Oz spirit

Portrait of Dr. Oz
Portrait of Dr. Oz

This last winter I was in New York City. I had two speaking gigs, but I had arrived a few days early to show my mother and daughter around the city. We did all the things that tourists do, from seeing Wicked and The Lion King to going down to Wall Street, where we watched giggling tourists from around the world take photographs of their loved ones holding the testicles of that huge brass bull. There are cross-cultural patterns, it turns out.

It was her spring break, so my daughter eventually had to go back to school. Mom was not on spring break, and she was not about to leave. She wanted more. And the more she really wanted was Live! with Regis and Kelly. So we took a cab up to freeze our butts off in an early morning line that wound around the studio building. We determined fairly quickly that we never had a chance, a fact which we discerned in a warm coffee shop, holding a piece of paper that said “41” on it, as in “41 on the waiting list.” And so we headed back downtown, to freeze in another line, this time to see Al Roker do his weather gig on NBC’s Today Show.

Mom strikes up a conversation with a police officer. He gives her a productive tip: “Why don’t you go across the street to the NBC Studios, where they are filming an episode of The Dr. Oz Show.” Oz! That was all it took. Mom, like millions of other American women, loves Dr. Oz, a fifty-something Harvard-trained heart surgeon who looks like a movie star and has his own show addressing the health and happiness of its largely-female audience.

With a name like Oz, how can you go wrong? I grew up in a little town in southeastern Nebraska called Hebron, which was wiped out in 1953 by a monster tornado—just leveled the place. Not surprisingly, The Wizard of Oz used to scare the living begeezus out of me, mostly because of the opening tornado scene and those damned flying monkeys. I hated those flying monkeys.

But there was wisdom in the Land of Oz, too. For example, it was its eponymous bumbling Wizard who taught my little psyche, somehow, that some of the most bombastic mysteries of religion, of “the great and powerful Oz,” are really little more than human projections. These fake religious projections were in turn answered by an intensely alive, literally colorful mystical dreamscape of floating orbs, magic wands, and an excess of poppy flowers. I didn’t know then what I know now, namely, that this culturally potent combination of religious critique and surreal cultural expression originated in the story’s creator, Frank Baum, who was a Theosophist, and therefore deeply critical of traditional religion. In addition to writing his Oz series, he held séances in his home, wrote about clairvoyants and nature spirits, and believed in reincarnation. As a child, I didn’t know what a Theosophist was; I just knew I liked the topsy-turvy world that this Theosophist made.

Back in the midtown Arctic, mom and I got to the Rockefeller Tower and spent about an hour winding our way through the elaborate security lines, escalators, elevators, and young NBC pages, who happily shepherded us from this to that initiatory level in what looked increasingly like some great cosmic chain of being. We eventually got to the waiting room for The Dr. Oz Show. Physically speaking, I had absolutely no idea where we finally were. We could have been on the third floor, or the fiftieth, or in an underground alien base.

We sat in a really drab room for about thirty minutes. The actual studio was just on the other side of the wall. We could watch the comedian get the audience ready for the taping on a large television screen. We could also hear him through the wall.

Most of the people around us began complaining. Okay, it was more of a bitching. They had been promised a seat on the show, and this was no seat on the show. It was a seat behind a wall of the show. More pleasant pages entered and left, vaguely promising this or that. The people weren’t having it. They kept bitching. Except for mom. She just smiled and talked about how cool it was to be this close. She also loved it when Dr. Oz appeared at the back of the waiting room, surrounded by make-up artists and what I took to be script supervisors.

Then it happened. Dr. Oz made his grand entry onto the studio floor and introduced the show’s topic: “Psychic Mediums: Are They the New Therapists?” The guest was John Edward, the television medium and author. Edward and this particular topic, it turns out, was why we were in the waiting room in the first place. As Dr. Oz explained in his opening lines, this topic had attracted more audience attention than any in the show’s history.

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