Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Hey! It’s Not Brain Surgery! Yes…it is (part 1)…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Brain Surgery Rebellion,Life & Death,Philosophy,Social Policy and Justice — Bob at 4:55 pm on Sunday, April 4, 2010

By Robert M. Katzman

(Author’s Note: I began writing this new story in early March, 2010 in my newly re-established back-issue periodical store, Bob’s Newsstand, located in Skokie, Illinois, just northwest of Chicago.

My young daughter, Sarah, now thirteen, asked if we could go somewhere on her spring break from junior high for a few days, since she, her mother Joy and I, had gone nowhere for over a year, even before the old store closed.  To her surprise, I agreed to find a little place to stay for a couple of days in central Wisconsin, a favorite state of ours.  After a tough year, Sarah was not expecting yes.  She was pleased.

At random, totally at random, I found a modest B & B in a small town called West Bend, northwest of Milwaukee, just west of Cedarburg.  The picture of the 1893 Victorian house perched high atop a hill was spectacular.  I found the tariff to be fair and reasonable.  We made a reservation and arrived there from our home twenty-five miles south of the state line in about two hours.  The house’s owners, Darrell and Deborah Ziebarth, soft spoken and laid back, met us in the foyer and gave us a slow tour. The house was in terrific shape, a virtual museum of clothing, furniture, vintage photography, architecture and very good food, with all sorts of antiquated touches to make the experience even more charming at breakfast time.

I decided to see if I could finish my story there, which has proven to work out on previous trips to little towns around America.  Different place, less distractions.  While there, I learned something about Deborah’s family that neatly intersected with a recent part of my own life.  I could not have possibly known about this in advance, making the coincidence all the more appealing to me, a person quite caught up in history.  I don’t just read about the past, Reader, in a way, I live there.

Deborah is a direct descendent of William Brewster, known as the Father of the Pilgrims, who were originally known as the Separatist’s Movement in Britain.  Brewster left Scooby, England in 1607 to escape religious persecution and went to seek refuge in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  Later, in 1620, the Brewster family found passage to America in the Mayflower ship and once here, established the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.

So, ironically, to me at least, I started writing the first half of this difficult and intimate story of coming to terms with broken things I can not repair, under the gaze of an 1681 English newspaper, the Observator, which was part of a sort of museum-like display on my store’s wall of antique paper, and then finished the story’s second half in the home of a woman whose family had left that exact same country, except 74 years earlier than my own fragile newspaper’s date.  That meant that the Brewster’s had (eventually) been already living in America for 61 years when that newspaper was first printed.  The Seventeenth Century, completely by chance, witnessed both the beginning and end of my story.  Not exactly common in the very beige and corn-filled Midwest.

Beginning my story in Skokie, Illinois—a town not usually noted for its Pilgrim ancestors—is something that could reasonably be expected.  I worked there every day, so why not?

But completing it in West Bend, Wisconsin? Totally unexpected.  Or, in other words, perfect.

Curious people, if you want to see Darrell and Deborah’s grand old jewel box of a house on a hill, go to:


This is not some ad for them, but rather, it is a way for me to express sincere appreciation to both of them, really nice and spiritual people, that I was able to find a quiet place to write this very painful and personal story under the soft yellow light of their Victorian lamp’s fringed shade.  The only sound was that of my black pen racing across a yellow pad, giving vivid new life to dark and distant incidents.

May it inspire you.)

Part One

In fall, 2003, after a summer of traveling alone around the USA with a mini-caravan carrying 10,000 small posters I was test marketing at nine county fairs from Dothan, Alabama to Tulsa, Oklahoma, I decided to make a career change.

I’d spent my life operating a wide range of businesses since 1965, from newsstands to delicatessens and thought that perhaps it was time to try another path.  I enrolled at DePaul University in Downtown Chicago to see if I could earn a degree as a teacher.  I was 53 years old and I thought maybe I could help other people, somehow, with all I had learned.

At this same time, I was bothered by a strange pain in both of my forearms, whenever I used my arms to push open a glass door to enter a store.  That kind of motion.  It wasn’t the weight of the doors, it was the action itself; kind of a muscular ache.  But I thought little of it, really.

After all, I’d spent the last four months erecting and then disassembling a twenty-foot wide by twelve foot high by ten foot deep county fair booth consisting of 75 pieces of lumber and exactly 100 steel bolts with both washers and wing nuts, and then covered the whole framework with layers of huge bulky waterproof tarps to protect my inventory from summer squalls in the countryside.

My booth took the longest to construct and was always the last to be taken down, but it was by far the coolest booth wherever I went.  Definitely hard to miss.

So I naturally assumed I was in generally excellent condition, no smoking, no drinking and very flexible and that the strange muscular pain in my forearms was transitory.  But, it persisted, so I went to my regular chiropractor near my original back-issue magazine store, Magazine Memories, in a northern suburb of Chicago.  He had often helped fix my cranky lower back when it went out of whack, so I thought that maybe the pain was somehow muscular/skeletal in its nature.

But my regular Chiro guy was on vacation, so I picked another place to check it out.  I wasn’t really concerned.

After an examination, the very fit and confident young person who saw me told me, in a gently admonishing and condescending tone of voice that my problem was my poor posture, as he saw it, and that if I agreed to an expensive series of treatments from him, it could be corrected.

“So, when do you want to start the treatments?” he asked me, with a clipboard in one hand holding a form for me to sign, and a pen in the other.

Perhaps my young examiner felt that a sharp reduction in the amount of cash in my pocket would improve my posture.  But regardless, I wasn’t buying his conjecture.  I wasn’t born yesterday.  I was born almost twenty thousand yesterdays ago.  I thanked Mr. Smooth Talker for his expert opinion and then left him, fast.

So, then I went to my regular and wonderful internist, Dr. Lee Freedman, who had discovered other exotic maladies within me than no one else ever detected.  He suggested I get an MRI to see if there was any sort of abnormalities that could be causing my curious pains.  He felt it wasn’t my posture or arthritis or anything else related to that, but it was worth pursuing because of what he already knew of my bizarre medical history.

As an infant, I was one of an unknown numbers of thousands of individuals across America who were blasted by an enormous amount of x-rays in order to repair, in my particular case, my swollen thyroid glands.

This was considered cutting edge medical science at that time, sixty years ago.  But the “cutting edge” part was eventually found to be more akin to a French Guillotine in its nature.  Millions developed an endless array of physical ailments unconnected with their work, sports or any other obvious reason.

But truly, it was the Grim Reaper himself disguised as medical brilliance just before and after 1950.  Then, beginning in the late Sixties and continuing even to today, 2010, tens of thousands of people have died from their terrible over-exposure to the invisible rays.  Not all at once, but progressively.

A silent American Hiroshima, with no visible mushroom cloud.

In my own case, by 2003 I’d had about 26 different surgeries.  Yes, I was very fit, but with many surgical scars all over my body, from head to toe.  My particular form of cancer, a malignant salivary gland, was finally discovered after over a decade of mind-splitting headaches, none of which the many doctors my parents took me to seemed to be able to figure out.  My orthodontist finally nailed it, so to speak, and emergency surgery followed three days later, on December 20, 1968.

By October, 2003, the MRI’s results led me to a large medical complex in the Chicago area where I was to be seen by an old colleague of Dr. Freedman’s.  I was only mildly concerned, a frankly irrational emotional defense against the inevitable diagnosis.

I live in a sort of dream world of invincibility, and I find it very comfortable to stay there.  It is always sunny and happy bluebirds sing all day.  Sorry, but I can’t invite any visitors to such a nice place.  I am the only resident of that perfect world.

Joyce, my wife of a quarter century, went with me when I went to see this new doctor.  A strong person, I wanted her by my side, whatever may come.  I had received a call the week before from the doctor of neurology I was supposed to meet—and who happened to be Jewish, as I am—but he was unable to keep the appointment due to a sudden heart bypass operation needed by his father in California.   However, he told me he had an excellent associate who had agreed to see me in his absence, if that was agreeable with me, a Dr. Francois.  He didn’t elaborate further and I immediately agreed to see the replacement doctor.  The persistent pain in my forearms was not lessening.  I felt I couldn’t delay the pursuit of solving this mystery any longer.

When Joy and I arrived at the correct building in the sprawling medical complex and rode up the elevator to the Neurology department, we were then led to a small room and told to wait there.  I remember that everything in the room was white: the floor, the walls, the table and chairs…everything.

Some time passed.

Then there was a brief knock on the door and when it opened, a tall handsome man walked in.  He appeared to me to be in his mid-forties and was wearing a doctor’s white outfit.  Oh, and he was black, too.

He introduced himself as Dr. Henri Francois, and told us he was the head of the Neurology Department.

He had a quick warm smile and asked where Robert Katzman was, looking around the small white room to see if he had missed him, somehow.  I told him that I was Robert Katzman.  He stared at me, reacting with visible surprise.  It was unsettling.

Then he said,

“My God!  I read your astounding medical history and expected to find a little old man in a wheelchair!  You looked terrific!  And you’re 53?”

A pause.

I wasn’t sure how to respond.  Then I said, cluelessly,

“Well…this is me…as I am now.  I feel pretty good, mostly, though.  And, um…yes, I’m 53.” 

Then Joy and I looked at each other.  Silent communication.  We knew something was coming.  We had been in sterile white rooms like this one, before.

Dr Francois then swiftly laid out the results of the several MRI’s and other subsequent examinations I’d had prior to meeting him that mild autumn day.  He spoke quickly, and I understood why.  He was the deliverer of bad news and must have learned in medical school that giving bad news was the equivalent of ripping off a band-aid.  It’s gonna hurt, no matter what, so best to get it over with as quickly as possible.

I realized that Dr. Francois must have already known how many of those ”band-aides” had been ripped off of me, and I braced myself for this latest one.

His expression sobered and he began,

“Mr. Katzman, you have two brain tumors, just under your skull on the right front side.  They are called Meninginomas and are benign tumors, not cancer.  The pains in your forearms are a symptom of those tumors.  I realize it would nearly impossible for the average lay person to associate those two situations, but now you know.”

“Normally”, he continued, “when I meet most of my patients in a setting like this one, I tell them they have approximately nine months to get their affairs in order before they die.  You don’t have that situation facing you, but you should have the tumors removed as quickly as possible.  If you agree, I’ll be the person doing the surgery.  What do you say?”

Another pause.

The white room was pregnant with second chances.

Nevertheless, I was terrified.

He wants to cut my head open to repair my brain.  How was I supposed to be happy with what wasn’t wrong with me?

I looked over at Joyce for the first time since hearing this news.  What both of us simultaneously thought, confirmed later in the ride home, was this:

If this black man was the Head of Neurology at this world famous medical facility, just how many hoops did he have to jump through to get here?  How much harder did he have to study to prove he was just as good as any white medical student?  How strong a personality he must have to have arrived at this point in his life, and what an extraordinary surgeon he must be.

I was struck immediately by my unexpected good fortune to have such a man offer to do my brain surgery.  To put it even more ethnically, and frankly, more honestly, what I felt at that moment was:

He wasn’t a “Jewish” doctor as I was raised to believe was the gold standard of excellence in seeking medical care.

No, he wasn’t Jewish.  At this time, this place and for me—he was better.

I looked into the serious blue eyes of my blonde Norwegian/Danish bride, a wise woman and great friend to me, and I knew, just knew, she felt exactly the same as I did.  After so many years together, we were, at times like this, more like one mind than two.  Still both individuals, but so very in sync with each other’s values and thoughts.

Then I looked back at Dr. Francois—only seconds had passed since I thought the thoughts I just described—and immediately agreed to have him do the surgery.  He smiled.  The tension in the room seemed to ease.

However, I had just immediately agreed in the sense of, that he could be the one who should “do it”, but not immediately, in the sense of “right now.”

In my life, the unplanned is expected.  The only control I really have is when, not if, surgery will happen.

Some times.

I knew, despite Dr. Francois’ seemingly ‘good news’ that I did not have a certain death sentence of brain cancer, that it was no insurance policy against something going wrong when anyone cut into my body.  I live today with partial facial paralysis, courtesy of a bone transplant to reconstruct my face done at the University of Chicago in June, 1982.  Not exactly a medical slum, and yes, also a world famous research hospital and teaching center, but I still see the immobile results…every…single…morning…when I look into my mirror.

Things severed do not always come back together in the same way, no matter anyone’s skill or good intensions.  Though damned by my waterfall of radiation as a defenseless baby, I was not a naïve fool now, and preferred to see things as they were—and not as I wished them to be.

I told the surprised Dr. Francois that I had some things to do to insure the safety of my family should he find something unexpected during my brain surgery.  It could happen.  He solemnly agreed with that possibility.  That reality.  He seemed relieved that I was so grounded in what wasn’t specifically expressed.  His job that day, telling me what I was facing was tough enough for him, without having him needing to put up with my pretending that my prospects were, what actually…they were not.

I told him that I would be willing to do the surgery the first week of the New Year, 2004.  Dr. Francois had an uncomprehending look of disbelief on his face, and couldn’t fathom, it seemed to me, why I would gamble with my life by waiting for eight weeks.

I simply told him I had priorities.  My wife Joy, who had Multiple Sclerosis, had to be provided for in case things didn’t work out.  I also had a seven-year-old adopted daughter, Sarah, who was also part of that same equation.  I had three adult children, as well, and a particular obligation I felt toward one of them, Lisa, the oldest, that must be met.  Finally, I had a friend to see in California.

Dr. Francois firmly told me that he wasn’t happy about my decision to delay the surgery, but it was my life to risk.

Exactly, I replied.


Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart  and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: https://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998                                                                                                                    (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $24.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.

My Fighting Words Publishing Co. four original books, published between 2004 and 2007 are now out-of-print. I still have some left and will periodically offer them for sale on my new website.

 Twitter handle:bob_katzman


Comment by Don Larson

April 4, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

I look forward to part two.

Comment by Larry A. Marks

April 6, 2010 @ 10:29 am

I had the same procedure for shrinking tonsils. I found out when my wife Donna was in the hospital giving birth to our first born. That was when all the articles hit, 36 years ago. Happily I had it done at a private clinic, not Micheal Reese, and they used a fraction of the radiation that was typical for this. It took me two weeks to track down my records because the doctor had retired and the clinic was long since closed.

You can imagine my relief (like a small ticking time-bomb instead of a large one) when I had a thyroid scan and the results were all negative.

Im sorry you got caught in that procedure, which was nothing more than a huge experiment and that your pain was so great. But as you say, you are 53 and still stacking magazines on shelves with a smile on your face.

Im looking forward to reading the rest.

Comment by Dobie Maxwell

April 6, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

Bob Katzman has a gift for writing like few others. I admire his honesty, talent and wide open straightforward style that make for interesting reads every single time. Plus, he’s a kind soul and decent human being too. All good vibes to Bob and his family too.

Comment by bob katzman

April 7, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

To those of you that responded to my new story,so far, thank you.

I have completed Part Two and will post it in a few days, probably 4/11/10, Sunday. Part Three will follow a week later, and so on.

This isn’t like sitting around remembering old times. It is a very difficult and necessary thing I feel I must do to let there be a record of an especially bad time, those that contributed to make it so, and those that helped.

It may be a “good story” in the sense of suspense and unexpected twists and turns, as well as the coming rebellion in a later chapter, which uncountable people will be able to identify with how I feel and still feel about that time, in January and April, 2004. So, I’ll keep posting the parts and then be done with it, a history recorded.

Maybe that will help, but I doubt it.


Comment by Deborah Ziebarth

April 24, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

What a nice beginning. You have talent! Thank you for linking our B&B and my history to your life story. I look at this (for you)as less considence and more like validation. I am anxious to read on. Deb

Comment by Dillon Jane

March 29, 2021 @ 1:47 pm

Wow Bob! I may get much more work done today – I HAVE TO KEEP READING!
Warmly, Jane

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