Sunday, January 27, 2019

New Rules

The days of my youth were so simple. Pogo sticking about the neighborhood without a care in the world. Boing boing boing. “Hello Mrs. Davis, large weather we’re having?” “Found Fluffy yet, Mrs. Murrell?” Oh, the neighborhood. Mr. Asmus lording over me to count the dandelions I pulled from his lawn. Three for a penny, and an inch of root. A harsh standard, but a lesson well earned. Mrs. Bronson telling little Eddy put it back into his pants before she called his mother. Black Cat firecrackers smuggled from Missouri blasting apart poorly constructed plastic muscle cars in the alley behind Schlegels drug store without worry of anyone calling the law or being branded a youth in need of counseling. Hot and humid summer nights with no air conditioning and no notion to be in need of it. Cold hard winters letting a bit loose to allow a trickle of thawed snow to be dammed to flood the street corner in the hope that the nights freeze would create a hazard and fender bender to prompt an impromptu block party. Streets named for heroes and trees and other things almost too obvious to comprehend.

Alas, it is mostly gone. There are rules now, and new codes to live by. There is zero tolerance and we are all either precious or damned to hell. We have rights, but wrong is too clearly defined and not nearly as well tolerated as it once was, even in its most innocent form. We are buckled and belted and strapped into narrow definitions of what we are told passes as normalcy. Helmeted children cast suspicious eyes as they pedal past neighborhood watch signs on their way to play meetings at the end of cul-de-sacs or down lanes with fancy names but with no soul. The lawn service puts dandelions to their end and Fluffy is easily contained by using the proper frequency. Heat and humidity and cold hard winters are dealt with and budgeted for. Skyrockets burst to orchestration and pogo sticks are apt to be scorned for their hazardous nature. I wonder what ever became of little Eddy?

Jerry Jerry Jerry

As one adapted to taking a gamble and losing, I suckered myself into believing the idea of taking time off from work on a whim and with no plan might be a fine, invigorating idea. On the first waking minute of the first morning of the first day, I lay prone in my bed paralyzed with an enigmatic and menacing awareness of doom or dismay to come. It was nearly the same sense as when I saw that old ugly and blind dog at the pound with one day left to be adopted. Not dissimilar either to when Grandpa called to tell us he was bringing his boyfriend over to meet the family. Nearly the same as hearing church bells toll at an odd hour, and your gut instinct is there is some religious observance you aren’t aware of, but at the same time something unsettling gnaws from another place inside of you. Inside of me? The onset of illness? Fifteen years without calling in sick for work and I play an impulse to take a leave only to fall prey to microorganisms that some inconsiderate ass has left laying about?

I’ll be damned, I’m coming down with something. An irritation in the throat along with an uncomfortable searing in the chest. And it escalated. Oh, I don’t fall ill often and when it does happen I don’t suffer it well. In the midst of my misery am scolded for being an unreasonable patient, and sympathy, I am reminded, is reserved for the deserving. I whimper and whine like a child and call out for night time cold medicine in the morning and for more of it an hour later. The potion is labeled to be administered at bedtime but my rhythmic clock has been in disarray since my decadent youth so I take my medicine at whatever time my unrepentant psyche cries for it. And when it doesn’t perform as I thought it should, I accuse do-gooders of conspiring to dilute the formula to placate wealthy and influential Oprah watchers.
Yes, the medicine does do something, though it is vague and mysterious in its effects. I am always aware of my epic plight and attendant suffering, but yet curiously dismissive of them at the same time. In my ailing blankness I turned to the unfamiliar comfort of daytime television and found I most enjoy the Jerry Springer show. Springer is a work of art for the masses. A carnival like the muddy doings they used to hold down along the levee when I was a child. Spinning neon casting kaleidoscopic displays onto and around parolees as they herd cheery children into tacky teacups or strap sniggering teens into rickety roller coasters cars. Geeks and barkers and the toothless woman down the midway begging to offer an opportunity to flip a lopsided basketball through a too small rim. The wealthy jostling with the poor to perhaps catch a free peak at some human oddity. Yes, Springer is an old time carnival; scorned, but always managing an attraction. A friend to the woozy infirm and offering up a respite from having to think too much. A man worthy of hoisting a brimming medicine cup to toast.

Go Away

The forecasters are telling us that we have some snow coming at the end of the weekend and I have no use whatsoever for the stuff. It causes me to worry that old Norm who lives kitty-corner from me may drop dead of a heart attack while shoveling. Norm is the sort who accepts no help and will grumpily tell you that in no uncertain terms. Norman is a much kinder man in warmer weather. And my own corner lot is a challenge for me to clear. My lazy children are of no use other than to warm my heart as I see their smiles while they watch me through the picture window. Yes, I could lay down the law and stand over them as they do the shoveling, but I am fussy about how it is done and worry about slip and fall lawsuits from the same insensible fools who pay good money to speed down steep hills on fiberglass sticks and then take pride and solicit sympathy when they break a bone.

Small children also enjoy snow, but even with them it eventually brings misery. They begin to shiver and herd themselves inside whining that they are cold and demanding that you deal with their snotty noses. Good luck getting them to go back outside. They will make it known that they are bored and it will become your project to provide indoor amusement for them. By now they have already caught wind of the impending storm and are hopeful for a snow day from school. Generally, children do reason as well as adults, and telling them that they will have to make that up on a later warm day in the summer is useless. Their giddy ways tell them that they are getting over on the system. This is a basic human instinct and their juvenile mentality does not see beyond their own selfish interests.

Oh, I hope the weather people are wrong. I hope that in several days they are speaking their mumbo jumbo of occlusions or conversions that have thwarted their models and sent the heavier flakes far away from here. Anywhere but here. I don’t want to deal with the stuff or anything related to it. I don’t want to see plows or the pretty faces on televison displaying dire warnings of danger to life and limb. And I don’t want to have to fear the little woman sliding into another bridge abutment, Hyundai, or snow route sign and dealing again with deductibles and body shops. What I do want is to stand in Norms front yard on a warm and sunny day to share a beer and a few chuckles.

Back Home

We rode into town totin’ our shootin’ irons and hell-bent on bringing down the value of every home in the neighborhood. That’s probably not far off from what the busybodies prying from behind curtains must have believed when they saw a convoy of overloaded and dusty pick up trucks cough and spit their way to a stop in front of our newly bought corner stucco house. Though he didn’t use words like y'all and tain‘t, or refer to his children young’ns, my dad did yank us away from the easy life of country living to throw us into the more complicated task of coping in the big city. It didn’t take long for us to adopt the term, “back home,” when longing for the life we had been made to leave behind. Never mind that back home was less than twenty miles away or that we came into the city several times a week to fetch vittles, visit kinfolk, shop the Sears and Roebuck husky department for my britches, or stock up on ammo. From my point of view it was a nice place to visit but I had no desire to live there. But I was convinced that dad reasoned, or may have even reckoned, that his unspoken but obvious mission of turning my brother and I into major league baseball players would be better realized living in town.

The men folk carried the heavier and bulkier of our tattered and scruffy belongings into our new home while my little brother Brett and I delivered smaller boxes to whatever room they were labeled to be taken to. It didn’t take long for our large clan to wrap up their chores and loosen up their overalls to commence with a backyard hoedown. After gorging on cracklin’s and such, I sneaked off with my brother to mosey on down the block. The colloquial language may be a bit of stretch, but I was certain that’s how we were being perceived by our new neighbors. One day earlier the concept of a block had meant little too us and now we lived on one and would have to learn to deal with it.

The old home place had a field behind it where dad would set out hubcaps as bases for a makeshift ball diamond. He had played baseball in high school and then for a traveling semi-pro team after that. Though he never talked of anything beyond that, the grapevine had it that he was offered tryout with the minor league affiliate of a major league baseball team that never panned out because of an injury. We would go out to that field during the warm months whenever time allowed and take ground balls and try to pull hard hit fly balls to the edge of the adjoining forest. There were paths coming from three different directions going deep into those woods and leading to what we called the frog pond. It was actually more of a low and marshy spot, but there was enough standing water to support a good number of bullfrogs. One of the paths connected to Tim Kipp’s house, another to Steve Ball’s and the third came out to our dirt and stubble diamond and then our own backyard. But even with our friends joining us, we were well short of fielding a real team. Life there was more simple and if there were a feud with Steve or Tim we would have at it, the loser would lick his wounds, and all would be forgotten. There was no shame in following your path back home sporting a bloody nose or ripped shirt. It would simply be explained to mom and dad that there had been a scrap. Mom might ask what it was over and dad might ask who won, and that would be the last of it.

It may be inaccurate to refer to our new digs as being the big city and I don’t want to leave the impression that we had been plunged into any sort of an urban jungle. There is jet service, a number of art galleries and museums and various ethnic restaurants. On the other hand if you wish to take a taxi cab, don’t expect to step into the street to hail it. You may see the occasional tipsy out of town businessman attempt that, but taxis here are summoned by telephone and are apt to be driven by courteous former altar boys. A trip through the city, east-west or north-south, takes no more than twenty minutes other than at “rush hour” when you may want to allow yourself an extra five minutes. And I think that other than being much closer to my dads work, what the city offered above anything else was organized youth baseball.

It wasn’t long after we had moved in before Brett and I managed to find trouble. It turned out that there were strong negative feelings in the neighborhood over my brother and I perching ourselves in the window of our second floor bedroom to shoot arrows at our little sisters doll that we had nailed to a large maple tree in our backyard. It apparently wasn’t acceptable either for us to climb onto the Burrell’s garage roof to tear off shingles and sail them toward the white sheets drying on Mrs. Moody’s clothes line in the next yard over.

My fathers moment had come and it was made known to us that if anything would straighten us out it would be the discipline and hard work of being a member of a team. We were marched to the neighborhood park, placed on the roster of the East League Braves, and then promptly drummed into a strict routine that neither of us was accustomed to or in favor of. We more than held our own on the field, but the coaches were harsh taskmasters and far too serious for our liking. When Brett took the first base position from Gary Hafner and I relieved Joe Brush of his duties in center field, hard feelings, taunting and fisticuffs ensued. The new kids on the block were unceremoniously escorted to the nearest street corner, banned from the East League, and never again played organized baseball.

There was no longer a well worn path back to a far off home and the nature and tone of the questions when we returned weren’t the same as they had been only a few weeks earlier. Our parents still wanted to know what the fight was over and who won, but a little less was the forgiving civility of the too recent past. Dad, I think, somehow really didn’t seem too disappointed, or at least surprised, and mom pulled us aside and told my brother and I with what sounded like a tone of relief in her voice as she glanced at her husband, “Probably 40% of his life… gone. Wasted on a project that now could never be duplicated.” Mom still held out a faint hope the Welcome Wagon lady would still come to visit her, but she was also beginning to realize that whatever problems her sons caused back home usually dissipated harmlessly, floating far out over field and forest, but troubles here would be amplified and echo out against each and every too close house.
The Gamble
      I enjoy something of a perverse amusement in visiting a casino.   They are one of the few places that still allow me to foster a notion that I have some fragment of my youth remaining. I am able to spryly zigzag through the aisles, whooshing past gray hairs as they plod along with their walkers or canes. And it pleases me to note that valet parking is still a convenience and not yet a necessity. They say that wisdom comes with age but it is demanding to find evidence of that in a casino. It’s not uncommon to watch inheritances dwindle as some elusive combination of spinning reels prods and flamboyant machines beg. Grandpa fumbles to make an ATM do his bidding one more time, while granny tugs at her wheeled oxygen tank for another trip to the cashiers window to scribble her signature again for a bit more of her social security holdings. I don't know if any of this is sad, disease, free will or just good honest fun. That’s not my judgment to make, and who’s to tell; the good luck amulets and charms may well work their magic after I have gone.

      As a youngster my first association with gaming came through my uncle, Don. Don had a fondness for the ponies and when he came to town he always made sure his wallet was lined with two-dollar bills to pass out among his nieces and nephews. One summer he motored into my grandparents driveway waving and laying on his horn to herald his arrival at our annual summer family reunion. This wasn't out of the ordinary, and uncle Don had never been described as a wallflower. What was different this time was that all of his commotion and gesturing was centered from the drivers seat of a top notch brand new convertible. After warm greetings and the distribution of cold hard cash I established an observation post in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room. A sudden downpour had chased the men indoors to continue their poker at the dining room table, and with some prying I learned that uncle Don afforded the down payment on his new ride with the proceeds from something he called a perfecta. The word perfecta wasn't yet a part of my vocabulary, but it was obvious that it had to do with wagering on horses and that it must have been an especially generous perfecta.

      From where I stood I could also see Grandma standing in the kitchen and the expression on her face was markedly different from those of the men playing cards. It was her opinion that gaming and the new convertible would attract women of loose principles and contribute in sending her son farther down the woeful path he was already traveling on. To turn my head one way and shrug off her concern would cause me to deny she had never steered me wrong, and turning the other way would deny my undeveloped intuition there was something decadently good going on in that smoke filled dining room. From one direction came an oddly enticing whiff of Drewrys beer and Pall Mall cigarettes and from the other the reassuring aroma of Grandmas baked beans being prepared for our coming outdoor feast. Over there sounds of playing cards being fancily shuffled and flipped chips clicking against each other and over here comforting clinks and jangles of tableware being readied. Boisterously hushed bawdy jokes on one side and soft sympathetic talk of ailing acquaintances from the other. A flooding of the senses washed over me and left me woozy and in a moral quandary that no young man should have had to suffer. I went down to my knees and let loose from my gut the salty pretzels and sugar cookies that I had pilfered from either room. Grandma helped me to my feet and gave me a sympathetic but distanced hug, while Grandpa reached out to pat the top of my head and toss me a towel to mop up the product of my inner turmoil.

       The poker match was adjourned as the party shifted to the backyard and the conversation over our picnic took on the compromised tone of mixed company. Grandma did make a clumsy attempt to quiz uncle Don about the extent of his good fortune, but he properly declined to speak too much of his finances at the table. He assured her that aside from a down payment on the convertible and some misfortunate in getting too carried away with a daily double, he had invested the remainder of his windfall in the stock market. Uncle Don must have picked his investments as well as he picked his horses, because he retired well and with a woman of high moral character, despite Grandmas worry over his gas powered floozy magnet.

       In the end your life path and what you do with your wealth isn't really anyone else’s concern but your own. The transcendent may one day give humankind a clear way forward. A Bridge will be written; perhaps the odds of every moment of life will come barefaced before us, but until then when I go again to visit a casino I may just take along that lucky troll doll Grandma pressed into my palm one conflicted summer a long, long time ago.

                     Healthcare Debate

Along with the cold hard facts and a sense that I was becoming a social pariah, I chose to snuff out my last butt eight long months ago. As much as I enjoyed my morning nicotine jolts and the camaraderie of my smoking section pals, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the habit would need to be slain. I was beginning to visualize myself shivering beneath a flickering street post twenty years hence while fumbling to spark up a hand rolled smoky stick as young parents nervously nudge their small children forward as they admonish me to move along and get back to my tobacco den and with my own kind.

I knee it would be a difficult task to abandon my noxious rituals and morning retching, and on a routine visit with my doctor I made the error of mentioning my scheme to quit cold turkey and with no help from anyone. Don’t get me wrong.  He is very good at what he does, but is of the opinion that this entitles him to proffer a great deal more smugness than is tolerable to me. I was certain that he seized upon the opportunity to assist me in shaking the smokes solely for the opportunity to claim the glory for himself if I were to succeed. He wrote a high dollar prescription for the latest and hottest quit smoking dope on the market and told me to come back to endure him again in four months. I would desert the man in a heartbeat if I wouldn't have to put up with the angst of baring my soul and everything else to somebody new. He already knows of my failings and foibles and malformed anatomy so I suffer and grin and bear him.

I left four months later from that visit insecure in the fact that I had just been medically certified to be a borderline obese man. I had gained nineteen pounds in that time and was told by the almighty that as pleased as he was to have gotten me off the tobacco, if I didn't right my sorry ass to have mercy on his scale the next time I came to visit him I would be subjected to a battery of tests that would make me wish I had shunned the sweets and booze and thought to bow to Jack LaLanne.  Damned doctor and his knowing what is good for me. Well, I righted my sorry ass.  I gave up my sugary comforts and took it easy on the hooch. I suppose that doctors are a necessary bane of a civilized society. But there may have been some merit in dying a young drunken wretch beneath a bridge rather than to have to suffer the indignities of being the only species on this earth that spends a third of its efforts and resources to maintain its own nest and another third to provide for its own vanity.  It may have been better to have befriended the pitiful and smoked openly and freely in bum camps and alongside wheezing men nicknamed, “Tater,” “Rabbit,” “Skeeter” or “Gator.”  
Having chosen a more righteous path though, I was forced to put up with good advice at home also. “I’ll get you some light beer, some yogurt, and maybe my brother Ted could loan you a few pairs of his slacks until you can take off some of that weight.” The sad and sick of it though is that I had nobody to blame but myself. It’s human nature to cower and then look around for someone or something to blame your own ills on. But I was, well, larger than that. I downsized to a smaller drinking vessel and cast a curse on anything in the house that contained high fructose corn syrup. I rose to the challenge and strutted into my doctors office in another four months wearing my own slacks and with no fear of stepping onto his scale. And then when I expected  he was about to heap praise and good news on me, that son of a bitch looked straight into my eyes and said, “No need to thank me for saving you all of the money you would have wasted on the cigarettes, and I see you’re out of the sweat pants. But I did notice a small lump on your thyroid so I’ll set you up with an endocrinologist for a series of fine needle aspirations.  No cause for alarm though and I wouldn't worry much right now as thyroid cancer takes decades to kill you.  So I’ll expedite a colonoscopy for you"  

Lefty Loosey

Another basement appliance has bitten the dust. The dryer has been leaving smoldering char marks on my clothes for the last several days. My preliminary investigation has convinced me that it is much easier to disassemble things than it is to put them back into place. It is natural for me to slide into dumb guy mode when confronted with the challenge of home repair. I learned long ago that trial and error mostly works for those who are more in tune with the mechanical realm than I am. My shop class projects were eyed with pride by my father, from whom I inherited my lack of troubleshooting skills, and covertly chortled at by most others. Dad always knew better where to find a steak knife than a screwdriver and I too now refer to the cutlery tray as the toolbox. I do use some of the few tools that I own. I hammer with the back of a bladeless hack saw, pry with a putty knife and recite the righty tighty rhyme while loosening a bolt with a pair of pliers. And a steak knife is indeed a marvelous all purpose tool. But none of this will help in reassembling my dryer and making it properly do its chore again.

Several months ago when the water heater came down with the basement virus that seems to be spreading, I asked several acquaintances what would be involved in replacing it myself. They assured me that was an easy task while using alien terms such as sweat solder, gate valves and pipe dope. I did make a slight connection with the term pipe dope, though I’m sure there was something gone awry in my translation. Notice that I said acquaintances. Acquaintances are folks who refer to you as a friend when there is a chance that it could benefit them, but abandon your relationship should it come to actually physically giving you a hand. Friendship and fixing things are befuddling to me.

Now it is time to shop for a new dryer. My acquaintances tell me this too is a simple installation and that gas is the only way to go. But that involves, well, gas. And buying pipe dope. The way I interpreted their instructions the only tools I should need are a steak knife, a pair of pliers and the righty tighty rhyme. To be sure, I will have sensitive noses nearby to sniff for leaks and the phone numbers of the gas and electric company and fire department at hand. And if you don’t hear from me for awhile you should probably check with the Red Cross or put a call out to the burn units of the local hospitals. Wish me well, or else convince me to look up the number of that fellow who installed my water heater.