Year of the Cat

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The music of childhood can resonate for years. There are some songs from those years that can evoke just how I felt the first time I heard a particular song. Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” is one of them.

I think I was watching a rainstorm from the picture window of our living room in suburban Indianapolis when I first heard that one. The photo above was taken right around the same time; Snoopy was my likely companion for this reverie, too. I recall that the song transported me to a wistful feeling that was novel at the time, like I was longing for the future as someone older might long for a time in the past. I sensed that rainy days were good for solitude so one could reflect on curious feelings and things, like what happened to the toy elephant in that made several appearances in the pictures of my sister taken before I was born? One of my earliest memories was breaking something, like the sound of its shattering awoke me into conscious memory. Had I broken that elephant?

The song itself seems to be just as lost in time as my feelings were on that day. I feel like there’s an underlying sense of the British trying to find their place in a postcolonial world. That has little relevance to a American in the Midwest, except that sometimes I do feel like I am living in an outpost of a bygone empire.

Today has been just as rainy as that afternoon when I watched the storm from the picture window of our living room in the late 70’s. I heard this song as I drove home from work today and knew that it was the right music for this day that was 40 years in the future from that afternoon.

Bud and L’Orange

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Our guinea pigs L’Orange and Bud moved into a larger, shared cage this week. We ordered one of those open-top “C&C” (cubes and coroplast) cages from GuineaPigCagesStore.com. If you are also blessed with guinea pigs, I highly recommend an enclosure of this type for your critters. It’s possible to make a cage yourself by ordering the cubes, connectors, and coroplast separately, but I decided to simplify the process by ordering a kit that contained all the necessary supplies to create a 30″x44″ cage. The kit was easy to assemble. Our guineas were running around inside the finished cage within a half-hour of the kit’s delivery.

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10 Years

I suppose every blogger must decide what to conceal and what to reveal about work. Even if you’re self-employed, there is still a curtain drawn to obscure some of the nuts and bolts of one’s work.

With that aside, I will tell you that today marks the tenth anniversary of my current job. I work as an inventory control clerk for a major Midwestern grocery distributor. I am counting my year and a fortnight as a temp in the 10-year figure. Jobs were already scarce in those months leading to the Great Recession, and I also had a long gap in employment because I’d been home raising my daughter. In the summer of 2008, there were few listings in the local newspaper want ads, and almost all of them were for truck drivers or registered nurses.

Having neither an R.N. license nor a CDL, I turned to a temp agency for work. I scored well in the agency’s office skills test, but I still had to wait several months for my first work assignment. I remember getting that call when the agency asked me if I could start some data entry work at a particular location on the following Sunday at noon. The agency just told me that I’d need to wear sturdy shoes with non-slip soles because I’d be walking through a warehouse to get to my office. They did not let me know that I’d be entering data that I would be collecting myself or that said data collection would require walking through a half-million square foot facility, a minor part of which was an ice cream freezer kept at minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit (cold weather gear provided, thank goodness).

The term “data entry” really does not do justice to the work of inventory control. That’s like suggesting that solving an equation is nothing more than the writing of numbers, letters, and symbols. Inventory variances need to be explained. Cases don’t just sprout legs and walk away. They don’t clone themselves, either. Time and time again, I have seen the following principle played out in ways I could not have imagined if I didn’t do the work I do: outside of divine intervention, matter is neither created nor destroyed. The sum of inventory variances will approach zero with enough time and research.

Ten years later, I no longer spend part of my shift in the freezer, but I’m still sustained by the daily mystery of the missing and the found. I’m grateful that the temp agency didn’t tell me I’d be walking for miles. I wouldn’t have thought I’d be equal to the tasks that awaited me.

I tell my daughter that it’s almost never impossible that the best part of your life is still ahead of you. When I got that phone call to start a data entry job in a grocery warehouse, I had yet to own my own car. I hadn’t bought my first cell phone. Here we are 10 years later, living a life paid for with numbers, and I’m so grateful that I said yes to that call and even more grateful that the company took a chance on letting me work for them.

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Hash Browns and Christie

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This evening I fixed sausage and hashbrowns for dinner, with a token vegetable on the side. Sometimes I need its crispy, greasy saltiness. It’s something in which you can lose yourself, your cares drifting away while its flavor arrests your attention.

Today and yesterday, I needed to lose myself as much as possible. In part, I’ve done this by juggling three different Agatha Christie books, which is entirely possible when reserving e-books through a public library. Several of your awaited titles can become ready for check-out at the same time. When this happens, I don’t trust that I’ll be able to finish all the books I have checked out during the three-week loan period allotted to each title, so I switch between different ones in case life might get in the way of finishing them. So far this I haven’t had to return a book before it’s done and find my place at the end of the line waiting for it to become available again.

So how have I found the time to read more than 60 Agatha Christie books in the past eight months? It helps that I can read the electronic editions on my phone. I’ve increasingly abandoned TV in favor of reading, too. No TV in my house has been turned on in my house in over three weeks.

I’ve turned away from national TV news of any bias. When I was on medical leave last year, I watched James Comey’s live televised admission that the FBI had been investigating the Trump campaign for ties to Russian election interference. At that moment, I felt like a gong banged inside my mind to signal that national news had fallen into the theater of the absurd. Even if the reports were true, the national news media as a whole had jumped the proverbial shark, and I didn’t need the added stress of watching more of it.

I have a subscription to my local newspaper, and I read online news stories. When something “big” happens, I sometimes toggle between the CNN and Fox News homepages to see how differently they’ll spin the same stories. The best is when one has several headlines about the same story and the other has no headline concerning it at all, or just begrudgingly offers some coverage on a belated basis (e.g. Stormy Daniels).

I’ve found greater solace in reading Christie as relentlessly as I can. I’ve even read her books while riding an exercise bike.

With Christie, there’s an interesting thematic unity across her body of work, so switching between stories isn’t as confusing as it could be. Despite this unity, her stories are not boring. Today I’ve been reading a short story of hers called “The Man from the Sea”. It’s one of her Mr. Quin stories. The Harley Quin stories are intriguing because one is left to wonder at times if Mr. Quin is supernatural or merely human. I’m halfway through this particular story, and there’s a raw beauty that spares no feelings. It shares some of the realism of And Then There Were None, wherein the selfish, delusional part of humanity is laid bare against a world sometimes more beautiful than those who live there.

Yesterday I had my second epidural injection. The epidural I had in February was fairly carefree in comparison. This time I was not so lucky. I had a different doctor this time (luck of the draw, I guess), and he vented that he saw little to gain from the treatment. He warned me that I’d likely get a spinal headache because the interval where I needed the injection was so jammed with scar tissue, adjacent hardware, and stenosis that he couldn’t fit the needle in without risk of piercing the dura matter around my spinal cord.

I can’t say I disagreed with his point of view. It’s one of the shitty aspects of health insurance. At times one is expected to follow through with risky “conservative” measures before the next step of treatment is approved. Insurance preapproved an epidural injection that neither this patient wanted nor the doctor wanted to deliver, but nothing else could happen unless it was done.

Within an hour of returning home, I got up and felt as if a bookcase had fallen on my head. I called the clinic to report that the near-inevitable had happened. I was instructed to lie flat and drink as many caffeinated beverages as possible. Thank God I was spared that crushing feeling as long as I didn’t lift my head. Thank God that my spinal headache lasted just three hours.

I also thank my husband for figuring out how I could drink those caffeinated beverages while lying flat (btw, keep the drink beside your couch or bed and drink through a straw with your head turned to the side). I’m also grateful that my sister came over to hear my tale of woe and help with the things I couldn’t do. My daughter was there with questions and hugs as well. When my headache was over, she strolled through the garden with me as the summer sun gave glory to all the blooms not yet shrouded in shade. That garden walk is a memory I will cherish.

How Did We Find Each Other?

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I’m still motoring through Agatha Christie’s back catalog, and the novel Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? has me impressed with how quickly its various characters are able to communicate by post or phone. It has me thinking that I too once lived in a world free of email or cell phones, and I don’t recall having much trouble making plans with friends or family if I wanted to emerge from my hermitage.

I can’t seem to remember how we arranged times or places with accuracy. I really can’t remember how we made things happen, how for instance we’d know to show up in front of the bookstore on a particular day and time. I don’t remember anyone failing to show up for such rendezvous. Late at times, yes, but absent, no.

This failure of memory seems absurd to me. It’s not like the first generation of car drivers forgot how to ride horses or how to read a train schedule. The part of my brain responsible for remembering how I made plans before I had a cell phone must be the same region that eventually forgets the particulars of a brand logo once a new one is adopted. This brand-forgetfulness has been a lifelong minor plague. When I was seven years old, my family passed through a small town that still had an older version of the K-Mart logo. The relief I felt at seeing the older logo was akin to dreaming of a friend I hadn’t seen in years (and said friend looking the same as when I last saw him or her). It’s the relief of knowing that your memory is longer and deeper than you suspect, even if your mental search engine doesn’t deliver an answer when you want it.

Now I feel like a cell phone is a shopping necessity. I could miss a call or text from home asking me to add something to my cart. Or, heaven forbid, I could “lose” my daughter or husband in the store. This is a part of life before cell phones that I do remember. My mom had a knack for disappearing in department stores. The larger the store, the greater the probability she’d slip away while I was thumbing through 45 rpm music singles or combing through a shirt display to find one in my size (which I could get only if it was on sale). I’d look up and Mom would be nowhere in sight. I’d spend the next half hour wandering the store and finding her only at the moment I’d given her up as lost for good. I’d spot her right before she slipped into some alternate retail reality where the pictures of mothers and not children are to be seen on milk cartons.

I’d have appreciated some way of knowing exactly where she was, but a cell phone would have diluted her mystique I suppose. Unless she went missing in a store, I had persistent knowledge of her whereabouts. I didn’t have to wonder if she was in the bathroom or the backyard or the planet Venus. I just knew. Perhaps such transparency was exhausting at times.

How did we let others know where we’d be and when we’d get there?

To Wish Impossible Things

I don’t have much time for writing this evening. This is the sort of reasoning that drives my dwindling number of blog posts. I don’t know where to begin, and I don’t have the time to start.

If I keep waiting to write until an afternoon yawns wide before me, eventually I’ll cease writing here. This blog will be yet another casuality of attrition.

So I will share this evening’s stream of thought, that I need daydreams about as much as my body needs oxygen. I’ve learned that waking dreams can be crucial in coping with many forms of adversity, especially chronic pain.

The key is to persuade my mind to reflect of pleasing things rather than awful ones. I’ve had persistent nerve pain in my right hip this week, which is a distressing development because my as-known nerve damage is on the left side. The pain strikes like a beacon from the black box of an airplane that’s crashed and refuses to let its wreckage be lost. The volume of its signal is a solid 7 out of 10 while I drive.

It is very tempting indeed to anticipate more of the same suffering in the days to come. However, I’ve found that a daydream of a perfect place is the best tool I have to cope with this nerve pain.

My perfect place isn’t merely some generic place like an idyllic beach. It is impossibly perfect, a forest retreat with city utilities and Wi-Fi that never fails. Here I relax in a cabin that is covered in vines and surrounded with flowers year round. Here I can stop time and have as much time to myself as I need. I might even let a pet or two join me in my repose:


I feel that this place has such a conducive vibe for learning that L’Orange and I could read through spans of the canon of literature with ease. He’d take along my copy of Washington Irving’s short stories that’s been collecting dust and good intentions on my coffee table in real life, and we’d thrill over those pastoral, sometimes spine-tingling tales.

My perfect place would be self-cleaning. It would engage all my of senses.Any food I wanted would appear at my wish. There’s something so comforting to me in imagining a perfectly satisfying meal, which would depend on what combination of salt, fat, or sugar I’m craving at the moment. Or sometimes I imagine something quite wholesome, like garden-fresh tomatoes on top of barley with a brightly flavored dressing.

What seems delightful today would be a small plate of the best fries I ever tasted, which was at a random restaurant in Solvang, California, back in ’94. I ate them at a sidewalk table, and the fries had a stellar crisp-to-fluff ratio with a hint of garlic flavor. The weather was superb for outdoor dining, as it almost never is semirural Ohio. In the perfect place, I’d eat those fries with a bit of fresh dill on top and school cafeteria ketchup for dipping. No ketchup has ever rivaled the high vinegar type of my school days.

And now my time for writing really has dwindled this evening.

Do you have a perfect place you visit in your mind?

By the way, I feel like I am remiss in writing about L’Orange without mentioning his real life sidekick Buddy:

Being Mortal

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I doubt it is possible to have access to the internet and be unaware that suicide has once again floated to the top of the news. If you were online and missed the fact that two famous and deeply gifted people took their lives this week, I’d like to know which filters you’re using in your various news feeds. You could sell it as a formula for downer-proof digital life.

In the several of the news reports about the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, there were references to a CDC study which indicated a couple startling trends. First, the suicide rate has risen 30 percent or more in half of the United States. Second, the CDC found that about half of the people who committed suicide did not have a history of mental health diagnosis or treatment. This bit of information startled me.

Before hearing about this study I assumed that two things are true about suicide: that the person is indeed deceased, and that he or she had an untreated or undertreated mental illness. I even went so far as to consider that 40,000+ yearly suicides in the U.S. could indicate that we are still living in a stone age of sorts in mental health treatment, that for some people mental illness can indeed be a terminal condition.

Sadly enough, it is true that some people suffer from mental illness so resistant to available treatments that they face a real and persistent threat of death due to suicide. One of my friends committed suicide in 2016 for just such a reason. Combine a deeply disabling mental illness like bipolar or schizoaffective disorder with substance abuse (which can sometimes involve escalating dependence on prescribed, controlled substances like Xanax), and suicide is a definite risk. For individuals with a clinical picture like that, mental illness can become a terminal condition.

Now is the point where I realize that I am taking entirely too long to develop the notion that arose in my mind from reading references to the CDC study that indicated about half of people who commit suicide have no mental health treatment history. Long story short, I believe that we are living in an age where it is becoming harder to conceal serious mental illness. You don’t have to crack open very wide to intersect with a mental health diagnosis. In the case of my friend who took her life, she had an 18-year-long treatment history before her suicide. She lived in small, conservative communities for her entire life. She was a born and bred Rustbelt Republican, and she grew up knowing that mental illnesses are just as valid as physical ones.

If half of U.S. suicides involve people with no mental health diagnoses, I cannot escape the notion that a rising number of people are deciding that their lives aren’t worth living. It is possible that some people are making a rational choice to stop living for trivial reasons. Why? Because they do not value human life enough to preserve their own.

I believe that everyone does a fairly complex yet intuitive cost/benefit analysis of human life and that this analysis informs the value we place on our own lives. For example, if you believe that a blind person is worthy of a dignified, happy life, you would eventually adapt to life as a blind person if you happened to lose your vision. If in your heart of hearts, you believe that such a disability leads to a useless life, you could very well choose to end your life due to loss of vision and have no mental illness at all.

While it is vital to continue the battle of easing stigma and increasing access to mental health treatment, I also believe that is time to start a cultural discussion of the value of human life. As this value declines in our culture, it becomes more rational to think that one should stay alive only as long as one is healthy, young, wealthy, famous, or some combination of all that is prized in the here and now.

Both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were well into middle age. I can’t help but think that whatever their personal reasons for suicide, their passing is symptomatic of our culture’s discomfort with aging. At 45, I am well into the long, rude awakening that aging is hard work. Have I broken some unspoken rule in advertising that I am already getting old? I’ve written several posts about my struggle with lumbar degeneration. In reality, my problem is just advanced aging of the spine. If you get old enough, there’s a good likelihood that your back will be just as bad as mine is.

I can’t be the only one who was so ill-prepared for getting older. I grew up in an era when looking young was paramount, with little regard for one’s insides– if you can be mistaken for a 30-year-old, then your insides must be that healthy, too. I am going to transgress once again in revealing that we start falling apart by degrees from the moment we are born. Ask anyone who’s had their wisdom teeth extracted after age 30, and you will hear that 30 is not so young.

In thinking of the rising suicide rate, I must remind myself that I decided long ago that life is worth living until its natural or accidental end, however hard one’s circumstances may be. Life is worth living even one is severely disabled, profoundly poor, or impossibly old.

Turn this thinking inside out. Consider a weather-beaten man wandering about downtown who looks like he has nothing but where the day may take him. No matter how he landed in such a life, his survival shows that he values his life against all odds. How much do you value yours?