Recent Work By Mat Zucker

The American Revolution is taken quite seriously in my home town of Springfield, New Jersey. The high school, town hall and fire department buildings are all classic red-brick Colonial architecture with tall, imposing white clock towers. The high school itself is named after Jonathan Dayton, youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence and a decorated Revolutionary War hero. Only decades later did Dayton try to get Ohio to secede from the young nation and, with Aaron Burr, was arrested for treason — although as our yearbook noted, never convicted.

“I’d take him even if he didn’t have $200 million” 

— Friend at Krystal’s bridal shower about Blake Carrington in Episode 1, “Oil”

Dynasty lasted just nine seasons, but it made an indelible impression on millions of us. It was the Reagan era and, like Dallas and its other rivals, the hit nighttime soap reflected our love for glitz, glamour and greed. I was a teenage Carrington addict, putting the theme song on my answering machine, writing about it for my high school paper and even racing to the news stand on Wednesdays to check the Nielsen ratings in USA Today. (Between this and the French Club, it’s surprising no one knew I was gay.) As the 30th anniversary of the first episode’s airing passes this month, we can see 10 lessons still true today for us — not to mention our new Congress:

Blacking out in the aisle of a plane midflight is unnerving — not to mention socially awkward.

I had just woken up from a five-hour sleep on the overnight flight from New York to Paris. My first thought, as always, was to visit the bathroom, especially before breakfast was served and the aisle would be blocked. I pressed the button to raise the comfy seat from near-flat to upright position and unbuckled the seat belt. I stood up to find my slippers. Maybe a little too fast.

I became dizzy, breaking into sweats up and down my body. Sweating is disgusting especially on a plane surrounded by people and no chance of a shower. My vision became blurry, tunnel vision I think it’s called, and then, as if in slow motion, my legs fell out beneath me. This is quite scary if it’s never happened to you. (Although it is scary even it if has). Crumpled on the floor, in the dark, was me at 30,000 feet. And I still had to pee.

At least it was Business Class. The pundits don’t talk about this in debate over healthcare reform, but it’s true your experience is indelibly shaped by advantages in your circumstances. We know the the rich get better coverage and better doctors, but it’s also true they get better nurses. Stewardesses are like nurses — lovely, knowledgable, accommodating, comforting, manicured.

On my shoulder soon after I fell, I felt the hand of the Air France stewardess. Even in my clogged ears (had my hearing gone too?), her musical French accent cut through the din to ask if I was okay. I managed to nod yes, and mutter I would be fine. “I stood up too quickly after sleeping flat,” I explained. “This has happened before.”

This has actually happened three times before — all on red-eye flights to Europe. The first was to London for work, the second to Ireland for a friend’s wedding, and another on a flight like this one to Paris. If you’re collecting facts or a private investigator like Jason Schwartzmann’s character on HBO’s Bored to Death, here they are: The dizziness always occurs after waking and quickly standing up. It also is after 2-3 glasses of wine imbibed to help me fall sleep. I note this only to myself. It’s a vasovagal response thing, I learn from Wikipedia, and one of the triggers is high altitude. My father has had vasovagal responses in restaurants if he doesn’t eat soon enough after medication or with liquor. I called him about this to find out how he handles it and to see if his symptoms are the same. He’s learned to lay down on the floor — even in a restaurant — to get his blood pressure even again, he said. Luckily for me, none of these times occurred sitting in Economy Class. I hate Economy. I doubt the attention would have been even half the same. I might have collapsed in the dark, but not found by a stewardess until day break when the beverage cart had rolled into my prostrate body. The carpet is probably not cleaned more than once a month. Compared to the high-touch care of Business Class, Economy is the HMO of inflight.

I still needed to go to the bathroom. Able to stand up, one stewardess walked with me towards the sliding doors with the assuring words “Vacant.” I still wasn’t right yet, though, and she could tell. “You can’t go in there alone yet,” she was firm. By this point, I woud listen to anything she had said. For me, the French accent evokes a sense of history, art and confidence, and they have a good healthcare system. She sat me down in a kitchen jump seat, and brought me a wet cloth which immediately helped me cool down. I relished in the simple pleasures like a refreshing towel and the moment was my most positive since I woke up. I wasn’t going to die and there was hope I would get better.

Three stewardesses conspired in French while I sat there with my wet cloth, waiting it out. They agreed I should have oxygen and informed me so. They wheeled over a giant tank and handed me a mask to pull around my head. I had never put on one of these masks, yet had seen them so often on the safety videos. It fell off my face, which was disturbing for future worries, but we got it back on and it stayed in place. The turn of a knob and I was guided to “breathe” and did. The oxygen worked quickly, and to the stewardesses’ questions if I was feeling better, I was able to finally say yes. Yes, much better actually. Finally, I was released to go pee and everyone was able to go back to their duties. I wonder how much breakfast I held up from being served.

By the time we deplaned (love that word), I was still emotionally shaken but physically recovered. I had to fill out a form with my name, ticket number, phone number and home address. Europe loves paperwork, I know, but I think this was a normal procedural thing to cover their ass in case I dropped dead on the train from Paris to Belgium where I was headed for a speaking engagement. I smiled at the people sitting around me who looked at me with concern, probably relieved it hadn’t been them or we didn’t have to do an emergency landing and throw everyone off schedule. Maybe they were suspicious I was a drug addict or had a unique medical condition.

Next time. Recovery is always a bright, cheerful state of being and I of course made all sorts of promises to stay in that safe limelight. For example, I swore off drinking any wine whatsoever next flight, not even a glass. Since going from flat to upright too quickly may have thrown me off kilter, I also wouldn’t recline my seat all the way either to sleep. And I certainly wouldn’t stand up so quickly. Perhaps I’d count to ten as I stood up to find my shoes.

Reaching the custom booth lines, I already knew I didn’t mean a word of it. Especially the promise to forgo wine on such a long flight. I suppose I should see a doctor. I suppose I should read more than Wikipedia. But give up wine on my flight back to New York next week? Turn down the free champagne before an eight-hour luxury flight watching movies?

After all, I’ve never blacked out flying westbound.

A Good Sport

By Mat Zucker


The question I most dread on Monday is: “Did you watch the game on Sunday?”

Not because I didn’t see it. I usually do witness the last minutes of the game, especially since football consistently runs late and bleeds into my Sunday tradition: “60 Minutes”. This throws off our dinner plans and any DVR recordings on CBS the rest of the night. So, sure, I know who won and lost, but it’s more out of irritation and impatience than joy of victory or crushing disappointment. I also find it disrespectful to the newscasters, who — like their audience — aren’t exactly young with unlimited time for extra time outs. During the show’s opening credits, each seems to introduce him or herself (“I’m Morley Safer”, “I’m Lesley Stahl”) as if it’s the last time. The courteous thing for the football teams to do would be to start earlier or finish their game within their allotted time slot. I don’t want to say that players are big, dumb and stupid but if you can memorize a few plays off a chalkboard and push each other slowly back and forth across a field, throwing a ball just a few yards but command a lot of drama, then you can figure out the concept of time.

“Excuse me, can you help me find the A train to Howard Beach?”

Calling to me along Second Avenue in Manhattan is a portly, fifty-ish, mostly bald man with a thick accent — Israeli? He looks like anybody’s Uncle Shmuel.

“Sure,” I say, my 20 years in the city kicking in. Take the 6 Train from 23rd and switch at Nassau. Or walk way over to Eighth Avenue.” I know New York.

“My son —” the man volunteers, “He’s in the hospital there, but the pharmacy doesn’t accept shekels.” A fellow Yid, I know from my 10 years at Jewish summer camp in the Poconos that shekels are Israeli currency, and the hospital is probably NYU — one avenue over. I hate to imagine this guy helpless at the pharmacy window, facing a monolingual bureaucrat who never heard of shekels. The pharmacist, like most people, is probably indifferent to Israel and cares only about what it does wrong, not right.

“I go to friends in Howard Beach,” he wonders aloud, “Borrow cash and return. My flight to Israel is tonight. I make sure he has the medication before I leave.”
 You don’t have to be a native New Yorker to know trekking to Queens and back doesn’t make sense when you have a flight from JFK.

“Sir, I don’t think you’ll make it.”

The man looks disappointed. “Maybe you would help me? Help me transfer to dollars so the pharmacy accepts it.”

Help sounds nice. A Jew helping a Jew, and his son is sick. To save one life is to save the world, the Talmud says. We all know this. The man keeps talking as we walk.  “I’m Avi,” he says warmly, extending his hand. We shook. “You been to Israel?”

“Yes, when I was 16. One of those tours,” I say, embarrassed at what Israelis must think of giant buses rolling through Jerusalem filled with suburban teens and credit cards.  “I loved it. I might go back this summer.” This is true. My partner Bryan and I had been discussing it for my fortieth birthday.

“Ah,” he smiles. “That’s good. I can give you suggestions. You have family there?”

“Yes,” and I mention their town in the Galilee.

“Beautiful place. I know it.” Then Avi strays into politics and a recent espionage scandal. “People don’t understand the pressure we’re under,” he says, pointing to both of us. I nod instinctively. We are Jews. We are different.

“There!” he points, turning a corner to our destination — it is a Chase bank.

I am confused. “I thought we were going to the pharmacy?”

“Oh, no, this is better. Help me just get 1,400 shekels in American money and I can get the medication. I send you a check overnight.”

Wait, does he want me to loan him money? I try to ignore my internal alarm, which goes off when somebody is bullying me. In Beijing two years ago, three art students chatted me and my client up as we walked to the Forbidden City. They persuaded us to visit their student gallery — conveniently nearby. My client was so impressed she bought work from each one of them. The next day, I read in a local weekly about phony students scamming tourists using the exact script. I cringed not only at the paintings my client bought and the one I purchased to save face, but at the story we had bought. It was art, I suppose, just probably not theirs.

This seems different.  Avi is in a foreign country.  American medication is expensive and that is not his fault. But more importantly, I have the opportunity to do a mitzvah. My parents raised me to do this. My father was always giving money to people who needed it, and even to friends’ kids who maybe didn’t. He learned that from my grandfather who was the first in his family to go to college and became a big macher in his neighborhood in Newark.

And, there is this: Avi’s my tribe. He wouldn’t screw me. He is Israel.

On my iPhone, I calculate that 1,400 shekels is four hundred dollars. This is too much cash to pull out mid-month. I can do one hundred.

Avi shrugs, understanding. See, the pushy Israeli stereotype isn’t always true. “I can get him the basics for now. Thank you.” We walk inside the bank, and I withdraw one hundred bucks from the ATM. He offers to pay back the bank fee.

“Call me anytime,” he says, scrawling a phone number and address on a bank envelope. “Except Saturday — Shabbat.”

Outside, I hand him the wad of cash. “I hope your son feels better,” I say.

“It doesn’t look good, but thank you.”

I leave Avi, and with every block I walk, I feel worse and worse. I am an idiot. And he played unfair.  I finger Avi’s scrap of paper in my pocket as if it were insurance it might work out.

A week goes by, and of course, there is no envelope from Israel. Any news headline about Israel gets my ire. I agree with the worst opinions in the press. I boycott my weekly visits to Ha’aretz, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper. I wonder if I still even want to visit in August. I blame Avi. Maybe I should call and pretend to ask after the son. Pretend I am the mensch I was taken to be. I search for his number, but am admittedly relieved when it doesn’t turn up. I must have accidentally tossed it. It happens.

With melanoma in my family history and moles all over my face, arms, chest and legs, I should visit the dermatologist more than, well, never. So I finally call my primary doctor to get a referral on my health plan. I figure, for the 1% chance I have skin cancer, I might as well have treatment 80% covered.

The recent Times Square bombing attempt reminded me to revisit our disaster preparedness plan. My partner Bryan and I live in New York City and first created ours in 2005, the year beginning with George W. Bush’s second term, North Korea claiming nuclear weapons, Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking — and Katrina.  Survival was the big theme. So we downloaded a template off the web, opened a bottle of pinot noir, and ordered in dinner to create it. Looking now for that file on my MacBook Air (an update since the iMac then), I considered how much has changed for us in five years. Bryan and I have both switched jobs twice, we have three more nieces and nephews, we have cycled through a dozen housekeepers, the Chinese restaurant from which we ordered that night has closed (a victim of the credit crunch) and our two-bedroom apartment’s value has doubled — and halved. Updating our emergency plan, five areas revealed how else life can move on.