But My Nemesis Is So Darn Tasty!

Immediately on returning from our anniversary trip, it was time for my (theoretically) annual physical exam. My doctor and I play this little game where he writes my prescriptions for ever-smaller quantities until I break down and agree to come in and get naked. Then I come in, pretend I write superhero comics (don’t ask), turn down a rectal exam, and leave with a new lease on medication.

This time, the nurse pressured me into signing up to access their spiff new website so I could do things. I had no context for why I had to sign up for a new account when I already had an account for their crappy old website, but she left the screen open on the computer. After a few moments of sitting around in a tiny gown, at least filling out the form gave me something to do.

The next day, while watching a marathon of “My Cat From Hell” — which, by the way, made me appreciate our own furry little bastards all the more — I checked my email and saw that my labs were available for perusal.

Oh, boy!

I logged in and read over a baffling array of test results. All manner of cryptic abbreviations were followed by context-free numbers. One thing that I did understand was the note “borderline diabetic” on my blood test.

I frowned over my gut at the words on my tablet’s screen. I knew I was in bad shape — I’d regained all 80 pounds that I’d lost on a “buy our horrible food” diet — but I hadn’t really expected to be headed for diabetes. My people are not generally fit, but none have ever had blood sugar problems. Sure, it could be that the cancer and heart disease just happen to get them first…

Resolving to cut down on carbs (and portions), I soberly returned to work, where I found a giant box of donuts in every kitchen. I held out for a few hours but finally gave in, figuring that a single donut was still better than the four or five I usually ate.

I wound up eating three, all told. Take that, diabetes!

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Our Marriage Could Probably Sneak Drinks

This month, Wendi and I will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary, which I believe is traditionally the Fish anniversary. Therefore, we’ll be travelling to observe a variety of species in their natural habitat: the Shedd Aquarium. While Wendi takes in the tanks, I’ll be testing my courage with the goliath spider in the Amazon exhibit. If that infernal beast so much as twitches a pedipalp I’ll likely need an ambulance and a dry pair of shorts.

I think that’s at the center of our relationship’s longevity. Not the pants-wetting — enjoying the same things individually.

We met playing role-playing games, but we quickly discovered other shared interests. Comics, animation, keeping me from passing Russian: we had a lot in common. And while I prefer movies about zombies and she favors vampires, we can both agree that haunted houses are pretty neat.

My point is that we started out as friends, and 20 years of marriage has only strengthened our bond. We don’t like being away from each other, but we can happily sit in the same room doing separate things. We’re in a sort of sweet spot between togetherness and solitude.

Marriage is a partnership, and we make pretty good partners, I think. Plus, Wendi makes jam — so I kind of win.

On Writing Wrongs

Some stories come out easily; Dignity, Always Dignity was written in a few hours. Others are painfully constructed over several writing sessions, with little corrections each time through and the occasional new sentence. I’ve begun to think “Oh, I should write about that!” whenever I remember something that happened, and my iPad is filling up with tiny text documents that contain a few words to nudge my memory.

“The hubcap incident,” one reads. “The whole everyone’s a salesman bit” is written in another. “Tarantula” is empty, the file name telling me enough to know what I’d wanted to write.

These all mean something to me, and I’ve grown curious about the machineries of memory. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to jot down the thoughts. In some cases my notes don’t even reference the main association I’ve attached to the story. What these messages to myself do reflect is the association I had at the moment a story occurred to me.

The file for Stasis Meeting, by way of example, included helpful sentence fragments that I didn’t need in order to remember what the essay meant to be about. The title came by way of a freudian slip while trying to say “status meeting”. It perfectly captured my feeling that such meetings put projects on hold in order to discover why they aren’t moving faster. None of the notes were as powerful as that title.

Then there’s the file simply titled “Thanks”. The title meant nothing to me, so I opened it. Inside was the following

6. “Thanks for fucking me!”

Among my finer moments, you will not find this one. Late on a Friday afternoon, the week before release, with my stress levels at maximum, while I was attempting to decipher a colleague’s configuration problem, management descended. I already had two extra people in my small cube, so my fight-or-flight nerve was twitching excitedly. Add two managers with a question about a bug that had just been filed, and — well, I’m not proud.

I cursed and stomped around the office glaring at everyone. Then I looked at the bug and discovered it was a problem of bad test data. Then I found out that they’d only wanted to me to estimate effort. Then I hid under my desk, figuring that I couldn’t be fired if they couldn’t find me.

It seems that this was a rejected section from I Wouldn’t Say That, a collection of unfortunate workplace conversations. I must have pulled it out but decided it might be salvaged for another essay.

Since the incident in the above fragment, I’ve gone over a year without a major blow-up. There have been rough patches, but on the whole I’ve regained the trust of many co-workers and a few managers. I’ve even been promoted and given more responsibilities. The pressure wears at me, but I’ve learned to handle it better.

This isn’t who I want to be, and it’s not what I want to remember. Probably the hardest part about writing autobiographical essays is determining what I’m prepared to admit about myself. As I described in my About page, everything but certain names is true — for a given value of truth. Memory isn’t perfect, so details may be erroneous. Sometimes too many facts get in the way of a good story. On occasion there are details that I’d rather not show. Or see.

Maybe I shared this because I’m depressed and want validation for my self-loathing. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been thinking about the events that don’t even have an empty file to mark them. I think if this blog is going to continue to help me, it’s time to open up just a little more and risk abandonment over what I’ve been hiding.

I’m going to stop thinking now and play some uke.

A Year in the Life Atomic

I’ve now been posting to this blog for a year. It felt like I only just made my weekly post, but at just over 100 entries the average was closer to twice a week. Not too shabby for a guy who tends to start lots of projects only to abandon them for shinier things.

One reason I’ve stuck with it may be that I’ve experienced some creative benefits. Last year I wrote a short story for the first time in years, and it got published in Mad Scientist Journal. I learned my first song on the ukulele. (Previously, I’d practice parts in isolation for recording.) I have a new comic book coming, and I’m writing another one. There’s even a comic strip that I’ve started to work on as a long-term project.

Maybe it’s simply a coincidence. Perhaps the same energy that allowed me to be productive in general enabled me to maintain a blog. At this point I’m not certain it matters. Whether it’s my luck charm or my canary in a coal mine, I know that as long as I can keep to this schedule I have the ability to create.

To those who’ve been following me over the last year, I extend my thanks. You keep me from talking to my cats, and they should probably appreciate that more than they do. I hope you enjoy the next year of Tales of the Atomic Zombie! I’ll continue to over-share, pontificate, muse, and hopefully to amuse.

Maybe I’ll even scrape up some time to start making illustrations again. 🙂

The Plane Truth

Last week I had to catch a flight to Virginia for training. It doesn’t particularly what for or where at, except that the airport at the training end was Reagan International. The relevance of that will be clear later.

The first thing I need to explain is that I don’t believe that airplanes can fly. When I reveal this, a lot of folks think that I’m some sort of science-denying, foil-hat-wearing nutcase who doesn’t believe that airplanes travel from place to place above the ground.

(Rather than correct this perception, I usually play along. Consequently there are several people who aren’t quite certain whether I genuinely believe that air travel is an elaborate hoax designed to conceal the existence of teleportation. [I do not. That would be crazy. The aliens kill anybody who comes close to working out teleportation. (Poor Tesla.)])

I understand the science of flight at a high level, my hats are not made of materials useful for baking, and I completely agree that planes travel through the air. I just don’t call that flight. I call it a rocket-propelled death-ride. Airplanes are basically missiles with a modicum of steering, a throttle, and a small packet of pretzels.

This training junket would be my second round-trip death-ride. (My first, also for work, was to Las Vegas. If I was strapping myself into a rocket for the first time, I wanted to have some good shows at the other end dammit!) Between the strain of getting my car fixed, driving through snow, and arriving barely in time for boarding I was already a wreck. I sat trembling in my seat until after we were safely above the clouds.

The trip back was a different story, but here’s where Reagan airport comes in. The ride from Reagan to my hotel in McLean cost around $30. It would be reimbursed, so my worry wasn’t the cost. I’d simply never called a cab before. I hadn’t needed to. In Vegas cabs were lined up everywhere, and they flock to airports like seagulls to the parking lot at McDonald’s. My schedule had me checking out of the hotel on the morning of my last day of training, so I’d have to get a phone number and actually call it.

You may recall that I’m only slightly less phobic of phones as I am of spiders. In fact, a spider with a phone would pretty much incapacitate me.

Then the media started hyping storm Not Actually Officially Named, which was slated to return the East Coast to the Bronze Age or something. Ten hours before my flight, and I’d already started feeling sick. Would I be stuck at the airport, if I even managed to get there?

Luckily, two of the other guys in training were also going to Reagan, and they had a rental car! Even better, they generously offered me a ride before I even started figure out if I should impose by asking. (Thanks again, guys! You’re swell in my book.) That was such a relief that I didn’t mind being about three hours early for my flight.

Okay. Here’s the Reagan part. I promise.

After stalling for a while, I finally decided to get it over with and go through the security check. I threw my bag, boots, and coat into scanner bins and strolled into the cancer chamber. No sooner had I stepped out then I was pulled aside by a large man who was keenly interested in my groin. Turns out that I’d forgotten to empty my pockets, and in D.C. they take that pretty seriously.

My money clip and wallet were confiscated while I was patted down and checked for eau d’explosive. The money clip (and money!) was returned after cursory inspection, but my wallet disappeared. I’ve gone through a few variant types of wallets, and I currently use a small metal business card case. With an alcoholic squirrel on it.

I stood there, ignored, wondering what to do. They’d lost interest in me once I’d passed the sniff test. I stood there awkwardly for a minute, then I put on my boots and recovered my bag and coat. More time passed. A tiny bucket trundled out of the scanner. It contained my wallet. I looked around. Nobody cared. I picked up the wallet. Nobody yelled. I slipped away before they remembered me.

The actual flight was nothing. The plane seemed to be from the 1960s, with original naugahyde. As the plane chugged to the runaway, I could see a wing bouncing harder than a check from Bernie Madoff. No problem. The whole trip was almost over, and my nerves had given up trying to keep me alert. At least if I died I’d have my wallet.

Putting Out the Home Fires

We came home tonight and immediately smelled something strange. It was a chemical smell, and it was strong. Within minutes we discovered that the bulb of a portable light was pressed into a plush chair, and the light had been on for a long time. The plastic surface had melted, and the underlying foam was hot and crunchy.

There’s a hole in the chair, but we seem to have avoided a fire.

The thing is, neither of us remembers having left that light on. But both of us have witnessed the cats performing hijinks on that chair. It seems likely that one of them tripped the switch at some point during the day’s shenanigans.

I always suspected that they were trying to kill us, but I had no idea that the cats wanted to burn the house down.

Step Away From the Book Store

Hi. My name is Sean, and I’m a mass media addict.

I guess it started with taping movies off of cable. Having secured a film on the permanent archival format of a Beta cassette, I felt that I couldn’t let it slip out of my clutches. After all, now I could watch it again whenever I pleased! Media was finally at my convenience instead of at the whim of broadcasters! The collection of tapes grew quickly, and some I never did get around to watching even once. What mattered was that I could have.

Actually, it may have started before then, with comic books. On my mom’s side, I’m the youngest of my cousins. I don’t recommend being last in a generation, by the way; it’s the nuisance position. Even the kids table doesn’t want you. What I did get was everybody’s cast-offs, which for the purposes of this essay means comic books.

Comics from my kin accumulated at my grandma’s house, and when I tired of exploring the old hay barn and chicken coop I’d curl up with the stack of leftover comics. They were mostly from the Harvey line: Richie Rich, Casper, Little Lotta, and the rare Lil’ Devil which I loved most of all. Few of these had covers, and many were missing pages. I’m sure this helped fuel my desire to possess my own things.

Whatever the cause, the effect is that one room of our house is dedicated to the hoard. Somewhat hopefully, I call this room the library. There’s a pile of boxes in the center of the library, and I no longer recall what they contain. I can’t even get to them to find out; the rest of the floor is adrift in stacks of books that have been catalogued but await shelving. The walls are concealed behind boxes of DVDs. There’s a treacherous path that leads about three feet into the unstable mass of media. The door to this room cannot close.

So, yeah. I have a media addiction. At least I admit it, right? And I’ve already made strides in resolving to pare down the collection. The problem is that my compulsions keep interfering. First they demanded that I write a custom application to track media. Then I could enter everything, discover duplicates (hopefully only due to bundled packages…), track which I’ve read/watched/consumed, and mark which I’ve given away.

For months I picked away at this program. I’d make good progress and then get lost in other projects again. When I’d return to coding the damn thing, I’d inevitably discover that nothing worked anymore because some third-party library had been updated. The next week would be lost to cursing and bug-fixing, I’d add one more feature, and then I’d get lost in something else again.

After nearly a year of this, I realized that this process had gotten in the way of actual progress. I chucked the application and started transferring DVDs into binders. This went well until I finished with all the titles starting with ‘C’, at which point other projects captured my attention.

One of these was the ongoing effort to catalog all my books and make an initial pass at culling some for donations. I’ve already removed several bags of books that have been given away or donated to libraries. There are only a few shelves left to sort through, after which I plan to put up new shelves for the books that remain. Of course there are boxes of DVDs where I’d like to put the new shelves…

The biggest problem I have with the books is that there are a lot I don’t know if I’d read again because I’ve not read them in the first place. Currently there are just under a thousand unread books in the library, according to what I’ve entered at LibraryThing. This is only that low because I decided that I’d never read dozens of the books I’ve already donated.

Actually, that’s merely a big problem. The biggest problem is that I continue to bring new books into the house. I’ve slowed the pace considerably, mind you. On average I’m only buying 3-4 books and 1-2 movies a week. I’d like to turn that into an average for a month, but it’s better than when it was a daily average.

Netflix instant and the availability of ebooks is helping to some extent, as I can enjoy books and movies without bringing new material into the house. Ultimately, what I think will help more is that I’m growing more interested in doing things and creating. I’m writing more, thanks to this blog, and for the first time in years I’m working on a short story. I’ve written another comic and have plans do more. The musical dry spell is over, and I’m working on a holiday EP.

I don’t have time to consume media, because I’m too busy creating it. It’s starting to sink in. All of these things that fired my imagination threaten now to snuff out the expression of it. If it comes to a choice between making and having, I’ll choose making.

Just as soon as I get this room cleared out…

Do Bee Do Bee Do

I’ve been a busy Do Bee this week.

The weekend passed in a blur of editing and mixing so that I could release my latest song as soon as possible. It’s about the election, so I knew its shelf-life would be extremely limited. Housework piled up, the cats forgot who I was, and Wendi patiently waited for me to work the song out of my system.

It’s titled “Rochambeau”, and it’s a raucous lefty protest against some of the most inflammatory remarks made by politicians on the right this election season. As it’s based entirely on carefully selected statements and partisan hyperbole I have no delusions about its popular appeal, so consider yourself warned. 🙂

If you’d like to listen to it, read the lyrics, or find out why it’s called “Rochambeau”; all of this can be found on my Bandcamp site.

I felt relieved after releasing my political anthem and braced myself to catch up on chores. Then the week started, and it seemed pissed off. Two of my friends were checked into hospitals. Both were released, one with significantly better news than the other I fear. I don’t want to reveal any more than that, other than to say that I’ve not been happy with people I care about having medical surprises.

My emotional investment in following the health updates left me tired, so when A Very Bad Thing happened at work the late nights and early mornings spent analyzing and correcting left me — well, I got stupid tired. A fix has been designed and is currently being tested, and my involvement appears to be over now. The less said about it the better, really. I only mention it to emphasize that my household responsibilities have continued to back up.

Tonight is going to be my first chance to get back on top of things, and it feels like I’ve battled through monsters to reach the level boss. I’m going to need to find a save point, because I’m not sure I can finish this fight before the Veep debate tonight. No way am I missing that; I need the laughs.

Relative Thinking

I was born in the fall, so as the weather grows cooler and the leaves start to turn; as everyone begins to think of who they’d like to be come Halloween and children, freshly back in school, begin to wonder if there really is an end to classes; as stores anticipate three big holidays all at once and radio stations trot out “Santa, Baby” and other old chestnuts; at that time of year I typically reflect on how to be less of a schmuck.

As explained by Robert Anton Wilson, in a book I lost long ago in college, every now and then you should take a moment to think about what a schmuck you’ve been. The thought appeals to me, especially since I’m fully aware that I don’t always function according to societal specifications. I mull over events every week, but once a year I take the time to make a deeper examination.

This isn’t a birthday-related activity, at least not in the traditional “oh crap, I’m aging” manner. I’m not afraid of aging any more than of any other inevitability. I’m in no particular hurry to shake off my youth, mind you. I’m just too busy worrying about everything involved with daily life; I’d need another lifetime to fret over the big issues. No, I hold my yearly mental audit in the fall because it’s a good time for putting things in order.

For years Wendi and her mom have commented on how I’ve been taking lessons from Ken, my father-in-law. This is meant as a joke about how I’ve picked up some of his more playful traits: feigning ignorance, playing with the wait staff, etc. But it’s truer than that, and more intentional.

I never had a very good father figure from whom to learn. He met his obligations, and I’ll credit him with doing the best that he probably good, but his personal skills were that of a rabid weasel. What I learned from my dad was to belittle people, to treat others as malfunctioning objects when they didn’t serve my needs, to resent any aspect of life that did not cater to my desires — in short, to be a colossal schmuck.

My father had a good life right under his nose and rejected it for not matching his dreams. A good job, a big house, a successful wife, kids that did well in school and largely avoided trouble — he dwelled instead on what he didn’t have, which largely resembled a late-night sex comedy on Cinemax. With bagpipes.

Imagine my confusion as I got to know my father-in-law. Ken stayed at a job he didn’t like, a job that hastened his hearing loss and furthered the destruction of his back, because he wanted to support his family. Sure, he wanted other things — who doesn’t? — but the people around him were important enough to put dreams on hold or even give them up. He never acted resentful for it or suggested to anybody that they owed him anything. I saw him grumpy a few times, but his normal disposition was one of good cheer.

I hope this seems perfectly normal to you; it stunned me. That’s not how people behaved, in my experience. Once I processed that he was for real, I realized that I finally had a model for acceptable behavior. This whole “caring about others” approach intrigued me.

So this year with my normal season of reflection approaching, and my frustrations at work growing, I’ve been thinking of Ken. There’s a lot that I get from my job: a good salary, fantastic benefits, and access to a huge collection of reference materials, to name a few. Wendi and I are in easy shot of paying off our bad debts, and we’ve finally started to fix up our house.

Is it really that bad if I don’t get the project I want at work? No. It’s just disappointing. If my car needs a new transmission is it a catastrophe? No. It’s an unfortunate inconvenience. Are Tom Hanks’s Oscar wins a sign of the End Times? Probably. I’m still consulting the ancient texts about that.

The point is that I need to remember to step back from the immediacy of events and put them into a larger context before reacting, because my initial reactions tend to be hyperbolic and aggressive.

In late September I got a head cold. My brain was fogged, and I was tired, so I had difficulty maintaining a civil attitude. I found myself snapping at people and getting angry over minor upsets. Finally I stayed home for a few days, mostly out of fear that I might start screaming at people.

At about the same time, Ken had a hip replacement and a double bypass in rapid succession. His chief complaint appeared to be that his butt hurt from all the lying around, and he joked with the nurses during his recovery.

Perspective. I need some in order to be less of a schmuck.

Fathers Day

I have one good memory of my father.

This is not to say we only ever shared one good time. My memory has always been unreliable and skewed toward the negative, so it’s likely that there are several events that I’ve forgotten. So I have just the one good memory, and even that is tinged with awfulness.

For context, you have to understand our relationship. He appeared to believe that I was filled with lies, and I believed him to be unpredictably abusive. The Beta incident is typical of our interaction.

For those of you born after the heady early days of movie rentals, there was a format war for VCR tapes. It was somewhat akin to Blu-ray vs HD DVD. You don’t remember HD DVD? Never mind. The point is that my folks got a great deal on a Betamax player, precisely because Beta had just lost the war for home systems.

Anyway, the Beta incident began with my dad trying to hook up the player. He couldn’t figure out why the cable channels weren’t coming in through the VCR. I picked up the installation manual and looked through it until I found the answer. There was a hatch on the top that opened up to reveal a frightening array of dials. You were supposed to set and tune each channel individually in order for the Beta to read their signals correctly.

I guess that’s why it was called a Beta.

So, like Charlie Brown running at the football, I told my dad what I’d read. He was furious. He swore at me for interfering, and he sent me outside to pick up sticks in the yard so he could mow.

I went outside and cleared the yard, front and back. That only took a few minutes, and it was much too early to go back inside. The TV was right next to the stairs, and he’d certainly notice me heading upstairs to hide. So I did it again, picking up even the most minute twigs I could spot. Half an hour later I figured it might be safe enough to risk going in, so I did.

Dad caught me, but he wasn’t pissed anymore; he was triumphant. He marched me into the living room to show me the TV. The picture came in perfectly.

“I figured it out,” he proclaimed. “You have to tune each channel in that top panel.”

This wasn’t an unfortunate aberration; this was my everyday experience. Nothing any of us did was right, even if it was, and he was the self-proclaimed genius who told us we were stupid. When he ran off with his secretary while I was in my last year of college, I was more than happy to write him off and start repairing my confidence.

Happy Sun

Smile. We’ll all be long dead when the sun explodes.

That was pretty much it for 20 years. Then Wendi found a message on our answering machine two weeks from the Department of Human Services of a county I hardly knew existed. It turned out that my father had applied for a fostering permit, and they needed to talk to his own offspring as part of their screening.

I wanted nothing to do with it. For one thing, I had elected to have no part in his life. I didn’t want to get involved. Additionally, I hate phones. No, that’s not right. I’m afraid of accidentally committing to something while talking on a phone. There’s a story in that, but I’m already on my second digression. I’ll explain that very particular phobia another time. Let it suffice for now that I do not make phone calls if I can help it.

The message nagged at me through the week. I’d sought help a few times in my adolescence, but nobody had wanted to get involved. Wasn’t my silence contributing to the problem?

A form from the Department of Human Services arrived in the mail. I could fill out the paperwork, assuage my conscience, and avoid using a phone! I read the form. The bulk of it obsessed on how well I was doing, and there was just one small space allotted for opposition to the foster application. That wouldn’t work for me.

By now I’d convinced myself that it was my duty to respond, but the safe route led away from the response I needed to make. Steeling myself, I dialed the provided number.

I got an answering machine. After rambling confusedly for a bit I left my cel number. Then I went to Wendi for comforting. Thinking about my father had wound me up, and imagining all of the ways that the phone call could go south had left me shaking. She calmed me down and sent me away again. Then my phone rang.

The county worker was nice enough, but I didn’t feel as though she believed me. She kept saying “That’s too bad” in a way that seemed well-worn and disinterested. I imagine she’s dealt with people who’d suffered neglect and physical abuse, and that mere emotional abuse is pretty low on her list of concerns.

Or, and this is a distinct possibility, I simply read into her responses what my head meat expected to hear. Regardless, she assured me that she would include my statements in her findings. This means that now there’s likely official documentation of my father calling me a “worthless piece of shit.”

But I do still have one good memory of him. I have to admit that.

Image of the tingler being extracted from behind a screen

Vincent Price removes a full-sized tingler from his “test subject”.

(image altered from screen capture of “The Tingler”)

I had just settled down to watch “The Tingler” on HBO. My dad wandered in and asked what I was watching. I told him, adding that it starred Vincent Price. To my surprise he sat down to watch it with me. A few minutes in, he asked if I wanted nachos. Did I?

We raced out into the kitchen, poured chips on a plate, sprinkled shredded jack liberally on them, popped them in the microwave for a bit, and raced back the living room with our goodies. Bing, pow, zap! A plate full of cheesy sadness!

We didn’t care though; we happily munched away as the glorious Mr. Price proved his theories on the physical nature of fear — by killing people, of course. The chips vanished quickly, and we raced to the kitchen for a second batch. Bing, pow, sadness!

It was after we’d eaten half of the second batch that one of us looked at the snack we’d prepared. The nachos were far more terrifying that any of the on-screen silliness that had been holding our attention. There were patches of green in the melted cheese. It had been moldy, and both of us were so fixated on a stupid movie that neither one of us had noticed until halfway through the second serving.

Feeling our stomaches churn, we pushed the plate aside and tried to enjoy the finale of the movie. We had to admit though, they’d been pretty tasty.

For that brief span, we were in sync. We acted as one with no friction, and we (mostly) had fun. That’s the father I wish I’d had more of. That’s the man I’d endorse for fostering a child — with the provision that he not be allowed to make nachos.