Saturday, March 20, 2010

Flaming Gay Christmas

By the end of my third day in St. Louis, I was pretty burnt out. I dropped off my dad, drove back to my sister’s house, and started hitting the Captain Morgan. I had achieved a mood just hovering on “jovial” by the time my brother-in-law came home from work, so he and I went out to dinner.

My brother-in-law and I don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to politics, but the guy has a big streak of crazy, and we sometimes find common ground there. Pretty soon, our blood alcohol levels were in complete agreement, so we drove home and stole some Christmas trees.

Two gay men live down the street from his house, and one of them is a very successful decorator. He makes a point of decorating their home for various holidays, and it can get pretty spectacular. For Christmas, he put a large Christmas tree in his front yard and surrounded it with SIXTY three-foot trees, each one decorated in strands of twinkling lights. The guy had to modify his electrical system to achieve this.

He left the trees up for a couple of months, then took them down and piled them in his back yard to bundle for pickup. My brother-in-law has a small fire pit in his back yard, and it was a chilly night. Nothing burns like a dry Christmas tree, so we snuck over to their house like cat burglars. We gathered up armloads of trees, snickering and tripping over stuff in the dark. I could see the neighbors going about their business in the windows. It’s a miracle they didn’t catch us.

My brother-in-law started a fire in the fire pit, and once it was burning nicely he jammed a Christmas tree into the middle.


The tree smoked and crackled for about 10 seconds, and then an intensely hot roar of flame shot up into the sky, sending a twinkling stream of burning needles over the roof. Thankfully, it had rained for the two previous days, so we didn’t burn down anyone’s house.

We burned over 30 trees like this. Here’s a video so you can see what I’m talking about.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Coffee and Cigarettes

When my brother Patrick died, it caused a minor family crisis, because Patrick was the primary caregiver for another one of our brothers, who I will call “Dustin.” Dustin suffers from mild schizophrenia, complicated by a genetic disease that affects his blood chemistry.

Doctors have prescribed a daily cocktail of pharmaceuticals that control his symptoms, but if he’s not monitored every month or so, his blood chemistry can get out of balance, and his schizophrenia gets turned up to 11. He becomes disoriented, paranoid and incoherent, and the family worries that he’ll be arrested because his symptoms resemble those of serious drug users.

When his blood chemistry is properly maintained, he’s sweet-tempered, funny and personable. He’s intelligent, but has very little formal education. When he was a kid, he liked to take electronic things apart, but he wasn’t very motivated to put them back together once he found out how they worked.

Dustin has very few life skills. He won’t bathe unless told to do so. He doesn’t know how to cook. His caseworker takes him to the doctor, helps him do his taxes, and buys his cigarettes. My brother Patrick used to reimburse her for that, but now I do.

Once Patrick died, the family members agreed that it was time for Dustin to live in a group home. So Dustin’s caseworker found him a fairly nice one, and he moved in. I fretted about it for months. But when I visited him in St. Louis, I stopped worrying, because he’s thriving.

They serve him three good meals a day, his medications are doled out on a carefully monitored schedule, and he’s only allowed one cigarette an hour until bedtime. This last item is important, because like many people in his condition, he’d smoke a carton a day if he could. He’s not allowed to carry a lighter; the nurse hands him one to light his hourly cigarette, and then he must give it right back.

There are about 70 residents in Dustin’s group home. He told me that they give him one cup of coffee at every meal, but then he added, “I think it’s decaf.” No big surprise there, Dustin. You live in a house full of crazy people.

Dustin asked me to buy him a jar of instant coffee, and he smuggled it in to his friend Vern. When he pulled it out of his pocket, Vern looked around nervously and said, “Put that away! We need it for Saturday night!” Both Vern and Dustin missed breakfast on Sunday, because they were up all night buzzing on a caffeine high.

I bought Dustin a small netbook computer, and he loves it, but of course, he’s falling for every stupid internet scam imaginable. So his e-mail box is full of spam, and he’s rapidly acquiring every spyware virus known to man. The good news is, he doesn’t have any money to give the Nigerians.


Mostly, he uses it to download what he calls “rage metal” music that he listens to when he can score a jar of instant coffee.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Never in Mexican

My trip to St. Louis started out badly, thanks to miserable weather up and down the east coast.


However, I knew that it was going to get far worse, because I had agreed to meet my youngest brother, who I will call “Iggy.” Iggy is 46 years old, and suffers from bipolar disorder, which means that when he’s in his manic phase, he doesn’t believe he has bipolar disorder. So he stops taking his medication, in the mistaken belief that he’s “cured.”

He gets a tiny disability payment from the government, so he doesn’t feel the need to work. He doesn’t own a vehicle, because he’s never had a driver’s license.

Iggy’s behavior problems have alienated him from most of the family, so I haven’t seen him in at least ten years, probably longer.

I agreed to meet Iggy at the St. Louis side of the Mississippi River. He lives in Illinois, and his disability status enables him to ride public transportation in Illinois for free. But he can’t take the train across the Mississippi River into St. Louis without paying, so he never does.

He walked across the Eads Bridge, and we went to lunch with my dad.

People with Tourette’s syndrome are able to suppress the urge to spout obscenities for brief periods, but the pressure builds and builds, until they have to scream. Iggy is like that. We had a pleasant conversation about our family for about fifteen minutes, and then the crazy started to leak out.

Iggy has been a body builder since his teens. He told me that he spends most of his disability check on dietary supplements, and can’t afford to buy minutes for his phone, or other simple products or conveniences.

Then he told me that he wants to buy a long telephoto lens and a high-resolution digital camera, so that he can take pictures of UFOs. Iggy says that he has seen many UFOs over his lifetime, and claims to have been “indirectly threatened” by the United States military to keep him from telling the media what he knows. He has a UFO tattooed on his arm.


Against my better judgement, I agreed to drive him all the way home, instead of simply dropping him at the train station. He became more animated and intense with every passing mile, insisting that I come up to his apartment to watch him fly a Harrier jet in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. “It’s totally realistic!” he exclaimed.

Iggy shares his apartment with two cats, piles of trash and dirty clothes. He fumbled with his video game setup, and then, in the space of about 5 minutes, crashed a car, stole another, killed two policemen, stole an aircraft, crashed the aircraft, killed two more policemen, and was then shot to death by another. His eyes glittered with excitement.

Before he could start the game again, I told him I had to leave. I knew what was coming. He begged me for money to buy minutes for his phone. Iggy has never spoken to me in his entire adult life without asking for money. Members of the family know better than to give him any, because once you break that seal, he never stops. Reluctantly, I gave him a few bucks and got the hell out of there.

Once I got back to my sister’s house, I got a text message from him, thanking me, and telling me not to give his address to my sister (they have a particularly acrimonious relationship). “Why not?” I texted back.

“She’s not aloud because it’s my wish,” he responded with his typical bad spelling, and then added “Nota.”

So naturally, I texted back and asked what “Nota” meant. His response?

“Nota means never in mexican.”

During that seemingly endless drive back to his apartment, Iggy told me that he’s writing a book, and wants me to help him with the grammar. I doubt that I’ll ever see a single page of it, but if he somehow does manage to write it, I suspect I’ll need adult diapers to read it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Fistula

My dad has been through a lot lately. He’s 86 years old and lives alone because he’s not ready to give up his independence just yet. But nature sometimes intervenes.

In November, he fell and broke his hip. This is the classic injury for older people that usually marks the inevitable transition from independent living to hospital, blood clot, stroke, and death, often in the space of just a few weeks or months.

The doctors told us that there are different kinds of hip fractures, and his was the least severe of them all. They put in a plate, a rod, some screws, and in no time he was back on his feet, hobbling around with the aid of a cane. My brother-in-law offered to get him one of those canes with the four feet on the end, but my dad scolded him, declaring “Those are for old people!”

And then, about three weeks ago, he collapsed in church and was rushed to the hospital. There, they discovered that he had an infected gall bladder. The gall bladder is a small organ about the size of a pear that dispenses bile (a digestive enzyme) through the bile duct to the stomach. Some people develop gallstones, which are similar to kidney stones. Usually, they’re harmless. But sometimes, a small gallstone will migrate into the bile duct and become lodged there, blocking the delivery of bile.

In the old days, the gall bladder would become infected, rupture, and you would die.

But the gall bladder isn’t necessary to survival. So modern surgical techniques enabled surgeons to remove the gall bladder and treat the infection with antibiotics. People who used to die now lived to a ripe old age. But if you’re already a ripe old age, like my father, surgeons aren’t very keen on performing such surgery, because the mortality rate jumps dramatically after 70.

So they have a new method, involving an endoscope. That’s a long tube with a little camera and a few tiny tools on the end that can be inserted down the throat. The doctors had some things they wanted to try, but first they wanted to get a look at the situation. When they got that camera down into my dad’s innards, they discovered something incredible.

The gall bladder rests against the small intestine. His body, somehow sensing the blockage of the bile duct, had spontaneously formed a passageway (called a “fistula”) between the gall bladder and the small intestine, enabling the collected bile to drain. Apparently, it’s an event so rare and mysterious that the entire medical staff was buzzing about it.

The doctors treated the infection with antibiotics, but my father wasn’t out of the woods. The formation of the fistula was new, raw and exposed to digestive acids. He was in severe pain, requiring large doses of morphine, which barely helped. After a few days, he was released from the hospital, and returned home. He stopped eating, because everything had to pass by the fistula, sending him into spasms of horrible abdominal pain. My sister thought he was fading fast, so I flew to St. Louis, expecting to stand watch at his bedside in his final hours.

By the time I got there, two weeks had passed since his release from the hospital. He looked healthy, cheerful and anxious to get out of the house. His appetite had returned with a vengeance, and when I took him out to lunch, he ate a roast beef sandwich half the size of his head and washed it down with a pint of Guinness. I don't want him to die, but it seems like he's running out of stuff that will kill him.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green

Like a lot of American companies, my company makes a big show of “going green.” Employees are encouraged to recycle, and the company has changed from styrofoam coffee cups to paper cups with those next-to-useless fold-out handles. I hadn’t seen one of these in thirty years, but now I see them every day.


But like any other corporate initiative, some important executive paints the broad strokes with a big fat brush, and middle managers are expected to fill in the important details. But middle managers are notoriously ineffective at managing anything.

There are several reasons for this. First, if you’re good at your job, and you get promoted, there’s absolutely no guarantee that you’ll be good at managing others who do the job you used to do. Chances are, you’ll suck.

Second, if you’re very, very good at what you do, you’ll never get promoted, because your boss will want you to keep doing it. So someone less skilled than you will be promoted. Typically, this is someone who resents you for being better at your job than they are. Once they reach middle management, they take pleasure in punishing those who are skilled or dedicated.

Third, bosses want middle managers to be effective, so they promote the person they like the best, in the wrongheaded assumption that the employees will also like that person the best. Nobody likes a kiss-ass.

Most middle managers live in a kind of quiet desperation, anxious to please, but equally anxious to avoid a screw-up. Once, a middle manager told me in all seriousness, “If you’re not sure what to do, the best course of action is to do nothing.”

But every once in awhile, middle management unsheathes the mighty sword of e-mail, only to reveal what imbeciles they really are. Last week, I was required to attend a video training program being hosted via video conference at our corporate headquarters. The person managing this presentation sent out the following e-mail:

    In our efforts to stay green, we are forwarding the presentation to you for your reference. Please feel free to make a copy and bring it with you to class.

Over 200 people attended this presentation at various facilities. The presentation was 68 pages long, and every attendee showed up with a photocopy, apparently believing they were complying with the “efforts to stay green.” I was the only attendee in my facility who arrived empty-handed. The presenters sat at a table, with the presentation projected on the screen behind them.


They each had a printout of the presentation in front of them, and for two and a half hours, I sat in fidgety misery, while they took turns paging through their copies and reading each page to the 200 attendees, who dutifully paged through their copies in mute, robotic obedience. When it ended, I just wanted to get out of the office and take a long walk in the woods, but I don’t think there are any left.