Saturday, March 17, 2012

Tear-Stained Courage

Don't laugh at me for the story that I'm about to share.


I was doing some Spring cleaning recently. I opened my singular bedroom window, letting in a gush of fresh air, turned up the stereo to hear a "Spring Cleaning 2012 Playlist," and commenced with my just-written To-Do list.  I dove headfirst into my massive bedroom closet with a few boxes in an attempt to do a whole "Keep" and "Donate" afternoon. 

As I went through some heirloom clothes I found some shirts that I've kept for years because they reminded me of a younger, more hip part of my life.  Have you ever kept items of clothes around just because?  You know, stuff you wouldn't be caught dead wearing in public (like a Milli Vanilli concert shirt that was hip in the early '90s but now just a sad reminder of how lame most of the pop culture from that era truly was), or my old Blockbuster Video polo shirts from Hawai'i?  Those bright red shirts instantly bring back a flood of memories, both good and bad.  The saddest part is their size: Most of the shirts from that part of my life were a mere "Large" and wouldn't fit me on a dare with $100 dangled as the prize money if I could get my gut into one without ripping the seams from the almost-antique piece of heirloom cloth.

Along with the Billy Joel "River of Dreams" concert shirt and the stack of twenty-seven Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts from all over North America, the Blockbuster memorabilia were dumped into the "Keep" box.

As I moved a large plastic tupperware box containing my National Park site flyer collection I came across the singular touchstone from my youth.  The one thing, excepting my cats and dog, that I would grab in a mad dash out of my burning house if it were ever to catch on fire.

My teddy bear.

He was a tattered affair, a bedtime companion that accompanied me on the first few years of my life.  His eyes were missing, one of his ears had fallen off close to forty-five years ago, and his nakedness was apparent as the fluff had flaked off like dandruff from being dragged everywhere by me.  He was my constant companion until kindergarten and responsible for, most certainly, the scariest experience of my young life.

I think there are very few certifiable geniuses in the entire human history of our planet. We can all agree on a few of them such as Einstein and Oppenheimer, even though their areas of expertise were used to make weapons that have done anything but elevate our race.  Mozart instantly pops to my mind as one of the most significant individuals to ever trod this Earth.  Maybe Beethoven as well.  Stephen Hawking gives me the willies, but his mind has gone to places that his body surely can't.  I suppose the cave man that happened upon fire and decided that a dead mammoth tasted better if you applied some flame to the carcass could be considered an early genius, but his grunted name has been lost to the ages.  The same with the dude who first thought rotting, fermented grapes tasted good.

For my money one of the greatest minds of all time has to be Bill Watterston.  You may have never heard of him but his creation epitomizes the glory of childhood.  The simplicity of his art speaks volumes of what it's like to be a scared little boy, afraid of the dark, impending adulthood, and the loss of innocence.

I'm talking, of course, about Watterston's fevered imagination and his Frankenstein-like creation. The greatest comic strip of all time: Calvin and Hobbes.

As I read that strip I saw so much of myself in the little boy whose best friend was a stuffed tiger doll who sprang to life when no one else was around.  Their discussions about girls, Chocolate-Covered-Sugar-Bombs (Calvin's breakfast fuel of choice) and even the meaning of life were brilliant; Watterston really understood the human condition and nailed the singular experience of being a precocious boy who was perhaps too smart for those around him.

The strip was funny, honest, and a window into the mind of a five-year old kid just struggling to get through the fears and anxiety of life.

So how does my teddy bear fit into all of that?

Looking back through the filter of time, Teddy, my constant companion, was more than a stuffed animal.  He was my sounding board and pacifier, something I could hold on to when I was scared during a thunderstorm or needed a little extra TLC.

My grandma lived on the east side of Cleveland when I was small.  A twenty-five minute ride of today took almost ninety minutes in the 1970s.  There was no freeway then; a series of backroads interspersed with one or two four-lane highways meandered the fifty or so miles to my grandmother's house.  Getting there was circuitous and not a trip that we made very often.

So one Spring day my mom packed my four-year old self and my baby sister into our 1968 blue Pontiac.  It was steel both in and out and outfitted with a black leather dashboard.  She rolled up the windows and smoked Marlboros with us in the back seat.  As my little sister slept for most of the journey I was regaled by tales of Troy and its wooden horse.  Of King Arthur and Lancelot.  Pompeii and Vesuvius. Teddy and I sat listening, intently, through a haze of cigarette smoke as my mom wound the eighteen-foot long metal car over the river and through the woods.

To grandmother's house we went.

Teddy was glued to my left arm.  I carried him everywhere I went. My grandma asked if she could hold him.  Reluctantly, I gave him up but only after the assurance that she'd give him back. Quickly.

She looked at his tattered left ear and his nakedness. She said it wasn't decent for a bear to be undressed for the entire world to see. A master crochet artist, she knitted him a new ear and a blue pair of overalls that fit his little body perfectly.

She handed him back to me with the promise that his ear would make him a better listener, even if it didn't match the other one.  I smiled and hugged her for making such helpful modifications to my companion. 

As we prepared to leave my mother asked me to help get my little sister ready for the long voyage back to the west side of town.  She then asked me if I had to go to the bathroom.  I put Teddy down and obliged, realizing that I probably couldn't hold it for the long journey back home.

I went to the bathroom and then helped my mom with Jennifer.

Five minutes later, and my young bladder now empty, I opened the heavy steel door of the Pontiac, crawled into the back seat and laid down.  Ninety minutes later I awoke from my nap as my body lurched from the motion created from my mom pulling our tank of a vehicle into the long gravel driveway.  I sat up, stretched and reached out for Teddy.  My young heart leapt into my throat when I couldn't find him.


Where was he?

I instantly panicked and cried to my mom.  He's gone, I repeated over and over.  I ignored my baby sister as my little heart raced like a hummingbird.  My life was over.  Teddy was missing.

It was the first, and probably scariest, crisis of my life.

My mother carried Jennifer into the house, attempted to calm me down and made a phone call to my grandmother.

I was panicked.  My mind was racing.  How would I survive without him?

Sure enough, when I went to the bathroom ninety minutes before and all of fifty miles from my current location I had left Teddy on my grandpa's blue chair.  And there he sat, still waiting for me to retrieve him.

My mom handed me the telephone.  With the tear-stained courage of a terrified four-year old, I begged my grandmother to take extra special care of him.  I  needed to know that she would keep him away from Bobo, their poodle. 

She assured me that no harm would befall Teddy and she promised that we'd be reunited very soon.

I thanked her and, trembling, gave the phone back to my mom.

A day went by. And then three. Life was unbearable without Teddy.

I missed him and needed him.

I begged my mom to go back to grandma's so we could get him. We couldn't.  My young sister was sick and we had to remain homebound until she was better. Another few days passed as slowly as a century.

Finally, my grandma made a special trip to Elyria to reunite me with my bear.

When grandma pulled into my driveway and stepped out of her Bonneville, I rushed outside and grabbed him from her.  I don't think I've ever hugged something or someone so tight as I hugged my bear that day. His spartan new crocheted overalls looked good.  She had even washed him for me and didn't use any bleach, a hallmark of my grandma's house until the day she died.  If you needed to sanitize something, there wasn't anything a little (or sometimes a lot) bleach couldn't fix.

I kept Teddy around my room as I got older.  By the third grade or so his place in my bed had given way to a berth on my dresser.  By the sixth grade and the onslaught of puberty he had been relegated to the closet.

And at forty-five, during a marathon Spring cleaning, that's where he still is.  His blue jumpsuit is a little musty and his new ear is tattered as well.  But he's a keeper.

As I inspected him last week a strange thought occurred to me.  Outside of my years at college and a year in Hawai'i, Teddy has been with me for my entire life. As my head hits the pillow every night, he's still less than ten feet from me, occupying his berth in my closet. 

I suppose when I die he'll be cremated along with me and our ashes will spend eternity together.

Just as it should be.


Paddy O'Furniture

Well, another Saint Patrick's Day is upon us and that means, really, just one thing for me:  In less than a week Spring will officially be upon us.

Thank Christ.

We've gotten over the Daylight-Savings hump, the first mile marker that the Vernal Equinox is right around the corner.  My confused perennials are popping up through the ground and the two bald eagle nests that I routinely monitor with my binoculars have yielded both mama eagles sitting on however many eggs waiting to be hatched into an awaiting world.

I used to live in an apartment complex years ago; the property manager of the 267-unit facility had her suite directly across the courtyard from me.  One day, in early February, she was breaking out her lawn furniture.  She was a recent South Florida transplant; her husband was from Northeast Ohio and they had moved to Cleveland the prior summer so he could work in his father's large auto dealership.

As she was preparing to put up her large table umbrella and flower pots, I succinctly asked her what the hell she was doing? I thought that she was planning some kind of crazy Valentine's Day dinner with her hubby. 

She retorted that Spring was coming and she couldn't wait to get back outside.  I snickered and told her that Old man Winter had a good six or eight weeks up his crafty sleeve.  Defeated, she sighed, bitched about the horrible weather and hung her head as she put her patio furniture back in the attached storage unit.

Two days later a massive snow storm hit.  Six months later, under the threat of divorce, she dragged her husband back to the warmer climes of the Sunshine State.

I understood her hate, her downright loathing of Cleveland's weather.  The dark, dreary days that make our town grayer and gloomier than Seattle or London have given me the notorious affliction known as S.A.D.

I become snowbound by mid-January.  My mood becomes all Eeyore-like by Valentine's week and I'm ready to commit hari kari by the first game of the NCAA tournament.

Cleveland, sporting a large Irish population, hosts the third-largest St. Patrick's Day Parade in the country.  Bet you didn't know that, did ya?  Only New York and Chicago have more festivities than here on the South Shore.  As I write this, several thousand revelers are lining the way along Superior Avenue, sporting green hair, green face paint, and enough green clothing to be seen from the international space station.  The amount of green beer served this morning at various kegs-n-eggs celebrations across Northeast Ohio will soon give way to rivers of gloppy green vomit along the parade route.  Ah, never say that Clevelanders don't know how to party.

Alas, with today's wearing of the green and three whole days in a row of sunshine and 70+ degree weather I think we'll soon be seeing the end of winter. 

At least until Easter and the snowstorm that usually follows. 

But by then my SADness has evaporated.  The chill of the night air is pretty much gone and my bedroom window is cracked open just enough to let the fresh Spring gusts of a Lake Erie breeze into my house. The crisp, fresh air envelops me as the last stale vestige of Winter's air are pushed from my condo. 

And the mountains of slushy, four-day old snow that have kept my patio furniture company have melted away to the yellow and purple blossoms of Spring flowers on my patio.

Springtime in Cleveland, there's nothing quite as refreshing.  I rejoice, like Pagan festivals of old, as Gaia erupts and I know that for the next six months I'm free of a crippling SADness.

Now if only we could get rid of the stifling July heat.


Friday, March 9, 2012

A Daily Dose of Wonderful

There's a certain breed of people to which I've given a name, kind of like a biology taxonomy. Perhaps they should be given their own genus because they walk among us like the daywalkers in a cheap horror flick.

Here you are: impigritás nosferatu.

I even looked that one up.

I've dubbed them "energy vampires" and, just maybe, you may know the creature of which I speak.

Sunlight doesn't hurt them. 

Garlic doesn't have any effect on them; I had dinner with one of them and they woofed down a big Olive Garden pasta dish that reeked of garlic.

And they survived to complain another day.

They're the people in your life that are responsible for ninety-plus percent of the undue drama that harangues your existence.  You know, the ones that call you at three ay-em with their newest crisis? Those that berate you when you tell them that things will be fine and, even though the DVR didn't record all of last week's "Gray's Anatomy," the world will--drum roll please--surely go on. 

Fictional crises.

I've had a few people in my life like that and painfully toiled over what decision to make. Do I stay in their life as a, hopefully, positive force or do I cut them out like a cancer?  In most cases, I've realized that a scalpel is the best and only tool to make my life infinitely better.

I have a "friend" that has been a train wreck for as long as I can remember.  I've spent many hours, beers and years counseling her.  Whenever we get together it's the same old story; she's the eternal victim of circumstance, fate and happenstance.

And she, of course, relishes the role.

Her Facebook status updates are the doomiest-and-gloomiest thing this side of a tornado ravaging a neo-natal wing of a children's hospital.  Last week, after the horrible events at Chardon High School, she posted one of her famous rants about how intensely horrible her life is and how everyone that she reaches out to mercilessly belittles her.  Expecting a flood of sympathy, she was astonished when another friend of hers told her to suck it up and  have some compassion for the real tragedy that was unfolding in Chardon, less than an hour's drive from the imaginary disaster of the daily derailing of her crazy train.

Her response to the admonisher?  A good eight paragraph rant about how, even though there were puddles of blood and spent bullet casings in Geauga County, her problems mattered just as much as those of the dead and dying.

How do you put that into context?  How do you frame that in a way that some miniscule bit of compassion can be given to a woman with so little compassion for others?

I've come to the conclusion that you really can't.  You need to put aside any pity you may have for the vampire and do what must be done:  Face the situation with a clarity and focus that lets you understand what type of creature you're truly dealing with.

I've learned that people like her aren't really friends.  They're like a plague of locusts that descend upon a poor farmer's crop and devour everything within their reach.  Once the food has been obliterated they move on to the next field without so much as a thought to the devastation they've left behind.

They have little care for you or your problems, and only want a sounding board that will make them feel better about the wanton destruction that they've created behind them. In her case, I've seen a good fifteen years of bad decisions, finger pointing, and an inability to fess up to the self-made fuck-ups in her life both major and minor.

They judge your ability and loyalty as a friend when you can't call them back at a moment's notice to help them deal with their newest crisis.  They blame you for the disasters that they've created.  They try to gain sympathy for a lifetime of bad decisions.

And, gulp, if you tell them that maybe some of the issues in their lives have been self-inflicted, you've committed a cardinal sin:  Asking them to, for once, take some personal responsibility for the damage they've done to themselves and the family and friends around them.

She either refuses to believe that her actions are the root cause of her misery or she lacks the emotional maturity to deal with the maelstrom around her.  I truly believe that she's not happy unless she's miserable.  But, of course, her misery must feed like a derelict nosferatu on those around her. Dammit, she's miserable and she's gonna make sure that any creature within earshot will partake in her drama. 

After posting a Facebook update yesterday regarding my experience at a local grocery store, I received a verbal battering ram from my "friend," the conductor, engineer, ticket-taker, steward, baggage-handler and even the guy-who-shovels-the-coal-into-the-steam-engine-that-makes-the-whistle-blow on her crazy train.

The cashier that was ringing me out had to be, easily, in her mid-eighties.  She was shrunken, hard-of-hearing, and moved at a snail's pace in moving my items across the scanner.  My heart bled for this woman; I asked myself why she was here, standing in front of a computer, ringing out my milk and bread when she should be enjoying her golden years in a less physically-demanding situation.  I tried to make light of the posting, saying that this poor woman was so old she was sitting in the booth next to Lincoln's at Fords Theater the night he was shot.  I almost said that I'd seen rock formations at the bottom of the Grand Canyon that weren't as old as this poor lady, but felt that might cross a line.

It didn't matter.

My friend ripped in to me, telling me I was an ass for "judging" this woman.  I wasn't quite sure how I was judging anyone, responding to her comment by saying that it was unfortunate that anyone had to be on a retail sales floor at her age.  It went on for about seven or eight more comments in the thread.  Most of my other friends were sympathetic to the old lady's plight and understood that I wasn't judging anyone.

Not her.  I was making an assumption, she said.  Maybe so...but seeing this woman struggling with the burdensome weight of a loaf of bread told me that she wasn't there to keep her body spritely and her mind tack-sharp.  She said that she didn't feel any sympathy for this woman and that she thought it was great that this octogenarian was earning her keep rather than slouching at home like other slackers who didn't want to work.

My head shook slowly from side to side while I pondered how many senior citizen slackers really existed in our society.   I even snickered as I thought that comment was more in line with a Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum campaign pledge.  Good God, I thought. I hope GOP campaign staffers don't randomly read through Facebook pages because it might occur to them that working-slacker-octogenarians should become the Right's poster children after they finish their scorched earth campaign to obliterate women's health care choices.

So tonight she went into one more of her sympathy rants.  She said something to the effect of:

"Today has been a horrible day and tonight is going to be a horrible night."

So I was eager to respond.  What could I say to point out to her that her Eeyore-like outlook on life was just getting, well, ridiculous?

I shot back with this nugget:

"I had a great day today and will have a great night tonight.  I'll bet other people also had a great day.  Stop being so judgemental."

It had the effect I desired.

About ten minutes later the infamous noun-that's-become-a-verb happened to me.


She defriended me on Facebook.

It worked.  It looked like I'd be rid of the litany of apocalyptic posts that come my way on an hourly basis. 

But I didn't get off that easy.  Within a few minutes a flurry of texts came my way.  She reminded me, several times, what an ass I was.  How uncaring I've always been and that I only think about myself.  Apparently, she has forgotten about the many times I've put gas in her car over the years because she's had no money to buy fuel or groceries.  Or the countless conversations regarding her singular place in the universe.

After telling her that it's become exhausting to be her friend she sent me this zinger:
"...u have not been a good friend.  You walked out of my life after the (redacted) too.  And where were u when i need someone w me for my surgery last year or around then.  When things are bad for me you disappear.  When they calm down there u are."
And then this one:

"Just leave me alone u will. never think outside your own thoughts and feelings and for u to say i am playing a victim role after i just opened up to u about everything going on proves more what an ass u are."
Oh yeah, apparently she got arrested for something of which she's totally innocent and is being "falsely accused of something serious."  God knows what that is, but I can't afford to spend any more time trying to fix her life.  And then another revelation: Due to her roommate she's being evicted from her apartment in May.  Hmmm.  Notice how nothing is her fault?  Bad roommates, false accusations, trumped-up arrest charges and a world of conspiracies leveled at her have been the norm since, well, she arbitrarily walked into my life all those years ago.
If someone refuses to accept an iota of responsibility for their own actions, how can I help them?
The very notion is foolish and, honestly, a little arrogant on my part to even try.  Almost forty years of self-created drama has been refined to a unique art form, played as a symphony by a maestro conductor.
Well, as far as I'm concerned, the crazy train has gone off the rails for the last time.  Luckily I got off before it went all John McClane.  Undoubtedly, she'll spin my disloyalty to those that will listen and, much like the next farmer's field, quickly replace me with someone new to voraciously devour with her imaginary anguish and overly-abundant self-pity.
So a buddy of mine called me tonight.  I breathed a sigh of relief as I told him the crazy train has left the station for the last time.  I'm rid of the Angel of Death and her daily doom and gloom. 
I'm getting too old for the bullshit antics of myopic forty year olds who need to be given a daily dose of wonderful.  Grow up.  Take responsbility for what you've become. 
Mayan prophecies?  Global warming?  Rick Santorum? 

They're all nothing to speak of when you've survived an energy vampire like her.

And I didn't even need a stake or holy water to do it.