30 April 2013

View from a Gurney

There ain't much dignity in a backless gown and anesthesia, no siree. About the best you can say of it is that you have the blessing of unconsciousness for a spell, until one wakes up and comes back to the world. When it happened to me earlier this month, my first coherent thought was: I hope no one can see my junk.

Because naturally the first thing one should be worried about after being knocked out and "worked on" is how strangers might judge one's 'nards.

Not surprising given the amount of pain killers coursing through my system, I suppose. My modesty concerns arose from the confusion I felt over not being sure if there were blankets over my legs. I could not quite raise my head yet, and my eyes---when they opened at all---could not focus enough. I managed to perceive dimly enough that the recovery room I was in was busy, noisy and crowded.

A few minutes passed. Feeling of a sort gradually returning to my cold limbs. Thankfully not so much that I could have felt the necessary violence inflicted upon my lower right belly, but just enough that I then felt the blankets on my legs. I carried on a conversation of sorts with the care nurse responsible for overseeing my groggy self. I do not recall what we talked about but I do remember making her laugh.

Hopefully not by uncorking some relatively harmless but embarrassing personal anecdote, but what are you going to do?

More minutes passed. Awareness began to increase as I could now keep my eyes open for more than two seconds. The sounds of the place began to sink in. Beeping machines. Moans from the other recovering souls coming out of surgery. The incredible range and depth of noises produced by humans in pain and under stress was mind-boggling. It was a testament to the effectiveness of the medications administered to me that I was not bothered very much by some of what I heard.

I was not bothered much by the sight of inert bodies being wheeled in and out of the room, either. That is, until the "new guy" was brought in directly across the aisle from where I lay. The poor gent had some sort of stomach surgery. He was hooked up to more tubes and wires than I was by far, including the dreaded stomach tube. That sort of thing gives me a case of the yammering fantods to merely think about, much less see it in real life.

And there it was, big as day, and in my field of vision. I could not get up to walk away. Even my options to turn my head were limited. I did the best I could, and tried to look every where but there. It proved nearly impossible.

I kept my eyes closed a bit, but the constant noise and questions kept making them pop open. I had to answer questions from my nurse, and I could not shut out the dialogue transpiring between the stomach patient and his nurse. I tried not to look, but lawd, it was the proverbial train wreck.

I saw things that, while not earth-shattering, are for most purposes better left unseen. The poor fellow was in a lot of discomfort, and I know he wanted that tube gone, gone, gone. After seeing it in action, I wanted it gone, too. Or me out the door.

Maybe it was the pain medications, or maybe it is just that I have gained a better grip on empathy as I have gotten older, but either way I felt pity and sympathy for that patient. I watched him wince and groan while the nurses and doctors did their thing. I tried not to look at the tube and its contents as it too fulfilled its purpose. But it was then I had a revelation.

Laying on my own gurney, afloat on a raft of opiates, I felt kinship to the people around me, the sick, the damaged, and the healthy charged with their care. The difference between those in pain and those managing that pain is only a matter of fortune and degree. I set aside my discomfort and reveled in the humanity of it all.

28 April 2013

Discovering Light in the Flint Hills, with Ghosts (Sunday Meditation #29)

"What do you know of love?" whispered the voice in my head, ricocheting off the warp and weft of my mind to burst forth through my eyes and shatter on the back of my sunglasses. I was turning off the road, much to my relief. The arched gate of the cemetery beckoned, the orangey-tan dirt track leading me on. Beyond lay a sparse grove of monuments, blushed with moss and gleaming dull white in the soft sunlight of a Kansas spring. In a final burst of crunching gravel the car rolled to a stop. I briefly leaned my head on the steering wheel. I answered to no one present.

"I don't know."

I opened the door. The cool air of the Flint Hills rolled in to caress my face with feathery hands smelling faintly of stone, sod and ghosts. It was quiet out there, broken only by the subtle hissing of wind through the grass and a whirr of sparse traffic along the distant road. I stood up while taking a deep breath. My hand gripped the door frame. Thinking of love, or of what I did not know of it, made me dizzy.

Love slipped away from me again, a salmon evading the paws of a starving bear haunch deep in the stream. I thought I knew love but somewhere on this short road trip it came to me that it may be impossible to truly know something so much bigger than myself. So much more mysterious, arcane. Why this happened to me in broad daylight I cannot tell you. Perhaps the birds calling from the nearby trees knew the answer.

I asked them, nicely, and not too loud so as to avoid seeming rude. There was a burst of musical chatter, but nothing I could decipher. They gave me no counsel. The sun had moved a degree of arc, reminding of why I stopped here in the first place. I pulled my camera gear from the car and set off into the cemetery.

(It took little time to find a vantage point worth considering. There was a serendipitous line of sight threading through a cross, more markers, the cemetery gate, up a hill across the road and ending in a silo. I was surprised and delighted.)

The memorials were a curious mix from antique to new. Pillars, crosses, and slabs of marble and granite. In their own way all testaments to love. At least, I hoped it was love. I was seized by the notion that it would be tragic to carve all that stone for the sake of appearances.

I wondered, then, who would love me when I was gone. Who would care enough to erect a stele, provide a plaque and urn in honor of my memory. Staring past the large marble cross up to the silo on the far hill, a wan smile crept over my face. It did not quite reach my eyes. I wondered if pity made me feel this way.

(I set up the tripod with the pinhole camera secured to the top. My first go at it. This day would be full of accidents and revelations, I smiled to think.)

No, it was not pity. It was acknowledgement of a fact of my existence. Someone would almost certainly provide stones to ballast my remains, maybe even a cross. A Celtic one, I hope, or perhaps a megalith of bluestone with my name inscribed in Ogham runes.

"Do you think so, sir? Do you really believe that?" whispers again in my head. I looked up into the sky. I shook my head. "Yes." My voice sounded odd in the boneyard air. The funny thing was, I really did believe it. Perhaps for the first time in my life, certainly as an adult, I did.

(Advance the film. Check the level. Adjust the sighting. Open the shutter. Seven seconds. Good.)

Over a thousand miles and 47 years removed from the soil of my birth, I found myself standing in this alien graveyard with other old souls celebrating the knowledge that I would live as long as there were those who still remembered me. If I had thought to bring a flask, I would have raised a toast to our bones, mine clothed in flesh and those embraced by the sod around me.

(Advance the film. Check the level. Adjust the sighting after having nudged the tripod by accident, startled as I was by screech of what may have been a crow behind me. A lone truck downshifts over on the road, low growl bringing back memories of a long-ago road trip where I see the silhouette of my maternal grandmother against the side window. I wipe sudden moisture from the corner of my eye, and press the shutter release. Click like bones. Nine seconds. Click.)

Standing there waiting for the time to be up on the exposure, I decided that I did know something of love. Imperfect and incomplete, perhaps, but mine own knowledge. I know that I am loved. But the true test for me, the gauge and bellwether to guide me, is not so much the love I receive as it is the love I can give. This exhilarated and frightened me.

"How much can you give?" The voice, disguised as the murmur of wind-blown grass mixed with the songs of birds, asked me.

I let go of the shutter release. Images irreversibly burned into the film, to be taken on faith and unearthed later. The opening of that which seems tightly closed, to let in the light which provides form and depth to the shapeless darkness we far too often hold to close. We open, we illuminate, we develop.

We become, in the presence of light. We are formed, in light...in love.

"How much can I give?" I whispered to the bones and the prairie earth. A score of heartbeats passed. There was no answer, it seemed. I gathered my equipment and headed back to the car. The clunk of the door shutting nearly made me miss the reply when it came.

"More than you believe possible. Open your heart."

I gasped. That was it. I will open my heart, letting in others, forming myself in love. By such poetic measures we all become light. We all become love.

26 April 2013

Always Something to Eat (Canned Salmon Blues Redemption)

The clock continued its viscous slog towards quitting time, while I perched my achy parts on a stool behind the counter. Throbbing pain in my side slugged it out with the rumble in my belly. This made it hard to concentrate. I was having trouble thinking past the next five minutes, much less the next 45. I was hungry, dammit. Dinner was out there on the horizon. I had no idea what to do. So I winged it, as I often do.

Temptation had reared its head earlier in the afternoon. I kept musing on a packet of spice blend I had in the freezer, a take on the Indian curry meme rogan josh. Traditionally used to stew lamb, the blend has been on my mind for about two weeks now. Mostly since I had the surgery and was either too laid out or too lazy to actually cook something. Today it seemed particularly insistent. One small problem: I had no lamb in the fridge. I also had no desire to go get some. No desire to go grocery shopping after work for anything, for that matter.

I was not sure I even had enough vegetables to make something out of whatever else might be squirrled away in the cabinets

Take-out or dining out also whispered to me from the shadows, a siren call that these days I find it terribly difficult to resist. Tired, lazy and sore is no way to approach cooking a dinner for one's self. It makes it too easy to give in to temptation. Also, these days, I cannot afford much temptation. Still, there was this issue of an empty belly and with what to fill it.

So it was that I left work for the night with no plan, no real clue as to what to do. I was so tired that all I wanted was to go home. Without a plan I resolved myself to a dinner alone (my usual companions being otherwise engaged), comprised of a sandwich and whatever chips I could scrounge out of the pantry. While I am very much a sandwich man, there are times where they pall on the tongue, and the stomach (if not the soul) rebels at the thought of another. damn. sandwich.

A funny and sub-miraculous thing happened on the drive home. It all started with an onion. Specifically, the onions in the basket on my kitchen counter. I realized I had two, and suddenly things looked more promising.

One of the things I told myself when I was a bachelor was: always have onions. If you have onions, you can do something. I paired that with the idea that I would always have a unit or two of canned fish in the pantry. If you have that, you will always have something to eat. Always. I recalled there was angel hair pasta in the cabinet as well. And a few pepperoncini, along with a dormant jar of olives, some bell peppers. Then a little flash went off in my head: there was small wedge of blue cheese in the fridge, too.

Hot damn, this was starting to sound like a plan. The kicker was yet to come, though.

As I stepped through the door I had this amazing moment of illumination. It came back to me, then. There was a can of salmon in the cabinet. A can that I had purchased back East, prior to my move to the Midwest. I grinned.

Hunger made me humble and grateful. I had something to eat. Always.

So it was that I pulled that can of salmon from the cabinet, wondering and grateful. That can had sat in my old larder for some time. It was banked away, that insurance I would always have something to eat. I counted myself lucky I never had to open it before. But that was a different time. This was now. That can had made the trip with me, and now would serve as dinner for the night.

This made me happy beyond reason.

I laid out the ingredients in front of me. Pasta. Bell peppers, one red and one green. Pepperoncini. Olives. A nosegay of parsley on the verge of having no purpose. That lovely looking, if somewhat odoriferous, blue cheese. The crowning touch was that humble canned salmon. I set to, and ginned up something to eat. Better yet, something I wanted to eat.

Ladies and gents, I do not know what to call the result. It was sort of a salad, sort of a pasta course. I simmered the peppers with the pasta and some herbs, then drained it all and tossed the mix in a bowl with olive oil, wine vinegar, fresh ground black pepper, more dried herbs and some crushed red pepper. Then I mixed in the parsley, a scattering of olives olives, crumbles of blue cheese, and that salmon. A dusting of fresh black pepper speckled the top. Having come this far, I resolved to wait a bit to let the heated pasta absorb the liquid while softening the cheese.

It was not pretty. It lacked elegance. It probably would have drawn little notice from the universe of rock-star chefs and blingy food. But I will tell you this: it was exactly what my achy body and empty tummy needed to feel human again. I even ate part of it, being alone, right out of the mixing bowl while standing at the butcher block island in the kitchen.

"The onions, what about the onions?" I hear you say. Well, I decided somewhere along the line that I did not want the onions, although I am sure they would have made a worthy addition to the dish. The onions were merely a catalyst, a link to the salmon I ended up eating.

But you see, now I still have onions...and that means I can do something when I am hungry.

22 April 2013

Spillin' It to the Page

Huzzah and hoo-raaah, ladies and gentlemen! Lend me your eyes and dig this:

I have become a published author, it seems. An essay of mine has landed on The Good Men Project, an online idea-based, social platform and media company. I have been following them almost from their start on the web, and I finally overcame inertia and fear to submit to them something I wrote.

They liked it. They decided to run it. This makes me glad.

The essay I submitted is a revised version of a post I did here on Irish Gumbo, in the summer of 2012. The idea never really left my head, so I polished, updated and tweaked, and there it went! If you would so kind as to pay us a visit, show us all some love at Salaryman in the Mist: Finding Self-worth in the New Great Depression. I would honored if you did, and thank you for keeping me inspired to write!

17 April 2013

The Other Blooms of April

Yellow is the glow along the boards of the fence, a slathering of cheer against the staid solemnity of silver-grey pickets at the back line of the yard. The forsythias are in bloom. Their winsome little heads rock gently in a mild breeze. It is to make one smile, to push back the unspeakable violence that April seems intent upon using to suffocate our hearts.

Violence inflicted on a broad spectrum of individuals and groups, as borne out by this terrible roll call of which I am sure is incomplete:

April 14th, 1865, Washington, D.C. - Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln
April 4th, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee - Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King
April 19th, 1993, Waco, Texas - Siege ends in horror at Branch Davidian compound
April 19th, 1995, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma - Federal building bombing
April 20th, 1996, Littleton, Colorado - Columbine High School shootings.
April 16th, 2007, Blacksburg, Virginia - Virginia Tech shootings.

To this we add April 15th, 2013, Boston Marathon, where bombs add dark punctuation to a calendar already swollen with the gravidity of fear and death.  I cannot escape T.S. Eliot's characterization, in his poem "The Waste Land", of April as the cruelest month, while he wrote that for different reasons, it seems no coincidence that the first part of his poem is called "The Burial of the Dead". April it seems is becoming the time for tragedy.

What is it about spring that brings out the madness and hatred in mankind, seeking fulfillment in the maiming and killing of those whose only crime seems to be one of existence in this world? What possesses others to believe that their ideas and beliefs of how the world should be justify the carnage they inflict whilst pursuing their evil visions?

Whatever the motives behind the crime, it doesn't change the outcome for the wounded and the dead. That is not to say we should not ascertain why someone would do such evil things. Understanding and identification will help in catching the bad guys, or stopping them before it is too late. In the long view, does the motivation ultimately matter? I haven't answered that question to my satisfaction. I do not know if it can be answered properly. What seems most important is that we care for our fellow humans, and keep living life.

I am stunned and saddened by this litany of horror. I know that hatred and ill-will are perennial to the human condition. With the passing of storms and changing of seasons, we always hope that those weeds will never come back. Yet they do. It is enough that we not give up on pulling them out, however. We musn't give up. Otherwise the weeds will win and our gardens will revert to waste lands, while we retreat to our caves to nurse our shattered hearts with not much hope for the future.

April may be a cruel month, I know. There are too many examples of the dark side winning out. But April is also spring, and love and light burst forth in spite of the darkness. In spite of the bad, there is, there must be, more good in the world than willful madness will ever defeat. I hold that idea close to my heart, watching the yellow glow along the fence, dreaming of spring for evermore.

15 April 2013

On the Realization of Having Gone Off the Path

April 14th, 4:39 PM. A sudden jerking awake, a popping of the bubble. Good lord, man, what happened?

It is not an exaggeration to say I had an abrupt moment of clarity, this morning, between slipping in and out of naps. Clarity accompanied by the gasp of knowing that there seems to be a lot undone in recent days. The lack of "productivity" in my life always creates a tension with which I find it hard to cope. I was disappointed that I have written and photographed almost nothing since March 23rd. Also, somewhat anxious.

What makes this absurdly funny is that I had no official deadlines or production schedules in that time.

Life is what happens when you make other plans...to be clear, I had a near week long visit with my daughter at the beginning of the month, followed closely by surgery (due to the events mentioned HEARnia), the recovery time I knew full well would set me back by keeping me off my feet. Even so I remained optimistic that while reclining in bed or on the couch I would still be working the keyboards and maybe even getting a jump on the Next Great American Novel. I thought I would bounce back in a snap, not unlike I did the first time I had a similar operation nearly 30 years gone.

Boy, was I ever mistaken. The surgery was just over 4 days ago, I was home the afternoon it took place, but it wasn't until now, a relatively nice Sunday afternoon, that I felt energetic and focused enough to sit down and write. Anything. Anything at all. In hindsight, I am astounded I managed to communicate to the extent I did during the last week. Even that was thanks to the miracle of the Interwebs and social media. The combined effects of surgery, anesthesia, pain medications and the fact I've been a few more years around the sun rendered me exhausted, loopy and beyond caring (too much) about typos. The smart phone was a boon, allowing me to at least dabble in the world beyond my shoulders between bouts of sudden-onset napping and just plain goofball fuzziness. I also managed to stay connected to loved ones, far and near.

My plans for literary excellence, or even increased output, were busted. It made me antsy, even as I drifted off to snooze and comprehensively map the insides of my eyelids. A curious battle between the need to rest (which really was the right way) and this need to fulfill my creative, productive urge. It felt good to rest, but laced with a ribbon of panic that golden opportunities were slipping away from me.

It's a good thing that I have people in my life who care deeply for me, for my well-being. I may have received some good-natured teasing over some typos and the loopiness I indulged in, but I also received good advice and care. Priceless, indeed. The core of the advice I needed to hear, is that my body is telling me what it needs, and I would do well to listen. No sense in trying to bang out a collection of short stories if all it does is land me right back in the care of physicians.

Having said all that, I think it's time to wrap it up. I getting weary again, the body is achy. I have some more meditations I'd like to offer to you, dear readers, based on my "from-gurney-observations" I collected whilst in the recovery room. Minor epiphanies and gratitudes, if I may. Those will wait a bit longer, after a nap and maybe some ice cream.