Please stand by ~

To Higher-Ups:

The Technical Team has noted serious technical difficulties with Blog entitled “Vapor and Flow,” with no forward (or backward) movement observed since mid-January. Blog is currently parked in the Driver’s front yard, where it seems to be accumulating trash. Driver has not yet had it put up on blocks, but Technical Team is on alert.

Team suspects a problem with the fuel injection system, though without hands-on investigation it is impossible to tell whether the gasoline tank might simply be empty. Team had noted some juddering of the steering wheel, accompanied by slightly erratic driving, in December and early January, indicating the need for immediate tire rotation and rebalancing. In addition, tires should be checked for wear. Driver has done none of this.

Driver herself, rather than repairing the Blog or addressing various ethical quandaries in her life at the moment, has become obsessed with the dog urine stains in her carpeting and the possibility of replacing the carpeting with something that can simply be hosed down. She daily repeats a monologue that always begins the same way (“I can’t stand this! What am I going to DO?”) and ends the same way (“But how would they move the piano?”). Technical Team estimates that said piano, a tall, ancient upright, weighs slightly more than a Volkswagen Beetle, flower holder included. Unlike a Beetle, the piano would probably not float, although Team finds this an intriguing question and would very much like to be notified of the results of any experiments along these lines. LOL.

Excuse us, that was unprofessional on our part. To continue, Driver also appears obsessed with a new personal best in Scrabble: her highest-ever non-bingo word score (GAZEBO, 84 points). While interesting numerically, this is judged by Team to be a rather trivial achievement in the grand scheme of things and recommends that Driver should just Get Over It.

Excuse us, please ignore editorial comment. Finally, Technical Team notes that on multiple occasions recently Driver has stated that she “dodged a bullet” because the voice student portion of a recent music recital was cancelled. This comment has been flagged for further analysis, but Team can only assume that someone slated to attend said recital was prepared to use firearms in the event of Driver singing. Team has insufficient information to gauge (pun! LOL) the appropriateness of the posited firearm use.

Excuse us again; Technical Team is fatigued and too easily amused. Team judges that Driver is currently earning A’s in Reading and Scrabble (quantity only), D’s in Physical Therapy and Caregiving, and F’s in Voice Lessons (lack of practice), Problem Resolution (dithering), Diet Remediation (inaction), Photography (inaction), and Blog Repair (inaction and negligence). Given this poor functioning, Driver’s hair looks better than might be expected, although Team is not well trained in assessing such matters.

In conclusion, Technical Team advises continued close monitoring of Blog and Driver, with future updates as necessary.

—Submitted February 23, 2014, ungodly hour of the morning
(Technical Team wishes to note that it has worked overtime on this report and would like to be duly compensated. Thank you.)

The cheesecake ~

My second husband and I started dating in February 1984. By the time Steve’s birthday was approaching a few months later, I knew that he wasn’t a big dessert fan but did love cheesecake. So I borrowed a spring-form pan, determined to make him an authentic New York–style cheesecake.

As soon as that notion solidified into a definite ambition, my radar should have been on alert. I had once tried to make a special dessert—special only in the sense that I didn’t really bake, so everything was a challenge—for my first husband. We had married in January 1979 but hadn’t been able to live together until May. I had no obligations until graduate school started in August. But FH had to work that summer so that we had money to live on. Figuring that it was my responsibility, in return, to fix our meals, I spent a lot of time browsing through cookbooks. (This despite the fact that I’d never liked cooking or shown any natural talent for it.)

At some point I’d learned that FH liked custard pies. I looked up a recipe and saw that I had all of the necessary ingredients except for nutmeg. Since FH needed our car to get to work, I was without transportation. But I didn’t want to wait, and I wanted to surprise him. So in the summer heat, I walked a mile round-trip to buy nutmeg at the nearest grocery store.

Mixing the pie filling seemed to go well. When I poured it into the ready-made pie crust, it was almost brimming. (Yes, ready-made pie crust. Even as an ambitious new wife I wasn’t crazy enough to tackle pie crust.) No, I didn’t forget to put in the nutmeg. And I’d been careful to preheat a cookie sheet along with the oven. With high hopes, I slid the pie onto the cookie sheet and went back into the living room to read.

Shortly thereafter I heard a sonic-boom–like sound and knew immediately what had happened. Despite my precautions, the cookie sheet had flexed. I opened the oven door a crack and peeked. The pie was now sitting at a jaunty angle, with the filling touching the outer edge of the crust on one side of the pan and at low tide on the other side. Absurdly, I couldn’t figure out anything to do about this. I knew if I touched the pie the filling would spill. So I decided to just leave it alone.

When the pie was done baking, it resembled something a three-year-old might concoct. The surface slanted crazily, with a huge, nearly burnt surface bubble covering half of the pie pan and almost all of the custard on the other half. FH was game enough to eat the thing, or try to, but it wasn’t the pie of his dreams, unless he was having nightmares.

Consequently, I should have been alert to the potential for future baking disasters. But I’d forgotten about the custard pie incident in my determination to make Steve a cheesecake.

I didn’t have to walk to the store for anything this time, which was just as well. I was both a novice and a klutz, and making cheesecake turned out to be an aerobic exercise. For one thing, I didn’t have a stand mixer. My hands, which were scrawny and weak, almost didn’t survive the experience.

I also am a slow person in the kitchen. It took a ridiculous amount of time, something around 2 1/2 hours, for me to assemble the nascent cheesecake. Pressing the crust alone seemed to take half of the afternoon. I was afraid the ingredients would spoil before I got it into the oven. Just how long could that cream cheese mixture sit out without going bad, or at least surly? But I was too deep into this project to turn back. I ignored my concerns, pressed on, and finally got the damn thing into the oven.

What I ended up with was, by golly, a New York–style cheesecake. Except…heavier. The finished product had the approximate weight and density of a neutron star. Flung like a Frisbee, it would have been a deadly weapon.

Surprisingly, it tasted pretty decent. But it was so thick it took some effort to eat a slice, and so rich that I’m surprised it didn’t kill us on the spot. I kept thinking of Woody Allen’s line about feeling his aorta congealing into a hockey puck. We couldn’t even finish it. This marked the first time for either of us that we actually threw away part of a cheesecake—something that normally would have been unthinkable.

I had learned my lesson. From then on, Steve got bakery cheesecake for his birthday. (All gratitude to Cristaudo’s, our wonderful local bakery.)

I’ve dated a couple of guys since Steve died, but both were diabetics and had to go easy on sweets. Even if they hadn’t been, I never would have been tempted to make them some special dessert. Depression is mostly a bad thing, but it does help you thwart unrealistic ambitions. In fact, I’ve been living in my current house for three years, and I don’t even know if the oven works. I’ve never turned it on.

Doggerel no. 4: Dating sites ~

Over the past four years or so I’ve become an old pro at dating sites. I’ve tried OkCupid, Match.com, OurTime, and eHarmony (the worst!). I recently gave Match another half-hearted try because of a half-price deal. But I’ve become aware that dating sites have a dark underbelly that I can no longer stomach.

It isn’t the danger of encountering sexual predators or other psychopaths. You can protect yourself pretty easily if you heed the recommended precautions. No, the danger is psychological: if you aren’t popular, you must be thick-skinned enough to cope with rejection every single day.

You must be especially thick-skinned if you’re thick-bodied. I garnered considerably more interest on dating sites when I was considerably thinner. Now, after six years of depression and relative immobility, I’m nowhere close to the body type or fitness level desired by 95 percent of the men out there. Over and over I read “Slender; Athletic and toned.” Sometimes a generous guy will include “About average,” whatever that is these days. Let’s just say I fall much closer to the other end of the spectrum.

I’ve passed by many interesting profiles because of this phenomenon. As for my own current profile (which does not specify “Slender” or “Athletic and toned”), it seems to be floating in an unpopulated sector of cyberspace. Occasionally I wonder if it has in fact been rendered somehow invisible to everyone but me.

When you experience rejection every day, you begin to hear the echoes of a hundred No’s in your head. Over time those echoes grow louder, until your self-esteem is shot and you yank your profile from the dating site in disgust. Nothing much to do about this humiliating experience other than write some doggerel.

Zip, Nada, Zilch; or Those Dating Site Blues

“Slender, average, athletic and toned”
Is all that the guys on the dating sites seek.
Even the chubby men, even the grubby men
Don’t want an overweight woman in reach.
What about intellect? What about heart?
I can make sweet conversation an art.
Yet most of the time, a fleshier gal
Is completely rejected as even a pal.

I try to be patient and just let things be,
But all of the silence discourages me.
Is this natural selection at work in my case
To keep my potential from reaching first base?
I’m still on the field, but I’m pretty done in.
Might be time to give up and leave love to the slim.

Into the confessional ~

Caveat: I’m abandoning my principles in making this post. There is nothing humorous here at all, and the few readers I have might usefully be advised to skip it. This post is principally for me to get the refrain of the past six years set down in writing. My friends have heard this ad nauseam, and they’re tired of hearing it. They needn’t read this. They’ve told me I’m not to blame, but I reject that judgment. One can’t absolve oneself of a great wrong because it is emotionally convenient. It doesn’t work that way.

____________________________________________________
Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice…
—Robert Frost

There was more than one nightmare on Elm Street. I lived on the street by that name in our town for 15 years, and the experience was bracketed at either end by deaths. One I had nothing to do with. The other I caused. There were accomplices, including the victim, but I dealt the killing blow.

The night before my second husband and I closed on the first and only house we bought together, a young man—a kid, really—raced his car up our portion of Elm Street, lost control, briefly went airborne, and struck the big sweet-gum tree in what would soon be our front yard. He died on the spot.

That’s what we learned when we arrived at the house the next day for the last walk-through before closing. The police had been so thorough in removing signs of the wreck that it took a moment to realize something very bad had happened. Tire tracks cut across the neighbor’s yard and her flower bed and disappeared into our front yard. On this balmy spring day, thousands of small pieces of glass glinted like ice over the lawn. An elderly woman from the apartment building next door told us what had happened the previous night. “If that tree hadn’t been there,” she said more than once, “I would have been killed in my bedroom.”

I felt sick for the boy and sick about this ominous development. Although my rationalism rejects superstition, my emotional side remains vulnerable. We’d looked a long time for a house, but now I wasn’t sure I wanted this one. I’d been afraid of death most of my life and I didn’t need my own front lawn serving as a perpetual memento mori. Everything seemed marred and wrong. I was prepared to forgo the earnest money and walk away, but when I brought up this possibility, the real estate agent said dismissively, “Well, it’s not as if someone killed himself in the house. I could see that bothering a person.”

We signed. Not having witnessed the accident made it easier to put out of mind. Still, I often thought about it when I looked out the living room windows. Fifteen years later, we were still picking up stray pieces of glass from the front lawn.

In my mind, that boy’s life ended in ice. My husband’s ended in fire.

We had a rocky marriage. I didn’t realize it until almost the end, but he was an alcoholic, and I fear that certain problems of my own caused his alcoholism to become worse. He lied about his drinking, as alcoholics do, and the lying was what really bothered me. Steve—I can write his first name instead of using initials, because what I write can’t hurt him now—wasn’t a mean drunk. Most of the time I didn’t even realize he was drunk. He went to bed early and I went to bed late. I didn’t know he was drinking in the mornings. I didn’t know he went home at lunch so that he could drink; he said it was to walk the dogs. I didn’t know much of anything. After his DUI he stopped drinking at the bars but found creative ways to hide his drinking at home.

Three times I told him if he lied again about drinking, I’d leave. Three times I went back on my word.

The fourth time I said I was leaving, I pushed Steve to call C., a friend of his who had gone through hell and successfully quit drinking with the help of AA. After the conversation he came into the living room, sat by me and cried and said I’d been right about calling C. The next morning he went to work drunk, clung to his boss and told her she was his family now, and was suspended for three weeks.

He begged me not to leave. I knew he probably wouldn’t make it without me; he had no friends in town and was completely emotionally reliant on me. Still, I bought another house and I went to San Diego to move my disabled sister back to live with me—both decisions proving to be additional disasters in the making.

Meanwhile, Steve was reassigned to another job, which he lost after a little more than a week. This time there was no appeal, although I met with the university authorities and did my best to advocate for him. My sister lived with us for two months while I had repairs done to the new house. In retrospect I can’t believe I was cruel enough to subject Steve to that, and even to ask him for help in doing things.

At some point shortly after he lost his job there came a morning when I couldn’t wake Steve up. He was barely conscious. After my sister and I followed the ambulance to the hospital, I realized I hadn’t brought his wallet. When I returned home I went into the basement, Steve’s locus of operations. All of his pill bottles stood empty, along with an empty whiskey bottle. I estimated that he’d taken 200 pills of various types. He hadn’t left a note. He was unconscious for three days and in the hospital for nine. Only then did I really start trying to help him, but it was too little too late. Why not earlier? I don’t know the answer to that question. To say that I was stupid and naive seems insufficient.

The insurance company refused to fund an inpatient rehab program, saying that Steve needed to have failed at an outpatient program first. On his first day at an outpatient program, such a violent fight broke out between two participants that the police had to be called. Terribly frightened, Steve had an accident—he only told me this much later—and never returned to the program.

Not long after that I drove him five hours to an inpatient program that said they had an open bed. When we got there, however, the bed had been taken and the program had been told that insurance wouldn’t cover Steve’s stay anyway. I argued with the insurance company; the program argued with the insurance company. Nothing.

I scheduled him with a self-pay inpatient program locally, but the program required that the patient call to confirm that he’d attend. He never called. Two months later I tried again. He never called.

The day before Thanksgiving, he told me he needed help. After several hours at the local ER, a hospital two hours away accepted him into short-term rehab. Nobody mentioned an ambulance. I drove him up there in darkness; by the time we arrived he was vomiting. The day after Thanksgiving he called to say he was being released. Less than 48 hours in detox? I made the drive again. He said he would never go back to a locked ward. They had confiscated his belt, without which his jeans wouldn’t stay up, and his shoelaces, without which his shoes wouldn’t stay on. He was afraid of the other people on the ward. The next time he had to detox, he refused to go to the ER, so I persuaded him to detox at my house. All I knew to do for him was to make sure he kept drinking water. I had already begun suggesting that he move in with me and my sister, but he refused.

I proceeded with a divorce. The lawyer had said that assets from my parents’ estate, which were earmarked for my sister, could be jeopardized if Steve had a DUI and killed somebody. Much later I found out this was almost certainly untrue. Steve wanted to put off signing the papers, but I wouldn’t let him. When he finished signing, he gave me a look of rebuke and hatred. I deserved that.

I took him to doctor’s appointments, the ones he didn’t cancel or refuse to go to. Once you try to kill yourself, we discovered, many helpful medications are off-limits. Nothing allayed his anxiety. Finally his psychiatrist put him on Seroquel. I thought he was sleeping so much and missing AA meetings because he was drinking. He was, but he also was knocked out by Seroquel. One morning he called at 4 a.m., thinking it was afternoon.

I went to Al-Anon meetings, which I found useless. I called complete strangers from these meetings and blurted out every sordid detail of my behavior and his problem, but there was no consolation. Steve was dying in front of me. It was like watching a disaster unfold in slow motion. C. flew in from the East Coast to see if he could help Steve. When I called him later, he was pessimistic. Steve wouldn’t talk to him seriously, he said. Steve was in denial.

Filled with anxiety, I lay on my couch or in my bed day after day and tried to get warm. My bones were cold, a feeling I’d never experienced before, and I couldn’t stop shaking. Nor could I get to work very often. The roof, which I’d had inspected before I bought the house, leaked every time it rained. Then came a major ice storm, which caused a tree limb to drop straight through the roof and attic and impale itself in the ceiling of my spare bedroom. The sun came out then, blindingly, glaring off all the ice-covered surfaces.

When the end came, it was on a day we had argued. Two days later the coroner called me at work, at my ex-father-in-law’s request. Alerted by neighbors, the police had broken into the house on Elm Street and found Steve’s body. It wasn’t hard for them to reconstruct what had happened. Steve had run out of matches and tried to light a cigarette from the stove burner. When the fire caught, it caught him too—alcohol was on his shirt and his beard. He inhaled fire. The police said he could not have suffered more than a couple of seconds. They were soft-pedaling it for me, I believe. Steve had time to stagger into the dining room, grope at a chair, and overturn it as he fell. There were burn marks on the floor. There were burn marks on the buffet. His pocket watch, which the police retrieved, was burned; his wallet was not. At the hospital we weren’t allowed to see his body.

I knew I might be killing him by leaving him, and I left anyway. I didn’t have to do it. There was nothing I had to save myself from. My guilt and grief threw me into a severe depression that eventually forced my retirement and caused physical debilitation. It’s something I’m struggling to fight my way back from. Steve exasperated me with his unwillingness to converse or to plan for the future, yet I have missed him greatly over the past years. He will never leave me. One of the few things I’ve learned in life is that the people you’ve loved never do leave you entirely, even as you go on to love others.

The last time I saw Steve was at our local grocery store. He was wearing his ratty old suede jacket. I threw my arms around him and began crying. His face was impassive. As far as I can remember, he didn’t say a word.

I’m dying here ~

I’ve had little time lately to think about this blog, but as I grow older I’ve been thinking about my deficiencies and when life started going south. Flunking childhood had a lot to do with that. Take a look at the wondrous things I never mastered:

1. Blowing bubble-gum bubbles.
2. Whistling.
3. Hula-hooping.
4. Crossing the monkey bars.
5. Rollerskating, except for rollerskating on rough gravelly sidewalks.
6. Turning a cartwheel.
7. Standing on my head.
8. Throwing a softball.
9. Catching a softball.
10. Hitting a softball.
11. Sledding.
12. Swimming with any degree of competence.
13. Climbing trees.
14. Eating bugs.

What a dud! Even I wouldn’t have chosen me for teams in gym. (Interesting, the proportion of adults who claim the experience of being chosen last. Either their memory is impaired, or the last-chosen are very disproportionately represented among writers and actors and such.)

I could run, and I could ride a bicycle….I did love riding my bike. And I achieved one other near-mandatory childhood accomplishment: hurting yourself badly enough to require stitches. Yet even that I did in a sedentary way. Did I launch myself off the roof in a brief but glorious belief that I would fly? Sadly, no.

I was sitting on the back porch steps and somehow fell off, putting my front teeth cleanly through my….whatever the area between your chin and lower lip is called. But it hardly counts, since I did that when I was 2 and it couldn’t be chalked up to bad behavior. I had to be told some years later what happened, although I have a wispy memory—probably my earliest memory—of my mother rushing me to the doctor’s office across the street, and sitting on her lap across the desk from the doctor when all the painful stuff was over. I carry the scar to this day but can’t point to it as a badge of courage. Such a waste!

Like so many childhood duds, I found solace in books. I began reading at age 3, which led to several cringeworthy episodes, such as my mom making me read to my nursery school teacher to prove I could do it (they didn’t call it pre-school then). Yet both of my parents took a strong ethical stand against showing off or bragging in any context. It could get me or my sister into trouble, so we didn’t do it. My mother, the hypocrite! Dad wouldn’t have made me read for anyone.

Much more embarrassing was the day my kindergarten teacher sent me, alone through the echoing hallways, up up up to the eighth-grade class to read, sort of like a circus freak giving a show. This was not only humiliating, it was scary, because written on the blackboard was an equation, something like 8 + n = 14. Math with letters??! This was a truly alarming concept, and I was sure I’d never to able to comprehend it. Eighth grade would be my downfall. My struggles with performance anxiety may date to this episode.

Still, my early childhood was generally happy, especially during road-trip vacations in my family’s blue Volkswagen Beetle. But when I was 8 I learned that, like bugs and birds, I would someday die. On the instant I became terrified of death. Thus the end of Eden.

The fear of death has ruled and ruined my life. Some of my friends know this and some don’t. Medication has helped a lot over the years, but now I’m debilitated and the end isn’t somewhere beyond the horizon anymore. I don’t plan to write about it. I didn’t set out to write a confessional blog or a memoir. Bathos is pathetic (ha!). But like pitcher Nuke LaLouche in “Bull Durham,” I seem to be starting out with erratic control. You may remember this: In one game, after Nuke’s control has improved dramatically, the catcher (Kevin Costner, in what I think is his best role) instructs him to hit the team mascot with his next pitch. And so he does. Costner looks at the hitter and says, “I wouldn’t lean too far in.” He pauses as the hitter looks at him. “I don’t know where it’s going.”