Friday, December 9, 2011

Humbug!: The 2011 holiday edition.

This coming birthday/holiday season marks a significant milestone in my life. I'll be officially eligible for a senior citizen discount at a certain nearby restaurant. Finally I feel able to unleash my inner curmudgeon.  I've always wanted to be a grouchy, grumpy old man, it is my birthright, my certain destiny. As this milestone is reached, I feel I can at long last start saying and behaving as I see fit without the petty, vain concerns about what people might think of me doing so. Thus, if you find this missive disturbing, sad, bitter or angry, just remember, I'm a relic of the past, a quaint reminder of an archaic and dying generation, just another grouchy old fool. I've earned it.

Some people sure know how to give and receive gifts. I’m not one of them.
I know people, mostly women (an observation, not a criticism or stereotype) that practically thrive on thinking up or shopping for perfect gifts for other people. They seem to put a lot of thought and time into the effort, and also, to my complete confoundment, seem to actually enjoy the process.
To me gifting is a lot like dancing, I hate it. Some people enjoy dancing, others enjoy merely trying to dance, some, many I would venture, are lousy at it but don’t know or care and they do it anyhow. Some people are artists at dancing. One thing I’ve come to learn over my many handsome years is that most dancers cannot seem to understand why some of us would choose not to dance, ever. They can get quite animated and even angry. “Anyone can dance if they just try! It’s fun” they’ll scream over the music. And they would be wrong.
I have tried dancing, playing football, painting landscapes, plumbing, and towing a trailer. These things all have one thing in common with gifting. I have tried all of them and found myself to be woefully lacking in whatever chromosome or neuron/synapse connection it is that makes someone able to be good at any of them, or more importantly, even to want to be.
This doesn’t make me something more or less than a dancer or plumber, it just means I’m wired differently. We’re all wired differently in many ways and in most regards it’s not a big deal. Dancers dance, non-dancers don’t. Trailer-pullers tow, those that don’t simply avoid the need, or get someone else to do it for them.
But now the dreaded season of giving and receiving is upon us, all of us. Whether we are competent, capable or enthusiastic about it or not. This is grossly unfair. For some reason it is widely assumed that ALL people are born with, or have developed not only the requisite skills, but also the desire to gift and be gifted.
I’ve tried gifting, I’m lousy at it, my brain just doesn’t ever resolve all the intricacies correctly. I have even once or twice talked myself into believing I was good at it and went on a tear, confident that I was coming up with the perfect gift for someone. The gifts were, in hindsight quite lacking, off the mark, if not completely un-appreciate-able.
I’m no better at receiving gifts. In my memory, I can recall only a few occasions where I didn’t end up lying, sometimes emphatically. Receiving unsolicited/ non-requested items just does not seem natural at all to me. I do not know how to behave even when the gift is appropriate, sincere and welcomed. This is perhaps a rare and severe character flaw, it certainly wouldn’t be my only one. I’m fine with working towards a goal then being suitably and fairly rewarded for it, but just a gift out of the blue because of a date on a calendar? Baffling, quite perplexing.
Angel is pretty much compatible on this. She’s much more diligent and competent at finding gifts for people, but she’s also a little reluctant in the receipt of same. She too doesn’t quite get, or covet, the non-useful trinket. I queried her years ago about flowers and jewelry and such obvious things. She has no real interest. Flowers tend to fire up her allergies, she doesn’t really ever go anywhere, or want to go anywhere baubles and beads would be called for. Instead, I usually theme her gifts. A couple of times I’ve gone for cold-weather gear. Scarves, caps, outerwear to keep her warm. In her mantel-stocking would be some chemical hand-warmers and flavored teas. She spends a lot of time outdoors but doesn’t suffer the cold well.
   This year we have decided on a family common theme. “As seen on TV”. Our gifts to each other will be primarily from items that pop up in those loud, cheesy, "but wait, there's more!" TV commercials. We each know which items the others of us favor, it’s all stuff that we wouldn’t buy for ourselves even on a whim, but they all target specific and relevant household problems. I’ve shown an interest in a ceramic Yoshi knife. I’d never on my own buy one because I’m inclined to believe that it will eventually disappoint, and we already have several perfectly good, though mostly dull kitchen knives. Angel's expressed curiosity about a hands-off foot washer-brush device. We’ve both shown interest in some of the tool-gadgets. It’ll be simple, inexpensive and non-disappointing if the products don’t exactly wow us.
I can handle a theme and I already know several of the specific items she’s curious about. That’s 95% of the chore. I can deal with that.
We don’t have small kids around much. We’re sending gift cards mostly to the families with our grandkids. We’ll let the moms sort it all out, they really know best anyhow. Our kids often received some pretty loud, pointy or unusable stuff from geographically distant relatives. We knew they meant well, they just didn’t have the hands-on or face-time an actual front-line parent has. I would not presume to know what would please my grandkids AND be tolerated by the parents. Perhaps it’s a lazy way out, but it sure reduces drama and stress.
I do not begrudge those that enjoy giving and receiving gifts for whatever reason. Please continue to do so at your pleasure and amongst yourselves. But do me one little favor; if you indeed believe what you often say, that it is the thought that counts not the item, then please just pass those thoughts along, no ribbons or wrapping required. Let that be enough at least if you are referring to me. Your nice thoughts and well-wishes are far more important and substantial than any shelf-trinket or gift card could ever be. In return I will spend some time thinking of you, and likewise wishing you well. I can promise this because I already do. If you are lucky enough to be on the list to receive this link, then I already consider you to be someone I care about in mostly positive terms. I honestly and sincerely wish every one of you luck, success, happiness, good health, long life and prosperity. If this is not enough just let me know and I’ll pick up an extra foot-wash thingy for you. But please let me know pretty soon, if I place my order in the next twenty minutes I can get an additional one free (plus shipping and handling). 

If you really, really want to exchange tangible gifts then I’ll go ahead and tell you exactly what I want. An essay.  Just write up your thoughts and feelings, expose a bit of your mind and heart in writing, express yourself!
What’s that? You don’t think you write well? You have trouble expressing yourself in words? You’re embarrassed about your grammar and spelling?  Fooey I say! Anyone can write! It’s fun!

Thursday, October 6, 2011


On September 30th of this year, just a week ago at the time of this writing, A Tennessee State trooper pulled a car over for ‘traffic related violations’ in that state’s rather sparse Henderson County (population 27,769) midway between Nashville and Memphis.
A check of the driver’s identification turned up a felony record/open warrants and that the driver had provided false identification to the trooper. He immediately restrained the driver, Christi H. Pepper (47).
Trooper Dwayne Stanford (27)  then returned to the stopped vehicle to establish the identity of the passenger. Robert Cunningham (50) a resident of Cadiz Ky. (my original hometown) stepped out of the passenger’s side of the vehicle and shot Trooper Stanford in the chest. Trooper Stanford returned fire, killing Cunningham. (Sources: ‘Cadiz Record’, 4 OCT 2011, and 'The Jackson Sun', 4 OCT).
Stanford, according to the articles,  was wearing a bulletproof vest and was treated and released from the hospital and is reportedly doing well.
 A few days later, near my second hometown, Springfield Mo., A Greene County Sheriff's deputy responded to reports of a drunk driver and pulled over a blue-green van that fit the description in the reported area. The woman driving, Tammy L. Robinette(46) pointed a gun at the deputy and reportedly attempted to fire. The deputy returned fire, killing Robinette. (Source: 'Springfield News Leader', 4 OCT)
I didn’t know any of the people involved in these events. But that isn’t the point of this missive, just coincidental that these similar, yet unrelated events were reported by my hometown papers this week, and that I’ve had occasion over the past month to get to know several law enforcement types and learn more about their job, duties and limitations.
I enrolled in the Jefferson County (Mo.) Sheriff’s ‘Citizen’s Academy’ . It’s a twelve week course (three hours each Tuesday evening) to learn more about the local Sheriff’s Department’s responsibilities and techniques. On the first night when Sheriff Glenn Boyer asked each of the twenty-six of us our reasons for enrolling, I answered: “I am an occasional writer and when I write about cops and crime, I want to get it right.”
He seemed amused and pleased at the same time. I was being sincere. I have recently been playing around with a series of Noir-style (hardboiled) detective short stories. In the course of writing them I’ve pinned myself and my character into several awkward corners, stuck on minor procedures, etc. The only thing I really know about law enforcement is what I’ve learned from TV and read in hundreds of novels. I know that those stories all take generous liberties with facts and timelines, as well as laws themselves, so I decided to take the opportunity to grab some fruit directly from the tree of knowledge rather than rehash some second/third hand translation.
The academy is broad-reaching. Many classes are lectures on organization, policies and statistics, but intertwined are demonstrations and discussions on various elements of the department’s operations. We’ve watched a canine unit demonstration, taken a tour through the county jail (Yikes!), visited the 911 call center, and have examined traffic radar units, volunteered to take field sobriety tests and breathalyzers and had accident scene diagramming explained and demonstrated. We were even shown a barely-filtered slide presentation of photos taken at actual fatal traffic accidents. (I drove home pretty slowly after that one, just like when the Air Force showed us the Ohio Highway Patrol’s iconic shock-film ‘Signal 30’)
Currently we’re only five weeks in, seven more to go. I’ve learned a lot so far and my respect and appreciation for the men and women in brown has increased at least ten-fold. (Not that I had a low opinion before, I just really never gave it much thought.)
In every class and demonstration we have been allowed to ask as many questions as we wanted, and there have been many. In each case the deputies were always receptive, open and quite candid.
My ride-along, a perk of the class, is scheduled for this coming Saturday evening.
At least a score of deputies have participated in the presentations already, some for full sessions, others brought in for support and demonstration. We’ve heard already from the Sheriff, the Under-Sheriff, and the County Prosecutor. These high officials were of course, a bit ham-stringed by politics and liability concerns and their lectures and Q/A were quite polished and precise. The deputies a little less so.  Established veterans all, along with being courteous and respectful toward us mere civilians, they also oozed authority, professionalism and dare I say, testosterone.
 Taken out of context, many of the things they’ve said could easily be considered quite intense and certainly skirting at the edges of contemporary political correctness.
   I’ve jotted down some of the grittier, more edgy comments from the front line troops. Out of context, the quote from one DWI deputy in particular would send chills down a regular, law-abiding, nine to five, taxpayer’s spine. It's a line that I plan to borrow, it fits my fictitious character's persona perfectly.
“. . . I’m going to screw my Glock into his ear.”
Trust me when I say that in context, it made perfect sense. Here’s the stage from which that seemingly cold, harsh, chest-thumping reaction was cast.
Question from a member of the class: “Let’s say you pull a car over, routine traffic stop, erratic driving or whatever. The driver reaches for his license and as he does, you observe a handgun tucked into his waistband or under his jacket. Missouri is a CCW (concealed carry) state and the weapon may well be perfectly legal. What do you do?”
Without much of a pause the deputy responded. “If I see a person reaching for, or even toward a weapon, legal or otherwise, without telling me about it first, I’m going to screw my Glock into his ear.” He said this without apology, without hesitation.
Another deputy stepped forward. “You have to understand sir, that there are people out there on the roads that want us dead, either for stopping them or just because they see us as a sworn enemy. Every stop we make is a potentially violent situation. Memorial walls are filled with the names of officers killed in the line of duty while on a ‘routine’ traffic stop. We have families that love us, depend on us and that want us to come home at the end of the shift. We will protect ourselves.”
Another deputy came forward. “Almost one hundred percent of the time, CCW carriers tell us about their weapons immediately, as they should. This is all you need to do to avoid this kind of situation. At this initial point of approaching a car in a traffic stop, we don’t know whether you have a legal right to carry or not, we have no idea what your background or intents are, we can only err on the side of self-preservation.”
(As a side note, when asked about Missouri’s CCW law, every one of the deputies there at the time, stood up in support of it, as a legitimate citizen’s right to protect themselves. One of them also recounted multiple occasions where a CCW citizen helped save the life of an officer in trouble.)
So yes, it takes a certain, complex personality type to make a good cop. That type may at times seem to some of us as overly jock-ish, crude, unsympathetic and prone to baser reflexes and instincts. I certainly do not share this personality type. I know I would not make a good street cop, I’ve never even seriously entertained the notion. My personality is perfectly suited for writing or cubicle work. Analysis, troubleshooting, focused and prolonged concentration, limited physical activity and minimal interaction with other humans. I do not react quickly or especially well to severe adversity, I study it first, measure the angles, contemplate the logical sequences and possible outcomes. I rethink them, exhaustively. If I were a cop, I’d probably very soon be a dead cop. I just don’t have the juice to instantaneously make life or death decisions on a day to day basis.
Sure, sometimes cops go bad. Sometimes geniuses go mad too, sometimes postal workers go postal. I’m not at all convinced that the biological and psychological ingredients that make a cop a good cop is also a certain recipe for corruption, abuse of authority, or violence.
I recognize that in the gritty underworld that tints their typical workday, these folks are constantly in danger. Real danger.
 In my simpler, more sedate world, I worry about my boss being unappreciative, of losing my job. I worry about my car breaking down or my computer locking up and missing deadlines. The most dangerous things I’ve ever routinely done were to drive to and from work and consume too much fatty food. Even my nine years in the military were spent entirely behind a podium in a classroom or toting a tool bag. I was a technician, a spark chaser, not a foot soldier. Except for two days in Basic Training I never even held a weapon. Even though I served in uniform, I could only barely imagine the world of the front-line soldier, as I now can only imagine the daily life of a law enforcement officer of any stripe.
   We live in different worlds, their clouds are completely different from those in mine, the streets and roads they travel are nothing like those on which I casually tread. Any one of them may find themselves in a violent, lethal situation any day of the week, it’s in their job description. They deliberately walk into desperate, emotional, irrational and often chemically-fueled confrontational situations. They deal with horrific and savage events and cruel and vicious people, precisely so the rest of us don’t have to. I tip my metaphorical hat to all of them, even more so to those that dedicate their lives to the betterment of this public service.
As the news stories at the beginning of this essay spell out perfectly, these officers are in near constant potential peril. They never know which speeding or meandering vehicle may be the grim carrier, the source of the bullet with their name on it.
Like Marines and foot soldiers, it’s a profession that calls for a certain type of person. One that can quickly and readily face, and if necessary exert, brutal and fatal force if called for, without hesitation, without overthinking, without pausing to take measure of tentative and fluid social sensitivities. If that means cops tend to occasionally come off as arrogant macho men (and women), a bit coarse and non-PC, you know what? I’m okay with that. So go ahead deputy, screw that Glock into his ear.*

* This is not to imply that I condone thuggish or overreaching bad conduct by officers. As a dutiful taxpayer and concerned, law-abiding citizen, I expect, in fact I demand, that these civil servants observe all prevailing laws and behave professionally in accordance with common standards of decency. I do not care so much what these officers think, or say. I am much more concerned with what they actually do. A little excess bravado is fine, a bit of dark humor as well, but only to the point that it does not actually manifest itself as a significant part or precursor of their actions in the field.


Yet another disclaimer:
The quote about the Glock is accurate since I wrote it down as soon as the deputy uttered it. Other quotes contained within are merely ‘as I recall them’, and may not be/probably are not, verbatim. I am an essayist, not a journalist, I strive for a semblance of accuracy, but due to chronic lousy handwriting and laughable note-taking skills, I reserve the right to, and will, meander a bit from perfection. I have made every effort however, to accurately express the message, tone and intent of those speaking to us and sincerely apologize for any inaccuracies.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Oscar. A tale of karma, unfulfilled.

I climbed into the car Saturday morning to head to the writers group critiquing session. As I topped the driveway I made a decision that this day would be greatly improved if I stopped and picked up some coffee.  I could go out of my way a bit for the quick-gas place and their ‘Dark Roast’ blend, but Hardees made some almost as good. Hillsboro doesn’t have a Starbucks, that’s how small and rural Hillsboro is.
There was a wait at the counter as an old gentleman in overalls separated, dug at and carefully counted out lint-covered change. I couldn’t justify impatience, I had plenty of time. “Four dollars and eighty six cents.” the teenager behind the counter repeated for the third, fourth and fifth times. He was finally satisfied and shoved the coins toward her. While the girl counted the change, twice, the old man dug through his ancient leather billfold. “It was eighty six cents but there’s only eighty three here.” She had to repeat twice as he stared blankly at her.  He finally comprehended; I shifted my stance from one hip to the other. He dug out more coins and finally completed that bit of the transaction. He then offered the girl a twenty dollar bill to finish it, the girl sighed but said nothing. I just grinned at her.  She handed him his sixteen dollars in change, had it been me I would have given it to him in quarters and dimes, but she showed more grace and professionalism, a ten, a five and a one.
I made my order and stepped over to the coffee counter. The old gentleman blocked the entire area in indecision for several minutes before figuring it all out.
I noticed a couple of groups at tables pointing out the big window, one of them said something about a dog, more people looked, some shaking their heads.
As I capped my steaming joe, I headed toward the door and spotted the pup.
A long, low slung Dachshund dutifully marched down the grassy median between the eatery and the road, heading toward the busy intersection. I stepped out, looked around and saw no one in pursuit or calling out.
The dog was wearing a collar, I could make out tags dangling almost to the ground. The rust colored wiener dog continued to trot confidently toward the highway. I could tell that he was not road-trained, the heavy passing traffic didn’t seem to be of any interest to him whatsoever. He simply was not aware of the danger. This was someone’s baby boy, an indoor pup.
I couldn’t just drive away. I couldn’t just hope or pray for the best. I was at this place and time this dog’s only hope for life, even if he didn’t know it.
Of course I’ve chased loose dogs before, many times. The main bit of knowledge you pick up after doing this dozens and dozens of times is that to 'chase' is to fail. You have to be more interesting and appealing to the dog than whatever is currently motivating it. I had no chunks of meat or bread on me, so I was left with only myself. 
First I needed a leash. Though the dog was small, a threatened or frightened dog is not something you want to hold in your hands or arms for very long. It occurred to me that I could fashion a leash out of the canvas strap from my book bag. I unclipped it and made a slip-loop at one end. A loop is easier to get a round a dog’s neck than trying to actually clip onto the dog’s collar.  I’ve managed to rein in many skittish dogs with a slip-loop that would have chewed through my hands had I tried to grab the collar and clip on a leash.
I approached the little dog and at first he paid me no notice. As I got closer I could sense the flee or fight response building in him, his eyes shifting rapidly from me to the road, me, the road, me, the growling diesel truck, back to me.
About eight feet away I dropped to my knees and slapped the front of my thighs with my hands, dropping my head as well, as if greeting a Japanese host.  If you watch dogs interact much you will recognize the movement. When wanting to play, a dog will drop to it’s front elbows, slapping its paws on the floor. This is universal, an instinctual dog-play indicator, a movement that indicates no harm intended, let’s just wrestle for fun.
The dog picked up on it and stopped looking toward the intersection.  Interested, curious but unsure; stalemate.  I was reluctant to approach since if he suddenly became frightened his only escape would be into the road, I would rather him just stay where he was, for as long as needed, than to be the reason for him to dash toward certain death.
I could see the collar and tags more clearly from this distance. The collar was bright and clean, there were two tags dangling, one still shiny. This was certainly someone’s beloved pooch. Clean, healthy coat, clean teeth, new tags.
A small dog like a Dachshund is usually, almost always an indoor dog. In this downtown location it meant a dog that probably got walked frequently.
Walks are the acme of a day for house dogs. Even the luckier dogs that have fenced yards to roam still love to be leashed up and led around the block. Fascinating and exciting new sights and smells, chances to read and leave pee-mail on the trees and mailbox posts.  It occurred to me how to get this dog to come to me.
I showed him the strap. Still on my knees (to present less of a threat) I held it out and just let it dangle in front of me. It worked instantly. He wanted to go out for a walk. Try to think like a dog, not a human. Yes he’s already outside, yes he can roam freely. But his learned reaction to the visual stimulus of ‘leash’ is ‘go for a walk.’ What he was seeing usually led to something he really, really liked. For that moment I might as well have been offering him a slab of peanut butter covered raw meat with bone-marrow sprinkles.
He came right to me, I dropped the lasso around his neck and gently cinched it. He didn’t resist at all. I stood up, and led him away from the road, back toward the grassy area behind the drive-through. He was as happy as a clam and took to the makeshift leash like he had just inherited a fortune.
Once we bonded for a few minutes I sat at the curb and drew him close. I checked for injuries, there were none apparent. I thought for a moment about the people inside the burger joint. I was sure that thy had watched this as it happened and were probably ready to step out and offer cheers and applause.
Well, that didn’t happen.
I rubbed his soft, furry head and he characteristically rolled over and offered me his ample belly. I accepted this great gift and we were soon the best of friends.
 The tags were both vet-issued vaccination tags, no personal ID with the dog’s homes address. I fished out my phone and dialed the number on the shiniest tag.
A lady answered, I told her the situation. She asked for the tag number and I read it off to her.
“Oh, that’s Oscar, he’s a sweetie.” She cooed.
“Yes ma’am he seems to be just that.”
“Well, he belongs to Frank Roland, his phone number is. . .”
I stopped her. “Wait , I don’t have a pen on me”
I hoped she would offer to call Frank herself, she didn’t.
“Well I do have his address.” She offered instead.
I looked around at the street signs, assuming the short legged little beast probably hadn’t ventured far.
“Great, read it off to me and I’ll try to find it.”
“Okay,” she said “P.O. box three-four- five. . . “
“Hold on ma’am, I wasn’t planning to mail the pooch home, is there a street address?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Well, let me go to my car so I can write down the phone number.”
“The number is six-three-six. . ."  I stopped her again.
“Sorry, but please wait till I get to the car if you can ma’am, it’ll be just a moment.”  
I got to the car, opened the door and Oscar happily jumped into the passenger seat and readied himself for the ride, like he’d probably done hundreds of times.
I found a pen and a scrap of paper. I told the lady to go ahead, she read off the number. I thanked her and disconnected then dialed Oscar’s home.
“Is this Frank?” I asked the heavy male voice that hello’d me.
“Yeah, I’m Frank.”
“Sir, I have something of yours, I'm told that his name is Oscar.”
“Oscar? Oh no, he got out? Dad-burn it, I saw him here just a few minutes ago.”
“He’s fine sir, we found him wandering around the Hardee's parking lot.”
“Well that’s great, don’t know how he got out though. I’ll send my boy right down there. What kind of car you in?”
I looked around at the ten or so vehicles in the lot, most of them small silver cars.
“I’ll be the man walking your dog.” I answered instead.
“Oh yeah, that’ll work too.”
“Good day to you too sir.”
“Well I’m sure sorry for your trouble.” He offered.
“No trouble at all sir.”
Oscar and I walked in the grass again, I was still half-waiting for the accolades, but nothing like that ever happened.
“There you are Oscar!” I looked up and saw a mid-forty-ish, lanky, near toothless man approach with a big, genuine smile.
I unclipped my book bag strap and the man picked up the now-ecstatic pup.
“I sure do thank you sir!” the man said, his face being slobbered up by the carefree dog.
“No problem at all, happy to help.”
Still no applause, no instant media coverage. Well, good thing that doing the right thing is its own reward.
I went on to my meeting, feeling rather good about myself. Unlike my lovely wife, I’m no dog expert, but just being around her has taught me lots of things about dogs, the way they think, the things they want and fear. I knew that I was perfectly prepared for just such a situation without even being consciously aware of it.
The meeting let out at noon. The heat advisory warnings had been accurate, the pavement outside the library had turned into a flat-top griddle. I approached my car and thought something didn’t look quite right. Closer, unable to figure it out exactly, then it dawned on me. The rear view mirror. It was dangling by a wire, the glue holding it to the windshield had melted. I opened the car door, the blast of intense heat nearly knocking me over. The glue spot on the windshield was still tacky.
Not a major problem, not cancer or a death in the family or losing a job, but still, yet another unexpected minor chore had been tossed into my lap.
Where’s the karma? I’d gone out of my way and rescued a beloved pet and asked for absolutely nothing in return.  Cosmic justice owed me one, just a little something, but no, no applause no cheers from a grateful public, nothing. And I was okay with that, I really was, but what happens next? Did I find a five-spot on the sidewalk? Do I get a call from a long-lost friend?
No, my mirror melts. 
Some fine balance this karma thing hands back, what a rip-off.
But yes, if I had to do it over again, I would without even giving it a second thought. I don't need a reward, I don't need a standing ovation. Just knowing that I can pitch in and make someone's life a little less tragic once in a while is all I really need to feel worthy. I'll never cure  cancer or solve global warming, but hey, I saved a family's dog today.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I once met a lady from Minsk . . .

This past weekend I worked around the clock, pretty much by myself, on a frustratingly complicated and exhaustively long and tedious upgrade. This had followed a long week of prep work, the technical dotting of 'i's' and the crossing of 't's'. By Sunday I was a zombie. The analytical hemisphere of my massive and handsome brain was all but burnt out, the creative side had been all but completely inert for more than a week.

I went back to work on Monday not feeling as out of it as I had the day before, but still not quite all there. I knew I needed to acknowledge other people, actually talk to them to help awaken the more atrophied parts of my noggin. In the elevator I was joined by a woman I’d seen around before but never really talked to. I knew from overhearing her on phone calls that she was European, Eastern European, my favorite kind. She smiled and mimed a ‘good morning’.

“Excuse me, are you from Russia?” I boldly asked.

“Yes” She said with a smile and a hint of the thick accent.

“Where in Russia?” I added. She looked at me with a rather baffled look.

“Minsk, Belarus.” She answered.

I gave her a scolding look. (Hint, Belarus is not in Russia, it has been its own country since 1990)

“I'm sorry, I find it easier to just say I am Russian, many Americans don’t know the difference.”

“Sounds remarkably efficient.” I responded. I understood since when people ask me where I came from I rarely say ‘Cadiz’, instead I say something like “Western Kentucky”, or “near Paducah.” Same reason, most Americans don’t know where Cadiz is either. When I lived on the east coast among mostly life-long east coasters, I'd just point toward the west and say "That way, but not quite as far as California."

“You know where it is, Minsk?” She happily asked.

“Well, I’ve never been there, but I know the maps, the region, the geography, quite well.”

She seemed intrigued, so I continued. “I was in the Air Force during the cold war, we knew where all the major cities in the region were, by heart.”

Her eyes popped open a little, but I was smiling so she didn’t scream. She finally smiled back, I knew she was probably too young to recall much other than the final flailing years of the U.S.S.R and probably didn’t relate to those tensions very well.

“Really?” she asked, more curious than anything.

“Nothing personal Ma’am. We were just watching, and listening, and watching some more, exactly as the Soviets were doing to us.”

She nodded, unoffended. I sensed she didn’t know how to contribute to the conversation. I broke the pause by asking her how long she’d been in the U.S.

“Eight years.”

“Well, you’re English is very, very good!” I lauded.

She shook her head and said “No, no, no, is not so good. My daughter, she goes to school here, she comes home and teaches me even more every day.”

“Well English is kind of a stupid language.” I returned.

“No, is not so stupid.” She paused and seemed to reflect for a couple of seconds. “It just doesn’t cover everything.”

Wow! I had to think about that simple, insightful, profound response. Our beautiful, patchwork language, pulled together from hundreds of disparate pieces and parts, honed almost aimlessly through centuries of trial and error, the language of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Hemingway and even Sponge-Bob ‘just doesn’t cover everything’. Who knew?

The elevator door opened and we stepped out and away in our different directions. It had worked though, the sleeping portions of my brain were now upright and dancing around in delight. For the first time in weeks, I was able to enjoy recreational thinking again.

She's right you know, it doesn’t cover everything. I can’t even come up with a second line for the start of a limerick that popped into my head moments later:

“I once met a lady from Minsk . . .”

Poets, help please?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A visit to the doctor's office.

“If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” --Eubie Blake

There’s a relatively new TV show called “Men of a Certain Age.” I have never watched it, I will never watch it, because the men in that show are about the same age as me. I don’t want to know their problems, their issues, their life stories, I already know them and I’ve got enough of my own. I simply don’t want to watch a bunch of guys my age sitting around commiserating about being our age. Unfulfilled dreams, shattered hopes, unrealized opportunities, colonoscopies, no thanks. I’d rather think of myself the way Angel thinks of me, youthful, handsome, svelte, dashing . . .

But men of our age do need to do a thing or two they didn’t need to do when they were younger. They need to go see a doctor even if all their limbs are intact and they are not bleeding profusely. That’s because at around this age things start to wear out, fall off or just stop working. Things that happen or show up during this period in a man’s life are generally for keeps. If a man has taken good care of himself, he may have nothing to worry about. For the rest of us though it can be quite a frightening experience. Sins of the past are certainly going to come back to haunt us.

I know for a fact that a typical 19 year old male can subsist for months on end on nothing but ramen noodles and Kool-Aid. He won’t even gain weight. He can even go two or three days without sleep if the party is good enough. Older men cannot. They think they can, but seriously, they can’t. Middle age is a fierce, fickle and often scary era.

Angel’s been patiently nudging me to make an appointment for a few years now. I knew I needed to, but always found a perfectly good excuse not to. A month or so ago I had a change in heart. Things were just not right. I had a cold that lingered for about five weeks, I felt overly stressed about work, family, finances, winter, well, just about everything was stressing me out, wearing me down. To the point that even my ordinarily rather sedate lifestyle was spiraling toward complete lethargy. I became convinced that I suffered from the dreaded ‘iron-poor-tired-blood’ and should at the very least ask a doctor about a prescription for Geritol.

I was anxious going in, like I get when I take my ten year old car in for inspection. I was much more worried about what I didn’t know about than the little flaws and weaknesses I was aware of. I knew all my light bulbs were not working, the tread’s a little threadbare, but the real fear was that the engine itself was silently, covertly teetering on the edge of colossal and catastrophic failure.

The doctor seemed to be a good man, not too chatty, not too serious, genuine, confident and caring. I decided to not try to lie about anything, though I was certainly tempted. If this man was half the doctor I’d heard he was I wouldn’t be able to fool him anyhow. So I answered his questions honestly, for the most part.

“So, when’s the last time you saw a doctor?” He asked.

“About three years ago.”

“What was that visit for?”

“My dog bit my face in half.”

He looked at me, obviously searching for evidence of such a thing.

“Well, not my entire face, mostly just my lower lip.” I added.

He nodded and wrote something down.

“And before that?”

“Uh, well, I had tennis elbow in the 90’s got a cortisone shot, just one, didn’t like it, decided to just suffer after that.”

“You play tennis?”

“Actually it was more like mouse-click elbow than tennis elbow. I tend to avoid actual physical endeavors.”

He wrote something else down. I decided to fill in some gaps.

“In the mid ‘80’s I sprained my ankle, went in for that… and in ’82 I had a prostate infection, definitely went in for that.” Telling him this was embarrassing, I didn’t have much of a medical history at all.

He looked at me though he didn’t write anything down about the 80’s.

“So you don’t see doctors very often?” He asked.

“Well I had some pretty bad experiences in the military, there were some good doctors I’m sure, I just never managed to find them. It kind of polluted my regard for the profession.”

I’d used this line before, most medical people seem to take this response at face value. When I served, mostly during the Carter Administration, the military itself was not generally held in high regard. Viet Nam had beat it up pretty badly, the military was pretty much taking all comers, the pay was atrocious and morale in the ranks was generally dismal. A fully licensed MD could expect to bring in about 20K per year as a commissioned officer, about one fifth of what they could earn in almost any form of private practice. You generally get what you pay for.

Coincidentally during my time of service one of the most popular TV shows was ‘M.A.S.H’ a show about military doctors. My personal experience however was that in the real military, especially of the era I served, there was only about one Hawkeye Pierce for about every twenty or thirty Frank Burns’. I mean what kind of doctor would spend all that time and money in college and med school then voluntarily settle for the pay scale of a bank teller?

He poked and prodded, a little more writing stuff down occasionally.

“So how’s your diet?” He asked.

I had to think for a moment not wanting to admit anything terrible, yet not wanting to lie either.

“Better than it used to be.” I finally answered. Surprisingly that seemed to satisfy him. It’s true though, I do watch what I eat more than I used to. Not that I’d ever win any nutrition awards, but I do avoid pastries, soda pop and a few other hard line products, I rarely if ever add salt to prepared food and my first cup of coffee in the morning is actually a glass of orange juice. I didn’t mention that I eat like a lion, pretty much gorging myself on one meal per day, dinner. No breakfast, lunch if any at all consists of snack crackers and a tiny box of raisins. Then at dinnertime I’m famished and hoover up pretty much whatever is placed in front of me. Not that Angel ever actually places anything in front of me, but she does usually have something prepared. I don’t know why I eat this way, it just slowly evolved to this point a few years ago.

“So, do you get flu shots?”

“No, never.”

He waited for me to continue.

“Once again, bad experiences in the military, too many mandatory mystery shots. I’d heard the stories. Those guys were conniving and vicious.” This didn’t seem to please him but he made note and continued, asking about my hobbies and job. For hobbies I made sure to mention hiking and walking, not so much about watching “Law and Order” marathons and hard-core napping.

“So what are your current health concerns?” He asked, finally getting to the meat of the interview.

“Well, the usual stuff for a guy my age, cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, height.”

“You’re concerned about your blood pressure and cholesterol?”

“Why shouldn’t I be? You’ve heard how I treat myself; I tend to ignore most common sense recommendations for diet and exercise.”

“When’s the last time you had these checked?” He dug in.

“Well, I had my blood pressure checked twice in the last four years, once after the dog ate my face and another in the back of an ambulance after I flipped my truck on an icy bridge. It was kind of high then, but those were pretty much right after traumatic events and I sort of expected it to be high. As for cholesterol, as far as I know I’ve never had it tested.”

He looked at me as if suppressing a severe scold.

“Well Angel gets hers checked a couple of times a year, and we pretty much eat the same things.”

This didn’t work on him any more than it ever worked with Angel. At this point he pulled out a form with about a thousand line items and started checking several of them off. I could tell it was a lab request. We were going to have to start from scratch, figure out why I’m still alive and kicking after all these years of complacency, abject neglect and outright abuse. I knew this was coming, but, oh well.

His pen ran out of ink and he fumbled in his pocket for a fresh one.

“So what branch of the military were you in?” he asked.

“Air Force.”

He seemed at first genuinely pleased. He smiled, but the smile twisted a little and became somewhat snarky.

“Me too,” He replied, “right out of Medical School.”

Crap…These lab tests are going to be brutal.