Saturday, April 28, 2007

Odd Bits Here and There

I have been very busy both with work and things going on in my personal life. I wish I could say work has been creatively fulfilling, but, alas, it has not: it has just been work: you know, drudgery, blue collar stuff, sweat of your brow, digging ditches. I won’t bore you with the details. Last weekend I attended a three-day symposium for stutterers at a Holiday Inn in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. As I have mentioned before, I stutter, though not severely, and am affiliated with two support groups which I distinguish by calling one the “fluency” group and the other the “feelings” group. The members of the fluency group gather only to do exercise drills in what is called the “airflow technique,” a way of speaking designed to help the stutterer speak with less disfluency. We are all very friendly but keep quite focused on why we are there, and “fine” ourselves 25 cents for every vocal misstep we commit. The feelings group mainly talks about the baggage we stutterers have accumulated over the years and carry with us, and we work hard on accepting and forgiving ourselves as people who stutter. Nearly everyone in that group has, in the past, paid good money and spent considerable effort learning one fluency technique or another, but few of us actually use that time to practice, so you see a lot of struggle behavior going on during these sessions. Last September I accidentally became the chapter leader of this group (long story), so I’m the guy who arranges these little meetings and sets the agenda.

I arrived in Saddle Brook for the symposium Friday evening after an unusually slow, painful drive from Boston through New York via the George Washington Bridge. It was more brake than gas pedal the whole way. There were four of five accidents along the route that led to a lot of stopping, moving twenty feet and stopping again. At one point after crossing the border from Connecticut into New York, my bladder, which had been trying to tell me something for a number of miles, finally made it very plain that if I didn’t take corrective action soon I might arrive at my destination not very dry and with a distinct freshness problem. Just leaving what might have been the Deegan Expressway (I can never remember the names) and inching onto a ramp leading to another congested highway, I gathered my resolve and pulled over to the breakdown lane; I switched on the emergency flashers, got out of the car, locked it, stuck my arm out like a traffic cop to signal the other drivers to stop, crossed the road, hopped over a low guard rail, sprinted across a field some one hundred yards in length, and huddled in front of a high concrete barrier to relieve myself in full view of everyone. What a show I must have put on. How I regretted the quart of water I drank along the way and the cup of tea I bought at a rest stop just outside of New Haven. When I returned to cross the road, two truck drivers anticipated me by stopping the traffic and letting me pass. They were not laughing; they understood. I waved to them in gratitude.

I made some friends at the symposium. It was a bit like how I remember summer camp was as a boy; back then, the kids seemed to form alliances within the first day and became bosom friends. There were three keynote speeches that weekend which were very well prepared and delivered; I participated in several workshops, and we all ate our meals together. There might have been as many as fifty of us, most of them from the area; all the New York and New Jersey accents reminded me of the Sopranos. You might think stutterers have a lot in common, that our personalities must be similar, but in reality the only thing we share is our speech disorder and we are all as different from each other as any other random sampling of the population; and even then there are no two stutters that are alike. There are closet stutterers who are quite masterful at hiding their disfluencies by substituting words or opting for silence rather than take risks with their speech; some struggle in silence, making all manner of odd facial expressions until they finally, in the end, produce the sentence with no stutter at all like a conjurer’s trick; and there others who more or less let it all hang out, get stuck on words, blast their way through them, then go on a roll for several sentences until they encounter another “block” and need to grind it out again. I’m sort of like that last type, only I do substitute words every so often and try to use my airflow technique when I can remember. People tell me they hardly notice my stutter and claim it doesn’t look like it bothers me when it happens. I take that as high praise.


Jason of Clarity of Night held another flash fiction contest recently, which my good buddy, Scott, told me about in an email. I informed him I was too busy to participate (which I was), but promised I would check in when I could to read some of the entries. When Jason does these, he posts a photograph he’s taken (Jason is both is a talented photographer and writer) and invites people to write stories no longer than 250 words in length based on the image. After the deadline, Jason then judges each entry using a system he devised and awards generous prizes. It’s great fun and a wonderful writing exercise, getting in all you can in 250 words or less. Usually I go right to the limit, editing and re-editing, replacing three words with one like a boxer starving himself to make the weight limit, so this process of asking the fewest words to cover the longest distances can make it sometimes seem more like solving a puzzle.

This time around around, Jason posted a photo of a cluttered kitchen counter with a sink crammed with dirty dishes. The curtain of the window in front of sink has come loose and fallen into the sink, making the observer wonder how long those dirty dishes have been there, and just what is the state of the home. There are equal signs of activity and disuse, habitation and desolation. Which is true? Can they both be? What is the story?

So I logged onto Jason’s site, saw the picture, asked myself what story could I write about it if I had the time, and then thought, well, I’ll give myself fifteen minutes to try. I started off with the sentence “When you close your eyes at night, you can be anywhere,” and this is where I wound up:

“When you close your eyes at night, you can be anywhere. Darkness brings you where you want to be. You can change your space, right there in your room, the same room with warped paneling and stains everywhere that won’t come out; your room can be the palace at Versailles, I swear. Who’s to say different when you’re all alone?

“Morning is harsh, though. Damn sun finds its way in everywhere, birds won’t shut up either. Motes of dust slow dance in the air, hanging there, hanging there, refusing to breathe or come to a point. Place is a wreck today. I forget all that went on last night. Somebody said something, it might have been her, it might have been me. She took off in the truck, I don’t even need to look to see that. I'll find out later what she took with her.

“Sometimes inertia isn’t a choice. The fight just goes away. Struggle to your feet all you want. Get up, take a leak, brush your teeth, fry an egg, pop a pill, fix the curtains, sooner or later down you go. Down . . . you . . . go. Man, I need the darkness. Got to get me some darkness real soon.”

Not even 250 words. Maybe not the finest thing I ever wrote, but I really like the mood of it. Not so much a story as a sort of glimpse or a slice of time. Most of the entries are better than this, but I enjoyed writing it.


Last week I wanted to write a post about the Virginia Tech shooting; the title would have been “Say No to Cho.” Here were my two points: number one, the extent of the media coverage regarding the murderer himself was irresponsible. In giving the public what it wanted, which was everything they could lay their hands on about the shooter, our slavering watchdogs of the press glorified him. There are nitwits out there right now who have hung on their walls reprints of the stills news outlets faithfully reproduced from the media kit Cho Seung-Hui thoughtfully sent to NBC: carefully staged portraits of himself with pistols in either hand, ammo vest with pockets bulging, baseball cap slung backwards, looking cooler than anything they ever saw in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Sure, we we’re all curious about him, we all wanted to hear what he had to say and see what he looked like, just like I am always curious about what a fan is doing when he leaps onto a baseball field and interrupts a major league game. I’m curious, but I understand why television stations don’t show the moron cavorting around center field making a complete ass of himself, because giving that idiot the notoriety he seeks will only encourage other similarly disposed idiots to do the same. I’m not so curious that I can’t see the sense of that policy, and consider not seeing or knowing everything a small sacrifice. With Cho, everyone with a TV and an Internet connection has seen his pathetic posturing and heard his absurd, sick, muddled rants, including myself. Say all you want about your right to know, this, my friends, goes too far. He parlayed his allotted fifteen minutes of fame into instant international recognition. Our culture threw him an 85 mph fastball right down the middle of the plate and he got all of it. This bastard will live on forever through his actions while the innocent slain will sink into eventual obscurity. Maybe someday we’ll wise up and call people like Cho Seung-Hui a fittingly generic name, like “Murderer Number 12,” and offer no pictures and allow no personal statements to reach the public’s ear and leave it at that. We’ll probably need to get the Constitution drunk one night and make it agree to things it wouldn’t while sober, but a Constitution with a hangover and vague feelings of regret is better than indulging in an unhealthy freedom of the press where absolutely anything goes, with no sense of restraint or decency.

Point number two: I feel bad for the shooter’s parents. I grieve for them as much as I do for the families of his victims. I will guarantee you right now they didn’t raise that kid to be like this. Certainly they must have made mistakes, ignored warning signs, should have done what they could to get him therapy or whatever, but no parent anticipates this. What mother or father can ever admit to giving birth to and nurturing a monster? Their lives are stained forever. The guilt by association will never wash off. They lost a child, and the manner of his passing makes it a sin to mourn him. Grief feels like complicity; they’ve got guilt and shame and hatred coming at them from every conceivable angle. They, the ones left behind, will be blamed and feel the blame for this until the release of death. For this they have my sympathy.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Washing Windows in the Rain

One recent, rainy day, Daughter Number 2 and I were taking a brisk stroll down a Boston street when we came across a window washer running his squeegee down a storefront window. DN2 astutely remarked that washing a window in the rain seemed a rather futile task. Of course, it needs to be mentioned here that both of us are not expert in the honorable and ancient art of window washing, but nevertheless we felt convinced that a rainy, windswept day is probably one of your biggest enemies to a clean window. When she said it, I immediately caught onto the phrase “washing windows in the rain,” and felt it should be an expression, something on a par with “gathering wool” or “whistling past the graveyard.” Doesn’t it sound like the sort of thing your grandmother might say? Couldn’t you hear her admonish your little brother to “put that thing down and leave it alone; you’re only washing windows in the rain”?

Washing windows in the rain indicates, simply, that perfectly good effort put toward a given task is doomed to yield no desired or satisfying result. Washing windows in the rain is completely ineffective and apparently without merit, save the one dubious benefit of giving the window washer a brief and utterly false sense of productivity. It’s a case where you ought to know better, but you do it anyway. Searching my mind for a well-known expression similar to that, I came up with “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” but the two aren’t really that close, as the Titanic one strongly implies empty-headed, pointless incompetence in a time of dire emergency, while washing windows in the rain is more of an everyday, forgivable brand of empty-headedness and pointlessness. After all, one may survive washing one’s windows in the rain, but wasting time rearranging deck chairs while a whole ocean liner is going down is roughly the equivalent of, say, washing an entire glass-and-steel skyscraper in a typhoon.

Can you think of instances in your life when you’ve washed windows in the rain? In my job as a graphic designer, I know there have been many times, while developing concepts for ads or brochures, where I’ve found myself going down the wrong street but can’t stop myself; I’m perfectly aware the client won’t buy this or that, but I like the idea so much I pursue it anyway. One may call that knowingly washing windows in the rain. A supreme example of willful window washing comes from a childhood memory: in my hometown, there was an intersection notorious for hopeless congestion during rush hour. Often times riding home with my father in the family station wagon he would impulsively pull the car out of a backed-up, left-turn-only lane to lead us onto a bewildering, torturous, labyrinthine route with the sole aim of eventually attacking the same clogged intersection from another direction. As he did this, he admitted he was saving no time, and was perhaps even adding to it, but at least the act of putting the car into motion gave him a feeling of progress.

A sentimental form of rainy day window washing might be setting a place at the dinner table for a departed loved one who, in all probability, will not show up. Certainly no one expects to coax dear, deceased Uncle Ernie into reincorporating himself by offering up the appetizing and mingled aroma of broiled flank steak and potatoes au gratin, but some comfort might come to his survivors by following such an irrational custom. And then there is Zen window washing, where the mere act of soaking a pane of glass with a ragful of glass cleaner and squeegeeing it off is an end unto itself; one is concerned only with the doing, and whether the window remains clean or not is secondary. I suggest this form of window washing is very deep. A perfect example of Zen window washing is contained in the manifesto of an obscure school of art that existed briefly in the early part of the 20th century: it contended art should be transitory and, after an exhibition of so many days, a painting or sculpture should be destroyed, never to be seen again. Another example can be found in a science fiction story I read many years ago that had the main character do a very curious thing: to unwind and blow off some stress, he went one morning to a woodworking shop, plunked down some serious money for lumber and tools, and spent all day constructing a table, a piece of fine furniture. He cut and sanded and rasped and planed and so on; he lovingly fashioned the legs on a lathe, and carefully measured and joined all the pieces just so; then, in the end, after admiring what his skill and patience produced, he summarily cast the table into a furnace.

What are some other examples of washing windows in the rain? I think our president can come up with a few, starting with that great, glass edifice otherwise known as Iraq. How about solving our energy needs by drilling for more oil? That is advanced window washing. Or a Palestinian suicide bomber thinking one more violent act will finally make the Israelis wise up and leave? Futility at its finest. Closer to home, I can recall how my father used to patiently explain to my grandmother, who had advanced Alzheimer’s, the names of all her grandchildren over and over again, as if, through repetition, she’d eventually come to her senses and remember. Some serious Windex there.

Question du jour: what examples of washing windows in the rain can you think of? Don’t you agree we should adopt that as a common expression? I challenge you to put it into a sentence sometime this week.


I’ve gotten very lax about responding to comments on my blog (which, by the way, are all read by me and very much appreciated), but here is a comment from my last post that deserves special recognition. At one point in the post, I brought up the subject of last words and how not all are probably as dramatic or quotable as the people saying them might have wished. Here is what Beth wrote:

“I think about ‘last words’ a lot. I wonder if that’s the neurotic in me. You know, when Mother Theresa died the doctor said she complained of pain and the nun at her side said Mother Theresa actually said, "I love Jesus." So, I think when you’re famous, the people who love you most do some major editing.

“‘I just shat myself’ becomes ‘I see a bright light and a beautiful angel with outstretched arms.’”

I laughed myself silly for about ten minutes after reading that one.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

It’s the Big One, ’Lisabeth! I’m Comin’ to Meet’cha!

How about that picture, eh? Good old Mr. Schprock sure looks like a walking science experiment in this one, doesn’t he? Well, never fear, all two or three of you who read this: your humble servant is feeling fit as a fiddle, even though he might look as if he’s about to keel over.

A couple of weeks ago, shortly after waking up, I went to the bathroom to do my usual early morning routine. Standing at the sink readying the old toothbrush, I noticed I felt a little woozy, and attributed that to not having completely brushed the cobwebs out of my head. Squeezing the toothpaste onto the toothbrush, I then noticed I was feeling perhaps more than just a little woozy, that maybe I was feeling quite woozy, and did my best to shake it off. Then I noticed I was not only feeling woozy, but rather weak and shaky and dizzy as well. At that point, I started to panic just a little bit, only a little, mind you, and decided it might be best to leave the toothbrush alone and sit down on the toilet to rest and collect myself, as there seemed to be a giant, invisible hand pressing down on me anyways. This hand really didn’t want me to stand much longer. So I sat down on the toilet, feeling miles away from where I was, and gradually, through the dullness, through the haze, I realized that merely sitting there wouldn’t quite cut it, that laying down was the thing. So I started to walk back to the bedroom, except I only got as far as the bathroom threshold when I realized the floor would have to do instead, as the bedroom was a wee bit too far. So I slid my back down the door casing dropping the final two feet squarely on my left buttock, and numbly sat there with my legs splayed straight out in front of me. For some reason I wiggled my feet, an action which I stupidly stared at, and this strangely seemed to help. The cat eventually came over to sit there and watch me.

After a minute my head began to clear, right when I broke out into a ferocious cold sweat. I could feel the moisture gather on my back, my chest, my arms, and my legs all at once; sweat built up on my scalp and trickled down onto face. Big globules dripped from my face onto my sweatpants just when the cat tried to climb onto my lap to be petted. My shirt quickly became soaked through.

Listen folks, I don’t mean to be dramatical or anything, but there I was, more than a little frightened by this state I’ve never been in before, and I seriously wondered if (a) I was having a heart attack and (b) if I was dying. I had never had a heart attack before and certainly had never experienced death, so how was I to know? Maybe that was what a heart attack and oncoming death felt like. I wondered, I really wondered if my cat Cleo would be the last living creature I would ever set eyes on on this earth. Oddly, I didn’t think that would be too bad. My main concern was, what the hell was happening to me?

45 minutes later I rode my bicycle in to work.

Like many people, I have this irrational idea that I’m indestructible, that I’ll live on and on. Nothing can kill me, I’m a medical marvel. I pedal my bike everyday, I do my push-ups and sit-ups, I eat all my vegetables, and I brush my teeth after every meal. Two psychics, a tarot card reader and a palm reader, have both predicted a long, healthy life for me. Inside I feel like a kid, I really do. I still feel like I’m just revving up. But the fact is I’m 51 years old, which is roughly 20 trillion in dog years. You could have twelve presidential elections, two world wars and a depression in that time. So in reality I ain’t no spring chicken.

Several people convinced me to make an appointment with the doctor, who miraculously was able to see me that afternoon. I told her what happened and mentioned a funky little heart condition I’ve had since I was 19: it’s called “premature atrial contraction,” or PAC. I say I’ve had it since I was 19, but I waited until I was 43 to get it diagnosed. It’s an irregular heartbeat that feels uncomfortable and leads to a slight loss of strength; when it happens, I get a little more winded than usual climbing a staircase, for instance. If it can be said a normally functioning heart’s rhythm goes like a waltz, then mine sometimes does the rhumba. The chambers of my heart just don’t beat in synch; they don’t always like to play nice together. It’s kind of a drag, but, as my old doctor once put it, if you’re going to have a heart condition, then this is the one you want to have. Nothing fatal.

The doctor thought I merely had a bad bout of dehydration, but, to cover all the bases, she ordered me to wear that contraption you see in the picture for twenty-four solid hours. It’s called a Holter monitor, and luckily the recording device they have nowadays is much smaller than it was in 1999, the other time I had to wear one of those gizmos. Back then it felt like lugging around a Radio Shack cassette recorder; now it’s just a digital unit slightly larger than a pager. And, of course, my heart beat normally the whole time I had it on, like the car that won’t make the strange noise for the mechanic when you bring it to the shop to get it fixed. Hearts are funny that way.

But getting back to my cat, what if Cleo was the last living creature I ever saw on this earth? You could do worse. I have always felt my cat and I have a rare understanding. There’s a perfect acceptance between us. I’m her favorite human and she’s my favorite cat. She absolutely adores me. Sure, you’d rather your last sight be something like your wife and children, or perhaps a beautiful vista, or a painting you love, a rare astronomical occurrence, the second coming of Christ, the Cubs clinching the World Series, a Pamela Anderson video explaining string theory, or Britney Spears and Paris Hilton mud wrestling just below the balcony of your Tahitian bungalow. But seeing your faithful kitty asking for a little scratch behind her ears just before you kick off isn’t so bad. Not really.

I have no idea what my last words might have been; certainly they were said the night before. Probably it was something banal like,“Did you turn the lights off downstairs?” or, “Make sure I don’t sleep past the alarm, okay?” Instead of heroic last words like, “I regret I have but one life to give for my country,” how many people have wound up saying stuff like, “pumpernickel,” or, “a little off the top, please,” or, “don’t worry, I already checked — it’s not loaded”? Maybe we should all come up with our last words now and rehearse them over and over, so when the big moment arrives we’re ready. I’ve always liked Sidney Carton’s “It’s a far, far better thing I do…” speech. Maybe I should come up with something like that.

Then again, I kind of like “take two and hit to right.” It’s easy to remember and very good advice.

Anyhow, I’m not dead yet. I’m feeling much better.