Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Smoking Images, Part 1

Old pictures have a way of stoking smoldering embers into flares of memory.  I was rummaging through a shoebox filled with old pictures.  The pictures weren’t the yellowed-edged, faded color of my childhood; they were the modish black and white of a ring-a-ding-ding couple before they were my parents.

Two pictures stood out for me:  one of my father kneeling in a snow bank with a dog I’d never met, the other of my mother looking like a young Lauren Bacall, lips pursed around a slim cigarette while ribbons of smoke wreathe her head – the laurels of prowess and independence.

Looking at that image of my mother made me wonder about old movies and if actors, actresses and the movie industry could be held as accountable for smoking related illnesses as the tobacco companies have been because of images they create.  Images are powerful and ambiguous and pliable, bending so that they often validate our decisions.

Every night after dinner when I couldn’t have been more than six or seven, my mother and father would lounge on the couch and match a cigarette.  I remember watching them and feeling a little envious.  It was like they were having another desert.  They seemed to enjoy it so thoroughly that with every exhale came the stresses of their day.

They looked so good doing it, too.  They are young in this image, their hair still dark, their faces still smooth, their bodies slender and strong.  They looked like the commercials I longed to be in.  I remember sitting on the floor, just watching them, anxious for the day when I would be allowed to smoke.

When no one was looking, I once took two cigarettes from my dad’s pack.  My best friend Chuck and I ran down into the woods and lit up.  The menthol taste was so offensive to us that we could not get beyond a few puffs.  “Let’s try my dad’s,” Chuck suggested, and he pulled out two regular cigarettes.  “Mmmmm.  Now that’s a cigarette,” I said like a seasoned connoisseur.  

Chuck and I continued sneaking cigarettes from his dad as often as possible.  We even, upon occasion, bought our own packs.  Since both our fathers used to send us to the store to pick up a pack of cigarettes for them like our moms would send us for a loaf of bread, it was easy and there were no questions asked.

When I was in sixth grade, my mother stopped smoking.  She told my brothers and me that it was bad for you.  “But Dad smokes,” we said.  It’s bad for him too, she said. I never remember seeing my mother with a cigarette in her hand again.

My father continued smoking – one to two packs a day.  Chuck and I continued our smoking as well.  It had such delicious adult flavor and smooth social significance in the world of bubblegum and skinned knee, it would have been senseless to stop.  I continued smoking off and on from about the fifth grade through college.

When my father died of bladder cancer at 56, it was clear that his smoking was a direct cause of his early demise.  The nicotine concentrates in the bladder, the doctors explained, bathing it with the richness of cool carcinogens.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Timing is Everything

Timing is everything.

Take my morning commute.  There is a small window of opportunity to make it through traffic in a reasonable amount of time.  Five minutes one way or the other can make all the difference between a twenty-five minute commute and an hour and a half commute. 

I am my own worst enemy when it comes to being on time even though I take all the precautions of which I know.  I make sure to set the clock on my nightstand ahead by twelve minutes so that when I hit the snooze button, I’m still three minutes ahead of schedule.

If I just hadn’t checked my email before going to work, I probably wouldn’t have had any problems.

The Net was running slow that morning because I was in a hurry.  I had forgotten that the fabric of time is cotton when the weather calls for wool.  I remember back when I had first subscribed to America Online in the early 1990s, whenever I went online, I’d always have a book with me so I’d have something to do while I waited for the pages to load.  If a page loaded in less than five minutes, or one good chapter, whichever came first, I was in good shape.  These days if a search takes longer than zero point two five seconds, I’m having a conniption.  This morning cyber space was sluggish and I was beginning to feel the agitation, the seeds of conniption, fester in my gut.  

After finding nothing but spam, two chain letters from friends who ought to know better, and a couple of daily updates from newspapers, I shut down the computer feeling a little flustered that I had wasted so much time.  However, I was only a few minutes behind schedule – nothing that a gentle five miles-per-hour over the speed limit and a few rolling stops couldn’t resolve.

I hadn’t even made it out the backdoor to embark on my morning commute when the top of my travel mug jostled off and coffee trickled down the front of my light tan khakis.  I took a deep breath and stormed back into the house.

Back up in the bedroom I found I had a choice, I could either change my outfit completely, which would mean standing in front of the closet for eight to ten minutes trying to figure out what shirt matches what pants goes with what necktie while struggling to remember what color socks I had put on, or I could dig into the hamper and pull out my only other pair of light tan khakis that I had worn two days before.

I sat on the edge of the bed weighing my options when I looked down and realized I actually had two different color socks on.  I kid you not, and believe me, this is no Freyism.  Those of us who often get dressed in the dark are accustomed to such things.  Now I had only to decide whether to go with the brown sock or the black one.

Fifteen minutes later I am finally in my car thinking about the maximum amount of speeding with the minimum amount of risk.  If I go just eight or nine miles-per-hour over the speed limit, maybe blow through a couple of yellow lights, I could easily shave off enough time not to be late enough for anyone to really notice.

As I approached my first traffic light, I looked at my watch to check my time only to discover that, in my rush, I had neglected to put it on.  At this point turning around was not an option, so I sought out signs for time.

According to the clock on my dashboard radio, I was about forty-five minutes late for work, only I couldn’t remember how far ahead I had set the time in the first place.  Was it ten minutes?  If so, I was okay.  If it was twenty minutes, then I was in trouble. 

I slowed by a bank and stared at the marquee sign.  Free checking.  APR financing. The car behind me flashed his lights.  Home equity, come on, come on.  Fifty-seven degrees.  I passed the bank and saw the time on the sign through my rearview mirror, but I hadn’t had quite enough coffee make out the reversed numbers.  If only I hadn’t spilled it.

Once at work I realized I really wasn’t all that late, a couple of minutes at best.  I realized that it didn’t matter either, that time wasn’t something to taunt and trick, but something to embrace and enjoy like riches.  I vowed to change my ways, to set my clocks to the one true time, and relax because when you get there, you get there.

I looked at my watchless wrist, hyperventilated, and made a note to set my alarm clock ahead five more minutes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Modern Day's Huck Finn

Modern day’s Huck Finn is rafting across the drainage run-off retention pond.  While ducks bob in the wake of his plastic milk bottles and packaging Styrofoam and cable wire cleverly concocted into a young boy’s seaworthy vessel, a woman from the second floor balcony of the condominiums, frowned upon by the executive single family homes across the street, looks on unseen by the boy and the man with a fishing pole standing on the large concrete pipe which opens to the pond.  Huck pulls and pushes and pulls and pushes himself along with a long, hollow, aluminum rod from which once hung a shower curtain.  Little does he know that with each stroke, the rod bends slightly, weakening, stressing until finally it snaps and the boy is stranded in the center of the pond.

The man recasts with a long, soft whizzzz then kurplunk and cranks his lewer back again.

Unnoticed by the boy or the man, the woman from the second floor balcony, hidden, catches the beauty of the boy and the man and the mallards and drakes and Canadian Snow geese and the pond which is high today because of the rain; she catches the beauty of the pond, of its evolution from mere gravel hole dug by man’s powerful machines, to living, breathing nature; she catches the beauty of the pond and its creator and its symbiotic relationship with the cluster of condominiums and houses – homes – developed and smoothly paved streets with curbs and gutters angled precisely to feed it; she catches the beauty of the pond and its acceptance by the water fowl that no longer fly farther south because nature now provides them enough crumbs of cakes and bits of bread.

Now taking the risk and assured he is close enough to shore, the boy leaps from the raft pushing it back into the center  and over toward the other side, startling the twice collared geese into abrupt flight.  With a splash and a hop, Huck stumbles and stands, raises his hands in victory then strides away, proud of his boyhood accomplishment.

The woman on the balcony must have smiled as she steps inside, closing the sliding glass door, fading beyond the vertical blinds, resigning herself the responsibility of awareness.

The man recasts with a long, soft whizzzz then kurplunk and cranks his lewer back again, neverminding that nothing is there to be caught.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Another Ruin of a Life in Progress

A few weeks ago, as I was taking my family to a corn maze, hayride, and pumpkin picking, we drove past Kessler Memorial Hospital, a small country hospital in Hammonton, NJ, that was closed down a couple of years ago. Seeing this remnant of my childhood jogged loose a memory that had been left crinkled in the bottom of a file tagged “childhood.” 

I was a patient there twice between 1971 and 1972 when I was in second grade. 

I had been experiencing chronic sore throats and ear infections.  So, in the fall of 1971, like many others my age during that era, I had my tonsils taken out.  I also had my adenoids scrapped which back then I likened to falling off my bike and scrapping my knees.  That summer I had tubes put in my ears to help open up the ear canal.  I wished that those two procedures could have been flip-flopped because I wasn’t allowed to go swimming while the tubes were still in my ears.  I remember the doctor telling my mom that I could use ear plugs, but Mom was way too cautious for that, and so I dryly sat on the sandy sideline of summer fun.

Though I know I was at Kessler twice, the experiences have blended themselves into one recollection.  Memory has a way of condensing time.  It’s like having one file drawer that will only fit so many manila folders.  At some point your folders labeled gas and electric are pulled and filed together under utilities.

Days before being admitted, I remember telling people at school about my impending dilemma.  I received encouragement from my teacher, Miss Lalama, who touted the ice cream benefit of the tonsillectomy.  Then there were the condolences from my friends and the “better-you-than-me” looks. 

In the hospital I had a roommate named Tommy who is probably a composite of the two roommates I had with a little bit of the playground set thrown in, and his name may not have even been Tommy, but that’s how I remember him. 

Tommy was having the same procedure I was having.  I remember watching our parents talking to each other at the foot of our beds during most of the time they were there.  There was a large window at the end of the hallway that looked over a lake and further out toward the White Horse Pike.  I stood at that window after my parents left that first night, trying to see their car on the highway.  After watching for a long while, I picked a set of red rear lights that looked like what I thought might be on our car and decided that was Mom and Dad on their way home.  Knowing how my father hated highway driving, they probably took some back road home.

As I stood at the window, a nurse asked me if I wanted to take a ride in a wheelchair.  Sure, I said.  Tommy was also taking this joyride with us, and we both climbed into one wheelchair anticipating the fun.  After rolling through several corridors that all looked alike, we ended in a large room where we were given chest x-rays and had vials of blood taken from us.  This wasn’t a joyride at all.  Tommy and I both felt a little duped.  Later on the nurse asked us again if we wanted to take a ride.  We both declined afraid that she was planning on taking us to some diabolical experiments that would leave us looking like the sons of Frankenstein.

The morning of our surgery, I was awakened when it was still dark outside and given a shot.  The nurse said it was to relax me before I was taken to the operating room.  She gave one to Tommy, too.  Tommy and I didn’t talk much that morning.  I guess we were both lying in our beds that resembled oversized cribs, deep in our own thoughts about the meaning of it all or, more important, what flavor ice cream would be waiting for us in the end.

The shot was making me feel a different kind of drowsy I was used to feeling lying on the floor watching TV.  I asked Tommy if he felt it, too, but he was sound asleep.  I considered surrendering to the feeling, but decided to fight it because I wanted to see what was going to happen.

Soon an orderly came in the room to roll me to the operating room.  He seemed surprised I was still awake.

Once in the operating room I was scooted onto the table.  There was a lot of commotion around me, doctors, nurses, talking in what seemed another language, and certainly not the English I was used to.

A man held what looked to me like an athletic cup up to my face and asked me to count backwards from one hundred.  Not much past ninety-eight, I woke up with a sore throat.  And Mom and Dad were there.

While Kessler Hospital becomes another ruin of a life in progress, like the old neighborhoods and open fields, it’s the remembered stories, true to the teller, simple or severe, that will keep its doors open for generations to come.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Small World, Small House

We live in a small world; I live in a small house.

The recent earthing of a bus-sized satellite has me thinking about just how to clean up the orbiting rummage in the space around our small world.  This celestial scrap problem has me engrossed because the rummage from the little satellites around my small house has become exorbitant, too.

It wasn’t always that way, though.  Clutter has a way of appearing seemingly out of nowhere.  When it does, it spreads, and tolerance for muddle has a way of creeping up on you like middle age or the Jonas Brothers.

Shortly after we were married, my wife and I were invited to a coworker of hers for dinner.  I was taken by all the kid stuff scattered about their living room. 

Growing up my brothers and I rarely played in the living room.  Our indoor play was relegated to our bedroom, and when it became untidy, my mother would make us clean it under the threat of the wooden spoon.  As a teenager with a proclivity to disarray, she would simply keep my bedroom door shut.

If I recall correctly, my wife’s coworker referred to the mess as a medley child-dom or some such rubbish.  I called it chaos.  On the way home, my wife and I both vowed if we ever had kids – and after that visit with the screeching, yelping, slobbering, and biting we were a bit doubtful – we would never, ever let our living room become a playroom.

Today, five children later, I expertly slalom the living room like an Olympian.

Since we’ve been outnumbered, and our once pristine territory conquered by our satellites, my wife and I realized the only option was retreat.  So we decided to turn part of the basement into a wine cellar. 

I took some lattice, a few two by fours, and some molding and, along with my meager carpentering skills, crafted a wall where we could store our wine.  I illuminated it with track lighting and hung some vines and plastic bunches of grapes I got at a craft shop.  We rehabbed an old workbench we found left out on someone’s curb to store three different types of corkscrews.  I installed hangers for glassware.  We set up a couple of cafĂ© style tables, hung poster sized reproductions of paintings, and wired up the room for sound. 

It was such a lovely space that my wife and I would eat late night dinners down there, just the two of us, after the little ones were tucked in bed and the older ones were transfixed to the television.

One day, while sitting in the living room, I heard a crash.  When I reached the bottom step to the basement, I saw shattered glass.  Apparently a glass had fallen from the ceiling rack.  I constantly tell the kids not to run and jump in the house, but, I resolve myself, it’s only one little glass.  Then I looked up and noticed that there were boxes on the floor:  hand-me-downs in waiting.  There were plastic tubs in which we keep holiday decorations piled three high in front of my wall.  Boots.  Piles of boots.  There had to be at least 23 pair.  There were crates overflowing with toys.  Old toys, new toys, toys I don’t remember ever seeing before. 

What had happened?  Had it been that long since I’d been down there?  No, of course not.  I am regularly down there.  I keep my tools under the basement stairs, and I recently had to snake out the toilet – again.

Perplexed, I came up from the basement and into the dining room.  There on the table were – what was that? – Transformers?  I looked over at the bookshelf:  Cars?  Action figures?  A baseball mitt?

Do we become so acclimated to the gradual derangement of our surroundings that it takes a collision to recognize the problem?

Calling my wife, I ran up to our bedroom, the final refuge, only to be greeted by R2D2 sitting on my desk, mocking me.

Not here as well, I said to my wife who was folding clothes.  Our eight year old was at the computer earlier and must have left it there, she told me.  She picked up the synthetic cyborg, placed it on top of one of the several piles of clothes, and left the room.

If the experts at NASA ever figure out how to clean up the space junk orbiting our small planet, I’d like them to let me know exactly how they did it because I’d like to get a little bit of my own space back, too.