Monday, September 14, 2009

Peek-a-Boo Salvation

Contrary to misguided Yankee opinion, the Deep South has many people who are entirely literate, and we have libraries chock-a-block with books, just like the North. I was a talented reader before I came south, and I have carefully nurtured and maintained my reading skills in the face of invidious assaults on literacy by twitterers, txters, Sarah Palin and other idiots.

The Deep South also has religion in glorious excess, with churches outnumbered only by bars and strip joints. At the intersection of libraries and religion there dwells a phenomenon I have not observed in other civilized places - and that's saying a lot, since I have been to both Paris and Provincetown.

You will recall from your last library excursion that library books routinely bear little taped-on labels on their spine for those of us who lack the time to judge a book by its entire cover. (Some other time I will get to libeling library minions with hyperactive labeling glands who plaster over the book title or author's name. It is my thesis that compulsive labeling is a trait of the recently literate.) These spine labels drop books into convenient slots - B for biography, F for fiction, 793.734 for palindromes. Unless you're from around these parts, you probably didn't see a CF label last time you visited the New Books rack. I have concluded, based on a short sample, that CF stands for Christian Fiction. If this news does not set off little alarm bells in your head, this is probably not your blog and you ought to stop reading. There are swarms of places on the Internet labeled CB.

In the Largo Public Library, fully ten percent of the New Fiction section is labeled CF, much more than is devoted to, say, Danielle Steele bodice-rippers or Stephen King flesh-rippers. Heathen that I am, I like the CF label for the same reason I appreciate signs reading "Keep Out - Cholera." It hastens decision-making quite nicely. That brings me, however circuitously, to the topic of the day. CF folks have figured out that they are proselytizing to the pious, which is no way to pump up the population of paradise. To solve that problem, the pious are introducing a fresh new genre to the bookshelves: Stealth CF.

Stealth CF works like this:

Spine label: F

Title: "Deadly Target"

Author: Someone you never heard of

Book jacket synopsis: In 2015, world power has been seized by a fanatical religious cult bent on a return to the dark ages. To save civilization from intellectual dehydration, Jake Savage must penetrate a corrupt organization that . . ." Et cetera.

This is hackneyed socio-political thriller stuff for which I am a bit of a sucker.

Sure enough, as the story unfolds, the promised malevolent cult emerges. Hero Savage is a meat-and-potatoes Robert Langdon, laughing in the face of entrenched evil. Incensed at the malicious onslaught of the hyper-religious, hyper-hypocritical - if there can be such a thing - Church of the Apocalypse Now, Savage launches his one-man crusade to tame the excesses of the foul new regime and restore traditional morality - uh-oh - to the country, making it safe for every born-again Christian - uh-oh, uh-oh - to live a life in Christ and be baptized, not in the water but in the blood. A-a-r-r-g-h! Here I am 100 pages into a reasonably well-plotted page-burner when the Stealth CF alarm light finally flickers on. I am about to be saved against my will by a submarine Bible tract.

Several times now I have nearly been saved, but in each case have preserved my march to eternal damnation only by hurling the holy book into the flames of the library's all-night book drop. But the flesh is weak, and I will continue to read too much socio-political crap. From now on, though, I will read the last page first to make sure there are no legions of formerly heathen Newts marching triumphantly through the pearly gates.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Summertime Strolling

When I was a northerner, I took casual note of the fact that southerners move more slowly than regular people. I chalked it up to geographical inferiority and paid little mind to it. That changed in September 2008 when, quite unexpectedly, I landed here in Florida, apparently for good. For the benefit of northerners who may read this, September in Florida is still mid-summer. By then the dog days may have run through Great Danes and poodles, diminishing to Yorkies and Chihuahuas, but dog days they remain. It's damned hot.

Erik, my elder offspring, helped me unload the moving van. Exercising diplomacy inherited from his mother's side of the family, he pointed out, "Gee, Dad, you're sweating like a boar-pig in a sauna. I think you're starting to ferment." I oinked disgruntledly and trotted into the house with another box of crap I should have sold before leaving Connecticut.

"Besides," he said, "you're doing it wrong."

"Doing what wrong, son of mine?"

"Walking. You're walking wrong."

"I'm walking like I always walk, my child. What's wrong with that?"

"You can't walk like that when it's hot like this or you'll stink like hell."

Unaccustomed as I am to having offspring who know more than I do, I considered changing the subject. But at some time in the not-too-distant past, Erik had enjoyed a year-long sojourn in Iraq helping Uncle Sam fight the war that might be a quagmire. It is hot in Iraq. It is hot in Florida. Perhaps the kid was onto something. "So, Mr. Desert Fox, how do you suggest I walk?" And Erik proceeded to demonstrate the desert one-step.

"Walking where it's hot is a maneuver in four parts," he said. "One, increase pressure on the ground with your left foot. Two, lift your right foot vertically. Three, swing your right leg forward. Four, place your right foot gently on the ground. Then repeat with the other foot."

I looked at him with renewed suspicion that the apple indeed had fallen too far from the tree. "That's called 'walking,' I think."

"Nope." he said, "Walking is when you do all those things quickly without thinking about them. When it's hot, you need to think about each part of the exercise, so you do it much more slowly and deliberately. Watch again." He began to ambulate on a four-count beat, as if to a silent dirge. He was not just demonstrating in slow motion; this was live-action slo-mo. Bedouins and camels cross deserts with this measured gait, so I suppose the same southern saunter can get me across the street or around the block - in time. I tried it. Push, lift, swing, plant, repeat.

It is a new and strange skill, this Tampa toddle, this Dixie drift, this Florida footsie. I count myself an amateur ambler, with miles of moseying to go before I master the meandering art. But every so often while strolling the sugary sands, I stop, sniff and smile. Gosh, I walked all this way and I don't stink like a boar-pig.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Shuffling to Mecca

Doctors in beleaguered inner city hospitals refer to the Mayo Clinic and its ilk - not that it has many ilks - as "Mecca." It is where the privileged go, praying to survive what would surely kill them in lesser facilities. I went there this week.

I'm not dying, any more than all of us are dying, and I suffer from nothing that qualifies as more than a minor medical inconvenience, but I shared the Mayo Clinic with enough people in crisis that I felt some disquiet at consuming Meccan resources for piddling concerns like elevated blood pressure and the occasional fibrillating atrium. But it's my heart and I try to do what it tells me. My heart took a lesson or two before I left.

The Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville is a luxurious, sprawling park of a medical compound, with monumental landscaping and aggressively competent buildings and amenities. It has its own Marriott, for instance, and a good one, if you like that sort of thing. My consultations - I went for one and got three - took place in the Davis Building, which stands apart from the hospital and the research buildings and probably a lot of other features you don't see unless you are in a lot more trouble than I was. I started with Dr. Geoffrey Gates, an endocrinologist. His job was to decide whether one or more of my overambitious adrenalin glands are boosting my blood pressure and what to do about it. Describing Gates describes the Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Gates is the quintessential Mecca specialist - Mayo Clinic Med School, Harvard Fellow, good teeth. He made sure I knew all that in the most unassuming fashion: "Sometimes all we know, whether at Harvard or Rochester or anywhere else, is that adrenalin glands usually have lots of lumps by the time you get to our age." That last was a nice touch - Gates is probably 52; I'm 61. Oh, and "Rochester" is the code word I heard all week for the Mayo Mother Ship in Minnesota. Where I grew up, "Rochester" was Jack Benny's sidekick.

Despite Gates's endearing bedside manner - oops, just a figure of speech; I was never in a bed - he is so supremely confident that he is willing to share his uncertainty, and he does so in a way that imports that if he doesn't know the answer, then no one does. Every last denizen of the Mayo campus radiates that same quiet confidence and abiding competence, avoiding even the appearance of arrogance while in fact engaging in an arrogance that seems perfectly justified. I barely noticed how vaguely dissatisfying it is to come away from the Mayo Clinic with no answers, despite a promise that some testing in November will get us closer to one.

I squirted a lot of blood into tubes, let a machine monitor my O2 intake, sat with two more Dr. Gateses, and left convinced that I was the most important patient any of them had ever seen. I was wrong, of course. Waiting his turn in the lobby as I was leaving was a young man with one leg and the type of hairlessness that bellows "cancer." It's humbling to have your convictions erased so promptly after they are formed.

No doubt some of the other waiting room supplicants were, like me, there to resolve some puzzling medical inconsistency. But too many of them left divots in my emotional landscape beyond mere sympathy for victims of health catastrophes. I was struck by a couple in their 40's wearing Harley-Davidson colors, she a big-boned gal with an H-D swagger, he wheelchair-bound and weighing perhaps 100 pounds. I saw a younger couple walking so slowly, one matching the other's careful pace. So intimate was the couple's shared pain that I could not tell which was the patient and which the caring partner.

We stayed one night at the on-campus Marriott, claiming the special "Mayo rate" - $159. The hotel restaurant was located in the main lobby for the convenience of guests who needed wheelchair access or personal assistance with eating or with sometimes-bulky oxygen equipment. Families chatted cheerfully - after all, this is Mecca - and the atmosphere was curiously upbeat. I could not match the mood in the room, and we dined elsewhere, feeling somehow cowardly.

Not all the Mayo patients I saw were the children of privilege, although there were two Bentleys in line for valet parking when I dropped off my 12-year-old Acura. But there were no evident children of poverty, although it's damned hard to guess the financial wherewithal of anyone wearing his jammies in the daytime. Patients and family of color were exceedingly few. Privileged or not, I came away with a fresh appreciation for my relatively superlative state of health and a sense of having been at last to Mecca.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Wallpaper Wars

I used to know how to hang wallpaper. It's simple, really: measure, cut, paste to the wall, repeat. There are rules for hanging wallpaper straight, rules for going around corners, both inside and outside types, and rules for getting paste off everything else in the room. I recall those rules quite clearly, and I followed them yesterday as I covered up my paneled bathroom - yes, paneled - that's how they put them together in the doublewide factory - anyway, that's how I set out to turn my bathroom into a showplace. Well, not really a showplace; it is, after all, a bathroom. But it needed some tile, some porcelain, some pretend-granite and some wallpaper. To the untrained eye, wallpaper would seem the least challenging of the materials I chose to install. That's why they call it the untrained eye.

Florida turns out to be the land of paneling and the land that forgot wallpaper. The wallpaper shops of yore are all dusty and bare, and the guy with the orange apron at Home Depot was struck dumb by the concept of gluing paper to a wall. Lowe's had a few books of patterns, including the ones with sailboats and hunting rifles and cartoon characters. I ordered something without sailboats, and it arrived in due time.

To stick my paper to the wall, my choices were Roman's Golden Harvest Pre-Mixed General Purpose Paste or spit. I considered spit, since the paper itself was pre-pasted - just add spit - but the pre-paste never works and would take too much spit anyway. I bought the Golden Harvest for $15. The price stuck in my craw, assuming a craw is what I think it is, because I know that wallpaper paste, at its core, is concocted of water and flour. It is just paste, in the purest, first-grade art project sense. I paid the man and left without telling him how consternated I was.

I arrived back home unjustifiably optimistic. I had already slobbered several pounds of spackle onto the paneling. Spackle is God's gift to people who hate paneling, proving thereby that even God hates paneling. I opened my first roll of paper and got to work. I measured - twice, of course - and cut the first stripe, patting myself on the back for recalling that wallpaper strips are called stripes. I cut this particular stripe half-an-inch short. Crap. Two bucks a square foot I paid for that stripe.

Hanging wallpaper is not like riding a bike. You forget. Not the easy rules - those you remember - but the neuromotor stuff that moves the bike down the road and moves the wallpaper from the roll to the wall . The hands refuse to do what the brain commands. I cut stripes of wallpaper too short, too narrow, upside down, and left-handed instead of right. I got paste in my ears. Belatedly, I remembered that some wallpaper is impossible to match. Matching is where you make sure the little sailboat on one stripe lines up with the little sailboats on the other stripes, if you were sensible enough to buy the sailboat paper. Anybody can line up sailboats.

I did not buy sailboats; I bought a roomful of overlapping colored blocks, all of which look like one another but few of which actually are like any of the others. Trying to match blocks from stripe to stripe resulted in a sort of geometric dyslexia. Wallpapering rules and formulas - and lots of sticky paper - lay in ruins on my bathroom floor. I coped - if you can call it that - by assigning a name to every block on the wall. I traveled from the bathroom to my work area muttering magic incantations for where to cut the next stripe. "Big-tan-block-above-small-greyish-block-beside-mid-sized-light-beige-block." I learned to incantate tan from two shades of beige. I made mountains of $2-a-square-foot scrap. I said some bad words that boiled the water on Clearwater Beach.

My bathroom looks swell, mostly because anything looks sweller than paneling. But the room is cluttered with the ruins of my self-esteem and the smoking wreckage of my neuromotor system. Now I know why Florida folks don't wallpaper. They have too much regard for their own sanity.