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Archive for December, 2008

Shorty goes home, life goes on

Published in December 1995, Iroquois County Times-Republic

It took me quite a while to let go of Shorty. I thought about it for a long time before I got the nerve to drive to the hospital equipment rental place and hand him over.

Shorty was my father’s portable oxygen tank. He was named “Shorty” to distinguish him from the large, floor-model oxygen concentrator that sat by Dad’s bed.

That piece of equipment was, of course, named “Bertha.”

The hospital had already picked up Bertha. But Shorty, the little tank, had accompanied Dad everywhere — to doctor’s appointments, haircuts, trips to the car wash — for five years. It was Dad’s security blanket, his walking stick, his constant companion … and it was just so hard for me to let it go.

It has taken me a while to adjust to my father’s death. For three days after he died, I didn’t sleep or eat. I couldn’t think of anything except how much it hurt. I restlessly walked around the back aisles of stores, looking at jack handles and lug nuts, craft supplies and frozen foods. I drove through a few stop signs.

At times I thought the grief would tear a hole in me, and what used to be my life would come spilling through that hole and fill up the room, and the anguish would drown me, as certainly as the fluid in his failing lungs eventually overwhelmed and drowned my father.

Shorty sat on the back seat of my car.

But the clock ticked, and life carried me forward. There was numbness, but also the cycle of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance — spinning through me again and again. I cried like an orphan. I felt like one.

The realization that he was gone left me breathless … gasping like a man fighting for air alone in a hospital bed in the middle of the night.

After years of taking care of Dad — a job I could never get quite right — people told me I should be relieved that his struggle was finally over.

Instead, it felt as if the person I had spent so much time protecting was suddenly beyond my reach, pulled from my care. His absence was unimaginably heavy and painful. It left me in a panic, exhausted and desperate. It did not feel like relief.

Ours had not been a classic father-daughter relationship. He was never Robert Young to my Princess; in my family, Father did not always Know Best.

Dad was a man generally displeased with life, who stubbornly refused to acknowledge that it’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world after all. He was angry about the way he had to suffer. Despite my tender care, he said he thought the world was a bad place, life was a bad deal, and death would be eternal nothingness.

And at times, in the first few days after he died, it seemed that Dad had been right.

Shorty hung around with me as I struggled to cope, as I tried to take care of the details. I dropped Dad’s reading glasses in the collection box at the bank. I talked to the library about taking some of his old books about stage illusion magic.

The brand new clothes he had never gotten to wear, because he was too sick to change out of his pajamas, went to the resale store. But the old empty oxygen tank just rattled around in the back seat of my car.

I guess I couldn’t quite surrender the last of Dad’s things because … I just missed him so much. I missed being able to ask him questions about how to set the small things right: how to fix the refrigerators’ thermostat, and when to change my oil, and how to get the rear fender off my bike. He always knew these things; it was the bigger issues of life that weighed him down.

My father would never swim with us on family vacations. Just before he died, he explained why: When he was about 10 years old, at a swimming pool in Chicago, he had gotten turned around underwater. He began swimming for the bottom instead of the surface as he ran out of breath, because both were tiled in identical black-and-white. He said he would never forget the way it felt to be able to breathe again, when a lifeguard pulled him into the air.

I wasn’t there at the moment he died, but I think it was something like that. After fighting for each breath for years and years, he suddenly broke through to that afterlife world where the air flowed easily into his lungs, and he was finally able to take a full, sweet breath again.

Dad wanted his obituary to ask people to take care of their lungs. It did, and I will say it here again: Life is short and breath is precious. Tobacco’s toxic fumes will eventually pull you under to an agonizing, suffocating death.
Don’t smoke. Please.

Yet I have to believe Dad was wrong about this world, this life. It’s not a bad place, not a bad deal. I know this because — he was my father. Surely he would never leave me here to face such a world without him.

Sometimes, even years later, I forget that he’s really gone. I drive past the nursing home I used to dread to visit, and my longing to see him again is so strong, I have to fight to keep myself from walking up to the door.

And every once in a while, I have this feeling that I have misplaced Dad somewhere, that he and his oxygen tank are at the barber shop or the doctor’s office or the grocery store, waiting for me to pick them up.

And then I remember.

I have to remind myself that, if there is life after death — and I truly believe there is — then my father is, indeed, somewhere waiting for me.

I guess I just can’t believe he went there without Shorty.

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First-rate, second-hand wisdom: Try, try, etc.

Some famous philosopher once said: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

You’ll notice, there’s an extra “try” in there. Because if the philosopher had simply said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try again,” it would seem too obvious, and he would have to add, “Duh.”

Without the extra “try,” the advice is as simple as the instructions — translated from the Taiwanese — that came with a rubber ball my children once received:

“Toss in air, have fun.”

Amazingly, my genius kids had already begun having fun with the ball, although neither one yet knew how to read!

I might even amend the success advice to:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try, try again.”

Because you might have to try four times, or more. Thomas Edison had to try more than 100 times, and he was only making a lightbulb, not a whole lifetime of human experience.

Of course, at the chicken fastfood place where I once worked, the cook-philosophers used to say:

“If at first you don’t succeed, fry, fry a hen.”

And in my high school typing class, we student philosophers liked to say:

“If at first you don’t succeed, buy, buy a pen.”

My teacher in that class, the famous philosopher Mrs. Lowery, had her own special words of advice:

“If you succeed at typing, you’ll never have to wait tables.”

That really hit me where I lived. In those days, we were all pretty sure we were going to grow up to be doctors or heads of corporations, or at least fashion models and stewardesses. But I knew that, if those plans did not succeed, I’d be particularly bad at remembering who had the scrambled eggs and who ordered the decaf.

So I figured that, just in case, I’d better learn to type.

Typing gave me a way to keep scrambled eggs on my own table as I worked my way through college, where I studied all the famous philosophers: Bob Dylan, Mr. Natural and Descartes.

I thought, therefore I was.

And while I never actually figured out the meaning of life, my choice of studies left me with the worst imaginable preparation for entering the job market. I could not have had fewer employment opportunities awaiting me unless I’d majored in blacksmithing, or bagpipe performance.

After all, what can a typing philosopher do for a living? I decided to become a columnist.

This was more challenging than I had guessed. It was perseverance that made the difference. I first had to become a classified ad typist at a small, local newspaper while secretly working on columns at night. Finally, the editor offered me a column space — but not a real job in the newsroom.

However, I was not about to give up! I knew I had to fry, fry a hen. Before long, I got a reporter’s job, my first real career-type job. A few years later, I sent a batch of columns to a bigger newspaper, and they offered me a job. Let’s summarize the rest of my journalism career in a montage that involves moving boxes, middle management position meltdowns, and cups of cold, stale coffee.

But I didn’t stop trying! The heady success of seeing my name in print had changed me somehow. I began to occasionally order pizzas under the name “Lois Lane.”

In the process of making all my dreams come true, I came to realize what Robin Williams recited in the movie “Dead Poet’s Society” was correct. As a teacher, he whispered to his students: “Carpe diem!” (Which means, “Seize the day!” and not, “Holy fish!”, as I had first guessed.)

I decided to go for the gusto, grab the brass ring, hitch my wagon to a star, shoot for the moon, and let my reach exceed my grasp. If I began to get discouraged , I just thought up more metaphors.

I try to keep my priorities straight. I remember the words of that famous philosopher, Dad, who used to say:

“As you travel on life’s highways, no matter what your goal,

Keep your eye upon the donut, and not upon the hole.”

Even though he probably got that from a series of Burma Shave signs — and although we now acknowledge that donuts contain dangerously high levels of fat — I know what Dad meant.

He meant that, even as you keep trying to succeed, it’s important to focus on what you have rather than what you want. Because in the final tally, you don’t have to succeed. All you have to do is try.

And if that fails? Fry a hen. Or buy a pen. Or at least, toss in air, have fun.

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Can you hear me now? Wait, I’ll adjust my hat

Rushing through the airport, he held his cell phone to his head. His iPod bobbled in its belt-hook carrier, its earphone wires draping over his speeding back pockets. He kept glancing down at his Palm Pilot, frantically punching in numbers or text or something, perhaps scheduling his nervous breakdown (not next week, but March is starting to look good).

He seemed important. Communicative, too. He was Modern Man, handling his daily communication in an impressively high-tech way.

Here’s a spooky modern moment: You’re in church and the minister asks the congregation to “turn off their electronic devices.” Suddenly the sanctuary becomes filled with celestial musical, but it’s not the angel choir — it’s the soft beeps and boops and various songs of cell phone providers signing off.

Back in the day, we didn’t have the ability to interrupt a public event by receiving a text message that reads “Going 2 eat, back l8ter.” Our phones were connected to the wall by a long, curly cord. Sometimes the person you were talking to would drop the receiver and it would dangle by its curly cord, tapping against the wall, until he retrieved it. Today’s youth will grow up never knowing that sound.

Some day, we’ll have to start consolidating all the communication devices we use. Maybe engineers will develop a one-piece helmet-like thing we can wear with all our devices built in. I’d want mine to have built-in sunglasses.

Or maybe science will invent an artificial ear that has those communication devices built in, and rich people will all have one ear removed and replaced with a silver ear that contains their cell phones and etc. Bluetooth capable, of couse. That would look cool.

Or maybe we’ll all have an actual blue tooth, replacing a low-functioning molar, so we can walk down the street talking to our own teeth and it will be even harder to distinguish the delusional stranger from the regular stranger.

OK, it’s admittedly sci-fi. But 20 years ago, would you have envisioned downloading music off a laptop computer to a finger-sized mp3 player? I think not. Especially when you remember that computers were still about the size of minivans back then, and your thumb drive was a transistor radio.

We still have radios, and I believe we always will, because they’re so minimal-tech, and they have all that free music and right-wing rhetoric pouring out. Plus, you have to listen to something while you drive when you’ve scratched your favorite Santana CD and can’t reach anyone on your cell phone.

But I’ll bet there are engineers are at work on the Communication Helmet, a device that will consolidate our cell phones, palm pilots, blueberries, walkie-talkies, mp3 players, TV remote controls, and whatever other electronic devices they invent in the meantime.

For now, I’d be happy if they would just invent a universal way to recharge them all.

Pssst: Your motivational whisper is calling

I’m not just surfing the internet — I’m influencing my mind!

As I delete emails promising to increase the size of my organ and refinance my mortgage, I’m also listening to the reassuring background sounds of rain, distant thunder, and … someone saying something. These are my new subliminal downloads. They have a seemingly innocent nature soundtrack that covers up a much, much softer soundtrack of a human voice saying positive things.

The idea is that, if I tell you to lose weight, you might tell me to go to hell. But if someone whispers to you to lose weight, you aren’t even aware that you’ve heard them, and you might just choose a vigorous walk instead of a leisurely waffle cone. Maybe.

My downloads were of the “buy two, get one free” variety. So I chose Lose Weight Fast! and Boost Your Self-Confidence!-and, for my freebie, Attract Wealth and Success! All the titles come pre-exclaimed.

The first night I played the weight loss download, my husband said, “Wait a minute … I think I just heard someone whisper the word ‘carrot.’ ”

And in fact, if you turn these things up really loud, you CAN hear someone mumbling. It’s eerie, like those ominous incantations that went on in the apartment next door to Rosemary’s Baby. Is it Latin? Is it about vegetables? The problem is, I don’t really know. There’s no list anywhere to tell me exactly what I’m listening to back there behind the pitter patter and the distant thunder. They might be telling me to avoid gravy or to blow up my neighbor’s garage.

You have already heard subliminals, if you’ve ever shopped in a major grocery story chain. That canned music that’s always playing – drowsy instrumental renditions of old Rolling Stones songs performed by a studio orchestra – also includes subliminal messages urging you to buy more and shoplift less.  My daughter used to sing along with the loudspeaker in our local grocery store when it played Bonnie Raitt, Muzak style: “I can’t make you love me … don’t steal gra-a-apes.”

Because I chose such vague goals, I don’t know if my downloads are even working. Some days I’m all celery sticks and rice cakes; other days, I still want to deep fry a couple of Snickers bars and then fall asleep gnawing on a block of cheese. Are the subliminal messages failing me? It’s hard to tell. I’m not reflecting a lot of weight loss, confidence or success yet, it’s true, but these things take time. They’re subliminal recordings, not miracles.

If I’d ordered downloads that were easy to test, like “Remember Your Multiplication Tables!” or “Speak Fluent Swahili!” I wouldn’t have to keep checking the scale and the bank account for results.

However, I’m confident they will work. I can make them work. I can do anything. No task is too great for me … pitter patter … rumble … carrot …

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How to get a Palmetto bug out of your hair

Palmetto bugs are 2-inch, nightmarish, spawn-of-Hell roaches that thrive in most parts of the South. There, the warmth and humidity make them grow as big and strong as the Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, which some people–I can’t imagine which people–keep as pets.

If you live down here in Florida, when you pick up a towel or item of clothing, you have to shake the item vigorously, to dislodge any Palmetto bugs napping within. You also have to keep one eye on the ceiling, because they love to walk upside down and then freefall onto your dinner plate — or your head.

If a Palmetto bug lands in your hair, try not to panic. Do not squish the bug, which will result in a repeated urge to retch. For you, not the bug. The proper way to remove a Palmetto bug from your hair is:

  1. Shriek as loudly as you can, to alert others nearby of your situation. They won’t be able to help, but they will find it amusing and kid you about it later.
  2. While shrieking, bat at your hair. Use your flat palms to brush the front of your hair down over your face and keep whacking at it with one hand after the other.
  3. Run about blindly, with hair in your eyes. Crash into things. Continue to shriek. Occasionally beg for help from your laughing colleagues.
  4. Scream, “Can you see it? Is it still in my hair?” but don’t hold still long enough for anyone to inspect your hair.
  5. Bend over and shake your head upside down, clawing at your hair. Shriek louder when you think you feel the bug crawl up your arm.
  6. Run to the bathroom mirror and stare at your panic-stricken face, searching for signs of insect life. Hear your colleagues tell you the bug fell off several minutes ago, but don’t listen.
  7. Tear off your clothes and jump into the shower; stand under the running water, sobbing.
  8. Somewhere in mid-shower, realize that Palmetto bug is indeed gone. Wash your hair anyway. Grab towel off rack and begin to dry hair as you leave the bathroom.
  9. Realize there was a Palmetto bug in the towel on the rack.
  10. Repeat from Step 1.

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Sparkling over the hill

I just bought a lip pencil with glitter in it, sparking a bit of a midlife crisis.

I only bought the lip pencil because I wanted something that was (a) really portable,  so that I’d have it handy whenever I felt a little too pale, and (b) really, really cheap. I found it in the part of the makeup aisle where they have the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen cosmetics, which should have given me a clue.

I decided in the car that I was a little too pale, so I opened it up and swept it across my upper lip. Bling! That was the lip pencil, which is impregnated with tiny bits of something really sparkly. I don’t need that. I know that we basically end up eating our lipsticks anyway– not out of the tube but one lip-lick at a time — and I don’t think I need any additional titanium dioxide (or whatever) in my diet.

The new lip pencil went into the bag of stuff I set aside for my daughter. It went in there with the top I bought that turned out to look too young, the CD I thought I’d like that turned out to be too young, and the hair color that turned out to look too young.

Perhaps you notice a pattern.

I’m a “woman of a certain age” now, perhaps, but not old enough to use a Jitterbug phone. In fact, I made my kids promise me that, should I ever need a Jitterbug phone, they are to put one in a sock and beat me over the head with it until I die.

I may be Red Hat age now, but I refuse to actually buy the hat. I first saw the Red Hat merchandise on the same day a shoe salesman suggested a pair of lace-up, sturdy, cushiony oxford shoes for me. It was not a good day. Then a Red Hat tote bag turned up in my pile of birthday gifts a few weeks later. I thanked the giver, a Red Hat-age woman herself, and put the bag way in the back of the closet. Then I filled it with things to give to Goodwill and gave it away.

My daughter, whom I birthed just a week before my 30th birthday, says this could be the best time of my life. They said that to me when I was a teen, too, and they were wrong both times. I think this is something she picked up in her Developmental Psyc class, but I listen patiently.

“Mom, your kids are grown, and you’re still young and healthy. You can do anything now.”

Actually, SHE can do anything now. I can only do the things I’ve been doing all my life, and I’m struggling to do them as well as I once did. I’ve begun to fear looking ridiculous, again (after giving up that fear years ago). I fear looking like someone who doesn’t realize that she’s no longer young, who won’t admit she needs the Jitterbug phone now.

My greatest fear now is not that I’m getting old and will die. It’s that I won’t find true happiness until 10 minutes before I die. Then I’ll get distracted by something on television and miss the whole thing.

When I die, and I know I will, I’ll do it gracefully. But if I have to go, I’m going out with dignity–without a Red Hat and sparkly lips.

Running away from bad store signs

I saw a hand-painted store sign today that proclaimed: “American Owned and Runned.”

I’m sorry, the buzzer sounded on that one. At first glance, it’s offensive – and then it’s inscrutable.

Are they reassuring me the store is not run by the Soviet KGB? Are they saying the store is operated by someone especially native, like an Eskimo?

My grandpa came over through Ellis Island wearing wooden shoes. Luckily, he was Dutch, so it didn’t look that odd. And then, after he got here, he was an American, right? Just like your grandpa, and every­body’s grandpa? So don’t give me that “us and them” non­sense.

And Mr. Sign Painter, whatever you’re trying to say, that grammar doesn’t strengthen your case.

The judges might have ac­cepted “American owned and ran,” because syntax notwith­standing, “ran” is at least an ac­tual word.

I can just picture the two guys who own that store, as the paint was drying.

One Guy: “I don’t know. It just doesn’t sound past tensey enough for me.”

Other Guy: “Well just add another ‘-ed’. That’s what I’ve always doned.”

Maybe the sign painters were just trying to be proud of their country.

We saw a lot of this in 2001. My way of coping with the weeks af­ter 9/11 was to photograph store signs that referred to the trage­dy. Store owners wanted to con­vey their patriotism, but they also wanted to ask passersby to, for heaven’s sake, please spend some money.

So we got the ironies of a Valparaiso Taco Bell sign that said: “God Bless America, Keep On Shopping” and a Merrillville diner with “Land of the Free, Polish Sausage $2” and a Lafayette restaurant with “United We Stand, Plenty of Seating Inside.”

Some day I’ll publish these photos in a coffee table book and it will become Americana.

As someone who compulsive­ly (some would say obsessively) reads everything, signs enter­tain me as I travel the nation’s byways. One of my favorite signs was one I passed every day on a long commute from Ham­mond to Valpo.  It was on the road adjacent to a farm, and it said, simply, “HAY.”

Each day as I drove by, I’d say back to it, “HEY!” It was a great example of woman-to-farm communication at its most elemental.

My current favorite sign is outside a car dealership that shall remain anonymous. In big red lights, it says, “Limited Time Ends Soon.” I suppose this refers to some sort of sale, but I like to think of its more Zen pos­sibilities.

Limited time does end soon, doesn’t it? And of course, unlimited time would end … much, much later.

So maybe that sign is urging us, the driving millions, to stop and smell the new car interiors. To Carpe Diem (which I believe is Latin for “Seize the fish!”)

Maybe it’s trying to say we should accept rather than ex­clude each other, and notice that life is short but beautiful, and not waste a single moment of it in a drowsy, hate-filled fog.

Lest we find that we have runned out of time.