Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Crime Beat

I’ve been off work due to injury for a little over a month now. And during that time, I’ve had half dozen x-rays, an MRI, and CT scan. I’ve been to the ER, an orthopedic surgeon, magnetic imaging lab, and physical therapy. Seems like I’ve spent the past 30 days in exam rooms waiting for the doctor, tech, or therapist to walk in and ask with a sigh, “Now what, Brian?”

But as any “patient” knows, if your appointment time is 10:00, you can count on seeing that medical professional somewhere around 11:45.  So it helps to have a good book with you.

My literary wingman on this adventure has been crime-writer Michael Connelly. I’ve already burned through “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Brass Verdict,” and am now reading both “Nine Dragons” and “Crime Beat,” Connelly’s memoirs of his days as crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

We’re talking about more than a thousand pages of reading since late last month.

Detective novels are not my usual fare, either. I admit that when it comes to fiction, I’m something of a snob. Having read Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” in the original Middle English as part of my Master’s degree requirements, I can be a bit high-minded about contemporary lit. But my go-to authors, Cormac McCarthy, Tom McGuane, and Richard Ford didn’t seem to be a good fit for waiting room distractions. So on my way to the orthopedic surgeon—my left arm in a cast—I stopped in at a book store for a fast read, saw a Connelly novel on an end-cap display, thumbed through the first few pages and was immediately sold.

I think what separates Connelly from pulp fiction writers and other best-selling detective novelists is his sharp prose and passages of particular insight and poignancy that go well beyond average for the genre. This excerpt from the “The Brass Verdict,” for example, resonated with me:

I went outside to the deck, hoping the city could pull me out of the abyss into which I had fallen. The night was cool and crisp and clear. Los Angeles spread out in front of me in a carpet of lights, each one a verdict on a dream somewhere. Some people lived the dream and some didn’t. Some people cashed in their dreams a dime on the dollar and some kept them close and as sacred as the night. I wasn’t sure if I even had a dream left. I felt like I only had sins to confess.

Good stuff.

As I said, he got his start in newsprint journalism, and in “Crime Beat” his reflections on reportage and nonfiction prose also struck a chord:

The irony of crime beat journalism --- maybe all journalism --- is that the best stories are really the worse stories. The stories of calamity and tragedy are the stories that journalists live for. It gets the adrenaline churning in their blood and can burn them out young, but nevertheless it is a hard fact of the business. Their best day is your worse day.

In some ways, that’s what I attempted to do through my own writing on the now defunct blog site, Switch 2 Plan B. As a veteran fireman turned amateur writer, I sought to capture and convey the pathos, irony, and even dark humor I found in people’s most desperate hour: Those uniquely public, and deeply private moments of grief, fear, and resignation which attended the countless scenes of suffering, death, or catastrophic loss I witnessed over the years.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Screw Loose

I think what I like most about going to the hardware store is that look on the sales associate’s face when I ask him a question:

“Do you have those little metal thingys, um, oh whatdya call ‘em? It’s kinda like a nail…only its all twisty and stuff,” I asked.

“A screw?” he replies, disgusted.

Well, hell, how was I supposed to know?

Most of these guys retired from the trades—former plumbers, painters, and carpenters. So they have an unfair advantage over me from the jump. Then they get all technical on me and stuff.

See, I go to my local hardware store for the customer service. If I wanted to be ignored I’d go to one of those big-box home improvement warehouses. Home Depot, Lowes—those are for men who actually know what they’re doing, and exactly what they need to get the job done.

The rest of us go to Tru Value, or Ace.

So, this being a Saturday morning, I gulped down my Follger’s instant, sneered at the op-ed page, and got down to making a list of things I’d need for the do-it-myself day I had mapped out ahead, then drove to the corner store.

And you know, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s this: If you’re going to the hardware store once, you’re going twice. Because inevitably you’ll forget something, or break something else while trying to fix whatever it was you were supposed to be fixing in the first place.

So there’s always that return trip to Ace.

And nothing says “dumbass” like walking back into the hardware store 30 minutes later…either to buy to RIGHT part this time, or buy the EXACT SAME part you purchased earlier because you’ve already snapped it in half.

Like I said: A lot of these sales clerks are retirees, so when they see me come back in and ask for the very same part again, they pause, get a puzzled look on their face (as the momentary déjà vu brings with it a fear of early onset of Alzheimer’s), then frown disapprovingly, shaking their head and wondering half-aloud how an all-powerful God could allow such a pathetic man to be so completely inept at simple repairs.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanks-Mas

Re-posting this from Thanksgiving past (on the now defunct Switch 2 Plan B site). It first "aired" November 2009: 

Do you think Pilgrim women pushed back from the table that chill November in 1621 and said to each other, “That was yummy. Now—pray tell—what time do the malls open tomorrow morning?”

Our culture doesn’t even take a collective breath—doesn’t even sit back and unbutton its topmost button to allow the bloated belly of excess fully digest the sin of gluttony—before we head out again to the stores.

No matter. With garish Christmas displays displacing Halloween items on October shelves, soon the ravenous holiday will swallow Thanksgiving whole. It will be folded into one big mega-season, to be renamed “Thanks-Mas.”

The entire back-story of America—with starving Puritans freezing their asses off that first fall until local natives took pity on their sorry butts, and brought them a noodle casserole—will get lost in the “Thanks-Mas” rush. Instead, the Pilgrims will be rebranded as anxious shoppers, bulking up on turkey and mashed potatoes before the doors opened up at 5 a.m. sharp at Squanto’s SuperMall, conveniently located just off of Route 95.

Originally, the season was known as “Thanks-Christ-Mas,” but for fear that the term might possibly offend .000000001% of the customers, slick ad men for colonial retailers shortened it up a bit.

Back at the Plymouth settlement, the men folk gathered at the publick house, drank a little too much grog, and watched the Detroit Lions lose (again!).

Young Goodman Brown was the first person to hang his colorful Thanks-Mas lights from the eaves of his log hut that Thursday evening in 1621, but annoyed neighbors promptly dragged him from his home and stoned him to death in the town square. (Soon the natives would become disgusted and invent their own holiday, known as “Quonset.”)

Then suddenly, right on cue, retro-looking 1960s-era stop-motion puppets walked haltingly into the village commons and began singing joyfully, thus reminding the colonists the true meaning of “Thanks-Mas.”
So Happy Thanks-Mas to all!

And don’t forget the reason for the season…which is, um…ah…is…um…oh dang, what was it again?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Jumper Cables (four years later)

I published my first blog post over four years ago (on the now defunct Switch 2 Plan B site), just a few days after falling off a fire engine and severely spraining my ankle. (See a pattern here?) That injury also resulted in time off the job and rehabilitation at the local physical therapy clinic. I wrote about my experiences at the time, and since I’m returning to that same clinic this week, I thought I would re-post it below:

When it comes to an injury like torn ligaments, there are actually two kinds of pain: The first is the initial trauma, localized to the injury site, characterized by sudden onset, acute intensity, and relatively short duration. The second comes weeks later and is inflicted by a physical therapist during something he gleefully calls “rehabilitation.” 

If you ask me, the person who really needs “rehabilitation” here is the therapist himself—but only after serving a nickel in Chino state pen.

But I kid. My therapist is a great guy. His name is Greg. When I first went to see Greg, he took me back to his exam room for a “consultation.” This involved careful assessment and palpation of the injured joint, making sure to flex it into positions that would have been considered unnatural even if completely healthy. The important thing, apparently, is to slowly rotate the ankle until the patient begins to weep.

Then with the help of two assistants, Greg dragged me into the back room for more intensive “treatment.” There, they continued a therapeutic regime specifically tailored to my injury, while I struggled to maintain consciousness.

Greg’s assistant is Radz, an ex-Army Ranger. He just got back from a tour in Iraq, where he served as a physical therapist at Abu Ghraib. The patients still talk about him there. After a dishonorable discharge, Radz returned state-side and worked in a rendering plant before Greg recognized his obvious talents and took him under his wing.

Greg’s intern is Lauren, whose specialty is asking things like “Does that hurt?” “No? How about now?” It’s also her job to hook me up to the car battery after the other two have grown bored of me.

I know our therapy session is concluded when I wake up in the alley behind the clinic. Oftentimes I find that I have soiled myself, but Greg assures me that this is normal and many of those who have survived have done the same thing.

I go back next Tuesday.

(Originally posted 09/07/07)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

I Do My Own Stunts, part 2

Sometimes you wish you ’d just broke the damn thing.

When it comes to healing time or the prognosis for a complete recovery, conventional wisdom holds that it may be better to have a broken bone rather than a sprain, torn ligament, or—in my case—a "bruised" bone.

I’m not sure if that’s true, but since falling off my firetruck almost two weeks ago, I followed up with an orthopedic surgeon for another round of x-rays. The diagnosis: A sub-periosteal hematoma (or bruise) of the olecranon, that large bony prominence that projects behind the elbow. (See #4 below.)

My EMT anatomy class was 17 years ago, and the subject rarely comes up in CE review, so I had forgotten you could actually “bruise” a bone. Most people think of bones as being hard and not particularly vascular, but in fact, this rigid tissue is well supplied by various arteries (receiving 10-20% of all cardiac output) and is protected by thick, fibrous membrane called the periosteum.

Direct force trauma against the bone—the kind of impact one might receive when, oh, say, falling off a fire truck—can result in a hematoma, or collection of blood, underneath this protective layer. And unfortunately this sort of injury can be quite painful and take weeks, months, or even a year to heal completely.

So I got THAT going for me.

Maybe it would have been better to just break the damn thing—you know, set it and forget it. But no.

My elbow is still noticeably swollen, and if I bump it against anything—the arm of a chair, for example—the jolt of pain can light me up.  So in addition to icing and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), I’ll be starting physical therapy this week to beginning rehabbing this thing.

Of course, it could ALWAYS be worse: My buddy blew out his entire knee recently. I’m sure he was doing to something glorious at the time, like saving babies from a burning building. Certainly not something as prosaic as tumbling off the fire apparatus.

But for now, I remain “temporarily totally disabled.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Juiced in It

Like I don’t have enough to deal with right now, my wife has me on some sort of juicing diet.

She saw this documentary on Netflix about an overweight Aussie with an autoimmune disease who walked 3000 miles while limiting his diet to juiced fruits and vegetables. Of course, by movie’s end, he had shed 72 pounds and was finally cured of his life-threatening illness. His feet were a little sore, though.

The movie won Best Documentary Feature at a film festival somewhere in Iowa.

Still, the remarkable story squeezed new life from the juicing craze with the “Reboot Your Life” program—a “journey into wellness” in which one consumes only liquefied plant matter. Nom, nom. The testimonials are impressive: A housewife in Kankakee, Illinois lost 102 lbs, and her acne cleared-up. A man in Toledo, Ohio disappeared altogether. And since my blood pressure has been a little elevated lately, my well-meaning spouse decided that I too might benefit from such a regimen.

So she purchased a Breville, the “Mercedes Benz” of juicing machines. (I think an actual Mercedes would have been cheaper.) This precision-engineered, surgical steel contraption has spinning blades so razor-sharp it could slice off Rube Goldberg's ring finger just as easily as frappe an entire beet.

Yes, beets.

Beta vulgaris, from the Chenopodiaceae family of plants, the same root that starving Muscovites use to make Borscht, a cold soup that can make me vomit on sight. But toss in a few pears, some crisp Fuji apples, celery stalks and a carrot or two and—voila—you have a healthy elixir that is equal parts nutritious and delicious!

Well, maybe delicious is an overstatement…

How about barely drinkable?

Really, the only interesting thing about this juice diet is how to cheat it. But since the pantry has been purged of all foods that either A.) might contribute to my slight hypertension, or B.) have any flavor whatsoever, a reckless binge here might consist of unsalted almond butter on sprouted grain bread.

…Or floor wax, which I’ve noticed tastes a little better that the sodium-free almond butter.

So tonight as I write this, I’m enjoying a cool, isopropyl alcohol-and-lemon spritzer on the rocks, and a wheatgrass smoothie. With a straw.

My blood pressure be damned.