January Ends Tomorrow

I have, as is my unfortunate pattern, been lax in maintaining this blog, so I’m writing tonight, since I’m fresh out of excuses why I shouldn’t.  The first month of 2016 is at an end as of tomorrow, and it’s been a pretty good one thus far for me.

My annual aneurysm check was in mid-December, and the cardiologist was quite pleased.  The bulge in my thoracic aorta has actually contracted.  Had it dilated any further, this would have warranted additional monitoring, but he told me that if it continues to get smaller.  It is now at 3.9 cm, which is 0.3 less than it was in December of 2014.  If it continues this way, I can go for monitoring every two years instead of annually.

Those birthdays that end with 0 are the ones where you start thinking about mortality, and having a condition like an aneurysm–even though it doesn’t seem to be life-threatening at the moment–helps to drive home the point that I statistically have more years behind me than I do ahead of me.  (Many of the relatives on my mother’s side of the family lived very long lives, but what they experienced during those many years made me realize that it’s the quality of the years, not the number of years, that make the difference.)

I know that I can take some credit for the improvement in the aneurysm.  I have been trying to monitor and log my calorie intake on My Fitness Pal, and I am piling on the walking miles daily.  (Even when the temperature has dipped into the teens, which has been rarely thus far in ’16, I’ve been walking outside.  The Convention Center is undergoing major repairs at the moment, and walking around sawhorses, dropcloths, power tool cords, and lumber is a pain.)

Almost two weeks ago, I bought a Fitbit Flex at Target, and, except for when I’ve been in the shower, it has been on my right wrist constantly, counting the number of steps I take, and even how much (or little, as is usually the case with me) I sleep.  I am still getting accustomed to wearing it, even though I habitually wore at least one bracelet on my right wrist for most of my teens.  Based on my height and weight, the Fitbit recommends 10 thousand steps daily and I have reached that goal every day except once.  On Thursday, I learned that I earned the Penguin March Badge for having logged 70 miles.  (This award’s name comes from the distance of the March of the Penguins, walked by emperor pigeons to their breeding grounds.  I could make an editorial comment here about the lengths to which males will go to get sex, but I’m reining myself in for once.)

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My Fitbit Flex

 

Long ago, I stopped wondering about what would happen if I died.  This was because I realized that plenty would happen–it’s just that none of it would involve me.

I don’t consider myself a morbid person, but one thing the aneurysm did teach me was to no longer take for granted that I am youthful and will always emerge unscathed from any physical or emotional crisis I might experience.  I think back to when I slipped on the ice and waited two weeks before I accepted the fact that the wrist might be broken, and not just bruised.  When I reread A. Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, for the first time since high school, I paid closer attention to the character Jefferson Hope because he, like I, had an aortic aneurysm.  (Conan Doyle, a physician, described it as a ticking time bomb that could explode at any moment, and, in true late 19th-century dramatic fashion, it did just that.)

I try to steer away from reading mortality into any anomaly that I find in my body.  Middle age is the time when physicians start telling you to look for all the dangers–that mole that is changing shape and color, that twinge in the left side of the chest that is becoming more than a mere annoyance, getting up from the toilet and seeing a bowl full of blood–and it is key (I keep telling myself) to stop expecting them.

This is a far cry from the immortality that all of us took for granted as children and teenagers.  When we look back on it, the familiar refrain of “It’s a wonder we didn’t get our damn fool selves killed” is the first thing to spring to mind.

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“But the Game Never Ends When Your Whole World Depends on the Turn of a Friendly Card”

Along with the recent deaths of Natalie Cole, David Bowie, and Alan Rickman, the topic that seemed to be trending the most on Facebook and Twitter last week was the Powerball.  The prize climbed all the way to $1.2 billion, the highest ever.  My fellow workers talked about it endlessly, and they finally got around to suggesting that I buy a ticket.

I have never been a gambler.  With my previous abuse of alcohol, and my current ongoing overconsumption of caffeine, gambling is a switch that I am very wary of throwing.  There is also a genetic component to it–both my parents were alcoholics, and my mother was addicted to pain medication for much of the last 40 years of her life.

I yielded to temptation and bought a single ticket in the little store in the Nationwide Atrium where I buy Snapple and fruit or yogurt before starting the work day.  One of my fellow employees was sure that I would be the legendary person who never plays the lottery, buys a single ticket, and wins big.

Indeed, it was the first lottery ticket I had bought since Susie was an infant.  I had bought one shortly after my 18th birthday, more because I now could than out of any desire to win.

On one occasion, I returned from lunch and someone (to this day I do not know who) left a lottery scratch-off card and a quarter on my keyboard.  (I didn’t win.)

Like anyone else, I fantasized about what I would do with an uncountably high bank balance.  My job with the State of Ohio (and my seasonal job at the Columbus State bookstore) provides me with a decent living.  I am not wealthy, but neither am I sweating blood from one week to the next wondering how I am going to pay rent or keep the electricity and gas turned on here.  That said, I knew that, if nothing else, I was buying a ticket to participate in the biggest lottery drawing in American history.  And there was no way to win without buying a ticket.

As it says on Comedy Central‘s joke-sharing Website:

John, who was in financial difficulty, walked into a church and started to pray. “Listen, God,” John said. “I know I haven’t been perfect but I really need to win the lottery. I don’t have a lot of money. Please help me out.” He left the church, a week went by, and he hadn’t won the lottery, so he walked into a synagogue. “Come on, God,” he said. “I really need this money. My mom needs surgery and I have bills to pay. Please let me win the lottery.” He left the synagogue, a week went by, and he didn’t win the lottery. So, he went to a mosque and started to pray again. “You’re starting to disappoint me, God,” he said. “I’ve prayed and prayed. If you just let me win the lottery, I’ll be a better person. I don’t have to win the jackpot, just enough to get me out of debt. I’ll give some to charity, even. Just let me win the lottery.” John thought this did it, so he got up and walked outside.

The clouds opened up and a booming voice said, “John, buy a fucking lottery ticket.”

I have always been pretty much a small-L libertarian on the subject of gambling–your money, you can waste it any way you see fit.  That being said, I am well aware of the negative results that gambling brings in its wake.  A dear friend of mine from Ohio University, with whom I have remained in constant contact in the nearly 30 years since we left Athens in separate directions, constantly worries about her brother-in-law’s endless gambling, where sprees at the casino take priority over household expenses, including his daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah and plans for college.  I told her the gambler’s credo: He is sure that he can pay for all this once he gets the next big win, which is always just around the corner.

And even if that big win came, it would only be a harbinger of an even bigger win.  The title of this entry is a line from the title cut of The Alan Parsons Project’s 1980 album The Turn of a Friendly Card, the second half of which deals with the “unsmiling faces in fetters and chains on a wheel in perpetual motion.”  When I lived in Cincinnati, almost daily my bus took me through Over the Rhine, which was the city’s urban core and ghetto.  Almost every corner store sold “dream books” to help predict lottery numbers, and they sold as well as cigarettes, wine, and malt liquor.  (If I was gifted with the power to predict lottery winning numbers, I would not be as benevolent–I would hoard that talent exclusively for my own advantage.  As a popular Internet meme says, “You don’t see faith healers working in hospitals for the same reason you don’t see psychics winning the lottery.”)

I was 11 when the Ohio Lottery started in 1974, with a game called Buckeye 300.  The billboards were all over the place: “What if you won?”  I was too young to play, but I saw the tickets on sale at the grocery store and any other place where my dad bought cigarettes or candy.

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One of the very first Ohio Lottery tickets.  Saw it on sale on eBay from a guy in Akron.

When I was living in the Columbus YMCA in 1986, I semi-regularly went to the Saturday night bingo games in the hot basement of the school across from Holy Family Catholic Church.  The only time I won was for about $40, but I rationalized it by knowing that my money was going to support the church’s clothes bank, food pantry, and soup kitchen.

In high school, two or three friends of mine, realizing we had little prowess at chess, became fascinated by backgammon.  (Until then, I thought the elongated triangles on the back of cardboard checkerboards were just decoration.)  We even devised ways to roll when dice weren’t available–using the stopwatches on the digital watches we wore, we would use the hundredths-of-a-second counters to determine dice rolls.  Later on, when I began criss-crossing the country going from one Unitarian Universalist youth event to another, I found many backgammon players in the groups.  To this day, I occasionally receive good-natured grief about the time I shook my cup of Coca-Cola and threw it all over the board, thinking it was a dice cup.

We all bought our own backgammon sets, and these including a doubling cube, used by gamblers to increase the stakes when playing for money.  None of us had any money, and we didn’t want to play for the lint in our pockets, so we kept upping the ante with more and more idiotic stakes.  The loser had to come to school Monday carrying a set of golf clubs.  (The worst that happened to me was having to come to school in a coat and tie, carrying a brick.)

The closest I ever came to a gambling binge was during my 1987 spring break trip to San Francisco, which meant crossing Nevada.  In the Silver State, there were one-armed bandits in every convenience store, newspaper kiosk, and mom-and-pop store where the Greyhound stopped.  I spent about $.50 at every machine I saw (when in Rome), and was about $2 ahead by the time the bus crossed the California state line.

When I was working at Medco Health Solutions, I was a steward and recording secretary for the union, and I ran unsuccessfully to go as a delegate to a union convention in Pahrump, Nev., an hour from Las Vegas.  Steph and I sat down and agreed on some ground rules regarding gambling if I was going to go.  We agreed to a $20 limit, period.  If I won a six-digit prize, or whether I didn’t win a cent, that was it.  I would keep an extra $20 bill folded in my wallet set aside for gambling, and when that was gone, so was the gambling.

Maybe there was some divine sign that I was not meant to be a gambler.  The day I bought the ticket for the paltry $98 million prize, I went to the ATM machine in Three Nationwide Plaza to withdraw cash for the ticket.  I got the cash, and bought the ticket.  Later that night, I realized I had left the card in the ATM machine.  So, I had to spend Saturday morning going to my credit union’s branch in Grove City to apply for a new card, which, after over a week, has yet to arrive in the mail.  The inconvenience of daily lunchtime trips to the credit union to withdraw walking-around cash, and the impatience of waiting for the new card to arrive (equally frustrating because Monday there will be no mail delivery, because of the Martin Luther King holiday), and the inability to order anything online, never would have come to pass if I had opted against buying the ticket.

George Orwell died in 1950, but in the pages of his novels, he has proved himself to be as much a prophet as any we read about in Sunday school.  In 1984, he has very eloquently described the people who clogged the cash register lines for this (and every) Powerball drawing:

The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made their living simply by selling systems, forecasts, and lucky amulets. Winston had nothing to do with the Lottery, which was managed by the Ministry of Plenty, but he was aware (indeed everyone in the party was aware) that the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being nonexistent persons.

Three Days In…

I have yet to go to work this year (that will change as of tomorrow, when my alarm sounds at 6:45 a.m.).  So, for three consecutive days, I have slept late, walked, written in my diary, read, and treated myself to USA Network’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit marathon.  I could get used to this, but I have work to do, which was not finished as of 5 p.m. New Year’s Eve, so I’ll be back in my cubicle working at the stroke of 8 tomorrow morning.

I saw in the New Year–2016, or MMXVI–at the new Pirate House.  (I have celebrated the change of the year with the wonderful hosts of the Pirate House for years, but they’re in a new location now.  This was my first visit to their quarters in Merion Village.)  As always, the company and conversation were first-class.  It was surreal to watch people playing Jenga, with the structure getting quite tall, while Metropolis (1927) played on a nearby TV with the volume muted.

We only watched Times Square coverage long enough to count down to the ball dropping.  Everyone promptly turned away from the screen at midnight for rounds of toasting, hugging, and kissing.

I am proud to report that I have done a fair amount of walking so far this year.  Since the weather has been so erratic here in Central Ohio, even since the coming of the winter solstice, I checked The Weather Channel’s site to see what the weather is in Nelsonville, to see if I can squeeze in another walk to Athens.  (I marked the first weekend in December with such a walk, and managed to shave 10-15 minutes off my overall time.)

I am savoring the unscheduled time of January as much as I can.  The spring semester at Columbus State Community College will soon be underway, which means that from the 12th of this month until about the first week of February, I will be working evenings and weekends at the bookstore, often coming home too exhausted to do much, and not needing a dose of melatonin to fall asleep.

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I should probably be thankful that my daily routine is nowhere near as overloaded. I have never been a fan of Richard Nixon’s, but this page from his daily schedule makes me further question the sanity of anyone who wants to be President.

When I came home from Florida last week, I had (still have) a mystery greeting me.  In the mail that accumulated during my week in the Sunshine State, there was a package from a bookseller in Toledo.  Inside was a hardcover copy of Lily White, a novel by Susan Isaacs.  This was a book I had not ordered, nor is Isaacs a writer I have ever read.  Inside the front cover, there was no invoice, which means whoever sent it my way intended it to be a gift.

(I was not wary enough to hesitate when I saw the book, because I am expecting a book I ordered through AbeBooks, and thought maybe it had come early, despite the avalanche of holiday mail.)

I remember hearing some interesting things in passing during a New Year’s Eve party celebrating 1982 into 1983.  I think it was what inspired me to try and keep a breast-pocket notebook and a ballpoint pen on my person at all times–not knowing at that time that former Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.) had long ago beaten me to the punch.

The party was at a house in Rocky River, and I went with three friends (two female, one male) whom I had met during various Ohio-Meadville District Unitarian youth conferences.  One of the women–my date for the evening–had literary aspirations, as did do I, so we tried to keep an ear out for interesting dialogue and incidents.  The party was chock full of story material.  Parents were nowhere in sight, and I, at 19, was probably the oldest person there.  Our host was doing a Risky Business (1983) a full eight months before the movie debuted.

My date and I happened to hear a serious conversation between a guy and a girl.  They were at the end of an upstairs hallway, in the relative privacy of the area by the linen closet and the bathroom door.  “I’m really starting to like you,” the guy said.  He sounded almost regretful, “and it’s really bothering me.”

I never met my fellow party-goers before that night, and probably never crossed paths with any of them again, but it did not take long to discover there were some long brewing enmities in the gathering.  One kid, about 16, glanced toward the driveway and his face just brightened.  “Great!” he shouted gleefully.  “Rudy’s here!  I’m going to go beat the shit out of him!”  This did not come to pass, as far as I remember, because when my date and I went out to the back yard for some privacy, Rudy was out there with some of his friends, and there was not a mark on him.

The one that had both of us laughing came from an overheard exchange: “Tim’s here.”  “Who’s Tim?”  “Oh, Tim is my 14-year-old brother,” a guy piped up.  “He’s a penis.”

Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary, defined a year as “a period of 365 disappointments.”  Even though it’ll be 366 in this case, so far I am not complaining.  (I can’t even invoke Rent‘s 525,600 minutes from “Seasons of Love,” because this year it’s 527,040 minutes.)