A Man On A Mission

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When I was medically released to live alone, unsupervised, I had the great fortune of coming across an apartment that had just come available for rent. Centrally located between a hospital, a bus stop, my daughter’s house, and a park seemingly built just for Daisy, the place was perfect… almost too good to be true, in fact, and I became like a “man on a mission”, trying to find the fatal flaws of the neighborhood… the ‘chinks’ in the armor so to speak.

I looked askance at the new neighbors to determine if they were clandestine terrorist bomb-makers or serial killers plotting their next murder. I suspiciously peeked through my blinds or openly stared out my windows at the random jogger or dog walker or shady looking teenager that happened by. Sometimes I even sat on my front porch and glared defiantly at the mailman, the delivery guys, or anyone else who dared make eye contact with me.

Know what I got?

Smiles, nods, waves… and more than my fair share of handshakes and self-introductions and warm wishes of welcome to the ‘hood.

In other words… I made an ass of myself. It seems as if the more I set about proving that I’m right to hold the vast majority of the human race at arm’s length, and in moderate disdain, the more I find that my numbers might be off.

And so it was that, a few months after I got settled in, I started noticing an older gentleman… probably 10 or 15 years my senior… leaving his house at about the same time every morning and returning home from the opposite direction about 30 minutes later. Doubting that he was a mule for an international drug cartel, I assumed that he was simply taking a walk around the block. He never looked up… never looked around at cars or people pushing strollers or walking their dogs… and just went about minding whatever his business was that certainly was none of mine.

As the months passed, and I became accustomed to seeing him repeat this activity – like clockwork – three times a day, 7 days a week, I began to admire his commitment. Each morning right after coffee, each afternoon right after lunch, and each evening right after dinner I watched him walk every day – rain or shine – like a real man on a mission. In some ways he reminded me of that old catchphrase about the mailman and bad weather and nothing taking him away from his appointed rounds.

Even though he and I had never exchanged words I had developed a profound respect for him and his dogged determination and on those rare occasions that I didn’t see him, I found myself wondering where he was and worrying a little that maybe something had happened to him. In every instance it would only be a day or two before he was back at it and I was telling myself how silly it was of me to worry so much about a complete stranger.

My first Christmas in the new apartment came and went and almost another entire year more passed with little change to our routine. It sounds funny to say that now… “our” routine… because after a year-and-a-half living three houses apart from eachother he and I had never so much as exchanged glances let alone had extended conversations with each other. On paper, neither of us knew the first thing about the other, but of course that was only partially true because I had been that nosey assed neighbor that had been spying on him all along.

Funny thing about nosey assed neighbors though… it works both ways.

About a month before this Christmas that just passed I had gone up and over a block to the local convenience store to get a fix for my iced honey bun addiction. I was sitting in my favorite spot just outside the entrance to the park and scarfing down my snack (quickly, so I wouldn’t have to share it with Daisy) when I saw him walking toward me from the direction of the very same convenience store. As he approached he smiled and commented that it was a pretty decent day for November. I smiled back and cautioned that we shouldn’t get too cocky because things were bound to get a lot worse before they got better.

He agreed and asked me where my granddaughter was, noting that he sees her and I every day walking to and from school. I told him she was with her other grandfather and he asked why I hadn’t taken advantage of the free day and brought “that good looking dog” for a run in the park.

I was stunned. All this time that I had thought I was the only one paying attention, it turns out he knew just as much – if not more – about my comings and goings as I did about his.

We chatted for quite a while… him filling in a lot of the blanks about his life that I had only been able to guess. I had the age right, but couldn’t have known that he was disabled enough that he had to have his meals brought to him and was walking everyday – not because of his health or his doctor’s orders but- because he was”bored out of his fucking mind and could only stand to watch so much TV before he would go batshit crazy”. The daily visitor was not a home health aide but was, in fact, his daughter whose job it was to check in on him and bring him food and supplies.

In turn, he got the bulk of my story and a hefty dose of my righteous indignation about being helpless and having to depend on others. The transition to kindred spirits didn’t take long and, in no time, we were commiserating about the utter lack of options there are out there for guys like us that still have the will and desire to live fullfilling lives… and that somebody should do something about that one of these days.

About a month later, on Christmas morning, I was sitting on my daughter’s front steps watching the raging snowstorm and drinking a fancy cup of coffee she had made me for the occasion. I saw – through the near white-out conditions – a figure walking slowly up the street toward me and the convenience store across the way. As he came into view, with his head down and not looking around at cars or other people, my neighbor approached – right on schedule – as if it was just like any other day of the week, month, or year. In that moment two truths became crystal clear to me :

    1. The only thing in life that is absolute is death.
    2. The best lives are those spent fighting to disprove rule # 1.
[Images courtesy of Time & Rev. Peter Preble]
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Give The Kid An ‘A’ For Effort

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I am incredibly fortunate that Daisy is such a smart dog. I’m not always very stern and I can be terribly inconsistent when I am trying to train her but she always seems to wait patiently for me to get my act together and focus on what I’m trying to do with her.

On a recent constitutional to the park, I thought I might give a little try on improving my hand-eye coordination by trying to throw her a ball and simultaneously photographing her catching it. As you can see in the featured image, we actually pulled it off and… after a bunch of treats to celebrate… we decided to walk over to the bench nearby and bask in the warm sun and after – glow of a training victory.

After a few minutes had gone by, Daisy “told” me that someone had come entered the park – to our right – and that they had dogs with them. I knew this because Daisy has a”tell” when she sees a dog and it is quite different from her usual reaction to the sight of another human. With humans, you see, she stands up and wags her tail intently as the human approaches. With dogs, on the other hand, she stays seated – as I have worked hard to train her to do – but starts to whimper and whine… and shuffle her feet underneath herself… with excited anticipation of an impending butt – sniffing marathon.

Once they were close enough, I could see that it was a woman in her 30s … she was accompanied by two dogs on leashes and what appeared to be a late preteen young girl that was struggling mightily with what looked like a fairly young golden retriever.

Daisy, of course, was beside herself with joy when the dogs were almost upon us despite the little yipper dog (under the woman’s control) whose incessant barking made clear the fact that he was not at all impressed with my girl. The golden, on the other hand, thought Daisy was just about the finest sight he had ever seen in his young life.

While certainly no Dog Whisperer, I believe – given the number of dogs I’ve had and the number of years I’ve had them – I have a decent track record of success in matters of managing dogs around people and other dogs. With those rare exceptions out there of dogs that were just poorly bred, it’s not a complicated endeavor to teach a dog basic rules about how to act.

The same cannot be said, yet, about the little girl and her young golden retriever.

The number one rule in dog training is to be consistent. Whatever you ask of your dog, you must always ask for it the same way, and you must never let your dog give you an alternate version of what you asked for. The number two rule of dog training is to never break rule number one and never ask for more than one thing at a time.

You would never ask your toddler to stop throwing rocks and then, in the next breath, hand him one so he can move it out of the path of your running lawn mower.

And so it was that this young girl – in trying to restrain her golden from lunging at Daisy because he was so happy to see her – started firing off every command she could think of as the dog dragged her closer to us: “Stop!”, “Sit!”, “Lay Down!”, “Roll Over!”, “Heel!”and back to “Lay Down!” again. And it’s not as if either of them could be blamed… she was frantically trying everything she could think of to get the dog to stop, and he stopped hearing her after the first “lay Down!” once he felt that she was giving ground with the leash on his charge to the lovely Miss Daisy.

I already knew what was going to happen next, and I must admit that I was laughing a little on the inside as I watched it unfold in slow motion.

You know, it’s funny how people so easily forget that dogs don’t understand your words nearly so much as they understand your tone and your body language. It is how they communicate with each other after all and it’s a universal canine language. And… unlike people, dogs share an incredibly small vocabulary with each other – no need for foreplay or endless mind-numbing cheddar on matters of physical or personal security.

Once that puppy got two strides away from the still – seated Daisy… tail wagging, body quivering, and the look of love beaming from his face… Daisy got to her feet – giving a quick low growl – and dropped him on his back like a bad habit as if to say “back the fuck off”.

After a muted yelp, and a quick limb inventory, the little guy was in a seated position… staring at her… waiting for her further instructions on how he would be allowed to proceed.

I will never know, of course, how much time that little girl had already spent trying to figure out how to train her puppy. What I do know, however, is that she was able to see – in the span of about 15 seconds – how quickly her dog can learn an important lesson. God bless her… she really does love her puppy… I can only hope she went home and started applying what she learned by watching Daisy school him on the right way to treat a lady.

[Image courtesy of FunnyJunk]
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A Claus Confab

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Christmas is a difficult holiday for me on a number of personal levels. I keep putting off sharing some of the reasons why but I suppose, once I publish this story, I will find myself in short supply of excuses to avoid the inevitable. It may turn out, truth be told, that the further I delve into this chapter of my life – with regard the Santa Society – the more right my neurologist and occupational therapist will have proven themselves to be on this matter.

This all started innocently enough… Daisy and I were headed down to the park for our daily constitutional. Standing at the entrance to the crosswalk, Daisy at heel, Daisy saw a guy coming toward the crosswalk from the other side of the street. She “told” me that someone was coming by shifting her position and then standing up with her tail wagging; she’s not exactly a seeing eye dog but she is really good at helping me “see” things… or at least look in the direction she is looking… before things actually come into my visual field.

As he neared my side of the street, a guy around my age looked at Daisy, and then up at me, and said: “Good morning Santa.” without even thinking about it, I answered back “Good morning Santa number two.” He chuckled and I smiled as we introduced each other and he said hello to Daisy.

After a minute or two of small talk about where each of us lived, he asked me if I had ever been a Santa Claus before. I told him that, with four kids and a gaggle of grandkids, I had done a lot of “Santa time” over the years but that I had never put on the uniform and done it for strangers.

He talked for a while about a group of men that had gotten together and formed a club of sorts , adding that he was the sitting president. He told me that they all work together to find gigs for each other, promote their group, provide support, meet once a month for dinner… and share war stories… in various locations throughout the New England region. Wherever possible, some of them even bring along their Mrs. Claus’.

As it turns out, they even have a so-called “Santa Camp” at the end of the summer each year that runs for 3 days and includes training on a variety of topics aimed at helping aspiring Santa’s with marketing, business planning and – most importantly – how to be good Santa’s. There are even campfire sessions where experienced Santas mentor the newbies and share stories about their tricks and techniques… even offering to help them develop their own “schtics”. The whole thing culminates with a certification – complete with background checks – and allows you to go out on your own as a fully licensed Santa anywhere in the public domain.

I must admit that I had no idea it was so involved… I always assumed all you needed to do was grow a long beard and develop a beer belly and you were good to go. In this day and age, though, I’m happy to know such an effort is being made to keep Kids safe and maintain the dignity of the office of Santa Claus.

As our conversation was winding down, president Santa asked if I was interested in finding out more and whether I could join them for the next monthly dinner gathering that just happened to be coming up in a few days, right here in town.

[Editor’s note: It’s worth noting here that it is not lost on me just how fucking hard it is, sometimes, to be a hermit in an urban area; it seems – sometimes – that the harder I try to be left the hell alone, the more I seem to run into certain people that challenge my certainty about how widespread the decay of the human species actually is. Given what I have said above about my issues with the holidays, it should come as no small surprise that I found myself feeling a sense of excitement starting to well up inside me… reminiscent of that scene in the cartoon version of The Grinch when his “two sizes too small” heart started growing bigger in his chest as his grin slowly widened…]

Having accepted the invitation, I arrived at the Diner a few days later and was a little early. I had never been there before… strange places can be difficult for me to move around in… and the place is quite popular in town. Call it reconnaissance, if you wish, but I needed to know the lay of the land, so to speak, so I could reduce my chances of falling on my face and making a fool out of myself in front of all these people I would be meeting for the first time.

I was escorted by a waitress to a small function room where there were already a couple of Santas sitting at one of the tables. They turned and looked at me as I walk through the door and – in unison – said one word:

HO!

I never thought such a thing was possible but – in that moment – I got an overwhelming feeling but a good chunk of my life was about to be forever changed.

[PostScript: Roughly a year after my stroke, as my occupational therapist was breaking up with me & my neurologist was bumping me down to annual visits vs. monthly visits… and they were telling me that I probably had another good 20 to 30 years left to live my life (now that they had done such a bang-up job of patching me up and putting me all back together)… I asked them – separately – what the fuck I was going to do with myself for 20 or 30 years being partially blind, unable to work or drive, and barely able to live alone unsupervised.

My neurologist said, and my occupational therapist subsequently concurred, that I needed to find meaning and purpose `in my life and that the rest would take care of itself. At the time, that didn’t make a lick of sense to me but – two years beyond those conversations I now find myself writing these Chronicles and pondering a future as a professional Santa Claus… and have begun to entertain the idea that I would love to do it – not in malls or at random Christmas parties but- in childrens’ Hospital wards and Senior hospice centers.

I’m fairly certain they don’t teach this stuff in medical school so I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest there are greater powers at play in our lives than we ever come to know or fully understand. Whether it be fate, karma,destiny, divine intervention… or some combination of them all… maybe – just maybe – all any of us can do is just follow the path we find ourselves on regardless whether we were looking for it or just fell down face first in front of it.] [Image courtesy of Smithsonian]

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Bemoaning The General Lack Of Self-Awareness In Tight Quarters

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There are two coffee shops and a Subway that I have to choose between when I go on my Bilbo Baggins adventures out into the city hinterlands beyond the banks of my moat. No matter which of these places I might randomly choose to patronize, I always find myself having to listen to a half dozen, or more, deep and personal conversations that have no place in the public discourse. And every time I’m subjected to stories of sexual escapades, bawdy conquests, medical procedures, as – yet unhealed surgical wounds, etc., I am gobsmacked by the general lack of self-awareness or common decency that people have anymore.

What they tell you about some of your senses taking over, in response to the damage or loss of others, is 100% true. In my own case there are a couple of very weird and – in some ways unfortunate – changes in my hearing that began to take shape not too long after I started my visual rehab and recovery. In particular, I began to hear all of the voices around me very clearly and could discern – by unique frequencies I suppose – who was saying what to whom in a roughly 20 foot wide circle all around me.

I can’t “see” which person said what, mind you, or even necessarily which table it originates from, but I can hear it as if they were talking to me directly.

Sounds cool right? Some sort of fucked up “spidy” sense right? Let me assure you.. it might sound really cool on paper but it gets really old incredibly fast.

And so it was that I found myself walking into the coffee shop the other morning to grab my favorite almost – healthy breakfast: Angus beef/bacon/egg/cheese sandwich on an everything bagel…toasted with butter, hash browns / tater tots, and a small hot black hazelnut coffee with a double chocolate donut for dessert.

I know what you’re thinking… that it sounds like a damn fine breakfast.. and it was. Being able to eat it in peace without having to hear a 20-something young lady – to my left – bragging to her two friends about how she had tricked a guy into having sex with her… in gory detail… made the first few bites really difficult to choke down.

About the time I almost had those three tuned out, the senior ladies to my right started cackling about their healthcare. The first one was complaining about how much trouble she was having with her bunions lately, and how disappointed she was with her quack podiatrist not doing enough about it. Not to be outdone, her partner – in – lamentations started in about how hard it had been to keep her oozing diabetes – related sores from getting infected and that she was quite sure her visiting nurse was a complete idiot that shouldn’t be allowed to provide medical care to her cat let alone her poor defenseless legs.

I tried to find my happy place… rocking in silence to a Sting song coming over the piped – in commercial – free local FM radio station… and almost had this sensory overload beaten until a couple of grizzly looking, visibly hungover 30-somethings, walked in.. scoped out the 20-somethings.. and started hitting on them – hard – as if Armageddon was a little over 12 minutes away and they were running out of time.

FML

My appetite was beginning to wane… and it occurred to me that perhaps some of this cultural erosion of common decency and fundamental self – respect could somehow be blamed on the invention of the cell phone. I mean.. think about it.. back in the old days of rotary and push button phones these sorts of conversations more commonly took place in the privacy of your own home and were rarely overheard by random strangers on the streets. In order to know about a person’s sex life, or their oozing legs.. Or even about their mangled and disfigured toes.. you actually had to know the person and have an intimate enough relationship with them to be privy to such private and personal information.

Quickly enough, though, I gave up the folly of trying to find a place to lay blame other than at the feet of the wicked. Inventions, after all, only see a manufacturer’s production floor when there is enough of a demand from the ass hats and morons of the world to make it worth their while to produce.

Lest we forget.. there was that guy years ago that got stupid rich selling pet rocks.

No… this crisis of human decency isn’t about gadgets or baubles or gizmos. This is about generations of bad parenting, generations of shitty educations and shitty schools. And it’s also about generations of people not giving a fuck anymore about anything or anybody but themselves.

Maybe those half-cocked 30-somethings were on the right track.

[Image courtest of Boston Globe]
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