Many Hands Make Light Work

planter

Two large decorative pots stood guard outside of the apartment doors like stone lions, but cheap and temporary. Inside of the pots, weeds grew tall and unchecked with cigarette butts and trash as fertilizer.   This was an embarrassing problem as a volunteer group was currently en route to check on their beautification project from last summer.

The volunteers were a group of well-meaning housewives from the very far north side of the city where they almost certainly did not use planters as an ashtray or trashcan.

“You,” I shouted, “Stop right there,”

A man wearing a pair of basketball shorts with skinny legs froze in action, he was caught red handed or in this case with the glowing cherry of a nearly finished cigarette that was about to be stubbed out in one of the pots. He looked up with wide eyes, aware of his unmistakable culpability in the situation.

“I need your help, Chicken Legs.”

It was not a question but a demand and a sentence for his crime against potted flowers and beautification projects everywhere.

“Hey, Miss Puney. It’s not what it looks like; I don’t usually leave these here but just this one time.  Sure I’ll help; anything you need.”

Walking closer and peering into the pot, there were 15 to 20 white cigarette butts haphazardly placed as though seeds strewn by a careless farmer hopeful for tiny cigarette packs to one day grow.

“Just this once, huh?”

I shook my head at the discrepancy of his words and my observations.

“It doesn’t matter now. The volunteers are on their way and we have to get these pots ready for them.”

“The volunteers?”

Chicken Legs was unfamiliar with the women who were about to descend upon us, leaving a trail of Chanel No. 5 in their wake. They would not be pleased to find a butter knife, a discarded juice pack, a tangle of weeds of an uncertain number of cigarette butts.

“Please help me to clear these pots.”

Chicken Legs heard the anxiety in my voice and nodded, “You got it.”

Together, we set out on our mission under the hot sun of late May. By the time the women arrived, we were sweating and suspiciously dirty but the pots were ready for their petunias, begonias and ivy for a fresh summer look.

I gave wink and a thumbs-up to Chicken Legs when it was all over and released him from his sentence.

Many hands do make light work.

A Day in the Life

Notorious

Two men stood outside of the brick building, smoking cigarettes. The taller of the two kicked at a clump of weeds and inhaled at his Marlboro, while the other worked an orange, plastic lighter through his nicotine stained fingers.

“Did they install your A/C yet?” the taller man asked.

“Nah, they told me there was something going on with maintenance. You think we’ll have them by August?” the man said with a laugh and continued to practice with the lighter like an unlikely baton twirler before a high school football game.

“I put a fan in my window, but it’s just blowing the hot air around. It’s like the desert in there.”

Beads of perspiration popped out on the taller man’s forehead, he wiped it with the back of his hand.

“Whew, it’s hot,” he declared. “But its cooler out here than it is up there,” he gestured with his eyes in the direction of his apartment, too drained from the heat to lift his arm to point.

A woman emerged from the door of the house next to the apartment building. She wore a neon swimsuit top with white washed, cut-off jean shorts that were pulled up over her belly button. Perhaps most noticeable was the mean looking, black and purple bruise around her left eye.

“Hey boys,” she rasped to the men with a grimace that was as close to a smile as possible.

She fished out a lighter from her high-waisted pocket and uncurled her fingers from around a Pall Mall.

“How’s your old lady?” she asked the taller man.

Sensing a follow up question, the man answered with a reserved, “She’s ok,” and waited.

His companion interrupted the pause with a snort, “She’s been cooking again. I smelled the burned food all the way over in my place,” he chortled.

The woman lit her cigarette and took a deep drag with no small amount of pleasure.

Exhaling a dragon-like stream of smoke through her mouth and nose, she continued, “Does she smoke? You tell her to come over and visit anytime she gets sick of you. We can garden and smoke a little herb.”

A shadow darkened the doorway from which the woman had previously emerged and a man with strands of long gray hair appeared.

“Theresa,” he barked with a tone that threatened of another bruise, this time to her right eye.

The men outside stopped smoking and looked at each other; the reputation of this neighbor preceded him via the frequent bruises of his partner.

“That’s just my ol’ man, you know how he gets.”

Theresa took another long drag of her cigarette before dropping it onto the grass and walking away with a wave. Smoke curled from the end of the abandoned cigarette, briefly burning before it extinguished itself.

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Lost Perspective

compass

Lifestyle

In working with people who spend the night on the streets or in a shelter and depend on food stamps and vouchers, it is easy to lose perspective. In fact, I may be writing from a lost perspective now.

I am in a world in which cigarettes hold more value than milk and employment is menial and miserable.  The kids are frequently reported for bruises and bed bugs.  There are no healthy relationships, it’s use or be used.  A survival of not the fittest, but the most street smart, the most savage and aware of the systems from which they must either decide to manipulate or leave for the unknown.

Those who stay breed the next generation who are certain to take up their parents’ torch.

It’s a dark realm, almost like an alternate reality that is better kept a secret, in the underground, or for movie settings from which an impoverished savant is able to rise from dregs of society to that of the rich and famous.

Only in that case, the fictional or the legendary-once- in a lifetime situation, is it an interesting place and the desperation is palatable for the rest of the world, knowing that there is a light to shine from the darkness, a ray of hope for those who have nothing other than plastic bag of raggedy clothes and a headful of lice.

The lost perspective.

The Cost of Healthcare

blood pressure

“Why don’t you just go to the doctor?” my husband asks after hearing my chest crack and pop.

“It’s complicated,” I moan in pain.

Maybe he doesn’t know about the extent of my white coat syndrome and that merely making an appointment makes my heart race and my palms get sweaty. Or that as a kid, I never went to the doctor outside of ingesting a battery or being covered with purple lesions.  And if we did go, it always resulted in the occurrence of something uncomfortable or more painful than the original issue.

As an adult, there is little difference except that now the pain comes from the initial cost of the copay and then later the portion of the bill not covered through insurance.

“It’s all explained in your insurance policy,” the customer service rep explains. “You know, in the really fine print. You agreed to pay for anything not covered when you signed in to see Dr. Gulash.”

Trickery and crooks! I scream in my mind, and then passively settle on a monthly payment of six months to pay off the balance.  It’s easier than taking a stand and getting sent to collections.   The bitter sting of that bill is still on my mind as I refuse to get the cracking and popping evaluated, not just yet anyway.

Let’s follow the journey of Papa Puney who decided not to wait until there were no other options and his proactive approach to his healthcare.

Papa Puney is fit man in his fifties; he sits in a hard plastic chair at the doctor’s office, off to the side and away from the sick people. There are stacks of germ covered magazines next to a pump bottle of hand sanitizer.  It’s a nice gesture but too little too late for most.

He calmly waits and peruses through emails and Facebook on his phone.   He has been working to lower his blood pressure through diet, exercise and limiting his views on the Donald’s latest tweets.   He moves his upper lip unconsciously and the mustache above it bristles out, not unlike a well groomed porcupine, as he flips through the online posts.

A young woman with dry, dyed black hair pops her head out of the door next to the receptionist’s desk.

“Mr. Papa Puney?”

She holds the door open with shiny, red nails. The man looks up in acknowledgement of his name.

“We’re ready for you now.”

Opening the door wider, she waits for the proactive patient to follow her down a tile hallway that smells of antiseptic cleaner.

The woman chews gum as she leads the man into his own room.   PP feels a seed of irritation begin to grow with each snap and pop of the gum.

“Sit right here and the nurse practitioner will be right in,” she gestured with her hand to another hard backed chair.

“Wait a minute, what about the doctor?”

“Oh, he is too busy to see you today. The NP will be right in,” the woman explains cheerfully and leaves before PP can say anything else.

PP waits and feels his heart rate increasing and the blood pulsing through his veins. PP waits and waits, keeping busy by cruising the internet until he reaches the end of the interwebs and still he waits.

Finally, the door opens and a chubby blonde woman in her early thirties with purple Crocs enters the room.

“Hey there, Bub, what’s going on with this blood pressure of yours?”

“Bub?” PP asks.

He feels a pounding in his head as his blood pressure rises like a tribal drum urging him on to stand and leave. No, this is not going to work.  There are other ways to lower blood pressure.   PP excuses himself from the clinic and takes a trip to Burger King to reassess his health goals and the price of proactivity.

Bub out.

Timely

What Spring Brings

Pleased

There are no leaves on the trees, but the grass already needs to be cut. Daffodils that survived a surprise freeze of early Spring are popping up and joined by red and pink tulips and green hostas.

A barefoot woman stands on the front porch shaking a plastic bag of trail mix. She takes a few steps forward and begins to yell towards a tree in a high pitched voice, usually reserved for things that are small and furry.

“Sneaky, come down here, Sneaky.”

On the street, a man slowly rides by on a bike with a wicker basket. He cranes his neck but only sees tiny green buds beginning to develop on the branches.  There is nothing to match the description of what he imagines to be a Sneaky.

You just never know, he thinks, and holds down the contents of the basket on the front of his bike. It is overflowing with a shrubbery that he acquired from the yard of his out of town neighbors.

“Sneaky, its snack time.”

The woman shakes the bag again and this time a man watches from inside of the house. With one finger, he lifts the blind up a little higher and peers out with a pair of blue eyes.   As much as he wants to look away, he cannot bring himself to do it.  He is running through his options on which family member would sign the involuntary commitment paperwork.

“Trust us, it’s for your own good.”

He envisions the woman being lifted up and carried out by men in matching white scrubs.  He sees her little legs kicking as she squirms to escape and feels a sense of guilt in the pit of his stomach for letting his imagination take his wife away in a straight jacket.

Laughter from the sidewalk brings the man’s focus back.

The woman’s hand is extended with a pile of almonds on her palm from which a little brown squirrel is selecting the best nut.

“Only the best for you, Sneaky.”

She looks back, intuiting that she had an audience of one, and raises one eyebrow.

“Told you so,” she says with a shrug and a smile.

She is most pleased; Sneaky returned as did her creditability, all in few, short minutes.

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The Guilty Witness

“Before we get started, I want to say that wasn’t a crack pipe in my suitcase.”

This was not a good way to start an interview, especially with a detective, I thought as I casually eavesdropped on the men. I peeked around the corner and then returned to my position, busily typing away at pointless notes, listening all the while.

A good natured detective sat next to the man. He held his thumb on the record button of a slender, silver device while the corner of his mouth tugged upwards. He had yet to ask any questions and already the information was pouring forth, and like a tipped over bottle of malt liquor, it stunk.

“Ok,” the detective agreed. “We are in agreement that the pipe found in the suitcase was not used for smoking crack. Can you explain what it was used for?”

They reached a consensus so quickly, I marveled. It is easier to swim with the flow of the stream rather than to resist it.  There is a Buddhist quote in there somewhere.  I made a search of the internet of swimming upstream and found reference to a crappy Australian movie.

“Weed,” the man said with a nervous laugh. “I smoke weed.”

Oh great, that’s much better than crack. I rolled my eyes and continued my search.

Found a better quote, “Three things cannot be hidden long: the sun, the moon and the truth.”

“I see, you smoke a little reefer,” the detective said with a nod.

The tugging at the corner of the detective’s mouth gave way to a smile. He had nice clean teeth, all accounted for in a straight line of healthy white.  He was really jiving now, pulling out his street lingo for drugs.

Suddenly, the man received a message on his phone. He got up and announced, “I’ve got to smoke a cigarette.  I’ll be right back.”

He went across the street, forgetful or unaware of the window through which the detective was able to watch him walk up to a car and make mysterious transaction and return without once lighting a cigarette.

Namaste, little brother, the truth will almost certainly not set you free and it will all be known soon enough.

 

 

Dancers and Fighters

fire

“The guy was here and you blew him off.”

“No, I didn’t. The guy never showed.”

“Yes, he was here; his name was on the sign-in sheet.”

The two spar back and forth, dodging shots to the head and heart.

As luck would have it, they are seated next to each other. It’s easier to engage this way. Red spreads across the man’s eyes and brain; he flares his nostrils as he passes the blame to the blameless.

“He was here, he told me you forgot about the appointment,” the woman continues.

Others sat on either side of the pair, secretly hopeful for a Jerry Springer type of escalation in which no less than one chair was thrown by the end.

They are close to yelling now but neither are listening, both firm in their righteous indignation. Still the others watch as curious spectators and cautious observers, complacent with the new status quo of alternative facts and disenfranchised minorities.

The rhythm is off as they dance around the growing fire, unaware of the flames, or of the short and temporary separation from savagery that they have traversed only so very recently.

Rhythmic

The Benefits of Strep Throat

Image result for cup of tea

“Something is off,” I said in a rasp.

It was still dark outside, an early morning in the Midwest, as I prepared for the day. Two cats lounged in front of me, licking at their fur and stretching.  They were thoroughly unconcerned with the trials of their human-keeper.

I tried to swallow and felt razor blades cutting into my throat which was slightly more concerning than the sound of my voice.   Gingerly, I reached up to touch the affected area and discovered a golf ball sized gland just under my jaw and felt certain that it was not there last night.

One feline stopped grooming just long enough to acknowledge my ailing presence and meowed with a rather mean expression that seemed to say, “Just make sure we get our kibble.”

The two bullies left the room and their mistress for a pursuit of a higher calling, kicking litter out of their boxes.

Flushed with fever, I fanned my face. I had to get to work; there was the already overdue report that was only halfway done, clients in need of bus tickets, referrals, supportive listening, and my new coworker with a history of forgetting to return to work after lunch breaks who required constant supervision.  There was so much to do and such little time.  I couldn’t waste a single minute before Christmas, New Year’s, and the time off in between.  Could everything wait, I wondered with my soon-to-be-boiling-from-fever- brain?

“Yo, this some B.S. right here,” I could hear my coworker’s most used line as I felt the massive lump on my neck and tried to swallow again, as though the last time was an anomaly. The lump and pain were both still in place. After a quick inspection of the back of my throat in the mirror, white spots were added to the list of issues that led to a trip to Urgent Care where I was diagnosed with strep throat and kept from work for at least a day.

How dare they take me off work? I raged for about a minute and then accepted my quarantine orders. I read, napped, dutifully took my medicine and provided kibble to the gang of cats that rove through our tiny house and remembered the importance of taking care of me.

Sometimes it takes getting physically stopped in one’s tracks, rendered unable to eat or drink, and restricted from work to actually stop for a break and realize that if you give everything away, there’s nothing left for you or those who love you at home. I took the day and my antibiotics and returned to work rested and ready for the final push before the holidays.

I slowed down and re-prioritized, de-stressed, drank more tea than booze (until 12/31/16) and started saying no to unnecessary responsibilities.  And that’s how strep throat saved me in a painful and contagious sort of way from self-destructing over the holidays and with any luck in 2017.

On the Cellular Level

phones
Obsessed
I have a not-so-secret love affair/obsession with my i-phone and technology in general. It’s the world in my hands and at my fingertips. If I want to find out how long to boil corn or how to change a flat tire, the rationale behind string theory or the number of monkeys in the jungle, it is all there waiting to be summoned from the mysterious depths of the internet.   As wonderful as it is to have access to endless information, it is not my main reason to constantly check my phone or computer.

For me, it’s for the sense of connection that texts and emails offer and the validation that a like via thumbs up or a star provides.  I constantly check and recheck emails and text messages and stats, giving too much time and value to the number of views or comments left.  A void opens up in my chest when there is no activity.  No calls, no texts, no views or comments.  I am alone in the world and my loneliness   is a black hole that threatens to swallow me.

Why do I allow myself to go through this torment over something that is as unreal and fleeting as phantasmagoria? All of it is smoke and mirrors, an intangible and impossible replacement for a real human connection and genuine approval.  Yet, it is to technology that I continue to turn for entertainment, comfort and interaction and my anxiety around real people grows.

I am quite certain that I am not alone in this. I went on a bike ride with my husband, a real person, last weekend. We rode through a town in which people were gathered on park benches, waited in line for a restaurant and were seated at tables with steaming hot plates of food.  Every single person on the benches had their phones out, they texted, played music and threw poke’ balls.  Almost every other person at the restaurant had their phone next to their plate or in their hand.  While standing in line, the people glanced at their phone or flipped through screens, some punched in messages or played games.

We rode onward and I felt a profound sense of sadness at the scene as it seemed like a fair representation of the greater population. There is a human desperation to feel a part of something greater, linked to others, approved and liked.  Through technology, we have the ability to be constantly connected, no matter the distance.  However, the closer the physical proximity, the less use or ability people have for a quality connection.

I am pledging to put my devices away for a bit and to appreciate the reality that surrounds me, to engage with other people, and to be present in my interactions. For the weekend, I will have to seek validation from within myself and connection with those in my household, on my block, and in my life.

Get ready husband and cats, we are about to have a seriously engaged weekend.

 

A quiet day with Chicken-Little

Sanctuary

Earl has not returned as planned.

I am left alone with my thoughts and the tortuous sounds of a dying air-conditioner.

Brrrr….brrr…bleh…..brrr….brrr….bleh….I am unsure how much more time the unit has left, but it can’t be long. There is no home appliance hospice that I can call to quiet its final days or a minister to read its final rites.  It must die on its own terms and then we will make do with the wide range of illegitimate services offered by Junkman.  In the meantime, I turn up the radio to drown out the brrr…brrr…bleh… and send a message to find out Earl’s whereabouts.

Could it be that he is in the hospital? Stuck on the side of the road with a flat or engine trouble?  Was he saving a kitten from a tree or helping an elderly woman across the street with her groceries.

I know that something is wrong; it is unlike him to be four hours late on a Monday. Or more accurately, it WAS unlike him before this summer.  When the message came through from the once ever so reliable and committed Earl, I spluttered out the hot tea I was sipping in a spray of disbelief.

He meant to take the day off; he just never got around to making the request, formally or informally.

No sorry or my bad. He was offended in an unaware, teenage type of way that taking the day off without previous notification of any sort was an issue.  Like duh, can’t you read my mind, he might have said if he was a few decades younger.  Instead, he texted, a clear sign of the times, “c u tmw.”

Perhaps even more surprising, this explanation was accepted by our supervisor as one of those things that sometimes happen. With no further questions, the case was closed, chalked up to the miscommunication of a senior moment.

In this, a fortunate new precedent has been set, whether my supervisor is aware or not, one in which intention is just as good as filling out the time off form and following through with the two required signatures at least one week in advance. This opens the door to so many wonderful opportunities, like sleeping in and texting mid-morning that I simply won’t be coming in today.  Did I not submit a form?  Well, I meant to, so that’s enough, right?

Things are changing, every day and in every way. People are giving slack in the rope as they pull the strings tight in other areas.  The chicken-littles cry that the sky is falling while others refuse to even take the time to look up.  It is preposterous, the sky can never fall.  Perhaps we will stop saying what is impossible when the clouds get stuck in the trees and the sky’s blanket of blue is held up by those few who are still standing.

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Maybe Earl won’t come back and I will join the rank of chicken-littles crying that the end is nigh or maybe just plan to take an unplanned day for myself.

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