Puff Daddy

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/69583224@N05/

The spouse is tough.

And stubborn.

Drawing from a menu of punishing mountain bike rides, power tool projects, heavy lifting–plus a litany of other sketchy activities most rational people avoid–this guy regularly attacks his protective coating, limbs, face, whichever part happens to be handy. It’s not unusual to point out a bruise the size of an eggplant, a mysterious swelling, or a bloody gash and watch him strain to recall its antecedent. Pain and injuries happen frequently, and the spouse just plows ahead, ho hum. Very occasionally–if a laceration is deep and dirty enough–he might swing by the hospital, because no one likes to take a Brillo pad to their own raw flesh. Only after stopping for a milkshake and fries, however. “Who wants to wait around in ER on an empty stomach?” he explained.

In his eyes, medical assistance is a nuisance to be avoided whenever possible. He once waited so long to call a doctor, and was so ridiculously cavalier about his symptoms, that by the time his appointment rolled around, the doctor took one look at him and sent him straight to surgery. “You should have mentioned that you’re Australian,” Doc advised. “You Aussies never complain.”

So recently, when he hit a bit of a health snag, I found myself in a bind. How much could I fuss without annoying the crap out of him?

We were on vacation out in rural parts, and I was about to tidy the path to the lake when my normally handsome spouse emerged from the water looking strange. “Are you having some sort of allergic reaction?” I asked him. He said, “Yeah. I think I got some lake water in my sinuses.” He sounded a little strange, too, but he shrugged and continued up to the car to get some tools.

Without giving it a second thought, I raked until he passed me once more, this time carrying lumber to fix the dock. He looked even stranger by now, and puffy. Wandering down to speak to him, I watched him for a minute, pulling off the rotting boards he wanted to replace.

“Are you ok?” I asked.

“Yeah.” By now his voice was beyond strange; his head and upper body swollen and beet-colored.

I was dubious. “I think we have some Benadryl back at the cabin.” He shrugged again, and started hammering.

Ok, ok. Play it cool. Enough anxious hovering. I quit raking and changed into my swim suit, heading down to the water’s edge. Maybe I should take a quick swim before heading back. But we should really head back soon and look for that Benedryl.

By this point, however, the spouse was unrecognizable. No swim.

“I’ve decided to head back to the cabin now, to see if we have Benadryl,” I said. He mumbled a verbal eyeroll. “It’s just my eyes,” he said, I think. The man sounded like he was chewing socks.

“Your eyes look terrible, but it’s your voice that concerns me; it sounds as if your throat is closing.”

Calling to the girls—out jumping off a raft–I tried so hard not to panic that I couldn’t get their full attention. Clearly they had no idea of the gravity of the situation, which was probably for the best. I left them with their aunt.

Normally quite difficult to corral, I somehow coaxed him into the car with me. “Why don’t you come with me? It’ll be so much faster.” I probably complained lamely about the inconvenience of driving back and forth. Then, once I had him in the car, I realized I could take him wherever I wanted. It’s not like he was going to leap out of a moving vehicle or anything. “You know,” I ventured, “we’re already halfway to the hospital; I think I’ll go there instead.”

He tried to argue—we weren’t halfway at all, and I could tell he was getting frustrated–but his tongue was easily five times its normal size, and we were already rolling. I turned toward the hospital, but not without some lingering doubts.

Now it all seems ridiculous. In the midst of a medical emergency, was I really worrying about him getting pissed at me for seeking help? In essence—I see now–would I rather he was irate or dead?

We walked into Urgent Care, the spouse’s eyes disappearing like two pissholes in the snow. “Um heffng a theveer ahluhgish ryeassion,” he announced. The intake nurse blinked once, looked at me, and pointed down the hall. “That way to emergency,” she said calmly. My first thought was: Thank god. Validation!

We didn’t fill out any paperwork or even make introductions before the wheels started turning. Medical personnel took one look and—all rooms being full–put him on a gurney in the hallway. A crew of four hovered and circled with an endless series of injections and an IV.

Sock Tongue said, “What am I? A pincushion?” It came out: “Wuddammiuhpuhncshnn?”

As the only one who understood him, I got shocked scowls from the doctors for laughing at such a grave situation, but I was thankful for an expression of levity from a man who might have died.

At last, one of the doctors turned to me. “You’re his call button,” she said, so the two of us loitered in the emergency room hallway for the next three hours, both wrapped in sterile blankets against the chill and the unknown. As time ticked on, the spouse looked less like an enflamed Michelin man and more like some distant, swollen relative. His blood pressure stabilized. The visiting doctors and nurses fussed less frequently; even smiled now and then. We picked up an epi pen—a new and permanent accessory due to some unknown allergen. With that in hand, plus the loathsome Prednisone and a boatload of Benadryl, we made our way back to the cabin, where my mom was hosting a strange little dinner party in full swing. Poor timing. What I wanted to do was hold the spouse and weep a little with gratitude. Instead, I tucked him in with a plate of food and a good book, and went back to listen to some mentally ill man yammer on about politics. “Jill Stein! Jill Stein!” he kept insisting. My thoughts wandered.

 

 

 

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Dreams

From www.identifont.com
From http://www.identifont.com

I no longer recount my dreams to the spouse because one morning he said,

“What is the matter with your head, woman?”

To which I had no response.

Last night I was urinating in a restaurant, hovering off the side of my chair, hoping no one would notice.

I was giving a dying rat sips of water by squeezing a damp paper towel over his freakish gray face.

I was wandering, lost, lugging my severed leg.

But one perfect night I was in Italy, at a little restaurant on the side of a cliff. I was watching the light change, and laughing, laughing, laughing.

I keep hoping for another night like that.

Fifty-Nine Years and Thirty-Four Days Ago

©2010 Beret Olsen
©2010 Beret Olsen

A bookish fellow
Studied God on weekdays,
Then made his way to Chaska,
To woo the schoolmarm there.

Mercifully patient,
He waited six months of Sundays
For an answer
To his question.

Instead, they wandered the cold town,
Discussing only anything else,
Turning back before it was too dark
Or too late.

They parted ways then,
She to pore over lesson plans,
He to wend his way to the boarding house
Beside the tracks.

He wondered,
Hardly daring to sleep,
While freight trains thundered
Through the wee hours,
Through his thoughts,
Shaking the tiny, strange bed.

At long last:
Yes.

**********************************************************

A note from Beret:  I wrote the preceding piece in response to a photo prompt posted on 100 word story. They post a new prompt each month…plus it’s chock full of amazing 100-word stories, as you might imagine.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” Yogi Berra

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

FYI:  This post is not really about the book.

I read it, though. I even saw the movie. I acted all impressed, and I suppose I thought I was. Despite all the raving, however, and despite Milan Kundera’s remarkable portrait of Czech society during a Seminal Historical Period, the story I read was about one man’s shameless infidelity and his meek and accommodating wife.

What I love is the title. Whatever the author meant by it, those five words distill the magic and misery of being a grown up: the unbearable lightness of being.

Every time that phrase surfaces, I imagine shifting, amorphous shapes, rendered almost completely unintelligible due to some blinding backlighting. It’s as if I am emerging from Plato’s cave for the very first time, or–rather less grandly–as if I am staring into the setting sun through a filthy windshield. No matter how hard I try to focus or shield my eyes, I cannot make out what I am hurtling toward.

No one says it out loud, but everyone seems to believe that eventually we’ll know what we’re doing, where we’re going, and what it all means. We’ll feel Grown Up, and life will feel defined. It’s a grand fallacy we buy, and oh, how alluring.

By my early twenties, I was already itching to feel grown, to know who and what I was becoming. I needed to figure it all out, because I wasn’t handling the gray area very well.

Here’s the problem: it’s all gray area. It’s all undefined, and not just when we’re 23.

When things seem to be black and white, it’s a cognitive short cut, a decision to see the world that way. While we may not determine our material circumstances, we do create our interpretations of them, and forge theories about ourselves and our lives. We need to believe things are clearly defined now and then in order to plow ahead with enthusiasm.

I once had a long talk with my sister about marriage. I wanted to know how she knew it was the right decision; how she knew that this was the right guy. She admitted that there was no such thing as 100% certainty, but once you married, you no longer had to continually ask yourself: is this the right person? You started from the idea that it was, and figured out how to handle whatever was coming your way from that vantage point.

Of course perspectives evolve and change, but if we don’t adopt one, we can’t focus in any direction. We lose traction and go nowhere at all. Contrary to how it may appear, choosing a direction isn’t limiting, it’s what makes movement possible. When I allow myself to wallow in the gray area, I limit myself. When I wonder, “Am I really a writer?” I waste a lot of time and energy on this question, instead of simply saying, “I am writing. How can I continue in this direction?”

In the interest of full disclosure, my sister got a divorce. Still, I don’t think that negates the power of what she was saying. Picking a direction only means that we are more likely to get somewhere, it doesn’t guarantee that we will.

September 11, 2001 is an extreme example. It was a clear, beautiful day, and the collective mood had adjusted accordingly. Moments later, when the sky was engulfed in a fog, when it was raining detritus, and fear swallowed the streets, people could not process what was happening. Part of the shock was having to acknowledge the gray area, the great unknown that is life. On that deceptively sunny day, people thought they could see where they were going; they believed that they were headed to work, when actually they were passing through a portal to hell.

This is not a message of doom and gloom, however. Thankfully, we are not always teetering on the brink of an abyss. We just don’t know exactly where we are going. We can’t control other people and events. To be honest, we can’t even control our own actions sometimes. The best we can do is to figure out what and who give us joy, what values and issues are important to us, and how we can contribute to make the world a better place. Then, we can surround ourselves with those people, work on those projects, and head in that direction. But we need to do this while being open to uncertainty. We need to be flexible enough to learn from our mistakes and the changing world around us.

The good news is, when the cracks become visible, when our current perspective is shattered, we can sift through the pieces to make a new place from which to stand, a new perspective that is just as true. It just takes a while to make a new map and start to trust the road.

A friend called me one night not long ago, completely agitated, to ask me, “Who are all those people, smiling and walking down the street like they know what they’re doing?”

Those people are you and I, my friend, on a day when things seem clear.

Atonement

It may have been a little unclear, but I was actually happily married until I posted Man Shopping a while back. Obviously, I did not paint a complete picture—I’m pretty sure everyone figured that out. Still, in the interest of domestic harmony, it probably wouldn’t hurt to throw a few compliments in my spouse’s direction right about now.

I would also like to mention my Undying Gratitude that he does not yet have his own blog. I hope he’s not in any hurry to get one, either. Over the years, I have unwittingly provided a great deal of fodder for retaliation.

What follows are just a few of the ways that he generously compensates for buying fröot juice on occasion.

Now that his parole papers are in order, he is the perfect travel companion.

That sounds WAY WORSE than it was. There must be two sorts of parole papers, because this was an INS thing; not a prison thing, as far as I know. Apparently, even if you are married to a US citizen, there is still a boatload of paperwork and a lot of wait time to endure before they let you come and go as you please–which is why I took my friend instead of my groom on our honeymoon.

Now that he has his paperwork in order, though, traveling with this guy is delightful. We are interested in many of the same sorts of places and adventures. More importantly, his attention span for lying around, traipsing about, or absorbing culture is almost exactly the same as mine. We can look and look and know precisely when to leave and get a tasty snack or go for a swim. Having traveled with a variety of other people, I know that this tidy alignment is not guaranteed. Not everyone knows when an intense experience on the streets of Phnom Penh might best be topped off with, say, a Richard Pryor movie and a little air conditioning.

I worried that children might mess with our travel groove, but now that they can tie their shoes and attend to their bowel movements independently, it is actually a joy to have them join us. Now, if only Mary Poppins could come along so we could have a date once in a while…

In truth, we might not be as well suited in terms of musical taste. But, over the years, we have learned that certain music should only be played in the others’ absence. Topping the audio blacklist: Bruce Springsteen, Cold Chisel, Joni Mitchell, and the soundtrack from Hair. I’ll let you sort out who likes which. Still, the fact remains that:

He appreciates good music, played well and played loudly.

Long before kids, my spouse worked in the audio industry, and consequently purchased a set of very, very nice speakers. He set up the living room so that the red velvet love seat was exactly centered between the speakers, facing them, with two more speakers behind. We put red light bulbs in the chandelier, turned the music up to 11, and voilà, the Red Room was born. The Red Room was awesome. It had a great run, too, though I suppose it caused its own demise by inadvertently producing our first kid. That was a particularly great night.

What followed were painful years spent listening to Sesame Street songs as quietly as possible, and struggling to find an inner zen-like happy place when Raffi songs were required. I’m surprised we survived that era.

Now that our oldest child is ten, however, with a blue streak in her hair and a pair of drumsticks to match, we have begun a practice of family karaoke night. I cannot begin to explain how charming it is to see our dainty seven-year-old belting out Hell’s Bells, while the spouse works the mixer and magically gets the lyrics to appear on the TV. He also wins for most enthusiastic musical performance. I might need to up my game a little, frankly.

Who knows, the full-fledged Red Room might even make a re-appearance, though I suspect we would have to cede some of the musical selection to the kids. There is probably a lot more Dev and Taylor Swift in our future than one might hope.

He has the ability to fix almost anything.

He has fixed the dryer, the dishwasher, the car, the shower…He is truly amazing. He can hook up any appliance, rewire the house, and frame a room.

There really isn’t anything amusing to say about this. It’s just awesome.

This has made me aim higher. I have been moved to unclog drains, mess around with the disposal, and even monkey with the color printer. Not always successfully, but still.

Now we get to the most important part.

On one particularly trying day, after many meltdowns, a lot of sass, and a series of eruptions of all sorts, one of my kids stuck a stuffed alligator in her pants at the dinner table. Since I was in a foul mood, I found the harmless incident much more annoying than necessary. My husband, on the other hand, took one thoughtful look and pronounced, “That’s a croc of shit.” It was impossible to stay grumpy.

This man has a knack for sanity-saving comments and for maintaining a sense of humor in the midst of parental hell.

Here is someone who suffered with me through one of the longest hours ever spent. We were watching a production of the Wizard of Oz for the second or third time–a production full of confused small people singing enthusiastically off-key, and mumbling endless and incomprehensible dialogue. To enhance our enjoyment, several lightly supervised boys in the row in front of us made fart noises and punched each other in the arm. Eyes politely fixed on the stage, my spouse leaned over and whispered: “Now we know the TRUE PRICE of unprotected sex.”

As I struggled to keep my composure, he mimed a samurai maneuver, slicing open his torso and extracting an organ or two. That gesture has become a very reassuring symbol of solidarity, and is especially helpful in situations where passing a flask might be frowned upon.

Thanks, pal. You can bring home a fifty pound bag of rice whenever you want.