back to the pre-surgery ways of eat-anything-any-time wasn’t going to work. There were only two real choices: live miserably eating cardboard for whatever time I had left, or figure out how to make the best of it. Not much to ponder. There was only one right answer. I would need to find a new route to culinary contentment.
Our son, Lloyd, is an accomplished and inventive cook. He also is very health conscious. He came to stay with us for a week after I got home from the hospital. He was going to help with my care and prepare our lunches and dinners. Breakfasts would be easy: oatmeal made with soy milk and fresh blueberries – something I happen to like and had been eating for many years. During that week Lloyd took me by the hand and led me through the first steps along what would be my new culinary path.
The day after I came home from the hospital, I was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a low-sodium turkey breast sandwich on whole grain bread with sliced tomato and lettuce. Avocado was smeared on in place of butter or mayonnaise. No hardship there; I never cared much for butter or mayonnaise anyway. I was still too scared to be resentful of my new fate, although I can’t say I was happy about it either. Lloyd was at the kitchen counter working on something. I thought I saw a package of bacon. I asked what he was doing and he told me he was making something with lentils.
“I don’t like lentils,” I said.
“Neither do I,” he answered. “But Edie makes this and I like it.”
“Is that bacon?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
I paused. “Are you trying to kill me? Remember, I left everything to Jennifer.”
“Your diet is low fat, low cholesterol and low sodium,” he answered, “not no fat, no cholesterol, no sodium. You don’t have to be perfect at every meal. It’s your overall diet that matters. Edie and I have this with either sausages or salmon. You’ll have salmon.”
I grew quiet. No sausages. Never. Never again. I love sausages, any kind of sausages. Maybe I can have some of those turkey sausages, or the chicken with apple ones I see in the store. I could try those. After all, I don’t really need the pork and the fat; it’s the flavor I love. I will have to read the label on the package.
Those last 10 words would become my 10 commandments. I had been reading labels on packages since I got my first cholesterol warning 20 years earlier. But in the past it had been easy to look at the label and ignore what I saw there if I really felt like eating whatever was in the package. No more. Later, I would read the labels on the so-called healthy sausages and realize that wasn’t going to work either. They were laced with sodium and fat, even if the protein was chicken or turkey. In the months to come I would learn that same lesson about all manner of stuff we generally view as healthy.
“Besides,” Lloyd added, “I’m cutting away all the fat so you’ll have just the meat and there’s only half a cup of bacon in this entire recipe. I’m making enough to freeze a few portions for after I leave. How much bacon do you think there will be in each portion?”
I’ve always loved Lloyd, but in that moment my love for him soared to new heights. My 39-year-old son was telling me I wouldn’t need to not spend the rest of my life on food that would depress me and push me to transgression. He was offering salvation and his words became the directive by which I would cook and eat from that day on – you don’t have to be perfect at every meal. (WARNING: do not take this as permission to not be perfect at most of your meals. It just means that if you are perfect, or close to perfect the majority of the time you can cut yourself some slack once in a while.)
After lunch, I worked my way back to my easy chair in the living room still thinking: lentils, yuk.
Once the lentils were on the stove and cooking, Lloyd ran out and bought some wild salmon. That’s what we had for dinner that night – broiled salmon on a bed of lentils. To my surprise, I liked it. We froze individual portions of the balance of the lentils.
Here’s the recipe for the dinner Lloyd prepared that night – the first super of my new life – with a few alterations I made later.
LLOYD & EDIE LENTILS
2 Tblsp olive oil
½ cup diced Canadian bacon (so you don’t have to cut the fat away from American bacon)
½ cup diced shallots
½ cup peeled, diced carrots
½ cup diced celery
1 cup dry red wine
2 cups French lentils
6 cups homemade chicken stock
2 Tblsp chopped fresh thyme (or 1 Tblsp crushed dried thyme)
½ cup peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes (or no-salt-added fire-roasted canned tomatoes)
2 Tblsp chopped fresh chives
1 tsp ground black pepper (optional)
6 oz. wild caught salmon per person
Heat a 6-quart pot on the stove top. Add olive oil and heat until it ripples. Add the bacon and fry until it is almost crisp. Remove the bacon and set it aside. Add the shallots, carrots and celery and sauté until tender. Add the red wine and simmer until all the liquid evaporates. Add the lentils, chicken stock and thyme. Simmer until the lentils are tender – about 35-40 minutes. Add the tomatoes and chives and return the bacon to the pot. Add the black pepper. Heat and serve.
Serve about 1½ cups of lentils per person, topped with broiled or grilled salmon.
You will have plenty of lentils left over to freeze for future use. Freeze in about 1½ cup portions per person.
A week later, it was time for Lloyd to head back to the Capitol. We were on our own. The first night we defrosted a couple of portions of lentils and Jennifer went to the market and bought some salmon.
I was under doctor’s orders to not bend or lift anything heavier than five pounds, so Jennifer stood by to help. She got my pots and pans from the cupboard and carried stuff back and forth between the refrigerator, the counter and the stove.
While I was cooking, Jennifer was on the phone telling people, “He’s home. He’s really back. He’s cooking dinner.” As therapy, there are few things that could have worked as well. When we finished dinner, I was exhausted and I fell into a very contented asleep.
(I wrote these two chapters just a few months after my bypass surgery 10 years ago – July 4, 2008. I’m posting them now as a celebration of that anniversary, with a promise to press on and finish the book for all those who may face this same surgery and recovery in the years to come.)