The Autobiography of Fire

If this moment were a few weeks later, I would sing words from Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat“It’s four in the morning, the end of December, I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better.” But it’s early December and I’m not on Clinton Street. I’m not in New York. I am alone in the woods and there is no music; just silence, interrupted by the sounds a twenty-five year old house makes under the combative influences of Mother Nature’s low temperatures and a heat pump striving to strike a comfortable balance.

The wee hours are well-suited to introspection and writing. If I were more energetic, I might take my computer and sit in front of the fireplace, letting the flames mesmerize me into writing the autobiography of fire. But I am not warm enough to be energetic. I am unwilling even to search for a sweatshirt to warm me; the search would expose me to the chilly confines of a closet. And my search would remind me that, as much as I might enjoy a fire, I have done nothing to make the flames dance. I’m not doing much writing, but I am thinking about my tiny place in the world, hidden from everyone but myself.

I like the idea of writing the autobiography of fire. The concept suits me. Fire draws us in, pulling us closer. But fire refuses to let us get too close. We cannot be close enough to safely understand the rage of combustion; we can only guess at how fire feels, what occurs at the precise moment when something solid becomes a superheated gas that disappears into smoke. Fire embodies passion. Raw, unbridled passion.

But, if I were walking on a deserted beach this cold and unforgiving early morning, I would ask the waves, “what the hell I am doing here? Why am I alone on this beach when the sky is just as empty and far more inviting, in spite of its rain and clouds? What possessed me to wander aimlessly on wet sand that captures my footprints, when I could have gone aloft in a hot air balloon that leaves no traces?”

That balloon would have let me disappear into the sky for a time before plunging me into a hungry ocean ready to consume me and my remains. Some would have us believe beaches are romantic places. The sky is desolate, but it’s full of free passion. The sky’s hunger is raw and unforgiving. The sky is like fire in that sense. Both are mysterious and attractive, yet dangerous and sinister. Yet they are pure and unmuddied the way beaches often are.

The beach pretends to be tender and caring, but it is too close to humanity to care. The sky, though desolate and awash in passion, is an enigma. The sky is love in another form. In this cold predawn darkness, I feel the sky’s tender but passionate embrace. And I feel the beach spray sand into my eyes, too. The beach and its watery witness holds us for a while, but eventually we transform into vapor. The beach is, in that way, the edge of the sky. Water, then, is kin of fire. I may one day write the autobiography of fire. Water will factor into the story. How could it not?

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Back in the real world, I curse myself for ignoring my intent to visit a chiropractor or buy an electric muscle stimulation (EMS) therapy gadget. I feel the tension in my shoulders and back pulling my muscles in directions they were not meant to be pulled. The tightness is not necessarily painful all the time, but it is most assuredly uncomfortable. I’ve been advised to use a heating pad, a cold press, and to take a hot bath. I do not take baths (unless I am provided with a hot spa in which to bathe). I’ve been told I should invest in an EMS, go to a chiropractor, or stop complaining. All good advice, I’m sure.  For the time being, though, I will gripe and moan, giving air to my grievances.

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Words with Friends kept encouraging me to play against someone (I forget his name) whose “skill level” mirrors mine. I finally relented and started a game with him. I got a message this morning saying he had declined my invitation. What the hell?! WWF tries to hook me up with someone who has no interest in playing with me? I get rejected by an unknown stranger, with no explanation. The unstated message, obviously, is this: “I don’t play with riff-raff like you. Bug off.” I feel rejected on so many levels.

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My wife’s phone was out of power when I went to visit her yesterday, so I did not get to talk to her during my visit. I did drop off additional some clothes, though, as requested by the nurse. And I asked that her phone be charged so I could call her in an hour. Which I did. But when I called, the nurses said she was sleeping very soundly, suggesting I not insist on waking her. So, I did not speak to her yesterday. Today, the nurse told me, the Nurse Practitioner will try to draw blood again. If she is unsuccessful, they will have to send her to the hospital again. Before they do that, I will speak to someone who can explain their plans for dealing with this issue in the days ahead; a trip to the hospital every time a blood draw is needed is unacceptable, in my view.

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Several days ago, I cancelled my Little Rock follow-up appointment with my surgeon’s nurse practitioner, scheduled for tomorrow morning and asked whether I could do it by phone, instead. I got a call yesterday, telling me the appointment has been rescheduled as a telemedicine visit at the same time as the original appointment. I like those kinds of appointments.

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Yesterday, I did not have breakfast because I was instructed not to eat or drink anything for two hours before my 8 a.m. CT scan. The day before, I had bran flakes cereal. This morning, I will exchange those two days of good behavior for a few strips of bacon. If I hurry, I can finish breakfast before 5:30.

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Unnoticed

Six years ago, I wrote the following “thought for the day” in response to my own question as to whether—if a month will be lost and forgotten under the weight of the sands of time—a month ever mattered at all.

Ten thousand years from now, if humanity still has a place in the universe, Plato and Pythagoras and Abraham Lincoln and Copernicus and Martin Luther King will be no more than footnotes to history, but they will have mattered. The world would not be the same without them. So, too, November 2014.

My question now is whether that month, or the one just ended, still matters. I suppose so, for the world would not be the same without them. The next question would be whether the absence would have a positive or a negative impact on the world. The question, of course, is rhetorical; we would have no way of knowing the effect of a missing month. Its absence would go unnoticed.

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I have nothing more to say. The absence of words goes unnoticed. We can’t miss what was never there. People are like that. I mean people who don’t exist or who were treated like they didn’t exist.

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Withdrawal

Two nights in a row. I awoke at 3:30, decided to try to get back to sleep, but failed. I finally got out of bed around 5:30. Spending two hours on two consecutive nights, thrashing about trying to get sufficiently comfortable to sleep, indicates either excessive patience or madness. I’m inclined to go with the latter, as that explanation might make me seem edgier than I am. What do I care, though, how others perceive me? I’m 67 and should no longer need to worry about my image. Actually, I suppose the fact that I’m posting about my sleeping habits and insomnia on a publicly viewable blog confirms I am not particularly concerned about my image.

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This morning, I read a riveting but terrifying article (with photos) about conflicts between wild animals and humans in parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir. This excerpt from the article summarizes the issue:

According to official data, at least 67 people have been killed and 940 others injured in the past five years in attacks by wild animals in the famed Kashmir Valley, a vast collection of alpine forests, connected wetlands and waterways known as much for its idyllic vistas as for its decades-long armed conflict between Indian troops and rebels.

Most of the attacks (around 80%) have been by Himalayan black bears. The article suggests that human incursion into the animals’ territories have had the effect of changing the bears’ habits. The bears used to hibernate in winter, but with the ready availability of food, thanks to human populations and their trash, etc., they no longer hibernate. Military camps, barbed wire, and other changes in uses of the land have changed the bears’ habitat, resulting in more interactions between humans and animals. Fascinating stuff that highlights the negative impact of population growth and changes on both humans and the creatures we are crowding out.

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Public conversation of late have called attention to the fact that the growth and success of the United States has depended, in large part, on the early enslavement of Black people, who did much of the work required to build this country. While enslavement finally ended, reliance on Black labor through unfair and inhumane practices continued. Many of the public conversations rightfully (in my opinion) call for White Americans to recognize and to apologize and to provide reparations in some fashion for those abuses.

While thinking about these matters, my mind has drifted to another set of dependencies, dependencies that are less visible but, I would argue, equally as inhumane and inexcusable: the reliance on Chinese and other Asian labor to provide too affordable products we use in our everyday lives. Though we see plenty of posturing about companies relying on cheap foreign labor (essentially equivalent to slave labor), actions seem few and far between. It is, in reality, only posturing. In the meantime, we buy cheap clothes, cheap computers, cheap food, cheap furniture, and thousand of other categories of cheap consumer goods that rely on the labor of people who may well be surviving on below-subsistence-level wages. But we’re not guilty, because we do not employ them, right? B.S. We should not get away with it that easily. We should look at the labels of every product we buy and think long and hard about who sews or assembles or manufactures it. If we were as morally indignant as we should be, we would insist on paying more for products so people around the world could live less stressful, less impoverished, and more comfortable lives. Would I insist on that, though? Would you? Or can we somehow continue to pretend that we are blameless?

I think this quote from Thomas Henry Huxley states the matter clearly:

“The practice of that which is ethically best…repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live.”

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Morals change. That may not please some of us, but it is true. I think a quick review of history would reveal the veracity of the claim. Within the last few days, I’ve dabbled in reading about philosophy (not philosophy itself, so much, as discussions of what constitutes philosophy). I’ve come to the conclusion that philosophy is equivalent, in many respects, to mathematical equations. Yet we know that mathematics is precise and (we think) unchanging. There exist unwavering “laws” of mathematics that do not rely on context. But morality (and the philosophies that underlie morality) is not a stable, static “thing.” Take marital fidelity, for example. In our society, marital fidelity is generally viewed as a moral obligation (though belief and action differ significantly). But in other societies, marital fidelity is not seen as an obligation at all; in fact, in some societies the practice of having multiple spouses argues that marital fidelity is an irrelevant concept. It’s a matter of context. But get into a discussion of contextual ethics and sparks fly. “Murder is wrong, no matter the circumstances!” “Abortion is wrong, no matter the circumstances!” But, wait. Even those “absolutes” are contextual, aren’t they? Just like marital fidelity. If we were to take any moral “absolute” and dissect it, I think we’d find circumstances in which the ethics of a behavior is not necessarily clear. What is the rationale behind marital fidelity, for example? Aside from protections against jealousy, what purpose does it really serve? That question is valid not just for marital fidelity, but fidelity in general. Fidelity is a relatively easy subject; abortion is much more difficult, thanks to the incorporation by people on one side of the argument of yet another moral absolute: murder. That’s where mathematics and philosophy differ: in mathematics, we all agree that A + B = C. But in philosophy, we sometimes can agree that A + B = C, but B has a different definition in philosophical arguments, whereas in mathematics, B is B is B.

Even within a society, morals are not universally accepted. Yet we base our laws on morals, don’t we? Stealing is against the law. Situational ethics do not have a place in the law, but in passing judgment on someone caught stealing, the penalty may well rely on situational ethics.

“She is guilty of stealing, but she stole milk for her baby, so her action was understandable; she is sentenced to time served.”

“He is guilty of stealing a motorcycle. He already has three motorcycles. He is sentenced to two years in the penitentiary.”

I have no good reason for writing about morality and ethics and philosophy this morning. It’s just a set of topics I find fascinating. If I were younger, I might spend more time delving into philosophy; it’s such a fascinating subject.

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Back to the real world; the mundane, gut-wrenching real world. My coffee is cold and my elbows ache from arthritis and my neck and left shoulder are punishing me for my immoral thoughts. I must put an end to this. I feel a need to withdraw from the world for a while.

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Fragile

When I was in high school, I had a crush on a well-liked cheerleader, Jane. I never watched her cheer on the teams, though, because I eschewed sports. But we were in a few classes together; and had been since junior high, including one or two art classes. I found her beautiful and outgoing. And she was extremely popular. I was plain and introverted and invisible. It would have been madness to have revealed to her that I found her interesting and attractive. I was certain she would have laughed at me, had I asked her out on a date.

Many years later, I had the opportunity to meet her for coffee while I was on a business trip that took me back to my hometown on the Texas coast. I had overcome much of my shyness by then and I told her about the crush I had on her and how I had wanted to ask her out but dared not, for fear of painful rejection. She did not know of my interest, she said. But she revealed that she felt isolated and lonely during her cheerleading days.

Her comments were something like this: “Nobody asked me out. I think they felt like you did. They thought I was unapproachable. I was not as outgoing as everyone thought. I was lonely.”

My wife and I had occasion later, during a pleasure trip to South Texas, to visit with Jane. I think I introduced Jane as someone “I had a crush on in high school.” We laughed about it, but my earlier conversation with Jane was on my mind. I felt some responsibility for her loneliness forty years earlier.

Those memories surface from time to time. When they do, I wonder whether I have ever been the subject of a “crush.” I rather doubt it, but I suppose it’s possible that, like Jane, I was simply unaware of it.

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My wife seemed more alert and lively during yesterday’s visit than the day before, but she was not bubbly. She was watching a soccer game on television; the day before, she had been watching football. She has no interest in either, but I think she has trouble changing channels, so she watches what is on the screen.

I will visit her this afternoon after my scheduled blood draw and port flush at my oncologist’s office.  One of her nurses asked me to bring my wife’s compression sleeve, so I put in in the car last night, along with a couple of magazines my wife wants. I hope to have the opportunity to speak with the administrator, the director of nursing, and the director of therapy today; I want to hear about, if not see, a plan of treatment and a timeline.

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One of my brothers recently developed an interest in tasting a mixed drink he had never before had, a Sidecar. He tried it and was not impressed. I had not had the pleasure of drinking a Sidecar, either, so I decided to make one yesterday. Though the recipes call for cognac, I decided an inexpensive brandy would have to do (inasmuch as I had no cognac in the house). Whether such a brandy-based drink still is called a Sidecar, I do not know, but until I am told otherwise, I will say it is. I made the drink using the following recipe:

  • 1 ounce brandy
  • 1 ounce Cointreau
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass

I liked it quite a lot! So much so, in fact, that I can imagine letting myself become attached to it, so I had best be careful.

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Yesterday, I learned that the “agreed” point at which a person becomes “elderly” is age 65. That’s according to Elizz. This morning, I decided to explore further. An article on NPR.org says this:

In the same way other words have morphed into widespread acceptability–handicapped to disabled; Oriental to Asian; retarded to mentally challenged, and even though words are in flux–elderly is becoming politically (and politely) incorrect. Certain terms apparently have term limits.

The article continues:

“Nobody likes to think of themselves as old, let alone very old,” says Michael Vuolo, co-host of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast. “Elderly often carries the connotation of feeble and dependent. Which is offensive if you’re not and condescendingly euphemistic if you are.”

So, I propose we begin to use these terms, as appropriate: “energetically old” and “fragilely old.” But I bet someone will object strenuously. In fact, that someone could be me. 😉

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The crick in my neck and my very sore shoulder have not departed. I must find a masseuse or one of those electric devices that shock the muscles into cheerful compliance with demands for comfort. I might call the local chiropractor for a “fix.” This is getting old fast. I do not want it to get fragilely old, either.

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My sister-in-law just texted me; she will soon deliver, courtesy of a neighbor, sausages, biscuits, and gravy. I must prepare for this feast!

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Brevity is Not a Personality Flaw, I Say

I wrote some fiction last night, the first time I’ve attempted truly creative writing in a long time. I did not get much done, though, because it became clear to me early on that the characters and their experiences were much, much darker than I needed to go. Their stories arose from the intersections of their two very different childhoods; one was exceptionally fortunate in terms of material possessions and the other lived in extreme poverty. Their emotional and intellectual experiences were diametrically opposite, too; the well-off child learned to equate love with material gifts and surroundings, while the poor child learned to equate love with the tenderness and safety provided by a neighbor, in the extended work-related absence of the child’s parents. The outcome, which has yet to be written (as has moist of the actual story surrounding what I’ve just written), will be dual tragedies visited upon both of the children when they reach adulthood. I did not need to write that story, nor to think more about it. So I abandoned it in favor of a little Evan Williams over ice and some mindless channel surfing. Apparently, neither the channel surfing nor the bourbon was sufficiently engaging to keep me awake. I opened my eyes around 10:30 to view a television commercial and see an almost untouched rocks glass half filled with diluted whiskey. What a waste.

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Before my failed attempt to watch television, I spoke to two of my three brothers and to my sister by telephone, the first time I’ve spoken to them in several weeks. I intended to call my other brother and his wife, who live in Mexico, but I decided to delay that call and make it a Zoom conversation, instead, with another brother and my sister. The third brother cannot seem to get his computer to connect to Zoom. It’s interesting how vastly different the lives of the remaining five siblings have evolved since childhood. As the youngest of six children, I remember very little about my oldest siblings until I was in high school and beyond. They had gone on to college and/or other pursuits by the time I became fully conscious of how different my family seemed to be, compared to other families. The difference was, again, the absence of siblings. Most of the other kids around me in school, etc. had the full complement of family present during their formative years; I spent my formative years with one brother, the one closest in age to me at five years my senior. As I contemplate my siblings’ formative years, their formative familial experiences were much more in line with other families, whose full families remained intact until late teenage years in most cases. I believe the children of considerably older than average parents experience a very different experience than do their peers. And I think other people who have not had that experience are unlikely to understand how vastly different the experiences are. I hear stories, for example, of my father taking my older siblings hunting or playing ball with them. I did not have that experience. My memories of childhood are sketchy, at best, so I cannot clearly recall all the differences, but I’ve always felt them. One of these days, I may try to piece together recollections of my formative years and try to compare them with what I believed with more traditional experiences of my friends and older siblings. I may be all wrong; but I think not.

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There is little to say about my brief visit with my wife yesterday. She was sitting up in a wheelchair, her eyes fixed on the television most of the time. Occasionally, she turned toward us (her sister and me), responding to most questions with a nod or a weak, one-word answer. When I asked whether she would like me to call her in the evenings, she said she would rather I not.

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The sky is overcast and the current temperature is 40 degrees. Today’s high is expected to to reach 43 and tonight’s low should drop to around 30. The weather futurists expect rain to develop this morning. Sunrise should take place in about an hour. That is the extent of my understanding of today’s microclimate.

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The pain in my shoulder migrated to my neck (becoming a full-on crick in the neck) during the course of the day on Saturday, reminding me that the body is capable of taking revenge on its host for myriad transgressions. I’m not exactly sure what I mean by that, but there’s no doubt about the sincerity of the statement, even in its mysterious befuddlement. Let me try again: my body is exacting retribution for my actions and omissions that caused it to experience discomfort. The pain I feel, therefore, must be deserved. Punishment, pure and simple. A penalty for living as I do. The body knows when infractions take place, whether physical or mental, and responds accordingly. Hence my now dormant (knock on wood) Crohn’s disease, the intestinal resection, my double bypass surgery, the missing lobe of my right lung, and every other illness or damaging incident visited upon me. The body, as an educational experience, takes revenge. There, I’ve explained myself, against my will and better judgment.

Yesterday, around midday, another example took place. I was in the midst of swallowing a bit of smoked turkey (delivered to me by a very nice neighbor) when I took a sip of water. Suddenly, I was in the midst of a convulsive cough, thanks to aspirating a bit of water combined with chewed turkey. The cough triggered an intake of breath that  exacerbated the aspiration and prompting me to choke. Though I probably was in no danger of choking to death, I felt like I was. I could not control my breathing nor my coughing. I made my way to the kitchen sink, where my coughs led me to begin to expel previously swallowed turkey and water. Tears flowed from my eyes, my sinuses filled with God knows what, my nose began to spray like a torn fire hose, and I could not catch my breath. Bottom line: this experience lasted what seemed several minutes until, finally, I seemed to be reasonably close to “normal.” That is, if normal involves, when  blowing one’s nose repeatedly, releasing pint after pint of unpleasant-looking whitish goo. That’s all behind me now, though. My body pronounced judgment on me for what it considered apparently gluttonous consumption of smoked turkey.

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It’s 6:30, time to replenish my coffee and think about something to eat that will not choke me to death. Let’s see, apple sauce or bacon & eggs? I have no apple sauce, so bacon & eggs it is. Whatever happened to my passion for international breakfasts? Whatever happened to my passion in general? Passion keeps people alive. I need to ignite some passion in my life; these cooling embers are unable to provide adequate warmth. Perhaps congee flavored with harissa paste. Time will tell.

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Before 7 in the Morning

The ache in my left shoulder has matured into pain. Are cricks restricted to the neck, or can one have a crick in the shoulder? If so, I think that’s what I have. A crick in the shoulder. I do not know whether to blame the mattress or the horizontal posture of the guy sleeping on it. Maybe the two unknowingly conspire to contribute to the pain. Yeah. That’s it, an inadvertent conspiracy. Whatever the etiology of the discomfort, I think I could be made more comfortable with a form-fitting heating pad or a 10mg injection of morphine. As I have neither laying around the house, I will plan to soldier on. Coffee may help. Maybe holding a mug of hot coffee against my shoulder will help.

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Yesterday afternoon, at the regular time, I drove to the rehab facility to visit my wife. Her sister came along. When we got there, we looked through the open blinds to see my wife sleeping soundly. I tried calling her. Her phone, sitting on the overbed table, lit up when I called; I could barely hear the phone sound through the window. But my wife did not awaken. After a few minutes, I called and spoke to the nurse, who said my wife had eaten both breakfast and lunch. We decided not to have the nurse wake my wife; I asked the nurse to let her know, when she waked, that we came by to visit. There was no point in rousing her from a sound sleep, only to spend a few minutes with her and leave. I will be back this afternoon. Today, I will plan on waking her if she is asleep; I don’t want her to think my visits are imaginary.

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My sister-in-law brought DVDs over the last two days. Day before yesterday, we watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; yesterday, we watched The Big Lebowski. I had seen the latter, but I had seen only trailers of the former. Both of the films were good diversions, transporting me for a while from the combined sensations of stress and boredom. Lasts night, I began watching Unforgotten, a British drama series originally recommended to me by my other sister-in-law. I had looked for it on Netflix, to no avail, but discovered it is available on Amazon Prime. The Unforgotten character of Cassie Stuart is played by Nicola Walker, who I was sure I recognized from other British film and television; the only other television and film I have watched, in which she starred, though, were Collateral  and River. I know she was in Last Tango in Halifax (I’ve seen trailers but nothing more), but I felt sure I had seen her in other parts; I cannot seem to figure out what, though. I am not sure why I am interested in knowing more about her acting career; I have never had much of an interest in knowing who is playing a part…only in the character being played.

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I am not particularly enamored of the idea of driving into Hot Springs to go to Kroger this morning, but I may do it anyway. I want to buy more Kroger brand diet tonic, which I drink straight out of the container when I am the only one in the house, and medium-grind black pepper. I really like the store-brand diet tonic much better than the more expensive brands like Schweppe’s and Canada Dry. It’s nice to prefer the cheaper stuff sometimes; I feel an undeserved sense of superiority for my innate frugality, the same way I feel when I buy the cheaper versions of Argentinian malbec wine because I like them better than the pricier stuff.

I’m sure there’s more on my list (if I had a list), but other wants escape me for the moment. Driving 30 minutes more more, one-way, to buy tonic and pepper seems absurd and wasteful. If I can’t come up with more justification than that, I will delay the trip. I use this blog, sometimes, to talk myself into (or out of) taking action. Better beforehand than after-the-fact.

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Last night, for a time, I felt emotionally empty. Not emotionless. There’s a difference, though I cannot seem to adequately describe it. When I try to find other words to capture the sense of how I felt, I keep latching on to phrases that are equally inadequate. Painfully hollow. A balloon encased in plaster of paris, no longer able to either expand or contract. I was quite conscious of the sensation of emotional emptiness. It felt to me like I had entered a perpetual state of extreme emotional discomfort that had no anchors; it would leave me forever unable to become untethered to a vague sense of guilt and longing.

I should have written, then, about how I felt. Probably I would have been better equipped to put into words my emotional senses while I was feeling them. This morning, it seems close, but still too distant to fully comprehend.

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Accidental loneliness can be a byproduct of intentional isolation. Maybe “intentional” is not the right word. Maybe “safer” fits better. I wrote, just a few days ago, of my general preference for the company of women to the company of men. (That’s not absolute, of course; there are plenty of men whose company I find extremely gratifying.) At any rate, that general preference can present difficult challenges. I do not intentionally isolate myself from women whose company I enjoy, but it’s safer to avoid inviting them over for drinks or conversation, especially when the expectation is that they will come alone, without their husbands or boyfriends or whoever (that is, people whose company I do not necessarily think I would enjoy). Given the propensity of some people to be jealous and distrustful (there I go, being judgmental), the safety of avoidance should be understandable and obvious. This is a very strange discussion. It’s the sort of discussion I might expect in a group counseling session (though I’ve never been in a group counseling session, so my imagination is working overtime, here), not the sort of thing I would expect to find on a publicly available blog. But here it is. These are the sorts of topics that can cause cricks in one’s neck.

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I just scared the hell out of myself. Feeling the need to stretch, I held my elbows out to the side of my body and slowly raised my arms. Suddenly, I felt someone gently touch the underside of my left forearm, halfway between my elbow and my wrist. To say I was startled is a gross understatement. I did not scream, only because the sound would not escape my mouth. In less than an instant, though, I realized it was not someone’s touch I felt; it was my arm coming into contact with the metal shade of a floor lamp next to the desk. One of my brothers would jokingly say my startle reflex was the result of feeling an intense sense of guilt. I would say the reflex was the result of stark fear that someone had quietly broken into my house and was about to kill me. I can breathe again, thankfully.

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I just read a blurb about a new film set to be released in early December: Nomadland. I want to see it. Here’s a snippet describing the film, from the BBC.com, referring to the main character, played by Frances McDormand:

When Fern is widowed, she can’t afford to live in a house of her own, so she packs her few belongings into a camper van, and drives off into the Nevada desert. She soon discovers that she isn’t alone: there is a large community of senior citizens who have been forced to live on the road, supporting themselves with short-term jobs along the way.

One appealing aspect of the film, to me, is that nearly all the people McDormand meets are real nomads who recount their own real experiences. The film is called a “hybrid of documentary and fiction.” I wonder when it will be available online?

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I believe small groups of people could, if they let themselves do it, change the world. They could do it by making radical changes to their own neighborhoods or towns, then sharing what they did with other small groups of people in nearby neighborhoods or communities. Tiny efforts could spread like a virus, transforming cities, counties, states, countries, and continents. But we give ourselves reasons that such efforts would be pointless; they would fail, we tell ourselves, so we don’t take action. I get angry with myself when I think such things. Rather than try to change the world, we should try to change the block on which we live or the strip center near us. So says me.

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A Different World

A year ago, our lives were what we would now call normal. We planned our days around mundane things, like shopping for a stove. I spent my early mornings exploring the universe from my computer screen. A year ago, for instance, I was awestruck at an estimate by astronomers, appearing in a 2003 article in The Telegraph, that:

“There are 10 times more stars in the night sky than grains of sand in the world’s deserts and beaches, scientists say. Astronomers have worked out that there are 70 thousand million million million – or seven followed by 22 zeros – stars visible from the Earth through telescopes.”

This morning, I tried to read that article again. It is now hidden behind a paywall. Newspapers are attempting to survive a new reality in which the world’s population seems to think vetted information should be just as readily available—and free—as the opinions of “citizen journalists.” Competent journalists face the dissolution of their careers because we are unwilling to place sufficient value on their work to merit paying them for their time and expertise.

Yesterday, as I waited while emergency medical technicians and nurses and doctors looked after my wife, it occurred to me those people were working on Thanksgiving Day just like any other day. Their lives, too, have changed from a year earlier. Like journalism’s paywall, healthcare’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a reaction to an unplanned intrusion into our collective world. Journalist managers are attempting to cope with the public’s fickleness about the value and nature of verified information. Medical administrators are attempting to cope with unknowns of even greater and more immediate impact.

How would society react to “citizen healers” who offer to transport patients to alternative care clinics staffed by well-meaning people who, thanks to readily available information technology and medical equipment, compete with trained and vetted medical professionals? It’s not as far-fetched as it may sound. Rabid opponents of governmental “intrusion” into our lives might gladly grant such inadequately trained people authority to compete with medical professionals. Would we willingly take risks with our lives and the lives of loved ones to save the expenses of engaging trained and tested specialists? We’ve been perfectly willing to accept “journalists” without credentials to supply information critical to our decision-making. So why not opt to rely on WannaBeWebMD.com for healthcare?

During the last four months and then some, I have grown more and more appreciative of the competent medical professionals who treat my wife. Thinking back, I am extremely grateful for the doctors and nurses and technicians who have cared for me through extremely intrusive procedures like surgery and chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Healthcare is expensive; more expensive than it should be, in my opinion. But slashing healthcare costs by cutting corners would be even worse than relying on volunteer journalists to report on nuclear nonproliferation treaties.

But there is room for improvement, both in medicine and in journalism, that would cause me to feel better about paying more when necessary. Lately, for example, on several occasions I have had to intervene when technicians (and even nurses) attempted to draw blood from my wife’s right arm or to use that arm to measure her blood pressure. Despite “right arm reserved” notices on the walls and on charts, people rushing through their tasks have overlooked those instructions. I discovered, after the fact, blood draws were done on her right arm in the rehab facility where she presently is housed.  Anecdotally, I seem to see more and more  corrections printed in newspapers and in online news websites; again, rushing through the process of journalism seems to have led to mistakes that probably would not have been made had speed and cost control been given equal value.

I feel incompetent to investigate the issues I’ve raised here. But I am growing more willing every day to pay more to ensure competent people conduct investigations and report the results of their exploration. I don’t know that I’ll ever be willing to pay for individual subscriptions to The Telegraph, the Washington Post, the New York Times, etc., etc., but if those news sources would collectively determine a way to share paid access, I might pay for that. The same is true for healthcare information and medical services. I’d love to be able to go back and read the article that left me awestruck as I contemplated the size of the universe. But, now, as I think about paying for access, I wonder if I would ever have seen it had I been required to pay for it to start.

Solutions. We need lots and lots of solutions. It is a different world today, after all, than a year ago.

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ER Again

This morning was harder on my wife than on me, I’m sure. She’s the one whose veins nurses could not find to draw blood. She’s the one who ambulance paramedics loaded onto a stretcher and, after the in-ambulance, pre-trip protocol they follow, took her to the emergency room. And she’s the one who sat in the ER hallway while hospital staff drew blood, had lab work done on it, and determined the rehab facility nurses’ concerns about the possibility of a critical deficit of potassium were unfounded. She’s the one who was spirited back to the rehab facility without being given the opportunity to see or speak to me. But I can still feel the stress and the fear, even after watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and drinking the better part of a bottle of Spanish wine.

I got a call around 9:30 this morning, Thanksgiving morning, from the rehab center, telling me the staff could not find a vein to draw blood to compare current labs to an earlier set. An earlier set of labs, they said, suggested the possibility of a drop in potassium. And they thought the labs might indicate other issues; they needed current labs to make a determination. So, I was told, they were calling an ambulance to take her to the hospital. They asked, to which one did I want her sent? I told them, then said I was on my way and would call when I arrived to check to see if she had already left for the hospital.

I rushed to the rehab facility, arriving just before she was loaded into the ambulance. I drove ahead to the hospital; the ambulance arrived about 20-30 minutes later. I was told to wait outside until she was in an ER room; they would call me. Finally, I went inside to inquire. “Just a few more minutes. You can wait by the doors; you don’t have to wait outside.”

A few minutes later, as I waited, I got a call on my cell from a California number I did not recognize; I answered it, just in case. It was one of the paramedics I had spoken with as they loaded my wife into the ambulance. He said the hospital staff had determined her lab work checked out and she was okay; she was being sent back to the rehab facility.

When I received the initial call, my sister-in-law and I had begun initial work on readying the kitchen to prepare our tapas meal; the non-traditional meal. She went home when I headed to the rehab center. When I got back home around 11:15, I called my sister-in-law and she returned. We sped through the process and ate our tapas. We packed samples of the dishes made and took them to the rehab facility, arriving around 2:30. My wife was asleep when we got there, but the staff woke her and helped her connect with us by phone. Because she had been sleeping after a grueling morning, we opted after a very brief conversation to leave the tapas and let her sleep, hoping she would be able to try them later. I told her I would try to call her later.

I called the rehab facility around 6:30. The staff said she was resting. I told them to let her rest, but to let her know, when she wakes, I called to check on her.

One of many unfortunate realities of my wife’s illness is that she finds it harder and harder to use her cell phone, thanks in large part to issues of edema (fluid retention) that makes it hard to use her fingers. So, she is rarely, if ever, able to make calls; nor can receive them without help. And she can’t write email messages and cannot easily retrieve them. And, of course, I cannot be with her to help. Facility staff is overburdened and can only rarely offer assistance to her. She increasingly is cut off from most of the outside world. May daily visits are, in my view, inadequate (in large part because she is so weak and tired she often cannot stay awake for long).

I would bring her home immediately except for the fact that it is difficult, if not impossible, to monitor, at home, her physical condition for several issues that are increasingly common and likely. Yesterday and today, when the facility could not draw blood for labs, gave examples of the challenges; those issues demonstrated that even facilities equipped with medical equipment and staffed with professional cannot always do what is needed.

I am frustrated, but almost certainly not nearly as frustrated as my wife. She has spent the majority of four-plus months in hospitals and rehab facilities.  In spite of my frustration, I am glad the hospital ER visit today was a false alarm. How much more, though?

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What Celebration?

On Thanksgiving Day, it is not uncommon for me to write a bit about the holiday. I write either from my personal perspective or about the holiday’s emergence and evolution. Seven years ago, I wrote a rather long treatise that included lengthy direct quotes from several official governmental proclamations proposing and recognizing a “day of thanks” to “Almighty God.”

As I re-read some of those proclamations, I began to consider what the term “religion” meant to our forefathers. I think Christianity, in its various flavors, was on their minds. Though I would like to think they were more open-minded than that, my reading of their proclamations suggests otherwise.

Today, though, I will not get deeply into Thanksgiving. Instead, I will ruminate on whatever happens to cross my mind, travel through my fingers, and spill onto the keyboard. That is to say, today will be no different than most days.

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Yesterday’s attempts to find Spanish chorizo were unsuccessful, so I’m adapting a shrimp/chorizo recipe (using a German-style smoked sausage, instead) and abandoning the recipe for poaching Spanish chorizo in red wine.  Suddenly, this morning, I’m no longer especially enthusiastic about making tapas, but I won’t let that alter my plans. Once I smell the food, I’m sure I will recover my interest in another non-traditional celebratory holiday meal.

Two years ago, I was in the hospital over Thanksgiving; having just had surgery to remove the lower lobe of my right lung. Last year, we abandoned plans for a non-traditional meal at home in favor of going out for an Indian buffet. This year, my wife is the one unable to enjoy our non-traditional meal at home. I hope she will eat and enjoy the tapas I deliver to her.

While COVID-19 is forcing many people to experience a rather lonely Thanksgiving, my wife and I have a long history of just the two of us or, more recently, fragmented holidays. We are used to being alone.

Perhaps it’s those recent experiences with Thanksgiving that lessens my enthusiasm for the holiday. Or perhaps I am recalling a recent conversation about “giving thanks,” and the question that followed: “Thank to whom?” That conversation led to more discussions about gratitude and whether it’s gratitude “to” or gratitude “for” and, in either case, whether an external entity of any kind deserves credit for one’s appreciation. It’s so easy for people to dismiss these simple but ultimately crucial questions; do people dismiss them because they are too obvious or, instead, because they are too hard to answer?

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Tomorrow—the day called Black Friday—begins in earnest a seasonal celebration of naked greed, an orgy of materialism I find appalling. While I understand and appreciate that businesses depend on Christmas sales for a significant portion of their annual revenues, in my opinion the encouragement toward unchecked avarice erases the importance of compassion and goodwill. Those attitudes have been diminishing for years; every year, it seems, they become less and less important, replaced by want, want, want. I am guilty, though, like so many others. I could get by quite well without so many consumer goods at my disposal. But I don’t.

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I wish I could visit my wife this morning; not just go to her window and talk to her by telephone, but go inside her room and do whatever she needs to be comfortable. It is not fair that she is alone. Yesterday, just before I left the house to visit her, a nurse called to tell me the staff needed to draw blood to check my wife’s potassium levels, but had been unable to do the draw. They called the EMTs to do it (“they do it all the time, so they are really good at it,” she said), but they could not do it, either. So the nurse in charge directed the staff to hydrate my wife overnight and try again today. If they cannot get a good draw, they will have to send her to the hospital to have the draw done. I hate this. I absolutely hate this. If the nurse calls to tell me my wife must go to the hospital, I will abandon meal preparation and will join her there. At least in the hospital, I could be at her side.

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Well, I can go peel shrimp and make meatballs. That will give me something to do.

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Shemomechama

Fundamental philosophical differences separate me from the thinking of virtually every world leader, I think. And, perhaps, everyone else. For example, I do not agree with Joe Biden that America should be “back,” aggressively assuming the mantle of “world leader.” I do not buy into China’s fierce pursuit of leadership in the world of artificial intelligence. I disagree vehemently, of course, with Trump’s childish psychopathic attempts to bully every country and everyone into submitting to his delusions of American exceptionalism. In every case, control is the objective, in which a nation can flex its superior muscle in specific endeavors, thereby exerting influence beyond the immediate realm of superiority. What a waste of energy and talent!

Leadership should emerge naturally and should ebb and flow depending on context and circumstance. Maybe the most distinctive difference between my philosophies and those I see on global display revolve around my desire to see collaborative solutions to world problems, with each nation’s (and their citizens’) most valuable attributes being put to best use. Synergies, in which collective efforts produce effects that outweigh the sum of individual parts, should be sought. I think international efforts to develop vaccines for COVID-19, as collaborative as they might be, should be even more cooperative, with no single company nor any one nation attempting to be “first” to come up with a solution, thereby securing influence and control over solutions to a global pandemic.

The same is true of local issues. Political factions waste enormous amounts of time and resources fighting for superiority, rather than for solutions. It’s easier said than done, of course, but conceptually it seems so absolutely obvious! Fierce arguments involving name-calling, spending money on political favors (and bribes and worse), etc. are remarkably counterproductive.

If, instead of focusing on fighting over our differences of opinion and our philosophical stalemates, we focused on how we might collaborate on matters about which different “sides” can agree, we might find that reasonable solutions emerge to the larger issues. For example, let right and left step away from abortion for a time and, instead, focus on solving the problems associated with unwanted pregnancies (without addressing abortion), adoption, and related matters. Yeah, it’s a pipe dream.

I realize my philosophies are utopian fantasies. They need not be, though. Charismatic leadership that arises naturally can change cultures. Then, again, maybe today’s cultures are too deeply steeped in thirst for power to change. Change might take many generations. And I’m afraid we don’t have many generations left if humanity continues to sully the planet, engage in genocide, and starve entire continents.  With that cheery thought, I embrace Wednesday morning. It’s appropriate, I suppose, that today is trash day.

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Yesterday was better than the day before. Despite starting out in much the same way the visit a day earlier began, yesterday’s short visit with my wife was more pleasant. It might have been because her sister was present. Whatever the reason, it was better.

I asked my wife whether she wants me to take to her some tapas from the non-traditional Thanksgiving meal we will have on Thursday; she said she would like that. So, if all goes according to plan, tomorrow I will take to her a plate with a small sample of at least some of the following items I plan to prepare (it sounds like more food than it will actually be):

  • Chimichurri meatballs (pork & beef, with a cilantro based chimichurri sauce)
  • Shrimp and chorizo bites (assuming I can find Spanish chorizo today)
  • An assortment of olives (kalamata, black, garlic-stuffed green, etc.)
  • An assortment of Spanish cheeses (iberico, manchego, and cabra al vino)
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Tilapia ceviche “cooked” in vinegar
  • Assorted almonds
  • Garlicky shrimp with crusty ciabatta bread
  • Classic olive tapenade
  • Spanish chorizo poached in red wine (again, assuming I find Spanish chorizo)
  • Celery sticks
  • Skirt steak with goat cheese, roasted red peppers, and fig preserves
  • Prosciutto with peach preserves

I wish I could take her some Tio Pepe dry sherry and some dry red Spanish wine, but that may be stretching it a bit. I will plan to enjoy a bit of both, though.

This morning, between 8 and 9, I will pick up my grocery order from Walmart. With luck, all the items on my list will be delivered to me; otherwise, I’ll have to add the missing items to the Kroger shopping list. All I have left to buy (unless Walmart doesn’t come through) is Spanish chorizo. I was planning to try to find quince jelly, but I’ve decided to forego that and use something else, instead. And, of course, I forgot to buy Spanish wine yesterday, when I could have bought it at the Tuesday 15% discount at Cork & Bottle; so I’ll have to stop and buy something at full price. Maybe I’ll pick up a bottle of garnacha or  tempranillo or a generic dry Spanish table wine blend. I’m not picky, nor am I able to tell one from the other; but I can differentiate sweet from dry.

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Last night found me in bed extremely early, probably around 8:00. I had no interest in watching television and I’d read what I wanted to read, so I decided to turn in. I wanted to erase things on my mind at the time, too, and it seemed that sleep might be the best way to do it. I woke around 12:30 to brilliant flashes of lightning, crashes of thunder, and pounding rain. I had not closed the blinds on the doors that lead from the bedroom to the deck, so I was treated to the full lightning show. By 2:30, I had slipped back into a middling sleep and back out again, awakened by my aching back and shoulders. I MUST get that mattress replaced! I drifted in and out of semi-consciousness until 4, when I called it a night.  I actually spent more time in bed than usual; it was just that some of that time was during hours I would normally be awake.

This morning, at least half an hour after I awoke, I remembered pieces of a dream I had last night. I was inside the headquarters building of the first association I ever worked for. The carpet, which had been deep green when I worked there, had been changed to a muted brown and other earth tones, imprinted with architectural abstract images. The walls were no longer white; I can describe them only as modern wood panels. All the door hardware remained as it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s; polished chrome door hinges and handles. The executive director at the time I left, a man who has since died, walked with me down a hallway and talked to me about changes to the building. Another guy who also has since died—he ran the print shop which produced books and magazines—gave me a tour of the offices. The middle of the building, in the section where my secretary had her office, had been removed and opened up to the outdoors. It had been replaced with a tall-grass prairie, which now separated the two long wings of the building. I asked whether an empty lot across the street had always been empty. There was some disagreement about that. Finally, the people with me agreed that a multi-story office building had once stood there, but had been removed.  And that’s all I remember. That was bizarre.

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Shemomechama. It’s an untranslatable Georgian word that means you did not intend to eat so much but you accidentally did. I came across the word while reading an interesting article on BBC.com this morning. It’s an interesting read. I recommend it as a diversion. I have had the experience of shemomechama; not in Georgia, but in several other places. I suspect many people will experience it with their traditional Thanksgiving Day meals tomorrow. Even though my tapas meal should not be terribly filling, it might produce shemomechama.

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Visits

I went to visit my wife yesterday. It was not what I had hoped and expected. She did not seem at all interested in visiting with me. After a completely unsatisfactory fifteen minutes of unsuccessful attempts to get her to engage in conversation through the window (on our cell phones), I left. I should have been more patient yesterday; she is going through a far more taxing and difficult experience than I am, yet I permitted myself to see me as the victim.

Later, when I tried to call her, either her phone had been turned off or it was out of power. Earlier in the day, before I attempted to speak with her, I asked the director of nursing and director of therapy to have someone assist my wife by having her phone available and the window blinds open at a set time each afternoon so I could go visit. I don’t know if that is going to work.

The problems I have been having with a never-answered phone with the facility, too, were on my list of topics with the staff. After attempting, unsuccessfully, four times to get through to the director of therapy, I finally insisted on speaking to the administrator. I learned that yesterday was the first day for the new administrator; she is now aware of my frustration with the facility’s inadequate phone system and apparently insufficient levels of staffing.

These issues kept me awake last night. I got up for a while at 2:00 a.m., then tried to get back to sleep. I suppose I slept for a short while, but if so it was a very restless sleep. When I finally gave up and got up, just after 5, my neck and shoulders felt tight. Now that I’ve been up a while, the intensity of the aches in my shoulders is impossible to ignore. I have to admit that the shoulder and neck pain could be a result of sleeping on the guest bed again. I’m adding, “replace guest bedroom mattress” to my list of things to—eventually—do.

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The deck is done! I am as happy as I will ever be with the deck, I think, in its present iteration. Only a complete re-decking and replacement of all the railings would satisfy me more. And that could happen only if someone else pays for the project, orchestrates it from start to finish, and has it done while I am away from the house for the week or more the project would require. That is to say, I’ll probably never be happier with the deck.

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The lighting in the workroom behind the garage has been replaced! I can now clearly see how horribly dirty and messy I have allowed the space to get. The upside is that, when I decide to tackle cleaning it up, the new LED lighting will illuminate every inch of the work area. I was amazed at how much brighter the space is with new, extremely bright, LED lights. Hallelujah!

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I have yet to replace the screen on the screen porch. That will happen eventually. When it does, I will replace the indoor-outdoor carpet on the porch floor. Perhaps I will have repainted the wrought-iron furniture by then, too. The never-ending list of household maintenance chores just continues to grow. If I were not so lazy and if my body were only 30 years younger, I might have a chance of getting ahead of the game at some point before the end of this decade. It’s easier to summon the inclination to do the work than to replace my body with a younger one that had been cared for with greater attention to the effects of the abuse I’ve put it through. Hindsight is stunning in its clarity; like looking through a telescope at the moon, versus peering at it through a Coke bottle.

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I missed an announcement from my church, discovering it only as I was preparing to join a Zoom event that, I learned, had been postponed.  After I learned the Zoom meeting would not take place, I tried watching a comedy, The Good Place. It kept my attention for about 30 minutes; by then, though, it began to wear thin. During the evening, I tried watching the Rachel Maddow Show. As much as our political sensibilities mirror one another, and as much as I appreciate her intelligence, I lose interest in watching after a short while because it is so obviously slanted in its presentation. I decided to explore News Nation, WGN’s relatively new all news channel. I’ve never watched it before. I found it both interesting and informative and it seemed to be straight news, without analysis. That appeals to me. But not for long. I finally gave up and worked on financial stuff: recording receipts, organizing bank statements and bills, etc., etc. Only part of those tasks got done; I need another several hours to complete them, to be up-to-date on financial record-keeping.

When I stopped working on financial record-keeping, I poured myself a whiskey. I should acknowledge to myself and the world at large that I am, at times, too damn frugal. Especially when frugality delivers less-than-satisfactory experiences. Rather than a blended whiskey like Seagram’s 7 (which I poured), I should spend the extra money to get a good bourbon like Maker’s Mark. I do, occasionally, but I tend toward the cheaper blended stuff. And I always kick myself for saving a few bucks and sacrificing flavor. Not that Seagram’s is bad; it’s just not as enjoyable (by a  long shot).

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I do not like talking on the telephone. It’s better, though—sometimes—than not talking at all. Last night, I was in no mood to talk on the telephone, but I wished I could invite someone to come share a whiskey with me and talk about insignificant things and earth-shaking philosophical arguments. It seems that everything has to be planned. Spur-of-the-moment activities must be too disruptive to family life. I could have invited someone to come share a whiskey, properly masked and distant, but I would have been concerned that a positive response might have been based not so much on interest but on concern for my well-being, given the issues impacting me of late. And that concern very probably would have colored the tenor of the engagement. The casual element that I find so appealing in conversation would have been missing, thanks to that overriding concern.

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I’ve allowed myself to blather on for far too long. It’s almost seven and I haven’t showered, shaved, eaten breakfast, or finished my coffee. A sin against Man and Nature.

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A Safer and Saner Place

I sometimes so thoroughly confuse myself that correcting my jumbled thoughts takes considerable time and effort.

Recently, as I was watching one of my favorite Finnish television crime dramas, I noticed that the producers showed the wrong title on the show’s credits. That should have made me realize the jumble was in my mind, not on the screen. But it took a while. I looked through my several postings that mentioned the show. In every case (almost), I showed the title (incorrectly) as Borderland.  After checking several sources, I determined that my certainty had been misplaced. The correct title of the series is, in fact, Bordertown. My embarrassment overwhelmed me. I spent about thirty minutes searching my blog for the title I used erroneously, then correcting each occurrence. Not that my blog will ever be considered a true and correct record of anything but the jangled intellectual and emotional barbwire and tar inhabiting my brain. But I wanted the title of that series to be correct so that, later, when I return to read what I’ve written, I will not be as confused as I was before settling on the true and correct title of the series. Sometimes I think I should be euthanized, making the world a safer and saner place.

Last night, that Finnish television series—the one I mistakenly misnamed—came to an end. I finally watched the last episode of the third season. Each hour-long episode was interesting, well-planned, well-executed programming. I hated to see it come to an end. And the final episode was an emotional one, for me. Ach, I am a sucker for stories that grab me by the heart strings in such innovative ways.

What’s next? I don’t know. Mindless laugh-track programming holds absolutely no appeal. Nor do the American versions of crime dramas; they seem so utterly artificial, so thoroughly plastic. Macho cops whose emotions are crafted of tin and peanut brittle and aluminum foil. Blech! Fortunately, I have a long list of prospects, many of which come highly recommended by people whose taste in such stuff I trust and value.

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Yesterday, I had a relaxing, enjoyable, and entertaining brunch with a friend from church, who suggested we meet at Xplore Lakeside, the newish restaurant on Lake Balboa. We got there just as it opened at 11. From the moment we sat down, I felt remarkably comfortable and relaxed. My friend has that effect on people, I think; in her presence, people just feel comfortable and welcome. She exudes charm and ease. I might have felt more comfortable on the deck, from the perspective of avoiding potential exposure to COVID-19, but the air was far too chilly and damp. And we wore masks until we each were served a Bloody Mary.

After lunch, I went home and logged in to a Zoom gathering designed to encourage sharing memorable holiday stories. My story was one of a few that touched on failed attempts to get restaurant meals on holidays. My wife and I have an off-again, on-again tradition of going out for non-traditional holiday meals. One year, at Christmas, we decided to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip. We ended up late Christmas Day in Marble Falls, Texas, where we could not find an open restaurant. We decided to pause our search and check in to a motel, then continue our food quest. The second portion of our food quest was just as  fruitless as the first. Finally, we gave up and stopped at a convenience store, where we bought some frozen bean burritos. We took them back to our motel room, where we planned to microwave them for our Christmas dinner. But the microwave did not work. So we waited until the burritos thawed and enjoyed (that’s not quite the right word) our non-traditional Christmas dinner.

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If the temperature cooperates today, the unpainted treated lumber top railing and the few replacement spindles will be painted today, completing my years-long deck refurbishing project. The painter texted me last night, asking me to bring the paint inside to stay reasonably warm in preparation for painting today. Once he completed that (or maybe before), the painter will transform into handyman and will replace the fluorescent fixtures in the workroom behind the garage with LED fixtures I bought a few days ago.

I had planned to take the car into Little Rock today for its 72,000 mile service, but I rescheduled for a couple of weeks hence. As I looked at my late November and December calendars, I saw several medical appointments: blood draw, CT scan, oncology appointment, surgery two-year follow-up, etc. And I already cancelled another one, which was to remove some annoying skin disturbances with fire (probably not fire, actually, but the doctor said he would burn them off). I guess the point was to have all this done late in the year so they would be covered by the year’s coverage for which a deductible has already been paid. I suspect it’s a bit late to reschedule. But maybe I can reschedule the surgery follow-up to coincide with the car’s service; both are in Little Rock. We’ll see.

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I will attempt today to speak with the administrator of the rehab facility where my wife is undergoing therapy. I have a few bones to pick with the facility, mostly involving communications. But I also question how much therapy my wife is getting and I’d like someone to give me a guess, at least, as to how long she might need to stay. Have I mentioned I am growing increasingly distrustful of rehabilitation facilities for elderly patients?

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It’s just after 7. Time to shower, shave, and otherwise prepare for a day that probably does not really require me to be especially clean and presentable. But being clean and properly dressed probably puts me, mentally, in a safer, saner place.

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A Theme of Paganini

Years ago, when we lived in Chicago, I bought a vinyl album that included Variations on a Theme of Paganini and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. I played that album over and over and over again. For some reason, I was absolutely entranced by both pieces of music. I remember them as being quite different, but somehow they seemed like bookends; they fit together. I have no idea what happened to that album. I may still have it. But I no longer have a working turntable on which to play it, even if the album is safely tucked away among all the vinyl I kept. Early this morning, I dreamed I was sitting at my big oaken desk in the corner of my basement (neither of which exist), looking through the ground-level window at a snow-covered forest scene, listening to those two pieces of music.  When I woke up, I thought I could still hear the music. But it was my imagination. And I could remember nothing else of the dream.

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It’s rare that I read my blog posts on the day I post them. Yesterday, though, I did. A cursory reading revealed quite a few typos and/or unresolved thought conflicts. A thought conflict, in my vernacular, is a decision to write a string of words according to a specific structure that, mentally, changes mid-stream, without correcting the thinking that already flowed through the fingers to the screen. The result, for the reader, may be double words, misplaced words, incoherent sentences, etc. At any rate, my cursory review of the post yesterday led to a few corrections. I did not read the post with the intent of correcting thought conflicts and other such errors, though; so, it could be laced with them, still. If I ever compile my blog posts into a book or other such form of ego-driven consolidation, I will need an editor. I am pretty good at editing others’ work; I am bad, in the extreme, at editing my own.

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I had dinner with my next-door-neighbors last night. I am sure I have written before they are genuinely good people. That fact remains. They are generous, kind, and compassionate. I hope they are as assiduous at keeping their distance from others while grocery shopping and otherwise interacting with the world as they suggest. I hope that’s true of me, as well. Most of our dinners in recent months have taken place on their beautiful deck. Last night, though, was too chilly and wet, so we ate inside. They ordered eggplant parmesan for the three of us; from Dolce Vita, the Italian restaurant inside the Village. A slow-paced dinner, nice wine, and wide-ranging conversation was a good way to unwind the day.

This morning, I will have brunch with a friend. I am not a social butterfly; these two back-to-back meals “out” just coincidentally fell into place. Today’s brunch will be the first time, I think, she and I will have had the opportunity to sit down together without a flurry of other conversations taking place all around the table. I look forward to a conversation uninterrupted by interjections by five or six other people. I do not mean that those conversations are not pleasing, as well; but one-on-one conversations (or two-on-one conversations…small groups) are more appealing to me.

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Yesterday’s visit with my wife was short. She was unable to look at me without turning her head to look at me outside her window, so most of the conversation was a bit like talking past one another. The content, too, was condensed. She was tired and preferred to sleep than to exert herself by talking with me. Her voice seemed a bit stronger, though, than it had the day before. She had eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the nurse told me by phone on Friday; my wife told me she had that meal for breakfast yesterday.

I spent a few hours online yesterday, reacquainting myself with the symptoms of congestive heart failure. My wife exhibits most of them. The prognoses for the disease all seem to suggest a gradual and sometimes accelerating progression that leads, ultimately, to extremely complex and invasive treatments in efforts toward survival. Treatments like: heart transplantation; left ventricular assist device (LVAD) implantation; various forms of heart reconstruction like valve repair and revascularization, dynamic cardiomyoplasty, partial left ventriculectomy, and the Acorn procedure, among others. These all follow attempts to achieve deceleration of symptoms through medications, many of which my wife’s cardiologists have tried with varying degrees of success.

The doctors at the hospital where she recently spent two weeks say she can get better through medications and therapy. But therapy requires the body to be fueled. And it requires the body to be capable of achieving strength regeneration. I wish I could have my wife’s cardiologist visit with her for an extended examination and conversation and, then, give me his unvarnished opinion as to her prognosis. But that apparently is impossible without breaking various rules and requiring the doctor to be extremely inconvenienced. That should not be even a remote concern. But it is. And that makes me angry with medicine and healthcare and systemic roadblocks to compassion.

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I still haven’t had breakfast. Perhaps, since I’m going to have brunch in two and  a half hours, I shouldn’t. But I should shower and shave. And I should finish my coffee. I got up early enough to wash a load of laundry, dry it, and hang up several shirts. And I played several games of Words with Friends. And I’ve written what I’m now wrapping up. Still, I should have gotten up earlier. I should be finishing this post while the sky is still attempting to break out of the darkness. Only when I have finished my blog post and the sky remains at least only very dimly-lit do I feel unrushed. I like to emerge slowly into the day, watching the sunlight wash over the clouds slowly  (or, on a day like today, seep gently through dense fog). I may have to start using an alarm to wake me at reasonable hours. I wonder whether my age is catching up with me? I still love early mornings best. But do they still love me as much? I suppose I need to keep a journal of my waking hours, tracking whether changes in my waking habits are flukes or, instead, whether they are telling me I need to give up my cherished pre-daylight solitude?

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Apparently Saturday

I drove in to Lowe’s yesterday afternoon to pick up three LED light fixtures (replacements for garage workspace fluorescent fixtures). The process was simple; shortly after I bought the products, I received notice they were available for pickup. On closer inspection, I saw I could simply drive to a spot reserved for pickup, call for in-car delivery, and wait. I waited no more than three or four minutes. That’s the kind of shopping I do not mind doing.

On the way home, on a whim, I pulled in to an old-style country barbershop to get a haircut. I say it was a whim. It was a long-simmering whim, one that built slowly over time; a slow-motion spur-of-the-moment decision that had been attempting to hatch for days, if not weeks. Finally, yesterday, the shell surrounding the seed of the idea cracked, releasing a spurt of determination. I vowed, then and there, to stop procrastinating.

I expected to have to wait at the barber shop. Instead, I walked in and, after being asked to exit and place my name and phone number on a sign-in sheet outside the door, was seated immediately. Two of the three barbers awaited customers; I was invited by the younger one to sit in his chair. Everyone in the small shop wore a mask. Between each barber chair, plexiglass dividers hung from hooks affixed to the ceiling. I gave the barber vague instructions that I wanted my hair “pretty short all over, but no whitewalls over the ears.” Apparently, those were the only instructions he needed. Twenty minutes later, my hair was considerably shorter, my eyebrows had been trimmed, and the back of my neck had been treated to a heated foam and straight-razor shave. I was so pleased to have finally lost masses of hair that I gave the barber a $5 tip for a $13 haircut. The only downside to the experience was the fact that the television hanging from the wall was blaring noxious lies from Fox News. That’s the penalty for living in a deep red pocket in a deep red state.

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Earlier in the day yesterday, my sister-in-law and I went to visit my wife, parking near the dumpster at the back of the drab facility. Asphalt covers the lot right up to the dull beige concrete block walls of the building. After making several phone calls in an attempt to reach my wife and to get someone to open the blinds so we could see her, we met some success. Our conversation with her was mostly one-way. I wish I knew how to get my wife enthusiastic about something; treatment, the idea of coming home—something. We did not stay long, as there was not much communication taking place. I asked my wife to call me later yesterday evening. She said she would try. I did not get a call. Either she forgot, her phone was not within reach, she fell asleep before making the planned call, or…who knows. I wonder whether this place will be any better than the last one.

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I tried watching my riveting Finnish television crime drama series last night, but I could not stay focused on it. I was not engaged by it. Perhaps I’ve lost interest in it, or maybe the episode I attempted to watch last night was not up to the series’ usual standards of quality and intrigue. Or my mood might have been unsuitable for watching it. There could be dozens of reasons. Hundreds, perhaps. At any rate, I watched only part of an episode and then gave up. Before I gave up on the program last night, I attempted to drown what was shaping up as bleak despondency with wine. I texted a friend to inquire about her husband’s medical treatments and then spoke to her for a while. I should have asked whether she uses Google Duo. Seeing her while speaking to her would have improved my mood, I think. But, instead, after our conversation, I read an article on BBC.com entitled “The scarred landscapes created by humanity’s material thirst.” What a cheery way to end the day. Not long after, I went to bed, opting to sleep in the guest room where I could sleep on a queen-sized bed instead of on a borrowed twin bed. Though the twin bed has less room to spread out, it is the more comfortable of the two. I should consider replacing the years-old queen mattress with something more inviting; otherwise, guests will refuse to stay through the night.

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Several times during the night, I awoke; howling. Literally howling. I do not know why I was making noises like a wounded beast. But making such odd noises, I was. And sometime during the night I was embroiled in a dream involving some large spaces in the ground floor of a glass-walled office building. The spaces were “decorated” with old clothes hanging on racks, creating hallways or passageways between the hanging garments. At some  point in the dream, I asked a woman from my church where I could find the restroom. She pointed down a half-level set of stairs, to a very long hallway and said “It’s the ninth door on the left. Not the eighth door, not the sixth door, the ninth door.” When I looked down the hallway, I could not make out clearly which spaces were doors and which were spaces between doors. I do not know whether I found the right door.

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Apparently, today is Saturday. I should devote at least part of the day to planning next Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner. My sister-in-law and I will prepare a non-traditional dinner composed of tapas. I have dozens of taps recipes. The challenge will be to narrow them down to a reasonable number (I tend to go overboard) that will produce a substantial but not massive feast-like meal. Before I get too heavily involved in planning, though, I will try to go visit my wife again to see how she’s doing and to see what weekends are like for her. My guess is that the place is on a skeleton staff over the weekend and that it will be on an even smaller staff next Thursday. Perhaps I’ll take her some tapas and celebrate the way we’ve tended to celebrate in years past. Though we’ve done our share of turkey and dressing meals, we rather like doing unusual (for most Americans) meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas; Thai, Chinese, Indian, etc.

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I got up late today and got a slow start. Time to move away from the keyboard.

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My Mind Wanders

Confusion crept into my day rather early this morning when, at 5:25 a.m., I entered the guest room where a tiny corner desk usually doubles as my study. Today, though, the desktop was nearly naked, absent the computer, keyboard, and mouse. My confusion lasted only moments; I remembered that, yesterday, I had moved the technology to my wife’s much larger desk in her much larger study in preparation for a Zoom meeting. The double glass doors in the guest room bathe the computer screen in too much light, making my image transmitted from the camera unpleasantly bright to other meeting participants. So, I had moved my computer to my wife’s study, where the reflected light from the walnut desk and over-desk credenza bathes me in reflected yellow-orange light, giving me a deeply jaundiced appearance. At least the jaundice is not so bright as to be uncomfortable to other meeting participants.

I have yet to move the computer back to its accustomed spot. My writing may in some way respond to the unusual experience of being in a foreign location. But I doubt it.

Is it not odd, though, that something as inconsequential as the location of a computer’s screen and keyboard can disrupt one’s normal routines? The location is in the same house, yet it feels utterly different. There is no window immediately to my right, so I cannot view predawn darkness. I cannot watch the sky slowly soak up light like a celestial sponge as dawn breaks. The walnut over-desk credenza and the desk upon which my computer screen and keyboard sit are like a dark cocoon that envelopes my experience. They hide the world beyond me from view. They isolate me from the sky; though I know the sky is just beyond these walls and the shades covering the windows, my eyes see no evidence of what my mind tells me.

Before I entered this place cloaked in walnut darkness, I played a few rounds of Words with Friends. That simple game provides enough distraction to transport me away from a troubled world, giving me a brief respite from gnawing, ever-present worry. The idea of gnawing worry triggers an unpleasant recall of an awfully troubling scene from a recent episode of Bordertown: The perpetrator cut a victim’s abdominal skin, then placed a rat on top of the cut and trapped the rat on the abdomen with a metal pot. The metal pot was then subjected to heat from a blow torch, causing the rat to claw into the victim’s midsection in an attempt to escape the searing heat. That’s the image the word “gnawing” brought to mind just now. I wonder whether, henceforth, I will associate Words with Friends with the horrors of a rat clawing through a man’s body cavity. I hope not.

I’ve been thinking about exploring a new hobby: making stained glass art. So far, it’s only a thought. I haven’t obtained any knowledge, nor any materials or skills. But I’m intrigued with the idea. Listening to a man yesterday morning talk about his decision to purchase wood-carving tools so he could explore wood-carving as a hobby rekindled my thoughts about a hobby of my own. I don’t have any hobbies. Blowing leaves does not qualify as a hobby. I feel the need to have a means of releasing my creative energy, aside from writing. Writing, of late, has not satisfied me. I’ve written almost no fiction for months and months. The fiction I’ve written since last year has been splintered and fractured and impossible to weave together into a coherent story arc. I want something else. Something that does not require work for others to appreciate. Reading what I’ve written requires work on the part of the reader. And when that effort leaves the reader with unquenched curiosity or worse, writing becomes more a cudgel than an offering. So, perhaps I’ll explore stained glass. Or, probably more likely, I will think about exploring stained glass and do nothing about it. I have explored many potential hobbies in that way; thought about them at some length, only to eventually abandon them. Not intentionally; the thoughts just seemed to evaporate with the passing of time.

I’ve written before about the fact that I tend to prefer the company of women to the company of men. That’s on my mind this morning, I think, because I spent an hour so so yesterday morning with about ten other men, just talking about what was on our minds. Golf and pickleball and wood-carving were among the subjects covered. In my experience, men rarely talk about things that weigh heavily on their minds or topics that require at least moderately deep analytical thought. Women, on the other hand, seem generally unafraid to expose mental philosophical wanderings. Whether men simply are uncomfortable engaging in conversations that seem overly “feminine” or whether they simply do not have an interest in such matters remains unclear to me, 67 years into this life. I think misogyny—not hatred or distrust but embedded prejudice—plays a significant role in avoiding conversations that veer too sharply into either subjects that are judged feminine or feminine treatment of subject that otherwise might fit into masculine conversations. I just feel more comfortable in the presence of women. I feel that I can safely let my guard down, whereas I am almost always cautious among men, careful to avoid conversations that might lead them to judge me. Maybe that’s a form of misogyny; judging women as less threatening than men. Ultimately, though, I think it’s simply a matter of commonality of interests; I’m more interested in subjects often deemed the province of females than in subjects deemed the province of men. Football, baseball, golf, hunting, etc. appeal to both men and women, but more so to men; except this man. Art, architecture, philosophy, psychology, etc. appeal to both men and women, but more so to women; and to this man.  But it must be more than common interests; it’s the way interests are discussed. I think. Maybe.

I sometimes wonder what I would choose to occupy my time if I lived in total isolation, with no opportunities for any human contact, for a period of years. Would I make art? Would I take up hunting? Would I plant gardens or write? Absent the pressures of socialization and human influence, how would I evolve? There’s that perpetual question again: who am I, under these hundreds of layers of veneers formed in response to all the people whose lives intersect with mine? That’s my hobby. Wondering who I am. And I wonder who lives beneath the façades of all the people with whom my life intersects? Is the world really a stage? And are we all really just players? Shakespeare’s assertions, through his characters, reveal that he was as much a psychologist and anthropologist as a writer.

My mind wanders when I let it. And I almost always let it. Thinking in broad, shallow swaths is appealing. Sometimes, when the shallows grow deep, the waves of thinking can inundate entire days or weeks.

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I saw my wife yesterday. She was weak and I could barely hear her words. The therapist was about ready to work with her, so I spent only twenty minutes or so with her. Then, last night, she called me. It was rather early, around six-thirty or thereabouts. Again, her voice was extremely weak. I will try to see her again today and tomorrow. Having no direct contact with her is awfully hard. I cannot measure how much she is eating or drinking. I have to rely on strangers to do that. And I have an automatic wariness of strangers, wondering whether their compassion extends as deeply as I think it should. Hobbies can’t catch hold when one’s mind is on survival.

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