Friday, November 20, 2009

Thank the Water Bugs

When my husband was twenty-two years old he once spent an afternoon waiting in the basement of a near slum, hoping that an exterminator was actually going to keep a thrice made, and broken appointment to eradicate an infestation of what had been politely termed "water bugs". In reality they were cockroaches, and the apartment building in question housed only students at the nearby University of Ohio. As it happened my husband didn't even live in the building, but his closest friend Eric was the resident maintenance man. Tenants had been loudly complaining about the cockroaches, and were calling for both Eric's head, and his job.

Things in general had not been going Eric's way. He was on academic probation as it was, and the only way he could afford housing was to keep his job as the resident manager of the neglected apartment building. His rent was free in return for performing the building repairs, but Eric was unable to kill off the many roaches brought about mainly by the habits of the slovenly occupants of the building. A professional had been called, but had, up to that point, been wise enough to realize that the task was futile. No amount of bug bombing was going to do any good in a building where the average apartment was carpeted with half empty pizza boxes.

Still, Eric was trying. By the time the third appointment rolled around, Eric was unable to try and meet the man due to his class schedule, and asked my husband, his friend since high school, if he would await the technician in the basement. The main nest, it seemed, was located next to the furnace. My husband readily agreed, but hadn't anticipated waiting for hours.

Casting around for something to do he spied a milk crate full of discarded books and began to go through it, searching for something to read. Eventually he found Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy and settled in, reasonably content. The exterminator never showed up and my husband ended up reading for five hours as he waited for him. When my future husband finally gave up, he took the Hardy novel with him and finished reading it over the course of the next week.

That's how he ended up marrying me, by the way.

It would be nearly eight years later that I took a position at the same company for which he worked. I have no recollection of meeting him, although he remembers meeting me. It isn't that he fails to be memorable, it's that I must have met 75 people the same day I met him, whereas he met exactly one person; me.

I was a single mother, with a six-year-old son, rather jaded about love, I suppose. That might account for why I was reading Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy, during my lunch hours. I brought sandwiches for lunch, as I was trying to save money. I was always trying to save money then. Whenever there's a new girl at any company, and she happens to be single, chances are good she will spend the first two weeks of her employment life trying to run the gauntlet of ham-handed flirtation.

I was aware that the Controller kept trying to get my attention but I hadn't found him very interesting up to that point. He was almost an entire foot taller than I am. He was very thin, had a rather large nose and looked so much like Judge Reinhold to most people that several people at the company called him "Judge". He had such thick chest hair that it peaked over the collar of his undershirt and practically waved to a passerby. It wasn't that I actively disliked him, it was that at that particular point in my life, I was not interested in dating and men trying to flirt were primarily a nuisance.

"What are you reading?" He asked and I supplied the title while barely glancing up. He was blocking my light, and the first thing that caught my attention was that he immediately stepped to the side in order to stop doing that. "By Thomas Hardy?"

"Yes, by Thomas Hardy." I looked up again, and the Judge lookalike took this as an invitation to sit down next to me.

"I read a book by him, a long time ago..." he began, and started talking about Tess of the d'Urbervilles, getting most of the plot wrong, actually.

"Did you read it for a class?" I asked, because it was clear that he had read the book, but was mixing up the details.

"No, I read it because of bugs. Water bugs, in reality cockroaches."

What my husband remembers is that I suddenly smiled, turned the corner of the page I was reading down, and closed the book in order to continue talking to him, asking him how cockroaches had led to his reading Hardy.

He happily launched into a discussion of Thomas Hardy with me, and felt quite pleased that his literary knowledge had finally pried up the door he had been trying to get through all week.

Every single day of our lives we do small things, make tiny decisions, and go about our business never knowing exactly what each piece of our puzzle makes. Every now and then we can trace our actions, and our decisions back to key moments that made a huge difference in the course of our lives. That was one instance where it is easy to spot how that moment fit the puzzle.

By the end of that lunch hour I'd agreed to a lunch date with the tall, rather awkward Controller. I only stayed at that company for two months, and left to take a better paying job. I assumed we'd end up friends, and in many ways we did, but we also ended up married.

When people ask how we met, we generally say, "Through work." When friends ask, we usually talk about the irony of meeting ones spouse while reading a book that was considered a condemnation of the institution of marriage.

When my son asked not that long ago, I told him the truth, we met thanks to a water bug infestation eight years before we ever set eyes upon each other. It wasn't that my husband had read, and could vaguely recall the details of a book by the same author. It was that, generally speaking, men flirt with single women for a very slim set of reasons, and the moment the word "cockroach" left my future husband's mouth, I was struck by two rather important things. He was a terrible flirt, a truly terrible one. Who in the world brings up the most disgusting bug most people can name, when trying to get the romantic attention of anyone? He was so incredibly bad at trying to catch my attention, that he actually did.

The other thing was that he'd spent hours in a bug infested basement, trying to help his friend, and when he told me about that, it was as if he didn't even realize it was one of the most attractive things about him. It was said in an offhand manner, thinking he needed to get back to the subject at hand, the thing he was sure had caught my attention, Thomas Hardy.

But it was the water bugs, and I remain very grateful to those water bugs.

I did end up telling him that it was the weirdness of bringing up cockroaches apropos of nothing while trying to flirt that caught my attention.

"So I'd have been screwed if you were reading Kafka?"

I'm sure you can see why he's still one of my favorite people on the face of the Earth. We get each others weirdness.

Whatever seemingly mundane thing you do today, it may remain mundane and unimportant forever. Or it may end up making all the difference in the world.

That's one of the most wonderful things about being alive.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Internet Problem!

Hello, this will very short, for a change of pace. I'm having an internet problem that's been plaguing me for a couple of weeks. Comcast technicians have come and gone, and are returning again today. Hopefully that will finally get it all sorted out.

I'm just mentioning this because usually I'm very good about touring around, reading other people's blogs, and leaving comments. I'll soon be able to return to that, I hope, but at present I can only hold a connection for five minutes or so.

Wish me luck with Comcast, and the gods of internet connection. I'll haunt your blogs when I'm able to, once again.

Edited to add: Well, it's back for a few hours! That's the good news. The bad news, it turns out it's the cable, internet feed for the entire neighborhood which they will start work on very soon. Estimated to be a work in progress until Tuesday. Here's hoping the entire neighborhood doesn't figure out that I'm the squeaky wheel that ended up meaning the entire neighborhood will possibly be without internet for three days.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

If I could have one thing

"What if there's no point?!?" Jenny howled as I did my very best to extract her from some innocent stranger's shrubbery. "Really? What if there isn't any point?"

To say that Jenny was drunk would have been a massive understatement. I was twenty-years-old at the time, and living in Boulder, Colorado. An hour earlier I had arrived home from a shift at local restaurant, where I spent my time being one of the world's least efficient waitresses. Never let anyone tell you that waiting tables isn't a skill, it absolutely is, and from that day to this I can say with conviction that it is not a skill I personally possess. I was an abysmally bad waitress. I returned to my rather revolting apartment, that I shared with two other women, and found Jenny drowning her sorrows after a day spent, she thought, failing an Organic Chemistry exam. She'd sought solace in a bottle of Southern Comfort, and at 21 had no idea what her limit actually was. I highly suspect she discovered it that evening, as she had a savage hangover the next day.

Sodden, miserable, and a solid seven sheets to the wind, Jenny was experiencing the sort existential crisis that only an obscene amount of liquor on an entirely empty stomach can produce. My other roommate, Jenny's sister, asked for my help in marching Jenny resolutely through the streets of Boulder, in the entirely vain hope that the action might serve to sober her up a tad.

It was past midnight on a brutally cold evening, and Jenny had taken yet another tumble. Her sister Ronnie and I spent as much time heaving Jenny up from the pavement as we did actually helping her navigate it. This time she'd taken a header into a bush entirely denuded of all leaves. It must have been remarkably painful, it certainly was wading in after her.

"Then you're entirely screwed." I replied heartlessly. We were well into our second hour of the tedious game of Walk the Drunk. I immediately regretted my words when Jenny took this as a sign that she should grab me by the shoulders in order to make her next shouted remark. Whatever that remark was to have been, it was forever lost to the power of an ocean of Southern Comfort deciding to make a hasty exit. Scrambling backwards as quickly as I could, it was my turn to fall helplessly into whatever sort of bush our activities were busily decimating.

My reply was a hearty round of, "*Expletive deleted. Further expletives deleted. Expletive in the form of a verb, an adjective, and quite probably a noun, deleted* Oh my God, my shoes."

"Sorry." Jenny moaned from her now seated position.

Heartlessness had gotten me nowhere, and my shoes were goners anyway, it was time to head home with some reassurances muttered through gritted teeth. "You'll be fine, and there is a point."

Ronnie echoed similar sentiments. As we pushed and prodded the increasingly obedient Jenny home, she stuck to her theme. "I failed, I know it. There's no point to this! I don't even know what I'm doing."

We continued to reassure her, and guide her through the cold towards home, a shower, bed and the worst hangover I've ever seen anyone endure. For months afterward, in remembrance of my fallen shoes, I would menace Jenny with a bottle of Southern Comfort from time to time, laughing grimly all the while.

It was past eleven on Saturday night when a nearly giddy House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi announced that the health care bill had passed. She was so exhausted that she had to be prompted to bang the gavel, thereby making it official, the bill with the public health care option was through the House. When I saw the news clip the next day my husband and son were both with me.

"It's done? Is that it?" My son asked.

"No, it's not done yet." The feeling was almost entirely surreal. The public health care option had been removed, and although that was not what I wanted, I had accepted it as fact when it happened. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it returned from the grave. Now it was through the House.

Joe Lieberman, a senator from Connecticut has sworn to filibuster any bill containing a public option. There is still no certainty for the fate of this bill. Meanwhile, millions of Americans unable to afford health insurance, or barred by private health insurance companies for any number of reasons, wait on tenterhooks to discover what their fate will be, and presumably hope that there is a point to all this. That it will come in time to provide them with the care, and options so sorely needed by so many.

"I hope there's a point to all this." My husband, a former Republican turned Liberal Progressive.

That's when I remembered Jenny's alcoholic crisis, and long walk home in ruined shoes as she questioned the point of effort, and of her own worth.

If I could have one thing today it would be to have this question settled and for people without access to health care to be guaranteed it. There will be a cost, I'm personally prepared to do my part. Lieberman's promises of being a fly in the ointment worry me. We're still not out of the woods, and even if this eventually passes, what we will have is a good starting point, not the definitive answer. Still, if I could have one things today, that would be it.

In my state a slick ad campaign ran last month, professionally done, visually stirring. I must have seen it six times, and that is remarkable because I generally only watch things via DVR, where I fast forward through advertisements. This commercial caught me enough that I paused after hearing its opening bid to find out what it was selling. This company assured me that they understood Coloradoans, and our needs. The spot talked about the strange weather conditions we often experience, and that everyone in Colorado knows exactly what a Rocky Mountain Oyster actually is. Images of smiling, healthy, gorgeous people against the backdrop of the Rockies assured me that Rocky Mountain Health Plans understood my personal needs.

It was the same month that same health insurance company made national news for refusing coverage to a four-month-old baby, deemed obese because he was above the 90th percentile in size, as babies frequently are. This particular company, who had such an expensive commercial produced to reassure people of my state that they would find nothing but welcoming arms from their company, hadn't noticed that this particular, sizable infant was the son of a local TV personality. All that advertising budget right down the profit drain. The only thing they ended up illustrating was what is wrong with private insurance companies today, where the insured are not people, but potentials for profit.

When my husband said he hoped there was a point to all this, so did I. I'd dearly love for Senator Joe Lieberman to fall into a bush and be unable to make good his threats of the bill breaking filibuster. I wish the man no harm, but I dearly hope he is entirely unsuccessful.

I remembered that cold night and Jenny's binge drinking as she questioned the point to even trying. What a messy, smelly, annoying evening that was.

It was long after the hangover had cleared that Jenny found out she had passed Organic Chemistry after all. She bought me a new pair of shoes, and life went on.

If I could have one thing today, let there be a point to this grim march towards health care for all. I know this seems a strange post for Veteran's Day. We honor those that have fallen, and think of their incredible sacrifice. There will never be adequate words to express the gratitude we feel for those who have died to protect us, and we hope there is a point to their loss of life. That we can continue on, stronger, ever evolving, until such time as we live in a world where war is no longer an answer.

That our answers to questions become better. For what did these men and women die if not to give us a chance to be a better country? Part of what brought this to mind was the conversation I had with my husband about health care reform.

The other thing was a piece on the Huffington Post, that that talked about the number of veterans who died in 2008 due to lack of health insurance.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Phobias and fears

Do you have any phobias?

We all have fears, all of us. Whether we wake in the night, contemplating the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or the state of the world, we all have some fear nibbling at the back of our brains. We manage to carry on regardless. Some nights we roll back over and drift off to sleep, some nights our fear is the only thing keeping us occupied as we stare at the blank ceiling above, willing the fear back into the cave in our minds where it generally lurks.

For the most part we dwell outside that cave during the day. We carry on, we get things done. Many of the things we get done are the very things that stave off the fears. If someone is terrified of a loss of financial security, going to work and earning a wage is a way of combating that fear. We all have fear, but for the most part, we learn how to coexist with it. It can even be said that our fear can motivate us to do better, be better, and achieve. Fear can keep us safe, too. If you look down a dark alley while out for an evening stroll, shiver and decide to keep to the lighted path, then your fear may be keeping you safe.

Sometimes we get to prove to ourselves how brave we can be by overcoming a fear. Most fears have a rational base, and are coped with in a rational matter. We tell ourselves it will be okay, and most of the time we make it okay.

"Hello, do you kill things?"

It was, bar none, the strangest greeting I had ever received. I had walked into the room I was to share for a week with a woman I had not met before, thrown a bag onto the bed and turned to greet the woman in the corner. Before I could open my mouth, that was what she said.

"Do I...?" I began, unsure as to whether or not she was joking. The woman was about my age at the time, in her mid twenties, pressed into a corner, eyes the size of dinner plates, visibly shaking. I laughed uncertainly, "Not as a general rule, no."

She raised a trembling finger and pointed towards a closet. "I can't get past it. I can't move."

I glanced towards the closet and saw what she indicated. A not particularly large, and not overly small spider was on the wall. "Oh! Yes, yes! I kill things!"

I grabbed a tissue and dispatched the interloper, leaving the room to flush the spider down the toilet. By the time I returned, my terrified roommate had slumped down slightly, wiping tears from her face. She apologized to me, introduced herself properly. We spent a pleasant week in training, and she apologized several times for the manner in which we met.

People never choose to be terrified, in my experience, but it can happen to anyone. The genesis of a phobia is often hard to pin down. I used to be very afraid of birds, but solved that by taking a part-time job working with them when I was twenty-years-old. I know where that fear came from in my life. When I was a child a bird fell down the chimney, and as I exited the room, shrieking at the top of my five-year-old lungs the bird followed me through the house. It probably thought it was handy to have such a loud guide, but between that and the fact that my parents, quite by accident, let me watch the movie The Birds later that same month, I developed an irrational fear of them. Working with birds solved the problem, and I no longer have any fear of them but I well remember freezing at the sight of even a caged bird.

This subject came to mind because of my son's psych class. He asked me what my greatest fear was, and I was hard pressed to answer. Who doesn't have fear within them? I'm not fond of heights, but can overcome that. Similarly, crowds don't thrill me, but I can stand in them and overcome that too.

My biggest fear isn't a thing, it's a concept. The fear that I will face something I cannot find a way to overcome. When I lie awake at night, it isn't images of specific things that haunt me, but of scenarios in which I can reasonably see myself crumbling, and unable to overcome.

That's how I think a phobia forms. We, all of us, sometimes feel so helpless and being afraid of the possibility that we will be overcome is one thing we all share. I think a phobia is just a distillation of that kind of fear. I think that's why the actual, paralyzing terror people have when it comes to whatever triggers a phobic response has a tendency to be attached to things that can be avoided.

Water, things other people can kill, mountains that cannot be climbed, clowns at a circus. Things that are not encountered on a daily basis. I don't have any true phobias, I have fears.

I've always wanted to ask the people who have them, do you lie awake at night and worry? I bet some do, but many don't. They've given the fear we all have a form, a face in some instances. That lurking fear of the unknown that we all have has mass, and a name for them.

Ways of being defeated through avoidance, or the intervention of others. I've known a lot of people with various phobias, and oddly enough, they are often some of the bravest people I've ever met, in the right circumstances.

My son and I had our chat about fear, what makes it, what takes it away, how to combat it. Then he told me that Mr. Smith, who I mentioned in my last post, has a phobia of snakes. He cannot stand them, he'll scramble away.

Mr. Smith is a firefighter. He runs into the very thing that most of us fear to preserve our safety. He's a very brave man. When my son told me that, I stared in astonishment. I know for a fact this man has displayed what I would consider super human courage in the course of his work. Yet my son saw him unable to move when confronted with a tiny, green garden snake. As it happens, my son is also afraid of snakes, and whereas I'm sure he would have loved to boldly go where Mr. Smith could not, they both fled into the house, and stayed there until the snake had removed itself.

My son had a paper to write, and he asked me again, what was my greatest fear? I still wasn't sure of my answer. So he changed the question: What was the most frightening thing that had ever happened to me?

I told him the truth. When I was twelve, I was in a house fire. To this day the smell of burnt wood bothers me. Until we had a gas fireplace, I didn't even like log fires within the confines of a wood burner. Sometimes when I'm near a fire, I'll hear a pop, and somewhere inside of me a nerve jumps. It's all I can do to stop myself from making great speeds away from there. To some, roasting a marshmallow over an open flame is a delight, but I don't like to get that close to fire.

"What did you do?"

"I called the fire department."

But for the record, I'm not afraid of snakes.