Sunday, September 26, 2010

For Jason

Well, it’s Sunday afternoon here in the heart of the South and while most folks are inside their homes or local potable distributors establishment drinking overpriced beverages and eating overpriced food, watching their favorite football team or race car driver, I find myself sitting on my porch swing smoking a Gurkha and enjoying Mother Nature in all her splendid Autumnal forms.

Occasionally over the tree tops I glimpse a flash of lightning only to wait to hear the wonderful bass notes of the thunder that I know is soon to follow. I listen to the variety of notes the rain makes as it strikes the trees branches and leaves, occasionally sending one of the dying embers of fall to the ground, only so that it can be renewed next spring. I hear the symphony of the puddles in the street clashing against the sound coming off the roof of my car, as well as the hollow tiny sound the rain makes against the littered can of soda pop lying by the curb.

I hear a lone bird call out to its mate only to receive no reply, then, I see the source of the sound, a robin who is sitting in my neighbor’s tree. He is soaking wet and oblivious to the oncoming three day storm. As I sit here and watch him, he dives down to the yard and scoops up a worm, looks at me quizzically and flies off as if he is afraid I am going to steal his new found supper.

I glance over my shoulder, through my living room windows and I can see there is a football game on the television and the glow of the candle that is burning on the mantle is casting shadows around the magic box like an alter to some modern god of consumerism. It seems almost tranquil in there between the clashes of human flesh wrapped in plastic only to have the soft earth catch the gladiators as they fall. They get up and do it all over again while thousands of people across America scream for Blue or for Red. (Dang, my shrink will have a field day with that last comparison of finding tranquility in televised violence.)

I hear the robin again; he is back and sitting on the telephone wires, looking greedily at the wet ground in hopes of another meal. And, he has brought some friends. Unfortunately for him it seems the neighbor’s cat from across the street is hiding next to their garage looking for a meal too. This is gonna be interesting.

I have come to look forward to my time here on my porch swing. The time it affords me to sort through my thoughts, replay conversations in my mind, think about my friends and what they may be doing right now. I know that if I sign on to the internet I can catch up with everything they are doing in their busy lives. But right now, I really don’t want to. I have wrapped myself into a comforting bubble of peace and introspective thought.

The current rain storm is slowing down now, the gutters are slowly emptying themselves into the earth and the world is wrapped in a blue-gray glow. The symphony of Mother Nature is winding down and taking a breather before her next act of awe inspiring greatness. The bones of the trees are starting to show and the late season blossoms have been fed. More birds are calling out to each other now and a few squirrels have started chasing each other over territorial rights I will never fully understand. The neighbor’s cat seems to have inched his way closer to the birds that are feeding in the yard and neither species seems too concerned with my presence or the presence of my cigar.

Well, I am gonna sign off now. You all have a good week and I think I will dedicate this Blog to my Nephew Jason because I am sure he would like to enjoy just a moment or two of today’s wonders.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

1st time fear and New Empowerment

I’ve had an MRI before so I knew what to expect when I walked into the dressing room and the half-awake nurse with a name tag that said “Nurse Donna” who was holding in her right hand the largest cup of Starbucks coffee I’d ever seen went into her oral dissertation on what types of things I needed to remove from my body. Belt, rings, jewelry, cell-phones, shoes, MP-3 players and any other sort of items I may have that contains metal. I just sat in the gray industrial chair staring at the coffee cup in her hand and trying to figure out whether or not she had a freakishly large bladder or was the cup only half full.

“Cell-phones? MP-3 players? Really? People try to bring those things into a gigantic electro-magnet?” I asked as I shifted uncomfortably in my chair and diverted my eyes from her coffee cup to my shoes and started to untie them. “You would be surprised at what people try to bring in there. Last week a guy tried to bring in a PSP.” She stated matter-of-factly then proceeded to chug what I assumed was the rest of her coffee and throw the empty cup in the trash can by the double lockers. I noticed she was wearing black rubber Croc shoes that seem so popular today and there were a couple of little flower buttons and some rainbow buttons too. The buttons just sat there, mocking me, as if to say… “LOOK AT US! SEE! THE WORLD AINT SO BAD! WE’RE RAINBOWS AND FLOWERS DON’T WE BRIGHTEN YOUR DAY?” I mumbled some colorful metaphors under my breath and started to remove my shoes.

“What was the Mr. Novak?”

“Uh, nice shoes.” I said as I tried to look up at her face but just then “BOB” decided that I shouldn’t move my neck anymore by injecting mind numbing, stabbing pain into my brain and making both my arms numb and my hands tingly.

“Thanks, their Crocs. Really comfortable if you have to stand on your feet a lot. All the nurses wear them.”

“I see.” It was the only response I could think of since I was filled with Bob’s wonderful presence. I slowly stood up and started to remove my belt and empty my pockets.

“You can wear your street clothes in the machine or you can put on the hospital gown that’s in on one of the lockers. Also, you can keep all of your stuff in whichever locker you want. But, you have to take the key with you.” She offered.

“Um, no thanks Donna, I’d like to keep my dignity for now.” I stated a bit hollowly.

“Suit yourself, I’ll give you a few minutes to get ready and then I’ll come back for you.” she walked out of the room and closed the door, leaving behind the bitter smell of her coffee and the sweet aroma of her perfume.

I put my wallet, keys, loose change and pocket lint into a small dish on the top shelf of second locker. I then hung my belt on one of the hooks and stored my Chuck Taylors in the bottom of the locker, shut and locked the door. I took the key out of the lock and held it in my hand. Then, I sat down on the chair and waited for Nurse Donna to come and take me to the machine.

I was about halfway through AC/DC’s song “If You Want Blood, You Got It” in my head when a soft knock on the door came. “Mr. Novak? You ready sir?”

“Yup.” I said and stood up. I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get to finish the song but I figured I would get a chance once I was inside the machine.

“Ok,” came Donnas disembodied voice from behind the door “Please come out and follow me.”

I opened the door and stepped out into the hallway and saw Nurse Donna walking towards a room that had a sign hanging above it that said “WARNING!!! HIGH POWERED MAGNET! ABSOLUTLEY NO METAL ALLOWED!!!” or some such common sense verbiage. Standing beneath the sign was another nurse; she was leaning against the open doorway to the room where I was being led. She was older and had the lines of life on her face to prove it and a look in her eyes that spoke of life’s weariness and its ability to crush your soul on the jagged rocks of a daily work grind that kills you while you’re still young. Her name tag read “Laura” and there were a bunch of letters behind her name that I assumed she received from years of study at a respectable college.

“Mr. Novak? I see you’ve had an MRI before. A few years ago? Hmm, so you’re not claustrophobic then?” She shot at me without hesitation.

“No Ma’am. Not at all.”

“Good, well let’s get on with it.” And with that statement she turns and heads into the room with the MRI machine in it. I walk in after her hoping that they don’t find anything wrong with my neck that is too serious and what I exactly did to piss off Nurse Laura.

By the time I caught up with Nurse Laura she was already standing next to the behemoth of modern technology I realize that she has been talking non-stop about the Do’s and Do-Not’s of the patient while inside the machine. “Do stay still. Do NOT move around. Do try to breathe steadily. Do NOT shift around.” And on and on for about 5 minutes. I had to tune her out, and in doing so I was able to finish my song from earlier which is kind of funny, I was trying to nod my head in tune with AC/DC’s music but I think Nurse Laura thought I was just nodding at her since I can’t seem to move my neck too much.

When the song in my mind was over I noticed that both the nurses were looking at me with odd expressions on their faces. Nurse Donna was tapping her hand on the “Bed” part of the machine and asking if I was ok. I just grunted and got up on the machine and laid down. The nurses then did the precursory checks to make sure I was comfortable and in the proper prone position. They placed a pillow under my knees, asked if I needed music or water and once all the niceties were over with they placed a cage over my head and pushed the button that sent me into the dark recesses of the machine.

I closed my eyes as I traveled head first into that dimly lit hole of solitude and started to listen to all of my favorite songs in my head that I had memorized over the years. Warren Zevon, Megadeth, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Hayes Carll, Johnny Cash, Ceann, Journey, Miles Davis… and just as I was about to push the mental play button a voice rings out in my ears “Mr. Novak?”


“You are familiar with the sounds the machine makes?”

“You mean all the clicking, clacking, buzzing and clanking?”

“Yes sir. That is what I mean exactly.”

“Nope, not familiar with that at all.”

“Good, just wanted to make sure you knew what to expect.”

And with that little exchange of witticism and sarcasm done I pushed the play button on the juke box in my brain. Up cued “So-What” by Miles Davis from the “Kind of Blue” album, a perfect choice. Sometimes, my brain is good to me.

And sometimes it is not good to me.

About five minutes and 30 clinks, clanks, clunks, buzzes and vibrations into my test my juke box froze up and I made the mistake of opening my eyes. I saw the cage in front of my face, and my breathing got shallow. Calm down, I said to myself. I closed my eyes again but now my mental image was of that plastic cage being transformed into a razor wire cage. I tried to think of riding my bike with my daughter but that thought was blown to smithereens by the thought of a Ford F-350 duely with razor wire for a bumper and front grill, bearing down on me and my offspring. I started to hyperventilate. I tried to tell myself that this was only a test that I would be done in just a few minutes. I erased the mental picture of the slaughter by the Ford and slowly sent my mind through the blood and gore mist of my ID. I pictured the top of a snow covered mountain in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan where I would ski as a child. But the crystal white snow that was slowly drifting to earth in my minds eye transformed into bloody flakes that melted onto my skin and started to gnaw away at my flesh looking for the tasty tidbits hidden underneath. CALM DOWN! I said again. You used to crawl into tighter spaces under houses and install heating and air units. You would spend all day under them. You used to crawl into ventilation tubes in the Navy, you’ve been scuba diving, you’ve been stuck in a snow covered car overnight, you’ve been deep inside the earth on spelunking explorations and have NEVER freaked out.

None of it worked. My chest got tighter, my heart was pounding so hard I thought it would burst out of my chest and paint the tube I was in a nice shade of pink.

“Um, Ladies? I think I have a problem.” I said and I really tried to sound calm, sensible, stable. But all that while all I could think of was the guy from “28 Days Later” where he wakes up after the Zombies have slaughtered all of England.

No answer from the nurses. My mind found this to be a joyful coincidence and decided to transform the nurses into maniacal, organ harvesting harlots who were going to inject me with a paralyzing drug and call the one Doctor in the hospital who is 1,000,000,000 dollars in debt to the local bookies. He was coming in the room at any moment, rusted knives and saws in a duffel bag. As for the Nurses, one was on her way to the morgue to get the blood draining tubes and the other was on her way to put “Out of Order” signs on the doors to the room.

My legs started to kick without me realizing it. My arms were moving of their own accord and beating on the walls of the tube. My voice seemed to be screaming and my eyes became wide with fear and desperation. I felt hands tapping my legs, a voice was worming its way into my consciousness, “Mr. Novak, calm down. You’re going to be ok. Mr. Novak? It is going to be ok; we are going to take you out.”

I felt my body moving, the noise of the machine was gone, I was shaking, sweating, cold and completely embarrassed.

Nurse Donna took the cage off my head and helped me sit up. Nurse Laura rubbed my leg with one hand and handed me a bottle of water with her other hand. I did not want to drink the water, my hands were shaking too bad. I looked at my pants to see if I had wet myself, good news, I didn’t. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ve never had this happen before. I’m sorry.” I kept repeating.

It’s ok Mr. Novak. This happens all the time.” Came the reply from Nurse Donna. “I can’t get in this thing either and I am trained in this machine.” I noticed that her eyes were extremely dilated and there was a hint of compassion in her voice.

I tried to take a drink from the bottle of water but my hands were still working on playing “Moby Dick” ala John Bonom. “Can I stand up? I need to walk around for a minute.” I asked.

“We can reschedule for a later date if you want and give you a sedative.” Nurse Laura offered.

“No. I am doing this today. I’m not gonna let this thing beat me. I just need to walk around for a minute.” As I stood up I saw that Nurse Donna was walking out the door and Nurse Laura was just staring at me. I started to pace the length of the machine. I must have walked back and forth 10 times before my nerves calmed down enough. I was hot so I took off my work shirt and enjoyed the marvel of the hospital air conditioning.

As I set my shirt on a chair near the door Nurse Donna shows up with the most amazing thing I have ever had. A cool, damp wash cloth. “Here, wipe your face.” Was all she said. And, I did. It felt great, I felt refreshed, revived and ready to tackle the insanity inside my brain.

“Ok, let’s do this.” I said once I had finished with the great, white, cotton cloth of calming influence. And I climbed back onto the bed. “But this time, no cage.” I added. Nurse Laura’s face came into my peripheral vision, she was smiling and I felt her put something in my hand. “For your eyes.” Was all she said and backed away from my head. I felt her put the pillow under my legs. I raised my hand up to my face to see what she had given me. It was a clean, dry wash cloth. I smiled and placed it on my eyes.

“Mr. Novak? You Ok? Are you ready?”

“Yes.” I said and gave thumbs up. I then felt the bed being mechanically pulled back into the tube.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

By the Inch

I remember the first time I went there, it was a damp fall evening and the wind was blowing the litter of society and nature down the alley that my new wife and I had turned down looking for our fix. I drew her close in my arms as the shadows cast from the buildings crept across the concrete beneath our feet in an attempt to engulf us in its maw of darkness. We walked in silence, shivering from the cold that seemed to serve as a warning to us as the earth moved into its season of slumber and death.

My wife reached her arm out, pointing to our destination, a lonely stairwell made of five granite steps that led down to a faded blue door that was pockmarked with bullet holes, rust and the acne of abuse that only time and man can provide. “Down there.” Was all she said as she tried to disappear into the crook of my arm. As we approached those steps I noticed they were covered with dead, wet leaves with an occasional cigarette butt or candy wrapper peeking out from beneath them showing us the evidence of others that had come here seeking out our drug of choice.

We each grabbed a hold of a loose handrail and carefully made our way down to the landing and walked the four steps to the door. I reached out my right arm and grasped the door knob and asked her “Are you sure this is it?” in a hushed tone. She nodded. I could see excitement slowly forming in her eyes in an attempt to replace the cold fear that had been gnawing at both of us. I turned the knob and tried to pull the door open. It only budged an inch as if in refusal to our needs, our desires. “It ain’t opening.” I said.

“Try again. Pull harder.” Was her advice. I listened to her. On my second attempt I gripped the doorknob so tight my knuckles turned white and I could feel my forearm muscles burning with pain as I prepared to open the stubborn entryway. I pulled, the door flew open almost hitting me in the face as the hinges screamed, and my bride chuckled as she pushed past me. I quickly followed.

After I pulled the door shut behind me I turned to take in my new surroundings. I was standing on poorly painted landing that overlooked a ragged basement that was filled with people that seemed locked in place, staring up at me as if I were a cop here to arrest them all for whatever it is they felt they were guilty of. I looked for my wife; she was descending a flight of 6 stairs that I know had seen better days, her right hand holding onto a handrail that wobbled under her touch. She turned, grinned at me and said “C’mon, don’t just stand there or you won’t find any of the good stuff.”

I could only reply in a grunt because I was suddenly hit in the face with the smell of the place, the smell of dried, old, musty paper. An aroma that penetrated not just my nostrils and brain but went straight to the core of my soul making me dizzy with the nostalgia of my youth. The potpourri scent of knowledge, fantasy, love, philosophy, science fiction, horror, romance, self help and home improvement. The scent that I had fallen in love with as a child amongst the many rows of shelves containing some of the greatest works of fiction and non-fiction available to mankind in a library in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

I walked down the steps, grinning and salivating as I ducked under a banner that read “Welcome to the Friends of the Portsmouth Public Library Book Sale! BOOKS BY THE INCH!”

That was 18 years ago and every month I still make my pilgrimage down to that 1400 square foot basement to look for books. A lot has changed since then. Gone are the homemade, wooden, rickety bookshelves that were leaning so bad that they looked as if they would topple over on you if you even breathed too hard on them. Gone are the single 75 watt bare light bulbs that tried to penetrate deep into the stack of boxes of books that lay in the dark recesses of the room at the ends of the aisles. Gone are the almost troll like book collectors that would hiss at you like a rattle snake if you even dared to look in their direction. Gone are the cobwebs and the outdated magazines. Gone is the unorganized madness of fiction and non-fiction mixed together in a recipe that could only have been put together by overworked volunteers. Gone are the blend of paperback and hardback piled from floor to ceiling in an attempt to shore up the shelves. Gone are bare bricks and flaking mortar that left dust and pebbles along the baseboard.

Now the shelves are powder coated metal and sturdy enough to hold 1500 pounds of books. The paperbacks never mix with the hardcover books, they can only wave forlornly to their more grown up brothers and sisters on the other side of the room and think back to the chaotic mayhem they used to enjoy. The naked incandescent bulbs have been replaced with modern florescent light fixtures that seem to suck the brain cells out of you the longer you stand under them. There are no boxes of books to root through anymore and where those boxes once sat there are now comfortable chairs for a person to sit upon. The bare brick walls have been sealed and painted to keep out moisture and the radiators that were spaced every 15 feet along the walls are gone and in their place a modern heating and air system continually blasts you with the canned air smell of environmentally correct humidity and temperature controlled air.

I miss the old, seedy days of good books at a cheap price. Don’t get me wrong, the books are still cheap. 0.75 cents an inch by spine thickness for paperback and 1.00 dollar an inch for hardcover. Used CD’s and DVD’s for 2 bucks a piece. Everyone is cheerful to see you where once they wouldn’t even look you in the eye until you had proven yourself to them by not just what books you purchased but by your continued support over a period of months and years. I miss the almost black market feel of the place, where one guy “Woody” would sit in front of the philosophy and poetry section and quiz you on the history of not just the philosophers but metaphysics as well. Once you answered his questions to his satisfaction he would reach a dirty hand around the back of one of the shelves and pull out a book and say “Read this! Come back next month and we’ll talk about it. If you don’t come back then you haven’t learned anything! Now leave me alone!” and you would grab the book from his hand and get away from him quickly not even looking at the title of the book he thrust at you. You would take that book home and you would read it because you knew you wanted to go back next month. YOU WANTED TO GO BACK.

Everything is genteel and quite down there now. No funny smells coming off the walls or people. No bargains being made between book collectors over first editions, no fights over treasures of knowledge between hard corps bibliophiles. Now, antique dealers come in with scanner guns and pick over the collectable books only to buy them for a buck or two and resell them at enormous prices in their antique shops two blocks away.

The volunteers are no longer overworked and are genuinely happy to see you. Gone is their sickly pale skin which has been replaced by a healthy, glowing tan. They even take the time to learn your name and are more than eager to help you find whatever treasure it is you’re looking for. They make you feel good about your affliction. They make you smile and not feel so “dirty” for needing your monthly fix of books. Heck, they even let you carry in your overpriced coffee from the coffee shop down the street if you want. The whole place has a family friendly atmosphere, kind of like Vegas.

Eighteen years ago when you left the Book Sale with your treasures you had to carry the books home in your arms or if you were lucky, one of the used, tattered boxes that some of the books came in. Today, you’re given a choice between a paper bag, plastic bag or for a fee a nice “Book Tote” with words emblazoned on the sides telling the world that you “SUPPORT YOUR PUBLIC LIBRARY”.

I look forward to making my journey every month to the book sale and I have even had the opportunity to recruit likeminded individuals to come with me on occasion. I even feel safe taking my daughter there now, but I still long for the days where the atmosphere was filled with an almost tangible scent of wrongness and illicitness.

Well, I just got a text from my guy over at the book sale, he says they just got a shipment of Centennial Edition Ayn Rand books in. So I am gonna take off and get my fix.

Have a great week.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Labor Day Short

In honor of Labor Day, I am going to refrain from going on and on as I normally do with my blogs and instead I shall just wish you all a Happy Labor Day so you can get back to spending time with your family and leave you with this:

A Limerick or two

There was a kid from Green Bay

Who wanted to see the world and get paid

So he joined the Navy

Thinking it would be Gravy

And wound up living on the Chesapeake Bay.

There was a guy named Skip

Who liked to play with trains and thought it was hip

So he left the Mid-West

Where his family told him it was the best

And found his perfect job once he left his ship.

Hope you have a great day with your family and a nice short work week.