Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cancer Man Christmas Future

She had to get a surgical mask before she could leave her apartment. The week before Kathy had taken the bus out, picked up a bug and spent part of the week before Christmas in the hospital. It was nothing personal, but she didn't want to do that again for New Year's --and besides, she'd ridden in my car. It's pretty awful.

Kathy looked good, but was in a bad way. Good people having a bad time will often talk about others who somehow have it worse. That would be a tall order in this case. A few months ago, they lopped off a breast. She's on her second round of Chemo and they want to try her on some experimental drugs.

Dying of Cancer is hard all the way down and that is what she's doing. I can't say how it is with other cancer patient drivers, but all of my patients have died. This makes particularly miserable sense. Almost all the people I've helped have been either isolated or dirt poor and isolated. They don't have much of a support system except the wavering kindness of their church, if they have one. If they had community or family, they wouldn't need to ask for a stranger to get them where they needed to go.

The more alone you are in the world, the harder it is to stay in the world. There's nobody to hold on to and nobody to hold you back.

We talked all the way up and back. It was a short ride. Her son was home for Christmas. He had problems dealing with her diagnosis and acted out, she said. Juvenile authorities had placed him in a facility to help him get his head together. He was 14 or 15 and sleeping on the couch when we left for the doctor's office.

"He's got to go back first of the year," she said. "I'm hoping he'll be back in March, but he's got to make his goals."

She told me a lady she used to work for called her. Kathy used to sit with the woman's father as he slowly disappeared into the murky death that is Alzheimer's. The woman is of some means, owns buildings and has a 30 year-old daughter addicted to Meth.

"They got her doing rehab," Kathy said. "But she's still looking at doing two years in prison."

It doesn't sound like a first time offense.

The woman called Kathy because she said her daughter needed a friend. Kathy thought it sounded like she was trying to get a babysitter.

She shook her head.

"I told her she could call and talk, but I didn't want her coming over to see me. I don't need that, not right now."

There's Meth all over and maybe people who use Meth would also like her pain pills, she thinks. Kathy is terrified of drug dealers and drug users, even though a town cop lives in the same apartment complex. The police cruiser in the parking lot is hard to miss, but Kathy doesn't feel safe. She worries about having to be on the street, about walking to the pharmacy and back to get her pills. Every noise behind her is a guy with a knife, a stick or a gun.

She has to walk now, has to take the bus if she wants to go anywhere beyond the end of the street. Her husband, who is in a training program, served her with divorce papers as an early Christmas present.

"He told me I was half the woman he married," she said. "If he thinks that, I don't need him."

She's right, but she needs somebody.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Vic Chesnutt

Vic Chesnutt died the other day, an apparent suicide. I interviewed the singer/songwriter a few months back, when he appeared on Mountain Stage. He wasn't who I wanted. I wanted Neko Case, but she wasn't talking to the likes of me.

Chesnutt was my clutch, a last minute choice. I fired off an e-mail through his website and was startled when he e-mailed back.

In most cases, nationally known musicians don't do their own e-mail. Even the indie guys like Chesnutt don't do their own e-mail. Somebody else takes care of the calls, the websites and the scheduling. On the lower levels of the game, duties like that are handed off to managers or agents. Higher up, they get web managers, publicists and all kinds of fatty, protective layers who keep the artist snugly secure.

Chesnutt had no layers protecting him. He fired back an e-mail within an hour or so of me sending it. He gave me his home number (another sort of rarity), but told me to speak up and identify myself. He screened his calls.

It was kind of a novelty and maybe speaks to the situation he was in.

Chesnutt was broke. According to reports, he was deeply in debt for medical treatments, many of them linked to a car accident he was involved in when he was still a teenager.

I only got about ten minutes with him over the phone. Our interview sucked. He struck me as lonely and bitter, but smart. We just didn't really gel. Conversation was forced. He was guarded and we couldn't seem to find enough common ground to make it interesting. We couldn't even really talk about his latest project. The album I'd been given was his last album, not his latest. We didn't have a point of reference.

It was just a mess. He deserved better than he got. I just didn't ask the right questions.

Chesnutt seemed like a good guy, someone who deserved better than the hand he was dealt, but who just got tired of trying to play and finally just threw out.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Remembering snow

I spent the night in a radio station for the first time in about fifteen years the other night. The roads were icy. The ride in to work was a bob sled straight to hell. I took it slowly, creeping in at just barely above five miles an hour. I had little interest in spending the night on the bottom of the river.

Sleeping at the station wasn't so bad. They had a couch and there was a little food left over from the company Christmas party. Compared to the drafty old building where I spent my first overnight at, this was heaven.

Fifteen years ago, I had a lousy job at a low-watt talk radio station in Beckley owned by a small mining company. The owner, Hugh Caperton, was seldom around, but you couldn't blame him. He bought the building because it had a good location, not because the building was any great shakes. The place was a slum haunted by rats, real railroad-hopping hobos and the occasional paint-huffing addict. The previous owner kept a sawed off shotgun in his office, which he'd supposedly used to fire at vagrants he saw fiddling with his car one afternoon.

The new guy didn't have a gun, but he didn't come in as much and never stayed after dark.

One night, before I was supposed to go in for my Saturday morning shift, I got word about an ugly storm coming in. By the time I left from Athens to get to Beckley in the morning, heavy snow was falling and had crusted the roads. I knew before I hit the interstate I wouldn't be driving home. I just didn't know how long I was staying.

Before noon, warnings were issued that motorists should just stay home. Accident reports were coming in. The weather was getting worse and just when I was settling into the idea that I was going to be sticking around until at least the following morning, the guy for the second half of Saturday came in. His name was Chris and I didn't much like him.

Chris was an asshole: judgmental, small-minded and a little holier-than-thou. He was hard to be around, made all of us uncomfortable with either his indifferent hygiene or the bizarre things that went through his head. Chris liked to regale us with droning stories about the aircraft he admired, the new ham radio set he installed in his vintage piece of shit station wagon and occasionally, very dangerous ideas about politics.

Chris was a fascist, which fit in pretty well with the talk station format. He was also extremely religious, which didn't fit in at all with the collection of drunks, porn addicts and outright super villains who patrolled the halls from nine to five every weekday. He'd have been fired for just being plain unpleasant if not for two factors: He worked the shifts nobody else wanted and his father was the station engineer.

Chris got to the station early that day, about an hour before he was scheduled and immediately, we both agreed neither of us could drive anywhere. Since I was still on the clock, he offered to run down the street to the local convenience store to get supplies. I handed him a few bucks, told him to pick up food and a pack of cigarettes. If we were going to be stuck, we should be stocked.

He came back with a loaf of white bread, a two-liter of Mountain Dew, a giant bag of peanut M&Ms and a package of lunch meat.

I was a vegetarian, which everyone knew, and I even mentioned to him before he left. He also refused to buy the cigarettes, though I'd specifically asked for them and he'd said nothing about not buying them. Instead, he'd blown the money on the kind of party crap you'd find at a sleepover for young Methodists then come back to tell me he didn't think I should smoke.

By the time I was officially off the shift, the store had closed and the wind was starting to pick up. There was nowhere to go. So, I did three days and two nights in a drafty building with a cabinet full of Halloween goodies, no smokes and Mr. Personality to keep me company.

It was a long, fucking weekend. Chris followed me around. Wherever I was, he had to be. If I made coffee, he stood in the doorway and watched. If I went down the hall to the studio to read the weather or (ha!) play a commercial, he took a seat and stared. Even after we switched to the overnight and had a little time to sleep, he followed me to my office. I slept in my chair, behind my cheap desk. He slept on the floor.

This went on for two more days.

You'd think two people trapped in the same place, half freezing to death, and just trying to do a job might bond in the face of adversity. They might share some stories, get to know each other, maybe become friends. Honestly, I don't remember what we talked about. I remember being sick on sugar and caffeine, feeling like hell from nicotine cravings and hoping none of the junkies living in the basement or sub-basement would get smart enough to find their way up to the ground floor. I remember also thinking that if they did, I'd give them Chris then make a run for it.

It was a weird weekend. Some of the black preachers who did their shows on Sunday morning couldn't make it in. They called in and told me to play records and also to announce plans for bus rides to the Million Man march in Washington. Eventually, I started to lose my voice and had to gargle warm water right before I went on the air just to croak out the weather reports.

Monday afternoon, the roads started to clear and the engineer showed up. He and his other sons dug my car out of a snow drift and sent me on my way. I went home, ate like a pig and slept hard.

The radio job eventually ran its course. A few months later, Caperton went into a licensing agreement with another radio station and they more or less fired us all. I was the last of the on-air guys. The engineer kept me on as long as he could because I had a family to support.

I saw only a couple of the people I worked with at the radio station ever again. I bumped into the receptionist at an adult bookstore a few years later. She tried to sell me a dildo, but really I just wanted to get a cheap bong. I was newly single. Getting high seemed like something I should consider doing, though I never got around to it.

Chris, however, was a different story.

Years later, an investigator for the human resources department of the FBI was in the wrong place, but looking for Shane, the owner of the radio station that had taken control of my station. The investigator explained he was following up on a background investigation. An applicant named Chris had cited Shane as a reference. I surprised the guy when I knew Chris's last name.

"So, what do you know about him?" He asked me. "Is he responsible? Dependable? Would you consider him to be trustworthy?"

I laughed and told him the story about being stuck with Chris at the radio station. I told the investigator I thought he was very responsible, very dependable and one of the most moral men I'd known at the time.

"But," I added. "He's a dick. He's a self-righteous prick and he's dull, like watching paint dry dull."

The investigator thought I was pretty funny, though he said whether Chris was a jerk or not wasn't really important in his investigation. All they wanted to know is whether he could be trusted to handle sensitive information.

I said he could handle that, then asked if my name would be used in his report, if it would get back to Chris. He laughed and assured me it would not.

"Too bad," I said.

Monday, December 14, 2009


By my reckoning, I'm finishing 2009 on a positive. I did get to the gym. I did lose weight. I wrote my grandmother something like 25 or 30 letters. I breezed through and even managed to not completely flip out on my birthday.

So, I didn't get published. I did get a nice collection of rejection slips and I'm still working on my book. One of these days... I'll make it. None of my short stories made it either, but it's a pretty tricky sort of business with those. Short story publications are very rare to begin with and mine kinda sucked, I guess. When I make them suck less, somebody might want them.

I didn't make my goal weight by Christmas. So Project Captain America by Christmas gets shortened to Project Captain America. We do this until we get it done, then I'll have that stupid tattoo. I'm doing my part. I have a new gym workout and a new eating plan (not a diet. Those don't work).

Meanwhile, I'm working on what I'd like to accomplish in 2010. As usual, getting a book published and another one written are high on the list. Finishing the things I started this year would be nice, but I'm also taking suggestions for new things I've never tried. Already, a few people have suggested ideas like trying to do stand-up comedy or entering a toughman contest. Both have their charms. I've never been beaten senseless or boxed.

What could be fun is if I came up with a sizable list --a sort of bucket list-- then sort of chronicled my misadventures. Who knows? A plot and some kind of point to the thing might evolve. I could turn it into something. Crazier things have happened to other people. At the very least, it would make for some good blog fodder.

Feel free to contribute your ideas. They can't be any worse than mine --actually, mine are pretty bad. So, really, think about it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ten Years After

A few props to Donutbuzz for making me think of looking back.

Ten years ago, I was recently divorced, broke and trying to come up with a little Christmas money by working part-time at a telemarketing firm --one of the most evil jobs I've ever held. I was living with a couple of friends who took me in when I no longer had a place to live.

It was a pretty grim season.

By then, I hated the assorted parts of my life. My job was wearing me down. I was emotionally involved with someone who was not emotionally involved with me, and I was trying to figure out who I was in the context of having become single again, but still being a father.

I was a mess, and this was pretty close to the bottom.

A year and a half later, I met the woman I'd eventually marry. A year and a half after that I start writing again after an absence from print for a decade. Then we moved to Charleston, where everything would change at a seemingly impossible speed. I'd find my way at long last into the writing life, discover Buddhism and become a cat owner. There would be another child, a little boy named Emmett who is both like me and yet so different.

None of these things I foresaw or expected --not really. I never expected to marry again, have more children or write for newspaper. I never expected to like Charleston, even though I'll never stop staring at the highway and wondering where those roads lead.

The last ten years hasn't been easy. It's been a series of struggles and battles for survival and sanity. I still live month to month and hand to mouth. A good day is when there are beans to eat. A great day is when I don't have to eat them. I work as much as ever, but maybe not as hard. I've had a lot of fun, but don't take vacations --or if I do, I screw them up and wind up miserable. Some people are meant to be at rest. I'm not one of them.

I live in a bad house in a good neighborhood. That's an improvement. I've lived in good places in bad neighborhoods and bad places in bad neighborhoods. At least, I have a house. The space I have sucks, but it's separate from the people next door. I don't have to hear the pill heads in the other apartment drown a litter of puppies in the bathtub because the dog they bought with drug money managed to get knocked up by the wrong mutt.

So, here's where I am: Ten years later, I'm a little wiser, a little older and a lot better off in most every way except my checking account. I count all of the people I had as friends ten years ago still friends and I've added to that list. By the reckoning of Clarence, George Bailey's guardian angel, I am a wealthy man, indeed.

I'm a better person than I was ten years ago, happy most of the time and hopeful. I laugh every day. My life might be a little second hand, a little shabby, but it's still pretty good.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

zero, zero, zero

At long last, we come to the end of the list. 100 books in 365 days and I still have over 20 days left. Huzzah, but I'm not doing this again next year. I'll find something else. Whiskey sounds good.

Possible Side Effects: Augusten Burroughs -Consider it a companion piece to "Running With Scissors," this is Burroughs having more fun sort of confessing his failings and foibles while we all laugh. It's not just that Burroughs has a dysfunctional relationship to his family. The entire world has a dysfunctional relationship with him.

Burroughs hates his grandmother (on his mother's side), likes his horribly disfigured skin doctor and would rather sit in his hotel room in London eating junk food and watching television than see the sights. He eats too much, drinks too much (well, not any more --probably) and he chews $600 worth of nicotine gum a month. Yes, he's a mess, but a likable mess --and I have way, way too much in common with him.

I like his apparent honesty. Do I think everything he writes happened just the way it happened? No. Do I particularly care? No, but I admire what I perceive as his truth. I could do better with telling the truth sometimes. In my old age, I've gotten so skittish about speaking my own truths of late, a little afraid to offend, a little bound by a sense of responsibility.

Getting letters from that lawyer didn't help. It still bugs me.

Anyway, Burroughs is someone for me to admire and emulate --perhaps not the blackout drinking or the gay sex or even the piggish eating habits --but writing with less fear.

So, I made it to 100. Thanks to those of you who stuck with me through the book reports, rants and rambles. I'll try to do something less boring next year.


Friday, December 4, 2009

2 and 1

We're down to the next to last books.

Summerland: Michael Chabon --Chabon is sort of hit and miss with me. I loved "Wonderboys" and "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," but couldn't really find my give a damn about "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." I may give the last another try.

However, I didn't much like Summerland. It was a flabby fantasy tale built around the game of baseball, including elves, giants, magic and a lot of various mythological references. In parts, it read like a story arc in the comic book "Fables." At others, it felt like a lazy knock-off of Stephen King and Peter Straub's "The Talisman."

I read it because I had to, not because I wanted to.

The Rock and The Pebble: Mark Defoe -An extremely brief book of poetry by local poet Mark Defoe and really not all too terrible. I'm not really sure how well his work scans and I miss the beat on a couple of his poems, but I like his use of language. I'm a sucker for a well-turned phrase.

Just one more book to go... Then we turn in the list and get the magic gold card. Yippee.