Disappointed in a Northern Exposure episode

On Netflix, I’ve been watching Northern Exposure. In fact, just the other day on my other blog I wrote about how much I enjoy the show.

Then I saw the episode “Northern Lights“.

Before I continue, here’s Northern Exposure in a nutshell. Rob Morrow plays Dr. Joel Fleischman, a neurotic Jewish doctor from New York (who’s, no doubt, related to Woody Allen) who finishes medical school and learns that due to a clause in his contract that he never bothered to read carefully, he’s obligated to serve the State of Alaska for four years as a doctor to pay off his student loan. So, this doctor, after unsuccessfully trying to get out of his contract, reluctantly sets up shop in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska. It’s a town of quirky people, and he’s indeed a “fish out of water”.

The show’s brilliantly written and well acted, but I found myself disappointed by the episode “Northern Lights”. Joel prepares for a much-needed two week vacation, as stipulated in his contract. However, Alaska informs him the vacation is in effect cancelled since they could not find a doctor to take his place for the two weeks.

Angry, Joel withholds medical services until he’s given a vacation. The town then sues him for breaching his contract and he’s subjected to living homeless (he’s locked out of his residence) until he relents and returns to work.

This episode seemed very poorly written for several reasons:

1. Nobody seems to notice that Alaska is the party originally in breach of contract for failing to provide Joel with a vacation. Yes, Joel is withholding medical services, but only because the State of Alaska has failed to honor its side of his contract.

2. Instead of withholding medical services, Joel no doubt would’ve instead contacted an attorney from New York or Mike, the local attorney that he’s developed an odd bond with. Joel longs to return to New York and was upset when told by Mike a few episodes back that Alaska was justified to add another year of service onto his contract.

3. Instead of the Cicely powers-that-be banging the phones to get a doctor there to let Joel take his vacation, they take it out on him by depriving him of his place and his personal belongings. Nobody in the town offers to let Joel stay with them, and his assistant Marilyn only visits him to ask if they should reorder a particular medical supply.

4. Mike, a hypochondriac who’s convinced the air’s unfit to breathe and the water’s unfit to drink, had been receiving medical treatment (howbeit reluctantly) from Joel. But he takes on the town’s case against Joel. He then claims to Maggie he’s found a case that gives Cicely an airtight case against Joel. Wrong. It amazes me how an “attorney” like Mike or a well-read man like Maurice don’t realize that they’re in danger of losing their doctor because Alaska is failing to honor Joel’s contract.

I realize these are just TV shows, but there were just so many implausible things about this episode. It just seemed far too far out of character for the characters on the show, a sign of a risky story idea that turns into bad writing instead of a really great episode. Joel mentions how a doctor from a nearby town can provide emergency medical treatment…gee whiz! Would it have been so troublesome for the townfolk to save the run-of-the-mill medical issues until the Good Doctor got back and went to the other doctor for the important issues.

A friend of mine once told me he liked this show a lot but that it began to lose its way. Makes me wonder if this episode’s a good example.

A haiku for you

My forte in writing is prose, but poetry can be fun to write also. Someone, Quentin Tarantino I believe, once said “You can’t type poetry on a computer.” To an extent, that might be true.

In the meanwhile, here’s a haiku–one of my favorite types of poetry:

Richard writes fiction

He would like to be published

He keeps on trying

Writer’s Digest Your Story #17 castoff: Trying to Tell My Parents I’m Marrying a Divorced Mother

This was one of about 1,100 stories submitted to Writer’s Digest for Your Story #17. The prompt: “A 20-something man sits in a taxi in front of his parents’ house, trying to find the strength to tell them that he (fill in the blank).”

An earlier post about the musician with cancer was a version I wrote but decided not to send. Below is the version I sent. This, alas, didn’t make their cut down to five. Maybe it could’ve used more interaction with the cabbie, who knows.

Trying to Tell My Parents I’m Marrying a Divorced Mother

By Richard Zowie

“Don’t worry, baby, the worst thing they can do is refuse to answer the door,” Rebecca said.

“Or call the police,” I joked, trying to masquerade my nervousness. Reaching into my wallet, I gave the cab driver forty dollars for the fare and a $10 bill to wait.

Rebecca, her daughter Veronica and I sat in the taxi, comforted perhaps by the new-car smell. We’d ridden from the San Antonio International Airport north to Bulverde, where my parents live. Their house, where I grew up, is in an upscale subdivision, one with many centuries-old oak and pecan trees and a golf course nearby. We sat at the curb, to our right my parents’ three-story beige brick house with navy trim. Behind the front screen door I could see the front door was open; my parents never leave it open when they’re not home.

I took a deep breath and suggested we all pray before going in. Telling my parents Rebecca and I were getting married was difficult since they wouldn’t answer any phone calls, e-mails or letters. Next step was to tell them in person.

At 26, I was the family’s black sheep. I grew up in a wealthy home and was expected to become a doctor like my father and marry a beautiful girl from a well-connected family. The problem was, while I earned all A’s in math and science in high school, I never wanted to be a doctor. I rarely saw my father, and whenever I did, he always seemed so cold and humorless, as if I or my sister were just another inconvenience for him. Besides that, the doctor’s life-being on call, making rounds, and breaking the news to someone that their loved one had died in surgery-didn’t appeal to me.

Being a writer did. Creating new worlds, new characters and new plots thrilled me. While I was a teenager, my parents hoped to get this out of my system through the “harmless diversion” of a month-long summer creative writing camp. They were, obviously, very unhappy when I still changed my college major to English after one semester. They also were upset when I became a Christian while attending a campus Bible study. (My mother’s a nominal Presbyterian while my father, an apatheist, has always maintained he doesn’t know whether God or any deity exists and has no interest in finding out).

After college, I became a journalist while writing fiction during my free time. To make matters worse, I ended up far from home as a reporter for The Oakland Press in Pontiac, Michigan.

And as I went to church and attended Sunday School, I met Rebecca.

She had an incredible smile that lightened up her mysterious, blue-gray-green eyes and an inquisitive nature that never seemed to tire from knowledge. Discussions about the Bible turned into friendly chats which turned into a date. After a year of dating and falling deeper into love, I asked her to marry me.

When I told my parents about her, my mother hung up the phone. I later learned from my older sister, Amber, that she’d sobbed for two hours about how I’d ruined my and their lives. Rebecca’s from a blue-collar family, she never went to college (though she makes a decent living as a cake decorator) and she’s divorced with a daughter-not the daughter-in-law pedigree to boast about at the country club. Amber, who’d married a cardiologist, sounded worried as she called me a few weeks ago and told me Dad was considering cutting me out of his will to make me break up with Rebecca.

When she finished praying, Rebecca looked at me and smiled. “No matter what happens, Kevin, just remember it’s in the Lord’s hands,” she said.

If only my parents would meet Rebecca and Veronica, they’d see how wonderful they are, I thought.

We were just about to get out of the cab when I saw Marcela, my parents’ longtime maid, jogging toward us. From her somber expression, she was now a reluctant intermediary. Marcela tried to smile but instead sadly shook her head.

“Your parents have nothing to say to you, Kevin,” she said. “They said that as long as this woman and her daughter are in your life, you’re dead to them and are no longer their son.”

No use trying to talk to them, I realized. I nodded to Marcela and gave the cabbie another $40 to drive back to the airport.

Copyright © 2009, Richard Zowie. All rights reserved. Do not republish without permission.

Can’t please everybody

As a journalist, your job is to report the facts and give respective sides a chance to give their thoughts and opinions. Back in 2004, for example, I wrote a news-feature about a Texas man who needed another kidney. He’ d received a transplant years before but due to complications from a congenital kidney disease, he was in need of another one. His insurance wouldn’t cover it, and he didn’t have the money to cover the out-of-pocket costs. He conceded to me that he would possibly die before being able to afford the operation.

A sad story, but I still felt obligated to get the insurance company’s side. When you tell them you’re a journalist and what you’re working on and how you’d like to give them the chance to explain themselves in print, you’d be amazed at how fast they can have one of their fine people in public relations to contact you. (Not a knock against the company, mind you, just a fact of life). They told me they sympathized with the man but how if their company covered these types of procedures for those who didn’t have the proper insurance, before long they’d go bankrupt. In other words, there are only so many lifelines you can toss out before the ship starts to sink from the weight of those clinging to the life preservers.

Overall, I’ve found people appreciate a sense of balance. But it won’t please everybody, and no matter how hard you try, someone’s bound to be upset. You just have to roll with the punches and do your job.

Short story: “It’s Not Fair!”

Originally, I wrote this short story for a 750-word writing prompt Writer’s Digest features in its magazines. The challenge is to write based on a person sitting in a taxi outside a house and relunctant about going in. I wrote two different stories for this prompt and decided to submit the other story. As I wrote this one, I decided it was too fascinating of a short piece to limit to 750 words. So, I added and came up with something that looks decent. You decide.

It’s Not Fair!

By Richard Zowie

The cab drive from the San Antonio International Airport to my parent’s house took about five quick minutes from the terminal to Broadway and then into a subdivision, but the time lagged on forever. As I rode, I succumbed to another violent coughing fit. Each cough felt like a heavyweight boxer salivating for and driving a crushing hook into my ribs.

It’s not fair!” I sputtered when the coughing subsided. Pain muffles anger.

What isn’t fair? I left home at 18 to pursue a music career. I play a fiery electric guitar, both rhythm and lead, and I can sing: Eddie Van Halen meets Steven Tyler. For years I played in public events like night clubs and in talent shows in hopes of catching a break. Finally, I managed to save enough to record a demo of 12 of the 500 songs I’ve written. It took about two months of working 18-hour days, but it was worth it. And at 24, I had several record labels interested in signing me to a multi-million dollar contract. Forget about American Idol, one executive told me. You have talent! Besides, Simon Cowell wouldn’t know real musical talent from Milli Vanilli!

That was a few months ago, around the time I started to cough and feel exhausted all the time. Too much work not enough sleep, I thought, figuring the cure as sleep and lots of Nyquil. Neither worked, which made me nervous enough to visit the doctor. He was jovial, a man who seemed to love his work, but when he saw a strange white smudge on my chest x-ray, his wide smile vanished.

Off I went to an oncologist, Dr. Stark. I knew it meant “cancer doctor”, and as I sat in the office and waited to talk to him, I wondered how long I’d have to put off my music career. It’s a brutal business and this might be the only window of opportunity I’d ever get. How long would I have to sit out? Six months? A year? Two years?

Not even close.

Dr. Stark’s news couldn’t have been worse.

Lung cancer, advanced.

It also had spread into my pancreas.

Both were inoperable and terminal.

I had six months, maybe a year, to live. My promising music career was ending right as it was just starting to take off.

I didn’t want to tell my parents over the phone, so I called them to say I’d be stopping by and flew home to tell them in person. And as the plane landed and I waited outside the terminal for a taxi, I realized how much I really didn’t want to go to their house. Both Mom and Dad are heavy smokers, like a refinery working 24-7 in a desperate attempt to keep up with the demand for gasoline. Dad’s smoked four packs a day for 35 years while Mom’s smoked two a day.

I’ve never smoked, but yet I’m the one with lung cancer. Irony really sucks, doesn’t it?

Their smoking has always bothered me and made it difficult for me to breathe, but whenever I’d ask them to stop smoking, Dad would normally take a drag and tell me, “You want me to stop smoking in my house?”

“But I can’t breathe, Dad!” I’d say. “You and Mom’s cigarette smoke makes me sick!”

“Oh, bull,” he’d say dismissively, using a word that was the closest he ever gets to swearing. “It’s all in your head.”

Dad, of course, believes non-smokers have far too many rights and that he’s entitled to smoke wherever and whenever he wants. No smoke-free restaurants for us. He doesn’t even fly anymore since planes have banned smoking. Before they did, all three of us-against my protests-would sit in the smoking section. They would complain about how I’d spend most of my time in my room at home, avoiding watching TV with them since the air became too difficult to breathe. I’d even put towels under my bed to keep the smoke out.

Whenever we’d drive in the car, they’d get angry at me when I’d crack open the back window to get some fresh air. Don’t you know how much air conditioning that wastes, son? Dad would thunder at me. Finally, he or Mom would open their window a half inch, but it didn’t do much good.

I wonder what they’ll say now, knowing their only child will never be able to give them grandchildren? Will they just keep smoking? It angered me enough to make me wonder if I should just leave what money I’d earn from my album to the American Cancer Society.

“How much is the fare?” I asked the cabbie when we arrived.

“Ten dollars.”

I handed him a twenty and asked him to wait and got out of the cab.

Dad was outside in the driveway, washing his blue Toyota Tundra truck and spraying off the remaining soap. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. He looked at me, smiling, and I could tell he was in a good mood. “Hey, son, how are you doing?” he asked, his voice slightly muffled from the cigarette. The late-afternoon sun cast a fierce glare off his bald head.

We’ve always been a private family, one that handles our issues indoors. But this time, I had no desire to tell my parents the news in an environment that was killing me. I looked at the cigarette smoke and said to him: “Dad, I visited the doctor yesterday. You know that cough I’ve had?”

“Yes. What about it?”

“It’s lung cancer. Inoperable. Terminal. And it’s spread into my pancreas. I’ll be dead in about six months.”

He looked at me for the longest time, his face morphing from surprise, to shock, to disbelief and then to a sadness I’d never seen before. As I studied the wide, astonished look on his face, I felt sorry for him and found my anger towards him dissolve. “You’re joking, right? Please tell me you’re joking.” he finally asked.

I shook my head.

Dad’s lip quivered as he slowly took the cigarette out of his mouth, dropped it and slowly ground it out. It was amazing to think, considering the cigarette wasn’t even half-smoked. Dad had grown up in the Great Depression, and from his childhood he’d developed a lifelong discipline that you don’t waste anything. “H-h-how? You don’t even smoke!”

“Some of the clubs I played music in allowed smoking. You and Mom smoke. And we always had to eat in restaurants and go places where they allow smoking.”

Tears formed in his eyes and for the first time in my life, I saw my Dad cry. “We’re the ones who should have lung cancer, not you! This isn’t fair!”

“I know, Dad,” I said.

Dad continued weeping as Mom came outside. She held a lighter in her left hand and an unlit cigarette in her right. “What’s going on?” she asked.

And so I told her also.

I’d always hoped my parents would quit smoking before it was too late. They did quit, but it was still too late.


Copyright © 2009, Richard Zowie. All rights reserved. Do not republish without permission.

Writing thoughts

I’ve been working on a rough draft of a novel and am hoping to have the rough draft done by later this year. There have been a few snags along the way as I’ve encountered some areas where I don’t know what to write next. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a break for a few days while other times it might be an example that what you have is lousy. I like to think it’s the former and am hoping to get these snags out of the way.

One thing I have learned over the years as a writer: don’t fall in love with a rough draft. I read once at college how James Michener described himself as a terrible writer but a great re-writer. Ernest Hemingway is said to have re-written one chapter of his book many times.

(I begin a new paragraph since I don’t feel worthy to insert my thoughts in the same graph as Mr. Michener and Hemingway) I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve looked at stories I wrote years ago and have cringed at how they look. It makes me wonder if a writer ever becomes satisfied with his work, or if he just eventually decides to send it to publishers and find out what happens.

Working on some new writing projects

1. An assignment that may have me writing about the Dallas Cowboys and their new stadium. Woo-hoo!

2. Another Writer’s Digest contest, the monthly one. I have until March 10 to submit it. Outtakes will be posted here, and eventually what I sent in will be also.