Allergy Season

The crisp, cool weather tempts me to go outside to plant my garden, trim trees and bushes, and paint the porch ceiling. But I know that it’s all a cruel trick, a pollen ambush.

We got up from lunch today, and I headed toward my bedroom. A sudden spike in irritation made me sneeze violently like a banshee having a particularly bad moment. The sound must have been in resonance with the metal lampstand nearby. I heard a bell-like ring echoing my nose’s outraged shriek.

The maple at the bottom of my driveway has started to sprout tender bunches of tiny flowers. Their reproductive outburst makes my nose drain continually down the back of my throat, and I wake up in the middle of the night with the feeling that ants are tapdancing on the back of my throat and inside my sinus passages. The pines haven’t started, but some of the oaks in the neighborhood have begun to acquire a mustard yellow tint. Eye-watering, nose-running hell commences when all three tree pollens make a combined campaign near the end of February.

I rarely buy flowers for my wife on Valentine’s Day. I resent all flora by that point and the deceptive gaudiness of brightly colored petals. I know that Mother Nature did not evolve with the express purpose of inducing three month histamine attacks every year, but don’t tell that to my nose.


Turning 60

I’m turning 60 this month and am glad to have made it this far. I’ve escaped a few rough scrapes and avoided near accidents that could have ended life much closer to its start. A few school mates and relatives in my generation weren’t graced with as much dumb luck and made abrupt, untimely departures at early ages.

I used to have a friend named Ingrid who survived the siege of Berlin in WWII. (She hid in cellars to avoid artillery rounds, and her mother protected her from Russian soldiers intent on raping young frauleins.) Ingrid noted that older Americans often bemoaned birthdays and said that Germans had a different take on aging. They felt gratitude for the gift of years and celebrated birthdays as accomplishments.

Ingrid did more with her life than just mark time: she immigrated from post-war Germany to the United States, learned computer coding and found meaningful work, married and beat cancer. She relished the opportunities afforded by each new day.

My life has been much less adventurous, but I’ve taken enough risks to keep things interesting. Many changes and surprises arrived with little warning, and I’ve learned to avoid wishing for something different to shake things up. Now I pray that things stay the same just a little while longer.

My wife and I attend Winter Park Presbyterian, and our new friends and acquaintances are mostly older. We’re considered vibrant and energetic by comparison, and my physical issues (sore back and knees, lower stamina) come across more like growing pains than serious complaints. Frequent funerals mark the thinning of elderly worshippers, and their compatriots take the next round of bad news with quiet resignation. A sudden death or the announcement of an upcoming tragedy no longer seems to startle them. They already miss and mourn a lot of people, but still respond to a sufferer with warmth and compassion. They’re not numb to pain, just practiced in functioning while enduring it.

I guess I’m still too inexperienced to have acquired these skills. I’m just a young whippersnapper learning my way.

When Doctors Attack

Hospice rushed a friend’s dying husband to an emergency room. “Mary” didn’t know why a do-not-resuscitate patient suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s needed intensive care as he approached his final days. Neither did an ER doctor. The physician angrily confronted Mary and demanded reasons for the man’s transport to the hospital. My friend tried to explain what she knew, but the doctor stepped up her verbal attack and refused to listen. She needed someone to punish for an awkward medical situation, and the dying man’s wife served as her target.

A neurologist talked to my family in a condescending tone as he told us that my grandmother had suffered a massive stroke. The prognosis was bad. My med-tech sister and I (a biology major) asked a few pertinent questions. The doctor narrowed his eyes and said, “Who are you?!” I got the impression that we had threatened him by straying into his area of expertise. His priority, at that moment, turned from communicating about my grandmother’s condition to guarding his territory. (We massaged his ego, and he regained a portion of his professional composure.)

My sister began to stumble, to move more slowly, and to have trouble lifting her foot as she walked. Her neurologist, once he’d completed a round of painful tests, bluntly told her to quit work and get a wheelchair directly after stating that she would die from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He spoke in a cold, offhand manner like a customer service rep. telling someone that their package had been lost in the mail.

A doctor at a nursing home chewed out my wife when she complained about the breakfast brought to her diabetic mother. Orange juice and doughnuts would have spiked Mom’s sugar levels and aggravated other ailments. The doctor belittled my wife’s concerns and said, “You’d better stop complaining. You don’t want to make the workers around here mad at your mother.” My wife understood that the doctor had just threatened her mother’s well-being.

I studied biology for three and a half years surrounded by pre-med students. I discovered that the med school selection process didn’t encourage or support empathetic folks who wanted to relieve suffering. Instead, the course work and tests encouraged cut-throat competition and relentless manic effort. Ambitious, driven students made the cut. More balanced folks tended to find other careers.

It’s rare to find doctors who perform the whole role. We’ve been lucky to find a few who could diagnose and prescribe accurately, and treat us with compassion. Hold onto the one’s who fit this description and tell your friends about them.

Christmas is Over

We’ll leave the tree up until New Year’s Day, and the lights, tinsel and ornaments still sparkle. A pile of books rests on the coffee table, and I’ve dipped fairly deep into a book about the intersection of selfish-gene theory, cooperative survival in social groups, and the sources of human morality. (This is an enjoyable read despite the description above.)

I’m working on a color pencil drawing during gaps in family time, cooking, washing dishes and painting a bit in my studio. I completed a painting commission, met my classes for a final time, and entered my grades before Christmas. So I’m left in an unfamiliar state: nothing weighs down on me demanding my immediate attention and effort.

The yard needs help (weeding, pruning and perhaps mowing one last time before March), but county officials couldn’t fine us if we were reported for inspection. The underside of the porch roof needs a hard scrub and repaint, but I’ll probably start on that beginning in January. My studio needs to be shoveled out, but it always needs that.

I’m faced with the opportunity to waste a bit of time as I see fit, and the associated feeling is similar to the one I have when choosing a first candy from a box of chocolates. The anticipation is almost as pleasurable as the first bite.

Leisure is the ultimate luxury, and I mean to wallow for a day or two.

Stormy Weather

Tornado Watch December 20

Our local TV station aired “The Wizard of Oz” every April in the 1960s. We’d watch in dread and fascination as Dorothy fled the oncoming twister, and shrunk down when the Wicked Witch cackled as she flew by Dorothy’s window on a broom stick.

The movie meant a lot to us: springtime in Ohio coincided with tornado season. A siren blared if a storm threatened to spin or had already begun spinning, and we’d head to the basement with flashlights and a transistor radio to huddle and wait.

Sometimes the storm brewed gradually and swept through at its leisure. Other times, the sky darkened suddenly, the rain fell hard in sheets, and day turned to a deep gloom. Udder-shaped clouds in rows of dirty yellow trailed behind a deadly storm in 1971.

I discovered that no tornado season exists in Florida. The local stations never play “Wizard of Oz”, and no sirens to warn us to find a safe retreat. And basements are rare in Florida. The weathercasters advise us to shelter in windowless interior rooms on ground floors.

We’re under a watch today, December 20th, as a band of storms sweeps in from the Gulf of Mexico. A cold front is colliding with warm, hot air streaming north from the Caribbean. The rain has been falling steadily since last night, and bursts of heavy downpours occasionally overwhelm my gutters. I’ve yet to hear the “big train” sound I heard in 1971 when a twister passed through 70 yards from my parents’ home. The trees wave occasionally, but the branches do not bend sideways and violently whip.

The rain will peter out tomorrow, and temperatures will dip down into the 40s and 50s. Sun will filter through the green leaves on the trees in our yard. Images of twisters, flying monkeys, green-faced witches and ruby slippers will be replaced in a few days by Florida memories of little kids in shorts and t-shirts opening presents. I’ll see Alan riding his new bike in the driveway, and Annie sitting on the front porch playing with a doll.

I just might click my heels together and say, “There’s no place like home.”

Late Night at the Donut Shop

We cleared stale donuts from the display shelves and threw the discards into empty flour bags.  I stuck my head out the back door to check for bears before I threw them away.  Raiders from nearby woods marauded late at night to ransack our dumpster.  We put out fresh cake donuts (the yeast donuts still rose on trays in the incubator) and dealt with a rush of  2:00 drunks.  The bars had just closed, and our staggering, bleary, mush-mouthed clientele wanted coffee to counter the booze and treats to sweeten the bitterness of oncoming hangovers.  The shop cleared around 3, and Katie, the night manager, called a break.

She lit a cigarette at her table in the corner and stared out the window.  Harry, the lead baker, kept her company but didn’t eat a mid shift meal. Anyone who sat with her could smoke, drink coffee or eat a donut, but  sandwiches, fruit, and microwaved left overs were forbidden. She couldn’t stand to watch people eat anything but candy and breakfast food as her father had abused his little girl every night as she struggled to choke down her suppers.

I took a seat at a booth with JoJo, and she talked about her boyfriend, her muscle car, and her obsession with the band, “White Snake”.  She noted that I drove a beat up Mazda and wondered about the virility of a man who owned a rusty beater that wheezed when it climbed up a gentle incline.  I told her that I couldn’t stand to listen to another White Snake song, and that the band members were nothing but Led Zeppelin wannabes.  She threatened to punch me, and our nightly ritual came to a close.

A grizzled man wearing an old coat slumped through the door and sat at the booth at my back.  After a few minutes we heard him moan.  I turned to look and saw him clutching his chest.  He gritted his teeth, squeezed his eyes tight shut and moaned again.  I said, “Hey, are you all right?”

He slumped to the side, turned his head so that he could look me in the eye and groaned, “My heart…”

JoJo jumped up to sit beside him and held his hand.  I  rushed to the office and called an ambulance.  I saw the stricken man sitting more upright when I returned, and he smiled sadly as he whispered his life’s sad story in JoJo’s ear.  She patted his shoulder.

EMTs arrived a few minutes later, and the lead guy rolled his eyes when he saw the victim.  He said, “Hey Charlie, how’s it goin’ tonight?”

Charlie pointed to his chest.  The EMT said, “Another heart attack Charlie?  Third time this week, isn’t it?”  One medic leaned idly against a booth, and the lead slowly pulled a stethoscope out of his bag.  He gave Charlie a once over and said, “You’re fine.  Just like always.”  The medic turned to me and said, “He’ll live to 100, just you bet.”

Charlie hurried out as soon as the EMTs had packed up and gone.  JoJo and I finished our coffees and trudged back to the kitchen.  We glazed the yeast and filled the cream donuts.  JoJo kept dashing out for cigarette breaks, and I cursed when I dropped a pan of chocolate icing on the floor.  We worked on the specialty donuts and the eclairs around 6 a.m., and got into a fight about how long I’d taken to do my share of the work.  JoJo repeated her claim that she did most while I lagged behind.  I told her to work another shift if she didn’t like mine.

We glowered at each other as we punched out and went our separate ways.  Charlie was the real target, but he was long gone.

They’re Out to Kill Me (Nothing Personal)

I’ve identified a few of the customary ways that Orlando drivers try to kill fellow motorists.  Some are insanely competitive and weave aggressively in an attempt to beat everyone to the next red light.  Some merge or make radical lane changes without looking at traffic in their path.  Some tailgate and ride a few feet behind the car in front of them.  If the pursued accelerates, the bumper-humpers speed up to maintain proximity.  Some use right hand turn lanes to jump ahead of traffic and cut into the line on their left just before they run out of road.  Some slump from a side street onto a busy road, nearly come to a halt as they complete the turn, and slowly accelerate as if unaware of the screeching brakes of oncoming cars.  Some blast through intersections several seconds after the light has turned red.

All these homicidal practices are common place, and I no longer take it personally when someone forces me to violently twist my steering wheel or slam my brake pedal to the floor board.  I know that I’m not a specific target.  I just happened to be nearby when a fool decided to do something stupid.

But I’ve recently come across a new behavior that still surprises me.  I’ve had three encounters in recent months with drivers who don’t believe in correctly using turn lanes at stop lights.  They seem to think that the arrows on the pavement are suggestions instead of commands.

A motorcyclist riding to the right and behind roared past as I made a left hand turn.  He swerved in front of me, sped on for about thirty yards and turned into a shopping center.  He might have saved a second of travel time.  A driver beside me at a T-intersection used the right hand turn lane to drift in front of me as I tried to turn left.  I  stood on my brakes and hit my horn, but she casually drove on as if she’d done nothing dangerous.  I got passed today as I crossed an intersection.  I was going straight ahead, but a workman in a pick-up, who should have turned left seeing that he had started out in a left hand turn land, ambled by at mid-intersection and leisurely nosed his way into my lane.

I don’t know if these folks are looking at their phones, are submerged in their thoughts, are hell bent on getting where they’re going, or just don’t give a damn about their insurance rates or the points on their records.  I’ve been fortunate enough to never have to chat with them…

Now I doubt the intentions of all drivers stopped at traffic lights and assume that they’ll try to kill me when the light turns green.  (Nothing personal).  That attitude sounds paranoid and might not protect me from getting creamed by a particularly flagrant driver, but at least I won’t be surprised when it happens.