Sunday, December 10, 2006

Entry 3299 The Alleged Joy of Christmas

What is your favorite time of the year? Some will claim it's summer, while others say springtime. For a good many people, though, the time of the Holidays is particularly special.

For the purpose of this discussion we're going to focus on the Christian holiday known as Christmas, although the expression "Christmastime" has become synonymous with the more general and non-denominational "The Holidays," and has come to mean the last few weeks of the calendar year.

As a child, this time is a relief from school...visiting with family and hanging out with friends...and of course, the presents! But, as one grows older and becomes more in tune with the world around oneself, this season begins to take on different meanings. There is the longing for friends and loved ones no longer with us (due to their passing or moving away)...the sadness in the reflection of a life unfulfilled or much different than we expected...the injustices and inequalities we see in the world around us.

Those of us raised as Christians--or even, just as thinking, feeing human beings-- start to develop questions.

"How", we ask..."how can there still be these things? Isn't this supposed to be the Celebration of the Birth of the Saviour, a happy and joyous time? How can I be truly happy when war exists, when racial inequality exists, when there are families that don't have enough money for food, yet alone gifts for their children? When in our own Nation there is a city--devasted by the worst natural disaster in our history--full of suffering people that the Government has apparently forgotten about...people without the most basic elements required for survival, like safe water to drink and food to eat, and electricity?"

It is a sad fact that there are more suicides during this time of year than at any other….brought on by loneliness? Disgust? A feeling that one's life, one's ambitions and dreams are unimportant, that no one else really cares or gives a damn at all…even, possibly, the Almighty?

One man understood those thoughts of despair, but he continued to have hope.

"And so this is Christmas...and what have you done? Another year over, and a New One just begun...."

John Lennon wrote those words (from "Happy Christmas [War is Over]") more than 40 years ago, and he is one of those departed whose vision and presence we especially miss this time of year, and always. In a sort of wonderful irony, I don't believe he ever thought it would become a Christmas song in its own right.

He envisioned a world where such things as want and need and hunger and starvation and war and pain and suffering did not exist...where we could all work together to achieve a common good. We are inching our way to that point, but slowly. More slowly than most of us would like to happen.

So perhaps the answer to some sort of happiness this time of year lies in what Lennon said at the end of "Imagine":

"You can say that I'm a dreamer...but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us...and the world can live as one."

Do what you can. If you can give some of your time or resources to a charity, do so. Make that long-distance call to that friend or loved one far away. Drop some dollar bills or spare change in a Salvation Army red bucket. Give some cans of food to a Food Drive. Go out and marvel at Christmas lights...and look to the sky and stars in wonder and give thanks for what you do have and what changes you can make--or what help you can give--however small. Because it's all a start toward that goal.

And you know what's been build a house--or a better world--one step at a time.

Merry Christmas. Strive to be happy.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Entry 3280 Knocking on Heaven's Door

So, I ask you…

“Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”

Well, it wasn’t the Devil, exactly. But this much is certain….

I almost died. Came very close, actually…perhaps too close.

To digress a bit…recently I’ve written several entries for this here Journal. One included a link to photos, images I’ve captured in the last few months in my travels…but I couldn’t get the link to work. It’s one of those “store your online photos here” sites…and short of giving everyone a password to it, I can’t get it to work the way I think it should.

I started a few topics…but they still await completion. None moved me the way that I like, the way that causes me to want to publish something here. So I kept writing, and working on what I already had written.

On Wednesday October 4, 2006 I was traveling, as I’ve been doing every other week. I had just finished a great meal at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants and was returning to my hotel room about 10 pm when I became painfully aware that I had a kidney stone, which would be my seventh occurrence. No, I don’t know what causes them…yes, I’m taking precautions to prevent return visits, so to speak. I don’t drink unfiltered water or any kind of soft drink (except Gatorade Rain). I try to be sure and drink a lot of fluids. I don’t eat rolls of Rolaids or Tums (like I used to do to fix my recurring heartburn and acid reflux…Prilosec changed all that—thankfully.)

As for the pain…I’ve been told that my maternal grandfather would cry when he got them, and this was a man who raised sixteen children pretty much on his own—he was not one of weak character. It’s been said that it’s the closest pain a man can feel to childbirth. I’m not saying that there’s a similarity—I’m sure childbirth is way more painful, but it’s also a natural development, one that occurs and proceeds pretty much the way it’s supposed to. Kidney stones are not. Try and imagine a cramping, clenching, spastic kind of pain…sharp but undulating. When you get the first stone you’ll do just about anything to make it stop. When the next occurrence arrives (years, months or weeks later) you’ll recognize the sharp spasms as they first appear and prepare for what will likely be hours of suffering.

That night, after about six hours had elapsed--which included two hours of pacing, various attempts to sit/lie down and be moderately comfortable, and about four hot baths--I gave up and had the front desk where I was staying (in Sierra Vista, AZ) call for an ambulance. I didn’t know where the hospital was there…didn’t frankly care at that point either.

I was released about eight hours later…I was given a prescription for pain medication and told to go home (which in my case was back to the hotel room) and pass the stone. In the times before I’ve had kidney stones, it usually ends the same way. The pain center changes, follows a path down into your groin (your urethra)…and ends in your bladder, where you wait for the strange feeling of passing the stone through the end of your urethra. It doesn’t hurt as much as it is a curious and somewhat uncomfortable sensation, as guys aren’t used to feeling something hard coming out of where it comes out.

After a few days I was able to drive back to Tucson, respectful as I was of the pain medication and my weakened condition. And things did not get better…the next day the pain was plastered all along my right side…and it was terrible. I was pretty sure I had felt the stone pass through my urethra on its way to my bladder, but I did not have evidence that I had actually passed it.

There had been an occurrence prior to this—Stone Number Three--when I felt a sharp pain not only as it exited the kidney and started down the urethra, but also the pain within the kidney remained. I panicked at this, visiting an ER in Phoenix (also early in the morning), thinking there could be two stones. I was later told that it was damage to the interior of the kidney that was the cause of that pain…I passed that stone during a bathroom visit while being administered to by the triage nurse. See, there are two schools of thought…one, wait out the passing of the stone; two, drink copious amounts of water and force the stone out, which is much quicker but also much more painful. I had drunk a couple of gallons of water, and could not urinate…so the urge to pee usually means the stone is on its way out.

This is what I thought had happened that Sunday night…that the stone had passed and it was just small damage to the kidney that was the cause of the pain. But meantime I was running a fever and felt out of it…taking the pain pills caused my temperature to rise at least another 3-5 degrees, and I would begin to sweat profusely.

I won’t at this time go into more detail…about the ER that examined me a day or so later, did NOT xray me or use any kind of scan, and abruptly declared, “we know you probably have an infection, but we don’t know where it is or how to treat it, so here’s some pain medication…go home and call your doctor.” Or about the nitwit receptionist who was filling in at my doctor’s office and who kept asking me the most idiotic questions about things over and over, often asking the same questions hours after I had already given her my answers.

Let’s just say that I found myself in another ER several days later, after several hours facing a doctor who told me they were going to have to admit me, as my white blood cell count was “over 20,000” (the normal count is between 4500-10,000); I had a fever, marking an infection; my kidney was torn up inside by several stones, one of which had lodged in the urethra and caused my kidney to essentially burst and rupture, flooding the interior of my abdomen with urine. That was the source of the awful pain…and had the previous ER that had sent me home made an xray or any kind of scan, they would have seen that too.

I got an injection loaded with painkillers…within an hour I was again overheated by it. My hospital gown, the sheet on the bed, my hair, etc. was soaked with sweat. Later that night I tried to sleep…I saw stuff. I mean, STUFF.  I can’t talk about most of it…don’t want people to think I’m nuts. It could’ve been the result of all that was wrong with me, causing me to hallucinate. That’s not what I think, though. I was SUPPOSED to see the stuff…but not necessarily to understand it…at least, right now.

They put a stent inside me…a hollow tube inside my kidney and down through my urethra. This was to promote healing and to help catch the other stones. And gradually I recovered.

So here we are today. The stent will be removed soon. I’m not sure why or how this all happened or how to prevent it again. I will be back at work in a few days, and I suppose all will be back to normal. Or as normal as things can be after you’ve knocked on the door to the Afterlife and have been welcomed inside…if only for a little while.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Entry 3225 Fear of Flying

Ahhh yes, flying. How else to quickly traverse great distances?

Well, I would rather have root canals done to every tooth on an entire side of my face than travel that way.

Hey I'm a high-tech geek...I've said it before and I'll say it again. And I'm also a big science-fiction guy. I embrace technology--I realize that in order to explore the stars we had to have airplane flight. And I've heard all the arguments about how safe it is...more people die in car accidents in one day than in one month of air travel, or something like that.

Yeah, whatever. But when I see all the debris strewn about on the Evening News when one wasn't so safe, well....

I mean, let's face it...planes are heavier than air. Cartoon characters might magically hang in air for a few seconds after running off a cliff or when the jetpack or rocket they're riding runs out of fuel, but the laws of physics have always been mysteriously toothless where 'toons are concerned. Gravity is at its most merciless where huge heavy objects are concerned; and when my car runs out of fuel I pretty much...drift off harmlessly to the side of the road.

So these have always been arguments against air travel...but now there's a whole 'nother reason to have a fear of flying, and it goes like this: September 11, 2001. Ever since that horribly tragic day that changed all our lives (and our way of life) forever, the question has always been not so much where, but when? How do you know that any one or more of your fellow travelers on your plane there aren't terrorists-in-hiding, people who secretly carry a death wish toward Western society in general and Americans in particular?"It couldn't happen again...we're too cautious now." Yeah, well 99% of Americans didn't think it could happen the first time either.

Believe me, if you find yourself in that situation, the best thing you can hope for is a fate like those tragic but unselfish and courageous heroes of Flight 93...whose hijacked plane plowed up acres of real estate near Shanksville, PA; saving the US Capitol (according to Al-Qaeda, who referred to it as "The Faculty of Law") from a similarly fiery World Trade Center scenario.

"So...Mister So-Called Wise Writer...what are we to do? Never fly again...or fly in terror, our hearts in our throats; our knuckles white with fear?"

That, my friends, is exactly what they WANT us to do! That's why they're called TERRORists.

The nation that gave us much of what we are today has been through more than this the First and Second World War, in the Irish Republican Army attacks. The British have a view that perhaps we should learn and adopt... .

No, we cannot give up our way of life. How would we vacation (especially with the cost of gasoline what it is)? How would we be able to conduct business in our corporate world?

How could I now sit here in Greenfield, IN...outside in the sun by the pool, drinking 7&7s and smoking a cigar, listening to Van Morrison on this here iPaq whilst I type these words? 

In the late afternoon of 9/11 while watching CNN I was reminded of words made famous by history...words that I kept thinking about over and over...words that have since been used by many in the same way I thought of them then....

When the bombing of Pearl Harbor was complete, an aide came to Japanese Admiral Yamamoto's room to rouse him from sleep and inform him that the attack was an apparent success. Yamamoto thought a moment, then said "I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant, and filled him with a terrible resolve."

Those words ring oh so true today. We must be that Sleeping Giant...we must find within ourselves that Terrible Resolve.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Entry 3201 The Man in the Light

While many find Friday nights are for fun and excitement, socializing and partying, my schedule often has me working into the later hours of that night. Such it was not long ago, when I was finishing up merchandising products in a local Hispanic supermarket. By the end of the week I’m usually pretty tired and anxious to get done, get home and relax…this week seemed even more so than usual.

I walked out of the store at the completion of my tasks and saw a man standing under one of the few street lights in the parking lot, right by a cart return station. He was playfully scuffling with a dog that he held in his arms, a sort of border collie. As I grew closer I saw that he appeared to be both blind and homeless. He had a beat-up white cane tucked under his arm, and a worn backpack was slung over the other.

Under nearly any circumstance the man would have stood out…he was kind of hard to miss, the only brightly lit object to be found in that lot. However, upon later reflection it is clear to me now that I, particularly, was not to miss him.

Within my belief system lies the idea that we are all put here to help each other--I often give money to homeless people and panhandler sorts. I know that they likely use that money for cigarettes or alcohol, but that’s not my concern. I can’t control what they use it for…and after all, mine is a world based on individual free choices. I have provided them with cash--I have done my part--it’s not my money any more, but theirs to spend (or waste) as they wish.

As I approached the man, his dog now lying by his feet, I could see that he now held a steel bowl with paper taped to it, on which he had written some Bible verses—quotes from the Scriptures. There were other words as well, in a language I could not understand. I placed a couple of dollar bills in his bowl and studied his face. He looked to be Caucasian, middle-aged with handsome sharp-edged features…his eyes were almost completely closed and he was somewhat unshaven but was absent any facial hair. He greeted me and thanked me for my contribution. His voice was clear and somewhat tenor, and his language and diction showed him to be intelligent and well educated. I glanced down at his dog. The poor animal was badly in need of a bath and a good brushing and grooming, but its eyes were clear and bright. As I walked away I told him “May God bless you," which I say to nearly all the homeless/disadvantaged people I meet.

I arrived at my work van and emptied into it the various empty boxes I had accumulated from my visit to the store. I got into the driver’s seat and started away, through the parking lot and towards home…but I could not leave.

Now, I’m not a deeply religious person…but I do believe in a Higher Power of some sort. I have a spiritual nature that allows me to understand and accept what others might question.

By my recollection I drove away and turned around three times…each time that I tried to leave I was overcome with a terrible sense of responsibility…but to whom? To this homeless blind man and his dog, that I did not know? It was getting late…many thoughts flashed through my mind: I was very tired and had yet to eat dinner myself…I had only a little money left that I could have spent to help him.…he wasn’t my responsibility—I can’t help ALL the homeless people, now can I? What was I to do?

Why couldn’t I just be content with leaving him behind, going ahead with my life and he with his? In my tired and hungry state, I kept trying to justify it, driving away but then turning around, realizing it just wasn’t right.

The final time I drove back I was fervently hoping that perhaps he had moved on, wasn’t there anymore. But as I got closer I could see that he was still under that streetlight, his dog still at his feet. I parked nearby and approached him again…I knew what I was going to do…what I would say.

“Hello again,” I greeted him; “are you and your companion hungry?”

“Yes," he responded. He lowered his head somewhat as he said it.

The answer was such that I will never forget. It was full of more honesty than any other I had ever received. Also present in his tone were sorrow but pride, pain but also faith. He drew it out a bit; then clipped it off, said it almost with resignation to his present condition. I cannot begin to properly imitate the manner in which he spoke that simple word.
“I was hoping to get enough”--he shook the bowl, and I could hear a bit of change inside it--“to go shopping inside the store. But I don’t know....” His voice trailed off.

“I'm going to help you with that. Please--wait right here if you would--I’ll see to it that you have something to eat. I’ll be back in a few moments,” I told him.

I had already searched my memory for any fast-food places or taco stands that might be nearby or still open. I hastily walked back into the store…what to get him? The Deli was already closed, so hot food was out of the question--my first choice. I even went so far as to ask some of the employees still working there if there was any hot food left…but to no avail. Trying to think clearly through my weariness and the low blood sugar state I was fast approaching…what to get? The store was fairly small and there wasn’t a lot of selection…and I wasn’t all that familiar with Mexican cuisine and its possibilities. I moved to the pet food aisle and grabbed a small bag of dog food; found a gallon jug of water, then a small bowl for his dog. Lastly I picked up three small cans of Vienna sausages and a package of flour tortillas, hoping that would be enough. As I was short on cash I was trying to keep a running total in my head as I went.

Seven dollars and sixty-four cents. Such a small amount for two that likely needed it so much! But, it was nearly all that I had, and I was also cognizant of his condition…it’s not likely that he had any way of storing or carrying a lot of groceries. I imagined the backpack to be one of his few possessions, and it likely containing the rest of them.
I saw him still standing there as I walked out into the night again, perhaps more than a little hopeful that I would keep my promise and return. I showed him the contents of the shopping cart, explaining as I went, guiding his hands over the items there. I wasn’t sure how much eyesight he really had…I figured he would tell me if he couldn’t see or didn’t understand.

“Okay…here’s a bag of dog food for your companion…here’s a gallon of water for both of you, and a bowl for him to drink from. I’m sorry, the Deli was closed inside, so I couldn’t get you any hot food. But I got you these cans of Vienna sausages…”—“Oh good, good” he said, voicing his approval—“and some flour tortillas that you can wrap them inside, or to eat separately,” I continued.

He thanked me profusely. I shook his hand and he took it into both of his…I told him, in a voice that was starting to waver, “I believe we have a responsibility here to take care of each other.”

“I believe that too,” he said.

Then I added--again, what I nearly always say--”May God bless you!” I had tears in my eyes and emotion was getting the better of me.

“May God bless you as well, my friend! I know He’s watching right now," he said, in a way that seemed to reach inside me the way his previous answer had. I nodded and smiled, and stepped back a bit before my emotions completely overcame me. He slipped his collection bowl into his backpack, and he now began pushing the shopping cart toward the sidewalk, seeking refuge behind the store to enjoy his meal--such as it was. I started to walk briskly to the van, and in a voice choked with emotion I called back over my shoulder, “He needs to watch over you!”
I got in and started to drive away. With my eyes full of tears I said out loud, “I wish I could have done more!

I drove home that way, wiping away tears, thinking about what had just happened.

I never saw him again. There have been several times when I have found myself in that same area at that same time, but he’s not been there. I’ve sort of watched for him…I am convinced that there was something very special that happened that night. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to completely understand not only what happened, but also what it all meant. For now, I believe that I might have been tested in some way--and I hope that I was able to pass that test. I’ve read and have been told that it doesn’t happen at a convenient time, or when you are best able to cope with it…quite the opposite.

As for the Man in the Light--when I am experiencing trying and difficult times, I am aware of a strange presence, and I think of him. It's as if someone is right there with me.

Perhaps he was some sort of angel…maybe He was even more than that.