Friday, August 29, 2008

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


It was a pretty big year for fashion, a lousy year for rock and roll...
-Don Henley.

It's been a strange couple of days. On the one hand, the regatta issue got out. A lot of work was done for very little. I ended up getting Jo Dee Messina, Rev Theory and the drummer from Blues Traveler. John wasn't available, owing to the demands of the tour and the new record. No explanation as to how this had to do with anything, since the drummer is on the same tour and on the same album.

It was another week where I plugged in 5 separate articles in one section, which makes me a little nervous. I start getting ribbed about what I do when my byline becomes everywhere. I think it annoys people. It annoys me a little and a lot of it is repetitive. Since it's going to be largely me, I should try to branch out from phone interviews with obscure entertainers and the occasional piece by slightly deranged local rockers.

I don't think I'm dissatisfied with the entertainment work. I'm just not growing with it.

I need some kind of change. I just haven't figured out what, yet.

I could use a vacation -one that doesn't suck and doesn't end with a letter from a lawyer.

Friday, August 22, 2008

All the trouble in the world

I didn't hear about why the neighbors down the street moved out until last night.

I like where we live. I don't much love the house or the yard. I don't care for the narrowness of the streets, but I like that we live in a place where there are a couple of mixed-race couples, one guy who obviously has issues with addiction and a couple of houses where an adult has moved back in with Mom and Dad, along with her kids. It's working class, and we've all got very visible issues. My family fits in.

In our neighborhood, there's a childlike man in his mid-30s. He doesn't work, is likely on disability, but stays home and lives with his parents. He's the neighborhood watch and gossip. He talks to everyone and keeps us up to date on what everyone is doing.

Across the road, in a house smaller than mine, a young couple and their two children lived. She was young, terribly thin and covered in tattoos. Her boyfriend or husband (I never saw a ring, but never asked) was black and sort of chunky. He worked. She stayed home and took care of the kids, both of whom are under five. Nice people and friendly.

They moved out suddenly a couple of weeks ago. I figured the rent got to them. I don't know what they paid. Even not so choice places in South Hills are pricey. I pay 600 bucks for a house that might not get 400 elsewhere. I'm glad to get it because the landlord leaves us alone, the local school has been good to my daughter, and we need every kindness we can get.

Their youngest son has been sick. Two years old, just a little younger than my youngest, the boy has already had a couple of surgeries. I was told they moved because the intestinal surgery he needed wasn't covered by the family's medical plan. They were relocating to a state where they qualified.

Not a tough call to make, just a hard thing to have to do. I'd have tried to help them if I'd known. I don't know what I would have done that they couldn't. I'd have probably called a few social service agencies and asked questions. Maybe I would have turned something up. I don't know. I didn't get the chance. I lost my neighbors before I could have tried.

So, I got an e-mail yesterday from a guy named Ryan. His son was born in January with a bunch of health problems. There have been surgeries. He's missed work and they're struggling. He came to me, because someone, somewhere told him I might be able to get him some publicity for a bake sale. He's a little desperate. I told him we get a lot of these stories here at the paper. A sick kid and a family struggling has been told before. We get scammed, too, I'm sure.

I told him I'd still meet with him. We could try. Maybe there would be a story, and maybe we'd stumble over an answer that would actually help them.

I can always go back to talking to bass players if it doesn't work out.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A standard deviation.

I think a lot about the strange interconnectedness of unrelated things. Sometimes it really does seem when one door closes, another one or two opens. Sometimes the little accidents that befall us all lead to truths or greater understanding, and sometimes when you really need something, it sort of just turns up.

Back before my present troubles began, I watched No Country For Old Men. The movie is based on the book by Cormac McCarthy and really kind of stunning. It was just one of those things where I saw it and thought, "I wonder what they left out?"

The book wasn't at the main branch library. I did a search through one of their computers and saw a list of books available by the author. I requested No Country For Old Men and The Road. I'd already seen the movie for the one book. The Road seemed shorter and better place to start.

This was going against type for me. I'm used to picking up books about lepers and cannibals, not books blessed by Oprah Winfrey. There was a note about that on the cover, but I went ahead anyway.

The Road is about a father and son journeying through a bombed out, starved and dying America. They're traveling south and toward the sea, in hopes of finding a safer and more hopeful life. This is a murdered world. Most of mankind have reverted to little more than feral dogs killing or raping then killing any living thing.

As bleak and horrifying as the stage McCarthy has set, the story is one of a very selfless love between father and son. The boy's father is dying, but desperate to get his son to safety. He continues on and even retains his humanity because of the boy. It was an easy read, but a hard, hard book, but it was exactly the right book.

Not everybody is going to get what I mean. I'm not comparing my current predicament with living out of a shopping cart and warding off cannibals with a nearly empty pistol --though, it could feel that way. I'm only saying I understand why McCarthy's father character would do the things he did, why he would try so hard. I related and didn't feel so alone.

It was a random book, picked up for a random reason. It was a book about terrible things in a place pretty close to hell. It was a comfort when I needed it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Legal Aid-take two

I called again. A very nice lady asked me why I needed the aid. I stumbled over the explanation, spoke in a low voice, and answered her questions.

"How do you receive your income?"

-I work. A couple of jobs, though one is just a night or two every week.

"How much do you make?"

-Um... I'm going to guess and say I make 2500 a month. I don't get to keep any of it. Childcare, rent, stuff like that.

"How many people in your household?"

-Four, not including two cats. There were fish, but tragically all of them recently died.

She was quiet for a second while she did the math. It only took a second.

"I'm sorry. You make a little too much."

-I kind of thought that would be the way it would be. I figured I fell in that sweet spot.

"I'm sorry."

-It's not your fault. I don't make enough money, but I make too much. You were really nice. Thanks.

"Good luck."

She hung up.

This is hard. I've gotten a couple of encouraging notes over the last few days, good people with hopeful suggestions, but I'm trying to keep it in perspective. Lots of people mean well, but the cavalry may not be coming. I better be okay with that.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Legal Aid -take one

I didn't get to call Legal Aid yesterday, owing to the rigors of my weird little job, but I called today. The first time I called must have been while they were at lunch. I was given a phone menu for options and wound up thinking I should press the number corresponding to apply for Legal Aid. This put me on hold, but then I remembered it was probably their lunch hour and exactly how long was I going to hold. It just made good sense to call back.

On the second try a couple of hours later, I got the answering message. I could either dial my party's extension, try the directory or press another number if I was the victim of domestic violence. Jesus, that made me feel like shit. Not only am I not involved in any domestic violence, but I'm trying to compete against people who are. This is a messy custody/visitation case. Nobody is beating anybody up. It just feels that way.

I had no idea what to do, so I hung up, then called back. Maybe I missed the mention of the extension to apply for aid. Nope. Same thing. I punched for the directory and was asked to dial in the last name of who I was trying to reach. Huh? I hung up, then dialed again. I was just going to wait them out and see what happened if I made no selection, but just hung on the line.

Eventually, I was sent to someones voice mail. The audio was bad. I couldn't quite make out her name. I left a message, explaining that I was seeking aid. She could call me back if she wanted to. I considered what number to leave, but settled on my office number. I spend more time there during business hours and can usually be reached. I have a cell phone, but I'm prone to leaving it in the car, in the charger, in the bathroom...

I didn't like doing that. There's a chance I won't be at my desk if someone calls and someone else will pick up. I'm not ashamed of going to court. It's probably long overdue, actually, but I am a little ashamed at having to ask for assistance like this. It's not the first time I've ever had to ask for something I would figure should be within my means. Back in 2000, following my children's relocation to Baltimore, I started having chest pains, shortness of breath and headaches. I suspected these were anxiety attacks, but I was in pretty sad shape. I was worried I was pushing toward a heart attack at age 30.

I worked for a radio station, which should tell you whether I could afford health insurance and where some of the stress came from. A minister and rabble rouser who worked with the local union mission used to do a minute long non-denominational audio piece about basically being decent to other people and to yourself. I asked him about their free clinic.

He told me I was welcome. I went, the doctor had a look at me then sent me off for some tests. I was right. It was stress. He told me to drop some weight, get some exercise and relax. I took the message to heart, started going to the gym more, cut out the smoking (for a while) and ate less pasta (though it was cheap).

I still felt pretty bad about using the free clinic until a paramedic friend of mine sort of put it in perspective. He told me a lot of people use the system to take advantage. In his case, he was talking about people using the medical system to try and get high or get drugs they could sell. All I wanted was to not die.

That's not a bad thing to want, he said.

So, I guess that's how I'm trying to apply this. I'm not trying to abuse the system. I'm just trying to get it to work like it's supposed to.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

How I Spent My Summer -part 3

Part 3- the end and the shape of things to come

It was a three day assault on my nerves and sanity. It was three days of managing my temper poorly and sleeping badly for ten hours a night. It was three days of pinching pennies and realizing, at the end , a full third of the money I brought went to cover the cost of gasoline. Every cost-saving effort was obliterated. It's hard to cook at the house when you can't wash the damned pots and pans. The only way to keep the peace was to keep everyone in motion.

I think we made the best of it. We goofed around in the backyard, threw horseshoes and tossed a Frisbee back and forth. We took walks and watched the deer. We showed them the falls and brought them to see animals.

It was still pretty shabby. I was glad to get home. I'm still exhausted and frazzled. There's been no rest.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How I Spent My Summer -part 2

Part 2 -the extra guest.

Some of the time, for the paper, I write about things which interest me. I wrote a piece about vacationing with special needs kids a few weeks back. I am helping to raise a special needs child (though honestly, my wife does most of the real work). Vacationing in my family has been trying. Go figure why I was curious.

Most of the people I spoke with had Down's syndrome kids, which is entirely a different set of problems. Down's kids often have very serious physical ailments to go along with a mental impairment, and not to be unkind, but a Down's child is visibly different than other children. My daughter is a very bright-eyed and pretty young woman. She's almost as tall as I am. It's hard to call them children when they get to be that big. She's an autistic, which isn't always easy to spot casually.

My article was only slightly useful to someone like me.

I don't know a parent with an autistic who doesn't have horror stories about reactions from the public. People (and idiots like Michael Savage) want to assume the kid is a brat and you're a lousy parent because your child is behaving like a cranked up lunatic in a public place. No matter how much you plan or prepare, there really isn't a way to know whether your kid is going to have a meltdown. The staring, the little comments and snarky remarks are bad and every now and again you get some asshole who wants to give a lecture.

My daughter is a big fan of travel. She obsessively collects data on hotels, motels and attractions in the places she hopes to visit. She's gotten more into this after we added the internet at the house. It's really pretty extraordinary.

It would sound like a vacation would be a great thing for her, except she needs a lot of space to feel comfortable. She likes to spread out. You can't really do that in any vehicle smaller than a school bus. Riding in a car filled with other people, their sounds, their smells and their need for boundaries is taxing for her. It screws with her senses. Her reaction is predictably awful.

She's been under more stress than normal lately, too. Her creepy biological father has returned again and the whole house is thrown further out of sync than usual. Really, I wish this guy would move to Australia or Antarctica.

My daughter has a couple of imaginary friends. The most dominant of them is Flappy, whose body is my daughter's right arm and hand. Flappy speaks in a grating voice and likes to entertain. She is my daughter's defender, advocate and also an instigator for some of her less amusing ideas. She likes to talk to strangers, likes to offer running commentary about me, and likes to poke and tickle her brothers.

It's a pretty fucked up world, I think, when you don't approve of your kid's imaginary friend.

Flappy spent almost the entire trip with us. She was in the car almost non-stop on the way down and on the way back. I have little memory of a time when she was silent for longer than a couple of minutes. Sitting in the passenger seat, riding while my wife drove, her squeaky little voice droned on and on and on. Flappy would not go away no matter how many times we asked or demanded.

Flappy went along whenever we tried to get something to eat or tried to buy groceries, pretty much torching any pleasure in dining out or dining in. She was out in the yard with us while we pitched horse shoes. In the house, Flappy shepherded the other characters from my daughter's imaginary menagerie out onto the center stage. There was Flapapino and Uncle Boob. Both were pretty terrible, though not as annoying or outright disturbing as Flappy. At her best, Flappy is a shrill cartoon. At her worst, she reminds me of Tony, Danny's imaginary friend from The Shining.

Oddly enough, Flappy didn't seem to come along much for the trips to Blackwater Falls or to Wildlife Center. She might have been directed to watch the car.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

How I spent my summer -part 1

Part one: checking in

I hate going on vacation. I hate vacationing for the same reason I'm not a fan of my birthday or most major holidays. I tend to get my hopes up for mediocrity and walk away feeling shafted when I can't manage to pull off even the low bar. I take these personal failures pretty hard. Family vacations are the worst since I'm dragging along my family into another of my unhappy misadventures. My average vacation is best described as a series of small tragedies staged in a gorgeous setting.

We were broke to begin with. Thanks to some car repairs in June, my little bit of savings had been halved. I'd hoped to take my family to Columbus, to the zoo. Everybody seems to like animals. Supposedly, there was an aquarium not to far away, too. It seemed vaguely educational, positive, and while not as exciting as cliff diving or snorkeling off the barrier reef, a good fit for us. But with two hundred bucks, for a family of five on a four day trip, that seemed about as likely as me pulling a flop-eared rabbit out of my ass.

Through my connections, I managed to score us the use of a cabin in Canaan. It sounded like a good idea: fresh air, wide open spaces and a certain amount of seclusion. Since the beach a few years ago, the idea of a shorter drive to someplace where we could all unplug sounded like a great idea: no tv, no internet, no nothing.

Selfishly, I was hoping to clear my head and relax. I've been having a lot of nightmares lately. I just wanted a break and to go someplace where I didn't have to feel like we were being stared at.

It started to unravel the second I picked up the keys. I was given a warning that the place wasn't quite as fabulous as I would have hoped. It was seldom used, not particularly well-maintained and there were some minor problems.

"Check on the mouse poop," I was told. "Bring a broom."

I wasn't worried about a few mouse droppings. I understood a cabin in the woods, seldom disturbed by people, would likely be a bit dusty and dirty. Mice would find their way in. Mice will do as mice do.

The cabin was beautiful. The living area was huge. There were plenty of windows and lots of space for people to sprawl out. There was a fully working kitchen with a dishwasher.

The kids made a run for the second floor bedrooms. This was going to be better than being stacked like firewood in a tent. They were going to have their own rooms, but under the big windows overlooking the woods, there was a drift of black grains similar to wild rice -as if someone had tossed a couple of boxes of Uncle Ben's onto the floor. Both bedrooms looked like this. Visions of a throbbing brown carpet of mice moving around beneath the beds of my children danced in my head.

While they settled in, I completely lost it.

"Downstairs," I yelled. "Get downstairs."

They looked at me as if I was nuts. Other than the dark hills of mouse shit, the rooms were a vast improvement to the ones they have back home. The walls are made of real wood. The windows looked out on something besides the bedrooms of the neighbors. The roof didn't look like it was slapped together by drunks who never got above a C in carpentry class.

While they grabbed their stuff and went back downstairs, I cleaned up and tried not to vomit. The vacuum cleaner helped, after I took it apart and fixed it. I grumbled loudly about not staying in a place filled with mouse shit. I already wanted to go home.

I calmed down. Finding the stack of invoices from Orkin over the last year helped. The exterminators had been in every month for well over a year. The mouse shit was old. Mickey and all of his friends were long dead. Nobody had cleaned up and this made sense, given the people who had stayed here previously. None of them had families. They would have had no reason to use the second floor.

I could see no reason why we should use it either, actually. So, we didn't.

I had been told there were some problems with a leak at the water pump. I was advised to use it carefully, to shut it on and off to flush the toilet and to take showers. The leak was like turning on a faucet. I'm not an expert or anything, but running water over electric wires looks bad.

After some discussion, we agreed we were stuck. It was already nine o'clock. Everybody was hungry, and it was black as pitch. We decided to stay the night and see how it went. We parked the kids on the couches in the living room, which was still better than what they were used to, ate some lunch meat with bagels. Everyone slowly went to sleep. I slept like a political prisoner. I dreamt I was in a weird third-Reich inspired torture chamber run by my editor.

By morning, I'd figured out a sort of solution to the water issue. We could run the pump for a couple of minutes safely, long enough to flush the toilet. Anything longer than that seemed like asking for a grisly death by fire. Showers were out of the question, but we were near a couple of state parks and resorts we planned to visit. If we swam, we reasoned, we could shower at a bath house. We considered it camping, but with a tent made out of lumber.

We decided we could manage. We'd seen worse.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Vote for change

Today on this date, thirty years ago, was the last reported appearance of Bruce Springsteen in this state. Springsteen has made a career out of being the quintessential American rock icon. He writes about the dreams and despair of the common man.

Four years ago, the motherfucker and his buddies did a series of shows for where they played in supposed battleground states. They played in Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Funny, how Wikipedia doesn't remember the show in Asheville, NC or the show in Virginia.

But I do... Four years ago, I spent days calling trying to get one of the concert planners on the line to ask them why they were deliberately navigating around West Virginia. I got to talk to a lot of people, including one of the grassroots founders of the organization. I got anybody I wanted except somebody who was willing to answer the question: why?

Thirty years ago was the last show Bruce did here. Four years ago, when the election mattered, Bruce and his buddies wrote off this battleground state as a battle not worth fighting. They wrote us off as a people not worth winning.

This is what the quintessential American music icon showed me. America doesn't necessarily include the hillbillies.