Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Life is Beautiful



***
Life is beautiful
always and ever,
though poorly perceived
through the dirty lens
that overlies the
eye of the soul.
A pure heart
apprehends it fully,
which means it is
something I must
simply accept on faith,
catching glimpses
through my children
who have yet to
become so sullied
by the demands
of a life-defying
culture that fosters
self-centered insatiety
as an ill-conceived norm.
I see myself as
someone who makes
capricious attempts
at capturing
it through art
and creativity,
but above all
through love,
however feeble.
***

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Doctor



They rolled her into the Emergency Room looking like Sleeping Beauty-on-a-stretcher, her long blond hair framing a pale face, unmoving, unresponsive, signs of trauma conspicuously missing. She appeared to be in her mid teens, eyes closed, and wearing a dress which in and of itself was an unusual sight in the ER. A physical exam, labs and imaging of her head had turned up nothing. The ER physician on duty appreciated the challenge of a good medical mystery, but he also knew when his job was done and a more extensive workup was needed. This zebra hunt would have to continue up on the medical floor. He took a moment to appreciate the oddness of this particular presentation, run through a differential in his head one last time, and then sign the order to have the patient transferred to the medical service. She was wheeled out of the ER as serenely as she had entered.

***

The hospitalist who had accepted the patient stared at the computer screen, frustrated that there were no red flags flying in the margins to alert him to what was wrong. The physical exam had been equally unhelpful and the hope of catching something the ER physician had missed was starting to peter out.  He scratched at his beard and fiddled with his coffee cup that sported the message "crazy days and Mondays always get me down" which got him humming. The lush alto of Karen Carpenter began crooning in his head and proved to be a helpful trigger. It sparked thoughts of anorexia and then mental illness in general which led him to the realization that this was a job for a psychiatrist.

He grabbed her chart and wrote an order for a Behavioral Health consult, "Rule out catatonia." The consult was marked "urgent," but that was a bit of a cheat. She was breathing normally and her vitals were stable. It was urgent in the sense that doctors fear the unknown and the consequences that can come from missing something. It should have been obvious from the get-go, but psychiatric problems are not something that many medical professionals are comfortable with or consider except as a last resort. And this is how it should be. A medical reason that could put the patient's life at risk if not identified had to be pursued and ruled out first and foremost.

The hospitalist placed the chart in the New Orders slot for the unit clerk to enter into the computer. He did so with a sense of relief that other minds would be brought to bear on the problem. This also allowed him to move on to see other patients who were starting to accumulate on his rounding list. The clerk snatched up the new orders and entered them into the computer. Her typed words were transformed into 1's and 0's and sent along strands of copper wire insulated by rubber tubing. In a quirk of cosmic necessity a 1 and a 0 traded places, diverting the request down an unknown pathway.

Within seconds of the clerk hitting the enter key, the elevator doors slid open and out stepped a peculiar fellow. No one paid particular attention to him as he made his way to the patient's room. The clerk assumed it was the consultant and was too busy to realize that the timing was not only not right, but impossible.

***

Alone with the patient, the doctor placed his hand gently on her forehead as if feeling for a fever. He looked out through the window and over the city, losing himself in an approaching bank of dark clouds. A jagged line of lightning flickered, mirroring the line of his brow. He drew in a deep breath and released it slowly as thunder rolled into and around the hospital.

He exited the room and headed down the hall to look for a particular door. He found it due to its out-of-place appearance. It was too old, too narrow, and with an outdated air vent in the bottom. The door and what lay behind it had somehow been overlooked in all of the updates that had modernized the hospital's interior. In a word, it had been forgotten. It was a bathroom and the interior was not much bigger than a closet. Pink tiles covered the walls and the floor was covered with smaller tiles of pink shadings.

He stood there for a moment staring at the wall, the side of his pant leg touching the lip of the commode. He traced patterns in the air without touching the tiles until he appeared satisfied. A sequence of squares were then tapped in quick succession, the hidden pattern made visible by the faint glow of each tile touched. As he made contact with the last one the entire sequence flashed simultaneously and the room appeared to rotate out of itself taking the doctor along with it. He found himself on the opposite side of the wall in a mirror image of the old bathroom. The colors and quality of light were different, but not in a way that he could have explained to anyone not on that side.

He exited the bathroom and immediately perceived what appeared to be a translucent tube coming from his chest and terminating in a nurse standing nearby. As she turned and acknowledged him a flicker of colored light traversed the tube towards him. The doctor was pleased that he'd found the proper place to do his work and set off to return to the patient's room. He had to remember to turn left when before it was right and vice versa. Further complicating matters was a webwork of crisscrossing tubes that ran between people, lights pulsing and shifting through them like a neuronal matrix. This resulted in having to backtrack a time or two, but eventually he found the patient's room and shut the door behind him.

***

The tube connecting them was inert. He watched the rise and fall of her chest, bringing his own breathing into sync with hers. A pattering of rain drops hit the window. With each exhalation he sent a faint pink pulse through the tube towards the patient. This went on for several minutes without change until he noticed a hitch in the patient's breathing. Discordant pulses began to slowly course in the opposite direction of the pink ones. The tube thickened to accommodate the two way traffic.

The doctor began to sweat profusely as images and sensations began to come into his awareness. She was no longer in the hospital room. A trusted presence was standing too close to her and breathing too hard. Out of respect she had not moved away, pretending not to notice that something very dark was trying to envelope her mind even as her body desperately wanted to run and hide. She sensed the desire extending towards her like a ravenous beast that would destroy her for its own pleasure. She heard the familiar voice trying to soothe her, "It's OK. Don't be afraid." The doctor stood as an unseen witness to what was unfolding between this young girl and a much older man. When the man's hand made contact with her an internal switch was thrown, a fail-safe, and she crumpled to the floor.

The doctor stood with her in this dark place where she had sequestered herself. There was only blackness in all directions. He extended his hand in a pointing gesture and a bright spot appeared at his finger tip as his arm reached its full extension. It was a small point of light that continued to shine even as he lowered his arm back to his side. A twitch of her eyes under closed lids betrayed the fact she sensed the change. Her head slowly rotated towards the light and her limbs began to find themselves. In wobbly fits and starts she pulled herself up into a standing position and then began to sleep walk towards the light with her eyes still shut. It grew larger as she approached it. She was oblivious to the doctor's presence beside her. He did not interfere, but encouraged her nonetheless in ways that were available to him. When the circle of light had grown to a stable size she stepped through it with a slight duck of her head.

***

Her eyes opened and peered at the ceiling of her hospital room. She felt the warmth of the sun coming in through the window and she turned to see a blue sky with patchy clouds breaking up in the wind. The room was empty and she wondered how it was that she'd gotten here. Outside the room the clerk glanced up from her keyboard in time to see the elevator doors gliding shut on the doctor.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Floating Over a Dark Place



***

She is three years old,
a warm ball of roundedness
sleeping on our morning bed
in an expectant state of un-
wakeful perceptiveness.

I can't resist to kiss her shoulder.
She rolls over and fixes me
with dreamy eyes and a lost smile.
"That's how you float over
a dark place," she confides.

Was it the kiss as protective talisman
or something deeper in her burgeoning
experience of the world, where the
realness of a thing is not so concrete
as matter and linearity, cause or effect?

***

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

After Midnight


***
Where does one walk
after midnight
on the bad side of town?
A chain-link fence to the left,
street curb to the right,
being funneled to
who knows where
to do who knows what.
A boarded up church sits
alone and abandoned
on a street corner.
You try the doors,
but they are locked so
you sit on the wide
concrete steps feeling
the cold through your pants.
You ponder your existence,
feeling rudderless and lost,
but free to roam the night
and think your thoughts
which can be summed up by
"why the hell am I here?"
***


Friday, September 19, 2014

Ancient Swag



We (and by "we" I mean "Anya") lost our remote control a few months ago and we have only had access to one channel until just this past week. To make matters worse, the one channel that was on when the remote was lost was the Disney Channel which made it the only game in town.  On the up side, the kids have watched less TV and we've been able to delve into some pretty cool movies that I've accumulated for them over the years, most notably animated films by Hayao Miyazaki.

Last week we decided to move our computer and modem out of the guest room to start transforming that space into Anya's room.  The cable guys came out to help make the transfer and while they were here, they provided us with a new remote control and we got back the multitude of cable channels.  After the kids went to bed I clicked through a channel at a time to manually block each one that looked to be iffy or outright inappropriate.  I judged this by my own reactions ranging from "ewww!" (ego dystonic)  to "ohhh!" (ego syntonic).

When I'd reached the upper limits of the channels I started finding some that I'd not seen before or even knew existed.  One in particular caught my attention as I recognized the person of Jimmy Swaggart, the famous pentecostal preacher and televangelist.  It most have been recorded some time in the 80's as he looked quite young with his big glasses and shiny forehead.  He was trimmer and fitter looking than I'd remembered him, but with the same habit of pacing the platform and using nonstop hand gesturing to tell his stories.

What caught and held my attention was what he was describing.  He was describing the ancient worship of the Jewish people in very reverent and awed tones.  His hands outlined the angels overlooking the ark/altar.  He described the priestly duties and the prescribed timing of particular actions during the year.  He picked up an imaginary coal from the fire and said in a hushed voice, "And the smoke from the incense filled the temple for worship of the most high God."

As I listened to his captivating description I found myself swept up in visions of the Divine Liturgy and it occurred to me that if he had stepped foot into an Orthodox Church at that time, far from extolling its fidelity in maintaining this ancient pattern of worship, he would have likely condemned it as "dead ritual" and idolatry.  I would not have understood the irony as a teen in the 80's, but it strikes me now that he was putting on some "ancient swag."

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Lion Weeps Tonight





I had been a member of the local Lion's Club chapter for just over a year when I knew it was time to make a play for being the lion.  The Memorial Day parade was coming up and they asked for a volunteer to wear the lion costume to walk the one and a half mile route.  I felt I had the required skill set to bring it to life and was excited for the opportunity.  It was quite a handsome outfit that completely covered the wearer from head to toe for the full immersive experience.  The tail was long and thick with a tuft of hair on the end that could easily be snatched up and used as a humorous prop.  The head itself was large and impressive, sporting a regal yet bemused expression, or so I imagined it.

I tried it on at one of my fellow Lion's house with my six year old son in tow as a trial audience.  She had worn it last at an indoor event and the suit was folded up inside the lion's head in the corner of her living room.  The head was so large that it needed suspender-like straps looped under the armpits to hold it in place.  With the head firmly attached, they helped me pull on the body of the suit and zip it up the back.  The gloves came on last and there I stood like a claustrophobic astronaut preparing for a moon walk.  I bent forward at the waist to line up the eye mesh so that I could see my son.  He had a great goofy grin on his face, but then I stepped back, grabbed the tail, and began twirling it while doing a little jig.  He immediately burst into laughter.

***

The decision to join the Lion's Club was inspired by my friendship with Kevin McCarty.  He was born with retinoblastoma, a cancer whose treatment left him with just one eye of limited vision.  Despite this obvious limitation, he made the unobvious choice of developing his talent as a visual artist.   By the time I'd met him in college he was in his late twenties and had become a fine oil painter with an impressionistic style that was unique in its vibrant use of color and texture.  Our friendship grew over several years to include at least two opportunities to sit as a model for him.  These were marathon sessions that lasted through the day and night in his small studio apartment.  The place was cluttered with large canvasses at various states of completion, some hanging and others leaning against the walls.  The hardwood floor was speckled with dried paint drops and the air smelled of pipe smoke and paint thinner.  Many of the human figures in these paintings lacked faces. He was fiercely proud of his work, but he admitted to me that he struggled with painting faces.  I imagine that faces over stressed his ability to discern details due to his extremely poor vision.

The one thing hanging from his walls that was not a painting or sketch was a large poster from the TV series "Beauty and the Beast", a show that ran in the late 80's for a few years.  The show's star was named Vincent and his face resembled a lion which was further enhanced by a full head of hair resembling a mane.  He lived in subterranean passages and mostly limited his contact with the wider world to the "Beauty" of the title.  The radiation treatments Kevin had received as a child had malformed his skull in such a way that he bore some resemblance to Vincent with his deep set eyes.  He felt a kinship with this character whose situation and appearance imposed a barrier of sorts between him and those around him.  It was the romantic archetype of the misunderstood loner.

***

As a point of curiosity, the Lion's Club is the world's largest philanthropic organization and very early on in its existence it took a special interest in helping those with blindness and/or visual impairment.  This came about after Hellen Keller addressed their international convention at Cedar Point, Ohio in 1925 and left a powerful impression on the attendees.  In early 2010 I read about a new chapter being started in my town in our local newspaper and I immediately thought about Kevin who had died the year previous due to a recurrence of cancer related to the radiation treatments he'd received as a child.  It was a terrible several year ordeal that involved him progressively losing bones in his head to surgery and culminating in the loss of his one functioning eye so that when death finally caught up with him he was completely blind.

The meetings were at noon on Mondays twice a month and I was able to attend by driving up from the hospital on my lunch break.  Having been a perpetual student for so many years through medical school, residency, and then a three year stent in the Army I felt like this was my first bona fide extracurricular adult-type activity, and at forty one year's of age I was one of the youngest in attendance.  We met at the  Holiday Inn near my house which had several smallish conference rooms that we rotated through.  The other members were heavily weighted towards people from the local business community with a police officer and a fireman or two sprinkled in.  There was also a small group of women who were staff members from our local library who had aggressively recruited their colleagues for membership.  The Memorial Day parade would be an opportunity to advertise our presence in the community and continue the process of growing the membership of this fledgling group.

***

The day arrived and it was the hottest Memorial Day in recent memory with temperatures in the nineties.  My wife tried to talk me out of walking the full route in the lion suit, but I was determined to accept the challenge.  It was so hot that she opted to keep our children at home.  I rendezvoused with the other members at the parade staging area near the end of the line with the lion suit folded into a large plastic Ikea bag on my shoulder.  I had spent much of the morning hydrating regularly, but taking care not to over do it as I would not be able to take a potty break once things got started.  My other strategy included wearing a thin loose fitting muscle t-shirt with baggy shorts and Birkenstock sandals.  While waiting for the parade to start there was a lot of joking around about my unenviable task, but also assurances that everyone would be looking out for me due to the heat and lack of visibility once I donned the head piece.

As the last few minutes ticked down to start the parade, they helped me get the suit on and talked me into riding in the convertible instead of walking.  I sat on the back of the car with my feet resting on the back seat and was handed a large umbrella to keep the sun off of me.  The parade began to creep forward towards the starting point and I closed my eyes and bowed my head in a kind of meditative state to conserve my energy, not knowing what to expect or how well I'd tolerate the whole ordeal.  It was a moment to appreciate the surrealness of being inside the cavernous lion's head with sound muffled, hearing my own breathing,  and feeling the glide of the vehicle underneath me.  The driver looked back at me and tapped my leg, "How are you doing in there?"  I gave him a thumb's up and looked around to see that we were beginning to hit the area where people had begun to line the parade route.

I started waving and caught glimpses of small children looking directly at me with huge smiles on their faces, waving frantically.  I felt a kind of adrenaline rush and collapsed the umbrella to throw it onto the floorboard while swinging my legs over the door to catapult myself out and away from the car to clear my tail.  I ran to the edge of the street to high five the children and look into their laughing eyes at close range.  I walked, danced, and stutter-stepped the rest of the way in a kind of half-blind euphoria, trying to run back and forth to either side of the street to catch as many kids as I possibly could while the parade moved inexorably on.

At about the halfway point of the parade I became acutely aware of the reality that I was wearing a furry costume with gloves and an overly large hairy helmet while running around in the direct sun of a blistering hot day while on pavement.  I couldn't quite believe that I felt so comfortable and that the time was going by so fast.  The street had broadened and I was weaving in and out of the other Lion's Club members to get from one side of the street to the other.  Their smiles were as infectious as the kids lining the parade route and I could only imagine what I must have looked like in my playful lion personae.  I could tell they appreciated what I was doing for the club by drawing attention to the signs and banners which trumpeted our various philanthropic activities.  A friend of ours from the community who had three boys at street side later told me the lion was their favorite part of the parade.

***

Towards the end I began to feel some of the fatigue catching up with me and the wetness that had soaked into my clothes.  The hot air sitting inside the lion's head was stale and musty.  I saw one more family sitting in lawn chairs on a street corner with a small boy in their lap and I trotted over to give him a high five.  Walking back onto the street I found myself looking at a sculpture from our local Arts Center which had been in front of us throughout the parade route.  It was now even with me and the driver was outside of his car securing the sculpture to its trailer with straps.  I thought this was odd and so I rotated my head to look to the front of his car only to find a mostly empty street with a few vehicles from the parade dispersing in the distance.  I turned to look the opposite direction to find my group and there was no one there.  No one.  Nothing.  The parade had ended at least a block back from where I stood and as the Arts Center guy pulled away I was left totally alone on the street.

I was at a complete loss.  There was no more parade and I was standing on the street almost two miles from where I'd parked my car in a lion costume in ninety degree heat.  I wandered over to the sidewalk and looked around some more in a state of bewilderment and indecision.  I didn't want to peal off my suit right there where some kids might see.  Somehow I had the idea that the illusion of the lion must be maintained until I could go somewhere out of sight and take it off.  A small cinder block funeral home was the nearest building to me and it had a few trees beside it.  I absent-mindedly noted from the sign that it specialized in cremation services.  As if in a daze I made my way back to stand under the shade of a tree and began the process of taking off the lion costume.  I stuffed the body of it into the lion's head and headed back the direction the parade had come from to find my car.

While walking back I glanced up a side street and recognized the convertible sitting in a church parking lot with some of the Lion's Club members milling about, drinking ice water, and packing up to get ready to leave.  I walked up to join them and no one seemed to notice that I'd been gone.  It crossed my mind that I could have collapsed from heat stroke and no one would have been the wiser.  I had to ask if someone could give me a ride back to my car and it was quickly arranged due to the fact it was very hot and everyone just wanted to get home to their air-conditioning.  On the way back the driver (who later went on to become club president) attempted to make some small talk, but I was still in a kind of existential shock.  I may have told him that we were new to the community and that I was originally from Indiana, but I don't remember anything much beyond that.  What I do remember is the feeling of being utterly alone and disconnected from the world.

***

In the coming weeks and months my work at the hospital grew to the point that I was only able to attend Monday meetings sporadically until I finally had to notify the president that I could no longer maintain my membership in the club.  He was very gracious and said that I was welcome to come back at any time or participate in any of their activities as I was able.  Somewhere deep down I felt like I'd let Kevin down and in my mind's eye I pictured him as that sad lion standing in the middle of an empty street on a hot day, half-blind and alone.