A Meandering Path

These times arrive without warning, where writing takes place but for a variety of reasons both valid and borne of a misdirected sense of vanity, nothing materializes. “This isn’t my best work,” I whine internally to no one in particular. “That’s never stopped you before,” the cynical voice of Reason replies. He has a point, but that guy is kind of a jerk so I stubbornly refuse to let him emerge from the fracas victorious. I put the posts somewhere deep in the WordPress database. “That’ll show him,” I think. But muffled and gagged, I can still make out mocking laughter from Reason. There was no way for him to lose, really.

Some events or circumstances are easy to talk about. I maintain my gaming site on a rock steady schedule. It’s not interesting, mind, but it’s comfortable. I don’t really concern myself with maintaining a readership because there is none nor do I assume there will ever be. If some person wanted to hear my thoughts about Warhammer and Tetris, they have my sympathies. I had presumed and in fact predicated the launch of that site on the theory that it was, even in my own tiny target demographic (“People I Know Who Humor Me By Reading What I Write”), a niche audience of zero. Here, I feel a smallish responsibility to feign universal appeal. It’s not something I find particularly natural.

I have collected a series of anecdotes, therefore, that chronicle the last several months in greater detail than you’ve seen here. None are worthy of publication by themselves, but I can provide an executive summary of them, devoid of context and probably lacking any cohesive chronology. It’s the Lost method of drama: Obfuscate a simple, straightforward tale with unnecessary mystery and misdirection by destroying the basic tenets of narrative structure. I’m sure it will be fascinating.

False Alarm

The lesson I learned, above all else, was this: If you’re adamant about not visiting a hospital, do not complain to your wife about chest pain, especially when accompanied by arm discomfort. However, if you’re serious about seeing a doctor quickly, do complain to hospital staff about chest pain. They take it very seriously, at least up to the point where their frequently asked questions begin to elicit answers that don’t jive with cardiac issues. For example, chest pain without an associated shortness of breath will typically get initial attention but will quickly be followed by something just north of absolute apathy. Perhaps you need to be under 35 years of age to get that kind of attitude (the “Man, I wish this doofus wouldn’t have wasted our time”), but for someone who was reluctant to visit the ER in the first place, it’s an effective guilt trip.

Odds Are Not

The logic for including the eponymous eighteen wheels on truck rigs is difficult to fault. However, the good citizen brigade may find the freedom it permits these vehicle operators to suffer major damage to a critical portion of the trailer without obvious ill effect to be lacking. Certainly when one of several redundant tires on the truck in front me exploded and sent radial-belted shrapnel across the front of the car and several lanes of highway 237, I had less than positive things to say about it. When the shrapnel succeeded in shearing the mudflap from the back of the truck and sent it hurtling sidelong at me like a square rubber discus before I could safely change lanes, I felt there could have been some sort of auxiliary system in place to alert the oblivious driver so he didn’t proceed to bumble down the road in front of a wake of debris without so much as letting slightly off the gas.

The parking lot of our destination—arrived at after the incident—contained those concrete stall stoppers, designed to keep vehicles from getting overzealous with their approach and careening into planter boxes or, you know, walls. Parked up against one as I was, the extent of the damage seemed fairly light. Some scratches, a bit of a dent in the license plate. At the time it didn’t occur to me to lie on the asphalt and examine the underside of the car. The rest of the afternoon proceeded without incident, but as evening fell, the fate of Nikki’s poor Honda could not be avoided.

The Middle Gets Slow

The only other time I’d ever sat in the bleachers was at an Oakland A’s game. I presume that most sports teams have a standard fanbase personality: Devoted, expressive, cynical, somber, raucous, etc. A’s fans, at least 15 years ago, were fairly passive and mild. The team was reasonably good for the most part (this was the skinny Mark McGwire and early Jose Canseco before-he-was-a-total-joke era) but the fans weren’t rabid like Raiders fans nor were they plauged by the angst of Giants fans.

But this experience, at AT&T park, was different. Bleacher bums arrive, generally speaking, late. Mostly around the second or third inning. They don’t make the trip a huge event with lumbering backpacks stuffed with goodies to keep younger children occupied. They’re typically working stiffs catching a game after their shift’s end, or younger dads trying to connect with middle school aged sons without having to acquire additional mortgages. They also include some die-hards who find outfield seats to be among the best bang for the buck values and attend games primarily to amuse themselves being various shades of blue in the direction of the nearest visiting player.

The first inning had some action as the visiting pitcher struggled with control and gave up a run on a double steal, but then there was a long lull where the Giants’ pitcher, Matt Cain, retired batter after batter and the opposing pitcher mostly fumbled his way through the lineup, aided by San Francisco’s lackluster offense. As the bleacher crew worked through various libations, they grew more vocal and variously entertained themselves with chants directed at the opposing left fielder (“What’s the matter with Wa-aard!?” “He’s a BUM!”) and engaged in some semi-friendly heckling of the non-Giants fans in the crowd (“Hey, MEAT!”) which eventually resulted in a couple of relatively harmless ejections.

After another late inning run by the Giants, it seemed all but over. Naturally once Cain was replaced by the closer (Brian Wilson, apparently on hiatus from the Beach Boys) things started happening on offense for the other team but it was a long wait in the middle there between initial fireworks and the relative thrill of the final moments.

Clearly Undefined

The worst part of the entire experience was the IV. The last time I had something stuck in my vein and left there was the ill-fated attempt to give blood for a work-sponsored drive that had ended with me nearly passing out from some mysterious reaction to the process. This time it took two separate nurses the better part of twenty minutes to identify a suitable vein and once the apparatus was installed, it ached and caused me discomfort the entire visit. A visit, mind you, that was interminable as they had to “wait for lab results,” which is ER-speak for “sit there and try not to die of boredom.” In fact fifteen minutes after their estimated time to receive the results, they sent an auxiliary nurse in to collect yet another sample of blood which effectively doubled the time we had to wait.

Naturally we had skipped dinner in favor of the emergency room, so if the boredom didn’t get us, starvation seemed to be their backup plan.

At last an extremely annoyed-looking doctor came in and said, “Sometimes we don’t figure out what the problem is. But in this case, it definitely isn’t your heart.” This, I gathered, was meant to be reassuring although as an engineer (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) I find that kind of apathetic shoulder shrugging to be less than satisfactory.

“Probably,” he continued, “It’s muscular.”

I could only nod.

Worse Than Originally Feared

A different freeway but a familiar circumstance: A folded-over radial truck tire just cleared the Cadillac in front of us. Nik was driving, and traffic was moving but heavy. The thick “whap” as we rolled helplessly over the tire was unmistakable: Where the Cadillac’s clearance had been sufficient, ours was not. Soon after a heavy scraping sound forced us to pull over. This time there was no concrete slab to obscure the view: The front bumper was cracked in half and the heavy gauge plastic that served to protest the engine from the bottom had pulled free of the secure position behind the bumper and was dragging on the ground. I tried to secure it by hand back into place, but less than a quarter mile down the road and the sound began again.

We were close to our destination so we went ahead and exited, finding a gas station where we could park and I could shred my knees on the hot, uneven pavement as I tried in vain to free the protective cover from it’s stubbornly clinging fasteners. Eventually the situation was corrected but I later thought that it was unlikely a tire had caused such extensive damage. Something else was probably the real culprit, something like a projectile mud flap.

Read Carefully

By some miracle we arrived at the station almost simultaneously: Me, coming North on 680 from Santa Clara and my buddy Ryan and his companions coming West from over the hill. We’d communicated the entire trip via text message because in some twisted bizzaro fashion it had become illegal to talk on our cell phones while driving but somehow acceptable to compose and send typed messages. As I approached they finished purchasing their tickets and I slid my debit card from my wallet. In the Out Of Service terminal next to me, a BART employee worked to get the machine working again. I struggled—momentarily—to get the card oriented correctly when the employee whipped it out of my hand.

“It goes in just like in the little picture.” There was no mistaking the scorn in her voice as she initiated the transaction for me and thrust the card back into my fist.

“…’You simpleton‘,” I said, over my shoulder in the direction my incredulous party. They cast me semi-sympathetic glances but checked nervously over my shoulder to get the reaction from the technician. For a second I had a crazy surge of guilt, like I had crossed a line by suggesting sarcastically that she’d been a bit harsh. But I’d specifically made my comment loud enough so she could hear. It was she, after all, who’d felt inclined to point out my momentary confusion in spite of the fact that there was no one waiting in line behind me so no real cause for alarm that my experience might have taken a few additional seconds.

The Best Pancakes In The World

The restaurant was supposed to close at midnight. We arrived at ten till, and though we had no hope of them serving us, I had needed to use a restroom for the past thirty minutes. I resigned myself to just using their facilities and then worrying about finding a place that was open late. My arm still ached and the spots where all the EKG nodes had been ripped from my body smarted because they had taken huge clumps of chest, leg and arm hair with them. I still had work in the morning and all I wanted was some food.

When I emerged from the bathroom I was surprised to see Nik sitting at a table, perusing the menu. “They’re going to serve us?”

“I guess so,” she said simply.

Our waiter was crazy. He sat down on the bench next to Nik, complaining of a myriad of health issues: His back, his feet, his headache. I felt curiously ashamed to have been so easily convinced to see a doctor over an unusual pain that had subsided after an hour. The guy looked to be in his mid-fifties. But he quickly plowed ahead. Nik ordered dinner and I stuck with breakfast. Carrot cake pancakes with eggs and sausage. It felt like the order took forever to arrive.

Food, to me, is usually either decent and functional (“good”) or lacking, therefore unsatisfying (“not good”). I rarely find the taste of food to be so obviously superior or inferior as to distinguish itself. Typically, I chalk this up to my relatively poor sense of smell which is commonly associated with one’s taste sensitivity. After these marvelous pancakes, I wonder if my problem is that food is too readily available to me. Absense, perhaps, making the mouth grow fonder as well.

We were both so hungry, and ate so fast, that the waiter said as we went to the front to pay, “I hope you didn’t rush because we’re technically closed.” We laughed nervously and assured him that was not the case. I noted we were the only non-employees in the building. As we walked back to the car I turned to Nik.

“That guy. He’s crazy, but I kinda liked him.”

“Yeah, me too.”

That Children Might Love

Originally the insurance company wanted to call the incident a “collision,” albeit one without fault. I argued that the problem, the source of the claim, was the first set of debris which flew toward the car and was functionally the same as a rock hitting the windshield. It was, to me, unlikely that a high-clearance tire had caused such extensive damage. Of course they wanted to treat each circumstance as a separate claim and I tried to convince them it was a single “problem” brought to light by two different encounters.

Ultimately they left it in the hands of the adjuster at the body shop, which made me apprehensive. On the bright side the insurance company covered us for a rental car as long as necessary. We had to go to two separate agencies because the first—inexplicably—didn’t have any cars to rent. What we finally ended up with was a Ford Fusion, a model I’d never heard of. For someone who generally dislikes the Ford Motor Company, I have a hard time finding negative things to say about the vehicle.

We used the included navigation system to guide us to the Tech Museum in San Jose. It was sort of a make-up for the previous week’s abbreviated trip to the City which was tentatively scheduled to include a stop at some museum or other. I was leaning toward the Museum of Modern Art, but several others sounded interesting. In the end Nik just wasn’t up for it so she compensated with the Tech. On the way we dubbed the navigation system’s feminine voice “Madge” for no reason other than that it seemed like a funny name and, we’ve learned, you have to anthropomorphize navigation systems or you don’t have any one to yell at when you get lost in spite of them. Or because of them.

We fought Madge less than we fight with the Nav systems in our phone, whom we refer to as “Gladys.” She mostly struggled to deal with an unexpected festival in the park outside the museum and the dicey parking situation in downtown San Jose. Fortunately, my annual visit to the arcade expo gave me at least a passing familiarity with the area. The Tech is a cool museum, the kind of place that seems like it may have been the inspiration for Seattle’s Experience Music Project, only the EMP isn’t as well implemented. The interactivity at the Tech is remarkable, although about halfway through Nik and I determined that the place was probably aimed, demographically, a bit younger than us. We thought it would be the perfect place to take, say, a fifth grader.

Still, we enjoyed ourselves. I got to design a robot, ride on a Segway and get a sonogram of my hand. The sonogram required immersing your fist in a vat of water; nearby there is a thermographic projector which reflects an image of your thermal output. We found it amusing that the hand I’d recently seen from the inside out was now nearly indistinguishable on the thermograph because it emitted almost no heat. We also learned about genetics, and took a cleverly designed quiz about the Internet which I mostly aced, at least enough to save face. I was proud to find that Nik did remarkably well on the quiz as well.

On the way home I showed her where I worked since it was nearby and she got to experience my commute, almost exactly as I do eight times a week. We both agreed it had been a happy day.

Security Over Sorrow

Their mantra became universal before the night was through: “It’s good that you at least had it checked out.” As for me, I mostly agreed,. More than anything, I was happy to see Nik slowly lose the crinkle of worry that had settled between her eyebrows. It meant she was glad to have wasted the time, even to find out it was, indeed, wasted.

Jazz Like Blue

They had to return three times before they gave me a piece of meat that wasn’t almost gum-like from being overcooked. When they finally did, it was sumptuous. I was trying, after all, to better enjoy my food by not thinking of it merely as a means to an end. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the mellow music drifting through the speakers was being piped in from upstairs, where an ensemble played its own variations on themes the hotel trio had just treated us to.

We poked around the Virgin Megastore afterward, letting our dinner digest a bit. I found Al Green’s greatest hits collection. In the Focus’ six-disc changer, it got plenty of airtime. If you’re looking for some good soul music, I recommend the disc. Music was, ultimately, the theme of the evening. Later that night we ventured out again seeking dessert. Of course at the time we couldn’t have even thought of such a thing, but as the night cooled and our food broke down we went searching for more experiences.

The bistro was practically closed, like the chain restaurant, only less gaudily lit and with a more professional, though less likable, staff. We ordered a chocolate mousse something or other and waited for the quartet to return for their last set of the evening.

The thing about jazz, for me, is that it needs to be seen live. Recorded jazz is well and good, but it lacks the sense of time and place—the context—that gives live music its heart. The red lights in the window glinted off the drummer’s cymbals, shimmering under the steady syncopation. The trumpet playing leader found an inspiration in a just-heard conversation and instructed the band to lift their key up a step and a half so he could riff on the refrain. It was momentary, fleeting and yet permanent because it latched itself to the memories of everyone there. The chocolate was delicious, but far too rich to finish. Between trumpet solos played through heavy mutes the leader slid smoothly over the worn carpet on the stage, stepping lightly in his soft cotton threads.

I supposed you had to call a jazz band’s clothing “threads.”

The bassist looked comically like Napoleon Dynamite, but his groove was steady and perfectly matched to the persistent beat from the drummer, somehow regal with his cropped white chin beard against dark skin. Jazz musicians play a style that can hold many moods simultaneously: Melancholy, joy, sorrow, triumph. It’s not an interpretation thing, the mood comes from the collective. It’s the sonic equivalent of tears of joy.

As the set came to its end, not with a grand crescendo but with the same kind of relaxed intensity that defines the whole genre, I took a deep breath and looked across the table. She smiled at me, for no particular reason.

I reached over and held her hand until the last note died away.

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2 thoughts on “A Meandering Path

  1. Nikki

    Possibly my favorite entry yet. Not just because I remember experiencing most of the things you talked about, but also for the style of writing you chose.

    I think we should go listen to some jazz again. My hand will be available for holding.

  2. Don-aka-Dad

    I’m hesitant to add a comment after Nikki’s sweet note above. But just a quick been-there, done-that (see chapter 10 about hospitals in I_dont_understand.pdf in http://www.anthrocide.net/essays-and-other-writings/ for my experience) with the whole chest-pain/arm-pain deal. Never got a diagnosis for mine but best I could figure it was stress-induced by frustrations at work. Hasn’t recurred and, Lord willing, my present job won’t cause it to. Glad it wasn’t anything serious! Love you both!

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