374. Misery

Miser, misery, miserable. Notice the connection?  In old Latin miser was an adjective that meant wretched, unhappy, pitiable, or in distress. Miser, the noun, is a person who hoards money or valuables, choosing a wretched lifestyle in order to hang on to his filthy lucre. Ebenezer Scrooge is the classic miser until he repents.  Misery is a state of wretchedness, distress, suffering and just bad, bad juju. In fact, you can have plural miseries, which at first glance looks like miniseries, only it’s missing the middle -ni-, and it fits, don’t you think?  Because you could feel as if your life were a miniseries featuring a new misery each weekly episode if you lived like a miser, penny pinching and always focusing on what is owed to you. In fact, you’d be downright miserable, lower than the hardened gum stuck to Neil Young’s ultra-depressed boot heels.

What I have found in the counseling field is that many self identified miserables are also bone collectors, i.e., folks who hang on to old, even ridiculously ancient hurts or debts. Remember the play/movie Les Miserables?  A lot of unforgiveness and vengeance in that story of the policeman chasing the former prisoner. Why would someone hold on to vengeance so long, even risking his own life in order to make another man pay his perceived debt to society?

My buddy Chuck shared a story of his 80 year old neighbor, Sonny. One day he and Sonny went to the hardware store over in Slippery Rock. As Chuck parked the truck outside the store, he noticed Sonny was glaring a double stink eye at another old man who had just gotten out of his pick up truck.

“Who the Hell is he?” asked Chuck.

“My cousin”, was all Sonny replied.

“Why the double stink  eye, man? Did he hurt you?”

“We haven’t talked since we were kids.”

“Why the Hell not?”

“Well, his dad, my uncle, stole some land from my dad back before the War.”

“You’re kidding me,” Chuck exclaimed. “You’re stuck on something from before World War II?”

“No,” Sonny continued, ” World War I.”

True story minus the anonymous reductions. How long can one person hate on another?  Till Death, I suppose. You don’t have to Google search bitter misers to find them. You most likely already know one or more, though they may not hoard material goods. Some misers hoard compliments, gratitude, love, or especially, forgiveness. They squeeze these blessings so tightly that no one can pluck one from their bony, pinched fingers with a John Deere tractor.

Oh, and their anger burns below the surface, like the old coal mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania in northeast PA.  The state imposed eminent domain on the few folks who chose to remain in that ghost town, below which a manmade inferno slowly bellows. No one knows for sure if the underground fire began in 1932 or 1962, but everyone agrees that it is too dangerous to live near Centralia as the coal seams slowly burn to cinders and the ground above them collapses. What a way to go! Can you imagine picking spring flowers one moment, and the next moment you are melting in 3,000 degrees of coal fire. Hey, let’s just give Johnny Cash the microphone…

“I fell in to a burning ring of fire

I went down, down, down and the flames went higher

And it burns, burns, burns

The ring of fire, the ring of fire.”

Oh, indeed the fire of anger does burn, burn, burn out a bitter man’s soul. In fact, parts of an angry man may collapse like Centralia building lots when he least expects it.  Angry folks have a greater likelihood of heart attacks. No wonder. When resentment rages for years through your arteries like a mine fire, consuming all available oxygen and living things in its path, it hollows you out. Once it gets going down deep in the caverns of your soul, only Death will extinguish bitter anger.

Unless, of course, you practice forgiveness and quit your claim on a debt that would be paid in Confederate money anyway. Yammering for your pound of flesh… from a corpse will never satisfy any need. Forgiveness is the foam that rushes on top of waves of conscious love into every deep, inflamed crevice, extinguishing even Pacific rim lava flows. In the time it takes to kiss a baby, water absorbs the heat of melting rocks. Columns of steam vapor rush away from the cooling volcanic rock. Seawater transforms itself to heal the angry molten rock and stop its plasmatic advance. Still,  bitter folks will say the water is sacrificing itself for no reason. Water did not start the fire or condone its growth, gurgling up from the bowels of the earth. The wise, however, observe that water’s nature is to transform the earth not to judge it. And so water transforms the natural landscape as surely as forgiveness or bitterness shapes the inner universe. One of my favorite Shakespearean lines is this

“The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven on the place beneath; it is twice blest: It blesseth him who gives and him who takes.”

Sweet nectar there, honeysuckle and lavender combined into one ointment– fresh love. Such fragrance held close to your nose can overwhelm the stench of burning coal mines. We still put flowers on graves today, slapping death in the face with life and beauty, however fleeting they may be. Death is the original miser, after all. You have a choice, Bloggilillies: bitterly wait in a coal mine for someone else to make things right, or let go and move on with your fragrant life.

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364. Super Size Me, Dude

Rusty did not set out to work the drive thru window at the Happy Burger in town. He had bigger dreams. No one dreams of working fast food, do they? So it’s safe to say that the drive thru window was his second worst nightmare. Kids he had graduated with and other folks in town drove up, and he had to smile then happily hand them their Happy Burger meal, smiling insipidly above the deep dread he felt. He chose the third shift to reduce his exposure to such social shame. But the inner revulsion rose up anyway, against gravity like a wave of acid reflux, gagging him much too often. He had suggested to management that the staff wear happy clown masks, hoping to hide behind a company provided clown mask instead of his own recognizable face. “Shame, shame, it’s a damn shame what my life done became”, he muttered to himself like some ridiculous rap line.

He was smarter than this and smart enough to know that smarts don’t count as much as family connections and money and wisdom. Those college prep classes, the AP, the advanced track, he took many of them and held his own, never once imagining that one day he’d stare into the deep fryer watching frozen French fries boil up in super heated peanut oil. His dreams were likewise deep fried and floated up, golden brown– so many dead fish, chicken wings or fries. He remembered getting A’s in chemistry class and physics, pointless now… “Shame, shame, it’s a damn shame what my life done became.”

Rusty knew it was not grammatically correct, but he didn’t care any more about rules and order, manners or limits, even law. Chaos had blown his illusion of control to smithereens.  Bits of his expectations littered the break room like shrapnel. He’d once memorized the periodic table of elements in his junior year. The only element that held any interest for him nowadays was plutonium, named for the Roman god of death. He was past dying; he was dead, walking dead. Zombiefied. Embalmed with the toxic liquor of his misfortune, like drinking Captain Morgan out of a corpse’s boot. The oxy’s, he found, took the edge off of shame, reducing life to a mere sham.

He got her pregnant. It’s just that simple. One biological fact threw two, no three, okay, maybe twenty lives into the industrial strength blender on puree. Chaos turbocharged the two of them. They were both in college prep and had a lot going right in their lives. They were bright and optimistic, glowing with the beauty of late adolescence–Radiant hair, teeth and skin, firm muscular bodies. Irresistible, and they did not resist many impulses. Faster and faster the unsustainable Whirling Dervish ride went. Time and money they did not have were squandered. At least those were measurable. All the emotions that vaporized over that furious year could not be counted or contained. Boundaries were crossed, no, leaped across headlong like the obstacle course at Ft. Benning, after Rusty enlisted to get the security package available no where else. Private Steele, first class. It was something, some place to start.

“Beep, beep, beep” the fry timer screeches to his numb mind. Never mind, never mind. The baby accelerated adult life, couldn’t wait. He raced the baby to graduation, marrying Tiffany, and becoming a father all in the same month, June 1992. The year Hell opened up and demons darkened his skies. Totally black now.

An anesthesiologist, yep, that was the target. It was high status and medically necessary and very lucrative. Plus, it just sounded so cool to say at a cocktail party. “And what field are you in, Rusty?” “Oh me? I’m an anesthesiologist.” Seven silky syllables in one sexy word. “The last person you see before your surgery, you know? It’s dicey, though. They put their lives in my hands, but they don’t all make it back from dreamland, you know?” Dr. Kevorkian was all the talk back then. He wanted, even demanded, assisted suicide be granted a legal guarantee. Rusty had disagreed with Kevorkian back then; but these days he thought it was pretty darn appealing. Why not?  When the unenlightened townies drove up yelling, “Super Size Me, Dude!”, he wanted to scream back “Minimize Me, Dude”. ‘I don’t want to be here anymore. Hook me up with morphine and leave me in the walk in freezer’ he thought he thought.

Some days he’d stomp into the walk in and punch bags of frozen French fries, and pound his sweaty head onto rigid patties of beef. The revulsion gurgled at the back of his throat, threatening to spew out. He could feel the grease on the soles of his shoes begin to congeal in the subzero temperature of the freezer. No one could hear him scream, “Super Size Me, God!! I can’t take this existence any longer. Kill me!”

Things looked good for him in the Army. College was still possible and his superiors liked him, recognized his abilities. He was finding a path in all the deep weeds ahead of him. And then Tiffany grew distant. Sure, they were both immature but coping as new parents, along with lots of help from his mom and hers. And surprisingly his own father stepped up and made himself available to them, far more than he’d ever done so with Rusty. Despite all the help or perhaps because of it, Tiffany demanded time out and away, fun time for her. “Girls just wanna have fun” times, she’d say.  There was more to it. Rusty had little experience with girls in his young life, but he knew something odd was afoot. Someone else’s feet were walking across his fragile marriage and slipping shoes under his marriage bed. He just didn’t know whose feet yet.

The night of the atomic bomb blast was burned onto the back of his eyelids, inescapable and beyond comprehension. Tiffany, his own father, the silent lies that wove together under a disgusting quilt of putrid truth. Incest: the unthinkable had become the unbearable. By then he’d broken his foot and been discharged, rejected by his Uncle Sam as a hopeless cripple. So as he locked the freezer door behind him and lay down with a can of starter fluid, it all seemed so poetic. He recalled Prufrock’s Lovesong from AP English, “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table…” He huffed the ether, knowing he’d lapse into unconsciousness immediately. He uttered his own pathetic poem to frozen chicken fingers, “Shame, shame, it’s a damn shame what my life done became.”

…. Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

357. Unexploded Ordnance

That’s an odd title, dontcha think? What exactly is ordnance, you ask? Military weapons and ammunition. Why explode it anyway?  Well, a few miles from my office is an Army depot where occasionally, on perfectly still days, engineers blow up old ammunition that dates back to World War II and the Korean War. Apparently old bombs or missiles become unstable and need to be properly disposed of like excess picnic food. And that’s what these explosionists do– blow up piles of ordnance on beautiful summer and fall days while eating chicken salad sandwiches. Thunderclap sonic booms roar across the valley and resonate off the opposite foothills range. Boom, boom, boom. Pretty simple. No one gets hurt.

However, I’m thinking of invisible unexploded psychic ordnance– old hurts and pains, guilts and shames, bones of contention, griefs, losses, heartaches, and traumas. Stuff you swallowed because you had to, long ago. Not that you drool over it like a dog over his morning puppy chow. Not like that at all. No, you’d much rather not consider any of these things. Instead you cover them with work and life’s many intense experiences. You steer inflated conversations away from these razor wire coral reefs that may shred the fragile underbelly of your soul. Yeah, and all the while these patinated brass canisters are corroding, leaking acid like old forgotten batteries inside your chrome Boy Scout flashlight.

Down under your defense mechanisms the equivalent of land mines wait for your foot’s pressure to trigger a demolition. You buried them like corpses, deep and still but still alive. Perhaps you find yourself sucked into a conversation that seemingly takes on a life of its own. Strange energies arise. Big feelings too. Verbiage flows like dammed water down a spillway. The back pressure is so great and this gushing release feels right, but it’s wrong. Kaboom, boom, boom. Your mouth outruns your cricket conscience, and you make an ass out of yourself. Your foot flies by your face and you see gum stuck to the patterned sole of your nice suede shoes. “I liked those shoes. Didn’t notice the gum.” And you walk on, limping actually, on your ragged new stump.

Since it’s all metaphorical, you feel no physical pain. Still, your guts twist like sheets in a tropical storm. How can you empty yourself of this old debris? Surely there is a psychic trash hauler who can pick up the toxic tonnage for a fee. A landfill in the next county that safely disposes of the waste. A site supervisor there who monitors the wicked gases of devolution. It would be clean, convenient, and so evolved if we had such advanced soul carpet cleaning enterprises. In lieu of such mechanisms we have the same old system of honest repentance where you lay yourself naked and humble before God and your garbage… and seek the precious balm of forgiveness. You must regurgitate the hurts and guilts and shames and claim them in your self disgust, like so many muddy catfish sliming out of your gullet. Amazed, you gag at the sinful catch in front of you.

“I did that!” you gasp. Words aren’t heavy enough, foul enough to describe your vomitus. You writhe on jelly legs. No rest, no rest comes to your hurricane beaten conscience. Flakes and splintery surfaces blow off your crusted soul. Ship wrecked, wave tossed, you just hang on. It’s a long nightmare you float through under a placid face. When will my undeserved  sunshine of forgiveness break through these awful torrents? My mind goes decades deep in memories to Pinnochio on the big silver screen. He was so cute and innocent and foolish. He wound up in Monstro’s belly. Pinnochio was not a monster, but his continuous lies and bad choices led him there. Exactly where he needed to be, turns out.

In the belly of the whale he faced his father Geppetto  and the cat Figaro he’d abandoned. They were swallowed while searching for Pinnochio. The puppet boy finally comes to the end of his foolishness and begins to take responsibility for others. He builds a fire that causes Monstro to sneeze and exhale their little raft. Pinnochio redeems himself, saves Geppetto, but appears to drown in the process. If the movie stopped there, every child would be in grief therapy on Disney’s nickel. But it continues. Geppetto takes Pinoak home and sadly lays him out. He grieves again for the boy he loved.  That night the Blue Fairy returns and transforms the water logged wooden puppet into a real, fleshy boy. He is finally worthy.

That’s where repentance ends: when we shuck off the crud of sin and humbly accept our God given worth. Narcissists over value themselves. Low self esteemers under value themselves. Most folks just ignore the question. Too deep. But that’s where the healing happens, down deep in the black crevices of our souls. Covering, endlessly covering the ordnance does not detoxify or empty it. So, Blogagogers, cough it up with me. Come clean. Let’s blow up the sunken city of  port-a-potties so that no one gets hurt. Pry open the pearl of great price and behold! As surely as sin turns you into a braying donkey, the grace of redemption returns you to the image and likeness of God.

321. Grief, Loss and Elvis

Grief… breathing feels like air slowly passing through holes in the lungs and entering the stomach, causing a loss of sensation throughout the gastro intestinal tract. Bloated emptiness feels nothing. Digestion stops flat. What is food to a dead man but mockery?

Hunger becomes only a hazy memory from another vague time period when food connected to flavorful living. The last taste of vinegar lingers on the back of my tongue… or is that formaldehyde? Fumes hover across the exhalations. Surely these expirations would ignite with a flame.

Each breath is like a ragged flagged mourner’s car in a funeral parade that gets waved through intersections while other bodily functions wait out of respect. The race is over. Only jerks cut into funeral processions because their lives are so much more important than the one whose memorial they are interrupting. Ironically, Death often gets priority when and where life is not respected. Still, everyone is merely passing through this life’s lens at different rates. Movie extras disappear unnoticed. Life is lived in the foreground, right? Front and center, here and now. All the leads are the loved ones in our lives. The anonymous dead fall breathlessly and remain inert behind the breathing.

The heart slows. It seems only an echo of a heartbeat, mere white noise, though that sounds too clinical and optimistic. This drum beat comes from an abandoned well at the bottom of which an abandoned child slaps an empty water bucket weakly, hopelessly waiting for no one to come. “Bump a bump… bump. Ba bump.” Mud oozes up between his toes.

My brain like plump ice cream scoops melts and drips off the cone until it all collapses on the baking sidewalk, leaving an empty cone for flies to devour. Butter brickle Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Dogs lap up his liquified face. He was a good egg.

“He just died, that’s all. All the cardio problems finally won. His torso was a sharpening stone for scalpels. Scars every which way. He showed them to me once with an odd angry pride. ‘I’ve been carved more than a Christmas turkey’, he said.”

“I can handle death. It’s just that eternity is so long”, he told me later, quietly. I think he knew his time was near.

My body feels weighed down by concrete blocks under leagues of dark water. My executioner knows where.  Elvis resonates through the thick water in my ears…

“Are you lonesome tonight,
Do you miss me tonight?
Are you sorry we drifted apart?
Does your memory stray to a brighter sunny day
When I kissed you and called you sweetheart?
Do the chairs in your parlor seem empty and bare?
Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there?
Is your heart filled with pain, shall I come back again?
Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?”

“…Now the stage is bare and I’m standing there
With emptiness all around
And if you won’t come back to me
Then make them bring the curtain down.

Is your heart filled with pain, shall I come back again?
Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?”

So many questions, Elvis. No answers needed. He is lonesome. All those questions can be turned into statements, you know. ‘ I am lonesome tonight. I miss you. I am sorry we drifted apart.’ A plaintive man taking accountability for his failures again just doesn’t sell so well, however. Elvis is hoping that his ex-chicky lover is grieving, hoping to hear her say “Yes, yes, yes” to all these speculative questions. But wait!

Elvis: “Shall I come back again?”

Chicky: “No. Finish the ending. Bury the corpse of our love.”

Elvis: “But, but, but Baby!! I’m feeling a B side in this love of ours.”

Chicky: “Before its un-embalmed putrefaction gags us all.”

Elvis: “But Baby, all my horses and all my men can put the King’s pieces back together again. Jest, uh, trust me.”

Chicky: “No they can’t, Elvis. The pieces are not all here, and some are too tiny. Pulverized to dust.”

Elvis: “But, but, but Baby!! Baby! You aint seen nothing yet.”

Chicky: “Actually all I have seen is nothing.”

And it fades to a looping nightmare where you go searching for a bathroom that works in a world of broken plumbing. Long corridors of faceless folks who cannot tell you where the water lines are.  From leagues above your nightmare ears comes a bubbling Elvis through a wall of green Jell-O,  “But, but, but Baby.”

He’s got to stop doing that or my bla-bla-bladder will bu-bu-bu- burst. Self serving promises are embedded in his strumming questions.

“Am I lonesome tonight?” Less so without you. I can handle Death it’s just that Eternity is such a long time.

 

276. The Necktar of Pain

Okay, I spent last night at the ER because I did not listen to my wife. No, she did not assault me or beat me with a ball bat, though I believe if she did, she’d get off with a jury trial… because she is so stinking pretty and my daughters would all testify against me. “He’s impossible to live with. It was justifiable strangulation, your Honor. The man is made for a good domestic beating; just look at him. He needed to go. It was a public service.” No, she’s been after me for months, yes months, to exercise, get a massage or go for physical therapy to treat my suffocatingly tight neck.  And I said, “Uh huh”, which means I am my own worst enemy while doing the male fake listen nod. In Arabic this attitude translates as “mi nek tar”, which is an old Persian expression that roughly means “pain of the camel’s neck”.

Actually the truth is that my neck muscles seized up like a pit bull chomped down on an industrial strength vacuum hose and would not, perhaps could not, release. (Think of the pounds per square inch that would be required to hold a 65 pound hunk of pure canine muscle locked down on a rubberized turkey neck toy.) I used ibuprofen. Nothing. I used patience, like four and a half minutes worth, I swear!! Nothing. Finally at 3 a.m. I used Tramadol, damnitall. Nothing. My neck was like kiln fired clay that had set up, crystallizing into bronze. Agony is the closest word I can think of. I was in Agony, a small town in a  Steven King novel where bad things happen to decent people lost in rural Maine, where Kathy Bates finds me stuck in a snow bank and tortures me with an ice pick in the neck for six months or summer, whichever comes first. I was a desperately hurting white boy with no possible hope.

All I could hear from across the lonely valley were strains of Aretha Franklin singing “Rescue Me.”

 

I reasoned that since I was not sleeping and three attempts at remediating this pain had failed, I might as well go to the local ER. I got dressed while my wife slept. I had to wake her up and worry her so that she would not worry when she woke up on her own and I was not there to beat with a ball bat. I moved like the Tin Man without WD 40 to my car and onto a deserted Route 30 festooned with teal green traffic lights all the way into town. I could not pivot my head. I had to turn at the torso to check for traffic. I was a danger to humanity.  Like Jim Morrison sang, “Killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad.” Wow, that seems really dumb forty five years after those lyrics charted.

With my squirming toad brain I expected no wait time at the ER. Wrong. “We only  have one doctor on duty, and he has a very long Middle Eastern name which takes about five minutes to pronounce, so we are backed up about two hours at least. When Dr. Smith works nights, we save all that translation time and see twice as many patients. But tonight it’s Dr. Rolexia Al Sirabi Hamadi Sirramboisiamani the third. Sorry about your luck. So, maybe around dawn we’ll get back to you. Until then, here’s the remote for the television. What? You can’t turn your head? Oh yeah, that sucks to be you, sir. Here, I’ll just leave it on QVC. Oh, faux pearls!! Well would you look at that?”

Not much was on television as I cruised through the menu, finally settling on The Return of Zorro with Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones and endless car commercials. I’d close my eyes with commercials on mute and try to sleep. The pain and stupidity of my situation would wake me as Zorro was about to blow up a train or CZJ ran wildly through a vineyard in the strangely bright night. I didn’t care. I was a miserable audience of one, alone in a dark Emergency Room corner at 4:00 a.m. waiting for an exhausted Dr. Rolexia who had to keep repeating himself in soapy English syllables. I imagined that he sounded like an automatic dishwasher spraying medical terminology around at accelerated speed onto muted patients who lay nearly comatose beneath him like hand painted china. That’s it. I am a dinner plate with a human form painted on it. My mind was confused. “My twisted muscles must be twisting my squirming toad brain”, I reasoned from under the hospital gown.

“Rescue me, Zorro. Forget CZJ. She’ll leave you by the next movie, but I’ll forever be your buddy if you will cut my head off and end this agony. Just look out for Kathy Bates. That’s a tough woman to kill.”

I may have been dreaming or hallucinating or alternating between alternate states of consciousness.  Finally the day doctor showed up and by 6:30 I was given toridol, my muscle declencher. It worked magic on my neck, prying it out of the jowls of the imaginary rabid pit bull. Oh sweet release!  I could swallow without pain. And like Botox, I could see clear proof of wrinkle reduction around my face. I could move ever so slightly and not have electrical shocks fire off at points of insertion. I had to sit still for a CT scan of my neck to rule out shrapnel, ice picks, tumors, arthritis, and internal serpents. The doctor told me I had the spine of a 59 year old. “I am 59.”

“Yes, but you look much older in the flesh.”

“Hey, I can go home and be insulted for free, Dr. Cornflakes.”

“And I can expedite your check out. Sign here and here.”

“Is there any prescription or advice for me, Doc?”

“Yes. Listen to your wife.”