Saturday, April 29, 2006

Good Deed for the Day

I MANAGED TO SCORE one for the side of good, which, despite my low-smoldering desire to be reborn as a comic-book supervillian, is where my allegiance really lies.

I was at the Whole Foods supermarket, wending my way among pyramids of pornographically stacked produce, I noticed a handbag. It was sitting on a corner display table, alongside some avocados, as though someone had placed it there to make room for fragile fruit in the basket section of their cart, then rolled along without it.

I hefted it. Despite its small size, it was heavy. I peeked through an opening and spied a bunch of keys nestled against a loose wad of bills. So unless she walked to the market, she was a captive audience.

At the end of the aisle, I saw a woman walking around the corner. Keeping the bag in view, I got some jellybeans from the adjacent bulk-foods wall. She didn't return, but that didn't mean it wasn't hers. It crossed my mind to open it, look for a license, and match her up to the picture, but from the view of the security cameras, that could only look suspect.

I decided the best place for the bag was at the customer service counter. Once up at the front. I suggested to the employees there that they page the person to get her to come forward. Both of the crewmembers agreed, and thanked me for turning it in.

Shortly thereafter, a page did indeed alert a "Christine" somebody to come to the customer service desk. I peeked around the corner of an aisle to see that it was, indeed, the woman I had seen leaving the produce area earlier. I flirted with the idea of disappearing into the night anonymously like some sort of good-deed ninja, but then I figured, what the hell, at least wander past. It sounded like she was genuinely surprised to have set it down without thinking about it.

For someone who takes mass transit like me, there's always a chance of leaving something behind on the train. I have done so twice, with a return percentage of 50%. I left my prized light winter jacket on the bus, immediately drove to the depot when I realized it, and reclaimed it. With a fantastic long scarf I had gotten while in college to help defend against penetrating Boston wind, however, I was less fortunate. That scarf made the Tom Baker Doctor Who's scarf look like a well-used Kleenex. My point is that I know that feeling of having forgotten some needful item behind, like a pit opening in your gut, and the panicked retracing of steps to retrieve it. Worse than either of the two articles above was a credit card I had used to pay for a meal at TGI Friday's. I had gotten a few miles down the highway, and had pulled into the lot of a strip mall when I realized my mistake. I tore ass back to the restaurant and ran in, to find the card still under the bill on my table. Thank goodness for sluggish servers.

So for now my karma is in the green. I wish there were some sort of conversion chart to see what I can now get away with. Hopefully I can spend it like some spiritual green stamp and club an obnoxious cellphone user to death.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

I'd Like to Stop Sneezing Now, Please

I AM A WALKING histamine reaction. All last week, and these past two days, my allergies have been running at ludicrous speed. I caught a brief respite with the weekend rainstorms, but even these carry a heavy price tag, by helping to sprout more pollen-bearing seeds, that will no doubt plague me in early summer.

Each season, the experts at the National Institutes of Health or the National Weather Service or the goddamn National Allergy Groundhog Hole proclaim that this is the worst season yet. Somehow, the global course of deforestation and invader-species monoculture escapes these white-coated jokers, and they solemnly proclaim, sometimes wielding tissues out of sympathy, that allergy sufferers can look forward a longer, harder, deeper season of being nosefucked.

Can we get an honest investigation of these pundits, to see if they have well-concealed investments in the producers of heavy-duty antihistamines and facial tissues? Every time they ratchet the online pollen indexes, do they buy a new BMW?

I haven't even attempted to mount the hill near my house in the morning in the past week and change. No way in hell. Two blocks between the PATH stop and the building are enough to have me sneezing for a half hour when I finally get up to the office. I can only imagine what sucking down a half hour's worth of green-tinged pollen fog would do to me. I'd wake up two weeks later in some sort of Darth Vader suit, without such conveniences as the cybernetically enhanced strength, the Dark Side abilities, or the lightsaber. More likely I'd be booted back out onto the street with one of those CPAP units spraypainted black and a case of Primatene Mist.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity-Jig

MOM CAME HOME THIS afternoon, tired from having to sit around the hospital room most of the time, but feeling stronger and very much ready to leave. I still think she was wise to stay another night. No sense in being a hero, and we had nothing planned for Easter anyway, aside from my engulfing a heaping helping of jelly beans (which hardly requires an occasion anyway).

Dad and I actually visited her yesterday, when the question of being released Sunday or today was decided. Her improvement over Saturday morning was marked. She was still using oxygen, but her movements and voice were both more forceful. She was still in pain from her neck and the back problems, but she was getting pain meds for them, and in fact before we left, she gave us a prescription for them. So by the time she got home today, she was covered.

I am tremendously relieved to have her back home. For now, her task is to heal, to walk around and get her muscles back in tone, and to stay off the damn cigarettes. She did have one when she got home, but I know she felt bad about it, and my father is going to get her some nicotine patches tomorrow.

That's all to report for now. She has a follow-up with the surgeon later this week or early next week. We'll take it from there.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Patient Is Awake and She's Working Blue

"God grant I never die in a fucking hospital! Let me die in some louche bistro, a knife in my liver, my skull split with a beer bottle, a pistol bullet through the spine, my head in spit and blood and beer. . . . Or let me die in an Indian hut, on a sandbank, in jail, or alone in a furnished room, on the ground someplace or in an alley, on a street or subway platform, in a wrecked car or plane. . . . Anyplace, but not in a hospital, not in bed . . ."
—William S. Burroughs, "Lee's Journals," Interzone

TWO DECADES AGO, WHEN my maternal grandmother had a stroke, my mother and grandfather waited with her to receive a visiting doctor. When he arrived, he asked, as most doctors doing rounds will, "How are you feeling?"

Through her stroke-slurred speech, my grandmother still managed to make herself very clear: "Like shit."

Proving herself to be her mother's daughter, this is exactly what my mother said when I asked the same question this morning.

My dad and I arrived around 9:30. The hospital had called him with news that my mother had been moved from the recovery room to a comprehensive-care unit, one step down from recovery but with nurses on hand for those with longer recovery times. In my mother's case, this stemmed from her compromised lung function, which made the comedown from the anesthesia something of a bitch.

She was sleeping fitfully when we arrived, tubes connected, monitor beeping, gauze and tape barely covering a broad, livid bruise along the swollen right side of her neck. I didn't want to wake her up, because I thought that the more recovery she could undergo while not being awake for the associated pain, the better. After about 10 minutes, though, her eyes fluttered, and I moved into her field of vision. Thankfully she recognized me instantly. She further proved her quickness of mind by responding as I mentioned above to my query about her health.

Her voice was rough — from being intubated for oxygen while under, or just from the knockout gas itself, I didn't know, or ask. She was clearly in pain, and not just from the incision; her lumbar condition and sciatica were in full blast from having been on her back for hours. Also, the hospital apparently went to Percocet as their painkiller of choice, which, for my mom — who is under the care of a pain-management specialist — is like Skittles. Added to that, she had to hit the ladies' room, or its portable equivalent. So she was in pain, had to pee, and feeling depressed. "If I'd 'a known I would feel like this, I never would've had it done," she said. I understood her sentiment, but I didn't say anything, while she was dazed from a night of on-and-off sleep and a double lungful of anesthesia, about the Aces I had in the hole: the two photos of her arteries that I had with me.

A nurse fortuitously picked that time to check in, and we let her know of my mom's needs. (Mom did later say the nurses on this floor had been very pleasant and helpful, always a plus.) She was there to prep my mom for a move to a semiprivate room, after the surgeon stopped. She began to remove some of my mom's bandages, including the heavy packing around her throat, and some of the tubing — each in its way traumatic to sensitive or recently incised skin. I held my mother's hand as she winced. The monitor beeped insistently as her heart rate spiked with the pain. It was at that time that the Burroughs quote came to mind. I know I would have traded places with my mom in a minute to spare her further suffering, even as incidental to necessary work as it might have been, but as for being hospitalized myself someday . . . let the scythe fall and the Reaper take His due.

The doctor arrived about 15 minutes later. He kept things light, but he said he was no rush to release my mother if she still felt weak the next day. (Someone my age, presumed to have greater resiliency, probably would have been booted by now, as this is viewed as an outpatient procedure. My response would have been to handcuff myself to the bed.) He was pleased with her responsiveness, though, laden with sleep debt as it was, and reminded her of how much she needed the surgery she had once tried to cancel. That was my cue to produce the photos. I'm not sure which one stunned her more, but they did evoke a "Holy shit!" and a change of heart regarding whether the pain and inconvenience of recovery was worth it.

About an hour and change after we arrived, Mom was moved up to the top floor of the hospital to a semiprivate room. She had been stationary so long, and her cramping back and hip were giving her so much grief as a result, that getting out of bed and then inching onto the stretcher was a deliberate, measured process. But once we were mobile, it was a quick trip. As a bonus, the second patient was moved out of the room a quarter hour after we arrived, and so the place was ours.

Here, Mom was not only able to convince the nurse to get her another two Percocet, but she was served lunch. I returned from the bathroom to find her sipping some egg drop soup, and a platter on the tray held a grilled chicken sandwich and broccoli spears. The broccoli she could give a damn about, but she set upon the chicken breast with a fervor, dropping the bun in the soup and tearing the meat up to eat it piece by piece. We chatted with her about this and that, even though not much had happened between yesterday afternoon and this morning, just to keep her mind off of her pain while she waited for the pain pills to arrive. Her voice was sounding stronger, and her mood was elevated from earlier. And clearly her appetite had recovered!

My dad and I took a break to get food of our own. Before we left, Mom directed us to look for pastry — "Prune danish," she specified. I saw an apple turnover that looked so-so, which led me to ignore it and grab her two of her favorites: M&Ms and Smartfood popcorn. I figured if she wasn't able to eat one, she could go for the other. Unbeknownst to me, my dad snagged the pastry. Mom did confirm that she couldn't eat the popcorn while in the hospital and away from her floss, but she drooled at the turnover and the M&Ms, which she attacked immediately. By this point she had also gotten the pain pills from a nurse. Selecting the chocolate morsels from a plastic cup, my mother proclaimed, "I have my family, my Percocet, and my M&Ms, and the rest of the world can fuck off." Hear hear.

We left her sitting in a high-backed chair, which was easier on the sciatica than lying in bed. I pointed out to her that I had brought her usual Friday Wall Street Journal crossword puzzle, along with her glasses. But by that point, from the food, the lousy sleep she'd had last night, and maybe the Percocets, she was nodding off again, and she told us we didn't have to hang out all day if we didn't want to. Typical Mom, not wanting to seem a burden. We kissed her goodbye, told her we'd be by the next morning, and headed out.

My dad gets quieter than usual in situations like this, and has a tendency to pull into himself and seek the comfort of the familiar. I tried to get him to come to dinner with me at a local diner, but he really just wanted to be home, where he could grab a drink and not dress up — though what that might constitute for a quick trip to a low-formality greasy spoon, I dunno. But I know not to keep prodding him when he is looking for a corner, so I left him at his house, reclaimed my car, and headed back here.

I took a walk into town, my dry cleaning under my arm, in uncharacteristic 80º weather and skies finally blue after a morning of fog. It gave me time to think, even amid what seemed like half the town out enjoying the weather. The plans my parents have to get the main floor of the house switched over to holding a bedroom probably need to be thrown into higher gear. Mom is not going to want to screw around with stairs as much as it can be avoided, until she gets her wind back and is both less stiff and back on her usual pain regimen. She can sleep sitting upright on the couch in the short run, and the more sleep she can get, the better she'll heal. But I know they're both looking forward to cutting the stairs out of the equation as soon as they can. My father can handle the basement stairs well enough for laundry duty, but even he slows down at the lean end of the day.

I don't know if my mother will make any deep changes in her lifestyle based on this experience. The photos of her carotids seemed to make an impression. She had been given a nicotine patch, which was probably the only reason she wasn't clawing the sheets off the bed when we arrived. I would love to see her quit. Too often, though, my father — who quit cold turkey 25 years ago — resorts to sarcasm when my mom mentions cutting back, and provides little support. I can't have that attitude poisoning what might be her last chance to make a difference in her quality of life by quitting. I don't care if she papers herself in patches and chews half a pound of the nicotine gum each day — the less of that fucking smoke that goes into her lungs, the more they'll be able to give her the oxygen she needs to move about, stand for an extended period . . . and survive a future operation.

Oddly enough, my dad just called on an unrelated matter, and I brought up the smoking question. He is indeed very sympathetic to the idea of Mom dropping this habit, but I want to help him be the best support he can be, seeing as he's not only on the scene to provide it most directly, but also because getting that secondhand smoke out of the house will bail his lungs out as well. He's been closely following the New Jersey smoking ban, because as the treasurer of his local Elks lodge, and incidentally one of the few members who doesn't have his head up his ass, he has been working to convince the more stubborn brethren that yes, the ban affects fraternal orders, and yes, it will be enforced. I mentioned how we should try to get her to continue on the patch if we can, so I am hopeful he'll try to ease the topic into conversation as early as tomorrow night if she comes home then.

On that topic, he believes Mom indeed will come home tomorrow. The insurance won't keep paying forever, unless the doctor perceives her condition as still weakened enough to warrant it. If she is breathing strongly without oxygen, she is likely to be given a sheaf of scripts, a bag of wound dressings, and a hefty bill. Thus is the state of the hospital–insurance complex. I feel the faster she is able to walk around her own house, sit on her own deck, and sleep in her own bed or chair, her spirits will rise and her healing will accelerate. If I need to take a day or so off to help that happen, I will. But I suspect she really wants the routine back, and my hanging on her is not gonna help. Looking at those two carotid photos, and deciding for herself how to proceed given how close a call this was, may help a lot more.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Good News Thus Far

IT WAS WHITISH-YELLOW, a floppy, wrinkled square centimeter of matter, not unlike a scrap of scrambled egg you might forget on the side of your plate while polishing off a platter of breakfast at your favorite diner. This neglect would be fortuitous for you, as it would only end up helping produce this stuff, clinging insidiously to the lining of one of your vital arteries. It was a sample of the plaque my mother's doctor removed from her carotid artery, in the course of a successful operation to straighten and clear it of what turned out to be an eighty percent blockage. She is still recovering from the anesthesia at the hospital, and she may remain on painkillers and oxygen for the bulk of the evening, but she should be in a room by late tonight so we can visit her tomorrow.

We made an early start of it, at least for my retiree parents, who usually don't even start futzing with coffee as early as we left today. Via back roads, to avoid even the thin Good Friday traffic along the frequently jammed Route 4, we arrived at the hospital early. My mother was still in a good mood, not apparently afraid, so I had high hopes for the time we would spend together before her admission.

Checking in proved to be no problem, and we were routed to a temporary hospital room where, we were told, we would be visited by a nurse to get some medical information. My mom was also left with a pair of robes, one attaching in back, the other snapping up front. When she emerged from the bathroom after shrugging out of her street clothes, the bulky, drooping layers and odd pattern of the robes made her look one gaudy medallion short of being a white, early-Nineties Al Sharpton.

One slight detour from the usual admission came with the nebulizer. Because she has smoked for her entire life, the anesthesiologist wanted to open her lungs up to allow the oxygen he would administer during the operation to get into her system better. To that end, a second nurse came in with a plastic tube, one end of which ended in a reed-like mouthpiece. The nurse emptied a medication into a reservoir beneath the tube, into which she plugged an air hose that led to the oxygen port on the wall. My mom was able to breathe in the atomized drug, but when she breathed out through this peace-pipe-looking apparatus, smoke streamed out in a display more suited to a Hendrix concert than a pre-op holding area. This provided my dad and I some much needed laughs, and Mom happily blew smoke around the room while the 5-minute supply of juice lasted.

Shortly thereafter, an orderly appeared outside with a stretcher. It was time. Only one of us could accompany her to pre-op, so I elected my dad. I kissed my mom and told her I would see her later. She was relaxed, seemingly ready. I could do nothing more than to watch them both round the corner into the surgery section.

My dad eventually returned, finding me in the waiting area, which would be our home for the next 2 hours. The rest of the area was taken up by a large family. From what their doctor said (yes, this was potentially a HIPAA privacy violation on his part, but so is this post about my mom!), a female relative weighing 400+ pounds put herself on a crash diet, suffered some form of health crisis as a result, and ended up in the emergency room. If it involved any sort of a collapse, the family may have suspected a heart attack. Not too far from the mark, as starvation diets cause the body to deplete not adipose tissue but protein and mineral sources, these being muscles in general and — in the case of potassium — heart tissue. The ticker of a person weighing a fifth of a ton is under enough stress without taxing it further by depleting one's blood of vital nutrients.

At about 1:30, I went downstairs to grab a sandwich in the fantastic commissary of the hospital, but my dad couldn't be convinced to do likewise just yet. He usually eats at 12:30 to 1:00, so he must've been more anxious than hungry. By the 2-hour mark, though, I could feel my heartbeat elevating a bit. I was under the impression that the procedure would take on the order of 2 hours, and I was losing my ability to just trust everything to the surgeons and time and getting antsy for an update.

As if at my command, an update arrived, in the form of my mother's surgeon. He confirmed that everything had gone well, which was a tremendous relief to hear, and he had a couple of visual aids to share with us.

The first — which I would scan and post if I had the means — was a pair of color-enhanced ultrasound photos of the flow through my mother's afflicted carotid arteries. In the "before" shot, he indicated a tiny colored dot in the center of a circle. The circle was the normal capacity of my mom's right common internal carotid; the dot was its current flow, a difference, as I mentioned, of 80% of capacity. The "after" shot showed both the internal carotid and the adjacent external one, both fully flowing and clear. He laughed and agreed with my suggestion that my mother put them on the fridge.

The second item he had was the plaque I cited at the start. Both this, and the comparative ultrasound shots, were, I realized, his effort to show us why he had fought to convince my mom to reconsider her decision to cancel the surgery. This one, however, was all the more arresting. I had noticed the white bundle in his hand when he entered, along with the photos and a large pair of tweezers, but they hadn't really registered. He opened the wad of surgical gauze, to show us the limp whitish gunk, which he described as being only part of what he had removed. My previous misgivings about his urgency, and my worry over his possibly being only in it to notch a new case on his belt, disappeared.

My dad visited briefly with my mother after the doctor finished speaking with us. She was still coming out of the anesthesia, and being awake only exposed her to the pain from the incision. The nurse administered a painkiller while Dad was there, but he didn't stay long due to a 5-minute limit on visitors in the recovery room. We decided it would only agitate her further if I, a second visitor, attempted to keep her from the sleep she needed. Keep in mind, that in addition to the hangover from the knockout gas, and being on oxygen, and having a stitched-up slit on her neck, she was probably jonesing hard for nicotine. Seeing as the doctor was pleased with how she was coming along, I couldn't bring myself to upset her further.

Finally succumbing to hunger, my dad led the way to the cafeteria. We discussed the possibility of somehow getting my mother to quit smoking. This has failed in the past, but we hoped the head start she will have this weekend, and the evidence of how much more complex the compromised lung capacity has made the surgery and recovery, might help her decide. It's never too late to begin repairing the damage, and in light of the New Jersey ban on smoking in most enclosed commercial and transit areas, which takes effect at midnight tonight, she would be joining a trend. One thing at a time, though — let's get her home and out of the hospital first.

My dad and I left soon after that. He called about 30 minutes ago to tell me she had been moved to an intermediate recovery room, not as restrictive on visits but still a common area where her progress can be monitored. She is still fairly hung over, but the nurse was happy with her status, so it's only a matter of when they'll get her into a semiprivate room tonight. We intend to visit as early as we can tomorrow, so we can at least get the poor girl her glasses, which we were loath to leave behind for fear of their getting lost in the chaos of admission and movement and whatnot.

Right now, I am tired, and sporting a kicking headache, possibly brought on by the second group of guests in the waiting area earlier, a trio of North Jersey yentas who yelled at one another due to deafness in heavily accented, cigarette-ruined voices about their ailments, the decline of today's youth, and how mediocre their children were. In the spirit of the recent Passover holiday, if these jabbering old bats had been in Pharaoh's Egypt, their first-born would have washed the lamb's blood off of the lintels. Oy already!

I will probably turn in early tonight, in anticipation of the start we want to get to the hospital. We are assuming Mom will have been assigned a room by that point. Either way, I am hoping the worst of this is over, that the hospital will retain her as long as it takes for her to feel strong and confident enough to leave, and that she will be home with us soon.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Watchful Waiting

I JUST GOT HOME from my parents' house for Taco Thursday. Some things never change, even on the eve of vascular surgery for my mother. My dad shuffled off to an Elks meeting afterwards, as he does every other Thursday, and my mother busied herself with dishes and speculated what she should include in her overnight bag for the hospital. I gave her a big kiss and a hug before I headed out, and told her not to hesitate to call me tonight if she felt any jitters.

I suspect she won't. They would have hit by now. Aside from a couple of pre-op appointments, it has been a routine week for my parents. Whenever I've called over, she's sounded strong, not preoccupied . . . nothing like the morning she called me at work in a thorough state over the conflicting diagnoses. Tomorrow morning may be a different story, but that's why she has a supply of Xanax handy.

I've been handling the approaching date calmly too, as I've said. There's nothing I can do to remedy the situation; she's going to be in the best hands available (she's still getting compliments from nurses and diagnosticians on scoring this guy); she herself is resolved to see this through; and I want to be able to support my dad, who rarely expresses his inner thoughts on situations like this. You never know when someone's going to feel very alone or vulnerable, and after 36 years of supporting my aimless drift through life, I certainly owe him that.

I don't like to think of my parents as "old," even though they fall into the category well enough. I live in an apartment building where many of the tenants are decades older than me, well into retirement, in some cases incapacitated. Behind my building is an actual retirement home, and in my limited exposure to its residents (I vote there), the range of capabilities is not wide. I don't like to cast my mental eye forward and imagine my folks in that state (to say nothing of myself), but that could be where they're headed. Mentally they're a bit forgetful now and again, but they know this and work around it to function well regardless.

Physically, my mother is slower in getting around than my dad. Sciatica, arthritis, and an old knee injury, plus the extra weight that accompanied these disabilities due to reduced exercise and agility, are all taking their toll on her facility with stairs and long walks. My dad used to golf, but no longer can pull even nine holes without getting foot pain, and he has received a pacemaker and a corneal implant in recent years. Both of them are on a jumble of medications — yes, they have the stereotypical big pill container with S M T W T F S on the little doors.

They are slowly taking steps to move their bedroom to the family/TV room of their two-story house. I have relieved them of as many books from the family-room shelf units as I could take (my Harlan Ellison collection quadrupled!), and they plan to shift the TV/entertainment tangle of wires and speakers one room over and make this their new bedroom. They'll still have to deal with the basement steps, but that could be consigned to my more nimble father. I am eager to help them, but part of me sees this as a sad retreat from vitality and the powers of youth . . . "youth" being in this case as close as their early sixties.

It is tough not to imagine what will happen when one of them is gone. I spent at least one sleepless night worrying about tomorrow, unable to keep my mind from trying to lay the groundwork for the worst possible outcome. Mom's resolve in the face of this surgery has ended the runaway worry over this (though I haven't gone to bed yet tonight, have I?), but still . . . how can one prepare to share the grief of a surviving partner in a 40-plus-year marriage, whether sooner or later, even as I might still be dealing with my own bereavement?

It makes me think back to how they supported each other when their parents died, or — worse — when their brothers died early, his from fast-moving stomach cancer, hers from homicide. My grandparents had all been sick when they finally passed, so it was not a surprise. I have no way of knowing what fate has planned for my parents, how swiftly their end will come. All I know is I will need to be there for my surviving parent as best I can, even as I know that my loss can be nothing compared to the loss the survivor feels, seeing as they've known each other since high school.

And beyond that, listening to them speak of their various ailments, the pilgrimages they make from specialist to hospital, makes me wonder what sort of road I will walk when my own health finally begins to betray me. Assuming things continue as they are, I will have no spouse, or offspring, or relatives with me at that time, and any friends scattered across the country's traditional retirement havens, if they haven't already preceded me into the Big Casino. With today's medical science, and compared to the smokers and drinkers in my family, aside from obesity I can expect to dodge most major causes of death for the better part of a century. I need to recognize as early as possible the landmarks that my parents never knew to search out in their forties and fifties, to dodge them as best I can, to pay for them somehow, and then . . . what?

To die alone?

Now you know why I couldn't sleep that other night. Not too tough to look through the lens of your own parents' medical status to spy on what the future might have in store. I ducked out of this morbid mood at the time, and I don't intend to sink into it again tonight, but I wanted to pin this skein of anxiety to the wall, so to speak, to return to it and determine if it was just my mind galloping off on some wild worry chase, or just cautious planning at an overheated pace.

For now, though, I intend to get a full night's sleep, to wake up and take a nice walk in cool Spring air, eat a full breakfast in case the hospital commissary is rife with prepackaged mystery wedges on syntho-rye, and be there for these odd folks who decided to drop me onto an unsuspecting world. More to come.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Interlude of a Walking Man

A TRANQUIL TUESDAY NIGHT. Cool air in the window, a nearly full moon over the town, a hot Internet connection, and a blank document. Very peaceful, all things considered.

My mom's surgery is scheduled for this coming Friday, but so far, I have been calm about it. So has she. After a couple of nights of racing heartbeats and panicked misgivings, she seems eager to get it done. I have drawn strength from her resolve, and I've only had one night of runaway thoughts in the weeks leading up to this date with the vascular surgeon.

I believe getting decent amounts of exercise has also helped. I took a walk up and down the hill near me earlier tonight, while sunlight was still warming the western sky. I've either been building a little muscle or losing a touch of weight. My strides up the incline felt stronger, even as I neared the top. I was still breathing fairly heavily, but my pace was quicker.

I've also managed to get out on the roads before work. So wonderfully peaceful. Even after Daylight Saving Time, it is still dark when I go out. I was amused to hear at least one radio alarm go off as I passed a house. Even more delicious, some stalwart had used their fireplace that previous evening, and the smoky scent was still emanating from their chimney. And from the summit of the hill, across the Pascack Valley and at the edge of the Palisades, festooned with blinking red aviation lights, I could see the Alpine radio tower, the world's first FM radio transmitter and the brainchild of the martyred FM pioneer Major Edwin Howard Armstrong. Seeing this tower, all 400 feet of it, from points far and wide across Bergen and Rockland Counties reminds me of just how vast this county is . . . and this isn't even the largest county in the state.

I walk a small section of this huge wedge of New Jersey real estate, pacing along beneath a sky of stars so close it feels like I could be sucked into space with one misstep. My legs work like autonomic body processes, like heartbeats or blinks, as the next section of horizon nears, passes beneath my feet, and then re-establishes itself in the distance. Time drops from millennia to footsteps, to strides, long or short, steep and halting or sure along flat roads, and I measure my own days, weeks, and years. I adhere to a different calendar and circumscribe a suddenly huge world, pedestrian in the most literal and finest sense.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Emergency-Vehicle Exacta!

NEW JERSEYANS ARE PRACTICALLY issued cars at birth. This state does not lend itself easily to car-free existence. Unlike a progressive state like Oregon or New Hampshire, where a thriving bicycle culture encourages the maintenance of options for those without cars, or New York City, where walking and taking mass transit is king, New Jersey has a sprawl structure and a culture to match. Acquisition of some form of beater car sometime in mid-adolescence is as solid a landmark for a Jersey boy or girl as the senior prom or the SAT. How else are you gonna get down the Shore on Memorial Day?

Thus the loss of a car is particularly painful. The violently exothermic death of a vehicle, however, carries a taboo fascination. This was evident in the parking lot next to my complex, in the parking lot of happening food market Trader Joe's, when I returned home from my usual Saturday chores.

As I rounded the bend to my cross-street, I couldn't help but notice a huge column of smoke arising from the vicinity of my apartment building. Flashing lights winked through the hedges bordering the parking lot. Traffic stood deep along the street, deeper than usual for this time. I learned why upon turning onto my street itself. An SUV was on fire. Flames belched from its open hood, giving it the look of a devilish forge. Firefighters swarmed over the busy lot — which surely had been thick with Trader Joe's shoppers before this car somehow burst aflame — diverting incoming traffic, keeping onlookers back, and aiming a hose full blast at the immolated engine.

I threaded my way down the street among cars being routed from the Joe's lot, parked, and called my parents as I tried to get a better view. As I briefed them on what I had found, the firefighters got in point blank on the car with the hose, suppressing the flames as their potential for setting off a gas-tank explosion diminished. By the time I had called Anne on the other side of town (who lives next to the fire station and had noticed more sirens than usual), the fire was more or less out, and the smoke rising from the truck was white instead of the sickly chemical brown.

But this wasn't all the excitement the emergency services of my town would face this weekend! As I had pulled into my lot, I noticed an ambulance parked next to the entrance of my building. I figured they had run out of room with the two firetrucks in the Joe's lot, so they had stashed this one here. Not hardly. While I was winding up my call to Anne, two EMTs exited my building, wheeling an elderly female resident out on a stretcher. (The average age of the tenants here is well above mine.) What were the odds? I didn't recognize the woman as I peeked in the ambulance window on the way in, but I did mention what I had seen to another tenant on her way out (under her own power, lucky her), so maybe she was able to determine who it was and can get news around to the other folks in my place for any follow-up.

I'll have to get the full scoop on how the fire started tomorrow in the paper. There sure wasn't anything inflammable around, not after the soaking rain we got over the course of last evening and part of the morning. For now, there's at least one more pedestrian in New Jersey, at least until the person's kin or friends scoops them up and rescues them from the horrors of having to expend effort on transport on foot.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Terrifying Dream Thankfully Proven False

LAST NIGHT, I HAD one of those terrible, realistic dreams that makes you want to get out of bed and verify empirically its unreal nature. In it, my apartment was robbed.

In the dream, I woke up in the early morning, as if to go to the gym, only to find the door detached from its hinges, splintered wood hanging from the frame. I had that sinking feeling you get when you realize you have left some desperately needed item hundreds of miles behind you or accidentally on a train . . . the sensation of your stomach taking an express elevator to the earth's core. I looked outside between the broken door and the frame, and noticed my neighbor's door was likewise displaced, though the hinges had been crudely duct-taped as if to keep the door standing and vaguely blocking the portal.

I swept through the apartment to discover what had been stolen. In my first pass, I couldn't figure what was gone. It seemed to be the same jumble of books, plants, furniture, and . . . the computer and the TV were gone. The TV I didn't care too much about. Losing the computer, with emails and PDFs containing financial information and passwords, was crippling. The panic got worse.

It was at this point that a slight thread of unreality began to appear. I wondered how I could have slept through my door being kicked or slammed off of its hinges. Even if a thief had picked the lock, the hinges have always issued a pronounced squeak when put into operation. I deliberately left them noisy just for that reason. But the dream did begin with me emerging from my bedroom. Perhaps I had heard something in the dream, but within it, had integrated the noise into another dream, the way an alarm clock sometimes begins as a wristwatch alarm or a microwave, only to shift into the real-world stimulus. (I hate this.)

I pulled my door out of the way to check out my neighbor's situation. Again, the dream further departed from reality (though I was still keyed up about the theft). My apartment complex now resembled a dorm that I have seen in previous dreams. I have dreamed about being back at college, living in a dorm somewhat similar to those in which I lived in the waking world. In this spectral dorm, though, students lived three to four per single room, each one stuffing his or her bed, desk, and stuff into a pinched third or quarter of the stark cinderblock cell. Instead of the carpeted floor and the wallpapered hall of my apartment complex, it was the cheap paint and linoleum of dorm ambience.

All the way down the all, each door had been broken from its hinges and was resting against its frame, either tentatively affixed by silver duct tape by the landlord or shoved aside by its residents. I peeked into a few rooms, and sure enough, they were the dorm-style rooms I had seen in previous dreams. I began to wonder how old I was — college age or 36? — but my fellow residents all seemed in their late teens/early twenties. Most of the kids seemed dazed or angry about the mass theft that had swept the building. It seemed like the crooks had been very selective, taking only electronics small enough to tote away.

I woke up abruptly. It was close to my alarm time, so I turned it off and looked around the place. The computer and television were both in their place. The door was still double-locked and properly suspended on its hinges. I calmed down, returned to my bed, set the alarm forward another half hour, and fell asleep with no further nocturnal interactions with the criminal element on the Astral Plane.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

First Real Day of Spring

AUTUMN IS MY FAVORITE season. Winter and Spring, I now believe, are tied for second. Usually I give Winter the edge because I don't get hit by seasonal allergies amid the ice and wind. When I wake up to a day like this, however, with 60º temperatures and cloudless skies, it's tough to believe any Winter day could take the lead of this sort of an early Spring Sunday.

Thus far I have taken full advantage. I hit the road just after noon. Spectacular. I was finally clever enough to snag one of my gym shirts with a front pocket, just right for the iPod, which spared me carrying it manually and looking like a sweaty, rampaging version of Apple's ads for the player. Walking is getting to be a habit with me. I didn't walk up to the bank this Friday as I did the last one, because I withdrew my allowance a day early. I did hit the hill yesterday, as part of an April Fool's Day trick on my adipose tissue, but I added a loop that took me a long couple of blocks around into the adjoining town, and back home along the bank route. My legs filed various petitions of complaint, all of which were swept briskly into the furnace.

As I was ascending the hill yesterday, I passed two cyclists, local immigrants from Central America. Many folks from that region in this area use bikes for local transit, not yet being able to afford a car, or possibly not having the proper paperwork to get a license. One guy had passed me at a lower elevation, but as I approached the summit, he was laboriously pushing his bike to the top. The other guy, either stronger or more stubborn, made it juuuuuust short of the peak, when he stalled out and dismounted. If I knew Spanish, I would have called out that I thought he was gonna make it.

I didn't see any cyclists on the hill today, though a number of motorcyclists did roar past me. Any riding clubs with a rally scheduled for today got a real bonus . . . the joy of screaming along one of the area highways or bridges, 100 or 200 strong, engines howling under azure skies, their club colors gleaming in the sun. . . . I once found myself amid a rally on 287, a long line of bikers snaking through the hills and rust-streaked rock formations west of Bergen County. I had to extricate myself from their column, as I had overtaken them and needed to figure which lane of the highway they had selected. Once I did, I made extra-sure to navigate carefully along the line. New Jersey has enough careless drivers who treat bikers like roadkill, and I didn't want to be one of them. . . . especially seeing as I sport a custom license plate that would have made it easier for vengeance-seeking bikers to knock on my door with a tire iron and settle the issue with an old-fashioned stomping.

I am hoping the weather holds out this week, as I want to use this hill, or even some of the flat side-street walking routes I've used in the past, as my aerobic exercise as much as I can. It took me about 35 minutes to surmount the hill, cap a smaller one on the far side, and then retrace my steps to climb both again. From there, I headed across the park in the center of town to the gym, where I had my first strength workout in a week. It was a distracted week, in which I shamefully only hit the gym once, and it felt fantastic to lift even the basic amount of weight I stacked up. I figure I will walk the route tomorrow morning, then return to the gym Tuesday morning, possibly after a gentler walk as a bit of a rest. But I really want to get a solid habit going.

After the first walk yesterday, I entertained the fantasy of quitting the gym and buying a weight bench for my bedroom. I have a NordicTrack here, but after setting it up in 1999 when I moved in and using it twice, I had my downstairs neighbor pounding on the ceiling. So my options for in-house aerobic machinery are limited. A weight bench, along with my current range of dumbbells, would not create the constant 20 or 30 minutes of noise that a treadmill or ski machine might. (And I do miss that thing; I was up to 40 minutes a day at my previous apartment!) If I lived on the ground floor, I would be tempted to reserve the bedroom entirely for weights and an aerobic machine, and buy a high-end sleeper couch. But I'm not thrilled with the security in the building or on the windows, which seem easy to pry open, so unless I worked from home and was on the scene constantly, my going the Crazy Joe Davola route is not gonna happen in this apartment complex. Still, there seems to be enough space in my bedroom for a bench, and just setting the barbell on the rack might not be enough to arouse the ire of the witch downstairs. Maybe at 4:30 in the morning, though. The jury is still quite out.

So for now, I'm trying to go for the walk outside/weights at the gym combo. With a physical scheduled for May 1 — which almost certainly will involve a lecture on obesity — and my mother's surgery scheduled for April 14, I have a couple of reasons to get more fit and establish a solid nutritional and exercise routine. The one I had going last November was valid, but ill timed; starting a strict eating program heading into the holidays was probably a good strong piss into the wind. And I want to soak up as much of the outdoors as the weather and my allergies allow. Schedule insanity at work seems to be edging closer to the surface, and my freedom to exit the office and absorb some spring rays, and maybe even cross the West Side Highway and watch the Hudson flow, will be constrained soon. There is nothing I can do in that office, outside the realm of the carnal, that is as restorative and beneficial to body and spirit as getting my ass into the sun for a good half hour or more. I'm best advised to take that option here, in Jersey, where my time is not scrutinized for productivity and I can wander streets physical and mental unfettered.