Saturday, January 12, 2013

Fear of Flying

Toward the end of fall the crews finished up work on the bike trail that connects Easton with 670 giving us biking access to essentially the entire city once we dash across the always rumbling Sunbury Road.  This afternoon Sophia and I headed out for a walk, managed the busy two lanes, and started to walk through a patch of woods that I had lived across the street from for ten years but had never been in.

I don't know how warm it was, but it felt easily like it was in the mid sixties.  The birds seemed confused and I could imagine the geese looking back over their shoulders wondering if the trip they were all geared up for was suddenly necessary.  We watched them v themselves high above the bare trees.

Sophia asked to be picked up saying she was afraid of the airplane that flew overhead, though she wasn't really. 

After a few moments she saw some crusted browning snow shriveled and hiding in the shade of old growth oaks.  I could feel her body go rigid with excitement and she squirmed to get down and stomp it, feeling it crunch under feet warm and dry in her pink zebra rain boots.  I stopped, watching her hop and slip along the spine of a winter defiant in the face of these odd temperatures.

The trail in this section straddles Alum Creek on its east and Sunbury Rd to the west with the hissing traffic a constant backdrop.  I had hoped the road litter would be contained by the brittle weed growth street side, but it has spilled ten or so feet into the woods along the street and I found myself looking forward to summer when the green would cover so much of what winter leaves bare to the eye.  It's an east side cliche these crumpled packs of Newports and empty bottles of Wild Irish Rose.  Black and Mild cigar cellophane tangled in the grass like phantom snakes and plastic grocery sacks rustling from twig flagpoles.

After awhile of heading South, I said it was time to head back to our development.  Sophia, just happy to be out and about, agreed and we started back the way we came. 

The little neighborhood we live in has no real place to play with it's postage stamp yards and cramped alleys running behind line after line of homes.  So, we stick to the sidewalks and see what's changed with our familiar sights.  I point out the Christmas decorations that are still out.  I answer her questions about fences and airplanes and wait for five minutes or so watching out for cars as she stomps around in a puddle in an alley.  She finds a stick on the sidewalk and immediately turns it on me - waving it at my chest declaring me a princess.

At the bottom of the hill, in a less traveled corner of the neighborhood, is a little stream we often check on when out making the circuit.  In the summer it mostly dries up, but today it bubbled along heading right toward us only to disappear under our feet.  The drainage pipe is lined with large squarish stones, their edges smoothed down by years in the stream.  Sophia steps up onto them, walking the length of the barrier, careful not to slip.

I join her, standing on one of the middle stones, looking at the water.  I tell her this is our magic river and that we need to make a wish.  She stands beside me and we hold hands.  I tell her to close her eyes and she does.  I close mine too and tell her to make a wish. 

"I wish for an airplane."

I smile and tell her it's a great wish.  We stand there for another moment, but Sophia is soon moved by the desire to jump so I step back onto the pavement and watch as she repeatedly jumps from the stones to the ground. 

It isn't until I'm taking off my shoes inside the front door that I realize I forgot to make a wish of my own.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Word? Word.

It gets quiet here at night.  Sophia is usually down by 7:00, and Jen not much later these days.  I roam around the house in the evenings alone, fighting sleep the same way I used to when I was five years old.
It finally happened after fourteen months. She squatted, her lower half hidden by the layer of suds floating on the bath water's surface.  The act may have been hidden, but I saw that now familiar look of concentration followed the smile that accompanies completion.  Bath time was over so I could fish the brown-snake out and flush it.  I had been expecting and dreading it for fourteen months, but in the end it didn't hurt at all.
I applied for an internal position that I thought was well outside of my grasp, and shockingly got an interview.  I trimmed back my ("soulful, indie-rock") beard, busted out my fancy pants, and went to talk to a VP who was also a VIP about the possibility of becoming an AVP.  I felt strong about the interview at first, but as 24 hours passed I was certain I had performed so poorly that he would contact my current boss and suggest she terminate my employment.

As is often the case, the truth is found in the middle.  I didn't get the job, and made some mistakes (which he was kind enough to discuss with me a few days after the announcement was made about the position), but in the end I had at least made a showing for myself.  I learned a lot, and have mostly contented myself with the knowledge that my next interview will be substantially better because of this one.

Still bummed though.  The job was amazing, and it would have been huge for the family.  Next time, Mr. VIP.  Next time.
Playing Scrabble this week I scored 167 points for the word yuletide.  This is something I'm very proud of.  Two triple-word scores with just one word, y'all.  Mark it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


We sat outside in air the temperature of our own skin, losing track of where our bodies ended and where the soft evening began.  The breeze, occasionally reminding us that we weren't really connected to the currents, smelled of freshly laid mulch and ruffled the frayed cuffs of our shorts. 

There was no conversation.  If asked, we'd smile and explain that words between people who have been together this long are no longer needed, but the truth is we've just run out of things to say.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

It happened in a psychiatrist’s office.
“Can I ask you a question?” she asked. “Why are you even at _____?” and she named the place where I work.

I should stop here to add that I don’t know this woman, and have never been in her office. You see, I’m a fat guy; A fat guy who’s currently in the process of getting approval for bariatric surgery and one of those steps is to meet with a psychiatrist. I didn’t know anything about this woman other than what I've learned from sitting in her office:

• The waiting room had an unused feel to it. The shelves were dusted, and the magazines arranged neatly, but you got the impression the room was rarely used. Maybe it was the way the children’s toys in the corner were put away a little too nicely. Plus, it hadn’t been vacuumed recently, further adding to the forgotten vibe of the room.

• She had been a panelist on the Oprah Winfrey Show back in the mid-nineties. There was an autographed 8X10 glossy framed beside a signed form letter from Oprah thanking her for being part of the show.

• She was a force of nature. As I was sitting in the room, first filling out the initial paperwork and then beginning on the first of my three assigned personality tests, she came in through the door. Her voice was a cannon that blasted the stuffy air out of the room and hid the thin simper of her assistant’s soft rock radio. Wiping at her nose with a wad of tissues, she called me “Steve” and welcomed me to her office. “Come on back, come on back! You’ll finish those up after we talk.” Then to her assistant: “Sonya, he’ll finish up after, OK?” as if she hadn’t heard the booming instructions when they were shot at me.

We went back into one of the offices where between sniffles she explained that she didn’t see many patients these days and mostly worked with litigators serving as an expert witness. “I do maybe one or two of these bariatric cases per month lately” she explained. “I like to do them, of course. I’m just really busy.”

The conversation was fast and easy. I had never been to a psychiatrist before, but went into it with the thought that I would be completely open and as forthcoming as possible. We chatted about general addiction, my past, my daughter, and the back and forth came naturally. I felt like we were both enjoying the discussion. She was quick-witted and personable, sharing antidotes from her own past here and there when appropriate.

Interruped briefly for a nose blowing break, talk turned to work. She knows some people who have worked at the company I work, so was familiar somewhat with the environment. I explained that while not passionate about the work I do, I enjoy doing a good job and see myself as a constant that people can depend on. I could tell she didn’t like the answer.

“Look, it’s really none of my business. I don’t even know you and I’m not your therapist. Still though…Can I ask you a question? Why are you even at _____?”

She knew the answer before I did, but she waited for me to say it.

“Because I don’t know what I really want.”

We chatted some more about going back to school or changing careers before the rest of the answer came to me: “I think there’s something missing in me. There are people that I know who are creative and successful, not necessarily money-wise, but successful with what they do. They all seem to have this drive inside that pushes them to do what they love. I don’t seem to have that.”

This wasn’t groundbreaking. It was no epiphany. It was something I had considered previously before pushing the thought away. This was the first time I had really said it aloud though. It all boiled down to “I don’t know what to do” or, worse: “I don’t want to do anything”.

My newfound one-time-only therapist didn’t settle down on that topic though, and so we touched on childhood and moving around and she drew parallels between my father and I which while maybe not flattering, were again not groundbreaking material.  It was a really great conversation. At the end of the day, there are only a few people who don’t enjoy talking about themselves to someone who declares it all fascinating material.

We stood, shook hands, and as we stepped back out into the waiting area where I would have to finish my personality tests, she declared me a delight to her assistant who said “Oh, that’s wonderful!” before discussing the rest of her schedule. I sat back down in the chair I had left 55 minutes before, and started on my tests with something bothering me just slightly about the experience. It wasn’t until I was walking to the car that I realized what it was.

It’s a cliché now, a man sitting in a chair at a gentleman’s club getting a lap dance on a Tuesday afternoon, thinking that the girl rubbing against him has really come to like him over time. In the face of all that skin, it’s easy for some to forget that she’s working and that when you ask for one more dance she’s thinking how she’s one step closer to paying rent on time. I knew guys like this, especially in high school. They’d come back from the clubs they’d managed to get in with Polaroids of them paired with Destiny or Chablis, smiles wide on their faces. They’d talk about how she even stuck around for a few minutes after the dance was over and really seemed interested when they described the car they were going to buy next month. (“She told me to go back and I can give her a ride in it!”)

I realized, putting my key into my compact car (so normal it’s nearly invisible), that in my way, I was very similar to these guys. Here I was enjoying a talk with a bright woman who was being paid (well, I might add) to be interested. Whether or not she was actually pretending wasn’t the point. She was good enough at her job that I forgot she was making rent money while I was busy being engaging.

Don’t misread me; I’m not so cynical that I’m directly comparing the two professions. I’m just saying that when money is exchanged, intentions are clouded. Just because she gets you hard doesn’t mean she’s in love, and just because she helps you find insight doesn’t mean she finds you interesting. It’s a job.

Driving home, I decided it didn’t matter. I wasn’t less engaging if she made $250 out of the deal. I’m a charming motherfucker.

I also decided on that drive that I would write about my time with my single-use therapist who had her fifteen minutes of fame with Oprah.

See? I do want to do something.

Friday, October 29, 2010

You Know, The Shriners?

I don't remember how I found the place initially, but I'm guessing it was because of the banner that read "JOBS JOBS JOBS" hanging out front.  People in town didn't know the actual name of the business, but if you told them you worked at "JOBS JOBS JOBS" they would smile in recognition.

It was a series of folding tables - sturdy metal frames with particle board tops laminated in fake wood grain. Stained by years of coffee slopped from Styrofoam cups, they stank like the ashtrays sitting at each telephone. The phones themselves as stripped down and basic as the rest of the room, were black with gray buttons, their cords tangled on the floor.

The sales goal for the night was written on the bottom right hand corner of a small dry erase white board with each of our names listed above. We would fight over whose name was written in what order even though it held no bearing.  Everything was a competition, and nothing was given up lightly.. A notch was made by each name as sales were made. $32 sale was one notch, $64 was two and so forth.

On the phones, my first name was always Frank.  The last name would vary.

"Hello, Mr. Washington?  My name is Frank Stevens and I'm calling with the ______ _____ Shrine Temple Number 53, you know - The Shriners?  How are you this evening?  Great!  The reason for my call is you were kind enough to help us send 6 underprivileged children to our annual variety show last year and we were hoping we could count on your support again this year..."

We always said "you know - The Shriners?" because we wanted the person at the other end of the line thinking of the guys in funny hats and the little cars at parades.  We were told this was preferable to the fact that our contracted client was actually an African American community organization.

I was consistent with my numbers, but I never got the really big sales. I think there was one time where I sold a $128 package, but for the most part they kept the big ticket leads for _______. He would hunch sullenly over his phone, mumbling into the receiver so quietly you rarely heard him until the receiver would go back into the cradle and he’d exclaim “YEAH FUCKERS!” ruining two other potential deals in the process.  He would jump up, his chair tottering on the two back legs until they finally settled down on all four, and run to the board to mark himself four slashes for the sale.

We were children, and we acted like it. 

I was too young to drive when I first started working there.  Some of the other guys drove cars or lived close enough to walk, but I had to be dropped off and picked up each night.  My mom would complain that I smelled like smoke, and I would patiently explain how everyone there but me was a smoker, scared she would catch a whiff of Marlboro under the four pieces of Big Red I would be chomping on.

Occasionally a few girls from our school would get hired on, but the constant smoking or our childish leering meant they'd rarely stick around long enough to see two paychecks.  We were a core group of four or five teenage boys, with a rotating cast of characters who never really made the cut.

We'd work from 5:30 to 9:00 each night, and a few hours Saturday morning, running through the sales script for whatever organization had hired us out for their event.  It was always for the kids though.  Economically disadvantaged, disabled, disenfranchised, whatever.

"Hi, may I speak with Mr. Donaldson?  Hi, this is Frank Griffin calling for Special Heart for Special Children.  How are you tonight?..."

We would walk to the grocery store that anchored the strip mall for snacks during breaks.  We'd stop at the drug store for drinks and cigarettes.  We'd spend our paycheck at the sports card store, and fight over who got the better rookie cards.  We'd brag about the girls we'd been with (or lie about the girls we'd been with, at least in my case), and talk about the beer we were going to drink that weekend until one of the owners would come out of the office in the back and yell at us to get back on the phones.

I don't remember the exact process of how it all came to an end.  One day we had a meeting where the tearful woman who ran the shop explained check kiting to us, a term I had never heard before.  She explained that we would have visits from the FBI and that they were there to just review her books and that we as the sales group had done nothing wrong.  We continued to make our calls, but the two agents in the back office dampened the mood.

No one had been getting rich off the backs of underprivileged kids, she had just been trying to pay bills and cover payroll.  Shockingly, the half a dozen teenage boys they had on the roster hadn't been enough to generate a living for all those involved.  Instead of seeing it as a lost cause, she scrambled to keep things afloat.

The parent company that she worked for said they were going to work with her and she would be able to avoid jail time if she cooperated fully with the FBI and their internal investigation.  She complied on all fronts, and they promptly took her to court.  I had left the job by the time she was sentenced but I'd heard that she'd pulled some sort of weekend only jail time for awhile.

A few years later, I was working the counter at a gas station in Utica, Ohio when a lady came in and asked for a pack of Salem 100's.  I looked up to see it was her.  We chatted for a minute in the awkward way people do when they would really be anywhere else instead of rehashing the past.  I asked about her family, and she asked about mine.  She started to leave, then stopped and said:

"I'm sorry.  I always felt like I let you down.  You're just a really good person...a good guy, and I kind of fucked things up for everyone."

I felt this overwhelming desire to tell her I wasn't great at all.  I wanted to tell her of all the shitty things I had done just that week alone.  I wanted to make up even worse stuff just so she wouldn't feel so bad.  I didn't know where this accountability to me had come from, but I was uncomfortable with the label - unhappy to be seen as a person good enough to warrant this kind of naked apology..  I opened my mouth to say some of this, but she smiled and stepped out...the bell above the door cutting off my words.

Monday, May 24, 2010


A few weeks before Sophia was born, I started an iPod Playlist for the delivery room. I asked Jen for her input and she said "None of that arty horseshit…this is about me" or something to that affect. So, I started through our library looking for things that Jen would love and that wouldn't be horrible for me. After just an hour or so I had 115 songs which I thought would be more than enough to get us through a night in the hospital. I shuffled them up and dumped them on my iPod.

Even by Jen's account, the pregnancy was fairly easy. She had her share of exhaustion and the usual side effects, but had largely been able to avoid the more serious complications that are common. Still, at over 40 weeks, she had been experiencing a few days of feeling really rough and convinced her doctor to see her a few days earlier than their scheduled appointment. After two hours of examination, ultrasounds, and stress tests, Jen's doc told her to get her bag and check in to the hospital at 8:00 that night. Jen cried in relief, knowing that very soon she'd be feeling better…one way or another.

I'll spare you all the push by push replay, but there were a few things worth noting. First, Jen was amazing. From the very beginning until the moment we watched Sophie gulp down her first air conditioned breath, she was perfect. Also, the staff we worked with was great. Jen's nurse laughed at our jokes (we always have jokes), got down to business when needed, and was Jen's champion the whole way. Also, she got down with the Prince that was playing on the iPod.

And that takes us back to the Playlist. We had the music going in the background as we sat in the darkened room watching Jen's contractions on the monitor ("Ooooh, daayuuum…that was a biggun"). It started with Manchester Orchestra's "I Can Feel a Hot One", but then despite the fact that I had shuffled the songs, it mostly went from artist to artist playing songs in blocks alphabetically. We cruised through lots of "B Bands" (Band of Horses, Beck, Ben Folds, The Beach Boys) and then the Garden State soundtrack. We napped through The Mountain Goats and Mojave 3. The nurse came in to get things busy about the time The Postal Service started playing. The moment Jen pushed for the first time, "When Doves Cry" filled the room. Jen finished with the first push and we looked at each other, laughing at the absurdity of giving birth with Prince as the soundtrack. "Pop Life", "Raspberry Beret", and "I Would Die 4 U", one song after another Jen pushed and then we laughed (yes, she had an epidural). The nurse boogied (though professionally) and we talked about how our Twin Cities based friends would be home-town-proud. The assembled grandmothers in the room were less interested, standing on the sidelines with shaking hands clutching their cameras.

Finally the Prince wound down to be replaced with REM, and on Jen pushed. I kid you not, toward the end, with Sophie starting to appear, "American Girl" by Tom Petty was the song playing. And then, finally, Sophie was pushed/pulled into life on the outside. I cut the cord (symbolism be damned), and she was placed kicking and fussing on Jen's chest all the while Wilco's "Please Be Patient With Me" played softly in the background. We toweled off her little arms and legs, alternately amazed and terrified of her, and everything else faded into the background.

I know it might be a little obsessive to pay that much attention to what music was playing and at what time, but a lot of strong memories I have are linked to the music that was playing at the time.

I remember I was sitting in Tyson Downey's CRX in a parking lot outside of Kroger in Brazil Indiana and he was telling me about a song he had heard for the first time. When the weather was just right you could pick up a station out of Indianapolis (not without some static, of course) and this Indy station had promised to play this new song again before 10:00. We sat there in the car chain smoking, our talking stopping as each new song would start to play until they finally played Radiohead's "Creep" and my world got a little bit bigger.

I remember the moment I realized my first marriage was over and a song called "Kerosene Hat" by Cracker was playing in the car. I rushed to turn it off as I drove no where, not wanting an awful moment to ruin a great song for me. (It didn't. I still love that song.)

And I remember walking the streets of Carbon, Indiana when I was probably 13 and coming up on a house that was playing Frampton's "Do you Feel Like We Do". We sat outside on the sidewalk listening to it in the summer night and I remember thinking that it was the best song ever written.

Good and bad, a lot of my memories are wrapped up what was on the radio, and I don't think that's unique at all. Still, I have to admit a pure personal pleasure in being able to tell Sophie one day that she came into this world while listening to Wilco. Since she's a captive audience, I plan on spending lots of time with her in front of the turntable as soon as my mother in law vacates the area that has become partially my den and partially Jen's craft room. I bet Weezy is glad Grandma Helen has been here to protect her so far...

Monday, February 22, 2010