Friday, January 27, 2012

The Torus of Time, or The Past Lies Just Ahead

One autumn, years ago, I was visiting one of my brothers, and his new wife and her two pre-teen sons,  living in a two-bedroom unit, in an apartment complex outside of Nashville TN.  One afternoon, while the other adults were occupied, the kids and I wandered around the grounds of their new home -- they'd only moved there a few months before -- and we talked about their new school, the friends they missed, that sort of thing.

The brick-faced apartment buildings reminded me of the Air Force barracks I'd lived in -- similar two-story cinder-block constructions, with a wide central entry hall, and narrower, only partly sheltered exit stairways at either end.  There were maybe ten of these structures in the complex, scattered about in what I imagine was supposed to be a charming manner, but which didn't really do much to disguise their rigid uniformity.  The main advantage of their design, at least for us though, was the easy access to these exit stairwells, which allowed for chasing each other, and racing around to the top, or for looking over the surrounding landscape from different these perspectives.

At ground level, where you would have expected the stairs to stop, meeting a flat square of cement, instead there was another descending flight, down to a small dark underground alcove opposite an opening without a door.  We all agreed it was a good idea to see what was down there, and I could only imagine the activities spaces like these would spawn -- how many cigarette butts and prophylactics the manager would be sweeping up every weekend, at least in the warmer months.  Our midweek explorations rewarded us with a corner full of dry, red-brown oak leaves, and some sticks.  A dirty green tennis ball.  An empty plastic soda bottle.

I was interested, though, in that dark doorway, that seemed to be secured only by its sheer lightlessness.  There was no fire door, no standard school entry with the safety glass, no lock requiring the janitor's key -- just empty, solemn blackness.  The boys told me they'd heard vague stories already, about bad things happening in all these underground hallways.  I wanted to see for myself.

So I walked in.  The hall was too wide for me to guide myself by touching both sides at the same time. I couldn't reach the ceiling.  The floor felt reliably smooth and level.  No puddles or running water, that I could tell.  At least not yet.  I stepped on another leaf as I made my way deeper in.  The principal feel was my own footsteps, and that almost greedy darkness.

Being a long-time city-dweller, I find darkness to be a relative term -- I could almost always move around freely in my apartment without the lights on.  Or to navigate unlit streets that were considered dangerous.  Here, though, the cliche of not being able to see my hand in front of my face was literally true.  In this darkness, I might as well not have hands, there really wasn't anything for them to do, except hang off the ends of my invisible arms.  It felt like the walls themselves were sucking up any hope of light, it was that dark.  Back behind me, the boys made to encourage me, and I reported back with 'Just more dark'.  Their enthusiasm for all this quickly leveled out, and then hovered on the border between excitement and alarm.

And just when they couldn't see me anymore, and started suggesting that maybe I should come back, I saw the thinnest sliver of light ahead of me, down along the floor.  It had to be... an office?  The furnace room?  Who could tell?  The light was so feeble.  But suddenly I needed I to reach that little line of light, even if all I found was a locked door.  Or I might walk into the janitor's storage room, and piss off the cleaning crew.   I just really wanted to get to that light.

But the boys were nearly hysterical by now -- they couldn't see me at all, they thought I'd fallen into a hole -- and really, there could be one, in another step, I thought.  Just because the floor was level and dry, that didn't mean it was safe, or could be trusted.  Finally the younger boy sounded like he might start to cry, so I gave up and told them I was coming back.  They were glad to hear this.  They shouted when they saw me again, and came to give me a hug.   Then we went and found a store, and got ice cream, and talked about other dark places we'd seen.

But I've always been a little sorry, really, that I didn't push on -- not because there was anything of  value to be found and claimed, but just because I had set out into the darkness, and the darkness itself was the point.  Until I saw that little light, that is, at the end, only a few more yards away.  I'm not sorry that I let myself be stopped by my new nephews -- it was actually flattering, really, that these boys who barely knew me, should be so honestly scared on my account.  I didn't even stop to consider, then, which was more important, their sense of safety and well-being, or my stubborn curiosity.

Did I make the right choice?  If I'd gone to the door we couldn't even see when we first confronted this black hallway, and had found a refrigerator filled with soda, free for the taking, would their ensuing relief, and maybe even a sense of delight have been just that much keener?  On the other hand, what if I slipped unexpectedly, and hurt myself, and one or both these boys would have needed to come into the darkness to help me?  What if the maintenance man behind the dim-lit door had a bottle of whiskey, a real bad temper, and a gun?

I think that this has come up again, this little insignificant non-event in a basement hallway in Tennessee, because in some ways, I'm about to go on a similarly unsettling little trip.  In this case, however, the trip is internal, and I know full well exactly what I'm going to see and hear and feel.  I'm also fairly ambivalent about the effort -- I'm the wary on-looker, who's not sure this is such a great idea, and the determined, not wholly secure point man, who's steeling himself, moment by moment, against the danger of incoming fire, as he makes his way deeper into the past.

It's been relatively easy, actually, talking about things related to the orphanage.  There's an almost impersonal quality to the experience -- sort of like the accident of getting on the wrong bus, and it rolls over in traffic, and some people die and some people live, and the living now have a story to tell.  But when I get to the next period in my young life, it really is as though the light goes out, as though I have to creep forward into an awful, awful darkness that was, in this case, specifically designed with me and my brothers in mind.  Sitting here at my kitchen table, with a vase of lilies and a cup of coffee sitting beside me, I'm ashamed to admit that I'm a little afraid to do this.  My eyes are hot with shame.

So I have a plan.  I'm going to tell you a story.  I'm going to tell it slowly, and gradually, and with great attention to detail.  Though I'll be tempted, I'll try not to skip around too much in time, to relieve the pressure by telling any of the many endings sooner than necessary.  This will all be like a somewhat less pleasant version of my dream of heaven, where we each tell our own story, as it was lived and forgotten and rediscovered, and we will all listen to each other, and contribute our part in it -- what we knew, because we lived down the block, because my sister used to date your brother, because my cousin worked in the office next to your aunt...  Because all of twists and flows, entwining endlessly, everywhere.     

But, my story.  My story will also be a true and factual story.  Some of it can be proved; in some cases, you'll just have to believe what I describe, what I say happens, even though you may wish that I was lying, that no, that couldn't have taken place.  This story will happen to a family exactly like my own -- so alike, in fact, that if you saw us together in public, you would shake your head and think you were either drunk, or seeing double.  We share the same birthdays and eye color, the same tics and talents.  We've lived right across the street from each other, everywhere we've ever lived, all our lives.  Our brittle joys and durable sorrows are indistinguishable; in fact, the only difference is this: late in the tale, my family gets a beagle named Bourbon, even though my dad wanted a boxer.  The family across the street gets their dog on exactly the same day -- and even though the dad wanted a rottweiler, they ended up with a basset they named Rotgut.

So.  Let's meet them.

Here is the Hertz family.  A big group, for the late 1950's.  We're meeting them as they stand outside their newly-purchased three-bedroom home in rural Pennsylvania, about 25 miles from Pittsburgh PA.  The house has pale blue aluminum siding and an asphalt shingle roof.  A garage door at one end of the basement.  The house stands on a double lot, halfway down a steep hill, at the end of the narrow, single-lane blacktopped street, with one row of newly construction homes facing each other across it, making what there is of a neighborhood.

The Dad is Warren Wallace Hertz Jr.  He prefers the nickname Hans.  No one knows why.  He's 30, stands 5'10" tall, weighs about 125 lb, and is proud of having a 28-inch waist.  Warren was married once before, to a woman name Prudence.  Together, he and Prue had five children.  Now, standing here to meet us, Warren has his four sons with him, and somewhere, Prudence has their daughter.  We can't know whether or not Warren thinks about his former wife and his daughter, because he's not given to talking about much of anything.  He has a high-school diploma, was in the United States Army Air Force at the end of World War Two, training as a tail gunner.  He flew over part of Mexico once.  He hs always wanted to be an electrical engineer.   He likes to drink beer.  In his current job, he travels 50 miles round trip every day, to service vending machines in Pittsburgh -- he occasionally brings home candy bars for the kids, and the used coffee grounds, which he piles by the basement door.  He says they will make good mulch.

Beside Warren is Jane.  Jane is 20, and this is also her second marriage.  There were no children from her first.  Well, as her first marriage was annulled, by her parents, Myrna and Stan Roth, maybe this is her first marriage after all.  Jane is petite and quite pretty, with sleek dark hair that turns under at her neck, lovely skin, and an interesting cast in one eye, from when she was a kid of about ten, and her younger brother Jake hit her with a dart, and she needed an operation.  Now she wears those cat's-eye reading glasses, with the rhinestones at the corner.  Her nails are polished, a maroon almost identical to the big  new Mercury convertible she and Warren had decided to sell, to buy the new house the new family was all going to live in together now, and be happy.      

The tallest of the boys is Warren Wallace Hertz III.  His family nickname for him is Fizzy, or Fizz, which he hates.  Warren is 11, and a chubby with thick straight brown hair.  He is a dreamy, quiet boy in public.  He likes to read and draw pictures, and would prefer never to go outside if he can help it.  He is clumsy at sports, although he can run faster than you would think.  He is in the 7th grade at the local elementary school, and he's also a member of a Cub Scout Den.  He hopes to become a Boy Scout soon, but he's having trouble figuring out the knot diagrams for the test he has to take.  He generally has a good appetite, but he doesn't like canned green peas.

The next boy, the one with the dark curly hair and the big dark eyes, is Gregory.  Or Greggy, as the family calls him.  Greggy is an outgoing boy, who loves to meet and talk with strangers.  He has a rich fantasy life which he sometimes can't distinguish from reality, and is strong for his size and age.  He and Warren are especially close.  Greggy is in the fourth grade in the same school with Warren.

Next, we have the blond son, Nelson, who has brooding brown eyes, and seems watchful, as though someone is going to sneak up behind him to steal something.  Nelson is in the third grade.  He is considered bright, like all his brothers, though Warren is acknowledged as the smart one.  Nelson is serious and thoughtful, and usually says very little.

Finally, there's Elliot, the youngest, who's just starting first grade, even though he's old enough to be in second.  (There was apparently some problem with his reading, at his last school, and he was held back, until his teachers realized that he needed reading glasses)  He's small for his age, with dirty blond hair and fleshy lips.  His eyeglasses are an indistinct yellow-grey color, and make his eyes look smaller than they are.  Elliot is actually a fraternal twin.  His sister, Ellen, is the girl their mother Prudence took after the divorce, to live with her somewhere else.  Elliot was only four at the time, and doesn't seem to remember any of this. 

One more thing, before we let the Hertz family go inside and finish unpacking.  Get themselves nice and settled.  All four of these boys have recently been institutionalized, at a Church-supervised orphanage north of Pittsburgh.  Warren lived there, at The Home, for a year and a half, and was taken out of the orphanage a year ago now; he was initially told by his dad that Warren would be living with his paternal grandparents, Warren Wallace Hertz Sr. and his wife Marcia, in Florida, but that turned out not to be the case. The three younger brothers, who all lived at The Home for nearly twice as long as their oldest brother, just arrived here, to this new home, from the orphanage yesterday.

(My own family, remember, lives just across the street.  We're peeking through the curtains, wondering who these new people are, and whether or not they'll fit into the neighborhood.  Whether they'll notice what goes on with us.  Time surely tell.  And we never miss a thing)

So.  There we are.  And as they say in the entertainment business: the stage is set, the actors are made up, in costume, and going over their lines.  Soon the curtain will rise, and the first act will begin.  Bring your popcorn and a hanky.  It's that kind of show.   

©  2012       Walter Zimmerman

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hearts Made of Stone, or Crossing the Bionic Border

As I write, the two-day-old incision on my left shoulder is slowly healing.  The muscle in my heart is beginning to form scar tissue, to cover and secure the two tiny barb-tipped wires that were threaded into my heart through a vein, and then twisted until they buried their little corkscrewed ends into my flesh.  I dimly remember an old stop-action nature film, of wild oats planting themselves.  Fallen to the ground, and moist from a recent rain, the seeds' coats begin to swell, and the long, thin, whisker-like leafy coverings twist themselves together, lifting the seed head up off the ground.  Then, drying out, the whiskers let the seed heads falls back, and then untwist again, turning the pointy seed head into the soil and burying it.  (Pig penises apparently have a formal similarity, but we'll just picture wild oats for now)

Less than twelve hours after having been released from the hospital where heart surgery was performed on me, so quickly, in the morning, I was in another hospital, in their emergency room.  I had been having throbbing, tearing pains in my chest, and as I was being admitted, and as more needles were being poked into my arms, I was becoming ever more deeply certain that this hi-tech 'solution', this soi-disant 'pacemaker' I'd chosen to remedy my ailing heart, was actually an irreversible mistake, and that surely I would be dying very, very soon.  Very soon.  Within hours.

My surgeon and the pacemaker manufacturer's technical representative showed up, and as I was now lying on an emergency room bed of questionable cleanliness, with the usual profusion of tubes and hoses and wires spouting from me like... well, like one of my own pieces of artwork... the professionals consulted the touch-sensitive screen of their chunkier-than-ordinary lap top  (the Paula Deen model, perhaps?), making hi-tech asides to each other while wave patterns and strings of numbers popped up and disappeared.  And I was pondering my imminent demise, wondering if I should go with burial, or cremation?  And the wake:  a sit-down brunch, or the buffet?  Full strength, or decaf, or both?  So many decisions, so little time.

The technician suggested that the voltage on one of the wires (remember, the threading and the twisting, the veins and the heart flesh...) was set too high.  He asked me how far apart, time-wise, these contractions were, and as I tried to recall, I wondered briefly at the term 'contractions', and whether or not we'd maybe shifted, subtly, into another scenario.  I told him the stabbing happened about every two hours, while gently feeling my suspiciously swollen lower belly -- what all had happened in that operating room, while I'd been under anaesthesia?  After they'd done the assigned task, had they then switched gears altogether?  Were they really just using me now, to create a breed of half-plastic, half-meat radios?  I put this troubling thought out of my mind, trying instead to describe as accurately as possible the intense pain I'd felt.  He was still touching the screen all over, almost in a trance, and fiddling with the keyboard.

'I'd bet that what you felt...' he mused, not looking at me, as I couldn't help wondering if the child of our unnatural love would be a portable, or a table model, and if I were technically the father, or the mother, or just the delivery unit.  He entered a few more numbers.  'It probably... felt... something like... this.'

He touched the screen.  I thought my chest was going to split open, from the middle, from the inside out, spewing shards of window glass all over the room.  Three times, three internal spasms, in quick succession.  Once more, and I would have turned over all my passwords, all my account numbers, plus the deed and keys to the house.

Tech and surgeon nodded their heads, and agreed that maybe it needed to be turned down, from what felt to me like twelve hundred and fifty volts, to just three.  And let's all have an appointment ten days from now, they said, closing up the portable control booth.  We'll continue the fine tuning, they said as they left.  (For all I know, I thought, we might also be looking over a list of baby names.  Or model descriptions.  And what about pre-school?  Or would the baby go right to Radio Shack?) 

As it turns out, my heart is quite literally broken.   Not in the sense of fracturing apart into shards under the sofa, but in the sense that, even though it looks whole, it doesn't work the way it should.  One of the two natural sources of electricity in my heart, that are supposed to prompt it to pump my blood all over the place, has stopped sparking.  If this failure hadn't been discovered, and hadn't been mended with the little subcutaneous battery I'll now carry with me everywhere, I would most likely have died suddenly in my sleep within the year.  Or fallen down, brain dead, in a grocery store aisle, thereby causing a scene, and messing up people's schedules, because they would have to put down what they were doing and go to their closets instead, looking for something black to wear.  This last not applying to my friends in New York, who are eternally funeral-ready.

From one of the articles in one of the documents amid the bale of paperwork I've been given to help me understand my new bionic accessory, one source suggests that, in addition to heredity and lifestyle choices, the state of one's heart may quite literally mirror the state of one's emotions.  Which idea seems cautiously seconded by a news item in Tuesday's NY Times, on the front page and above the fold.  In an article by Benedict Carey, titled 'Grief Could Join List of Disorders', the first sentence reads:  "When does a broken heart become a diagnosis?"

The first song I can remember from my childhood was a late 40's or early 50's tune, sung in the tight harmonies of the time -- Hearts Made of Stone.  'Will never break...' the vocalists went on and on.  Implying that marble or basalt hearts would be preferable to their poor fleshy ones, which being made of the ordinary materials, were prone to the kind of damage that could only be assuaged by singing about it, in parallel fifths.

My own little heart, at about that time, when I was maybe nine years old, was maybe a few ounces in weight, and that little bundle of muscle was totally dedicated to my mother.  She, for her part, dreamed of other, grander things, of past brushes with fame, and of the fine housing she would someday enjoy, in New York City.  She was thus fairly indifferent to any hint of my slavish devotion.  She had a way of looking past my efforts, first to attract her attention, and then to massage that attention into something that might feel to me like actual approval.  This intense focus of mine, though rarely rewarded with any meaningful success, remained unswerving.  In fact, entering as I was what psychologists term 'The Oedipal Phase', I began to state flat out, with childish seriousness, that I meant to marry my mother, in spite of whatever or whoever might get in the way.  The whoever, of course, being my father.  I dreamed disturbing dreams. He turned into a menacing tiger, and to save myself, I had to kill him.  Awake again, I felt guilty, confused about this inward betrayal of my daddy.  But the flaming, maternally-directed love never flickered.  My heart beat just for her.

Then came the very hard part, a great deal of which might eventually have an impact.  This impact might not necessarily be easily visible, but it might well have an appreciable, or even a measurable impact.  Sooner or later.

Right at the very first, before the family unit had shattered into pieces (none of which went under the sofa) the very hard part was realizing that I wasn't The One of her children that my mother would take with her, when she and my father got The Divorce.  She had decided that, in spite of all my efforts, I wasn't good enough, even though there was only the one 'M' on my report card, for math, and while she stood in the living room, looking at this mark, I expended an embassy's worth of appeals and justifications, trying to soften her expression of horror into one of acceptance, forgiveness and understanding.  Maybe I could do better?

I vowed that I would do much better, even as we got to an even harder part of things.  I had to get in the front seat of the black car, where I sat hoping for a last minute reprieve, as our luggage was being loaded into the trunk.  But there was no last-minute change of heart, and I ended up having to wave back at her, over my right shoulder.  Then, as the car moved off down the crunching gravel driveway, I looked inside myself.  I and saw, up very close, a great cold grey stone door, grinding slowly across a slightly wet grey stone floor, to finally slam, irrevocably shut.

Where did these things go, in a person -- fears like these, and struggles and disappointments and final surrender?

There came ten years of sadnesses, not one of which could be separated from the others, to then be adequately acknowledged, appreciated, mourned, and released.  There was institutionalization, with its impersonal allotments of physical and emotional abuse.  There was a life in a truly unhealthy and destructive family setting, a setting where boys were bad and girls were good, where children from one blood line were used as live-in help, and beaten or chained in bed as thanks for their efforts,  while children from another blood line had party clothes hanging in their closets, in a bedroom painted pale lilac and pale violet,  and went to dancing school.  A family system in which the boys were resented on a daily basis, resented for the amount of food they consumed, how quickly or slowly they consumed it, and what noises they made in the process.  A home in which these boys were routinely reminded of their tainted heritage -- 'Your mother only wanted a girl' -- and criticized for their failing even to each other -- 'You boys don't even love each other', and threatened with return to the institution from which they'd just come.

Where does a steady, focused stream of such corrosive input go? 

And for each of us, for my three brothers and me, the time to face of any one of these griefs was forbidden.  We were taken to task for not having forgiven the fact of our institutionalization -- despite the fact that the only time this event was mentioned was to hold our own institutionalization against us.

Maybe this is why I feel such resonance with programs that send researchers out into the polar wilderness, where they drill into and through the compacted ice sheets, and pull back out long core samples, that show precipitation and pollution, year by year, going back centuries.  I've recognized that one of these cores might serve as a model for an inner emotional history -- anyone's emotional history.  Layer upon layer of misfortune and loss, impacted, pressed together until they fuse, and hidden in the dark below the surface.

But, as seems to happen from time to time, things submerged or buried can be worked on by even more powerful forces.  What was buried and supposedly forgotten, suddenly bursts out in the light, not hidden any more.  I feel ashamed about my buried heart condition, now newly laid bare -- I should have lived differently, I should have cared for myself better, or with greater intelligence.  But is it possible that what I know of as a malign trove of buried memories has actually been determined all along to reveal itself?  Is it possible that my core sample of unexpressed grieving has transformed itself into a diagnosable condition, with attendant choices of how to handle it?   The buffet, or a sit-down meal at the wake?  Should I continue to live in stubborn denial, and not so secretly hope to die, soon and suddenly, in my sleep?   After all, this would sidestep what I fear -- the coming inevitable indignities of old age, infirmity and the complete loss of relevance to the world around me.  Or should I take what is, for me, an historically and familialy unusual step, to drag these old wounds out into the open, tease them all apart, confront the mess, and with what little energy I can muster, make at least an effort at repairing the damage?    

For now, my heart is at least temporarily patched back together.  It is being regularly shocked into doing the job for which it was designed.  Now, perhaps, I'll find the wherewithal to face the countless other broken things I've carried with me for decades -- some as twisted concepts, others as literally twisted steel and plastic -- and then see what, if anything, can be done with them.  I may only be able to mourn for the memory of possible projects represented by each hoarded memento, but which projects must be returned to the pool of possibility from which they came.  I may have to confront a secret cache of paint tubes or little brushes, grieve because I couldn't allow myself to use them, and then let them go on into someone else's life.  (The only really good tube of paint, I've lately come to realize, is an empty one)
I definitely need, at least in the metaphoric sense, to stand before the thin calendar of remaining dates available to me -- to confront the shock of my own inescapable finiteness, and try to figure out how to parcel out the hours.   But now, unexpectedly, and maybe only for today, I have an uncharacteristic hope, as a new implement in my emotional tool kit.

Meanwhile, I have another appointment, to double check the wiring of what is either my heart or, now, someone else's?  And maybe to have an ultra-sound, to determine whether I'm nourishing, in the recesses of my very being, a smart little solid-state radio, or a set of conjoined speakers.  Delivery will be a bitch.  

©  2012    Walter Zimmerman

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Adventures in Mortality, or Still Not Dead Yet

[Six - freakin' - thirty in the freakin' morning, and yours truly, a particularly ardent and dedicated night owl, has grumpily been up for half an hour already.  Our smaller cat Buster, the red one -- the one I first met when he was only ten weeks old, asleep in a tiny metal water bowl in his gruesome cage at the shelter.  And I instantly adopted him, so you'd think he might be grateful.  Or considerate, even.  Hah! -- out Buster began his latest recital of the tragic death scene from Aida, at about 5:45.  Few have heard this version, as Verdi cut it from the final work, because it was considered too heart-rendering for contemporary audiences to bear, and the original score was burned for the good of all mankind.  But backstage cats, attending the final rehearsal of this soon-to-be long-lost work, committed it flawlessly to memory (having so little else to think about, other than luscious backstage mice), and they have passed it down, generation to wailing generation, by yowl of mouth, over backyard fences, ever since.  Buster is now considered the reigning feline interpreter of this piece.

So he got his food, and having once again brought down the house, he'll now retire to his favorite winter haunt -- the rug in front of the bedroom radiator -- to rest up for tomorrow's performance (I think he's scheduled a similarly arcane and desperately wrenching arietta from Lucia...), while I sit upright, dazed at the fact that I'm actually wearing clothes of some sort, and staring at this screen...]

This has been one of the stranger weeks of my already verifiably bizarre life.  During the days, I've been feeling fine, in spite of repeated calls from a new doctor -- I think he's a neurologist, which perhaps means he's supposed to get on my nerves? -- and just last night, he dialed up again, to check whether I had still had actual blood, or was it formaldehyde already, in my veins today?  During the days, I've been almost productive, and I guess the new battery of antidepressant medications is working, because I don't find myself wondering just how much of the yew tree I'd have to trim, to then concoct into a suitably potent and bitter beverage, the quick consuming of which would let me experience, first-disembodied-hand, that legendary boat ride across the River Styx.  (I hear it stinks something awful, so I'm taking cotton balls for my nasal passages.  After all, the Egyptians did...)

Instead, I've actually been using the gym membership we faithfully pay for, and I've totally... touched exercise equipment!  For minutes at a time!  Five workouts (or something approaching), this month!  I have perspired!  Astonishing!  Plus, I've done shopping, and I've taken recyclables to the dump, and I've had coffee with friends on two separate occasions.  I went to choir rehearsal.  I visited our local car repair place (almost like a second home. Awwww), to wish them a Happy New Year, and schedule a state inspection of the van.  I walked up the street at the rate of roughly 3.5 miles per hour (I know this now, from the treadmill) and picked up seven pounds of pills and other new mediation from the pharmacy, flirting with everyone there.  I visited the little FedEx shop next door, where an African grey parrot, presumably alive, is always sleeping in its cage by the enormous printing machine, and I asked about their shredding services, because we have about a cubic yard of old bank statements in the attic, and really could use the space for something else.  Like Christmas ornaments, or pieces of wood.

At home, though, it's been a little more touch and go.  Nights have been particularly bad.  That's when, according to Mr. Halter Monitor, my naughty heart starts doing physiologically inadvisable things.  Like not beating for seconds at a time.  Or dropping to hibernation rates, for hours on end.  I've resurrected my ancient CPAP machine, even though the pressure setting is too low and resists all efforts to readjust it, and the humidifier doesn't work, and wearing the mask (as I think I've already mentioned) is like having a woman's particularly unattractive shoe strapped to my face.  An enticing notion, I suppose, for some, but boat-floating for me.  I try to imagine that I'm a virile, alert jet fighter pilot, with his oxygen intake apparatus firmly in place against his rugged, manly visage, but the fleeting fantasy doesn't really work.  Because I'm not wearing a flight suit and helmet, I'm not in an F-whatever, on the tarmac.  I'm in my underwear, and I'm just going to turn off the light, lie down on my left side (that's the only way the hose reaches the bed) and try not to listen to every single beat of my treacherous, fallible heart.  All.  Night.  Long.       

During the days, I wash the dishes at every available opportunity, and I more or less keep on top of the laundry -- there's something gratifying, I find, in folding clothes warm from the dryer.  I installed a curtain rod in my bathroom, and have a potential fabric choice for curtains, so that finally, after ten years, the back neighbors don't have to watch me brushing my teeth at night.  But it's here at home that the doctor's keen interest in whether or not I'm dead yet seems pervasive.  Every twinge, every burp, every bit of pressure behind my sternum (it certainly couldn't be the result of the half-gallon of coffee I just inhaled, could it?) (Just where is my heart, anyway?) seems to be incontrovertible evidence that I'm finally teetering over the leading edge of the steep, well-lubricated, final rapid downhill slide.

Yesterday, for example, I was wasting yet more of the time I'm always complaining that there's too little of in the average human life span, by playing a scrabble-like computer game I received as a Christmas gift (thank you, you know who you are), and which game has become, for me, the cyber equivalent of crack.  (Oh baby, just one more five-letter word, with just one more green square, you can do it baby, it'll feel so good)  The game has what I consider to be a supremely irritating, amazingly stupid, and unnecessarily distracting sound track (they don't know from Mozart?), and I have the computer's speaker system shut off while I delve ever deeper into my desperate search for a word that uses only N's and L's and R's.

But yesterday, as I was saying.  About two hours (!?!?!) into my latest jag, I'm at my most intoxicated, having finally scored 'iguana' (quagga, improbably enough, was a cinch.  I've used it twice), and then I hear, very faintly, some little bells or something.  And maybe the hint of a lilting tune?  But very, very faint.  After ignoring it, while I found 'fatal', and 'aorta', I got up to see if there was a bell choir on the front porch.  We all know the answer to that one.  I sank back into my alphabetical stupor ('died'; 'throes'; 'spasm'), but there it was again, only a little louder.  (And was I imagining things, or was there just a tad bit more pressure now, behind my pesky sternum?  And just a bit closer to that little malfunctioning meat pump?)  I checked to see if the TV was on -- I usually set it to a classical music station, and perhaps this was a little divertisement by Humperdinck?  No; TV: off.  I even cranked open the kitchen window, despite the bitter cold, to see if perhaps, instead of sporting his usual heavy spiked chain collar, the neighbor's enormous pit bull was now fitted out with a set of delicate wind chimes around his muscular neck.  We all know the answer to that one.  So, I went back to my chair, took a deep, somewhat troubled breath, and plunged again into The Search.  'Coma'; 'mortuary'; 'pallbearer' -- who knew it was all one word?

Maybe it was heady scent of the lilies, which are in a green vase on the kitchen table, because I suspect there's too little yin energy here in Boy House.  (How else to explain all the floods?)  But the vague, delicate ringing and tingling resumed, this time with a hint of melody -- almost an entire phrase -- a bit muffled by the hum of the humidifier in the music room that would be a dining room if we could balance our plates on harps and piano keyboards.  I was definitely hearing it -- lilt-y, chime-y, almost... otherworldly.

Then, seriously, I decided that I was actually dying, and that this ethereal, evanescent music was the mercifully dainty precursor to that final passage from corporeal life to... whatever.  (Which, in terms physical, transitioning into meat wrapped up in cloth and lying on a cold white tile floor.  Now the music tingled.  It was almost poignantly, delicately sweet -- not at all like what a trained Presbyterian like myself would expect when entering the great, predetermined beyond.  That being less like music, and more the plaintive bleating of live sheep as they are crushed between enormous boulders, with haggis squirting out everywhere.  Just like God knew was going to happen all along.

So, maybe, this dying thing isn't going be so bad after all?  Could the mythic Tunnel To The Light be lined, in my case, with glockenspiels?  At this point, even the high of the spelling drug had ebbed (even though I was pretty sure I had spotted 'embalmer'), and I relaxed.  My eyes began to sting a little.  We all have to go sometime.  I should have cleaned the cat litter.  Even Steve Jobs allegedly said, at death's metaphoric door, 'Oh, wow...'   I teared up some more.  Poor John.  All the ferocious mess I was leaving behind.  All the porn.  But at least I wouldn't have to take another phone call from Dr. Nerves:  'Aren't you dead yet?'

Then, the piano and harps being damp enough, the music-room humidifier stopped.  The Music from Beyond got louder.  It wasn't imaginary, and it wasn't even remotely celestial.  Instead of having completely silenced them, I'd inadvertently left the computer speakers on, at the lowest possible setting, and the inane, chattering spelling-game sound-track was seeping through, interspersed with the nasal voice of its Mascot, some pudgy green larval cheerleader wearing horn-rimmed glasses.

I laughed and laughed and laughed.  And turned the speakers off completely.  And then, to my own amazement (please don't be hurt, oh Gracious Giver of Gifts), I dragged the icon for the alphabet crack game off the dock (or whatever it's called), and released it, in an animated puff that I wonder how much money they spent to engineer, sending it into some other place in cyber storage.  John says the game is still on the computer, but I think I'll take a break.  (Though I have resumed my equally time-squandering immersion in Waste... I mean, Facebook)  This alphabet-free hiatus will last, I hope, until while driving, I'm able to look at the license plate of the car in front of me, and not try to turn it into an extra-point, high-scoring word.

Like C0R-P5E.  Or GR4-VE5.  Or HE4-R5E.

©  2012   Walter Zimmerman 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Too Early, Too Late

Well, I'd been thinking about her anyway, as I lay in bed worrying about whatever my heart was currently doing.  Or not doing.  She allegedly has heart problems too, and these things can be hereditary, I've been told.

Then the cats decided they were dying of malnutrition, and that I had less than fifty seconds to get up and put my opposable thumbs to productive use, by filling their bowls with yummy things to eat.  Or face kitty carcasses.  And while I was in the bathroom throwing on some clothes, I noticed the light of the half moon, streaming across the tile floor.  The maternal moon, now halfway to its darkest monthly phase, but still bright enough to make shadows in my house.

So.  It's far too early for me to be up -- my circadian rhythms want me to stay in bed until at least 10 am every day, it seems -- but this is on my mind.  So, here goes...

This adventure started when I misplaced my old address book -- the one with the blue vinyl cover, and the grey pages.  I usually keep it in a particular place, on the top shelf of a cluttered book case, but for some unknown reason, I'd apparently moved it, and was semi-crazy to locate it, even though most of the information in the book was long since out of date.  People have relocated, people have died, the usual.

But this address book was the only place where I had any kind of contact information for my mother.  According to informed sources (a sister I see every seventeen years or so), Constance Cora Hebbard Zimmerman Bihm Hayes was living in Concord CA.  Oh, and here's the phone number.  And even though, at the time the address book went missing, I hadn't seen or heard from C. C. H. Z. B. H. for forty years, it still seemed important for me to have that dreadful information.  Which, even in the address book, I kept hidden, under a yellow post-it note, that covered her place on the grey page.

Then the lost blue book resurfaced, miraculously enough, down in the heaving disarray (in which, nevertheless, I can still generally find things) that constitutes my basement work area.  That particular blue!  That worn vinyl!  Eureka (without the water)!

So I brought the long-lost address book back upstairs, and kept it in more or less plain sight (meaning it might only be covered by one week's worth of newspapers) on my half of the kitchen table.  And once or twice, right after its resurfacing, I checked, on the 'H' page, under the yellow post-it note, to see if the name and numbers were still there.  Which they were.

And then I noticed that, for no discernible reason, I was really, really angry.  Angry, specifically, about the address book.

So, as one does at this point in human history, I talked about it with my then-psychiatrist.  Who would just sit there behind his desk, flexing his fingers and insisting that I talk to him for at least half an hour, before he would write my newest prescription for the ineffective antidepressant I was then taking.  I felt like a seal who had discovered how to use his vocal chords, instead of balancing a beach ball on his nose.  Why twirl a plastic sphere in new and wonderful ways, when I could tell the doctor about the address book, and wonder about the accompanying anger?  'Do you think... do you think I should... contact... her?' I asked.

'Well, she is your mother', he said.  Whatever that was supposed to mean.  In some ways, he might as well have said, 'Well, Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota.'

But, as I have sometimes done, I took hold of that anger, like a hot rope, and pulled myself along by it. And by the time I got home, the rope was near its kindling point.  I got the address book out from under the newspapers (hmm, haven't finished that crossword puzzle yet...), got the phone, found a reasonably comfortable chair, and leafed through to the 'H' section once again.  Under the post-it.  Dialed the number...

A cheery male voice, with a distinct Australian accent, answered.  And had no idea who I was talking about -- nobody by that name here, mate.  (I could practically smell the shrimp and the Fosters)

So I had no recourse, but to call my sister.  We barely know each other, she having been the best one, the one my mother picked as her prize offspring, to tuck into the lifeboat with her as the family foundered and sank.  The girl who grew up in Paris and Morocco while her brothers were being beaten in an institution.  And even though none of this was her choice, I have to admit a resentment that still flashes through me, unbidden, like a brush fire, whenever she and I have to communicate.

But because she's the only living contact I have with our mother, every ten years or so, on the thinnest of pretexts, I'll dig out my sister's number (in the blue book, of course), call her up, and after a few minutes of trying to avoid the real reason for the conversation, I'll sheepishly ask...  'Is our mother still alive?'

This time, however, perhaps impelled by this mysterious anger, I got right to the point, and asked where our mother actually was.  Had she moved to another picturesque village in California?  Or was she perhaps being held hostage, tied up and gagged in a broom closet, within smelling distance of an Australian barbecue in a little town outside of San Francisco?  'Oh, she and her husband moved back east years ago,' my sister perkily told me.  'They live in Delaware now.  Let me get her address and phone number.'

Delaware?  Far too close.

So, I did the usual MapQuest routine, locating the town and the street.  Then, I called the phone number.  Which was out of service.  No matter how many times I dialed.  Out of service.

I called the Delaware branch of the phone company.   Whether it was logical or not, I'd decided that, if the phone wasn't working because of a past-due bill, and the balance was less than $500, I would pay it myself, just so I could call this phantom woman inside whose body I had originally taken shape.  But no, I was told, this wasn't an issue of money owed; this was a business line that had been disconnected at the user's request.  I might as well have left the blue address book in the basement, I thought.

Then I went back to the MapQuest research, and printed out their directions, for getting to Simply Nowhere Delaware, just north of Dover.  And I put the directions in one of my drawing pads.  And made sure I took this drawing pad with me, on my next trip to Philadelphia.  Which was slated for the next week, for an early brunch with my former university teaching colleagues. 

I'd kind of expected a surprise party, with lots of students bursting out to say how sorry they were that I wasn't their professor any more, but instead it was just a small party.  There was a baby girl there, who wanted to feed me pineapple.  And chat.  So we did.  And we ate.  And drank tea.  I had a little more pineapple, to keep Olivia content.  All the while, wondering -- when I leave in just about an hour, and drive across the Ben Franklin Bridge, will I turn north, for home, or will I turn south, for...?

Gripping the anger, I turned south.

It was almost impossible, as I drove, not to imagine what was about to happen -- how it was all going to play out.  When I was at my clearest, I halted the fantasy, and reminded myself to concentrate on the driving, because I actually had no idea what I might be facing.  And immediately, in spite of my best intentions, a new fantasy, fuller and more colorful than the last, would spring up.  Well, there weren't that many turns to make, at that point in the trip, so daydreaming was almost inevitable, wasn't it?

The central pivot for these fantasies was a silly, sick falsehood that, according to my sister, lay at the very center of my mother's life with her much younger husband.  'He doesn't know how old she is,' my sister would say, conspiratorially, 'and he doesn't know that she has any other children besides me.'  A little involuntary twinge.  "In fact,' my sister would continue, with just a bit too much delight for my taste, 'when they first met, she told him that I wasn't her daughter, but her niece, so she could pass herself off as a little younger than she really was.'  Apparently, it was of central importance to maintain this charade -- though for whose benefit, I wasn't sure.

So, in spite of myself, I patched together this scenario:  I'll get there, and introduce myself as a friend of her daughter, who hasn't heard any news for a while, and I've volunteered to stop by and check on my friend's mother, in the friendliest possible way.  And I'll be asked in, and we'll sit in the living room while water heats for tea, and she will be looking at me with a kind of curious half-recognition, and I will enjoy the subterfuge...  Until...  And maybe some tea will be spilled.

Real life is much more interesting than I can ever imagine.

For one thing, the MapQuest directions were completely and flawlessly accurate.  Instead being actually directed to Biloxi Mississippi, via Anchorage, I kept finding myself turning left, onto exactly the correct small road, off the exactly correct slightly larger road, at exactly the correct mileage.  And I was getting deeper and deeper into rural Delaware, where street lights are a day dream, and there are lots of mobile homes that have never been anywhere.  Two more turns.  Even though it was only mid-September, most of the trees were already bare.  One more turn.  Which side of the street had the odd numbers?  I'd entered the land of roadside mailboxes, most of them weathered and blank.

Then, I was there.  Going a little too fast, around a curve, I passed it, then had to turn around and go b back.  The right number on the mail box.  A pebble-covered driveway, sprouting grass around the two parked vehicles that looked as though they'd been abandoned years ago.  A sad-looking mash-up of two trailers, side by side, with a shallow tacked-on front bay window giving a cartoonish nod to actual architecture.  I  pulled off the road, and sat for a minute, before getting out of the car and walking to the front door. 

There was no door bell, just a glass-fronted storm door.  I could have sent a letter, I thought.  Instead, I knocked, tentatively at first, and then harder and louder.  There was no response.

Well, I reasoned with myself, heading back to the car, it is a Sunday.  Maybe... they've gone to church?  A very late afternoon service?  Maybe they're at bingo?  I couldn't tell if I was relieved, or angrier than ever.  I was about to get back into the car, when I noticed a man sitting on the porch next door, and a woman standing behind him, talking on the phone.  I wondered...

I introduced myself with my practiced falsehood, about being a friend of their next-door neighbor's daughter, and then asked if these kind people knew when the folks next door might be in.  'Oh, they're home,' the man said.  'That's his van right there', indicating the dull brown vehicle I'd assumed was out of commission.  It looked like a dirty ash tray turned inside out.  'And see in back there, the window on the side?' he went on.  'You can see the screen saver running on his computer.  That other window, with the blue, is their bedroom.  Oh, they're home all right.  You just have to knock real loud.'

I walked back across the neighbor's lawn, and waded into the uncut grass next to the computer window.  I pounded on it.  I went to the window with a blue bed sheet pinned up inside.  I pounded on it.  I walked around the back of the trailer hybrid, found another window, and I pounded on it.  There was a sodden particle-board door in one wall.  I didn't pound on that, because it looked like it might cave in.

I banged on the big side window, where inside I could see a big color TV, tuned to a game show.  There was a cats on top of it.  I continued back to the front, and pounded on that skinny bay window.  The lights were on in there now, and I could see that it was the kitchen, with cats walking about on the table and the stove.  I completed my orbit at the front door, and pounding harder than ever at the glass.


The inside front door opened part way, and a skinny, grey-haired man with a Civil War style goatee appeared.  He pushed open the glass storm door, releasing a powerful stench of cigarette smoke and cat urine.  'Yeah?' he asked.

He looked so much like my youngest brother Lee, the one who is dead of lung cancer.  The one whose life was so terribly shattered, almost from the beginning.  The one who is the fraternal twin of the sister I resent.  What a strange coincidence, I thought.

I launched right into my enabling semi-falsehood, pouring on the charm.  Glad I'd worn a nice shirt and a smart tie.  'Friend of her daughter, hasn't heard, just wanted to check, yada yada.'  He stood there in the doorway, uninvitingly.  'Well,' he said, when I'd finished my explanation for attacking his house with my bare fists, 'my wife is fine, and I'll make sure she gets in touch with her daughter.  Thanks.'  And he made to shut the door.


'Wait a minute,' I said.  'My name is Walter William Zimmerman III.  I know you're not supposed to know this, but your wife gave birth to me on October 16th, 1946, at 3:40 in the afternoon, in Saint Margaret's Hospital, in Montgomery Alabama.  She also had three other children.  I don't want anything from her -- I just want to look at her.'

He didn't really seem all that surprised.  He even smiled a little bit, and said that he had known all along that the woman who'd passed herself off as 35, when they'd married, was actually twenty years older than that.  'We can't have guests right now,' he said, which was something of an understatement.  'Let me see.'

He closed the door.  I turned around on the cement block front stoop, and waited.  I looked at more barren trees, across the road, and at the cloud cover.  It looked like it might rain soon.  There was a little light behind the lower edges of grey, where the sun was getting ready to set.  Then the doors opened behind me again, and the man ushered my mother to the threshold.

Her face is still unlined, even at 84.  Her hair is thin and frizzy and white, and stands straight out from her pale pink scalp.  She's wearing an old blue terrycloth bathrobe, with smears of brown down the lapels.  On her feet, a pair of cheap slippers made of polar fleece.   The stench of smoke and urine continue to belch out from behind her.  She steadfastly looks past me, just over my right shoulder, as if she's expecting rain too.  And the first thing I ask, is if I can give her a kiss.

She is your mother, after all.

I kiss her left cheek, trying not to breathe in at the same time.  I ask her for the only information she can usefully provide for me -- her mother's maiden name.  My mother looks startled for a moment, as though she's just gotten a little static electric shock, and then blurts out 'Cunningham.  Rachel Cunningham.' Which constitutes the only and total conversational event I've had with my mother in forty years.

Then she goes back to investigating rural Delaware's southern horizon.  There's just the faintest trace of a secret smile about her lips.  I talk a bit with her husband, who now provides me with a new phone number, and a working email address, and the promise to be in touch with my sister right away.  He confides that his wife has some mild dementia, and is sometimes incontinent.  The living topic of our cursory conversation might as well be an old female Buddha, unaffected by what's unfolding around her.  Then, with a touching gentleness, my mother's husband guides her back into whatever it is they live in, and shuts the door.

So much for a cup of tea, and a subtle surprise.

I got back in my car and sat there for a while, my eyes closed and my head on the steering wheel.  Feeling filthy.  Trying to breathe.  Where was the anger?  What would I hold onto now?

Then I got out of the car and walked back over to the neighbor's porch again.  I told them who I really am, that I hadn't seen or spoken to my mother in forty years, and then we chatted a bit --  how they'd tried to help my mother out, with an extra pie at Thanksgiving, or the offer to mow the lawn, but that all their efforts had been rebuffed.  'Let us give you our phone number though,' the wife suggested, 'so if you need to check on her, maybe we can help.  Being next door.'  She wrote their last name and phone number on a piece of paper, and I wondered at the world -- a mother who can't look her firstborn in the eye; a stranger who reaches out with an open hand.

The drive home seemed to take a million years.  I don't clearly remember what I thought about, but I'm sure I went through most of the available emotions, at least twice.  I don't recall crying -- I think I've been beyond that, with regard to my mother, for quite some time.  Mostly, I broiled myself internally, for having waited so long, to make contact with her -- having hoped all along that it would be her calling me, for once.  Her caring about me, maybe. 

Instead, there was that secret smile, and the looking past me, over my shoulder.  The lies.  (I was later told, by the man with the Civil War goatee, that my mother had finally admitted to him that, because I 'turned out to be gay', she'd disowned me.  And that, oh yes, she'd had 'some other sons')  I'm embarrassed that, after all these years, these things still rankle.  Or that I still try to make some sense of it all.  Talking about my mother, with a friend of long standing, I confessed that as a child, I had idolized her, possibly to the point of a worship that must have made Jesus jealous, and maybe that was why...  Others have suggested, not unreasonably, that the woman is simply insane.  But somehow that doesn't make much difference -- as finding out that the driver of the car that ran over your legs, and crushed them beyond repair, either had a sudden dizzy spell, or wasn't really aiming directly at you at all, but had another victim in mind.  Whatever the underlying cause, you'll still never waltz again.   

It's been just over two years now, since I stood there on the cinder blocks, waiting for the glass storm door to open.  I still resist calling my sister.  I still resent feeling I have to go the roundabout way, to find out if the woman who gave birth to me is still alive or not.  I supposed I could try that new phone number, but what is there, really, to say?  Who would I reach, no matter which of them picked up the phone? 

I'm far, far past needing a mother currently, and have been for quite some time.  Where the problem lies, for me, is in the world of verb tenses; I should have had a mother, in something like the sense that most people seem to experience.  I know that actual parents can be a real pain in the butt, and then they live longer than you expect, and develop complicated diseases, and drain your retirement account while you try to take care of them -- unless, of course, you take the impossible/easy way out, and ship them off to some warehouse for the geriatric set.  All these problems, with regard to my mother, I will not face.  Which is, I suppose, some slender compensation for... whatever.

After my long drive home that night (I got lost, but then realized that, Delaware being so narrow, I only had to head north in order to escape), after I finally parked the car in the driveway, I went into the house and immediately took a long hot shower, and brushed my teeth ferociously, to scrub away a deep feeling of intense pollution.  The following Christmas, I thought about mail ordering a clean pink bathrobe, a woman's size petite, and having it shipped anonymously to a certain double-wide trailer with a shallow bay window in front, and a cigarette-butt-colored van in the overgrown driveway.  

Then I decided not to.

©  2012    Walter Zimmerman

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Metaphoric Reading of Competetive Sport in America Today, or Treadmill Delirium

What, you say?  Is this really BadSadBlog, talking -- voluntarily, no less -- about... sports?

Yes, I'm afraid so.  But before you go calling the experts, and demand that Mr. BadSadBlog be given an immediate physical examination, to uncover the tell-tale evidence of an obvious brain transplant, let me attempt to explain.

I was at the gym, toward the end of my pathetic excuse for a workout, and I lucked into the use of the one free treadmill in the place (Sundays being murder for aerobics).  Usually, I prefer an elliptical trainer -- or what John and I have dubbed 'the Bizarre-a-Tron' -- but all of those were being energetically put through their loopy paces.  So I began my twenty-or-so minute trudge to nowhere.  Trudging and trudging.

Of course, there were the hovering TV screens, plus the smaller tv screens (cute, huh?  TV and tv?) on each and every other possible device in the place, with the exception of the water fountain, and I think they're working on that.  And I'm pretty sure all the screens were showing scenes of one or another athletic competition, mostly at what I assumed was the professional level, judging by the apparent sizes and ages of the players.  Of course, I could be wrong.

And that's what made me start thinking along these lines -- the screen directly in front of me showed a football game, and I couldn't tell who was playing.  It was too far away for me to discern team names (I only use my drug-store glasses for reading, or for playing hide-and-seek with myself.  Which I always lose) (There will, incidentally, be a huge drop in the price of men's reading glasses when I die.  My next of kin will begin excavation, hundreds of pairs of perfectly good reading glasses will resurface, not having heard my Ally-Ally-In-Free...)  The only thing I could tell for sure was that one team -- I think it was the Baltimore Ravens -- wore white uniforms, with some symbol on their helmets that looked like a squashed piece of blank paper.  The other team was the one I was interested in -- not because of anything in particular they were doing, but because, at least with the help of the TV cameras, their uniforms were an incredibly rich, deep blue-violet color that ancient Roman senators would have sold their own children into slavery to be able to wear to the Forum.  That's all it was.  Just my lust for color.

But of course, because I had three freaking miles to walk on that stupid treadmill to nowhere, I couldn't just stop at wondering which team had employed such a discriminating design team.  I began to compare -- desperate for something, anything to think about -- the differences between the various forms of professional athletics.  Which train of thought led me back to some metaphoric observations I'd flippantly made, once or twice, here and there, to one person (usually a guy-type person) or another, about the major American team sports of baseball and football.  And to my great surprise, the response has often been a pause, and then a thoughtful, "You know, I've never thought of it that way."

So.  Here goes.

(Now, please don't be hurt if your sport love is basketball and/or soccer and/or golf and/or bowling.  I would probably have something harsh and penetrating to say about them too.  Just follow along, and apply the general principles as necessary.  Following the bouncing ball, if you will)  (Except for golf, which was invented by Presbyterians as a punishment, and as incontrovertible proof of an ultimately uncaring Supreme Being.  Otherwise, why would the balls be so small, with so many utensils for hitting them?)

Baseball will be first, as the sport with which I've had the longest connection, including attendance at an actual professional game, in what was at the time a world-class stadium.  Sometime in the late 1950's, or very early 1960's, and for reasons completely unknown, my step-grandfather took me into downtown Pittsburgh, to Forbes Field, to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates play... some other team I didn't care about then, and don't care about now.  He parked his big maroon Packard far, far from the arena entrance.  It was a hot, hot day, and we walked and walked until, for a brief moment, we were in the shade, handing over our tickets.  Then, inside, we walked and walked and walked some more -- I forget whether our seats were in Wisconsin or Massachusetts.  It really doesn't matter.  When we finally arrived, I felt more mature, and somewhat the wiser for the journey, but otherwise couldn't grasp our reason for being there.  (It was... sort of like... that treadmill...  come to... think of it...)

Out in the remote distance, toward the West, my step-grandfather pointed to where small animated objects were posted.  Every once in a while, one of them would move.  There was an occasional muffled whoop from the one place in the stadium with overhead shelter, and then... there was silence.  The sun made its slow, cruel progress across a flawless expanse of sky, with no hope of a cloud for months to come.  Then, inexplicably, all the little objects ran away, and other similar little objects ran out, and stood in exactly the same places, more or less, and then...  nothing in particular would continue to happen.  Except for the sun, of course.  (Either hot dogs and ice cold soda hadn't made it as far as Pittsburgh yet, or the refreshment vendors had better contracts than the players, and only plied their mouth-watering business in the shade) 

Then, suddenly, the mysterious process seemed to be over.  Both sets of little objects went away, and away over in the sheltered place, what I supposed were people began moving for the exit.  I breathed a little sun-baked prayer of gratitude.  My step-grandfather was disappointed because I hadn't been more excited, or interested, or grateful.  As I generally disappointed most people most of the time right about then, I wasn't that surprised.

Much later, in 1986 I think, the NY Mets were in the running for the World Series championship, and I really started thinking, to any extent, about baseball.  John and I had just met, and he wanted to see a live game, at Shea Stadium I think  (all stadiums seeming the same to me, like cats in the dark). But now, I could actually clearly see the activities on the field, and being in the stands was a lot of fun, with shouting things to the players, and eating peanuts, and making the wave.  None of which having anything to do with the game itself.

Meanwhile, John was focused on keeping a little mystery score card, with arcane markings for when someone did something different from what someone else had just done what seemed now to have been a few days ago.  And while we all waited for something concrete to happen on the field of play, he rhapsodized about the beauty of baseball, and the clarity of a perfect game.  Then he would go back to marking his score card with errors and bases stolen, that sort of thing.  It was much more complicated than keeping score in the bowling alley, that's for sure.

But watching the game, and thinking back to others I'd been unable to avoid seeing on TV, I was developing a broader picture of baseball, beyond its perception as simple sport.  And it goes something like this:

In baseball, the ball is poison, and if you touch it, you die.  Each inning, one of the two teams is mysteriously granted temporary immunity -- a kind of anti-cow-hide vaccination -- which allows them to handle the baseball to no ill effect.  But this temporarily-immune team must, according to the rules, threaten the vulnerable team with the poison ball, by throwing it at them, one at a time.  And there are only a certain number of opportunities for the vulnerable team to get the poison ball as far away as possible.  For this purpose, they are equipped with bats.

But even this task  of using the bat to distance oneself and one's teammates from the deadly ball isn't direct and straightforward.  Even missing an attempt to remove the ball from the immediate vicinity can bring penalties which can result in the feared game death.  Besides an unassisted triple play, the very best thing to do is to hit the poison ball completely out of the physical confines of the arena.  Everyone loves it when somebody does that.  Otherwise, there's the hitting, and running from being touched by the ball, which if it happens, you are dead, that kind of thing.  The teamwork, to me, is remote and clinical -- kind of like the dental hygiene of sports.  There is occasional spitting, but usually not unless the TV cameramen get bored.

Then, there's football.  My personal experience with football, on any level, is even more negligible than my exposure to baseball.  I played exactly one game of touch football, during gym class in my sophomore year of high school.  During which game I learned that, just because the rules say that being touched means you have to stop, it doesn't mean anyone really pays attention, unless the gym teacher sees you and yells at you.  And he can't possibly see everyone who's ignoring the rules.  (As it happens, this approach seems also to hold sway over, and strongly informs, the general underpinnings of the worlds of business and high finance, I discovered)  In addition to that one disillusioning game, I attended one high school football game, in Elizabeth PA, but other than the fact that it was a night game, the only other thing I remember was my amazement at having actually been allowed to leave the house, like a normal teenage boy.  And it never happened again.

While I was in undergraduate school, at Penn State, my friends and I used to toss a football around from time to time, out at the farmhouse we all shared for a grand total of $43 a month.  The house sat at the edge of 160 acres of crop land, planted in crown vetch, and unless the huge harvesting machines were on site, threshing over the low hills and into the shallow valleys, we had the run of the place to ourselves.  (Quite incidentally, the bottom of the crown vetch market -- which you probably didn't even know existed -- fell out rather early in the game, when potential buyers realized that, once they'd planted a little of it, it continued to seed itself.  End of purchasing cycle.  This, long before Monsanto's rise, and the era of profit-motivated genetic manipulation.  But I'm really supposed to talk about football...)

To my amazement, I enjoyed tossing the old football around, and was surprisingly good at it, for someone who'd never touched one until he was 27.  Every once in a while, though, when I made a series of bad throws, or missed some easy tosses, I tromp off angrily through the vetch, back to my room, where I contemplated castrating myself, because I was obviously a complete failure as an American male.   Of any persuasion. 

Finally, there's the one other football-related memory.   Sitting in the Student Union building, in the corner where the weirdos and hippies hung out (and of course, you know where I was), maybe I'd head across the hall to the cafeteria, and see what nourishment I could afford with what little pocket change I had.   Then the football team would arrive.  Like Atilla and his Huns, but without the horses.  They swarmed in, these huge young men, grabbing cafeteria trays, and sometimes utensils, and then loading those trays to the groaning point -- with sliding heaps of beef, and ham, and chicken.  And then more beef and some cheese, and potatoes with gravy.   A groaning cyclone of edibles whirled past -- enough to keep the hippies and freaks in a stupor for a month -- and then it disappeared, to be devoured in a separate dining area, by these Appointed Gods of the Moment.  And nary a cent changed hands.  While I -- an actual honorably-discharged, Vietnam-Era veteran with a service-connected disability -- tried to make the difficult choice between the tapioca or a stewed limas in tomato sauce.          

Of course, now I know it's all about millions of dollars, blah blah blah, as though that made any difference to me then.  I just thought at the time that it would be nifty to have an art stadium for just one semester.  And let the football players scrounge for grilled cheese on whole wheat for a few measley weeks.

But, again, the metaphor.

For me, football is The Game.  As with Abner Doubleday's sport, the psychic power of American football rests with the ball itself.  Here we have, not the small, hard, medicinal sphere of baseball, but a nice-sized, squeezy and inflated, ovoid object of stitched leather.  It's comfortable in the crook of one's arm -- like a little decapitated, limbless baby that one is bound to protect at all costs.

And in football, the baby is everything.   The most massive of men, muscle atop muscle, and further armed with helmets and shoulder pads, gather together in a conspiratorial huddle, to plan their single, unified objective -- get the baby home, safely.  To keep the baby out of the enemy's hands, and to deliver baby to the beautiful spreading expanse, the Eden of the end zone, while thousands of relieved and excited surrogate parents cheer.

We see great, crushing, tectonic formations of masculine might, bone and sinew crashing together, recalling of the rise of mountains, the formation of continents.  And still, hidden safely in the midst of all this rending tension, this heaving struggle, one of these titans... has... the baby.  But where?  Is it secretly being passed, like the crown prince in disguise, from one noble rescuer to another?  Will it, in a moment of calculated desperation, be sent aloft, sure and straight, high above the surging struggle, to descend at last and be barely grasped by another huge hero?  Grasped and pulled in close, cradled protectively against the improbably immense chest of another member of the honor guard?  And then, the final push toward safety and salvation?  Or... no!  The baby has been kidnapped, and is being borne, hopelessly, toward the waiting haven of the opposing team!

Well, of course, the imagery does tend to break down a bit, what with the end-zone dance, and the mighty dashing of the game ball against the Astroturf -- talk about shaken baby syndrome! -- but we can overlook these occasional excesses.  After all, metaphorically speaking, baby is safe.

So.  There you have it.  My interpretation of American sport, from the perspective of the symbolic.  And in barely the time than it took me to 'walk' 2.5 miles, and still end up at exactly the same geographic spot as when I started.

(The only other thing I'll say is this: metaphors aside, I've always thought it would be a much better idea, in all cases, if they gave both teams a ball, so they wouldn't always have to fight over just the one.  (This excepting  golf of course, which we all realize to be sport on an entirely different level, and is always, according to strict Calvinist doctrine, completely predetermined)          

It would also be terrific, if the games were between actual dolphins and, say, giants.  Or rattlesnakes and steel workers.  Then we could really talk metaphor.

©   2012    Walter Zimmerman

And Again With the Ruminations,or Carrots with Disabilities

(Which, when I think about it, isn't really the prettiest picture -- rumination -- coming as it does from the cud-chewing that cows do...  Chew, chew, chew.  Burp up the cud.  Chew, chew, chew.  Too late now...)

So.  When I started this blogue process, I vowed -- like an antic teenager full of energy but lacking in stamina -- to post something new every single day.  And much to my own amazement, I seem to have followed through with that pledge for... what, a week maybe?  The score really doesn't matter -- but now I've kind of hit, not exactly a wall, but more like one of those highway nightmares, where seventeen major interstate routes converge, at grade, with only a badly-graded rotary to accommodate all the incoming traffic.  My little virtual desktop is filling up with partly-written possible entries, each in desperate need either of drastic editing, or disassembling into two or more separate bits of writing.  No apparent dearth of material, or of ideas; it's the selection process that's my current downfall.

I've always had this problem, as a matter of fact.  (Maybe we could call it a challenge?)  Every summer, during my late grade school/early high school years, I was put in charge of planting a vegetable garden in the vacant lot beside our house.  I was told what to plant, and that always included, for some reason, carrots.  (They weren't cheap enough in the supermarket?)  As any gardener knows, there's that moment, when the seeds have been sown, and the sprouts have pushed their eager way up through the dirt, and are opening their first tender little green leaves, and you, The Giant With The Thumbs, have to go wading in there, and kneel down, and kill most of them.  The proper term is 'thinning out', but it amounts to the same thing.  Seedling Murder.  Mass Botanicide.  I simply couldn't do it, even though I knew that, because of this moral weakness, I was dooming otherwise innocent root vegetables to the equivalence of a soil slum -- growing up in crowded conditions, no privacy, no space to really reach one's full potential.  And as a result of my failure to be merciless (to be, as it were, a kindly and ultimately beneficial plague, if you will), any carrots that survived at all were shriveled, grimy, thumb-sized stubs, hardly worth bringing into the house, let alone peeling.  I didn't like carrots that much anyway.

At least with the writing, my hands generally stay clean.  So far.

But... today... I'm again going to evade the decision making, and the editing, and the choosing between six or seven sets of ideas.  (Well, it being that day of the week again, I may post the last of my 'Sunday'-themed pieces later, if I can find it.  But what I'm unreeling here at least takes me off the hook, technically)  Instead...

I am a very very fortunate man.  I live, with my boyfriend/husband of 25 years, in the most beautiful house I've ever called my home.  Both of us have advanced degrees in our chosen field of interest.  One of us has a meaningful, rewarding full-time job, and we regularly have food on the table, and keep the house heated.  The other of us (I'll let you guess which) has possibly the world's largest collection of unused art supplies, and an available -- if fully cluttered -- basement work space, with a functional heat gun and a power drill with at least two sets of bits.  Upstairs from all that, we have two healthy cats, and out in the driveway, two cars that function properly.  I am, to all appearances, quite healthy, if you don't count the fact that a couple of my doctors are so certain I'll be dropping dead within the next 24 hours, that I think they have a Death Pool set up, arranged by hour and minute, $10 for four squares.   I have a wonderful new exo-brain, covered in a dazzling orange plastic case, with which I can reach out to the wider world.  As, now... 

I acknowledge all this, because I'm afraid that, with most of what I write about being so relentlessly unpleasant, I come across as ungrateful, or whiny, or self-indulgent.  It is in fact a miracle, to repeat myself, that I have the time, energy and wherewithal to appear to be complaining in the first place.

But two things occur to me (which really means three or four things, but you're probably used to that by now).  First, I think of an unanticipated adventure John and I had, in Nashville Tennessee, years ago, for an organ-centered music event in which I played absolutely no part.  One day, John played hooky from a lecture, and we drove our rented car out to Opryland, where, in spite of discouraging advice ('Oh, they're always sold out -- you'll never get in'), we hoped to see a performance of The Grand Ole Opry.  When we got to the auditorium, the box office was closed because the show had indeed just started.  As we discussed what to do now, we were approached by a nicely-dressed couple who looked like they'd traveled there on a bus filled with more Bibles than were strictly necessary.  'They're scalpers', I told John, 'be careful.'  Like they were going to throw their cardigans over our heads, and stab us with extra tickets.

Well, they did have extra tickets, as a matter of fact.  In the third row, just right of the center aisle, as a matter of fact.  And because some folks from their group hadn't showed up (the magic of the motel room, perhaps?), they wondered if we'd be interested in buying these extra tickets for... half price?  ?????  Meaning, for both John and me, full admission to the actual and real Grand Ole Opry, within schvitzing distance from the stage, for the stunning sum of $11.  (Granted, those were late '80's dollars, but still)  It took about thirty seconds to say yes, exchange bills for tix (they hoped we had two fives), and then get to our seats while Lyle Waggoner was still flashing the audience with the messages Magic-Markered on the inside of his coat.

Then, between numbers in a set of banjo tunes, a Canadian performer named Grampa Jones (may God rest his soul) mentioned, quite matter-of-factly, that he'd been raised in an orphanage.  I cannot tell you how stunned I was at that.  It was almost as though all the sound in the building ceased.  How beyond wonderful, to witness someone standing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, before hundreds of people and with even more listening to the live broadcast, and here he was calmly owning up to the very kind of life experience that was still, for me, a matter of continuous, intense, living shame.

That public validation was profound, to say the least.  It's part of my reason for choosing, since then, to be open, when appropriate, about the events of my own life.  I figure, if Grampa Jones and his simple five or six word declaration could be so unburdening for me, there might be the remotest chance that, somehow, I might be able to pass on a similar kind of psychic relief to someone else.  Woundedness is indeed a problem, which I feel we all share, in one way or another.  But the sense of shame and isolation because of the wound, I suspect, is largely optional, and can, at least in part, be eased and even redeemed.  But somebody has to go first.

The other thing.  From the Viktor Frankl book, again.  This time, about the nature of suffering.  Confronted with the extremes of suffering of the Nazi camps, but with his intellect somehow still clear and intact, Frankl says he wondered why some fellow prisoners withered in a day, while others retained their stamina, and their ferocious will to live.  Of course there were a number of saving factors.  Frankl, for instance, visualized his wife's face, and spoke to her, and derived great solace from these 'imaginary' conversations.  Others found solace in covert acts of art and poetry.  Even music-making was not unknown.

But more importantly, Frankl avers, is the notion that each human being has an individual capacity for suffering -- an internal reservoir, as it were, for anguish.  Suffering itself, Frankl continues, might be visualized as gaseous in nature --  expanding to fill whatever space is available.  Those whose inner capacity is smaller, will suffer to the fullest extent they can, but may well still thrive.  Others, whose capacity is much greater, may suffer more extensively, even cripplingly, from an apparently minor stress.  Frankl sees no moral or ethical issue here, any more than might attach to a certain height  or eye color.  None is especially good or bad.  We each have our own capacity.

I don't know about my capacity for suffering.  In some ways, I suppose this entire blogue adventure explores this specific issue.  Unfurling the unpleasant, brutal tales that I still have to tell might help explain, at least to myself, the disconnect I experience between the manifold blessings I can barely enumerate, and a certain flatness of my emotional interior.  The clearest metaphor I can call up is that of Velcro © (I love that I know how to do that: ©©©©©©©©©); for Velcro © to work properly, there must be the two parts -- the hooks, and the fuzzy side.  To be honest, I feel as though my early experiences, both in the orphanage, and even more so with my father's second family, burned away and flattened whatever original receptive mechanisms I might have had.  Incoming blessings and accomplishments, awards and professions of affection simply have no place to stick.  They sort of bounce off.

Instead, I usually feel as though I'm still trying to earn the right to be alive, and while I can never work hard enough, I'm also frequently discouraged.  On the one hand, making even the smallest effort seems more than I can manage.  And on the other, the successful production of yet more artwork leads to more problems.  As I've noted before, I feel like the human equivalent of an infection, whose greatest accomplishments will unfailingly be accompanied by fever and sputum.    

Still, for no good reason that I can think of, I persist.  Maybe because I'm so easily distracted, and can't even pay attention to my own pain for very long?  While I was in graduate school, I took a self-administered version of the Meyers-Briggs personality profile test, and discovered -- to no one else's surprise -- that I'm an ENFP, which means, among other things, that -- oh, look, there's a purple finch!  Also, it's unbearable for me to make decisions, and to finish things.  So, while I despair about both my immediate and ultimate uselessness, I'm also transfixed by the collection of sycamore knots that I harvested from the tree limbs that fell into our driveway last October, like some malign gift.  They're so fascinating, like little wooden frustrations, but I don't think I'm allowed to work with wood, but they're too neat to throw away (even though the pile of them is making John slightly crazy -- if we were a political cartoon, or a comedy skit, he would be busily ironing one end of a long, expensive ivory-colored damask tablecloth, to get ready for our arriving dinner guests, and I would be equally busy at the other end, ripping the cloth into strips, tying the strips into knots, and dipping them, alternately, in shellac and driveway tar), but where will I put the sycamore knots while they dry out? (Hmmm -- I'm thinking: an installation on the bathroom ceiling...  I mean, no one uses it, right?)

So.  Ahead: still more tales of brutality.  Plus, my guitar may be repaired by the end of the month, and then I can worry to you about how long it's going to take to learn how to play again.  Plus, right this moment, two of those fixated doctors are cursing me and my heart, because they've each lost $20 by picking early and mid-morning on Sunday, January 15th, and I'm... still... here.  Plus, I have to tell you the globally-significant news about my cat Buster and his diet.  Plus -- oh, look -- there goes a downy-headed woodpecker!

Those poor carrots never stood a chance.

©  2012    Walter Zimmerman      

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Heart of the Matter, or The Vacuum Cleaner on My Face

(The scene:  not your own living room, or kitchen, or wherever you set up your little exo-brain, so you can read this.  Instead, in spite of the rubberized suit and big floppy hat you're wearing, you're soaked to the skin, and we are bobbing frantically up and down in an inflated military-grade raft, in the white water rapids of a river in Colorado.  Up and down, heaving right and left, cold river water splashing in our faces.  Our guide struggles to keep us off the rocks, and for some crazy reason, I'm yelling, at the top of my lungs, trying to tell you...)

It started with dizziness.

Actually, it was worse than dizziness -- it was a kind of heavy, closing-in kind of feeling, that happened whenever I got up from my chair and walked upstairs.  I never actually passed out, or even fell over -- it was just a unusually deep sense of sinking into a dark place in myself.  And it happened more than once

I mentioned it to my new doctor -- the one who's been helping me find new medication for the life-long depression that only seems to deepen with age.  Like a fine wine.  But not as much fun.  The doctor didn't think this dizziness was caused by the handful of pills he had me swallowing each day -- he said I needed to have my carotid arteries checked by a neurologist, because it could be heart trouble.

(Big splash of cold water)

After a quick physical (EKG included) showed no problems, my wonderful primary care physician indeed sent me to a neurologist.  Just as Dr. Depression had recommended.  I think I have a bigger medical team than Louis the Sixteenth.  Think about it.

More tests, more electrodes pasted to my torso, more seismic graphs on strips of blue paper -- apparently, nothing of note to see, the new doctor -- we''ll call him Dr. Neurology -- said.  How about a halter monitor?  Just to make sure.  And I'll see you in a month.

(It's a little calmer now, but there are more rapids just ahead...)

A week later, I'm in another office, in another building, talking with a charming woman whose birthday is two days before mine, but years later, of course.  And because she's a fellow Libra, she's charming as she shoves sheaves of paper at me, for signatures and initials and thumb prints and little swipes of saliva, just for the records.  And I go to another room, on another floor.  Just follow the yellow linoleum stripe.  Which leads me to a dimly-lit dead end, facing operating room doors ominously bolted shut.  When I'm finally in the right place, I have more diodes and cathodes and amphitheaters taped all over me, and when I've pulled my t-shirt back over everything, there's a little black man-purse to wear around my neck, like a Hindu practitioner of puja, or one of the slower kids at summer camp.  "Just bring it back to us tomorrow, sugar," a cheery nurse says.  Easy for her to be so upbeat, I think.  I don't see her wearing any man-purse.

One uneventful day and night later (I slept downstairs on the couch, lest John and I become entangled in my electronics, and we both fry at dawn), I dutifully return the equipment, and feeling ten pounds lighter, I take myself to the gym as a reward.  Because that which does not kill you makes you sweat, waiting for that which does not kill you to change its mind.

(BIG SPLASH -- oh God, I'm glad we're both strapped into this thing.  I think)

So I'm totally unprepared when the phone rings, later that same day (I'm all cleany from the gym, and still not dead yet), and it's my nice new Dr. Neurology saying I need to go into the hospital immediately, because according to the results of that deceitful man-purse contraption, my treacherous heart has been stopping -- naughty, naughty -- for whole seconds at a time, all night long.  And under these conditions, there's only one answer:  Pacemaker, stat!

(Now we're in one of those calmer places that look like so much fun on TV -- but can't they make it stop spinning around quite so much?  And where do they get all this ice-water?  I thought it was global warming, these days...)

But I'm mainly thinking two things.  One: if I lived in another culture -- perhaps in a remote region of the Indian sub-continent -- I could make a nice living, and be worshiped on weekends, if I could stop my heart for five seconds at a time, on a regular basis.  But here, in America, it's a medical emergency.  Two:  I've been through all this before.  With another man-purse (although a bigger, clunkier one, as I recall), and that one showed a nocturnal heart-rate of something like nineteen beats per minute, for four hours, or roughly that of a hibernating bull frog.  And, of course that time too, there had been the chorus of 'pacemaker, pacemaker, pacemaker', accompanied by honing of scalpels in the orchestra.

But that time I'd seen a pulmonologist (yet another doctor!  Take that, Louis the Sixteenth!), who thought my heart was slowing because I wasn't breathing at night.  Two sleep studies later (thousands of insurance dollars, to sleep badly in someone else's bed?), and Dr. Lung was proven right.  Stow the pacemaker.  Stab something else with those scalpels, thank you very much.

Instead, I got to wear a vacuum-cleaner on my face.

(Ah, finally, a nice calm stretch for a bit.  We can actually take a breath, sit back in our frigid, completely soaked clothing, and look at the cottonwood trees on either bank, just out of reach, and slipping past just a little too quickly to be truly picturesque.  By the way, where's the guide?)

So, for two whole years, I voluntarily wore, every night, a vacuum cleaner on my face.  (Actually, a reverse vacuum cleaner, in that it forces air out, rather than in, thus inflating my lungs, instead of sucking them up and out, through its adorable little flexible hosery)  I wore it faithfully, if reluctantly.  I waited for its benefits to accrue -- no more naps necessary, I'd been told, unbelievable bounding energy, incredible mental acuity, all deriving from spending eight hours a night with The Alien installed over my nose and mouth.  Yet I still fought to keep from drifting off during faculty meetings (which may have been more a matter of self-preservation, like opossums feigning death in the face of the unendurable);  I still wondered who'd filled my work boots with cement when I wasn't looking; I still forgot that my reading glasses were in my own hand.

Plus, I worried about the mold issue, and where to get distilled water at midnight in Pennsauken, and what to do when my cat chewed holes in The Alien's trachea.  The promised replacement hoses and face masks didn't arrive; I began strapping the vacuum cleaner in place only on weekends.  And then, somehow, the durable black nylon carrying case, with the malign contraption safely zipped inside, found its way up into the attic...

(Brace yourself!  Big turbulence!  Just ahead!   This looks... worse than ever!!!)

All this was five years ago, and now, today, Dr. Neurology has his marker ready to sketch out on my shaved chest just where they're going to make the incisions...  And I'm trying to reach that same pulmonologist -- who I just bet would return my calls if I really were Louis the Sixteenth, if only out of curiosity -- so we can go through the whole dance: Realizing that the problem is not with my poor, squishy, syncopated  heart, but with my dreams.

(Whoa!  That was huge! You okay?  Seriously, where's the freaking guide?  I don't know how to paddle this thing!  Where's Meryl Streep when you really need her???)

At night, when I dream, I hold my breath.  I know this, because one of those sleep studies proved it.  It was my second visit to that strange room, and the strange bed, sleeping across the aisle from other people who thought I was strange, but really they were strange...  And now I had a vacuum cleaner strapped to my face.  For the first time.  (It's never as good as the songs say)  And I had a dream -- oh, the usual crap about my mother, and the orphanage, but mixed up, the way dreams are, and as usual, I was full of piercing grief.  And in my dream I started to cry.  And I couldn't stop.

Crying, I realized, is principally an exhalation.  And this particular dream-embedded exhalation didn't want to end.  Instead, I froze, compressing my lungs, in an effort to finally push out all the available pain...  Only because the vacuum cleaner rudely interrupted this very personal moment, did I wake up, remember the dream, and of course, suck in one deep breath after another, again.

(Bail!  Bail!  Use your stupid hat!  I know the raft's inflated, but it's filling up...  Oh crap, here we go again!!!)

So.  When I return Dr. Neurology's call, I'll tell him I've been out of town, for a funeral.  Which is technically is true (although I was only in New Brunswick), and should pique any sense of irony said doctor might have, given his apparent certainty regarding my imminent demise.  And I hope that Dr. Lung will prove reachable, so he can either reactivate the prescription for the vacuum cleaner (allowing me to obtain some new, less sieve-like flexible tubing), or put me through yet another set of sleep studies.  To prove that I need oxygen at night, not electricity at all times.  Anything to keep those scalpels firmly embedded in that slab of liver, or whatever, and not in my sternum.         

(Wow -- look!   We're beaching right here, by the cars!  It's a miracle!  How did this happen?  Help me pull the raft a little further out of the water.  Did you bring dry clothes?  God, I'm freezing)

(The guide?  Oh, he'll be okay.  He's done this tons of times before.  Besides, that's what he gets paid for...)

© 2012   Walter Zimmerman