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This is the first installment of A Meeting of Souls – A Tale from the Wasteland.
If you enjoy this story and would like to own a copy of your very own, you can purchase it from Amazon/Kindle here and Barnes & Noble/Nook here. The e-book includes a full-color cover and a special, steamy, NSFW bonus chapter at the end of the story that won’t be included on the blog. Every romance needs a “happy ending,” right?
Before we get to the story, some background for my non-Wastelander readers. A few months ago, my dear friend and fellow Wastelander, Curtis, recounted a tale about working the gate as an Elite Guard during Wasteland Weekend and having a moment with one of the ladies in the back of the slaver truck (original Facebook post here). Well, I offered (okay, threatened) to write a story about it, and I’m pleased to announce that, with Curtis’ help, A Meeting of Souls is finished and ready for your reading pleasure. Lash LeSabre, one of Wasteland City’s Elite Guards, doesn’t care for the whole master-and-slave business, but when a shanghaied slave girl asks for his help to escape, he risks everything to rescue her. Will they make it back to the relative safety of Wasteland City before the desperate slavers can recapture their prize?
A MEETING OF SOULS
by LC Feeney and Curtis Gropp
Electronic edition published 2015 by LC Feeney (LINK)
Copyright © LC Feeney and Curtis Gropp. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form, without written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Authors’ Note: All characters depicted in this work of fiction are 18 years of age or older.
Lash LeSabre scanned the crowd passing through the gates to the City. It had been a long day of guard duty in the brutal heat, and he was looking forward to being off-shift in a couple of hours so he could head back to the barracks, down a bowlful of whatever Chilli had scared up for supper, and nurse some of Paul’s Atomic Piss with his feet up by the fire, weather permitting.
Wasteland City was an outpost in the middle of nowhere, a ramshackle oasis of pseudo-sanity in a world gone mad. An approximately circular walled compound built from the detritus of the Old World, it offered some semblance of civilization for those who needed it. It was a place to gather, to trade, to communicate, to commiserate. The job of the Wasteland City Elite Guard was to maintain order within the City, and to monitor vehicle and foot traffic entering and exiting via its main portal. Like the walled medieval fortresses it resembled, the City featured one main entryway. One entrance was easier to defend.
He was neither the tallest of the guards (that would be Ryno) nor the most muscular (that would be Tank), but at six feet and 200-plus pounds, his skin baked golden brown by the relentless desert sun, Lash cut an impressive figure, particularly in his guard armor. His ceremonial mohawk, made of horsetail and secured with leather straps, added several inches to his already imposing height. Guards were allowed some leeway in terms of duty gear, but the mohawk was the one thing every guard had in common. It was their most recognizable uniform piece—and most coveted. Lash’s armor and weapons were easily replaced, to some degree. The mohawk was earned, and all but irreplaceable.
Today Lash was “on the Gate.” Above him, in the left tower on the flamethrower, Sergeant Sickle stood watch, her steely gaze unwavering. In the right tower, the deceivingly willowy Saber stood ready behind the ballista.
When the slaver truck stopped in the gateway on its way out of the City, Lash kept his expression neutral. He didn’t care for the whole slave business, but his orders were to let them pass unmolested. If people wanted to play slave and master, who was he to judge? The official word was that the slaves had all agreed to the role, and that everything that happened between slaves and masters was consensual and all part of the fun. If that’s how people wanted to spend their caps in the Wastes, more power to them.
The mesh cage on the back of the old military truck held a handful of men and women, all of them lookers. They were really working the slave act, too—some of them huddled in the corner crying, some pleading with passersby to be released, and a few wrenching at the cage door trying to escape. The truck idled directly in front of Lash as it waited for a break in the crowd. The driver was in no hurry since his cargo was attracting plenty of attention, which could only mean more business. Lash had just decided to urge the driver to move along when one of the women caught his attention.
She was beautiful, of course, with a slender neck, pixie-short brunette hair, and big, brown eyes, but that wasn’t what held his gaze. Unlike the other slaves, she was crouched at the corner of the cage nearest him, staring at him, willing him to notice her. When he looked at her, she locked eyes with him and silently mouthed the words, “Help me.”
Lash blinked, searching her face. Was this just part of the act, or was she serious? Her expression was a mix of determination and fear, and staring into her eyes, he suddenly felt something between them. Something more than just physical attraction. What he’d once heard Miłosz of the Mermen call a meeting of souls. In that moment he was compelled to help her, to do something, to act. “I want to help you,” he found himself mouthing back almost involuntarily, and was rewarded with a flash of relief in her eyes, replaced just as quickly with desperation as the truck inched forward, the driver having found his opening in traffic.
“Hold it!” Lash shouted, wrenching his gaze away from the woman. Without a second thought, he strode to the front of the truck, slamming his hand onto the window sill to get the driver’s attention. The driver jumped but recovered quickly, his expression settling into one of practiced nonchalance. His passenger, a balding, wiry man wearing an old military flak vest, angled slightly in his seat to face Lash, his hand dropping to rest on the sidearm holstered at his thigh.
“Where are you taking these—” the word caught in his throat—“slaves?” Lash demanded.
“To the slaver camp, same as always. Why, has one of ‘em caught yer fancy?” The driver gave Lash his best conspiratorial wink and leer, flashing half a mouthful of rotten, tobacco-stained teeth.
Lash wrenched the door open. “Get out and open the cage. One of them has changed her mind.”
“Oh, son, don’t tell me you fell fer that ol’ bit! These kiddies knew exactly what they were gettin’ into when they signed the contract to play, and a deal’s a deal.”
“Deal my ass. Get out of the truck and open the cage. Now.”
“Now look, son, I can’t just be lettin’ slaves go whenever the mood strikes ’em. A contract’s a contract, ya know? But I’ll tell you what, you show me which one’s causing the ruckus and we’ll make you a real good deal on her, eh? We’ll even set her aside fer you until you get off duty. Better hurry, though—we pull up stakes in the morning.”
Lash—so nicknamed for the pair of bullwhips hanging from his belt—stepped back, reached behind his head, and slid a well-worn pump shotgun from the scabbard on his back, leveling it directly at the driver’s chest. “Put your hands where I can see them and get out of the truck. Move!”
By this time a crowd had gathered, curious about the drama at the gates. The driver glanced at his passenger, sighed dramatically, and raised his hands, leaning back to swing his feet out of the truck.
Sickle called out from high atop the tower behind Lash: “Guard, stand down!”
“We’ve got a situation down here,” Lash called back, his eyes never leaving the two men in the truck.
“Stand down! You know the order!”
Although his mind screamed that it was a bad idea, Lash slowly lowered his weapon. As he did, the truck’s passenger came around the cab in one swift movement, a flintlock pistol in his fist. There was a click, a flash, a boom. Lash was already moving, but the ball bearing caught him in the left shoulder, knocking him to the ground. He rolled to his knees and struggled to get up as the truck trundled away, scattering onlookers in its wake. Through the thickening dust he could see the woman, her fingers stretched through the mesh of the cage toward him, and then she was gone.
I was able to check two items off my “50 Things To Do In My 50th Year” list since my last post, and I made some progress on two other items as well. Go me!
First, I completed Item #47 (Eat shawarma ala Avengers) on Saturday, June 20th. I’d never had shawarma before, but after Tony Stark recommended it in the first Avengers movie, I knew I had to try it. Grif mentioned that there was a cafe in Simi Valley that served it, so when I had occasion to have lunch with my good friend C (who lives in the area), all the pieces fell into place. I love it when a plan comes together!
We met at Ali Baba Cafe and I had the beef shawarma sandwich. It was very tasty and reminded me of a gyro sandwich. I would definitely eat there again.
The other item I completed this week is #11 (Go to a tango milonga). Grif and I have been taking Argentine Tango lessons at House of Dance in Ventura for the past few months. They hold a social dance party every Friday evening, and the last Friday of each month is a milonga corta, which is a basically a dance party where they play tangos all evening. Traditionally, one is expected to dance with multiple partners at a milonga corta, but since Grif and I are still rank amateurs when it comes to dancing the tango, we cheated and kept to ourselves. Nobody seemed to mind too much.
We were only there for an hour, because Liam has a parkour class on Friday evenings and we needed to pick him up afterwards, but we were ready to be done by the time we had to leave. Argentine Tango isn’t a terribly strenuous dance, but it is done in a close “salon” embrace (essentially a full body press from the waist up), and warm room plus pretty much non-stop dancing for 45 minutes was plenty of milonga corta for us. I’d just gotten new tango shoes too, so while they fit like a dream and were a real pleasure to dance in, my dogs were barking when it was time to go home.
During our dance lessons, the instructors give us specific steps or combinations of steps to work on, so it was a bit of a challenge to figure out how to string them all together enough to keep dancing for an entire three-minute (or longer!) song. Argentine Tango is unlike any other type of dancing I’ve ever done before, and it is surprisingly complex, at least for me. Grif and I spent most of our time giggling and trying to stay out of the way of the other dancers, but in the end I think we made a huge leap forward in our ability to tango together because we weren’t just following along to preset choreography, we were actually dancing. By the way, if you want to improve your listening and communication skills, either as a couple or as an individual, I highly recommend taking social dance lessons. It has done more for my relationship with Grif than anything else we’ve gone through together.
Grif wasn’t too keen on the idea of attending the milonga corta when I first suggested it, but he seemed to really enjoy himself. I think we’ll be back next month, and we may even get brave and try out some of the other milonga cortas in the area. Woo hoo!
In other news, I made progress on Item #5 (Make 50 items to donate to charity). I’ve been doing charity knitting for years now, and my favorite thing to loom knit is baby hats. I have chosen Emily’s Hats For Hope Initiative to donate to this year, and I’ve completed 32 baby hats so far. Most of them were completed before my birthday, however. Is that cheating?
Finally, I made some progress on Item #34 (Finish will, advanced directive, body donation arrangements, etc.). Are you watching the “Ask a Mortician” series on YouTube? Caitlin Doughty is a delight and I can’t recommend her videos highly enough. Coincidentally, her most recent “Ask a Mortician” video covered the basics of advanced medical directives and other topics along this line, so I took lots of notes and did quite a bit of research this week. Not to be morbid, but 50 is pretty much midlife for me (if I’m lucky), so what better time to take care of the paperwork and get all my final arrangements in place so I can get on with the business of living, yes?
That’s it for this week!
I’m turning 50 this year. I’m not embarrassed to admit it, because I am damn glad to still be kicking around the planet after doing my best to live up to the expression “live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse” in my sordid youth, and after surviving a ruptured appendix a few years ago.
I had originally intended to celebrate my half-century mark by taking an extended trip to Disney World and the surrounding parks later this year, but the hubby and the teenager aren’t really interested in that sort of thing, and the logistics of a trip like that are proving difficult (not to mention expensive). It seems a shame not to mark the occasion in some way, but I’m having a hard time deciding how. I had a fairly major do for my birthday last year, so I’m less inclined to throw a big party and besides, it’s my friend Brian’s turn, since we share a birthday and he had to play second fiddle to me during the celebration last year.
I enjoy traveling, so that is always high on my list of things to do, and I had a great time celebrating my 40th birthday with a day at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, which definitely has its appeal. I’ve been reading a lot about folks who do the whole “random acts of kindness/pay it forward” thing on their birthdays, which sounds really cool too.
What do you think? Did you spend your last landmark birthday in a memorable way? Do you have any ideas about special ways I can mark the day?
I don’t normally make resolutions for the new year, but I often make a list of things I’d like to accomplish or changes I’d like to implement or items to scratch off my bucket list. While I like the “fraught with portent” feeling January 1st brings, something about Official New Year’s Resolutions feels fake to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to set myself up for failure or be disappointed if I don’t follow through with my stated resolutions. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid of commitment. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to be all zen and in the moment and not stressed out about what’s coming down the pike tomorrow or next week or six months from now. Or maybe I’m just rationalizing my laziness. I don’t know. One day at a time. (Wo)man without vision shall perish. You can’t steer a parked car. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there? AAAUUUGGGHHH!!!
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, here’s my current list of goals for 2015. It’s not a complete list, but it’s what is foremost in my mind right now.
1. Write every day – Except for NaNoWriMo 2013, I haven’t been very consistent with my writing. I tend to write in fits and spurts whenever the muse bites, but I realize this is not the way to improve my craft. In the upcoming year, I intend to write something every day – maybe a blog post, maybe a response to one of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges, or maybe another chapter on one of my two unfinished novels.
2. Follow the Anti-Inflammatory Diet – I really hate the common definition of the word “diet” (diet is die with a t, according to Garfield), but the more I read about eliminating foods that often cause inflammation and consuming more foods with anti-inflammatory properties, the more I’m convinced that it is worth a try. I’m not getting any younger, and rather than live on NSAIDs, I’d like to try some potentially less damaging pain management strategies for my plantar fasciitis, asthma and achy joints. If I end up dropping a few pounds as a result of a change in my eating habits, so much the better.
3. Get my craft on more often – Now that I’m no longer of child-bearing age, I find myself wanting to create in other ways – knitting, cooking, sewing, weaving. I love making things, but I’m not very good at it usually. In the upcoming year, I want to do more creating and crafting. This has the added benefit of helping me move through the enormous stash of craft supplies taking up space in practically every room of the house. I will most likely display, wear, donate, gift or otherwise dispose of projects as I finish them and as the mood strikes.
Okay, that’s everything on my list right now. What’s on your to-do list for 2015?
NB – This post contains possible triggers for those susceptible to depression and other mental health issues.
I never really wanted to write about depression because so many other bloggers have written far better, more descriptive posts than I ever could (Jenny Lawson/The Bloggess, Allie Bosch/Hyperbole and a Half, Wil Wheaton – you’ll have to Google them because I can’t figure out how to link to their blogs), but having just skirted along the edge of what was heading toward a big ‘ol bout of it, I feel compelled to get my thoughts on the subject out of my head and onto the screen.
I am no expert on the subject of depression. I can only speak from my own experience. This is what it feels like to me and what I do about it. Your mileage may vary, of course.
I was diagnosed many years ago with dysthymia, which is a fancy name for chronic mild depression. (By the way, having an “official” diagnosis doesn’t make it any better or more legitimate. It just gives it a name so the medical billers can code it in a way that the insurance companies will pay for the therapist visits.) I first started feeling the symptoms of depression when I hit puberty and I suppose I am lucky in that I don’t get the crushing, incapacitating, suicidal episodes that many sufferers contend with. A friend of mine coined the term “brain weasels” to describe how she felt sometimes, and that is exactly what dysthymia feels like to me – a gnawing, insidious sadness that lurks just around the edges of my mind, looking for any opportunity to take a swipe, a nip, a chunk out of my self-esteem and happiness. I sometimes find myself looking over my shoulder, figuratively, and feeling paranoid whenever things are going well because I know the brain weasels are out there and they’re just biding their time, waiting for their next opportunity to strike.
When I’m in the brain weasels’ clutches, I feel as though nothing is right or good enough. Nothing makes me happy, nothing satisfies, nothing works right. I feel tired or sleepy, but I can’t really sleep or rest. I feel hungry, but nothing tastes right and I’m never satiated. Books aren’t engaging, music isn’t uplifting, TV shows and movies aren’t worth the time or effort. Everything is just kind of bland, grey, slightly sad, and pointless. I don’t get that “lie on the couch and don’t move for six weeks” depression that others describe. I still get up in the morning and move through my day. I get a shower, get the chores done, keep my appointments, and hit my deadlines for the most part. Most people don’t even realize that I’ve slid into the pit, because I’m pretty good at faking the “We’re all fine here. How are you?” But everything takes a supreme amount of effort and is haunted by the ever-present chatter of the brain weasels, reminding me that everything in my life sucks, chiefly me.
I’m not sure what set them off this time. It’s different every time, and sometimes the thing you think would send me careening over the precipice barely even pings the radar. When my father died, I felt sad and slightly numb, but I didn’t slide into depression. When a dear friend succumbed suddenly and unexpectedly to H1N1, I was shocked and incredulous, but I didn’t start to slip. But for the past week I’ve felt the brain weasels circling. Whatever it was, they saw a chink in the armor and went on all-out attack.
“You made the wrong decision. You said the wrong thing. You ate the wrong thing. That was a stupid thing to do. How could you be so stupid? You suck. You think you’re so tough, but you’re not. You are fat. You will always be fat. You can’t run. You look ridiculous when you run. People are laughing at you when they see you exercising. You are old and ugly. You look terrible. You are unattractive. Why would anyone want to be with you? You are weak and clumsy. You are going to fall and hurt yourself. You are wasting your time and your life. You haven’t accomplished anything with your life and you never will. You aren’t smart enough or strong enough. You don’t follow through on things and you don’t stick with projects. The things you create are pathetic and stupid. Nobody likes you. Nobody wants to work with you. Nobody wants to hire you. Nobody wants to be your friend. You are a terrible friend. You are a terrible parent. You are a terrible wife. You are doing everything wrong. You have dumb ideas. Your writing is lame. There is no way you can write a story. Nobody wants to read or hear what you have to say. You think you’re so important, but you’re not. People are making fun of you and talking about you behind your back. No one is ever going to love you. You don’t deserve to be loved. You have no right to be sad. There are so many people in the world who are worse off than you are. You should be ashamed of yourself, wallowing in self-pity when there are people out there in prison, in abusive relationships, in abject poverty, in war-zones. You sit there feeling sorry for yourself when you have so many advantages, opportunities and lucky breaks. You should just leave. You should just die. You will never feel any better. Your life is going to suck forever.”
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Here’s the thing – intellectually, I know that the brain weasels are lying. I know that what they say isn’t true. I believe that I’m a worthwhile individual and I know that I am surrounded with people who love me and whom I love very deeply. I know that the brain weasels are just nipping at me, trying to get me to fall, to lie down, to give up. But when they get really loud and crowd in and close around me to the point where they are all I see and hear, I start to listen to them and believe them. That’s when it becomes a problem.
A therapist once told me that you can’t control your feelings, but you can control how you react or respond to your feelings. I really believe that. Feeling elated or angry or fearful or sad is not within your control and is not really the problem, per se. How you feel is how you feel. What you do with that feeling, on the other hand, how you respond to it or react to it, is where you have control. Once I really understood that, it was so liberating.
So what works against the brain weasels? Not letting the little bastards get a toe-hold helps a lot. You know how in those survival shows and movies, the hero always builds a fire? It keeps him warm and let’s him cook his supper, sure, but it also helps keep the wild animals at bay and gives him a sense of security. The predators may be lurking just outside the circle of light and warmth, but inside the circle it is safe. That is what I do with the brain weasels – I keep stoking the fire and feeding the flames to keep my circle of light and warmth around me and to keep the critters back. Ninety percent of the time, it works just fine.
Here’s how I keep the fire blazing:
1. I found God – Well, maybe not God (in the traditional, Christian sense), but I found a connection and a spirituality that works for me. I make a point to connect with The Divine every day and I think that is the single, most important tool in my arsenal against the demons and the monsters. There’s enough material about my personal spiritual beliefs and practices to write several blog posts, and I’ll get those written and posted one of these days. If you want to know more before I get to that, though, feel free to contact my privately.
2. I started exercising – Yeah, yeah, I know. You don’t want to hear about my workouts. But getting regular exercise (especially when it doesn’t feel like exercise) has really helped keep the brain weasels at bay. I don’t know if it’s because they can’t keep up when I’m running or if I can’t hear them over the sound of my pounding heart and heavy breathing, but the regular endorphin rush (not to mention the increased energy and stamina) has contributed to much-less-frequent brain weasel attacks.
3. I quit hanging around people who bring me down – I spent a not-insignificant portion of the first half of my life putting up with people who were unkind, abusive, cruel, manipulative, self-centered, and controlling. I don’t anymore. Finally learning that I don’t have to be nice to (or even be around) people I don’t like or who aren’t nice to me was one of the best lessons I ever learned.
4. I developed an arsenal of weapons – Over the years I’ve learned what type of music, imagery, and sensory stimulation makes me feel happy. It took me awhile (excessive self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, anyone?), but I’ve got a pretty good idea now what types of things nurture my soul and uplift me. I include some of those things in my day, every day, and up the frequency when I feel the brain weasels closing in.
Sometimes, though, despite all my meditating and beach walking and eating dark chocolate and dancing to Oingo Boingo, the brain weasels bum rush me and tackle me to the ground. The little cretins have really sharp teeth, and they are heavy when they all dog-pile on top of me at once. It seems impossible to shake them off by myself, and although I know I should call for help or reach out to someone for a hand up, it’s hard to focus on the way out with their incessant reminders of how bad and worthless I am. This time, thank goodness, Grif noticed and pushed a few of them aside so he could hand me a flaming torch to drive them back. And so, with the brain weasels pushed to the outer edges of the circle, I’m in a good place again. Maybe I should make one of those charts like you see on construction sites – “47 Days Since the Last Brain Weasel Attack” – to see if I can keep the streak going.
I guess the point of all this is to let you know, fellow dysthymia sufferer, that I get it. I can’t say that I understand what it’s like for you, but I think it’s important for us to remember that depression lies. The brain weasels lie. All those things that they say are not true, especially the part about how no one likes you and the world would be better off without you. And if you ever feel like they’re closing in on you, I’m happy to shove a few of them aside and hand you a flaming torch.
Woo Hoo! Liam’s last day of school is today (even though we finished the curriculum last Friday), so we are officially on summer break until August 11th. These past few months have been really busy and full for us (who knew the work load was going to increase so much in middle school!), and I’ve missed my weekly writing sessions, but now that I have 4-5 hours of my day back, I’m going to restart the habit of regular writing. It’s a good thing, too, because I’ve had lots of ideas rattling around in my brain and I need to get them out of there so the good stuff can come through.
I don’t really have much of a plan or theme for my writing, but I do have a few things I’d like to accomplish. I’ve been writing bits and pieces of a long, multi-arc story that involves the same two characters meeting and interacting in different times and places, and I’d like to work more on that project. As it stands right now, I’ve got a fantasy/D&D storyline, a present day story line (the “bit of fiction” posts, in case you want to catch up), a post-apocalyptic story line and a Victorian/steampunk storyline going, and I’ve been writing bits of story and plot as they come to me. I also have a bunch of one-off, short-story things bouncing around in my brain that are probably more like thought exercises. I’m occasionally intrigued by the “prompt of the day” stuff WordPress posts, so if one of those gets my muse wiggling, I’ll probably do some of those as well.
Finally, a bit of housekeeping. I turned off the feature that automatically posts links on Facebook and Twitter anytime I post something. I’ll “alert the media” if I’ve posted anything I’m particularly proud of, but feel free to subscribe or check back on a regular basis if you’re worried about missing anything. Also, after fielding a couple of mean-spirited comments on the Stir The Embers blog, I’m moderating comments here and on that blog as well. I welcome your comments and promise to make sure they post right away (I even have an app on my phone so I can do it on the fly!), but I reserve the right to not post comments that I feel are trollish, spammy or rude. Feel free to contact me directly if you have specific questions or concerns about that.
I have a love/hate relationship with Valentine’s Day. Back in the days when cell phones were first becoming popular, there was a radio commercial from one of the carriers that featured two “dude”-type characters who regularly discussed the pros and cons of owning a cell phone, and the ad that ran in early February had one character using the line, “Dude, it’s like their Super Bowl!” to convince his friend that he should buy his sweetheart a cell phone. I always chuckled at that line, but I know several women who really do take it that seriously.
What is it about Valentine’s Day presents anyway? They are usually cheesy and overpriced ($100 bouquets of red roses that have no scent and die in a week, anyone?) and there is so much expectation surrounding the selection, purchasing, presentation and receiving of these gifts. Why is that? Have we really bought into the mass merchandising hype that much? To me, it is a classic example of “manufactured drama” – you’re not a real man if you don’t buy just the right present at just the right price point and your man doesn’t really love you if he doesn’t come through with the flowers/candy/jewelry/dinner out/(insert appropriate gift here). Could it get any more shallow or meaningless? And yet, I’m disappointed when Valentine’s Day comes and goes without a bouquet of flowers, a box of chocolates or a little velvet box magically appearing from the hands of my beloved. That’s why my feelings are so conflicted about the holiday.
My Valentine’s Day expectations started with my parents. I have fond memories of my dad coming home from work on Valentine’s Day with little heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, small teddy bears and other appropriately-themed gifts easily procured from the local Coronet or Thrifty Drugstore for my sister and me. He always had something for my mom too (much bigger and grander, of course), but she always seemed vaguely dissatisfied with his offerings. While my sister and I were perfectly happy with red, pink and white loveys and cheap boxes of Whitman’s, my mother was looking for something else, something more. I read somewhere that man’s chief aim in life is to please woman, and while I’m not sure that’s universally true, it certainly seemed to be the case with my parents and several other couples I know. But why is the man’s offering never good enough? Or, if he does manage to present the woman with the perfect gift that she’s always wanted, why does it fail to satisfy in the long-term?
I always swore that I would never be one of “those” women – the “if you can guess why I’m angry then we’ll talk” kind that like to play head games and expect (demand?) the men in their life to make regular offerings to prove their love and devotion (and usually without providing any guidelines as to what sort of offerings would be deemed worthy). It always seemed foolish to me to expect someone else to read my mind and perfectly provide for my every want and need. I just don’t buy the “if he really loved me he’d know what I want” thing. Hell, a lot of the time I don’t even know what I want. How on earth is someone else supposed to know? And like a lot of young women heading into adulthood, I vowed to not be like my mother. I was determined not to buy into the gender role stereotypes, to cave to mass consumerism demands, to remain true and honest in my interactions with boyfriends, lovers and husbands, and to avoid being brainwashed by all the crap we’re bombarded with every day that tells us how we’re “supposed” to look and behave and feel and think. And yet, here I am, one day past Valentine’s Day feeling vaguely dissatisfied. And I don’t like it.
For most of my teen and adult life, my romantic relationships have been with men who would not be considered romantic by most standards. Florist-delivered bouquets of roses hardly ever appear on my doorstep (except from my father, who sent me flowers on my birthday and Valentines Day for years after hearing my then-husband say he would never do so because it was a waste of money). Candle-lit dinners, romantic weekend escapes and moonlight walks on the beach are arranged by me, not by them. Elaborate, romantic marriage proposals, declarations of undying love, “I was just thinking about you” phone calls/emails, and hidden love notes rarely appear. And, despite all my thinking and logic-ing and rationalizing to the contrary, this has left me feeling somewhat disappointed. I don’t want to be, but I am.
To be fair, however, I have received some wonderful, touching, thoughtful gifts from the men in my life over the years – the single, perfect dahlia clandestinely ripped from the neighbor’s garden with roots and dirt clump still attached while we were on a walk in the neighborhood; the obscure computer game that I’d never heard of before but turned out to be one of my favorite games to play because “it seemed like something you would like;” the beautiful diamond ring that was presented on Memorial Day weekend because “I couldn’t wait until your birthday to give this to you.” Those gifts were wonderful, touching, and unexpected, but they didn’t come on Valentine’s Day. Why does that matter?
If I’m being completely honest, it’s bigger than just Valentine’s Day. What I think it boils down to, for me anyway, is not so much what the gift is or when it is received as much as what it stands for. To be deemed worthy enough of attention and adoration is part of it, but really it is more the idea that someone values me and our relationship enough to take the time and energy to acknowledge it in some public, tangible way. The “I saw this and thought of you” present or the “I arranged this because I knew you’d like it,” regardless of how much it cost or how elaborate the plans were, symbolize, to me, that I am important, that I matter, that our relationship and my contribution to it has value, that someone cares about my feelings.
As much as I hate to admit it, and think that I’ve risen above it all, and am more evolved and mature than that, I still need external validation of my love-worthiness. And I’m reminded of that every Valentine’s Day.
Today is the one-year anniversary of “the first day of the rest of my life.” One year ago today, I asked my Twitter followers to recommend a good Urgent Care facility in Oxnard since the “gall bladder problems” I’d been experiencing for five days prior just weren’t getting any better. That tweet led to a phone conversation with a good friend, who dropped everything to drive me to the ER while another friend (a former EMT) convinced me that my knowledge of anatomy did indeed suck and that I was having an appendicitis attack, not a gallstone incident. One ruptured appendix later, I ended up with surgery, a fever that wouldn’t go away, a week-long hospital stay, a C. diff. (a really bad, really contagious infection) scare, a month of terrible gastro-intestinal issues while recuperating at home and $40,000 in medical bills. (Thankfully, Grif’s medical insurance covered a good portion of that expense, but we are still struggling to pay off the last $8,000 of it.) It was the lowest point of pretty horrible year, but it gave me the impetus I needed to finally take control of my health and get my life back on track.
In early November 2011, I weighed almost 240 pounds. I was taking prescription medication for metabolic syndrome (pre-diabetes), hypothyroidism, high cholesterol, and severe pre-menopausal symptoms, and I was self-medicating with OTC and herbal supplements for symptoms of depression and GERD. My blood pressure was high enough to need medication, but I convinced my doctor to let me try to bring my weight down first so I wouldn’t have to take another prescription medication (even with insurance, the co-pays were really expensive!). I had had plantar fasciitis in both feet earlier in the year, but it was steadily improving enough that I had (foolishly?) committed to walking in the Tinkerbell Half-Marathon in January 2012 and had worked up to being able to walk five miles without stopping. All in all, I thought I was a pretty typical 46-year-old stay-at-home mom with a family history of obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol and depression. When my abdominal pain started, I attributed it to the artichoke with lemon butter I’d had for lunch. As the pain got worse over the next few days (and moved from the middle of my stomach to my right side), I convinced myself that it was just a gallstone that needed to pass (I’d self-diagnosed gall bladder issues in the past). Besides, I wasn’t throwing up, I wasn’t jaundiced (signs of gall bladder problems that need medical attention) and I certainly didn’t want to go sit in the ER waiting room for hours only to be told that I had the stomach flu and should go home to rest (been there, done that). Nope, I was determined to tough it out, not over-react and not be a wuss. Besides, we couldn’t really afford for me to get on another prescription medication and with Grif at work, what would I do with my kid while I was in the ER anyway?
As I look back on it now, I can’t believe how stupid I was, but at the time, all those excuses seemed perfectly rational and logical. The funny thing about true medical emergencies, though, is that they usually don’t just go away or get better if you wait them out. I am so thankful for Lynn and Tina, who wouldn’t take no for an answer and got me to the ER and into surgery. I truly believe I would’ve laid in my bed and died if they had not intervened despite my stubbornness and gotten me the medical help I needed.
Last year, I wrote a long post about my adventures in the ER waiting room, the actual surgery and recovery, the hospital stay and the first few weeks at home. Without going into a lot of detail here, let’s just say that it sucked, it was much worse than I anticipated and it was much harder than delivering and recovering from my C-section child birth 10+ years ago. However, when I realized I was indeed going to recover and live to fight another day, I made the decision to actually live and fight, and that has made all the difference.
I don’t think I’m much different than anyone else and I certainly don’t feel like a superhero or that I’m any more special than the next gal, but when I was lying in the hospital wondering if I was going to die (and feeling so bad that death didn’t seem like a bad option at that moment), I called upon every deity I could name and I made a decision to live. I didn’t want to feel like that any more and I wanted to get better. Yes, it was partly because I love my husband and son and wanted to spend more time with them, and it was partly because I have many dear friends and family members who were sending me lots of love and support, but in all honesty I decided to live and to get better for me. I decided I didn’t want to feel bad anymore, physically, mentally or emotionally. I wanted to get better.
So, where are we now, exactly one year from my “re-birthday” (as Heather would say)? Well, I’ve lost about 40 pounds, so I’m about halfway to my goal weight (according to the medical charts). What’s more significant to me, though, is that I’ve dropped 2-3 clothes sizes and my body has gotten smaller and stronger. I can do a few push ups, I can almost do a real pull up, I can walk up a flight of stairs or a hill without struggling, I can reach the floor when I bend over to stretch, I can sleep 2-3 hours at a stretch without waking up in pain. The most exciting improvement, though, is that my blood pressure is down to a manageable level and I’ve been able to stop taking my cholesterol medication, my hypothyroidism medication, my metabolic syndrome medication, and my hormone replacement therapy medication. My depression and GERD have subsided dramatically and my plantar fasciitis is pretty much gone except for the occasional twinge in my left heel. When I first committed to doing the Tinkerbell Half-Marathon, I was barely able to walk a mile without stopping. Today, I am able to run two miles without stopping and am training to walk/run my second and third half-marathons in December and January.
So, what’s the take-away here? For me, it hasn’t been any one specific diet, workout tool, exercise plan, guru or nutritional supplement. I haven’t been perfect at it and I still have a ways to go. I guess the reason I’m getting better every day is because I want to get better and I made a decision to get better. I try to use the old 12-Step technique of “one day/hour/minute at a time” and rather than looking at what I can’t do (I can never have another soda!) or what I have to do (I have to work out every day for the rest of my life!), I try to focus on what I can do right now. I can’t predict the future and I certainly can’t eat and workout perfectly for the rest of my life, but I can choose to eat one cookie instead of two today, and I can choose to go for a walk or a run today instead of playing Bingo on Facebook.
If someone were to ask me for advice on how to get started on the road to “getting better,” I’d tell them to start where you are with what you’ve got and to do one thing every day. Don’t get hung up on what other people can do and don’t beat yourself up trying to live up to past glories. If you can only walk one block today without stopping, then walk that one block and don’t beat yourself up because you can’t walk two blocks yet. If you’re craving potato chips, opt for a handful rather than the entire bag, and don’t feel guilty about it. Success, for me, isn’t about the big, grand, lofty goals and deadlines. It’s about the little decisions I make every day, all day long, that add up to make a big difference.
This summer, I’m determined to find my blender. And my hand mixer. And the bottom half of my juicer. And hopefully, my antique, clamp-on meat grinder. With any luck, they’re all in the same box.
Let me explain. Grif and I bought our house in October of 2008. We’d been renting a house from a friend of ours for several years prior to that, so we’d accumulated a lot of stuff, not to mention a child with his own growing pile of stuff. All three of us tend to be nostalgic pack rats, so we had boxes of stuff we’d collected that was too precious to throw away and moved from previous lives, houses and relationships, along with stuff our parents had given us (to rid themselves of some of the stuff we’d left behind when we’d moved out upon reaching adulthood) that all had to be moved into the new house. To make matters worse, there was some confusion about the actual date we would be vacating our rental house, so the final weekend of packing and moving consisted of me frantically stuffing random items into any box that had space and many friends helping to move all our things out of the rental house and into the new house while the landlord was underfoot trying to make repairs before the next tenants moved in. Not exactly the organized, careful, well-thought-out plan I’d envisioned. As we started unpacking boxes at the new house, I realized that many boxes that had items that needed to be in the house were stacked in the garage, and vice versa. I managed to find the crucial bits, but fell into the bad habit of “I’ll go through that stuff later,” and stored many unpacked boxes out in the garage. It was then that I realized I hadn’t found my blender, hand mixer, juicer or meat grinder, but I was sure it was in one of those packed-badly-at-the-last-minute boxes and that they’d turn up eventually.
Next, I got lazy and overwhelmed. Sure, I have a lot of good reasons (excuses) why it took me 3-1/2 years to start trying to find my kitchen appliances. Grif got laid off from his job and we were both completely consumed with trying to pay the bills and keep the house. We both got depressed at our rapidly deteriorating financial situation and his inability to find another job right away. My son started having academic and social trouble in school . My father was diagnosed with (and eventually succumbed to) terminal lung cancer and my parents needed my help. I started a business with some friends. But the real reason I didn’t start going through the boxes is that the prospect overwhelmed me. There was just so much stuff!
Fast forward to this spring. Having cheated death-by-ruptured-appendix this past November and successfully completed my first half-marathon in January, I’ve been feeling like I can tackle any challenge lately. Helping my grandmother go through my great-grandmother and my grandfather’s things and helping my mother go through my father’s things after they passed away was a huge eye-opener for me, so I became determined to ruthlessly pare my stuff down to the items that truly matter. I keep repeating William Morris’ famous quote – “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” So far I’ve shredded old utility bills from 1999, donated boxes of baby toys to charity, rescued several of Grif’s childhood photos before they disintegrated, found my high school diploma and yearbooks, and recycled, donated or otherwise disposed of many, many pounds of stuff. I make it a point to go through at least one box per day, and often empty more than one if I’m really on a roll. It feels great to be making progress on a project that has been bugging me for a long time, and I have grand visions of turning our garage into useful, workable space in the not-too-distant future.
But I still haven’t found my blender.
Dear Person Whom I’ve Asked For Help (i.e., retail clerks, salespeople, customer service reps, tech support folks and anyone else in the position of answering questions, solving problems or fixing things for people):
If I ask you for help, it is because I either can’t find what I’m looking for, or I don’t know the answer, or I need help solving a problem. I am not trying to get you to do my work for me, nor am I being lazy, nor am I necessarily stupid and incompetent. I am, however, most likely already embarrassed, irritated, stressed out, frustrated or otherwise not my usual cheery, agreeable self. Responding to my request for assistance in an annoyed, irritated, impatient, snarky, frustrated or condescending manner does neither of us any good and certainly doesn’t move our interaction toward a positive outcome.
I get it that you deal with idiots all the time, and you’re right, the item I’m looking for or the solution to my problem is most likely pretty obvious, to you, anyway. I understand that you might be right in the middle of something important and don’t want to have to drop everything to work on my problem. And since I’m already frustrated, I may have started our interaction off badly by letting my irritation show in my voice and my attitude. But I asked for your help because I thought you were the person who could do that. If you’re not, please point me in the direction of whomever can assist me and I’ll take my request elsewhere. Don’t make me feel worse than I already do about the situation.
Despite what you might think, I’m fairly self-sufficient and would prefer to handle things on my own if I can (online shopping and self-service checkout line, anyone?). If I knew how to fix whatever it is on my own, I wouldn’t have asked for your help in the first place. Making me feel bad about my need for assistance (or my decision to ask you for it), only encourages me to stop asking you and to find someone else who can help me. In other words, to take my business elsewhere. If you’re in the business of helping people or if we have a working relationship, you may not see that as a problem, but it certainly doesn’t endear me to your product or service or brand or company. It just makes me determined not to do business with you in the future.