Friday, July 24, 2015

Mum's the word

Most of you who know me know I'm not a believer in the fanciful, but I got what I consider definitive proof that there is no such thing as karma. On the first Tuesday of this month, I was ordering take-out from a restaurant, because my mom loved the rice balls from this particular place and I wanted to get her something she would eat. She was not doing so well the past couple of weeks, but she always asked for this whenever I asked her what she wanted to eat. So, rice ball it is. The person handling the order gave me an extra $10 bill as part of my change, then turned around to get a piece of carrot cake, another of my mom's favorites. About 2 seconds passed where my eyes lingered on the money and I contemplated keeping the extra cash, but I thought that if the register was short, the girl would be docked $10 and ten bucks probably means way more to her than it does to me. My mom raised me better than that. So, when she came back, I told the young woman she gave me too much money and there was a wave of confusion, panic, and then relief in her face. The look in her eyes seemed like a mixture of being stunned and thankful. I felt pretty good about being honest and helping someone else out. I did a good deed and neither asked for, nor needed, anything in return.

Two days later, my mom died.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer in May of 2014. The cancer was not only in her right breast, but had traveled to her liver and bones as well. One year ago today, July 24, I found my mom on her back, blood caked on her mouth and mumbling incoherently. I called out to her and she raised an arm up, but not towards me, just up. An ambulance came moments later, and in the hospital it was determined she would be put into an induced coma. I wasn't sure she would make it. I was not sure we would ever speak again. By October 25, she was home, after surviving having a Tracheotomy and then having the tube removed, plus a lengthy stint at an in-patient physical rehab. She was a tough woman. She raised me by herself from when I was three years old, and her body had been worn down from years working in a hospital and then a facility for the mentally disabled, where she received multiple herniated discs after being kicked in the head by a 22 year old with severe developmental problems as he was being lifted onto a stretcher. That was followed up with an accident a few years later, when a bus rear ended her vehicle. She took her licks and kept on going.

Following her initial spinal accident, she went back to university and earned a Bachelors and a Masters, the latter following one year after the former, and with a 4.0 GPA to boot. She moved herself, me and at least one cat (sometimes two) cross-country four times, by herself (the last one was 20 years ago this month, and took 2,512 miles across ten states in five days). When we were back on the East Coast, my mom purchased a ticket package for the 1996 season, which included about 16 games, plus one game per playoff round, if they could manage to make the postseason in back to back years following a 14 year drought. That season, of course, the Yankees won the World Series. The one game we went to? Game 1, where the team lost 12-1.

Doing those road trips from Pennsylvania to the Yankees games, we would often stop at some good food places in Brooklyn, her home town, although obviously it wasn't always feasible to detour into that borough to buy food to take home. However, my mom was a typical New Yorker, insisting the best food in the country came from there (this was before all the chain restaurants moved in). We would also sometimes stop in New Jersey, sometimes getting a monster sized corned beef sandwich. We almost always stopped at a pizzeria in Wayne, where we would order 8 pies, half cooked, to take home, put in the freezer, and cook up when the mood struck. Pizza was serious business, and central Pennsylvania pizza was not what either of us grew up on. In the age before podcasts, we listened to a lot of music on those car trips, including Queen, George Michael, Jefferson Airplane, the Moody Blues, Aerosmith, and Elton John. We saw the latter three in concert together, which included camping outside for 16 hours waiting for Elton John tickets. Although my musical interests diverged from hers, we could at least bond over those musicians.

These are the memories I try to hold on to, but the past month has been rough. On June 30, exactly 20 years to the day we first began our last cross-country move, we were told the cancer had spread and her course of treatment was no longer working. We tried a new medication, but things were too far gone. Nevertheless, my mom refused to give up. That was in her spirit. Indomitable. Even when the simplest things were a monumental task, when it took her an hour to get herself from one room to another, she refused to stop, she would not give up, and she would never surrender. If you've ever seen a movie where a boxer is bruised and cut up, can barely stand, and is still trying to throw a punch, that's basically where she was. She was standing only through sheer force of will. I didn't know how bad things were, because no matter how bad things got, she was always forcing herself back up. She was back in the hospital for some minor surgery this February, went back in in-patient rehab, and then was told she had to leave. She wanted to train to walk up stairs, but the facility said she would never do it, so it was time to leave. Within two weeks of leaving, she was walking up stairs by herself.

On the morning of July 7, despite her efforts, I finally put my foot down and said she needed assistance. I called her oncologist who then referred her to a hospice agency. I went in work late and then came home early so I could meet with the nurse. When I got back from work on July 8, she went to the bathroom and three hours later, she was still either on her way there or trying to go back. I found her trying to sit on the television stand because she was too tired to go anywhere else. The hospice nurse finally came and noticed she took a turn for the worse. Her hospice nurse and I finally convinced her to go to in-patient hospice late Wednesday night. She bargained with us. She said she would go the next day. The nurse told her it wasn't safe. She couldn't get up and she couldn't lift her head. When the nurse went to the 24 hour pharmacy to get some pain medication, I was alone with her and tried to walk her from her bedroom to the living room. I had to bring her a folding chair to sit in because she couldn't make it the whole way, but she was determined, got up, and tried again.

As I was walking her to the couch, she looked at me and told me she was dying. I asked her when and she said, "soon." I dismissed the claim, because over the past few months I tried to remain as optimistic as possible, for her sake. I kept telling her to make plans. Although she would probably never retire to Panama like she wanted to, she could get a smaller place which would give her independence. We would make it to her great-niece's Baptism. We would go to a nice Italian restaurant that Sunday. And even though I knew she was going to die, at some point, I didn't know how on the mark her words were.

We sat down on the couch together, my arm around her as she slumped forward. I offered her a drink, but she could barely suck anything through the straw. She was so weak. When the medical transport came with the stretcher, she was confused, and I thought this is why we need to get her to a place where we could manage her pain and keep her comfortable. She did not even remember the nurse at first. Then, when it was time to get her onto the stretcher, she refused. She cried out, "I'm scared, I'm scared." Aside from losing her, that is the worst thing about the whole experience. I didn't want her to be afraid.

On the stretcher, she reached out to me, and when I came over, she hugged me. I told her I would follow her to the hospice unit, and they wheeled her out. She waved to me from the ambulance, clearly nervous about what was happening. She waved to me, and I waved back briefly, but then used my hand to shield my eyes from the ambulance lights. Her face was full of confusion, sadness and fear. Why didn't I wave more? Why didn't I blow her kisses? Why didn't I do more to comfort her? I knew I would be following her to the facility, a half hour away, but I had no clue these were her final hours. I did everything I could, but I also didn't do enough. This is part of my guilt, my pain.

When I met her at hospice, my mom was more relaxed, finally getting relief from the crushing pain and also cleaned up. We chatted briefly, and I promised that later that day (it was already 3:00 in the morning), she could make the decision of when she would leave. I let her know, since we were in town, I would rent out a luxury suite at the minor league baseball park a few miles away, and we could watch a game in peace and comfort as soon as she was ready to leave the facility. I pulled up the schedule and told her they would be in town that weekend, that it was great timing. Since it was so late, I told her I would leave, but she asked me to stay a while, and so we sat together. I don't remember, but I'm pretty sure I didn't say anything, but just sat there. Why didn't I tell her I loved her, over and over? Why didn't I explain how much I was grateful for all she did for me? Why didn't I tell her not to worry, that everything would be alright in the end? Finally, she told me to go home, and we hugged, and I told her we would talk later, but that was not to be.

When I came back about 8 hours later, she was already in the last stage of life. She could not open her eyes. I was told she was not going to be around much longer. I cried, I say that with no shame, because my pain is too great to be worried about keeping up appearances. I talked to my mom, kissed her, and held her hand. I told her I loved her, respected her, and was so thankful for everything she did. I hope she heard me. I don't know. People say the dying can hear, that it's the last thing to go, and even if she couldn't make out the words she could recognize my voice. But people say things like that all the time, lies to make the suffering feel better. It's why we believe in Heaven or an afterlife, to help manage the pain. My mom believed in God, and prayed, and had a prayer book. I hope it brought her some peace, but I already knew she was afraid. Maybe believing that faith brought her peace is as foolish having faith in the first place.

All I know for certain is that I watched the woman who was there when I took my first breath pass on as she breathed out her last breath. George Michael played quietly in the background. She thought he had a beautiful voice. I agree, but at that moment, all beauty was darkened. The sun would still shine on in the universe, but it would never shine was bright to me. A part of my heart was scooped out and I'll never be the same again. I've gone through waves of grief, of sadness, but the worst has been the hindsight and regrets and things like that. I recall every argument of the past year, every time I was a jerk, every stupid thing I did, every time I did something else instead of spending time with her. I recall her pain and fear and kick myself for not trying to do more. She did not want to die and did not want to die that way and had so many plans she would never be able to accomplish. I feel sorrow, and regret, and rage. I just want to talk with her one more time.

She had so many ups and downs over the past year, it was not really possible to tell this was the last down, but I still look at it like “maybe I should have taken off that day” or “maybe I should have done more to be around her” type stuff. I know there’s nothing I can do about it now and I probably did everything I was able to do, but it’s not an easy thing to deal with. I took her to doctors' appointments and I drove her to out-patient rehab. I cooked meals for her. I sat with her and listened to her talk about things I wasn't necessarily interested in, but I knew it was good for her to have a conversation (even if we did argue about the fact that conversations were two way streets). Instead of listening, I feel like I should have been more engaging. I was a fool for not taking the time to sit and ask her more about her past. I thought I knew so many stories from her life B.C. (Before Chris, one of her jokes), but there's a million stories I'll never know and a million questions I never bothered to ask.

Now I'm emptier than I have ever been, deeply wounded. The person I knew better than anyone else, the person I spent the most time with in my life, the person who single-handedly raised me and made sure I could work my way through school and land a job and be a functioning human being, is gone. Forever. No more conversations. No more hugs. No more time together. Without her, I would not be where I am today, and now I have to figure out the rest of my life without her guidance and presence. We did not always get along, we did not always see eye to eye, but I'd still rather argue over something stupid than face the silence. I miss her. The void is vast.

I am 33. She was 66. Her life was cut short, and I'm faced with the prospect of spending the majority of my life without my mom, provided I live longer than she did. We’ve been cheated out of so many years we could have had together. I keep on, but I feel broken. There are times I am drowning in my anguish.

If you've read this far, I ask you for one favor. Please consider if there is a parent or special person in your life that you should call. Make time to see them. Let them know you love them. A time will come when you'll never have the chance to do those things again.

Goodbye, mom. I love you and miss you.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Sam Brownback is a symptom of political rot

If you don't keep up with state politics in states you don't live in (or if you don't live in the United States), here's the short version of the Sam Brownback saga. The citizens of Kansas elected tea party Republican candidate Sam Brownback into the office of the governor. Once in power, he delivered on his pledge to slash income taxes. He and his policy wonks promised enormous economic growth following the tax cuts, but that turned out not to be the case. In fact, the consequences were monumentally disastrous for the economy. Although he managed to survive a re-election campaign where he still pulled in less than 50% of the vote, he has been hammered with severe criticism, including being mercilessly booed at a Wichita State University vs Kansas University game in which he broke down in tears while remembering same in a GOP meeting a bit later. Today, the state legislature passed a bill raising taxes, and Brownback signed same. However, the problem is these taxes are not income based but sales based.

If you took any kind of economics course in school, you probably remember that income tax, property tax and sales tax affect the classes disproportionately, with lower middle class and poor people hit the hardest by sales tax. Worse, Kansas charges taxes on items that most other states don't, such as food. The cherry on top? Kansas now has one of the highest sales taxes in the country.

Is there a lesson to be learned in all of this? A few, I think. The first is that running a country or state or county or city costs money. Even if you don't want to fund science or art or health care or anything else, it still costs money to have a basic infrastructure. Taxes fund that. You have to have taxes. The people and businesses who bring in the most money should pay the most taxes. We're not punishing them for their "success," we are making them support a system that they have profited off of.

Finally, the most important lesson is that Conservative politics hurt people. Conservatives want to conserve the status quo, and the status quo means oppression. Whether it is chipping away at women's reproductive rights or shifting the tax burden from the wealthy to the working poor, disadvantaged groups will further be disadvantaged under political theories and policies motivated by making sure wealthy (usually) white (usually) men maintain their power over everyone else.

So why do people continue to vote for them? How did Brownback get elected for a second term despite ruining the economy well before the election? There are probably scholarly papers more informed than I am on this, but my two cents is that there is always an appeal to some base instinct: Greed. Bigotry. Misogony. Homophobia/transphobia. Punish the "other" to make yourself feel good.

There's not even any reason to believe these people. Are they anti health care? They'll vote to give themselves the best insurance available, paid for by tax payers. Are they anti-gay? Chances are they are having an affair with a same sex intern, or worse, diddling some kids. Are they anti-tax? You know they are getting handsome donations by the richest people and corporations. Do they bleat about voter fraud? It's because they lie, steal and cheat every day.

Maybe you're on board with that. Maybe you really hate abortions, or immigrants, or homos. I tell you this, though: if you are reading this, you are not a wealthy, powerful mover and shaker. Once everyone else is disenfranchised, you'll be next. You're not part of their team.

That's just my opinion, and you're entitled to it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Carol of the Smells

A couple of years ago or whenever, I posted a bunch of songs leading up to Christmas. Well, this year I threw most of those tracks and more onto a Spotify playlist, which is much more manageable than downloading a bunch of tracks. There's indie, rap, metal, a lot of punk, and even some old ditties. Unfortunately, a few of my favorite tunes like Spooner's "The Saddest Time of the Year" and Tankard's "Fuck Christmas" were not available through the service (truly making this the saddest time of the year). One song which was available which I declined to include in my collection was Anti-Nowhere League's "Snowman," a tune I enjoy but eventually realized had nothing to do with Christmas, holidays or even winter. It's just about cocaine, buying it and using it. The titular "Snowman" is, of course, the dealer. I'm not trying to criticize you if non-cola coke is your favorite way to celebrate the yuletide, but it would be hard for me, a dedicated and ethical collector of holiday music, to include same in a Christmas mix. Feel free to enjoy on this blog post, and happy holidays.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Dime of the Ancient Mariner

All inside a glass and metal box,
Like a rectangular basket,
Right up above the concrete floor,
Dimensions like a casket.

Days gone past, days gone past,
A man could make a phone call;
Drop his finger in the dial
He could talk to one and all.

Cell phones, cell phones, every where,
Replaced the booths, now strange;
Cell phones, cell phones, every where,
Now where does Superman change?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Today we celebrate VD by watching some porn

The city of Philadelphia was in the news recently for a couple of sexual escapades, or as the clever kids say, sex-capades. Chris Pagano was arrested for allegedly harassing women with urges to engage with him and cheese in a sexual manner. Back in 2006, he had been arrested by undercover officers when he tried to solicit prostitutes to give him a hand job after wrapping his penis in Swiss cheese. In 2009, he upgraded to an entire block of Swiss cheese. As I live in the area, I've had many women comment that they were approached by this guy through online dating sites, and yes, the Swiss cheese was a factor in his pick-up lines. To me, it's a bit curious...not his obsession with cheese, as we all have our quirks, but why he needed to involve women. He should have just gone down to the local deli, gotten his favorite brand of Swiss cheese, and enjoyed a quiet evening at home with his dairy delight.

Of course, sometimes it's the thrill of having other people observe your perversion that makes it satisfying. There's a bit of a thrill to exposing yourself, as another local man did when he crashed his car, got out of the vehicle, dropped his pants, and began masturbating. No cheese was involved, but he did display a handsome pair of cheeks. The Daily Mail had the best description: "The New Jersey resident crashed a car outside Crown Fried Chicken and stripped before 'choking the chicken'."

My advice is to spend Valentines Day with another consenting adult, and if you can't do that, keep your masturbating indoors. To that end, I've discovered that there are a ton of high quality (relatively speaking) porn parodies of famous television shows, ranging from the clever ("Scooby Doo") to the downright bizarre ("Smurfs"). Here are ten porn parody trailers to get the blood pumping to your nether regions.

Saved By The Bell

Golden Girls

The Smurfs (if you need more body paint, feel free to check out The Simpsons porn parody, too)

Scooby Doo

Doctor Who

Who's the Boss?

The Flintstones


Star Wars


If the Batman one tempted your tummy with the taste of your nuts' honey, then there are plenty more Superhero pornos available, should your heart (or groin) desire.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Healthy Display of Anger

This past week, President Obama gave his State of the Union Address, and, as is typical, the opposition party gave its rebuttals. With the Benghazi noise quieted, and the Birther movement marginalized, the Conservatives in the U.S. have continued to pound the drum of anti-Obamacare rhetoric, trying to use people's distrust of government (but not, oddly, big business) as a way to gain more seats in Congress.

In the Republican rebuttal, it was claimed that the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare - is failing, and that people are suffering as a result. Economist Paul Krugman notes that, despite a rough roll-out, the program is chugging along and millions of people are signing up through the Health Care exchange. The staple of political rhetoric, the anecdote, was used to try and illustrate the supposed negative results of the ACA. As Salon's Brian Beutler points out, however, Bette in Spokane saw her plan's premium increase $700 per month because she refused to visit the ACA website, falling for the lies and tropes being spread by the Republican party. Had she actually gone on the website, she could have found a much cheaper plan with better coverage. However, I imagine she comes from the world of "Obama is gonna take my guns and make me gay marry," so she suffers as a result of her delusions.

I have my own anecdote. As an unemployed American getting very few dollars in unemployment, I could not afford COBRA coverage. My experience using the Obamacare website was not that great, taking longer than it should have and requiring me to come back at another time to finish enrollment. However, last month, I received my health insurance card in the mail. Thanks to Obamacare, I now have health insurance again. A friend on Facebook wrote this on January 3: "I've never been so relieved to get a bill. After being without health Insurance since the end of June and having been denied coverage by 3 insurers because of my wrist I finally have health insurance again. Thank you Obamacare!"

Personally, I would have preferred to see a single payer option as part of the Affordable Care Act. I know the act isn't perfect, and both people on the right and the left can offer criticisms. Nevertheless, walk away from here knowing that real people now have real coverage, and as that was the primary goal of the Affordable Care Act, it is a resounding success.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Year End Reflections, Part 2: Consumerism, Wealth, and Being

Part of my journey in the unfun land of unemployment has been to sell off some possessions I thought I needed but really didn't. In fact, 2013 has marked an incredible declutterization (call me, Oxford Dictionary) of my life. With so little funds to operate with, I've had to evaluate what I spend my money on, and when. It turns out, I really need precious few things. While there are many objects in the world I enjoy, there's simply no point in owning them; I have no where to put them, and what value are they to me in a box somewhere out of sight? In addition, I've started to give serious consideration to the way corporations treat their employees. While I have long had a personal avoidance of such horrible places as McDonald's and Wal-Mart, if I am being honest, there are very few places that are good to their employees, particularly major businesses. News began to surface about how online retailers are some of the cruelest, including the number one online retailer, Amazon. Negative stories about Amazon's poor work conditions have been around for a couple of years, at least, but have recently gained wide attention thanks to a BBC expose:
Prof Marmot, one of Britain's leading experts on stress at work, said the working conditions at the warehouse are "all the bad stuff at once". He said: "The characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness." "There are always going to be menial jobs, but we can make them better or worse. And it seems to me the demands of efficiency at the cost of individual's health and wellbeing - it's got to be balanced."
While there is good news on the horizon for Amazon employees, such as attempts at unionization actually getting to the point of a vote, and protests mounting in opposition to working conditions, I am not overly optimistic. Things may get better, but they won't be good. My money is paying for possessions I don't really need a the expense of the health and safety of my fellow human beings, all to make a select few people even richer. We know CEOs and their lot make far more than employees, sometimes 1,000 times greater, other times a mere 350 times greater. We also know most of the wealthy despise us lower life forms. A Business Insider article posits that "a rash of incidents [demonstrate] tech execs appear to have interpreted their personal economic success as proof of their permanent superior status to the rest of us." Whether in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street or anywhere in between, rich people do not appreciate us, they only want our money. This is the time of year when we are often told to reflect on the meaning of the season. According to the CIA World Factbook, 78.5% of Americans are some form of Jesus believer. I drowned in the bible as a youth, and I don't think a celebration of Jesus' mission or theology involves such blatant and crass consumerism as we practice this time of year, from Black Friday through the after Christmas sales (and all year long, really). We pour our hard earned money into the waiting pockets of our corporate overlords, and for what? Electronics made by teenagers in China? Clothing made by women in sweatshops? Jewelry from blood diamond mines? I'm not arguing that we should all give up and move to Walden Pond, but I am saying we should take the time to think about why we're pumping our dollars into Amazon and other large businesses when those same businesses do not care about the people we love. That Business Insider article lists examples of the wealthy complaining that they have to rub elbows with the poor and homeless, and describe how they create clubs to maintain exclusive socialization circles. A few of them even want to leave the country for a libertarian island paradise, which is nothing new; Paypal CEO Peter Thiel wants an island "for implementing policies that libertarians, stymied by indifference at the voting booths, have been unable to advance: No welfare, looser building codes, no minimum wage, and few restrictions on weapons." American Conservatives have been threatening to "Go Galt" for years, but ultimately have remained in the U.S., possibly because they have a sweetheart deal in this country. Maybe if they leave, the average American will have more influence over their elected representatives. As it stands now, as David Simon pointed out, "capital has effectively purchased the government, and you witnessed it again with the healthcare debacle in terms of the $450m that was heaved into Congress, the most broken part of my government, in order that the popular will never actually emerged in any of that legislative process." Wishful thinking of safe and happy Amazon employees and truly representative government aside, I can only act as one individual. I don't want to fill my life with meaningless trinkets, making the 1% wealthier while the bottom 47% suffer. I am also realistic, and thus realize I will be required to give money to large corporations. So long as I wear clothing, use Internet, turn on electricity, watch movies, etc., I am contributing to wealth disparity. However, I can minimize how much I spend and give careful consideration to what I spend it on. We live in a world where everything comes with a price, from the water running through our tap to life saving medicine (a company may have found a successful treatment for brain cancer, and upon the announcement, "shares soared as much as 32 percent in early trading"). Pope Francis said some nice words about how Jesus would not approve of our current money over people society, arguing that capitalism in its current state is un-Christian. Conservatives and capitalists were quick to try and smooth over the Pope's ripple-creating words. Of course, the Catholic Church itself is one of the oldest and wealthiest corporations, so it's not too hard to dismiss the Pontiff's words. Nevertheless, all of us should contemplate the society we have inherited, and we should wonder whether it is a place we want to continue to live in. I cannot transform the entire world through my actions, but I can affect my private world, and if more people do the same, maybe we can shape the world in a positive way.