Sunday, May 28, 2006

HG Wells was just a piker

My order for a magic wand must have gotten lost in the mail, so my next request will be for a time machine. Nothing fancy, just your basic transportation.

After I use it to take care of a few housekeeping chores like getting enough winning lottery numbers and stock picks to ensure a lifetime of comfort for myself and my family, then I can have a little fun. And, you know, help the state of humanity.

For instance:

• Most people, when given the chance, would go back in time and kill Hitler. But I have something much more creative in mind. I’d land about the time when he was showing his first promise as an artist, say nine or ten. And I’d take the wad of money I’d made in the US Industrial Revolution investing in railroads and feed it to a Jewish art collector in Berlin. I’d tell him about this Hitler kid. Tell him to tell all his friends how much money this kid is going to make for them one day. I’d support his family, all his buddies, give him a ton of lessons, have a show, put him up in some swanky apartment when he’s old enough to leave home, take care of his every need. Make him the German Van Gogh, make sure he’s too fat and happy and adored to ever think badly of Jews. You know what might be even better? Before this, go back to the time when the US and UK and Russia were divvying up Germany after WW1. That’s where the whole “we hate the world” thing started with Germany. I’d slip in as a well-respected peace negotiator and say to the Kaiser, “Well, you know, you guys suffered enough. We’ll just leave all the borders the same as they are if you promise never to do it again. Oh, and we’ll bring in a whole shitload of League of Nations Peacekeepers to rebuild your infrastructure.” Then I’d secretly arm the Polish border.

• I’d put a security camera in Nicole Brown’s front entryway. Ditto the grassy knoll in Dallas, Marilyn Monroe’s bedroom and in front of Jesus’ tomb.

• I’d tell Monica Lewinsky, “You know, you really ought to have that blue dress cleaned. And that Linda Tripp? I wouldn’t trust her as far as I could throw her.”

• I’d infiltrate the Hollywood power structure and ban the production of remakes.

• I’d tell Ray Nagen, “Dude. Use the school buses.”

• In August of 2001, I’d make myself the Will Crusher of the FBI (you know, that kid Wil Wheaton played in Star Trek who always had a better idea but no one listened to him because he was just a kid) and say to my boss, “Hey, I’ve just been going through some files…and there are these guys who are all Middle Eastern and all taking flying lessons…and the real funny thing is, none of them were interested in learning how to land.”

• I’d go back and befriend Geraldo Rivera about the time he was choosing his major. “Yeah, Gerry, “ I’d say. “Journalism is fun and exciting and all, but it doesn’t pay that well. Have you ever considered dentistry? If you still have the journalist bug, you can write a gossip column for the ADA newsletter, you know, call it something like ‘The Whole Tooth?’”

And that’s just for starters…..

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Fools on the Hill

I’m off today, and after exercises and a brief nap and a cup of tea, I just took a mid-morning meander around our property. Feeling the soft, humid air against my face. Listening to the birds and the squirrels and the distant whinny of the neighbor’s horses. Looking at the trees and the irises that have (finally!) sprouted and the weeds growing out of the driveway. Puzzled by the myriad of pipes and tubes and vents that bring things like water and electricity in, and keep most of Mother Nature out.

And I realized something. That if, for some reason, Husband didn’t wake up one morning, or fell off the roof while cleaning the gutters and landed on his head and died, I wouldn’t know the first damned thing to do.

Well, of course I would. I’m not a complete dolt. I’d call 911 of course. Cry a lot, and stuff. Then get his original artwork appraised. But you know, after that. I wouldn’t have the slightest idea about the maintenance and upkeep of this piece of property.

It’s not like Husband does everything now, although he does do some things that I am extremely grateful for. He mows the lawn, pulls a few weeds, cleans aforementioned gutters, and paints the deck a fresh shade of sage green when the old stuff starts to peel, and he frets about all the other things that need to get done.

Hey, that part I could handle. I can fret with the best of them.

But when I was outside, staring at our new central air conditioning unit, looking at the tube going into the house through some kind of silver junction box, I had a driving need to know how it all worked. I wonder if there is some kind of class for that. Not how to fix stuff. I probably wouldn’t be fixing stuff. I hate Home Depot and hate getting my hands dirty. My way now of getting things fixed is to tell Husband what has broken. After which, the following steps occur:

1. He heaves out a mighty breath, rolls his eyes and throws his hands up to the sky and wonders what other awful and expensive thing will happen to him next.

2. Grumbling, he will put on some sort of expendable clothing depending on the location and condition of the domestic infirmity (painting pants, a ripped sweatshirt, hip waders, radiation suit) and “go look at it.”

3. He will then attempt to fix it while I hold my breath upstairs, bracing myself for a flood or an explosion or some other mishap. I can monitor the progress by the grunting and the loudness of the pounding that is going on in the basement. If the pounding gets loud, I know to do a mental check of our account balances to see what we can afford to replace. If it gets too quiet, I wonder if we will have to take a trip to the emergency room.

4. He will come upstairs and announce one of three things: 1) That he was able to fix it (after which I will need to praise him like a puppy who just learned how to sit); 2) He might be able to fix it but it will require several trips to Home Depot and/or consultation with several neighbors; or 3) He’s not God and can’t fix everything.

If part 3 of number 4 is the case, he will be willing to wait until the Guy Who Fixes Stuff On The Side is available, which could be weeks. Depending on the severity of the situation, I might gently “recommend” that we get it repaired by a professional who could be here, say later that afternoon. Some things I can live with. But if it’s the dead of winter and the furnace is not working, then I feel like I’m in my rights to insist that we call someone who can actually come before Spring, so I don’t have to sleep in so much clothing that I can barely roll over.

No. I don’t want to learn how to fix things. I just want to learn how things work. So if the times comes that I have to face some kind of vital domestic infrastructure failure alone, I’d know the right kind of noises to make and who I should call and how much I can expect to shell out.

I’d already have the radiation suit and the hip waders.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Idol-atry

I’m outing myself. This year I’ve gotten hooked on “American Idol.” I hope you don’t think less of me. OK, I really don’t give a damn if you think less of me. But I do care about the quality of the time I spend watching trashy reality television, and if I’m going to waste an hour now and again engrossed in something ridiculous, I want the producers to make it worth my while.

I do know that a two-hour finale (airing tonight) designed to determine which of the remaining contestants will take home the title sounds like a big fat yawn. Especially if it’s based in any way, shape or format like the preceding elimination rounds. There will be the singing, then the obligatory questioning from host Ryan Seacrest (Are you nervous? Come on. Are you really nervous? Really, really nervous?), cut to the block of fans in the audience cheering on each contestant, with their homemade signs, cut to the block of fans by video feed from a bar in the contestant’s home town. Then cut to a commercial. And another commercial. And another…and I’m switching to the Met game and will see who won on the web the next morning.

But here are a few suggestions the producers may want to think about next season to keep eyeballs and remotes from wandering:

1. The sing-off
The judges, the audience, the embittered and voted off, or even the remaining contestants themselves can dare each other to sing the most un-singable song they can think of. Examples could be the Star-Spangled Banner, an aria from any Wagner opera, or that song by REM that goes really, really fast.

2. Survivor
Let’s get down to what being an American Idol is truly all about. For one month, finalists are tailed by a phalanx of paparazzi 24/7. Scurrilous stories and retouched pictures of them and their family members are printed in every tabloid and broadcast on every tabloid TV show. First finalist to call a tearful press conference to announce he or she is entering rehab loses.

3. The sing-off, part II
Two words: Muskrat Love. Judges will be the Captain and Tennille.

4. Feats of Strength
Finalists will strip to catsuits and wrestle in a mud pit, then sing the entire score of a Stephen Sondheim musical.

5. The Gag Factor
Finalists will sing a series of duets with the judges. Obligatory numbers to include “Ebony and Ivory,” “I Got You, Babe,” and anything by Donny and Marie. Lose your lunch and you will be eliminated.

6. Keepin’ it Real
They can sing. So what? This time, finalists write their own songs. We see them sweating, crying, drinking, hulked over pianos and blank music sheets wadded up and tossed over their shoulders. Most MP3 downloads by the following week wins. If plagiarism can be verified by any remaining Beatle, you are disqualified.

7. Bring the House Down
My Bugs Bunny upbringing is showing. Whoever can hold a note longest wins.

8. The Last (we promise) Theme Week
Finalists will get into some oldies. I mean realllllll oldies. Let’s hear some Gregorian chants. The Chorale from Beethoven’s Ninth. Viking war chants. I want to see variety, people!

Are you listening, Simon?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Advice for the Graduate

It’s graduation time again. Even though I doubt I’ll be asked to give a commencement address any time soon, I think I could impart a few nuggets of practical wisdom upon those being newly released into the world. For instance:

1. Even though cats like crawling into tiny, enclosed spaces, it doesn’t mean you should shut the dresser drawer on them.

2. Anything crafted from tofu to resemble other meats is generally a bad idea.

3. The time you spend worrying about how your hair flips or if your pants sit low enough on your hipbones or if you’re wearing the right color eye shadow is time that you will never get back. So just make yourself presentable and get out and enjoy your life.

4. A person who tells you “into every life a little rain must fall,” has probably never experienced a monsoon.

5. A job with a crappy salary is generally more fun than one that pays obscenely well. High paying jobs often mean that you have to either work your ass off or compromise your values. You get to pick.

6. And if your job makes you miserable, you don’t have to stay. (Although it might be a good idea to stick around long enough to learn your coworkers’ names. You might need them later)

7. On that topic: if you work in a specialized profession, be really careful not to piss off any of your coworkers. Even if you think they are complete tools. Odds are you will be working with them (or maybe for them) again. Trust your Aunt Laurie. I’ve done this.

8. Doctors don’t know everything. Just because he or she gives you advice, you don’t have to take it. Although if you have a gaping chest wound, you should probably have someone in a white coat take a look at it.

9. If you avoid making certain important decisions, life has a way of making them for you.

10. It’s best, when driving alone, to stop the car if you have to consult a road map.

11. Just in case no one has ever told you this before, it’s not a good idea to stand under a tree during a thunderstorm or stick your tongue in an electric socket.

12. Not to make light of the second mortgage your parents took out on their house to put you through school, but your fancy diploma is only good for getting your foot in the door. The rest is up to you. And once you’ve reached a certain age, your magna cum whatever doesn’t matter for shit.

13. Don’t loan your boyfriend your credit card. No matter how cute he is. You might never see either of them again.

14. If the person you admire most has a first name of either Brittany or Ethan, you need someone to come to your house and confiscate your television and your iPod immediately.

15. You don’t have to vote the way your friends or parents do. Don’t be a sheep. Learn the facts for yourself.

16. This one is from Husband: Take a long car trip with your intended before the wedding. If you both survive, then you can get married.

17. Try not to leave the house without your underwear, if at all possible.

18. Sleep with a coworker only under the following conditions: 1) One of you is dying; or 2) The two of you have set the wedding date.

19. If your company has their Christmas party on a work night, do everything you can to show up on time the next morning not looking like you got drunk off your ass and left with that guy in Accounting. Wear an inch of makeup. Drink seven cups of coffee. And for God’s sake, stop by your apartment and change first.

20. Something that sounds too good to be true probably is. This applies to dating, job offers, and the Home Shopping Network.

21. If you don’t clean your house regularly, nothing bad will happen to you. Although if attractive personages of your sexual preference come within ten feet of you then make a face and turn away, you should probably do the laundry.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Work Face

Several years ago, when I was considering a career move but too overwhelmed or too frightened or just too damned stuck in my position to make it happen, I bought and read a book by Stephen Viscusi called “On the Job.” It was actually recommended by my boss. It was written by her friend’s brother, and she had originally purchased it because of his helpful advice about getting along with difficult colleagues.

But I found the rest of the book disturbing. I think it was mostly geared toward the newbie, on how to contort oneself into the proper employee worthy of respect and eventually, promotions.

I didn’t want to be contorted. I didn’t want to keep my opinions to myself at all times, not let on that I had a life outside of the office, be circumspect about what I did on the weekends.

According to Viscusi, gossiping about other employees, or letting on, say, that you partied a lot, or just got tattooed, or held a controversial viewpoint, could make you less likeable in the eyes of certain higher-ups and therefore, off the short list when promotions came around and possibly on the list when layoffs were required. After all, as humans, don’t we want to be with and work with other humans we like?

Yeah, OK, I thought, swell, but I can’t live like this. I can’t have two faces, one for work and one for the rest of my life. I can’t take all the toys off my desk and just nod and say, “it was fine, thank you,” when someone asks how my weekend had gone, and pretend that after five or six years of working with some people, suddenly my personality had gone underground. It seemed cold and distant and fake. Not to mention what people would think. They’d worry that I was coming down with the flu, or worse, that I suddenly decided I hated them all, or was distancing myself because I was planning to leave.

And then I’d be on that layoff list for sure.

But wasn’t I playing the game already? I wasn’t showing them the “real” me. My boss knew I was a writer, as did certain people, but I balked at letting the whole international community know by nixing her idea to publish a profile about me in the company newsletter about me and my novels. I didn’t want to give the impression that I wasn’t serious about my work, I said. And I didn’t want anyone thinking I was using my computer for non-work-related purposes (she said, deleting her browser history). And I held my tongue for so long about how the company was run that I’m surprised my muscles didn’t give out years earlier. I put up with so much political crap, smiling and saying, “no problem,” that I could have been a case study for Viscusi’s next book. But in an Austrian-run company with a go-go management style and a union labor force, you don’t exactly get on the catwalk and shout out your 99 theses, some of which included that I thought most of the management were assholes who didn’t know how to manage their own time let alone their departments, that I thought we were pushing people too hard, that there was never time to do it right but always time to do it over, that one day I planned to write a novel including some of these buffoons and I was so looking forward to the idea of killing one or two of them off. That management has no guts and couldn’t retain good people to save their lives, but clung tenaciously to the bad ones. And if I ran the place, the coffee would be decent and lunches would be longer and we wouldn’t have a constant brain drain and there’d be an exercise room and people would actually WANT to work here. And another thing. Unions have outlived their usefulness and are now, for the most part, a bunch of whining babies who are a drain on company productivity and the American economy.

And then I’d high-tail it for the door.

But seriously. How could I be one person inside that building, and another one outside of it? I guess people do that all the time. Like, who would guess that the buttoned up secretary liked to go to nudist retreats on her vacations? That the quiet engineer in the corner had six bodies buried in his basement? (Seriously, there was a guy we all wondered about) That the seemingly happy-go-lucky sales guy was going through an ugly, wrenching divorce?

I mean, we all have our “things,” but are they things we’d want all of our coworkers to know about? Well, maybe not until you get to know them better. Then maybe you could tell them about that special closet in your apartment or why you show up hungover on Monday mornings or where that scar came from.

And if I had it to do over again…well, I wouldn’t, but that’s beside the point. But one thing I wish I’d done on my last day is upload a particularly steamy love scene from one of my novels and leave it on my computer. Maybe on one of the network drives.

That would give them something to talk about. Or not, if they’d read Viscusi’s book.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Bumper Sticker War

During my morning drive time (9:15 to 9:30) our local public radio station does a call-in show where a topic is introduced and they let as many people respond as can fit into that time slot.

One topic this week that stuck in my craw was “Are we losing the war on drugs?”

Most callers weighed in on the affirmative. Most opinions blamed a simple lack of resources, since the government had been throwing most of its time and money and manpower into fighting terrorism and illegal aliens. And, as this was NPR, after all, most people blamed Republicans, and mostly Bush.

Then a caller said that he went to Wal-Mart to buy STP for his engine and was carded. He asked why and the cashier replied that it was on the list of substances that were considered “huffables,” and could only be purchased if you were eighteen or over. This includes some types of glue, aerosols and the like. The moderator – instead of mouthing the usual clich├ęs about how kids have always been looking for new ways to get high, etc. – mused what it was about our culture, about our lives, that makes young people feel so dismal that they want to put some toxic substance in their bodies so they can spend a few minutes not thinking.

And that’s exactly what my mind grasped onto.

Now, I can’t speak from a position of someone who has never done illegal drugs. I tried a few, when I was young and stupid, hated the way they made me feel, and never did them again.

But I’m still entitled to an opinion. And we’re losing the war on drugs – losing it dismally – because in the typically American fashion, we’re doing it all wrong. OK. We did all right shaming or scaring a lot of people into quitting smoking, we did a fairly decent job cutting down new cases of HIV. But our approach to illegal drugs is completely whacked. “Just say no,” was a pollyanic polemic that become nothing but a big fat hypocritical joke. You were just supposed to say no to drugs while it was available on every street corner, every playground, every party. I’d go to clubs where people were doing blow in restrooms, hell, even in dark corners of the dance floor. “This line’s for Nancy,” I actually overheard one of them say.

What the powers-that-be should have said – and this was brilliant on part of the anti-smoking marketers – is that drugs make you ugly. Not that they’ll kill you, because in your teens and twenties you’re immortal of course, but that they’ll make you ugly, and no one will want to have sex with you.

That’s what they should have said. Public service announcement writers out there, are you listening?

But this way we have in America of dealing with our large and thorny problems is not to think them through to their source – hell, that costs too much money and takes too long and requires intelligence and common sense, for Christ’s sake – is to slap a pretty band-aid on it and call it done. Put it on a bumper sticker. Just say no. Mission accomplished. You can’t bring your knitting needles on the airplane. You can’t buy gas tank additives without proper identification. And put the Sudafed behind the counter so the meth-heads can’t buy it but put the condoms right up front.

All problems solved in thirty minutes or less.

What they don’t want to say is that life can be hard. And some parts of life are harder than others. And sometimes it’s easier to light up a joint than think about your ex-boyfriend or the pile of bills you can’t pay or listening to your parents arguing. Some people are better at dealing with it sober than others. Some people have mental health issues that either go unrecognized or untreated, and through the use of illegal drugs are only trying to medicate themselves. Not that I’m excusing it, but this is reality.

And part of this reality, as the drug lords are fond of saying, is that if there is demand, there will be supply. Poverty-stricken countries have quickly learned that if they grow the raw materials to fuel our boredom and pain, they can make more money than, say, if they grew food.

We’re treating the whole damned drug thing like Prohibition, and we all know how well that turned out. It created a black market, it caused gang wars and needless death.

When a well-regulated legal market would not only take the kingpins out of the equation, but create extra tax revenue for the government. Look what legalized prostitution has done for Nevada. Created a huge tourism market, at least.

And that’s only a part of the solution.

The other part has to do with the demand. Yes, people have been looking for ways to get high since the first cave dweller left the barley meal out in the sun too long. Each generation has its drug of choice. But if you use Maslow’s pyramid as a theoretical guide, getting high should come after you have the basic needs of survival – after your belly is full and you’ve got a roof over your head and the work of the day is done. That is, slay the mastodon and then you can have a hit of the peyote. And it seems this is now more than ever turned on its ear. That for some people, getting high is part of survival. A way to get through the day.

And I can totally understand it. I’ve lived through days like that. Wanted to take something just so I wouldn’t have to think. So what makes some people stronger than others? What separates the crack addict on the corner from the kid huffing STP from the guy dropping Zoloft? Education? More opportunities? Better health insurance?

Though I doubt anyone has ever sold his or her body for a hit of Prozac.

I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone will ever have the answer to every part of this question. Or the tenacity to try a comprehensive solution. Because basically we’re all just humans, and humans want to avoid pain.

And how attractive it would be to have a solution to our pain in thirty minutes or less, in a pill, in a bumper sticker slogan, in a pretty band-aid slapped over our open wounds.

Well. Now that that mission is accomplished, what’s say we crack open a few Tecates and go down and build a fence around Mexico?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Thanks, George

I was desperate a good laugh this morning and I have to thank George Stephanopoulos for supplying one.

Husband came downstairs when I was in the dining room scribbling in my journal, basically a lot of crap about how rotten I felt and that I had nothing worthy of writing about today. Grumpy himself from being woken up by the neighbor’s lawnmower (such is the fate of a night owl in Mayberry), he plops on the sofa and turns on the Sunday news shows. This is our Sunday morning routine. There used to be more coffee involved and sometimes pancakes, but things change.

Then one written word led to another and I was thinking about Mother’s Day, remembering the adorably awful craft-type things I gave to my mother, popsicle-stick jewelry boxes and the like. (Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, I’ll call you later) I was tuning out the blah-blah from the TV, when I heard Husband burst out laughing. He paraphrased what had happened.

George was interviewing Laura Bush. Basically he asked her about her husband’s dismal poll numbers. She defended W, saying that there’s so much trouble going on in the world today, it’s been difficult. George asked her how she handles it. She said she thinks about all the other people in the world who are going through troubles, all the countries in conflict, and then she thinks about our own Civil War and how polarized the country was and how difficult it must have been for the Lincolns.

“Yes,” George said, “But Lincoln made it through that relatively unscathed.”

Except for that mortal bullet wound, I imagine.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Seven Words You Can’t Say Outside of Home Depot

I’ve let my alter-ego stand-up-comic Frankie merrily riff on this topic in one of my novels, but today I needed to have some fun with it: I dare you to find one term in the lexicon of hardware that is not a double-entendre.

Think about it. Think about the word “hardware” itself. A guy had to come up with that one. And the original concept of the hardware store, where guys could get away from their women on a Saturday morning and safely sit around and compare the size and power of their tools. Among other tools and sundry tool-related items they sell are hammers, drills, nails, screws, nuts, hickeys, studs, nipples, plungers, pipes, plugs, j-boxes, c-clamps, adjustable knobs…

Well, OK. I doubt you can make much of “lock washer,” “drywall,” “reciprocating table saw,” or “¼-20 T-bar connector,” but I bet there are some enterprising readers out there who can. Extra points for using as many as you can in a sentence. A free copy of my next book (if it’s ever published) for crafting a halfway-decent limerick.

At my last job I worked in the lighting industry, and mostly with men. I was, among the many other hats I wore, the team leader for the drafting and development of installation instructions. The team consisted of me and a bunch of guys, most of whom came from the construction industry. And there we were on Friday mornings, the guts of some lighting fixture spread across a table, coffee and donuts all around, talking about nipples and hickeys and male and female connectors with totally straight faces. In any other context, this would probably be illegal (of course that depended upon what the guys were intending to do with the lighting fixture or the donuts). And if not for sexual harassment policies, we might have actually been laughing and having some fun with how ridiculous all these terms were.

I guess if women (most women) named these items, we’d have to step up to the guy in the orange apron (actually not, because an informal poll told me that most women would prefer to go to Lowe’s rather than Home Depot…as Home Depot makes things difficult as hell to find and probably appeals to the Magellan instinct in the male brain) and ask for the do-hinkey or the whatcha-ma-call it thingie that goes inside the back of the toilet.

And we’d get laughed right out of the place. Or maybe the guy would raise an eyebrow and offer to come over and check out our plumbing.

See, you just can’t win.

I wonder if there’s some kind of training class for Home Depot employees. Kind of like EST (it’s from the 70s, kids, Google it if you’re interested) where they lock you in a room and don’t let you eat or pee until you can talk about nuts and hickeys and nipples without blushing or giggling.

If I ask, I doubt they would tell me. They’ve probably signed some kind of gag order like the contestants on reality shows, garnishing their potential winnings or threatening legal action if they talk to anyone about how the guts of the operation works.

And I’m dying to know about how the reality shows work. Especially “Survivor.” That guy banished to Exile Island is hardly there alone. There’s the camera guy and the lighting guy and the director and at the end of the day do they beat it for the catering tent and the luxury hotel while some contestant who lost 20 pounds living on rice and grubs for the last 35 days has to machete open a coconut, pull up a palm frond for a blanket and lump it?

And I wonder how many trips to Home Depot are needed to make the sets, build the challenges, etc. for one entire season?

It’s just this curiosity thing. I can’t help it.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Dehumanize Yourself…or, Paging Dr. Mengele

The fastest way to do the former is to apply for any government program. For instance, many months ago, when I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to work again, I began the process of applying for social security disability. I truly, truly did not want to be on disability. If I was well enough to work, I wanted to work. But at the time I wanted a safety net, and I still do. Just as a backup plan.

So first came the application. Which, I soon learned, was only the pre-application, or the application to apply. Then came the telephone interview, a wrenching two-and-a-half hours (including a lunch break) where I had to identify every doctor, every test, every ache, pain and twinge I’ve had since this whole damned thing started, including exactly when the whole damned thing started. When I had the “incident.” When I last worked. When I tried again. When that failed. Why that failed. Where I worked and how much I made for the last fifteen years. Then I was asked to send a variety of backup paperwork (birth certificate, financial statements, release forms, a vial of blood, a stool sample…just kidding. They really did want my birth certificate). Then I thought I was done. I thought they’d review it all, reject me, and I’d have to decide how much it was worth to me to go through the process again.

Then came the 20-page application. Where I had to detail exactly what I did during a typical day (I made an executive decision that I didn’t need to take an accounting of the volume of bodily fluids I lost via crying or how many tissues I used), and once again, put myself through the wrenching process of repeating the whole damned lexicon of who I saw, and when, and why; where I worked for the last fifteen years, what percentage of each working day I spent sitting, standing, walking, bending, kneeling, crouching, brown-nosing, ducking out for coffee, reading blogs on the net (again, just kidding).

Now I really thought I was done.

And then I got the letter.

Inviting me to…no, that isn’t exactly the right wording..oh, yeah…commanding me to drive thirty miles to be examined by not just one but two of the finest orthopedists and psychologists New York could hire, at their expense, mainly to prove to the state that I am who I claimed to be on all that paperwork, and that I’m not faking my condition.

This happened on Tuesday afternoon.

The first medical-type-person I saw was actually human. Unfortunately this was the physician’s assistant, who was only there to take my vitals, get a few broad answers, instill in me a false sense of security, and then shuffle me off to my next activity, which was to be an x-ray of my lower back, which I don’t know the purpose of, since none of my conditions would show up on an x-ray. But whatever. It went fine. The tech treated me like an actual patient, instead of a number or a chart. Then he sent me back to the examining room where I’d started, where I left my husband and my clothes, to wait for the orthopedist.

Paging Dr. Mengele. He was a short man of underdetermined ethnic origin, and I could barely understand him. Mostly he told me to stop talking until he asked a specific question related to that part of my condition. I felt like I was on trial.

“When did you hurt your back?” he asked.

“Last February I picked up my CPU and carried it up the stairs and felt a pain. Then in March it got worse and I found out about the herniated disks. But that’s not really the big problem…see, my fibromyalgia flared up really bad and…”

“Don’t tell me about that now. Just tell me when you hurt your back.”

I sighed. “February, 2005.”

“And then what did you do,” he said.

“I went to my chiropractor,” I said.

“And then what did you do,” he said.

“And it wasn’t helping so I went to my GP.”

“And then what did you do.”

And so on.

And then the real fun started. “How far can you move your neck?”

I showed him.

“No farther than that?”

I said no.

“Is it because you physically can’t or because it hurts?”

“I can’t,” I said.

“I need to know how far you can move it before it hurts. If I don’t get all the answers on this form they will make me do it all again and then you’ll have to do this all again. So is that as far as you can move your neck?”

“Yes.”

He asked me to stand up. He asked that I walk. On my toes. On my heels.

“Do not bend your knees!” he barked. For this is the way I’ve been trained by my physical therapist to do things during evaluations, as to bring myself the least discomfort as possible.

And I straightened my knees. And it hurt.

“How far can you bend?”

I began to tell him the story about…

“No. You must show me.”

I started.

“Do not bend your knees.”

Crap. I started over. With locked knees. And it hurt. I could feel the panic rumbling around in the base of my throat.

“From side to side. How far can you bend.”

I showed him.

Then he told me to get on the examination table. Now, most people can step on that little retractable footstool on the end, sit on the table and lie back.

I can’t. Or at least not yet.

I tried to explain to him that when I get on examination tables, I put the footstool in the middle of the table, so I could sit in the center and then roll down safely.

But he didn’t have another footstool and refused to let me do it this way.

“Just go slowly,” he said, like this was supposed to help.

And I squiggled about – slowly – so I could get into the position he requested.

Then he pulled out the table extension and told me to straighten my legs.

He grabbed one and moved it in a circle. “Does this hurt your hip?”

“No,” I said, but it did later. Then he did the other one.

“Now lift your left leg.”

You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. This is one of the things – one of the top things, just after bungee-jumping, that my PT suggested I not do right now. Dead-lift my leg from flat on my back.

I tightened my abs so tight I thought I’d rupture something. I gave my lower extremity the command. I started to sweat. Forget the pain of lifting the thing. I couldn’t even get it to move.

And somehow this was more of a blow to me than any of the pain he’d caused me already.

I felt…disabled. Somehow all of the progress I’d made over the last year flew right out of my head.

And I was allowed to get off the table and sit again in my chair.

And then I started to cry. With him sitting on one side of me and my husband on the other, engrossed in Ben Franklin’s autobiography, I had to actually get up and get my own tissues, which were in a box to the doctor’s left.

“I do not mean to hurt you,” the doctor said, but this was the most insincere apology I’d ever heard. He was not even looking at me at the time. “It is just what the law requires.”

I’d almost expected him to say, “I was just following orders.”

And then he left.

And I was still crying. And my husband was just…sitting there. While I snuffled myself to a stop. While I get dressed. I had to ask him to hand me my shoes.

“Oh, come on,” he said to me in the waiting room. Where I was made to go wait for the next leg of my adventure, the interview with the psychologist. “That didn’t look so bad, what he made you do.”

I would have strangled him. Except their psychologist would probably have me committed.

The psychologist was a tall man of unidentified ethnic origin, with only a slightly better command of the English language than the orthopedist, but I was having a hard time answering his questions. I was still upset over Dr. Mengele. I told him so, but he didn’t seem too compassionate. I think he asked me to repeat a bunch of numbers backwards and forwards. I think he asked me to confirm what I’d already filled out in my many, many applications.

And then I was done.

Finally, after a long, stony silence, Husband admitted he’d just felt awkward and didn’t know what to do.

“You didn’t know what to do? What about some comfort?”

“I was just waiting for you to stop crying. You know, it really didn’t look that bad. He just made you lie down and lift your leg. What’s the big deal?”

I didn’t see the point of continuing this discussion. He’s done other nice things for me since, but I just wish I could make him understand this one.

So...meanwhile, it’s up to Albany. The disability consultant I initially saw told me that they’d probably reject me the first round, and then I could appeal.

Cripes. Who knows what they’d put me through then?

Hopefully by the time Albany gets its act together I’ll be better. I’ll be getting stronger, will be able to work a full day without collapsing, and maybe even do a few leg lifts.

Just to prove to myself I can do it.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Money-tainment

Maybe I'm a little behind on my cultural observations, but I'm just noticing that financial analysis shows are blossoming on the media like so many dandelions after a good rain. "Marketplace" is running on National Public Radio not just during the week but on the weekends, too. On TV, "Wall Street Week in Review" used to be the only show of its ilk. A panel of the financial elite calmly discussed the whims and proclivities of how the market had performed over the past seven days. And it was dull, dull, dull. The stuff for economists and brokers, and not for the common man. Now, we have CNBC, a network totally dedicated to business and finance, and every 24-hour news channel has its whiz-bang panel of experts, its gurus of finance, shooting stock advice at you at a pace formerly reserved for those three-minute political "debates" formerly so popular on those same shows. Wayne Rogers does this now. Trapper John is now a stock maven. There’s also some guy who looks like Alfred E. Newman and a woman with a huge, huge mouth, so big that's all you see when she talks. And some guy named Cramer who screams a lot and really should cut down on the coffee is ruining my digestion because Husband absolutely has to watch his stock market call-in show that is on the air right around the time I eat dinner.

I've starting taking my evening meals in another room.

I don't know whether this trend in finance-tainment is because the media is reacting to the cultural zeitgeist, as they claim, or if it's the other way around. Or maybe it's a natural result of our culture's "do it yourself" mentality. Pump your own gas (don't worry, Jerseyites, you'll be experiencing this soon), check out your own groceries, choose your own poison in the stock market. Thanks to on-line brokerage "houses" like E-trade and Ameritrade, you no longer need a broker or even a boatload of money to obtain a little piece of corporate America for your own. Yes, these services have been available for a while, but the public education part of it took a little longer to come on line. Rights and responsibility go hand in hand, and if you're going to log on and dither around with Junior's college education fund, then you should know a little bit about P/E ratios. So television, that benevolent force only interested in our own welfare, stepped in with some advice to keep us from falling flat on our nest eggs. (followed by extremely long disclaimer text that past performance is no guarantee of future results and the network is not responsible if you take any of these yahoos' advice and lose not only your shirt, but your pants and shorts as well) And these shows give us the illusion that we actually might have some control over the vagaries of the economy, even though most of us don't have a clue.

I'm certain this is trend in money-tainment is going to bleed into the game-show lineup any season now. Think of it: instead of vying for cash and prizes, you can either stick with a hundred shares of this blue chip stock that hasn't moved three cents in either direction in the last ten years, or....take a chance on the IPO that's behind door number three!! You really could become a millionaire...or wind up with enough MCI stock to wallpaper your bathroom. I'd have a little more respect for a game show like that, which, like Jeopardy, at least depends a little more on the skill of the contestant than something stupid that depends on the luck of the draw or how many Madagascar hissing cockroaches you can eat. And of course as soon as it's out, Donald Trump will cop to it. Just watch...he's bound to come out with a show where he selects a number of teams who, over the course of a season (it might take two, or he could just do that massive, incomprehensible editing job he usually has done), form a corporation, develop a product and have an IPO. Highest opening stock wins. And, if you bet on the right one at home, you win a hundred shares!!!

I don't know. Overall, I'd rather just pump my own gas, check out my own groceries, do independent research on my own stock picks and not have to watch any more of the Donald Trump's bizarre hair than I already have.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The art and artifice of mindfulness

I have been practicing mindfulness for a while now. And it ain’t easy. Especially for creative types. Especially for creative writer types. Especially for creative writer types with hyperactive imaginations whose minds don’t just drift but whiplash from one idea to the next. The idea is to just focus on what you’re doing. When you’re working, work. When you’re eating, eat. When you’re bathing, bathe. When you’re walking, walk.

But the walk goes something like this: “Oh. Look at the trees. Great trees. Especially that red maple. I was so annoyed that we had to cut down the red maple in front of our house. But it would have cut out too much light if it grew larger, oh, well. Trees. Yeah. OK. Here’s some more. Wow, they’re really greening up. Nothing as green as brand new leaves. Remember that artist you used to date in Boston? He’d get all excited when the trees started to bud…yeah, that one didn’t last too long. Wonder if he still has that painting of me…OK. Being mindful. Look at the lilacs. Nice lilacs. Smells nice, too. I love the smell of lilacs, remember that tree we had outside the back porch on Entry Road, and how it was always full of bees, and I got stung once and Mom put on this paste she made with baking soda and water….OK, this isn’t working. Just focus. Walk, walk, walk. What’s that? That smell? Lily of the valley? Already? That doesn’t usually come up until June. Must be the warm winter. Really was a warm winter. Did we ever pay the plow guy? Don’t know, I’ll ask Husband when I get home. Oh, that smell. I wore a perfume that smelled like that, when I was sixteen, when I met what’s his name, the guy from the Catholic school, who was only taking me out so he’d have a date for the prom, but then he broke it off with me because (he said) I wasn’t Catholic, but I think it was really because I wouldn’t let him beat me at tennis and I wouldn’t let him get to second base because I didn’t really like him THAT much…remember that Valiant he used to drive? He said he liked me because I smelled nice and was quiet and when he’d had a “tough day” I was calming to be around…damn. He wouldn’t like me anymore, would he? And…wait. Mindfulness. Hey, look at the gingerbread trim around that Victorian. Remember when we were thinking of buying that Victorian uptown and…

You can see my dilemma.

How does a creative person succeed at this slippery art? Every soap bubble on the sponge tells a story Every word leads to another. And the shower? Forget it. The hypnotic rush of the water - the sound, the feel, the heat – extracts story and memory from my mind like sap from a maple tree, like honey from the hive, and then there was the time that…

Oh, we were talking about mindfulness, weren’t we? When you cook, cook. When you eat, eat, when you…

I was trying my damnedest to do it during acupuncture yesterday. When you get stuck with needles…well, you can’t really think about getting stuck with needles. What I do is get myself into a hypnotic trance to keep myself relaxed so I don’t think about needles sticking into some extremely tender parts of my body. Instead I focus on the healthful, healing benefits of the practice. “Go into trance,” I tell myself. “Let your scalp relax, let the muscles of your face relax.” Which isn’t easy when your face is being scrunched into a head cradle. “Let your neck and shoulders relax…” Et cetera. I think about letting go and letting the healing energy the needles are freeing circulate throughout my body.

And then the thoughts creep in.

“I wonder, if I could get outside my body, what this looks like?” I felt about where he stuck all the needles, and I’m trying to parse what kind of pattern it formed, whether I’m a crop circle or Stonehenge around my shoulders and upper thoracic spine, and going south toward my lumbar, where he’d placed paired needles in sequence flaring out at my hips, if it looks like a string of telephone poles or street lights or railroad tracks. And that other day when we worked on my sinus points, I must have looked like some kind of alien cat with steel whiskers and antennae. Now I’m seeing in my head a series of photographs of various patterns of needles for various conditions. Wonder what the treatment for asthma must look like. As opposed to eczema, as opposed to irritable bowel, as opposed to…I’m seeing the images really close up, so you can see the texture of the skin and the glint of the steel, maybe one with the acupuncturist’s hand inserting one of the needles, and in the background his practiced and steady eye. I’m seeing…calendars. Paintings. Screen savers. Coffee table books. And who had the idea for acupuncture in the first place? What Chinese healer figured out that if he stuck sharpened sticks under people’s skin in specific patterns, it cured their headaches, or their allergies, and could actually prevent certain diseases?

The door opens. A soft voice says, “OK, I’m going to remove the needles now.”

Funny. I’d almost forgotten they were there.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The New Girl

Well, I did it. Made it through my first full week. Not exactly full – I did have to leave a bit early on Monday for acupuncture so I didn’t have the complete experience of two full days and two half days, but Wednesday, that was my first full eight-hour day in…cripes, I don’t remember how long. Maybe since February of 2005 or thereabouts.

And boy, was I wiped. I dragged my ass home, stretched out on the PT bed in the living room, and asked Husband oh-so-nicely if he would make me dinner. And he obliged, that wonderful man, and made some kind of grilled chicken flavored with his own concoction of whatever we happened to have in the refrigerator.

I slept like death that night.

Only one half-day left and we could call it a week.

But looking back, I realize that I forgot a few things.

For instance, what it’s like to work in a small office instead of a factory. It’s a cozy little building, in the heart of our small city, with everything you could want only a few minutes walk away. Five minutes (OK, maybe six) walk to coffee and back. You just have to be careful of the caterpillars. We’re in the middle of an infestation. They are everywhere, these tiny inch-long disgusting things…dripping from the building’s exterior, dripping from the trees, all over the stairs, the handrails…every time I come inside I have this desire for a Karen Silkwood shower. Or at least a good shake. And then they come flying off. Caterpillars stuck in my hair (it’s massively curly, for those who don’t know me), crawling down the back of my jacket…ewwwww……

Also for instance, I’d forgotten what it’s like to be the “new girl.” To go into a new workplace, all wide-eyed and eager, and watch everyone else buzz around like bees in their well-oiled machine (yes, I’m mixing metaphors, but I’m tired, damn it.) while you sit at a desk that used to be someone else’s and try to figure out how everything works. The machines, the workflow, the politics of the place.

Oh, they’ll tell you, if you ask the right people. Some people are nicer than others about it than others. Some just assume that you should know, now that you’ve been plugged into the Collective, and get annoyed when you have to ask how to fill out a time sheet or how the fax machine works.

Apparently, I made the dreadful faux pas of asking the Operations Manager (whose job is handling these things) how I should handle putting my hours on the time sheet when the pay week goes from Thursday to Wednesday and all time sheets are required to go to him on Thursday morning. But my first training week I started on Wednesday and apparently this made a huge problem for him and he felt like he needed to explain the whole process again, as curtly as he’d explained it to me the first time.

“Excuse me, Mr. Time Nazi, Sir,” I wanted to say. “It’s my first week. For the last eight years, I worked for a place where I clocked in and clocked out, period, and never had to account for my time. And before that, I haven’t worked for an ad agency for, like fifteen years, so cut me some slack on the paperwork, for Christ’s sake. And maybe you ought to cut down on the double-Turbo-shots from Dunkin’ Donuts, while you’re at it.”

But I just sucked it up and tried my best to fill it out right. I’m positive he’d let me know if I left out a comma or if I’d entered the time in the wrong format, say in minutes instead of fractions of hours. Or not. Maybe he’d just correct it himself and then gossip to everyone else how I can’t follow directions and why’d they hire me, anyway?

I have no idea.

That’s the other thing. I thought it was hard to break in to the social system my last job. 150 people worked there, and for weeks, most of the sales guys thought I was the new temp.

But in this hive of four, it seems harder. On the surface, everything looks fine. My boss is nice as anything, and will interrupt whatever she’s doing to answer my questions. The web designer, who is nice but kind of amusingly dark like Daria from that show on MTV (one of the few reasons why I ever watched MTV, but Daria’s been off the air for years), has also made it clear that I could come to her anytime with questions. Which I do. Because sometimes it feels like I’ve been dropped into a middle of whitewater without a raft, an oar, or even a life vest. And even the Operations Manager can be pleasant on the exterior, usually when in the presence of another employee, especially the boss.

Still I feel like I’m missing something. Underneath (except for my boss), it seems like the others go out of their way not to include me in their private jokes, their coffee runs, their lunch orders.

Maybe I just need to give it some time.

Meanwhile I’ll keep my head down, try to learn as much as I can, cut myself some slack and try not to take it personally.

And avoid the falling caterpillars.