The Meaning of Life

cane

These days, Michigan in winter seems to be nothing but gloom and gray. As a kid, my memories were decidedly cheerier – I recall more snow and less melancholy. Now the leaden clouds hang overhead for weeks at a time, sapping the barren world beneath of any vibrancy. What I imagine living in a black and white movie would be like.

So maybe it’s appropriate that I have left sunny Colorado to be here in February, in the ‘ancestral’ abode, sitting with my 94-year old mother as her life ever so slowly comes to a close. To make sure she doesn’t fall or otherwise injure herself, to make sure she gets three meals a day, to make sure she doesn’t forget to change her diaper.

Her house is equally gloomy. A tiny, 60s-era ranch, it has been neglected for years. Paint is peeling from the walls, thanks to her attempts to save money by closing off the heat registers in unused rooms. Those rooms are also crowded with the flotsam of her life – though she probably doesn’t qualify as a hoarder, she’s damned close. Stacks of books, old clothes, framed family pictures and accumulated bric-a-brac teeter precariously on dressers and fill every available corner. It feels nothing like the house where I grew up.

Her short-term memory has become just that – a memory. Patches, the dog, is the biggest beneficiary of this development, as mom tosses another scoop of food into the bowl every time she passes it. Of course, Patches can barely get around anymore because of her burgeoning weight. And there’s a cat, practically feral, that won’t come out of the basement if anyone other than my mother is in the house. Both animals shed copiously, and cleaning has never been mom’s strong suit. On a related note, you learn to check expiration dates on everything.

Knee and hip replacements, one each, didn’t provide the desired results and consequently she has been dealing with low-grade pain and decreasing stability for years. She also bristles at using a walker, so we have taken to hiding her canes in the hopes of forcing the issue. But despite our best efforts, she falls. A lot. A face-first tumble in the neighbor’s driveway a few months ago is what started this vigil. Her nose and lip required stitches, and we kids knew the time had come. My step-sister took the first month-long shift, then my brother, and now it’s my turn.

There is this thing she does with the TV remote control where she taps randomly (or at least it seems random) on the number buttons, causing the channels to change erratically every few seconds. She looks up on occasion to see the results of this frenetic activity before returning to her incessant pounding on the remote. When you ask her what in the hell she’s doing, she’ll tell you it’s a ‘game,’ though that is the extent of her explanation. And this goes on for hours. At first I found it maddening, but now I view it as a bit of a blessing, because when she isn’t thusly distracted she spends her days obsessing on a thousand other things – turning off lights, moving the milk from one side of the refrigerator to the other (and, later, back again), rearranging caches of outdated coupons, querying me about the origin of pens that have resided on her kitchen counters for decades.

A few years ago we intercepted a letter she was sending to the “lottery officials” in Jamaica that contained her $3,000 “deposit” required to claim her “prize.” There’s no telling how much went out the door prior to that. Despite having changed her number several times since then, it appears the word is out again. She can be talked into anything, and so the phone rings constantly, and at all hours. Magazine hucksters are the most common, as the piles of unread publications can attest. Better Homes and Gardens, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, Sierra, Woman’s Day, Popular Science, Shape, Hola (no, my mother is not bilingual). Do these people not have parents of their own?

Running a close second are the bean-counters at said publishing firms, trying to secure payment on what their sales scumbags have so shamelessly foisted on her. By the look of the statements from the collection agencies, the standard contract comes with a minimum five-year subscription, putting her on the hook for – as near as we can figure – somewhere north of $2,000. Another leech got her to purchase a pair of hearing aids, to the tune of about $1,700. What else may be lurking out there we can only guess at. One morning, the Medical Alert people called six times in the span of 45 minutes. It’s amazing how quickly the conversation ends when I identify myself as mom’s guardian, and then politely ask what the fuck I can do for them.

I know the woman who raised me is in there somewhere. Now and then, amidst the repeated questions about when I arrived or where the chili in the fridge came from (leftovers from the evening before), she will offer some obscure tidbit from the long-distant past, a happy recollection of better times. Or she will have a moment of searing self-awareness, where she’ll curse and bemoan how she wouldn’t wish her predicament on a dog. I can’t argue with her – this is not a life. On more than one occasion she has said that she is ready to go. Sadly, her body simply refuses to cooperate. And for those who tell me every breath is a precious gift from God, I would suggest that a compassionate God would not wish this on a dog either.

Grocery Day – A Love Story

groceries

Image credit: quickmeme.com

As a heathen, I always try to get my grocery shopping done on Sunday morning – you know, to beat the crowds. Even so, there are the typical hazards that can never be avoided – the mom blocking an entire aisle with one of those behemoth shopping carts that has a Cozy Coupe attached to the front so her offspring can get in some early drivers’ training, the economist who is deep in a price-per-ounce comparison trance directly in front of the bargain coffee I’m trying to get to, the nutritionist who is grilling the indifferent employee behind the deli counter about every ingredient that went into the making of the chicken salad, (having an uncanny knack for always finding) the cart that will only turn right.

The topper, of course, is checkout aisle bingo. Trying to pick the line that will move with the least delay. Based on previous visits, I know which employees are the quickest when it comes to emptying a shopping cart. But the rock star checkout guy, the savant who remembers all the produce codes so he doesn’t have to stop and flip through the reference guide for each item, the one who knows where every bar code is located on every item in the store so he doesn’t have to twist the frozen potato bag 12 different directions in front of the reader to get it to beep, is out today. So let’s see – there’s a new kid on 14 who appears completely befuddled by a bag of carrots that the laser refuses to acknowledge. Nope. I can see those waiting in his line already starting to look around for other options. Next to him is the old guy with orthopedic braces on both wrists who breathes through his mouth and always looks like he just smelled a turd. He likes to talk a lot – wants to know what I have planned for the rest of the day, if I’ll be watching the Broncos game, that sort of crap. I think the mindless chatter is simply a distraction meant to draw my attention away from the fact that the bagger (the one with the classic male-pattern-baldness horseshoe of hair that’s still long enough to tie into a ponytail) is cheerfully, if unwittingly, turning the hamburger buns into tortillas (I learned my lesson long ago and now simply ward off the baggers and do it myself). Wrist Braces is one of those individuals who doesn’t have a high gear, and with one person already in the queue in his lane, I’d probably qualify for social security by the time I came out the other end. That leaves the woman on 16 who’s all business – no feigned interest in my personal life, no sports analysis, just gettin’ customers out the door. Perfect. Even though she has one full cart she’s working on and another in line behind that, the second cart is one of those downsized ‘one-person’ models that are used by retirees and widowers with their pants pulled up to their armpits (the case today) that only hold about a third the volume of a normal cart. I figure All Business can blow through her line in no time, so I cozy up behind High Pants. That’s when I notice that there’s no bagger and the customer at the register is one of those types who refuses to lift a finger to help out. So her groceries are piling up at the end of the conveyor belt, which means All Business will have to abandon her post once she’s done ringing everything up to go do the bagging. Shit! No one is behind me yet, so I can back out easily enough, but by now Wrist Braces has two waiting in the queue and another hovering close by. That leaves New Kid, who’s trying to get Wrist Braces’ attention because he can’t find the code for cherry tomatoes but Wrist Braces is too engrossed in a conversation about the dietary benefits of high fiber with an elderly couple at his register to notice New Kid’s panicked gestures. But wait – the light on 17 just came on. Someone watching on the security cameras probably saw me mouthing expletives and got a cashier to open another register. I start to back out and run ass-first into the mom piloting that Cozy Coupe cart who is just turning in behind me. We trade apologies as she tries to swing her rig around, her kids twisting wildly on their play steering wheels all the while in an attempt to “help mommy drive.” Fully loaded, it’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier and she gets hung up on the magazine rack (where I think I recognize one of her children as Hillary Clinton’s Alien Baby), thwarting my exit as others who share my haunted look sprint toward the open checkout aisle. Too late she clears the path, but now I feel obligated to move away for having made her put in the effort. I stand in the checkout staging area for a moment, without a plan, before muscling my reluctant cart into New Kid’s lane, where I am next in line because everyone else bailed due to his incompetence inexperience. As feared, every item is painstakingly inspected and cross-referenced, and several price checks are required because I managed to find the only two pieces of produce in the store that didn’t have UPC stickers attached. Horseshoe Ponytail starts to approach but I deter him with the wave of a hand. I have all the tortillas I need, thanks. At one point New Kid rings something up incorrectly, a normal head of lettuce going through at the higher ‘organic’ rate, but I decide to let it slide because the extra 29 cents seems a small price to pay for not having any more of my soul sucked from me by what would surely involve calling a supervisor over to reboot the mainframe or realign a satellite in order to make things right. Meanwhile, every other line has cleared its queue – even Cozy Coupe mom has left the building. Finally I stagger to the parking lot where I pass an employee in a day-glow vest pushing a train of shopping carts toward the front door. “Thanks for coming, and have a great day,” he implores me.

And people wonder how serial killers get their start.

Torn in the USA

One Millennial’s musings on the state of the union…

From Damon to Dugan

John Kerry, John McCain ** FILE ** In this Dec. 1, 1992 file photo, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., left, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, listens to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former POW in Vietnam, during a hearing of the committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. The committee released classified testimony detailing the Pentagon’s intelligence gathering efforts in Vietnam. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, file)

See that? That’s Democratic Senator John Kerry and Republican Senator John McCain. Opposite sides of the political spectrum, and yet, throughout their political careers, they’ve been good friends. There were even rumblings that the two might run together on a bi-partisan Presidential ticket in 2008. Can you imagine? That’s political history I wish I’d witnessed. This most recent election has shown just how far we’ve strayed from what seemed outlandish and far-fetched eight years ago. I’ve never seen any phenomenon foster as much hate and divisiveness in…

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I Think I Missed My Exit

dreamjob

Image credit: nten.org

Those who follow my blog know that I’ve had some trouble re-entering the workforce since moving from Michigan to Colorado a few years ago. Part of the problem might be the workforce itself, as reflected by this recent job posting: The Director, Brand Experience Management, is responsible for creating and advocating a cohesive brand experience framework for the company that will demonstrate a thorough understanding of the emotional and functional space we need to occupy to acquire new customers and increase the loyalty of existing customers.

What the actual fuck? I can’t even demonstrate an understanding of that ad.

And while another problem – my age – is out of my control, I’ll cop to some responsibility for my predicament. More than simply not growing up to be what I wanted, it’s doubtful I ever really knew what that was to begin with. One of the few things I remember from high school was a counselor’s ominous view of the road ahead.

“Decide what to do with your life,” he told us as if he were revealing launch codes for a ballistic missile strike, “or life will decide for you.” Turns out the man was right.

During my so-called career I have cleaned bathroom stalls, flipped burgers, washed dishes, delivered pizzas, made auto parts, hosted radio shows, driven heavy machinery, poured over payroll records, maintained inventory, created marketing plans, brewed lattes and flown in helicopters, among other things. And looking back I can count on one hand the number of jobs I actually enjoyed, while still having enough fingers left over to maintain a proper bowling grip.

In the early days I dabbled in employment the way others might dabble in real estate or the stock market, dipping a toe in a variety of occupational waters. A few weeks here, a couple of months there, trying different professions on for size. Usually it was just long enough to realize that “entry-level” actually meant “everything runs downhill and welcome to the bottom of the hill.” These were the types of jobs where the middle finger served in place of resignation letters. Jobs with a low bullshit quotient – what you get when you compare your paycheck to the amount of excrement you have to wade through. The wider the gap, the less likely you’ll be sticking around long enough to pick up that gold watch.

I recently received my Social Security Statement – you know, the document that tracks your earnings every year starting from day one – which may help put all this in perspective. To “nutshell” the whole thing, let me just point out that my annual totals do not even contain commas until the fourth year in. Perhaps most perplexing of all is the notation for my seventh year, in which, according to government statistics, I generated absolutely no income whatsoever. Nothing. A financial flat line. A big, fat, glaring zero.

Remember how hard it was to bring your grade point average up after taking an ‘incomplete’ on an assignment? Same thing, but with compound interest.

Radio was my first attempt at an actual career, for no other reasons than it didn’t involve heavy lifting and might possibly attract females. But after almost twenty off-and-on years in the business I can say with some certainty that the vast majority of women are not impressed with guys who sleep in their cars and smell like government cheese.

Eventually, family life dictated that I buckle down and accept an unsavory degree of stability. This led to a series of ‘real’ jobs, each more responsible than the last. One of those was Marketing Coordinator for a manufacturing firm. The old man who ran the place, fast approaching his eightieth birthday, had apparently reached the age where he no longer felt the need to abide by basic social tenets. At least when it came to flatulence.

We were having a conversation shortly after I started there, me seated at my work station and he leaning up against my desk, when he simply discharged in mid-sentence. And not a little squeaker that could have snuck out by accident given the man’s age and what I assumed to be a corresponding decline in bunghole control, but a regular cheek-slapper. He even tilted to one side slightly to facilitate its passage. Without an “Excuse me” or even so much as a “How do you do,” he finished his thought and stepped away. As I sat holding my breath and quietly reflecting on my vocational choices there came, from the other side of the cubicle wall, the disembodied voice of the guy at the next work station.

“Welcome to the company.”

Metaphorically, the moment perfectly captured the essence of my quest for a fulfilling career. There’s an old Elvis Costello tune where he sings derisively of the 9-to-5 world, “…I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you.” I guess that pretty much sums it up for me.

Even so, I like to think that my diverse background stems from the notion, perhaps misguided, that all of us have a calling – something we were born to do. The thing is, most people seem to have a pretty good handle on that right from the get-go, whereas my plan has mostly relied on the process of elimination. And while I may not have figured it out quite yet, I do know this much – just as Tom Hanks noted that there’s no crying in baseball, there should be no farting in business.

In Search of the Great Pumpkin (Patch)

pumpkin-patch

Image credit: blog.sandiego.org

I’m a Michigan boy who relocated to Colorado a few years ago. Don’t let Tim Allen fool you – the Great Lake State is a tough sell. The weather was my biggest gripe. Winters are long and dreary, when most hunker down with their Snuggies and Seasonal Affective Disorder lamps. Spring is usually a few days around the end of April when the glaciers finally recede on their way back to the Canadian ice shield. Then it’s straight into summer, a steam-bath rife with road construction and mosquitoes capable of carrying off small dogs.

But autumn is the pay-off – dry, sunny days and cool nights as the trees go all Norman Rockwell in improbable shades of yellow, red and orange. And while Colorado has some impressive fall colors as well, there’s one fall ritual that my adopted state just can’t get right – the pumpkin patch.

This time of year they sprout like mushrooms across the Midwest, mystical places with the power to separate us from our assets more deftly than Bernie Madoff, where even the most suburban among us are suddenly willing to pay good money to pick apples, a job we normally wouldn’t consider even for a CEO’s salary. Where rosy-cheeked farm hands in flannel shirts and overalls happily charge us 12 bucks for half a gallon of watered-down apple juice and a sack of stale doughnuts. And we pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it’s money we have and cider we lack. For an additional fee, you can take a bumpy ride around the orchard while having your ass molested by a bale of hay, or risk losing a finger trying to feed one of the devil-eyed goats. The yellow-jackets attempting to bathe in any unattended beverage come free of charge.

Around here it appears a lot of folks just buy their pumpkins at the nearest grocery store and that’s the end of it. But in Michigan it’s all about the “harvest” experience. Some operations are low-key, with things like pig races or maybe an old tractor to play on, while others have more of a carnival atmosphere, where the gourd-selection process is not for sissies.

Simply scoring a parking space can be a challenge at the more popular patches. No lines, no rows, just a field full of jumbled cars and an 11-year old in a day-glow vest motioning you out to the back forty. Screw that. The savvy move is to fall in behind the woman in the LL Bean Barn Jacket who’s pushing a stroller and herding three crying kids back from the petting zoo while trying to scrape llama turds off her shoe – she looks like she’s had enough. This is the point at which you also need to send someone to brave the throngs and fight their way up to the cashier in order to purchase the group’s color-coded wrist bands. After a brief stop at the row of fermenting porta-potties for a game of “how long can you hold your breath,” it’s into the fray.

Various wagon rides pull in and out of a crowded staging area with the precision of flights at La Guardia. Two are rotating passengers out to the apple orchards, two others to the pumpkin field, while the “Cinderella Express” – giant pumpkin-shaped coaches pulled by horses suffering from over-active bowels – travels to parts unknown. If you’re looking for more action, there’s always the corn maze, a.k.a. Thunderdome. It’s where parents banish their kids in the hope they’ll burn off that doughnut sugar buzz before the drive home.

The pony rides are perhaps the tamest attraction, the animals appearing listless as they plod around in circles. Not surprising, considering their lot in life, or maybe it’s just that they’ve been rendered deaf by the roar of the nearby generator supplying power to the fan for the inflatable castle. It’s actually one of those trampolines-in-disguise meant to finish off what was started at the corn maze. Careful as you pass so as not to walk under the plumes of regurgitated caramel apple and cotton candy.

And then there’s the elephant. Yes, at least one legendary pumpkin patch in West Michigan had an elephant on the premises. How a pachyderm ties in with the season is beyond me but to the proprietors’ credit, at least they didn’t paint it orange. For ten bucks a head, anyone who hasn’t seen the footage of circus animals gone berserk is welcome to climb aboard.

So c’mon, Colorado, time to step up your game. As you can see, I’m used to a little “pizzazz” with my pumpkin.

Star Trek: The New Generation

For a much more insightful view of the movies than I could ever provide, a guest blog…

From Damon to Dugan

When it comes to influence on pop-culture, I’m not sure there’s anything that surpasses Star Trek. Having just celebrated its 50th anniversary, it’s hard to deny the effect Star Trek has had not only within the realm of science fiction, but in society as a whole. Star Trek (The Original Series), created by Gene Roddenberry, introduced bold topics and themes in a fresh sci-fi setting that was wildly unique; a cultural splash that fundamentally redefined science fiction. Unfortunately, this monolith of sci-fi pop-culture struggles to hold up today, especially to the uninitiated (myself included). While innovative in its time, the show can’t help but fall victim to its age. The dated production value is all too apparent, the larger ideas at play often outreach the writing, and then there’s William Shatner. While I admire what The Original Series set out to do, it should speak volumes that Shatner’s post-Trek career…

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The Case for Autonomous Cars – a Rant

merge

Image credit: whyyourmemeiswrong.com

To the morons my fellow motorists in the left lane:

How is it you haven’t noticed those signs for the last three miles, warning you that your lane is about to end? Benefit of the doubt – maybe some of you are visiting from another country and don’t understand the language. But all the license plates on the cars trying to squeeze past me herald from the good ol’ US of A. Surely not every one of these lane crashers is a stranger in a strange land. So that means there’s a good chance the rest of you are illiterate. Why else would you keep racing along right up to the construction barrels before standing on the brakes and forcing your way into the line here in the right lane?

If not illiterate, then you must be, like Forrest Gump, just plain stupid. Somehow, you are still unable to grasp the physics behind a traffic jam. Controlled merging while our cars are still moving, say, about a mile back, allows for everyone to keep rolling along in a continuous flow. But when you (and an endless stream of your butt-wipe friends) insist on driving down to the last inch of pavement, even as the giant flashing arrows and orange Department of Transportation signs implore you to get the hell over, you diddle us all. Don’t expect to be welcomed into the fold, and most certainly don’t offer a friendly wave as you wedge in front of me – I’m calling you every name in the book behind my tinted windows.

Congratulations, though. You’re now twelve cars ahead of where you would have been had you made that controlled merge I mentioned. The irony (something else you seem unable to grasp, so I’ll explain it to you) is that a little cooperation would have allowed us to sail through this lane closure and, even twelve cars back, you would have made far better time. Instead, since your inability to act in a judicious fashion has brought the entire freeway to a screeching halt, we’ll just sit here and bask in the glow of the brotherly love this moment has produced.

Is there a solution? Well, we could, as a society, just stop repairing our infrastructure – that would alleviate the problem, at least temporarily. Or perhaps the DOT could go all Mad Max and begin installing spike strips in the last half-mile or so of the lane that’s about to close. Hey, just throwing out ideas, here.

No, I suppose the best we can hope for, barring some government-sponsored electroshock ‘re-education’ program, is that your next car will be a ‘self-driver,’ one that comprehends the subtleties of playing nicely and sharing the road, one that will take the decision out of your hands while offering a friendly reminder as you try to make that last-second merge, “I’m sorry Dave (or Tom or Brian or Jennifer), I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

And maybe, just maybe, it could slap you upside the head with the sun visor, for all of us over here in the right lane.