Sunday, October 19, 2014

Boy's Club: Scary Scouting

This time of year makes me think of the woods, and of scary things as to fit the spooky vibe of Halloween. These thoughts intersect with old memories of my time in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts of America.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of the players.

I’ll start with my first vivid understanding that I could potentially be murdered. I was 8 years old, living in a suburb of Pittsburgh at the time. I was maybe a Wolf and our troop went on a weekend camping trip up in northern Pennsylvania. The dads got their kicks from perpetuating a rumor that an escaped convict from a nearby penitentiary was hiding out in the woods near our campground. They were elaborate with this prank. They even recorded fake radio broadcasts and played them back to us, and we kids weren’t smart enough to realize it was a tape player. On the final night of the trip, as we gathered around a big bonfire, one of the dads had snuck off and put on a Jason hockey mask. He also grabbed himself a hatchet. Better to commit to it with a deadly prop. During a quiet moment he came running up from a thick pocket of woods with the weapon held up high. Everyone scattered and screamed. I remember thinking this is when we all die. This is it.  The hatchet looked a very capable instrument. My pounding heart let me know I had blood to spill, lots of it. I remember the panic being a quick flash that flowed into a sort of resignation into inevitability. We’re getting murdered, oh shit. The sense of community, of being taken down with your peers, was almost tinged with a weird giddiness? I put a question mark there because I still don’t understand what I was feeling there. The dad soon took off his mask and let out a big belly laugh. It was Mr. C. Oh geeze, Mr. C, you had us going. You had us going real good.

The rest of my time in Cub Scouts was pretty tame. I sometimes feared that I’d wet the bed on one of our trips. I did get a fishing hook stuck inside my finger tip but I don’t think that ended up too bad. I think it was a quick fix. A dad who didn’t speak much English helped pull that out. No First Aid kits were involved.

There was a father/son camping trip when I was a Webelo (final year of Cub Scouts, we were living in Maine at this point) and my dad was meeting me at the campground after he got out of work. He hit some bad traffic and wound up getting there pretty late. I was convinced at the time that he had gotten into a bad accident. I said this worry aloud and my friend V told me I was an idiot, only stupid people got into accidents and that my dad wasn’t stupid, so he wasn’t in an accident. That didn’t make me feel better because it seemed my friend really didn’t understand how accidents worked. How they could happen to anyone. My dad finally made it, but there was some drama the next afternoon when someone’s mom tripped over a rope that ran from our tent to the stake securing it into the ground. The mom didn’t see it because she was busy blowing on her bowl of hot chili and so she spilled this hot chili all over her chest. Her husband, a big shaggy, bearded man, was outraged and started screaming at my dad that he was going to sue the shit out of us. So I felt the fear that we were going to be ruined financially. Later that night my dad read to me from a book about haunted Civil War battlegrounds and I didn’t sleep much because the stories were good and got enough into my head to keep me from wanting to step outside into the woods to pee, and I was also really worried about us getting sued, it sounded like something that could be pretty intense to have to go through.

Nothing came of the lawsuit. The chili burn probably wasn’t too damaging after all.

When I got into Boy Scouts I started to witness behaviors that were a little more deranged. On one camping trip we stayed in a big cabin with many different rooms and bunks. The troop leader’s son, R, pulled aside a smaller scout, O, while the rest of us were eating dinner in the mess hall, and tied him to a bed post in one of the rooms and whipped the kid with his belt. R was suspended from scouts for one week. O, understandably so, decided to leave the scouts for good. R didn’t seem to understand the terror he caused. When he was back after his week off he was yucking it up as usual. Many years later R was arrested because the person he sold his prescription pain killers to died from an overdose.

The character that gave me the biggest creeps we’ll call H. He was red headed and gangly and in his twenties. He had made it through as an Eagle Scout several years before, and really truly loved scouts, because he volunteered a lot of his time to helping out with our troop at meetings and camping trips. He loved cheesy jokes, and irritating Mr. L. One year my family took a trip back through Pennsylvania and we ran into H at Hershey Park. He was wearing his Boy Scout shirt, which was soaked. My brother said hello to him and H suppressed a giggle and said “now you can tell everyone I went on a wet ride.” More giggles followed from H.

I didn’t last too long with Boy Scouts. I quit about a year into it. The troop leaders chose weird moments to be sticklers. Like one time we were standing at attention and a moose ran by, so the troop leaders got giddy and pointed and ran toward it, saying moose, moose! Then they chewed us out because we all got excited when they did and ran to see the moose. We were told to never, ever break rank! I got chewed out another time because one kid was filling up a cast iron frying pan with dirty dish water and dumping it on people. I caught him in the act and tipped it back on him. I was apparently the bad guy. I had to go sit on a stump by myself away from everyone for awhile. That was the last scolding I wanted to take from those fools.

When I was well into college my mom sent me a News clipping from our local paper. H had been arrested for downloading kiddie porn on his computer. His interest in spending time with the Boy Scouts now seemed to come from a much darker place.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Shame Train

There was a young woman who tried  to cut me in line to get on the Blue Line. Actually she tried to cut a lot of people in line and was successful to a point. This was at an auxiliary entrance/exit at the Western Stop that only had one turnstile, one of those tall gate-like things, and there were a lot of people lined up to get on the train. This girl would walk up to the left of people and try and wiggle in front of them. She was in a hurry but that doesn't make her unique. And the line was moving as fast as it could. When one person moved up a step, so did the person behind them. She tried to do this to me as I got closer to the turnstile. She arched around to my left and I could feel her fast twitch muscles vibrate into the air and it was clear she was going to gun it. I didn't feel like seeing her win here though, her getting to work on time was no more important than anyone else getting to work on time. Maybe if she asked politely, "please, I'm running really really late, would you be so kind?" Instead she assumed importance and budged, budged ahead.

But I stepped up quick after the blind guy in front of me made it through the turnstile, so she had to settle for going after me. I scanned my fare card and. Oh, wait, I had to step back because the blind guy was coming back through the turnstile. "Did your card your card not work, do you need me to scan my card to get you through?" I was about to ask this but he said "I decided not to go." This seemed to mess up the turnstile, him coming back through, so it stopped half way as I tried to pass. But lucky for me, the girl in a hurry had tapped her card, anxious to do that before it even prompted the next rider to scan their fare card, before it was even ready. Since there's a little time delay anyway with this new Ventra system, her card registered and it seemed to allow me to pass the rest of the way through, because apparently when the blind guy came back through it negated my scan. So her scan counted for me. Then the girl tried to go through and it wouldn't let her, so she scanned again. But it seemed she may have used the last of her fares on me accidentally. I hovered near the turnstile still, debating that maybe I should be nice and pass back my card. She was scanning and scanning and grunting away. Then she turned and when back down the stairs.

I felt bad because I carry a sensitivity to being perceived as a dick on the train. Once I was taking the Blue Line into work and the person ahead of me was zoned out listening to some possibly great tunes through big head phones. The cluster up ahead of him by the door thinned so I said excuse me several times, there was room beyond him, but he didn't hear me and continued to take up room. So I proceeded to squeeze behind him so I could exit before the doors closed and he got quite upset and screamed "hey! Hey! Don't push! We gotta let people ahead get out first buddy!" There was definitely room ahead, but everyone looked at me like I was an impatient dick. This stayed with me all day, and obviously still, as I felt I was unjustly cast in the role of subway asshole. So this came to mind when I somehow ended up reaping the benefit of the last of this girl's subway fares. And I felt pangs of guilt.

Then I got the train and let those slip away as the doors closed. She probably needed this as a lesson. This is what happens when you cut everyone in line and start swiping your card before the person ahead has started through the gates.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Eye Caramba! or Undesired Adventures in Ophthalmology

My last tweet before something like a 5 month slacking on social media was this: Sometimes I look at my own handwriting and wonder when the stroke happened.

The handwriting has always been bad. But unaware at the time the joke was on me. At some point over the past few months I had some sort of a very small stroke in my left eye.

When I first started to notice the vision in my left eye wasn’t as sharp as it used to be, I thought nothing of it. I could still read things close up. Distances were difficult, but then again I am nearsighted. To be precise with regards to the change; picture a grid, vertical and horizontal intersecting lines, pinched toward a midpoint, and approximately 0.5 font sizes down from what the right eye would see (see Amsler Grid below). The avoiding part of me easily chalked that one up to the eye being challenged with its ability to focus sans updated glasses. I hadn’t had my eyes checked nor purchased new glasses in over 8 years. I thought maybe it’s just time for a new prescription.

Around the same time, at my day job in customer service at a physician association, I seemed to receive most of my calls from Ophthalmologists for various service needs. The pattern stood out. I also joked that maybe this was a sign.

I briefly took that notion of a sign seriously. I was curious why one eye was worse than the other. I did what one shouldn’t do, WebMD symptoms. The searches pulled up things like detached retina for which I was, for a quick moment, paranoid that I had it. In fearing this retinal detachment thing, I pictured the procedure as a medieval mode of going in the eye with microscopic needle and thread and stitching the Humpty Dumpty egg whites of my cracked eye like a crude sewing project.

My big worry was, once one eye goes, you only have one left. Down a spare, there goes whatever daredevil spirit resides within. What would reading be like with one eye, watching movies, looking at a painting or landscape? I feared the perspective could be flattened, narrowed. I looked up famous people with glass eyes and was comforted to find Peter Falk has one. He’s good company to be in.

But I brushed these notions into a hidden nook, as I was waiting for some new health and vision insurance to kick in and it was easier to think nothing of it. 

On Friday May 16th I went to see an Optometrist. She seemed to have difficulty nailing down the prescription for my left eye, so she dilated my eyes, had me sit in the waiting for 20 minutes while the drops kicked in and brought me back in to have a look in my eye. She noticed some swelling inside that left eye. She urged me to see an ophthalmologist rather soon. She gave me a recommendation and I made an appointment for that coming Monday. She assured me it wasn’t a detached retina, macular degeneration, a tumor or glaucoma. I did after all pass my glaucoma test, for which I was prideful like I had really accomplished something there.

Her insight with swelling inside an eye ball was that it was typically caused by stress or medication. Since I wasn’t on any medication, I assumed that I needed to learn how to chill out.

I didn’t WebMD anything over that weekend because I wanted to work on chilling out.

At the first visit to the Ophthalmogist, my eyes were again dilated. He looked inside them wearing a helmet fixed with a scope and a bright light. When he pulled away and I still saw orbs of red momentarily embedded in my eyes, he said “yeah that’s not normal, you had a small stroke in your left eye.”

I can’t really describe what I felt. It’s something akin to failing a test, or learning that you screwed something major up like leaving a loved one hanging when you forget an important anniversary, that devastating sinking feeling in your gut, only this feeling bobbed and pulsed as the fading red burn of light tried to fizzle from my vision. Then a series of photographs of the inside health of my eye were taken by a big machine where I looked at an Atari game looking grid and 7 minutes of some sort of infrared flashes checked to see if there was any leaking from the swollen part of my eye ball, back into my brain. I forget the results of this. I don’t think anything alarming was seen.

The next step was to see a primary physician. Check out systemic health. Make sure this doesn’t occur again, or on a bigger scale, like in the brain or heart.

So I went right away. I was feeling frazzled and panicked and incited enough to get researching the cause of that harsh word, stroke.  I learned that I have high blood pressure, for which I now get to take a low dosage ACE inhibitor.

Blood was drawn, and the news was mostly positive. In checking a wide gamut of tests, my counts came back normal and healthy, except in a couple of areas. My cholesterol and triglyceride levels were slightly higher than they should be, nothing a little more exercise and dietary changes won't help, but the key concern were the levels of a certain protein we all have that controls blood clotting. My levels were somewhat higher than they should be; nothing wildly off the charts, but enough to put me at risk.

I now get to take an aspirin a day. Now you may consider me an elder.

On June 5th, 2014 I got to have an injection in my left eye, which was probably one of my worst long standing fears. I’ve long been squeamish with needles, and with putting things in my eyes. I will never put contacts in there. The idea of a paper cut on my eye ball will make me shudder and cringe. This was a double whammy. For any of you faint of heart, picture this shot as the prong of a fork puncturing a wet hard-boiled egg. This nasty egg resides inside your head. Imagine this, feel this. This sort of, sort of sums up the queasiness I felt knowing this would be a thing about to happen to me.

My nerves wrecked me the day of, and when I arrived for my appointment I asked for some valium. They said they didn’t have any. Then I said any sedative will do. And they laughed and said I’d be fine. I just had to concentrate on deep breaths.

The ophthalmologist numbed the eye well. The strangest part was having my eye lids held open with a pair of clips like I was in A Clockwork Orange. The eye was washed with iodine. Then he used a little marker to mark the spot on my eye ball where he would give me the shot like it was a rounded little white board. I didn’t feel the marker and the shot maybe felt like some slight pressure, but nothing to make me cringe. When the plunger was depressed and the injection was released I could see a spread of faint liquid ripple in my field of vision. Then a little bead of dark liquid seemed to hover in the low center of my sight line and the optical illusion of it made it seem like it was floating out in front of me by a foot or two. If I could separate myself out for a moment from my squeamish pain, it was really quite beautiful. Projection plucked in a wet sort of tissue ball, like seeing a trippy thing up on the domed screen of a planetarium.

The worst part was at home later when the numbing drops wore off and the iodine that was still in my eye burned like I had been chopping 100 onions in a small space craft.

Then the soreness. My left eye was puffy and bloodshot the next day. I went into work anyway and really tried to hold some intense eye contact with people. Maybe share the squirming.

And what is my sight like post shot, after 1 week? The pinch is released, and the font size is back to about 92% of what it should be. I’m told the medicine continues to work up to one month. Hopefully within the month, font size will be keeping up with the right. If not, cue up shot number 2.

So why did all of this happen? Perhaps this was God’s punishment because I’ve choked some bishops. This is a euphemism. Playing with yourself leads to blindness, puritanical rumors have repeated.

My start to 2014 was a shit storm. Fresh off pneumonia, my strength was getting back on its feet after the blow of that battering ram of coughs. It took some time to get my lung capacity back. The pain of a break up from a long term relationship hadn’t yet healed. The disappointment of several sales opportunities at my previous job that didn’t pan out stirred up financial squeeze, and so I started a new job. Despite the relief of a new employer and steady salary, there was still the wonder if it would work out. In short, I was bathing in uncertainty. With the conditions of hypertension and blood clot risk already in place, the left eye had its equivalent of stumbling and breaking an ankle. The technical term for this eye stroke is BRVO. Branch Retinal Venous Occlusion.

I’m relieved to be standing here after flying on an airplane. While at the gate I had a sudden thought; what if cabin pressure is bad for my eye while working itself out with the medication? I didn’t think to ask if I should avoid such a thing. But the ticket had already been booked and I would’ve worried about the expense of canceling had they said, don’t fly. But it could also be an expense if my eye had popped open mid-flight and gushed as though stomped on like a grape, the inner ocular pressure just too much, some oozing and then the eye ball itself shrinking down as it loses its liquid. Then out it falls, tethered by a mesh of nerves and blood vessels, puss and plasma joining the pool at my feet. The mesh would recoil up and down, like skinny, oily curly fries wrapped in red, water-logged Ramen noodles, proud of their spring. I worried about this but it didn’t happen. Because if it did, even if it had long since healed, I would never revisit this in the form of tale. I would be twitching, institutionalized, forever haunted.

Memories were conjured recently of a seeming agenda at play to beat the shit out of my left eye. When I was young I experienced some bad blows and my left eye always seemed to take the brunt. I was maybe 5 when some friends and I were throwing acorns into the woods. One friend’s acorn bounced off a tree and hit me in the eye. I feel like there were a couple of instances in elementary school where some gym class ball hit me there. One time the throbbing was enough that I had to go sit in the nurse’s office for awhile. My mom had to come pick me up. At a friend’s birthday when I was 8, we were taking turns pushing each other on his tire swing. While he was on the swing, the spinning became unpredictable, and the heel of his foot made contact with my eye. At the end of the party his dad said “maybe next time you’ll be the hitter and not the hittee.” Stories like this are legion actually. My family joked that I had an eye magnet.

Always the left eye it seemed. Perhaps what was at play here was that eye had just had enough and tried to off itself.

Even well after the left eye had already begun with its vision issues this winter, there was incident while riding with my girlfriend. She took off her coat and threw it in the back seat. The weighty zipper flopped around and once again this left eye was bullied.

The lesson here is don’t bully eyes.

I know this all sounds serious and fucked up for a 30 year old to go through. The first ophthalmologist I saw, the one who diagnosed me, called this whole thing an eye stroke, but this was before the blood tests were ordered. The ophthalmologist who treated me, his partner, has been referring to it as a blood clot, which sounds less violent. When I first explained the eye stroke to my friends, it was met with a sort of “Jesus Christ Holy Shit” response. I’ve started explaining it as a blood clot in my eye that caused some swelling, and everyone I tell that to is like “okay” and it becomes a much simpler, smoother conversation.

But I’ll be fine. Some things were learned, for instance the blood clot risk, and is being treated. I’m getting a little more conscientious with my diet. I will no longer stock up on canned soups that have enough sodium in one serving to mummify a tiny bird. I’m getting a little more exercise. And most importantly I’m working on my karma so I don’t experience another harsh year transition as the one most recent. And if I do, I will remind my eyes to not take things so personally. Especially that left one, he’s sensitive and has a hard time taking a punch and stomaching a joke. And if this piece of writing is so bad that you want to throw fruit at me, please give me enough warning so I may cover up my face.  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Coffee Speckles

While on the train I realized after the fact that I must have been bumped, causing splashes of my coffee to speckle the fabric covering the upper arm of a woman.

I searched my pockets for a napkin, that I may offer to help mop it up. I couldn't find one.

I was the only one around her that was clutching a cup. It was me. I knew.

I didn't say anything.

At the next stop, the crowded train caused the departing to brush past her. When I looked next her coat was scrubbed dry. I felt like I was now off the hook.

This may or may not be a revelation of my character.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Militant Vegan

While recounting an old story to a new lady in my life, I stumbled upon a new realization.

The story was; when I was 20 and living near the intersection of Buena Ave and Broadway in Chicago, I was on my way home from class one evening and almost suffered an attack to my head.

It was 6ish or 7ish and it was dark out because it was winter. A well dressed black man was walking up the sidewalk from the opposite direction. He slowed up, looking at me, like he recognized me. I slowed too thinking I might try and recognize him in return. He kept looking at me, then said "I should fucking kill you right now!" He next swung what looked like a metal faucet piece. I ducked just in time, the whoosh was a loud one. Relief was a loud one too; it didn't connect with my skull. I ran away from him shouting every single curse word I could think of until I got into the foyer of my building and rushed up to my apartment. 

When my breathing calmed, I called the police because I remember thinking, if I wind up dead I want them to have a suspect. Two police officers came, we filled out a police report. They told me to not take it personally, that there was a mental health facility nearby that was pretty come-and-go, some of their folks wandered around the neighborhood. I didn't so much take it personally, I didn't think that was the point.

Many months later I think I did see that guy again. I was waiting for a southbound Redline train, and I could see him across the tracks waiting for a northbound. I looked at him but he didn't look at me. I doubted that he remembered doing it, but I kept on looking, curious if there would be any sign of remembrance. Or guilt.

The new realization was this: at the time of the attempted assault, I was carrying home some food from the KFC around the corner. Something I had never considered before was that he could very well be a militant vegan sticking up for animal rights. Maybe it was personal. Maybe he was trying to permanently end my semi regular diet of meat. If this was it, then he would cease to be a bad guy in my book. I really like animals but don't have the courage to resist the barking of my taste buds. Perhaps I should listen the echoes of the past and their what-ifs. But I'm still just about to head off to the grocery store to pick up some meat to pan fry later this evening.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


I've been a bit absent from here, but I also had a bit of a derecho in my life at the end of 2013. I'm glad to see the year has turned to a new one. I'm making a toast that bad karma has been drained, and good stuff will rush in as nice surprises. 

The Thursday before Christmas I came down with a flu that turned into a bad cough, one I thought was bronchitis as my live-in girlfriend at the time had bronchitis, and from what I understood of it, bronchitis is caused by a virus, rendering antibiotics useless. In fact I read many bulletins online urging doctors not to prescribe antibiotics for bronchitis as to not unnecessarily fan on antibiotic resistance. So assumed I needed rest. I avoided going to the doctor because dragging myself there and back just seemed like it'd be painful. I did drag myself to Michigan to visit my family for the holiday. Hitching a ride with my brother passing through town, we hit snow and some slow roads. We arrived at my mom's at 5:30 am. I was unable to sleep in the back of the car. This didn't help the immune system's fight. Despite a lot of rest over the course of a week I wasn't getting better. I wasn't really sleeping even with NyQuil. I'd lay in bed and just couldn't get comfortable. I'd have these half dreams where I'd hallucinate things happening in the room. 

Finally when I arrived back in Chicago, way out of breath walking up the steps of Union Station, coughing my brains out, I decided to see a doctor. 

I actually went to the Target Clinic down the street from my apartment because it was closer than my usual doctor. They clipped things on my fingertips to measure my oxygen levels and listened to my lungs with a stethoscope. They were pretty sure I had pneumonia but sent me to an Immediate Care facility for a chest x-ray so we could get a full diagnosis. I went, waited two hours, they didn't even do a chest x-ray, just did the same tests as Target, and wrote me a prescription for antibiotics and cough syrup with codeine. At first they didn't send the cough syrup prescription to the pharmacy next door, and so I pretended like maybe I misheard, because my ex-girlfriend had some left over cough syrup with codeine from her bout with bronchitis, so I was thinking, hey maybe I can save 10 bucks. But then the prescription arrived, a little late and separate from the antibiotic order. And then I thought it would be shady if I said, "I don't really need it, I have some already!"

The antibiotics were a huge help. Made a difference in just a few days at least terms of getting my mind back. I'll still be getting stuff up and out of the lungs for a little while longer and am slowly getting my strength back. I am on the mend. My voice is shot. I might start a Tom Waits cover band. Pneumonia is a beast. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. I'm glad I'm fairly young and in decent health, because I can see how it can turn deadly for some. I'd describe it as it's like your lungs are hungover, borderline alcohol poisoning hungover, but instead of vomiting, you're hacking up lung butter. And you have that poison feeling, as your lungs are fucking infected.

The other bad thing that happened was: You'll notice I referred to an ex-girlfriend and "live-in girlfriend at the time." Yes, that happened. I got my heart broken by someone I spent 5 years building a life with. I'm not bitter, it was amicable.  Though it's a tough pill to swallow. But that's all I'm going to say about that. I suppose I have some personal shit to deal with that maybe shouldn't be on public display. 

I will not be putting a Christmas 2013 ball ornament on a tree.

Moving on to exciting things. I've had a couple of short stories published! 

"Never Chewed Gum Before" over at Metazen

"The Blood Pressure of a Scuba Diver" over at Literary Orphans

Please read them! I may be biased but I'm really really proud of them.

On my way home from work the other day the Blue Line train arrived, and more people exited the train than were in line to board, yet suddenly there wasn't enough room for all of us to get on. This didn't make sense to me, other than people are pretty selfish about their personal space on public transit. I was angry in my head, and as the train pulled away I found myself wishing that someone in that car shits their pants and makes it repulsive and stinky for the people that decided not to make room for others. I allowed myself some measure of vindictiveness that day.

I also allowed myself the treat of stopping off at PopEye's for dinner. I lost 20 pounds it seems while being sick and feel I should put on a little fat to keep me warm this winter. While eating, there was a woman a few tables down having a conversation with herself. But she also looked so happy, the happiest, friendliest schizophrenic I've ever seen. It was like she had a great companionship going with the unseen persona. This reminded me that happiness is possible in fucked up circumstances.