Saturday, January 3, 2015

Today's Question is About Pain. And Pills. Mostly Pills.

Should I be weirded out to be turned away from the Urgent Care down the street after mentioning I had a regular physician, but just couldn't raise him on a Saturday? This happened after waiting a literal, honest to god, ten minutes for someone to come to the desk to even note that someone had entered their facility. I do believe this nice neighborhood of mine is hosting an insurance-exploiting pill mill, isn't it? Especially after, and not to profile but I'm totally profiling here, they were ready to welcome three ladies who came in right after me. Each lacked a full set of chompers and were pretty much the dictionary definitions of "hard bitten," "blowsy," and "guest of the Jerry Springer show," respectively.

The reason I'd even gone was that at some point last night my back decided to lock up. Even having given two weeks to my job, (perhaps because of it) they still want a doctor's note if I'm taking the time off... and I don't want to rock the boat when I have over two weeks of vacation to have paid out on my last check. I first developed back problems 15 years ago, and know how to treat it at home, but couldn't be left to my own devices. Long story short, after several phone calls, jolting car rides, and stops to three different care clinics before I could actually see a doctor; my last, biggest question might be, should I be offended I seem too... something... to be lavished with pain meds by the aforementioned pill mill?

I guess I should be flattered. I haven't shaven in weeks, and with my scruffy cheeks and heavily grown-in neck, seem to have developed a face mullet. I'm overdue for a haircut. My jeans need a wash and my jacket smells of campfire.

Yet still I exude "class."

Or "narc."

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Washing With Money

We don't have much in the way of traditions in my family. Few long standing, hand-me-down superstitions on either side. We do have three that I can think of and I embrace them. They all center around the holidays.

The first is our Christmas Eve dinner. When I was much younger, my parents would throw an annual Christmas party right before the holiday, and then we'd finish off all the snacks and cheeses on the Eve proper. Eventually, they stopped with the parties, but we still whip up Swedish Meatballs, shrimp, cocktail weenies in BBQ sauce. We assemble cheese and relish trays, then make a living room floor picnic out of it all. My parents passed through town, so I got to do that this year a full week before the holiday, though we sat at the kitchen table in deference to age and aching knees. It's not when you do it, or where you do it, just that you do it, right?

The other two are New Years' Day traditions. First, I have pork chops and sauerkraut in the slow cooker. I didn't like the kraut as a child, but am glad I matured into appreciation. (I love the stuff now.) This year, they're crazily thick chops, because Chris picked them out, and the store was out of caraway seeds, but it counts, and I can smell them from here.

Finally, there's "Washing with Money." My grandmother (who I would call that,  not "Grandma" but "Grandmother,"in some bemused-slash-aggravated tone that I like to think she always appreciated) would make sure we washed our faces with silver coins to ensure a prosperous year. If we weren't at her home, she'd call to check that we had.

My mother just texted me to inquire if I'd done it yet today. I had, and this year I dug out a pair of Silver Dollars from my Grandmother. I don't always think to, but Chris reminded me of them. 1922 Liberty Dollars, and they weren't a gift, but from a tiny box I got along with a few of her cloisonne pieces when mementos were divided after her death. There were a few wheat pennies folded paper bills in that little box as well. A quick google search implies they're worth about $20 each if I could find a buyer. For me, though, I'll keep them. They're her Silver Dollars, for washing with on New Years Day. They live in a drawer the rest of the year, just to fulfill this one purpose.  Whoever gets them someday, when my own mementos are divvied up, can decide what to do with them then.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Ruthless Rendell

Simply because this is perfection:

"I was three when she was born and remember with perfect clarity being told I was to have a little brother or sister to play with. This was the way my mother put it to me and I believed her, as what child would not?
"The reality is a baby the older sibling is forbidden to touch, for how would that elder one choose to 'play' with the interloper, the thief of a parent's love? By beating it to death, by stamping on its face, by taking the feeble wriggling body to the river and watching the current carry it away downstream. Those are the games to play with a new brother or sister--if the opportunity is given."
Ruth Rendell - "Heartstones"
A tiny wisp of a book, 94 pages and it starts on page 9 in the edition I have, but worth seeking out. "Heartstones" is a traditionally gothic tale of a young girl with a mordant worldview living in a supposedly haunted house trying to decide, for a good slice of events, what to do about an impending stepmother. Hints about how other people see her linger, and pay off when there's a reversal tol how she sees herself. It's masterfully, scrupulously written. Rendell's gaze is always cold and shrewd, more honest than cruel.
Find it.
Read it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Why I Read So Damn Much

Why do I read so damn much? I think it's mostly because of the noise, that constant flood of stimulation in my day.

I have always taken in a lot of information. Each day's go-around just adds more to the pile, too. The podcasts I listen to as I putter around the house, most I can never miss as they're either anchored by adored friends or imaginary ones, and the constant presence of an audiobook I shift to in the car. The last six years and counting, have been an exponential explosion of noise. That's how long I've had both a smart phone and social media accounts, those insidious interaction simulators that reinforce their addictiveness with every exposure. "I have to check! I might have missed something!" That bumpy, constant flood of fragments in the feed that seem to be equal parts half-assed outrage and empty-headed banality, each one snagging your attention to create the faintest of reactions until it builds into a buffer-crashing crescendo of stuff. Every time I look at the phone, frequently while those podcasts also rattle away, it is to look for new email or the jagged flow of information, filling two tracks of attention in what I fear is a less than eight track mind.

That's all noise, and it adds up. Add in the occasional movie or, when time was made, a book and that's a lot of narrative threads to put together. This doesn't even touch on the hurricane of multi-tasking that is my day at work. It's no wonder I feel like my nerves are fried. They are.

Along with all that "noise," (a word that in ten minutes of writing I already form in my head like a nasty thing that must be dropped from revolted fingers that I'll then shake the slime from), came the "move." After ten years spent in a house and city I really didn't want to be in anymore but for a long time had felt powerless to leave, we moved to Columbus. It wasn't too far, but it freed me from some physical and mental structures that were a constant source of anxiety (which could paradoxically offer great and reassuring comfort). It spurred me to divest of a bunch of calm-shaking clutter and numbing routines.

In short, while good for me, it played havoc on my nerves. There's a reason why moves and job changes are cited as some of the most stressful events in life. It left my memory shot for about the two months of sale contract and relocation. One time, I walked away from a faucet I'd just turned on, already forgotten as it overflowed a cup in the sink. I don't think Chris ever got how much another occurrence frightened me, a misplaced sheet of stamps I knew I had bought but couldn't find. I wound up backtracking to the post office and getting rewarded with the stamps, returned by a kinder-than-they-realized stranger after I'd dropped them on the way to the car. I had to pursue that $7, you see, or accept that the Alzheimer's had shown up for a stunningly early onset. I was genuinely freaked out and mentally exhausted.

And during all that, I was using the "noise" to keep me distracted.

Now we get to the books, the question I asked myself that spurred the above observations. I have, since I first started this semi-tended blog, half-heartedly curated lists of what I was reading and watching. An inveterate reader from way back, I'm someone who also sees himself as a "self-styled writer" "if only I had more time," (in other words, an undisciplined one). I have felt like I've given the writing and the reading short shrift the last few years. As a youth, I read voraciously. My parents sensibly denied us many a bright and shiny toy, but never a book, for which I offer thanks every day. Smart enough to be under-stimulated in High School, and ahead enough to be saddled with two back-to-back study halls, I was blowing through about 200 pages of paperback a day for a while there. (Anything to avoid confronting adolescent realities, eh?)

In college you read as work and drink for sport. And after? The less probably said about my aimlessness, the better. But I always had a book going, even if the speed with which I read would ebb and flow. To not be reading a book, even if not actually reading it for a while, has always been unthinkable. As the interaction beasts grew to prominence over the last six years, "they who must always be fed" sliced off a huge fraction of the free time spent on things like reading and writing... and dishes and checkbook balancing, for that matter. It took a while for me to realize that Tweeting and commenting is a poor distraction from what I'd call real "word-craft," for lack of a better term, but they do satisfy in quick hits. They're the "smoking" of writing, and just as detrimental to your long term health.

Back to those lists. 2012 was a disappointing showing. 30 Audiobooks were good, but only 25 books? A pity. Along with the urge to keep lists, comes one to give weight to numbers. I wanted, at the start of the year, to top that. By December 4th of this year, I was finishing book #115, while on disc 4 of 6 of Audiobook #28. So how did I go from famine to gluttony?

Well, in keeping the lists I have a few mental rules. Books and Graphic novels count. Full Audio plays count, but when I'm listening to old radio shows, those don't. Loose comics and magazine articles don't count. I dropped TV shows from my counting a couple years ago, so really, only full movies (and TV documentaries) qualify for that list. (I might make an exception for the delicious first season of "Thriller," the ten episodes of which I've been peppering over the last month, each a treat.)

Looking back over those 115 (to date, who knows how far I'll get yet in 2013?), I'm a tad set back in my idea of "progress" as I note 45 of them are Graphic Novels. The deeply-entrenched and, frankly (to my logical mind, at least), baseless idea that comics are somehow "secondary" undercuts my sense of progress. Another book, the massive, challenging, constant comfort of Gore Vidal's 1200 plus pages of "United States," was first cracked with a sense of purpose in 2012 (finally started, actually, as I'd been lugging it around and taking only occasional dips in since 1999), so taking that out of the running puts me at...69. 69 books I'd call "text only" is a fine showing (and again, this doesn't count the audiobooks). A finer showing as I look and see that 8 of the 25 read and listed in 2012 were Graphic Novels.

Looking further, I see many to most of them are mysteries. I've made lots of time with M.C. Beaton this year, along with taking up new authors, Erle Stanley Gardner, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Simon Brett (previously only experienced in audio format), and seriously revisiting Richard Stevenson. I also really started dipping into a collection of Hard Case Crime novels that fell into my lap. I've also caught up with two perennial authors in my life, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, each of whom I first started reading back in those double-study-hall days (sorry, ladies, for I fear that "dates" your careers. I assure you your works are both timeless and vibrantly "present.") and have kept up and caught up with ever since. I filled a few pockets of free time with James Patterson, the "writer" (I feel "producer" or "manager" is now a better term) whose production line moves so fast Lucy Ricardo is at the other end sticking Alex Cross product down her blouse to try and keep up. I mention him only to share my favorite observations about him:
1) that I read "Cradle and All," cover to cover, during a two hour flight.
2) if you shrink the type to a normal font and take out the dead white space between the bite-sized chapters, his books clock in under half the page count. This is why they're "page turners." You're not breathlessly racing through an adventure, you're just physically moving faster that with most authors to keep up with the flow of words... because they're spaced too far apart.
3) after seeing an author photo of him and one of his "co-writers," I picture it to be like a photo-op at the Con I go to. A line of people who're shuffled in to stand with the star, exchange a quick pleasantry, smile, and scooted out when the picture's taken. They sure didn't look like two people who'd met before. 
I have a bit of the same prejudice towards the mysteries as I do to the Graphic Novels. A "genre ghetto" guilt. Perhaps in 2014 I'll resolve to tackle the other works by Vidal and all the Nabokov I've added to my shelves recently. Perhaps I'll tackle all the other big books and writers stuck in the pile. Plato, Freud, Oates, Clancy, Mailer, and Mitchell are all there. More likely, though, I'll continue to follow the winds of my whims and read whatever I'm finding pleasurable at the moment.

The point is that, along with wanting from the outset of the year to have a better showing--to "do better"--in reading achievement this year, I've also read for comfort. After the move, those two genuinely scary months, I've really been reading like it's both respite and rehab. Reading re-purposes time I used to while away fiddling with the phone (which I still do too much of), or spent zoned out in front of the television. I've raced from book to book, most a short-to-the-point-of-bite-sized 150-200 pages, and gotten cozy with each cozy mystery.

I have this worry that Chris is going to think I've been reading so constantly to avoid him. I think the truth is more that I feel comfortable enough--warm and safe enough--to spend so much time at it. I've needed to be quiet and regain a sense of calm in my head. To follow a long line of words as they build to the end and reacquaint myself with this attention span I used to have. I need a novel's continuous flow and piling of events to re-order a mind that feels permanently jumbled after years of flash-spiking with artificially-induced (via Facebook, mostly) amusement or irritation, shaken up at a mile a minute for years. This isn't just catching up on my reading, it's a damned zen exercise.

He gives me the space and time to do that. He's let me fill our new home with books. I've always taken comfort from being surrounded by them. A big pile achieved, another promising new adventure, now growing in about each room that lacks a faucet. I take comfort from his steady presence, which encourages me daily to come out of my shell and be a better person, even when I don't feel I'm yet achieving all I can. I improve myself with him, and I improve myself as I sit next to him, enjoying the next book and the comfort of our home.

So that's why I read so damn much. Because it's good for me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Pine Trees Like Wooly Mammoths

Just yesterday, I went and opened my big yap about the coming snows. Just as if I were a crystal ball, last night snow came. It reminds me one very important thing I'd forgotten that I really do love about winter, and when the snow first falls. The way it builds up and highlights each one of those gnarly gray branches that so bum me out the rest of the winter. That and the quiet when it's coming down. For me, those beautiful qualities make the rest of it tolerable.

I looked across the street at the large Pine in a neighbor's yard this morning. I can't wait now for a big blizzard of a snowfall now. I can see it in my mind's eye, looking like a big Wooly Mammoth trudging through flying, blinding flakes.

(I also think, perhaps, I've found my next big rant: How long it takes to crop a couple photos on my poor, wheezing, life-should be measured-in-dog's-years laptop.)