"Death is the Only Excuse!"

I first heard this line over the P.A. system in high school, when a teacher was announcing an after-school club’s meeting where attendance was mandatory.  I did not care for it much at the time, but I’m finding it applicable to my current situation–my delinquency in posting to this blog.

My longtime friend Scott Robinson died unexpectedly last month, aged 49.  He had been a friend since shortly after my 1995 move to Columbus.  We knew each other mainly through Unitarian Universalism, and various political and social activities and organizations.  (I mention him several times in this blog, particularly our long walks.)  He died early on a Sunday morning, and I went to a packed memorial service for him at church the following Thursday.  (Scott took the picture of me that is at the title page of this blog.)

His death triggered a heavy, but barely functional depression.  I was able to keep going to work, although I’m sure my production was sub-par; I am not looking forward to my next quarterly evaluation.  After coming home from work daily, about all I wanted to do was sleep, so while Susie and I spent evenings in the living room, either watching DVDs of House or while she was online with her friends, I often slept for much of the evening stretched out (as best I could) on the love seat.

The downward spiral stopped because of something you would not associate with curing (or at least arresting) depression.  Even though it was the first day of the vernal equinox here in Columbus, the mercury was below freezing, and the heavy winds made it feel even colder.  Our furnace picked that night to conk out on us.  I had it up to 85 degrees at one point, and the furnace made all the knocking and whooshing sounds, but there was no heat coming up from the registers.  So, Susie and I sat around in sweatshirts and coats, and she kept a space heater close to her.  With my fingers turning blue and bent from the cold (okay, this is a little hyperbolic), I texted the property manager, and we made plans about his going in to look at the furnace.  All the while, I was hoping that the problem was relatively simple.  I was simultaneously expecting and hoping that the property manager would give me hell for calling him in to relight the pilot light.

As it turned out, this furnace uses no pilot light.  The manager said the furnace had a bad igniter, but he repaired it and we once again had heat.

I think the reason my depression lifted was because, once the furnace stopped working, I knew that it was from no ineptitude of my own.  Too many times in the past, if I came home to a house where the electricity didn’t work or there was no heat, it would be because I had neglected to pay a bill, and the service was discontinued.  This time, I knew I was solvent with rent, that my payments to Columbia Gas were current, and so the lack of heat’s cause was mechanical, not financial.

Susie is not looking forward to the end of spring break Monday.  She is back from a week in Florida with Steph, where they went clothes-shopping, and visited the zoo and bookstores.  Sometime in May, her drama class at The Charles School is performing Twelfth Night, so three afternoons a week she is at rehearsal.

During her week in Florida, I “indulged” in a “wild bachelor weekend.”  The definition of “wild weekend” varies as you get older, or when you discard various pharmacological forms of entertainment.  When Susie was a toddler, she and Steph went for a week to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina.  I had used up all my paid leave because of Steph’s first heart surgery and recovery, so I stayed behind in Columbus.  My “wild weekend” involved ordering in from Donato’s and watching all three Godfather movies in a row.

So, what did I do this time, besides neglect the blog?  I laid out my fledgling collection of 78 RPM records on the living room floor and love seat, and did something a little OCD.  I made sure that Vocalion records were in Vocalion sleeves, that RCA Victor records were in RCA Victor sleeves, etc.  I had my laptop switched on, and the had the Online 78 RPM Discographical Project on the screen, but I didn’t check my collection against this vast and exhaustive database.  In the case of my Columbia LPs, there were more records than sleeves, so–against the advice of the owner and proprietor of Vintage Fountain Pens here in town (also a vinyl salesman)–I put them in the binder albums that a record store owner gave me.

Just your typical Saturday night in my house when Susie is out of town–sorting out 78 RPM albums and putting them in the proper sleeves.

 Not the most fascinating way to spend the weekend, but the solitude made it easier.  Laying the records on the floor when there were two of us in the house risked someone stepping on them (I confess I lost two records this way.  It may be sour grapes, but judging from the titles, they probably sounded better being stepped on than played), so this was a project best done alone.

Once the weather is consistently in the 60s, trike rides are going to be the norm, and not the exception.  Even after a decent night’s sleep, I am very slow in getting out of bed in the morning (a lifelong habit), so I really need to pre-plan when I would ride the trike in to work.  I restarted taking lithium this winter, but have stopped because it’s causing me to gain too much weight, and regular trike rides should help bring down the excess poundage.

On the 29th of this month, I turn 50 years old.  I received an AARP card in the mail earlier this week, amist the other unasked-for mail, such as the MicroCenter catalog and an invitation to join AAA (as a non-driver, I have no need for it).

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I Still Love the March to the Mailbox

This November has been so insane that I knew better than to even try my hand at NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) this year.  We are now just over two weeks in residence in our Weinland Park duplex, and the living room (my office) still looks like a walk-in storage locker.  I have the work table set up, complete with the laptop and my 80-cent Royal Royalite manual typewriter, but the setup is not conducive to any creative writing.

Earlier this afternoon, I plunked down a little money to cater to the more anachronistic side of me.  After doing some laundry, I went to the hardware store and bought some Liquid Wrench, since the typewriter has been so long unused that it was quite sluggish when I typed some keys experimentally the other day.  (That was a glaring indictment, a Machine Age J’accuse.  If anything, I beat typewriters to death.)

I didn’t fill out a change-of-address card with the post office when we moved last month.  I changed my New Yorker subscription online, and mailed a card to The Catholic Worker‘s circulation department, and mass emailed friends of mine who send me snail mail.  Several weeks ago, I submitted a poem to The New Yorker  via email (the only way they accept them these days).  I’m wondering if I’m being a bit too audacious if I send them a card saying, “Hey, guys, if you’re planning to buy my poem, I’ve moved since I submitted it in mid-September.  Here’s the new address.”  I think I probably will mail them a card Monday.

The slogan for the 2010 Census–which I saw on T-shirts and bumper stickers everywhere, was March to the Mailbox, and it was one I liked.  I still like to “march to the mailbox.”  Yesterday, I bought a set of MP3s from The Radio Lady in Orange County, California, and thought about ordering online with my debit card.  Instead, I printed out her order form and mailed a money order.  My disks will probably be several days later than normal, but I still liked the action of mailing the money order to her.

The above YouTube video is an excerpt from a 1980 made-for-TV movie entitled Gideon’s Trumpet, the true story of a semi-literate Florida convict in 1961 who argued that the Constitution entitled him to legal representation if he was unable to afford it himself.  He fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and emerged victoriously, defended by future Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas.

Fast forward to about 5:15 in the clip.  The movie itself is not what you would call action-packed.  Gideon was accused of breaking into a pool hall and stealing wine from the bar and change from the cigarette machine–nothing that would make this a Dirty Harry-type picture.  So, the most dramatic moment in the picture comes when Gideon (played by Henry Fonda) actually sends his petition to the Supreme Court.  Mawkish as it may be, I’m still stirred when his fellow convict asks to hold and look at the petition for a second, and then I choke up a little when the music swells and Gideon drops that fat envelope into the outgoing mail slot.

I had a similar experience and feeling when I was at Ohio University.  I  spent many an evening in the computer lab at Alden Library, furiously typing away on an IBM Personal Computer, writing and re-writing the first few chapters of a long moribund novel, printing it out on the laser printer, and preparing it for mailing.  I was applying for the Bennett Fellowship, a writing fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy in New England.  (I would be given room and board on the school’s campus, plus a modest stipend.  In exchange, I would have to finish a novel by the end of June and occasionally teach some writing classes to some bored, spoiled little East Coast WASP kids.)

When I finally checked and rechecked the finished product with my unrelenting typesetter’s eye and deemed it was ready to go, I had a large stamped envelope ready, all set to receive the manuscript.  I printed it for the last time, put the stack of pages into the envelope, sealed it, and I was walking out of Alden Library to the mailbox by The Oasis.  That was where I saw my friend Jennifer, who was coming back from a meeting with her Honors Tutorial adviser.  It was about two days before the must-be-postmarked-by date for applying for the fellowship, so she had begun to doubt whether I was serious about applying.

Jennifer’s skepticism vanished when I held up the envelope.  “Look!”  I said.  Her eyebrows raised, betraying how pleasantly surprised she was.  There was my return address for my Scott Quad dorm, the addressee was indeed the Bennett Fellowship Committee at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H.  I just felt a sense of relief at having this self-imposed burden lifted from my shoulders.  I had raced the calendar, and I had won, if only barely.  I had been more conscientious and more driven about this than I had been about my schoolwork.

Yet, her enthusiasm rivaled mine.  I thought she was handing the envelope back to me, but she held onto the corner she had gripped to read the address.  For a second, there was tension, like two kindergarteners about to fight over the same toy.  She wouldn’t let go.  Finally, she pulled open the mailbox door.

I got it then.  Gingerly, we both moved it toward the opening, and, with an unspoken signal passing between us, let it go at the same time.  The lid closed, and I heard the muffled thud! of the manuscript as it landed in the square bucket (“flat box”, I learned later, was the correct name) inside.  Superstitiously, I gave the mailbox lid an extra flip, making sure it was in there.

“Now, you are not to talk about this until you hear from them.”  It was just before Thanksgiving, and Phillips Exeter said there would be a decision sometime in February.  I heeded her words.  For the first few days after mailing the project, I reverted back to my childhood days of breathlessly checking my mailbox, just like I did after mailing a batch of proof-of-purchase stickers to Kellogg’s headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan for a new toy.

I did not get the fellowship, although it was late in February when the thumbs-down letter arrived.  I was able to keep hope alive for much of Christmas break and into the new year.  It was much better than my rejection from Esquire the previous summer.  My information from Writer’s Market told me there would be a reply in 10 weeks from Esquire‘s short story editors.  So, when my short story came back in its return envelope less than three weeks later, I felt like I was getting it back on the tines of a pitchfork.  (At the same time, Playboy had kept another short story longer than usual, which made me think that the editors were squabbling about how huge a check to cut me, since the story was so magnificent.)

My first real job was as church secretary at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, where I was a member.  One of my tasks was typing (and eventually editing) The Confluence, the twice-monthly newsletter.  Typing the newsletter was meticulous work, since we still used mimeograph stencils.  Running off the finished product on the hand-cranked mimeograph machine was a breeze, and addressing it and taking it to the Marietta post office was pure tedium.  The only movie that the certified lunatic Mel Gibson ever made that I enjoyed was Conspiracy Theory, which I’m sure is far superior than his snuff film disguised as Christian devotion, The Passion of the Christ.  My favorite scene in the movie is when the hero, Jerry Fletcher, is alone in his cluttered Greenwich Village apartment typing up his little newsletter, photocopying it, and then driving around Manhattan dropping each copy into a different mailbox, and trying to be so nonchalant about it that he inevitably calls attention to himself.  It brought me back to the days when preparing the newsletter–from collecting information to bringing it to the service window at the post office–was such a project that I was weary of the publication by the time my copy arrived.

So, once I apply the Liquid Wrench to the recalcitrant carriage of my typewriter, I’ll have one less excuse to not be writing.