The Writing Wombat

An American Marsupial in Fiction Land

Month: October, 2014

Happy Hospital Hell

I always assumed we were pretty far along the historical spectrum of medical knowledge. Long gone are the days of leeches and bleeding and humors. Can the days of Star Trek scanners and nanobots be that far away?

Then my wife went into the hospital six times over a four-month span. And I now realize that, while we might have progressed beyond whiskey as the primary antiseptic and painkilling tool, we’re still a long way from holographic doctors phasing through your body to grab the kidney stone before solidifying to pat your ass on the way out the door.

I’m going to try very hard to not turn the Happy Wombat blog into vitriol. Let’s see how good my fiction-writing abilities are.

Prior to the 1:00 AM wake-up call my daughter gave us a week before the agreed-upon arrival time (“Hey, what’s all this water doing in my way? Push!”), my wife had never been in a hospital. Other than “just visiting.”  And really, Monopoly needs to change the jail to a hospital. And what the player needs to roll to get out should change every turn.  “Oh, I know yesterday we were paying very close attention to the doubles, but these test results indicate that dice adding up to seven will put you back on the path to Marvin Gardens this turn.” Besides, how many people really visit jail?

The delivery went fine. An hour after they gave her some Pitocin, she was pushing, and an hour later, we had a healthy six-and-a-half pound daughter. The baby, thankfully, has been the picture of health. But once she was out of her mom, things went a little sideways.

My wife had a massive fibroid that we found during the pregnancy. “Massive” must be a medical term, because every nurse, doctor, and ultrasound tech who saw it said, “Wow, that’s a massive fibroid.” Or “I’m surprised you could get pregnant with that massive fibroid.” Or “Seriously, it’s blocking a fallopian tube, so your eggs weren’t even making it to the uterus half of the time.”

This information might have been useful when we were trying to get pregnant. Instead, I had the pleasure of, um, pleasuring myself into a cup. With that came an affidavit that probably made the last Pope resign – “I, the undersigned, promise I masturbated to produce this sample.” The rest of the rules were extensive and comical: do not collect specimen into anything other than the cup, do not put in your pocket, do not expose to light, do not pass Go!, do not slow down for any yellow lights, do not make eye contact with the tech you deliver it to.

So we knew there might be some issues because of the Massive Fibroid (trademark pending), primarily a risk of excessive bleeding. There was supposed to be extra blood on hand, but it never showed up. The baby’s fault for showing up on a Saturday when the main OB/GYN was not on call. What we didn’t foresee, which in retrospect we or someone with a day or two of medical experience should have, was that perhaps the fibroid and the placenta might not play nicely with each other.

Nobody is sure what happened next.  Either my wife tried to deliver the fibroid, which we had been warned ahead of time would be bad, or the placenta was stuck to the fibroid. The result was lots of blood and no placenta. The placenta seemed to bother the OB the most, but everyone else was concerned that the blood wasn’t stopping. This was the moment I was very happy we were not still living with 19th century medical technology, because I’m sure my wife would have bled out.

But instead, I was being asked to make some momentous decisions. My wife was going to be separated from the baby, meaning that I was in charge of the half-hour-old. Because the law and the hospital and health insurance companies don’t know what to do at this point, I could either admit the baby as the patient or having her admitted as an abandon. Naturally I opted for the former.

Unbeknownst to me, this triggered a health insurance nightmare.  The plan had been to put the baby on my insurance, not my wife’s. But once the baby became a patient at the hospital, well-baby went out the window. This double my wife’s deductible, so we had the joy of paying for much of what happened next. As far as I can tell, the baby’s currently covered on both of our plans, but who the hell knows?

Because my daughter was the patient, my next twenty-four hours were spent in pediatrics, not post-partum. This meant sleeping in a toddler bed about three inches longer than my body. I was also wearing jeans, having thought that I would have time to go home and change after the birth. Add in the two hours of sleep I was operating on, plus quickly learning why it is called a mothering instinct, not a fathering instinct. One fun part, though, was seeing the nurses not quite sure how to deal with the father in charge. They kept asking me how I was feeling and if I wanted any Jell-o or water. “No, I’m fine, my body didn’t just suffer through a live birth. Do you have any beer?”

But my day was a piece of cake next to the recipe for my wife. A dash of ultrasound, a dollop of sedative, swirl in a little radiation, and set to baste in the ICU. The radiation lab stopped the bleeding. The ultrasound checked for both the fibroid and placenta. Turns out the ultrasound needs blood flowing to the region, so the results were inconclusive after the radiation. Probably should’ve done those two things in the opposite order. Oops. As for the ICU, nobody seemed sure why she was there. But where else would you put the woman who has been awake for twenty hours, recently gave birth, and is now beside herself because she can’t see her baby, other than right next to somebody that is up all night with paranoid delusions?

The next day, my wife was allowed to move to pediatrics to actually, you know, see the baby she had birthed. Three days later, mama and baby were released. I was at work, so I missed the whole thing. Had we known more than an hour in advance, I would’ve tried to be there. When a patient is going to be released is an amorphous target, but once it’s set in motion, it’s fast. “We want to keep you here, we’re going to keep monitoring you,” changes to “you’re released, now get the hell out of here because we need that bed” faster than a Denny’s waitress. Turn and burn, baby!

Two days later, she was back in the hospital.  Her body really wanted to deliver that fibroid! When it started coming out on the toilet, she freaked out a bit, but then calmly decided to go to the emergency room. At the emergency room, they asked her a whole bunch of questions based on her medical history (“so we notice your hemoglobin was a little low after delivering the baby”) but nobody seemed concerned with the bodily tissue dangling from her lady-parts.

They also asked if she felt safe in her home. I assume this question is required by law, and that is a good thing.  However, they asked her that question with me sitting right next to her. This certainly violates the point of the question, if not the letter of the law. The comedian in me wanted to crack my knuckles, look menacingly at her, and say “Oh, you feel safe.” Fortunately, right brain convinced left brain to save it for the re-telling.

Once admitted, we stood around waiting for her OB (her actual one this time, not the on-call one) to finish office hours. One tech did take an ultrasound – a vaginal ultrasound five days after giving birth. It showed nothing, probably because the thing it was looking for was HANGING OUT OF HER. I could see it, one of the nurses could see it, but somehow the tech who stuck a wand up past it didn’t notice.

By the time the doctor showed up, we had been in the emergency room for five hours. She then, still without looking at the area in question, assumed it was the placenta and began making plans to admit my wife to the hospital for placenta accreta. Then she looked at it. Oops, turns out it’s not the placenta, it’s the fibroid, something we silly non-medical types had assumed a while ago. The doctor then decided she needed more time to figure out what she’s going to do, so she put the fibroid, which had been hanging between my wife’s thighs for a quarter of a day, back inside her. I wondered if this was the most sanitary thing to do, but again, figured I should just keep my stupid plebeian thoughts to myself.

Around midnight that night, they removed the fibroid without much problem. Bear in mind this was something we were told repeatedly, both during the pregnancy and the delivery, could not happen without so much blood loss as to potentially kill my wife. Everything we had been through that week was to keep that fibroid from coming out. And now it was out, as if nature and the human body knew better than medical professionals.

But we still weren’t done. She kept having fevers after coming home from the fibroid procedure, so she returned.  This was the only time out of the five post-partum trips to the hospital when we didn’t have to go through the emergency room. I had assumed the emergency room was for, I don’t know, emergencies.  You don’t call 911 because of a jaywalker, right? But the emergency room isn’t 911. Most of the doctors cannot admit people to the hospital. So they send you to the emergency room. And the person that’s there for a legitimate emergency, like a fibroid hanging from her hoo-ha, is just going to have to wait because Dr. Not-in-Network really wants a temperature check.

This trip, the OB decided to bring in an Infectious Disease (ID) doctor. Over the next five days, he put her on about fifty thousand different antibiotics. Thus began the hospital procedure we’ve come to know, and why I’m convinced the medical profession still doesn’t know shit. The phlebotomists come in to take your blood about 4:00 in the morning, the doctor comes in at 7:00, looks at the results, says “well that didn’t work,” changes one thing (Antibiotic #6 for Antibiotic #5), then waits twenty-one hours to see if that magically worked. If it didn’t, they change one thing and wait until the next day. Of course, they hadn’t diagnosed her with anything other than fevers. Nothing was in her bloodstream, but why should that stop them from randomly prescribing antibiotics? He’s an ID doctor, so he will use the ID treatment regardless of whether or not the patient has an ID. We don’t ask running backs to pass the football, do we?

After a few days of this, the OB went back into the uterus to make sure there was no lingering fibroid or placenta. Neither of them was there, but afterward my wife’s fever went down. While the doctor was checking around, she cleaned up the uterus with an antibiotic spray. She later explained that the uterus is, understandably, sealed off from the rest of the body. So unlike, say, the kidney or the liver, where bacteria or other contagions would enter the bloodstream and be seen in the daily blood draws, if they were in the uterus, they would stay there. This also means that no amount of antibiotic delivered through an IV would reach and cleanse the uterus. I guess the ID doctor didn’t know that. Or maybe he just thought there’d be no reason for a uterus to be infected just because it had a fibroid that had been hanging out in the open for six hours put back inside. He’s an infectious diseases dude. You wouldn’t expect a Senator from California to pay attention to what happens in Nevada, would you?

For the third time, she was released from the hospital and, this time, we actually felt like we were clear. Until she got a 104-degree fever accompanied by diarrhea and vomiting. This was new. But hey, at least we weren’t abusing the emergency room this time. And the good news didn’t stop there – this  was entirely unrelated to the pregnancy, the fibroid, and the uterus.  Woo-Hoo! Unfortunately,  it was C-Diff, which is potentially deadly. What is C-Diff? It’s when you overuse antibiotics, so you kill off all of the good bacteria in your system. Oops! Who could have guessed that randomly throwing medicine at an undiagnosed problem might have bad consequences? Well, you came in with a runny nose, so we amputated your foot. Hopefully you don’t mind.

Want to know what they use to treat a problem that was caused by overuse of antibiotics? If you answered more antibiotics, congratulations! You can be a 21st century doctor! If you answered whiskey, go back to 1860, you Neanderthal!

We earned almost a month of reprieve after the C-Diff joy. Since then, she’s been back twice. The first time was because her gall bladder was passing stones, which allegedly is common in new mothers. Something, something, when pregnant, the body does something, something, which causes the gall bladder to something, something stones. They needed to endoscope out the gallstones, then remove the gall bladder in a separate surgery.

But nobody would touch her because she was on blood thinners. Why was she on blood thinners? Oh, did I forget to mention she had a blood clot? She got it on the C-Diff trip when they put a picc line in, which is like a surge protector for multiple IV lines. She needed it because both arms were bruised from too many IV’s.

This was also where the proprietary bullshit between the different branches of medicine reared its ugly head again. The hematologist doesn’t want to take her off the blood thinner, the surgeon won’t touch her until the gallstones are already out, the internist won’t remove the gallstones until blah, blah, blah. And a new ID doctor’s wearing a trench coat in the corner, saying “Hey, I got some great antibiotics over here for ya.”

Meanwhile my wife is turning yellow enough to get a walk-on part in The Walking Dead because a gallstone is blocking her liver. And all anybody will do is wait until the next blood draw at 4:00 AM tomorrow

Somehow the magical Oracle brought the warring factions together to remove everything gall related, and nine days later she was back home, having already missed a quarter of her daughter’s life. But dammit, that jaundiced look didn’t go away. Why the heck isn’t the liver getting better now that the evil gall bladder that was bullying all the other poor organs was gone? It couldn’t be that they had just been guessing at why the liver was overproducing bilirubin like it was cornering the market on canary-colored crayons.

One more trip to the hospital for “observation.” Once again through the emergency room. Hey, she’s already missed Fourth of July, our anniversary, and our baby’s first day at daycare, what’s one more indefinite hospital visit?

As always, the true heroes of the medical profession, the nurses, provided an answer.  The off-hand remarks made by the people that actually spend their days in and out of the patient rooms are much more helpful and enlightening than the Almighty Edicts delivered from upon high by Hugh Laurie wannabes once a day.

“They’ve got you on Xarelto while you’re having liver problems?” one asked.

Why? Is that a bad thing? Yep, blood thinners can cause liver problems. Have I mentioned “oops” yet?  So the hematologist reluctantly takes her off of Xarelto and, magically, her liver gets better. So she is released with… Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?… Another blood thinner! This one, we promise, won’t affect the liver. But it did. And as a bonus, she also had to shoot this one directly into her stomach.  Fun stuff.

So she gave herself shots for two weeks and the yellow came back to her skin. No relation, whatsoever, the hematologist assured us. I’m sure a liver specialist would blame it on the nonexistent gall bladder. And the ID Doc would have some pure antibiotics straight off the boat from his guy in Thailand.

With family photos approaching, she tried something kookie-crazy and took herself off the shots for a few days. What do you know? Her skin color faded. The hematologist actually said there was no connection. Now, I might’ve hyperbolized a few things for storytelling purposes, but I guarantee you this is legit. When confronted with a clear pattern correlating blood thinner to skin color, she assured us that there was no causality whatsoever.

Uh huh, whatever you say. Just like your body can’t deliver a fibroid. And antibiotics cure everything. Thank God we’ve come so far in our medical knowledge.

So now my wife is just going to take some aspirin to keep the blood flowing, while hopefully giving the liver a chance to get better. If that works, she might be able to go back to normal. Maybe even knock back a little whiskey. I hear that cures everything.

Pulp Fiction Turns Twenty

Pulp Fiction just turned twenty. Wow, right after I turned forty. What are the odds? I wonder what Pulp Fiction was doing when I turned twenty.

I don’t know, but I bet I know what Quentin Tarantino and John Travolta were doing nine months before I turned twenty. Bow-Chicka-Bow-Bow!

They were probably filming a movie. Get your mind out of the gutter.

So happy birthday, with sugar on top. Now go clean the fucking car.

It’s hard for me to classify Pulp Fiction now. For a while, it was one of my favorite movies. I still think it was a game-changer in Hollywood. But I don’t know if it’s stood up to the test of time. I can’t remember the last time I’ve thought “I need to watch that movie again soon.” Part of this, I’m sure, is because so many other movies have copied elements of it, and maybe even done them better. The Matrix falls into this trap a little bit, but oddly, I don’t believe Airplane! does. The other reason it might have lost some appeal is because Quentin Tarantino might just be a one-trick pony. Why bother watching Pulp Fiction when you can check out Inglourious Basterds?

But I don’t want the film’s current status to sully how revolutionary it was at the time.

I was in college at the time, and I don’t remember if there was much buzz about the movie prior to its release. I’ve never been much of a movie aficionado, so if it didn’t have the blockbuster appeal of a Jurassic Park, I wouldn’t have known it was coming. But Pulp Fiction grew like a word-of-mouth slow burn. It feels like I overheard rumblings of this new movie, and a few outright questions if I had seen it or heard of it.

“No, what’s it about?” I would ask.

“It’s hard to, it’s just… Did you see Reservoir Dogs?” was the usual response.

“Never heard of it.”

“Oh, you should definitely go see it. Then rent Reservoir Dogs.”

(Thankfully before seeing Reservoir Dogs. I don’t know if I would have proceeded, or gone in with an open mind, had I already seen the ear cutting scene. It’s now been nineteen and a half years, I suppose, since I first saw it, and I still can’t hear “Stuck in the Middle with You” without cringing.)

I don’t know if these conversations were happening outside of college towns, but I guess they must have been or the twentieth anniversary wouldn’t make the news. It also seems that these conversations were not happening in October. Maybe closer to December or even 1995. Was this movie intended as more of a cult hit but then hit the mainstream? Was it a movie that was added to more theaters as it went along? I’m sure if I were less lazy, I could find out how many screens it was on by month.  But why do that when I can rely on spotty 20-year old memories? Crap, how did “buzz” happen before YouTube?

Truthfully, I don’t remember my exact reaction when I first saw the movie. Obviously, I loved it or I wouldn’t have gone on to see it maybe a hundred times or more in the ensuing twenty years. But it’s hard to extract my thoughts after just one viewing. How many of the scenes stuck with me? Was I confused by the reappearance of John Travolta after he had already died?

But I assume the things that jumped out at me were the same things that set it apart from so much that had come before. The pace, the dialogue, the adrenaline.

Others might say “the violence,” but I’ve always maintained that Pulp Fiction is not nearly as violent as it is given credit for. There are only a handful of deaths. The two guys in the opening scene. Then their friend Marvin. John Travolta’s character dies, but then is brought back due to non-linear storytelling. Zed and Maynard, but let’s be honest, Zed and Maynard had it coming. Plus we’re not entirely sure that Zed’s dead, Butch’s assertion notwithstanding. Only that Marcellus was about to go “Medieval on his ass.” Hard to believe that’s a phrase that did not exist twenty-one years ago.

Am I missing anyone besides those six? I don’t think I am. A few others get shot, my favorite of which was the woman who got shot in the thigh by a dazed Marcellus when she’s helping Butch after the car crash. The reason I love that particular scene is the same reason I think the movie gets credit for being way more violent than it is. The violence in Pulp Fiction is presented in a way to which we were unaccustomed in movies twenty years ago.

A person being shot, or especially killed, in a movie was supposed to be a serious, somber occurrence. Take a movie like The Godfather, a very violent movie. Almost every death in that movie is shown with a heightened sense of tension. When Sonny drives up to the toll booth and all the windows shut, the audience gasps. In war movies or life on the street movies, death is shown as the inevitable end to the unjust  struggle that is life in a pointless world. Even in campy horror movies, they are built up, a steady stream of “Ch-ch-ch, hu-hu-hu” building to a crescendo with the violin in the background. And after each death in these movies, the audience and, often, the characters are given a moment to reflect.

To contrast, when Martin dies in the back seat of the car, Vincent argues with Jules over whether or not he hit a bump. The aforementioned woman helping Butch just screams, clutches her leg and is quickly forgotten. The first murder happens when Brad is bumbling through an answer, so Jules shoots his friend lying on the couch, then quips “Oh, I’m sorry, did I break your concentration?”

So death doesn’t matter. Characters don’t even break stride when violence occurs. Even worse, the violence is often followed up with humor. We are not supposed to laugh at people being shot or killed. So when we leave Pulp Fiction, we talk about how the woman being shot was so funny. Or how awesome the “Dead N—– Storage” conversation was. And how cool it was that when Butch put the chainsaw down and grabbed the sword. This all makes us think it must have been a more violent movie than it really was – why would we be talking with such frivolity and enthusiasm about the death scenes?

Unfortunately, I think even Quentin Tarantino fell prey to the hype about how violent his movies are. While his first two movies use it sparingly, yet powerfully, it seems most of his later movies use violence (and the N word) as their focal point. The first Kill Bill is little more than violence porn. In porn, the plot is pointless, just a few minutes of dialogue to set up another twenty minute sex scene. Replace the word “sex” with “fight” in the last sentence and you have Kill Bill, Vol. 1.

So discounting the violence, I think it’s the dialogue that sets Pulp Fiction apart. The pacing, the attitude, and the violence are all portrayed through the dialogue. Few movies are as instantly quotable. Oh sure, I can run off a litany of Airplane! or Monty Python and the Holy Grail lines at the drop of a hat. But I don’t often find myself in situations where I can naturally drop a line about swallows and coconuts into everyday conversation. But “Check out the big brain on Brad?” Oh yeah, that one I can use. Even something as simple as “Mmm, this IS a tasty burger,” said with the right inflection, can bring to mind one specific scene from one specific movie. And although I don’t know if I’ve ever said “I’m a mushroom-cloud-laying mother fucker, mother fucker,” I can certainly think of some situations where I could have. I remember when my roommate bought the first computer with Windows 95 – we spent hours cuing up the VHS tape to record all of these lines and more, assigning them to every ding and ping that the computer would let us.

Of course, all three of those lines are said by Samuel L. Jackson. I know the movie momentarily revitalized Travolta’s career, and put Tarantino on the map. But nobody’s career is as closely tied to Pulp Fiction as than man who created Mr. Jules Winnfield of Inglewood. Samuel L. Jackson defines badassery. When you heard he was going to be in a Star Wars movie, you thought, “Oh, there’s going to be a badass Jedi?” He even makes shilling for a credit card company kinda badass. I remember sitting through the Iron Man credits, talking with a fellow comic book guy about the “S.H.I.E.L.D.” reveal near the end, asking “I wonder who they should get to play Nick Fury?” Then the post-credit scene came on and we both nodded. “Yep, nailed it. Nobody but him.”

How impressive was it that a relatively unknown actor would steal the show against such names as Travolta, Willis, Walken, and Keitel? Today, that would surprise nobody, but in 1994, nobody knew who Samuel L. Jackson was. I’m sure he would have made a name for himself anyway. He’s too talented of an actor.  But I have to wonder if he would have carved quite the same niche if he had a different breakout role. Would we be living in a regrettable world without, shudder, motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane?

As the years have passed, though, I don’t know if Pulp Fiction stands up to the test of time.  Its impact is still noticeable, but that very impact has made it a bit more pedestrian by comparison.  You can find similar quick dialogue in pretty much any Aaron Sorkin script. Want that brazen mix of humor and action? Just watch any of those Samuel L. Jackson-led Marvel movies.

If the movie is on TV, I won’t necessarily sit through it. To me, this is the definition of a timeless movie. If Star Wars is on, I’m watching it. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is on? Put down the remote control. The Rock, which came out two years after Pulp Fiction, fits this description as well. In fact, there is very little that Pulp Fiction does well that is not one-upped by The Rock. Unfortunately, this includes Michael Bay becoming more of a “keep doing the same movie over and over” director than Tarantino could ever be.

But if I scroll through the channel guide and see Pulp Fiction, my first thought is not “Click!” but “what part of the movie is it?” If it’s the first twenty minutes, I’m probably changing the channel. If it’s near the end I might or might not tune in for the Bonnie Situation and the diner scene. But if it’s anywhere near the black hole of a middle that is the back-to-back Oral Pleasure/Cab Drive scene, forget it. And if I did tune it in to watch those early scenes, I’m going back to whatever else I was doing as soon as Uma Thurman gets the adrenaline shot in the heart.

Unless it’s the edited-for-TV version, because that is a whole nother level of unintentional entertainment. But that is a subject for another post.

So happy birthday, Pulp Fiction. Like most big birthdays, let’s focus more on the zany, brilliant days when you were setting the world on fire, and not on the bloated, middle-aged Al Bundy you have become. And the less you mention those kids, Django  and Jackie Brown, the better.

And to those of you who disagree with my assessment, allow me quote Jules… “I don’t remember asking you a goddamn thing.”

Spammerpunk Horror

Getting in the Halloween spirit, the weekly flash fiction challenge was an interesting one. We were supposed to write a horror story, but in the style of a spam e-mail. Obviously this is a short one. If you don’t have a common last name, you might not get as many of the “a relative died” e-mails, but I’ve received a few.

Dear <INSERT_NAME>,

As you may have been aware, your relative, <INSERT_RELATION_NAME>, recently perished while traveling through the Romanian Carpathians.  <INSERT_RELATION_NAME> listed you as his heir, and an extensive Internet search confirmed you as his only living relative. You, therefore, are entitled to inherit the estate of <INSERT_RELATION_NAME>, including all of his bodily possessions.

In order to prove that you are in fact <INSERT_NAME>, the legal and rightful inheritor of the body, mind, and soul of <INSERT_RELATION_NAME>, we are to be requiring you make a small deposit. Be assured that this small deposit will be returned manifold when the decedent’s estate is returned to you.

Your deposit should be in the form of one (1) body part. The body part in question must be larger than a finger, for verification purposes, but should in no way exceed the size of a forearm. Please note that the body part need not originate from you, but merely obtained and provided by you.  Internal organs will receive a premium return on investment.

<INSERT _NAME> is responsible for shipping and handling costs.

Upon receipt of requested item, the body of <INSERT_RELATION_NAME> will be sent to you in fulfillment of stated contract and stated testament. While some choose to take the estate in one lump shipment, we offer another option to help alleviate problems with taxes or other law enforcement. You may opt to receive one piece of <INSERT_RELATION_NAME> on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. Please note that even if you choose Option A, the body will still arrive in small pieces.

Please do no DNA testing on any included parts.

What are you waiting for? We know <INSERT_RELATION_NAME> would not want his estate to go to waste, nor for <INSERT _NAME>, his beloved beneficiary, to miss out on this opportunity.

Sincerely,

Vladimir T, Lawyer

This is 40

I just turned forty.

Thank you, thank you.

Polite golf applause.

And boy, are my arms tired.

Dammit, that’s not the punchline.

Maybe sense of humor is the first thing to go.

Or the ability to write paragraphs longer than one sentence.

Quite a few people have congratulated me on turning forty. They do realize I didn’t actually do anything to get here, right? This wasn’t Cal Ripken taking the mantle from Lou Gehrig. All I did was keep breathing. And this wasn’t even in the age of cholera or “the consumption.”

But I guess I bucked the odds and made it over the hill. Or is forty the top of the hill? When I was younger, forty seemed so much older. Yes, I know that sounds stupid. Wow, your parents were older than you? Welcome to the generation gap.

But I think it goes beyond that. When my parents turned forty, their youngest child was in eighth grade.  Five years later, they were divorced and empty nesters. Hence, forty meant they were on top of the hill and ready to coast down the other side.

By contrast, I am still a relatively newlywed with an infant who will graduate high school when I am fifty-seven. No time to put that cardboard under my butt and let gravity do its work. I’ve still got some climbing to do.

Which is not to say that I am not aging as nature intended. Things like gout and pre-diabetes were as distant as nuptials a decade ago. But I’m about to have a toddler running circles around me, so aging body be damned.

But I’m not here to write about aging with my whopping one week of forty-something wisdom. Instead I am here to talk of parties. Specifically birthday parties, because I’ve had some good ones and some not so good ones. Plus, the next few will likely feature bouncy houses, so indulge me.

A couple of the parties from my youth, twenty-eight and thirty, stick out.

Whoa, grandpa, did you just call thirty your youth?

Watch it, whippersnapper, patience is the first thing to go.

The only time I’ve had that “Holy shit, I’m getting old” feeling was at twenty-eight. For most people, the round numbers hit them, but not me. I think there were a few things going on with twenty-eight. From a generic number standpoint, at twenty-eight, you go from “mid-twenties” to “late twenties.” It also marked the ten-year anniversary of turning eighteen, hence a decade of adulthood. Up to that point, in my mind, I was still in “college aged,” even if I had been out of college for six years.

A more personal issue I had with twenty-eight concerned where I was in my life. I had received my teaching credential earlier that year after a failed first career, but I had not been hired as a teacher yet. With an October birthday, that meant I was still a good eight months away from the teacher hiring process. So I was waiting tables and occasionally subbing in an elongated “lost weekend.”

I’m sure waiting tables while failing to get hired for my second career had nothing to do with my focusing on the whole “late twenties, six years out of college” thing. It wasn’t so much a “mid-life” as a “pre-life” crisis.

So what did I do for said party? Got drunk, got stoned, went to karaoke with a bunch of the drunk potheads that I worked with, hit on and struck out with the cute girl from work, hit on and struck out with her friend, got frustrated, drank and smoked some more, finally learned the words to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (minor accomplishment!), then showed up very hung over for the lunch shift the next day and resolved that I wouldn’t go through the same thing when the Big Three-Oh hit in two years.

I also figured that, two years later and still striking out with pretty much any woman I faced in the batter’s box, my thirtieth birthday could replace my bachelor’s party. Who knew if or when I’d finally have a successful date, much less a full courtship and engagement. If it was forty or fifty, would I be able to have the big blow-out that every guy wants? Strip clubs frown upon men using walkers, right? “Here, missy, a dollar for your G-String. Don’t go spending that all in one place. Now where’d I put my teeth?”

Two years later, I was in a slightly better place. Still waiting tables, but now only to augment the measly second-year teacher salary. Even better, the school district that hired me featured a break between quarters that conveniently landed on my birthday.

So more money, job stability, time off, bachelor party atmosphere, and two years to think about it? New Orleans, baby!  Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Those good times might be the first things to go. Better let ‘em roll while we can.

I had been to New Orleans before – once for Mardi Gras, once for New Years. People were tired of me talking about it so much without experiencing it themselves, so I invited everyone to come along for an extended weekend. To ease the burden, I paid for two hotel rooms. Anyone willing to cram themselves in with three other people could stay for free. I even booked a couple flights for co-workers, because restaurant workers can’t be bothered with complicated stuff like that Inter-webs thingy.

Ten people ended up joining me. It was a mish-mash of people from different aspects of my life. That first, failed career donated a friend or two, the teaching credential program another handful. My cousin and her friend who I had already traveled with to England and Australia, and my mom. Yes, my mom. I mean, she was the only one that had been there thirty years earlier, right?

There have only been two or three times in my life I’ve seen my mom drunk, and my thirtieth birthday was one of them. That by itself would’ve made it a memorable trip. At one point, as I sat looking up Bourbon Street from the balcony of the Tropical Isle, the girls all decided to go to the male strip club and asked my mom if she wanted to come. Her quick response was “Oh,yeah,” before sheepishly turning to me and saying “I mean… if it’s okay with you… it’s your birthday…”

Continuing on the subject of inviting my mohter, one year later, when Huricane Katrina hit six weeks before my thirty-first birthday, the role she played in my thirtieth became more apt. Had she waited a year to have me, we would’ve had a whole bunch of non-refundable deposits to an inaccessible city.

Timing is the first thing to go. No, hold on. That doesn’t even make sense in this context.

We drank plenty (The liver is the first- oh, who am I kidding), but we also did some of the other touristy shit around town, like trudging out to the swamps for a boat tour and following the tourbook walk through the garden district.

We ate at Emeril’s restaurant the night of birthday, and that might have been one of the best dinners I’ve ever had. Not to be confused with Brennan’s the next morning, which is one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. It was painful, though, on only two hours of sleep and still stuffed from Emeril’s (and a few drinks) from the night before. But oh, how I had to stuff myself. “No, I’m going to pass on the Bananas Foster. Oh, they cook it right in front of you? It smells so good…”

The Angels were even nice enough to clinch the division on my birthday that year, even if the highlights of that game got me in trouble from one of the girls in the group. After the male revue, she wanted to compare it to female strippers, so she found the boys and took us to a strip club. It had a big screen TV that occupied much more of my attention than the topless girls. Fewer scars and cottage cheese.

Simply put, we had a blast. It more than made up for the twenty-eight debacle.

Since thirty I’ve still had some fun birthdays.  My quarter break still sometimes lands on my birthday, so I still travel, albeit with a smaller entourage. I’ve spent one birthday in Ireland, and one checking out the Smurf Turf at a Boise State game. I even lost one birthday entirely by boarding a plane in Los Angeles the day before, crossing the International Date Line, and landing the day after in Fiji for my Honeymoon. My wife refused to accept that she was now married to a younger man.

Speaking of honeymoon, that bachelor party that my thirtieth was supposed to replace? It ended up happening at the age of thirty-six. It was great, but I was right with my earlier assessment. It was way more low-key than it would have been in my twenties. Sure, we went to Vegas, but we opted for a minor league baseball game over the strip clubs and woke up both mornings more tired than hung over. Nobody was arrested, which is something that happened on a Vegas bachelor party I had been to ten years earlier. The worst shenanigan of the whole weekend was a little short-sheeting.

My wife tried very hard to arrange a big blow-out for my fortieth birthday. She had some very grandiose ideas. One involved a trip to Kentucky for the Bourbon Trail and the South Carolina at Kentucky football game. Ora trip to Tennessee for a Jack Daniels distillery tour and a Titans game. I’m sure there were some other ideas that included whiskey and football. Or beer and baseball. Or wine and hockey. Really, I’m easy.

The problem this time was getting other people to go.  Money wasn’t an issue, as we are all making more money than ten years ago. But getting time off is more difficult at forty than at thirty. At thirty, most of us had jobs that wouldn’t suffer from a few days away. At forty, we have careers that are more difficult to take frivolous days off from.  We also have families now. Spouses and children not only complicate travel plans, but also change the priorities for the days we do get off work.

So instead of big travel plans, we had everyone over to our place for a barbecue. Nothing extravagant, just burgers, but not the fast-food inspired burgers that a thirty year old would like. No, we’re gourmeting this shit up! We wanted to stuff the burgers, but couldn’t decide with what. Bacon, blue cheese, grilled onions, Tabasco, Worcestershire? So we made it “Build Your Own” and put about thirty ingredients out with the raw meat. It went over great, and even better, I didn’t have to spend the whole time cooking. Everyone actually grilled up their own concoctions after putting it together.

Had I attempted this at age thirty, I am sure half the guests would have ended up with salmonella. But at forty we all properly washed hands, cooked burgers to a nice medium, and survived. And half of every couple limited their alcohol intake , so that everyone could get home safely and at a reasonable hour. Back to our families. Back to our careers.

Because irresponsibility, it turns out, is the first thing to go.

Burn, Baby, Burn (Fiction)

Flash Fiction Challenge this week was to take somebody else’s sentence and make a story out of it. I started with “That bridge was burnt long ago, though I never knew if it was my match or my friend’s that started the fire.”  Hopefully I did it justice.

Burn, Baby, Burn

“If you’re ever in Vancouver, look me up,” had been the innocuous statement at the ten year reunion.

Sure, why not? Time should have put out the fire, the long burning embers we had been stoking since Freshman year. Maybe we could rebuild that bridge that had existed before.

Kitty-n-Kassie, peas in a pod. Kitty-n-Kassie, soul sisters. Kitty-n-Kassie, chasing the dragon.

So I came to Vancouver. Isn’t it just like that bitch to flee the country?

“Kitty, OMG!” I heard shouted from across the Tim Hortons. She actually said OMG!

“It’s Katherine now,” I corrected her before the whole weekend devolved into sixth grade nicknames.

“Well, la de dah, Miss Grown Up,” she said, half condescending, half joking. Not bitchy enough to get angry at, but enough to know it was there. “Katherine. I like it!”

Of course she did. Nothing ever made any difference to her. She could roll with anything.

I’m totally fine if you go for Gio. I hope he’s into you.

He wasn’t. They dated half of eighth grade.

Wasn’t that some great E last night? We’re totally in high school now.

While I buried my blues.

“Come on,Kit- er, Katherine,” she continued. “I’ll show you around. You’ll love it here. You always loved the outdoors.”

I paused, thinking back, “I guess I did.”

“Stanley Park is just like Golden Gate,” she rambled as I followed her north. “Remember our senior trip to SF? That was so much fun.”

“Nope,” I interrupted. “I was on academic probation. Heard it was fun, though.”

“Really?” She stopped her reverie for a moment. “I totally thought you were there. Who was it that snuck off to the Jamba Juice? You always loved smoothies.”

“Wow, you remember my past better than I do,” I said, not sure if I was sarcastic or serious.

But she probably thought I was one of the masses sitting behind her sanctimonious Honor Society ass in the front row at graduation. Instead, I was miles away and high as a kite with the other drop-outs.

“OMG, Kitty. I tried forever to find you. Nobody on Facebook knew you. We heard you died in a DUI or something. Where have you been?”

It got me thinking. She certainly misremembered the trajectory of our friendship, but had I been the one to leave her behind? I always assumed it was the highfalutin AP student ignoring her druggy friend.

Was I the bitch that had burned the bridge?

“Katherine?” She finally stopped her interrogation and waited for an answer.

“There was a DUI,” her questions were easier to answer than mine, “but I didn’t die. Spent the weekend in jail. But whoever was looking for me wasn’t looking very hard.”

“Isn’t this place beautiful?” Kassie returned to tour guide mode. “It’s bigger than Central Park.”

She had the attention span of a cat. The park was beautiful, though.

The talk went back to the last decade. Her time at UW. Sororities, soccer, a pregnancy scare. I added an occasional “uh huh” to keep her talking about herself instead of asking about me. Nobody needed to hear about annual trips in and out of rehab. Or how much I had blamed on her. The burning hatred I had carried for her.

“This is Lost Lagoon,” she turned back to tour guide on a small wooden bridge. “OMG, I’m totally loving this. Let’s blaze, Kitty!”

That’s when she pulled a joint out and started lighting up.

“Jesus, Kassie, what the fuck are you doing?”

“Oh relax,” she inhaled the flame, igniting the paper. “We’re in BC. It’s practically legal here.”

She coughed out the pungent smoke,  close enough to make me twitch.

“I’ve been sober for three years!”

“Relax,” she repeated, handing the joint in my direction. “Does ganj even count?”

She still said ganj wrong. Rhymed it with and, not on. That always annoyed me. Now it made the insulting offer even worse.

“Hell yes, it counts,” I batted the weed out of her protruding hand.

“OMG, Bitch! You need to chill. This is just like last time.”

“What, the ecstasy party? You never noticed that I couldn’t do drugs like you. I couldn’t just wake up and be all chipper. That night started the downward spiral of high school. Of my life!”

I gasped after my tirade, and noticed smoke. The smell of marijuana was mixing with smoldering wood.

“No, when I came back from college,” she responded. “At Jenny’s party. I said sorry for spreading all of those rumors about you in high school.”

“That I gave handies for booze? You started those rumors?”

“Uh, yeah, but I came clean. You can’t hold that against me.”

“Why didn’t I remember that?” I asked out loud, although it was a bigger question for myself. Any thought of smoke disappeared.

“Because you were drunk,” Kassie answered for me. “You flew off the handle. We did some heroin to calm you down.”

“Heroin?” I was bewildered. “That was the first time I did heroin.”

“Yeah, and we made up. Then you disappeared for eight years, just like the emo bitch from high school. And I thought we were finally connecting again. Just like today.”

“You gave me my first heroin? Do you have any idea of the hell that the next five years of my life was?”

I slapped Kassie just as flame erupted beneath her. She screamed and waved her arms.

“Help, help, the bridge is on fire” were the last words I heard as I started to trudge back to the train station.

Bridges are easier to burn than build.

The Lost Lagoon bridge would survive the small conflagration from a wasted joint.

But the bridge between us?  That bridge was burnt long ago, though I never knew if it was my match or my friend’s that started the fire.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Equal parts kindling and neglect. Play with enough fire, there’s bound to be a blaze.

Riding a Bike

It’s just like riding a bike.

That’s a saying that they use, implying that the action to which they are applying the statement is easy to pick up once you’ve learned it. A skill that never really goes away. A relatively easy action.

The people that say it? I doubt they’ve ridden a bike in a while. Because it turns out that riding a bike is not really “like riding a bike.”

A few years ago, my annual attempt at losing some weight involved a bicycle. It had been maybe a decade since I had ridden one. Not really sure where my old bike went. How does one lose a bike? Blame it on the six places I moved to and from in the ten years after college.

I went to Target, making the initial investment of a new bike, a tire pump, and bike lock. Skipped the spandex, thank you very much. Came home, checked the tires, and jumped on without much thought.

I mean, it’s just like riding a bike, right?

Okay, balance was off a bit there.

The first problem was just getting on the bike long enough to find the pedal. Even with one foot on the ground, butt on the seat, the bike wasn’t terribly sturdy. But I finally got up on that thing and made a solid pedal forward. The tires wobbled and rubbed against the brake pads as I made it partway down my driveway.

I got off the bike and went inside to find a wrench. Spent the next half hour loosening the brakes, tightening the lugnuts that attached the wheel to the bike, and doing a general once-over on the rest of the bike. Things I rarely had to do in my youth. After much work, I was able to get back up and take the new toy for a spin.

This time I made it past the driveway and even partway down the block. It was wobbly. Oh, I suppose it would be more accurate to say I was the wobbly one. Every time I slowed, which was much more often than I remembered, I had to get not one, but both, feet on the ground to stop from falling over. My top speed could not have been much more than that of a brisk walk. The wind that had once blown in my face was now still.

I did finally make it out of my neighborhood, and in fact pedaled my way around town on a moderately regular basis that summer. Even trudged the hour-long ride to work a couple of times. But even after I got those over those initial hiccups, the youthful freedom and exhilaration that once came from riding a bike was gone. Riding a bike became a chore. And this was not just because I now had the ability to drive a car to my destination much faster and simpler. It was also because the mechanics were different.

The seat was nowhere near as comfortable as I remember it. There was often a numbness in my nether regions that I promise did not exist at the age of ten or fifteen. Sometimes in the middle of a ride I would get off the bike just to feel if my testicles were still attached.  Also, the coasting was gone. Even though I was on flat ground, I could not pedal a few times and then coast, as I used to do. Standing up on the bike, something I used to do to go faster, now became a necessity just to move. And to protect my junk. But then my back would hurt if I stood too long. The tires also had to be pumped and tightened with frightening regularity. I would not leave my house for a bike ride without a wrench in my backpack.

Hence it was NOT “just like riding a bike.”

I know most, if not all, of these changes came from the fact that my body was different than the boyish body that used to ride. My two hundred and, let’s say, thirty pounds put additional pressure on the frame and the tires. But I’m pretty sure that even if I could go back to the one ninety or so I was at the end of college, the last time I biked with any sort of regularity, I don’t think the original physics would return. Because I wear my weight like a forty year old man now.

Another pithy saying might be more apt: You can never go back.

I’ve run into this phenomenon again recently with the arrival of my daughter. My wife and I took her to the park and I attempted to take her on the swing. How hard can a swing be, right? No shifting of gears or complicated chains to deal with. Basic physics. Why, I was completely ready to officially change the saying to “it’s just like swinging a swing.” Except it wasn’t. It was exactly like riding a bike.

I sat down in the swing with my baby on my lap. My feet were on the ground, thankfully, because that strip of leather was wriggling and writhing underneath me. Adult girth was again making battle with muscle memory. My wife suggested I wrap my arms around the chain ropes, and although I initially rolled my eyes (“Come on, I think I have enough body control to lean against this swing”), it wasn’t long before I took her advice. Some semblance of stability had been attained, so I walked a couple steps forward, a couple steps back, and said “wee” to the unimpressed baby.

Then came the big test. I walked myself back as far as I could while keeping my butt on the rubber strap and arms around the chains. This was farther back than I could go as a ten year old. Woo-hoo. Score one for the grown-up body.  I let go and lurched through the air, acutely aware of the downward pressure I was placing on not only the swing and the chain, but the entire steel swing set.

I went forward, then back, and was beginning to lose momentum. It was at this point that I looked down at my legs, sitting there awkwardly beneath my daughter. I looked up at my wife standing in front of me, and asked a question that third grade might have travelled through time to make the third grade me cry.

“Wait, do I kick my feet out going forward or backward?”

How the hell could I forget something like that? Isn’t it nature? The basic physics that a three-year old knows intuitively?

What’s worse is that I still don’t know. There was no way I was going to try with a baby on my lap and the entire structure threatening to come down upon us both. I’m pretty sure you kick out while going forward and tuck your legs in while going back. But while sitting here with my laptop in front of me, that seems like it would counteract the force of the swing. I mean, you don’t step forward with the same foot that you’re throwing with, right?
“Remember when you used to swing as high as you could and then leap off?” the crying third grader just screamed back at me.

I have a feeling I’m in store for a lot of moments like this as I raise my first child. Forget riding a bike. Life is more akin to driving a car. Except it’s the opposite. Objects in the rear view mirror are farther away than they appear.

In the first week of my baby’s life, I found myself, like most new parents, trying desperately to get her to sleep. Rocking her, cradling her, putting a pacifier in her mouth. Nothing was going the trick, so I thought I’d sing her a lullaby. I went with the basic lullaby that I think is required by law to be on every mobile. I think it’s called “Lullaby and Good Night,” but it’s basically two short notes of the same pitch, followed by a longer note about half an octave higher. Except I had no idea what the words were. The best I could come up with were “Go to sleep, go to sleep, won’t you please go to sleep now.” Probably not the most soothing words a newborn has ever been sung. I switched to “Too Rah Loo Rah Loo Rah,” but only knew the part that was on an episode of “Cheers” once.

I see more of this coming. What about those nursery rhymes that exist in every elementary school? Do they still sing “Down by the old mill stream?” Right now, the only rhymes I remember from my youth start with “I like big butts and I cannot lie, you other brothers can’t deny.”

My future third grade daughter has joined in the crying of the past third grade me. But that’s parenting, right?

The few things I can actually remember from childhood have probably changed, too. She’s getting closer to sitting up now and we’re helping her by putting her in the right sitting position. The words “Indian style” were barely out of my mouth before I realized that can’t be proper any more.

My wife shook her head.

“Sorry, Native American style?” I was reminded of the time I had to tell my grandma that calling Brazil nuts “Black people toes” didn’t make it any less racist.

“They call it criss-cross applesauce now,” my wife informed me.

What the-? I know they had to come up with something, but really? I’m sure Daniel Snyder’s taking notes. Now taking the field, your 2016 Washington Criss-Cross Applesauces!

So there’s going to be some growing pains. Some things I’ll figure out as I go along. Turns out I don’t need to know any lullabies, my daughter is perfectly fine falling asleep to Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful.”

And if my daughter is the only first grader whistling Blues Traveler harmonica solos while the rest of her class sings “Rock a Bye Baby” and “Three Blind Mice” (two TOTALLY morbid kid’s songs), I’m okay with that.

Because raising a child’s just like riding a bike. It’s constantly changing. And there’s probably  gonna be a skinned knee or two along the way.