ER Ruined the ’90s

Through the miracle of cable television, the old TV series ER now shows up every day. I started watching it again after not having seen it since its original airing. And I have come to the conclusion that ER ruined the 1990s for me. I was a young mother, with three kids in grade school or starting grade school, prone to fret about them, and week after week, ER treated me and other viewers to a cavalcade of …gloom. No wonder I was a Nervous Nellie during that decade.

As I view the show now, I think of the fates of the major characters. Every single one faced some sort of catastrophe, with few or no rays of sunshine. Think about it:

Dr. Mark Greene: is mugged, faces malpractice suit, eventually dies of brain tumor

Dr. Peter Benton: talented surgeon whose son is diagnosed as deaf

Dr. Doug Ross: notorious womanizer, he finally settles into a relationship with the love of his life, nurse Carol Hathaway, and then he gets booted from his job just as he and Carol are on the right trajectory.

Nurse Hathaway: see above (oh, and in the pilot episode, she was a suicide attempt)

Dr. John Carter: Cousin suffers a massive drug overdose, and John himself is a stabbing victim when deranged patient kills…

Dr. Lucy Knight: Medical student Lucy Knight has a contentious relationship with Dr. Carter that seems to be improving until…deranged patient kills her and stabs him.

There’s more…most of these core characters left the series eventually to be replaced by others who had similar bad fates. Someone should post a warning in that hospital’s HR for job applicants: Only work here if you can accept personal heartache on a dizzying schedule.

ERTitleCardThese leads’ stories, of course, were interwoven with the many tales of characters on each episode, the ones who end up maimed, dead, infected, whatever. Yeah, there were bunches who were patched up just fine, but this ER was surely a circle in Dante’s Hell.

I know that ERs see a lot of bad stuff, and this was, after all, a drama. It was just relentless in its bad stuff. And, since it was also a top-notch drama — with consistent and well-acted characterizations, good plotting, riveting story lines — it stuck with you, as all good drama does, well beyond the last flicker of pixels on the screen.

That’s the problem — ER was so darned good at what it did that the shadows would stay with me long after I watched an episode. It ruined the 1990s for me, people!

Seriously, though, ER probably accurately portrayed the many awful challenges we face as humans. I can think of people in my circle of friends and acquaintances who’ve suffered horrible illnesses, terminal diagnoses, disability, tragedy. It’s part of life.

But also part of life is hope. Faith. Especially of the religious kind. Many of those I know who’ve suffered awful circumstances, some too heavy to contemplate bearing, have a grounding in religious faith. So their gloom is lightened by the brightness of promise, promise that the Lord is with them, that…the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the Lord.

That was never a part of ER. I don’t remember many, if any, visits by chaplains or rabbis to those in distress…even though most hospitals do ask patients to list such affiliations if they have them.

There was never much sense of true happiness either. Even when tormented characters found some measure of peace, they still …suffered.

ER was fantastic television drama and deserved all the awards and praise and viewership it received. But re-viewing it now makes me realize that sometimes I need to step away from good dramas like this if they’re unrelentingly dark.

I’ll do that…after I catch up on the next episode.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been called “a novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.





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Five-paragraph story: (She Loves Me) Like Jesus Does

by Libby Sternberg

Why should traveling tire you out when all you’re doing is sitting while someone else steers? He’d been on a plane for three hours, a train for two, and now was in the backseat of an Uber, and he felt like he’d put in a forty-eight hour shift at the hospital. He drummed his fingers on his knees, anxious to get there, afraid of what he’d find.

She’d understood the first time, he reminded himself. She’d checked him into a program and taken him back when he was done, even softly explaining how it wasn’t unusual for medical staff to be tempted, to cross that line into substance abuse. She knew other nurses who’d gone this way. Of course, she herself hadn’t.

She’d understood the second time, too, with encouragement and a disciplined lack of judgment. He’d actually seen her schooling her face so it registered none of her disappointment when she suspected he was using again. No rehab then, nor the time after, nor…how many more times had he slipped?

This last time…there was a coolness. A sense she was reevaluating. She’d found his stash and thrown it out, flushed it right down the toilet. He’d tried to joke with her about that not being the most environmentally friendly way to discard meds, but she’d looked at him as if if she’d given up — on herself. On trying to figure it out, figure out how to be supportive but not enabling. When he saw that look, he went to rehab on his own. Checked himself in. Pulled himself up. Prayed every day it would stick this time. Prayed she’d be there when he got out. So that he could at least say he was sorry. Just that — say he was sorry. Please…

Seventy times seven, he murmured to himself after he’d lugged his duffle from the car and stood in front of their tidy bungalow. Please, Lord, let her forgive me.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist whose latest book, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review. Five-paragraph-stories is an occasional series, sometimes inspired, as this one is, by popular songs. “She Loves Me Like Jesus Does” is a song by Eric Church. Video below.

Other stories in the five-paragraph series are:


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E-Readers or Dead Tree Books?

by Libby Sternberg

Note: This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on January 5, 2011 under the title “From Papyrus to Gutenberg to Kindle.” It has been updated for this blog.

When the Kindle and other e-readers first made inroads into the book market, they were treated with derision by steadfast lovers of DTBs (“dead tree books”). These readers value books as objects, not just as a means of communicating a story. Despite the Kindle’s popularity, some people still refuse to use them, loving the feel and smell of regular books. Perhaps some historical perspective can help these holdouts adjust to our new era, when electronic reading devices exist side by side with books as objects:

From a fifth-century A.D. Sumerian clay tablet discovered in the Euphrates delta, remarkably intact except for the salutation and signature:

“A thousand pardons for hitting young Jezebel in the head with my last note.

I am sure no one will notice the scar after it heals. You do keep your tent very dark; she will still find many suitors. (Editor’s note: It is unclear if the writer is saying “suitors” or “donkeys” here as the words are very similar in cuneiform.)

Please do not worry about the new papyrus we have heard so much talk of. The clay tablets we provide for the village elders are far more durable. They have a rich earthy smell and make for heft in one’s hands. Papyrus will never take the place of clay.

So confident am I that clay will never be replaced, that I have taken a loan from Old Fatima-mae to make some improvements to my tent. I will be able to pay it off quickly with the delivery of our next set of tablets.

But please stop using the clay to write down what you are calling ‘poems.’ It is a waste of precious material, my cousin. No one wants to read those when they can hear them round the fire at night.”

The following appears to be a clandestine letter written by an Egyptian scribe to his wife. Although the date is missing, experts peg its provenance somewhere between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D.:

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: Look at both ends of the scroll to see which one is the beginning of the story. It’s no wonder that Nanatu, the Story Seller, would not buy my latest effort. You presented him the scroll with the ending first!

And no, my dearest one, I refuse to try that product they are calling parchment. It is thin and one must use many separate sheets of it, which can easily become lost. If one scroll confuses you now, what will you do with many single pieces? I can see it clearly—parchment blowing every which way in the wind like the petals of a flower during a sandstorm, and you giving Nanatu one of my stories with half the pieces missing.

Nanatu is temperamental enough as it is. If I hear him say once more that he wants a story with a boat journey in it like the one that Homer fellow told, I will scream. Putting my stories on parchment will not make the difference; getting rid of the likes of Nanatu will.”

Fifteenth-century epistle from an older monk at an Alsatian monastery, Schwer-an-Bier, to another younger monk in a nearby German abbey:

“Please try harder to color within the lines, dear Frère Aefle. Your latest efforts were a strange mess of colors in odd cube-like forms that reminded me of images seen through shards of glass. But I must say at least it was better than the blurry pictures you did on the previous manuscript. That one created mere impressions, rather than a specific image. It made one feel as if one were viewing a landscape through wine-besotted eyes.

Abbot Pierre exclaimed after seeing it: Je vais chercher du bon vin à la cave. (Editor’s note: The loose translation for this phrase is: “Wine is good. Very good. Very, very good. Is it five o’clock somewhere?”) Such shoddy workmanship on your part will only feed the talk that our efforts are useless decoration and unnecessary toil, especially now that villagers are all in a fever over the printing machine you described.

Gutenberg, Schmutenberg, I say, Frère Aefle. Even your most pitiful illumination efforts are more vibrant than the cold black and white letters I’ve seen coming from his machine.

Rest assured, nothing will replace our artistic efforts. And even if Herr Schmutenburg’s device takes hold, I have been told by Friar Chuck that such ‘presses’ will still need laborers like us. He has devised a plan to work together with the Gutenbergs, something he is calling ‘the agency model,’ providing manuscripts to the presses for distribution. It is very complicated. But the important thing to remember, mon Frère, is to keep toiling away, perfecting your craft and trusting Friar Chuck and all the Abbots to look after us.”

Just as well-meaning scribes adjusted to papyrus and the printing press, so too have authors, publishers, readers and agents made the change to a publishing world where e-versions of books are now a must. The reading and publishing world marches onward. To paraphrase a famous playwright, “the story’s the thing,” not where or how you read it!

Libby Sternberg is a novelist whose books are available in print and on e-readers. Her latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.

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Five-Paragraph Story: Written in the Sand

by Libby Sternberg

She’d seen the receipt, on top of his dresser. Maybe he’d left it there deliberately. Now she knew, and she sniffled as she threw cosmetics in her purse, her few pieces of clothing in a bag. She’d be gone by the time he got back.

When she’d met him, she’d wanted a fling, something light and fun. She couldn’t afford serious. She’d known, lately, though, that she was lying to herself about it all being a lark. He was everything she wanted in a man — sensitive, strong, creative, funny. His sense of humor was what had first attracted her to him, the way he’d joked with her when she’d served him beer at the Tap House.

She’d find a new job. Bars, restaurants, diners always needed a waitress, and she was a good one, friendly, pretty, fast and attentive. She remembered things, had practically a photographic memory, hardly had to write down orders. Swearing, she hit her balled-up fist on the dresser, causing the receipt to float to the floor. Her memory was a curse.

She couldn’t stop herself. She bent and picked up the paper, replacing it on his dresser. And then she couldn’t stop herself from investigating further. She pulled open his top drawer, and there it was, nestled among white T-shirts and gray boxers. A velvet box. The kind that only held one kind of jewelry. Her hand reached out, touched the soft cover, but then pulled back as if she’d touched a hot stove.

She’d not look at it. It would burn into her memory, and she’d weep inside whenever seeing its image in her mind. Her memory was a curse. She pulled out her phone as she left the house, calling her WITSEC contact, telling him she was on the road to someplace new.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist whose latest book, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review. Five-paragraph-stories is an occasional series, sometimes inspired, as this one is, by popular songs. “Written in the Sand” is a song by the country band Old Dominion. Video below. Previous five-paragraph stories can be found here:


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Five-paragraph story: Breakup in a Small Town

by Libby Sternberg

“I knew I couldn’t avoid her. That’s why I moved. As fast as I could.” He stared at the lawyer grilling him, wishing he could get his hands on his scrawny neck. Damn it, his tie felt like it was choking him. He wanted to tug at it, but did that make him look dishonest? Be still, it’s almost over. Isn’t it?

She sat, a portrait of innocence, at the defense table, that cascade of chestnut hair held back with a blue ribbon. Hell, it matched his tie. Her whole damned suit matched his tie. Jesus Christ, she knew he only had blue ties because he only had one suit, the blue-gray he now wore. It was as if she read his mind — a small smile pricked at the corners of her impish mouth. She smiled even more, a girlish grin with tilted head, signifying pity, when her lawyer asked a series of rapid-fire questions, the answers to which were all yes: he owned a pistol, he was a firefighter, he’d been upset about her relationship with his best friend.

“So, let me summarize. You owned the gun that killed your friend. You knew how to use the accelerant that started the fire to try to cover the murder of the victim, and you were mad at him for stealing your girlfriend…”

The prosecutor objected, but it was too late. Can’t unring a bell and all that. He’d be lucky not to be charged himself after she got off scot-free, dammit. Oh, and she would get off. He was sure of it. He had seen the sympathetic looks on the jurors’ faces. She was a charmer, she was. That’s how he fell for her, fast and deep.

He felt his face warm and knew he must have looked like a rocket ready to explode. But she was the explosive one, the one whose wild ways masked something dark and dangerous. She was the one who’d turned on him after he realized she was crazy. She was the one who showed up everywhere he went until he ran as if running from the devil. She was the one who’d poisoned the town against him. As the lawyers argued over each other about the objection, he caught her gaze, and he swore he heard her giggle…

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, “Fall from Grace” has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.

This short story was inspired by the Sam Hunt song “Break Up in a Small Town.”

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How far is heaven?

Advent is the season of reflection, hope, reconciliation, anticipation of joy. But for me and my sister, it’s also a season of melancholy as we remember our parents. Both died in December, my father 10 years past, my mother 31 years ago.

When I was a child, I used to eagerly await my father’s return from work around five o’clock each spring and summer day. He carpooled, since we, like most families back then, had only one car. His driver would drop him off at a house three doors down on the corner, and I’d be out playing on the sidewalk of our split-level and rancher development, sun slanting its late-day rays to warm my shoulders and face, hope and happiness and lack of fear in my heart.

No sense of hunger–in those pre-air-conditioned days, I could smell my mother’s dinner cooking along with countless neighbors’.

No sense of fear–Dad always came home, and the sun always came up the next day.

No sense of longing for anything except the one thing I knew for certain would happen–my father’s wide grin when he saw me, his loping walk up the street before he greeted me, his unconditional love written all over his face. Pure joy. A kind of eternal joy, with no before or after, just an endless bliss of the present tense.

That, I think, is a glimpse of heaven.

When I wrote the novel After the War, a young nun, a main character in that saga, thinks she has died as she lies in a hospital bed. She wrestles with the fact that heaven is so “unremarkable,” so disappointing.  Unknown

I wouldn’t be surprised if some fear this, that the afterlife can’t possibly live up to the joys, the graces, the delights and blessings of this life. In earlier times, when misery abounded, when disease cut short lives, when childbirth buried mother and infant, when war and starvation made life a living hell, it might have been easier to imagine a place beyond that suffering where  every tear would be wiped from one’s eyes.

But we live in an age where diseases are conquered, where lifespans have lengthened, where communication with loved ones is easier, where art is available at one’s fingertips on screens big and small, where life is, for many in developed countries, more gentle. What kind of afterlife could compete with our best days?

Some of my “best days” now are when we as a family go to the beach, and, as I reflect on my obsession with beach trips, I realize it’s because I often find glimpses back to my girlhood there.

Not that I’m in the ocean a lot. I just like sitting on the sand, listening to those eternal waves whispering, feeling the warmth of the sun on my shoulders. They return to me flashes of the feelings I had as a child when future and past blended into the singular elation of waiting for the enveloping love of my father to lift me up.


So when I think of heaven, I don’t think of singing angels or robed figures. I think of those blistering bright moments when my father came home from work and nothing existed but the warm cocoon of love in his smile.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, “Fall from Grace,” has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.




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The Diary: A five-paragraph historical, contemporary literary, horror, romance, suspense short story

“The days grow shorter, but it isn’t just the season closing in. It’s the long winter of German occupation that looms. Mama makes plans to leave while Papa continues to believe all will be resolved and peace will reign, that we have nothing to fear! I don’t know what bothers me more now–the invasion of my beloved France or the shattering of my illusions about my father. I have thrown away the rose-scented lotion he gave me. Ah, how I loved rubbing that on my arms before bed. But it was from his trip to Germany…”

Elise closed the diary. No more entries. Was that the moment before escape? Stretching as she stood, tired from hours of translation, Elise went to the window, staring into the blue-gray gloaming at steady rain that did nothing but illuminate the grit on windowpanes in need of a good scrubbing. “Rose-scented lotion.” Rubbed on her arms every night. Elise rubbed her own arms as she sighed. Closing her eyes, she wondered what it would feel like to gently, slowly smooth a luxurious garden-perfumed ointment on her limbs before bed, anointing oneself in order to fall into the arms of Morpheus. It seemed, to Elise, like the epitome of luxury, and for a few moments she thought that her own life would find exquisite meaning if she, too, engaged in such a ritual every evening.

6358926648975702601882742274_The-Austerity-DiariesBut before her dreams could skitter along any further, a sharp slam in the hallway startled her so badly that she jumped. Now she dug her fingernails into her arms with fear, not gentleness, as she slowly turned toward the door, dreading what she would find there, knowing from recent experience what would greet her. She shuddered. She narrowed her eyes as if that would stay the inevitable vision, but she couldn’t keep them from widening when she beheld what she’d feared: the cloud of smoke. Back again. Always the smoke. To haunt her. To tempt her. To beckon her…

Down the hall and around the stairway, she flew, yelling as she went, “Dereck? Dereck! For God’s sake, Dereck, you’re burning something again!” She opened his door, which had slammed shut from the wind coming through his window. He roused himself, following her into the hall. “For the umpteenth time, man, you can’t take a nap after you put something in the oven.” In the kitchen, she growled as she waved acrid smoke away, turned off the oven, turned on the fan, and pulled blackened cookies–at least she thought that’s what they were–out and into the sink. What was this–the fifth pan he’d ruined? Hands on hips, she turned and stared at him through the lifting fog. But his disheveled look, his sleepy, doe-eyed innocence quieted her anger, and she couldn’t help but laugh. He had a speck of flour on his nose. And in his hair. And some of it was even on his jeans, accenting his muscled body. As a top New York chef specializing in French pastry, she had reluctantly agreed to coach him for an upcoming TV cooking contest. His specialty was savory, hers sweet. Looking at him now, though, in his tight-fitting T-shirt, she thought he was the sweetest thing in the world.

“I’m sorry,” he said, running his fingers through his hair. “I put them in…and was going through your great-aunt’s cookbook but…” But it had bored him, and he’d drifted off. But these thoughts he kept to himself as he didn’t want to insult Elise, good, honorable, dutiful Elise, whom he was deceiving, keeping from her his undercover work for the Recovery Agency, a group of ex-Navy SEALS who specialized in terrorism. Because of his cooking skills, he’d been selected for this mission, locating an ex-Nazi who might be partnering now with radical Middle Eastern groups. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked outside. As he saw irritation start to overtake Elise’s usual tolerant cheer, he changed the subject. “Speaking of your great aunt, did you make headway on translating her diary?” Elise had found the journal when they’d both absconded to her family’s New England home to prep for the TV show, and he was hoping it would reveal clues he needed in his search. As she opened her mouth to answer, the lights went out. But glancing out the window, he noticed they were the only house on the street going dark. Not the storm, then. His nerves crackled, and his training kicked in. Seeing a shadow run toward the front door, Dereck grabbed Elise and threw her to the floor just as glass shattered in the hallway and an explosion rocked the house. That diary held a secret all right.

Libby Sternberg’s latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been hailed as “truly a novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review. Get a copy before Amazon runs out! 🙂 

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