Friday, December 30, 2011

High Resolution

With 2012 looming, many of us are thinking about New Year’s resolutions.  And by “many of us”, I mean “me”.  Others too though.  Transitioning from an old wall calendar with photos of bucolic country scenes on it provided free by your bank to a new wall calendar with photos of bucolic country scenes on it provided free by your bank has traditionally also been a time to make changes in one’s life.  It seems like a healthy idea worth taking part in, assuming your resolutions for 2012 don’t include “Eat a car” or “Hug a gila monster”.

I have to say, I was quite successful in my resolutions for 2011.  Actually, it was only one resolution: “Wait until next year to make resolutions.”  Achievable goal achieved! 

This year, I am setting my sights a bit higher, and making five resolutions.  To make it more likely I will actually adhere to them, I am making them public here.  They are, as follows:

1.       Eat better.
Yeah, yeah, it’s such a cliché resolution, I know, but I seriously need to do this.  I’ll be 42 years old in a few months, but my eating habits haven’t really changed since I was 17, and there are numerous discarded McWrappers on the floor of my chariot to prove it.  Fortunately, I have a reasonably good metabolism and drink a lot of water as a rule, so my weight does not match up with the amount of garbage I typically inhale.  Nonetheless, my poundage has been creeping up over the past few years.  During a recent trip to the doctor’s office, I saw a chart that indicated that my current weight (200 pounds.  I’ll admit that), attached to my frame (all 5’11” of it) is technically, just technically, categorized as “obese”.   (Just technically.)   I am almost certain that some tofu-eating nut devised that chart, but it still struck me as probably a good idea to keep the potato chips out of reach and step away from the cookie dough ice cream more often.  Now I don’t plan on becoming a vegan or anything like that.  I am not even formally planning a diet.  You’ll notice the resolution is to “eat better”, not necessarily to “eat healthy”.  In other words, I plan to eat less horribly to some degree.  Avoiding junk food and processed food more often might be a good start.  Now pass me that box of Twinkies.  It's not 2012 yet!

2.       Exercise more.
I get quite a bit of exercise in my work in the veterinary hospital.  Part of what’s great about my job is that you make frequent use of both your mind and your body.  For example, I am often thinking about how I am going to get out of this mess while I am climbing a cabinet to escape an enraged pit bull who is trying to kill me. See?  Mind and body.  However, outside of work, I haven’t been exercising much at all lately.  I used to hike, ski, snowshoe, bike, and all kinds of things like that, but have been making excuses not to do them in recent months.  The truth of the matter  is, I hate sweating with a deep abiding passion.  It doesn’t take much for me to start breaking a sweat either.  The irony is that if I could get myself to exercise more, I’d be in better shape and likely sweat less.  Sweat more to sweat less.  Cruel joke, that is.

 This is how I've spent most of my free time since 1970.

Incidentally, I will NOT join a gym, so don’t even go there.  Exercising just for the sake of exercise is not my thing.  Put me on a treadmill, and I will immediately start looking at my watch and obsess about how my glasses are starting to fog. Then my stupid brain will just start saying things to me like: “Kinda sweaty, aren’t you big boy?” or “That tweak in your right leg might be a hamstring ready to snap.  You better back off pal!”  or even “Wouldn’t a Whopper with cheese taste good right now?”  It’s just miserable inside my head when I am in a gym, and all the muscle-bound, healthy-looking people around me do not help matters even a little.  At best they give me a polite smile and an inferiority complex.  Nope…if I am going to exercise, I want it to have a point to it and no small amount of mental diversion.  Biking, for instance, actually gets you somewhere, and going out on snowshoes allows you to cheat death when you accidentally stumble upon a hibernating bear under a pile of brush.

As with resolution number one, note the wording: “Exercise more”.  Not “exercise a lot”.  I am not really doing any exercising at all now, so if I start doing any at all, then I’ve met my goal.

3.       Get a dentist.
I have had every dental experience known to humankind in my lifetime.  Cavities, root canals, caps and crowns, braces, retainers, wisdom teeth extracted, you name it.  Somewhere in the Caribbean, there are several dental professionals with their own private islands thanks to me and my dental insurance.  A few years ago though, my dental situation stabilized to the point where there was really nothing that needed doing aside from six-month checkups.  So when I moved to a new town, I never bothered to sign on with a new dentist.

Well, I probably should.  I still don’t have anything pressing going on with my teeth, aside from some coffee staining.  I brush and rinse religiously numerous times a day, and floss often. I haven’t had a toothache in years.  However, given that I’ve put so much pain and money into the old choppers over time, they really should be looked at more than once a decade.  Trouble is, none of the local dentists are accepting new patients.  So, I’ll have to do a little research and probably travel a little to be seen.

I don’t really mind the dentist, though I used to hate going.  As a kid, I would start dreading dental appointments several weeks in advance.  That was in the age before common use of fluoride, and I was always found with at least one cavity every six months.  Not fond of needles as a child, I had my teeth drilled and filled without any anesthetic at all.  If I had only believed that what I was subjecting myself to was so much worse than the brief sting of a needle of Novocain!  My dentist and parents tried to convince me of it, but I was nothing if not stubborn.  I was not to be reasoned with.  Adding insult to injury was the fact that I had to walk several blocks to and from the dentist’s office all by myself, since my dad was working all day and my mother had several small children and no vehicle at her disposal.  It was the Bataan dental death march.  The temptation to not show up at the dentist and go hang out somewhere for a while was great, make no mistake about it.  However, the Catholic guilt was strong in me, even at that tender age, so I dragged myself there without fail every time.

I could go on and on about my rather unique dental history, but that is probably best left to a future blog post for those with strong stomachs.

4.       Take writing more seriously.
Ha, ha!  Look!  I am doing this one right now!  I am writing!  Whoo hoo!  Wheee!  Write, write write!

Well, I did include seriously in this resolution, so that sentence probably doesn’t count.

I’ve loved to write since I was a kid, and have always been told I have a knack for it, as I outlined in a previous post.  Only recently have I set some of my writings in front of others and received some strong pushes to do more and share it more widely.  There’s this blog, which is growing slowly and steadily.  And there’s the novel I am working on in a tandem project with a previously published author.  It’s still pretty hush-hush at this point, but we are well into the first draft.  We are teaching each other a lot, and I really enjoy working with him.  I have to admit that there are days I want to drag him backwards through a keyhole, and he probably wants to do even worse to me.  In the end though, we usually see that we’ve brought something better out by putting our heads together, so it’s worth it.  In 2012, I hope to finish work on that novel and get it out there for you, and then start work on a solo project.  I want to grow this blog some more and publish posts more frequently.  You, my readerly friend, can directly help me get motivated to do that by coming back here to visit often.

On a more basic level, I am resolving to write at least a little bit every day.  I’ve been in touch with a number of writers, and every one of them separately has told me that same thing.  They also told me to read a lot, especially in the genres in which I am writing.  I plan to do that also.

5.       Chill.
Although I am 41 and not 16, I have requisitioned this particular modern buzzword from the younger set.  I use it quite often, actually.  To “chill”, according to the Urban Dictionary website, means "to calm down" or "to be easygoing".  In other words, to take the time to do things that are good for me and those I care about, and less time on counterproductive worry.  I need to do this in the worst way, and that’s generally how I’ve done it.  Make no mistake, I don’t mean that I plan to spend hours on end in the recliner watching TV or sleeping until noon.  That’s just lazy.  Nor do I plan to close my eyes to things that require attention.  That’s just stupid. 

You see, however, I am a chronic worrier, and always have been.  I worry about big things, like paying the bills and the health of family and friends, but also the little things, like whether the food I put in the freezer will get freezer burn, or whether the mechanic working on my car will judge me for the Rick Springfield CDs I have kicking around the passenger seat.  (To borrow a line from columnist Dave Barry, I am not making this up!) The thing is, worrying has very seldom made anything that I was actually worrying about any better.  In fact, the anticipation for me is often twice as bad as the actual object of my worry.  So, I need to chill.  Not become oblivious by any stretch, but keep things in proper perspective more effectively.  Just chill.

There are some who may criticize my resolutions.  Some of my former colleagues in the education field (mainly the wonky, I-have-no-life types) would surely say “Resolutions are goals, and they must be quantifiable.  How can you measure them?  How will you know you’ve reached them?”  To those people, I would recommend they resolve to shut up. 

Seriously though, I worded my resolutions vaguely on purpose because I do not want to have a finish line to cross.  I want to enjoy the journey, without focusing entirely on the destination.  If I skip dessert for a few days in a row, then I am making progress toward eating better.  If I get out on the snowshoes a few more times this winter than last, I’ll be moving in the direction of exercising more.  That doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to adhere to those resolutions if I merely do those things.  By leaving them open ended, the resolutions become more like directional signs for my life, to help me move toward becoming the person I want to be.

Whether you are one to make resolutions for New Year’s or not, I hope 2012 is a year of peace, achievement and opportunity for you.  And don’t hug any gila monsters.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Out Home At Christmas With Bing

It’s funny the things that trigger memories.  I had a long road trip alone the other day, and decided to put my satellite radio receiver in the car on scan mode to see if I could find something interesting and different.  To my surprise, I happened across a new seasonal channel called “Bing Crosby Christmas”.  Yep…all Bing Christmas, all the time.

Now sleepy-eyed crooners from the 40s and 50s are not really my thing, but they definitely were my late grandmother’s (hereafter referred to as “Gram”), and Bing was her all-time favorite.  Every Christmastime, she would pull out the Bing Crosby Christmas records and 8-track tapes and immerse all of her family in that voice as smooth as thick peppermint hot chocolate.  So, I lingered on the “Bing Crosby Christmas” channel for a while and my mind drifted back to those Christmases way back in the 70s when I was a young kid.  Specifically, I thought about the parts of Christmas spent at my grandparents’ place in the country.  My parents always referred to it as “out home”.

My brothers and I were the only “local” grandkids my paternal grandparents had.  All the others lived on the other end of the state, and typically spent Christmas there.  We, on the other hand, lived nearby, so my brothers and I were fortunate to be able to have Christmas morning in our own home, and then go to visit my mother’s mother across town and my father’s parents on the outskirts, all in one day.

My grandparents lived in a fairly small house, and their Christmas tree always fascinated me.  While ours at home was a six-foot tall goliath, at least a goliath from my young kid perspective, my grandparents’ tree was always about as tall as me, and stood on a little stand in the corner of their living room.  It was never the classic Christmas tree shape, since every year it was one my grandfather cut down after wading through the snow in the woods behind their house.  They used those huge multi-colored light bulbs that got very hot, with star-shaped foil heat reflectors behind them.  We used to enjoy melting tinsel on those bulbs, watching it curl up like bacon.  It’s a miracle the house didn’t go up in smoke with those things draped over the tree year after year, but they looked really cool.  The ornaments were a typical mixture of homemade and store-bought, but they all had one thing in common: shininess.  I think every one of them incorporated foil in some way.  If those trees had been set in the midsummer sun, the reflection would have burned holes in your retinas.  Even the garland was some sort of coiled golden thing that was springy to the touch.  The silver tinsel was so thick on that tree you could barely see the ornaments or garland.  It got everywhere, and we would often find strands of it around the living room all year round.  On top of the tree was a small angel, which was about the only non-shiny thing on the entire structure.  I never heard the story of that particular angel, but really wish I had.  Where it is now, I have no idea.

Gram always bought us clothes for Christmas as kids.  Gifts from her could always be located under the tree because they were soft.  Both of my grandparents grew up in large, not so well-off farm families, and as a result they were always practical when it came to gift-giving.  Gram knew that her grandkids would be plied with plenty of toys at Christmas from Santa Claus, our parents, and other family, so she went with needs instead of wants.  Even though my brothers and I were all about toys at that young age, Gram’s gift of clothes were always appreciated by us, and not just to be nice.  Somehow, it made sense to us, probably on some subconscious level, that she was giving us these things in the face of the annual toy avalanche.  When we went to visit my grandparents on Christmas day every year, we always made sure we were wearing whatever she had given us.  Luckily, she gave us the kind of clothes we would actually wear, like hats and gloves, socks, underwear, sweatshirts and such.  No tacky reindeer sweaters or pink bunny pajamas from her.  She wanted to give us stuff we would use. I found out later that she consulted with my mother closely before shopping for us, making sure she had our correct sizes and that she was getting something we actually needed.  The world could use more people of her practical nature these days.

I went ice skating for the first time on one of those Christmases “out home”.  I was probably no more than four or five, and it must have been a particularly cold December, because the surface of the swimming hole just down the road from my grandparents’ place was frozen solid.  Some skates had been under the tree that morning, so when we went out to visit, my father shoveled off a part of the swimming hole, and my grandmother strapped the double-runner blades onto my feet.  It was too cold for my mother to bring my younger brothers out, since they were just babies, and my grandfather, ever practical, was not going to budge from his rocker near the wood stove.  He did make sure Gram took her camera to preserve the moment however.  He’d live it vicariously with me later once the film had been developed.  At first, I moved on the ice with all the grace and style of a drunken walrus.  My grandmother then made a quick run up to the house to get an old wooden chair from the kitchen for me to use as support, and soon I was zipping around the frozen surface of the swimming hole like a pro.

Gram could cook like nobody I have ever known, and she always had treats ready for us, especially on Christmas.  Her molasses cookies were one of the most outstanding things I have ever eaten in my life.  She made them frequently throughout the year, but only at Christmas did she use her very old cookie cutters to make them into the shapes of toy soldiers, wreaths, and reindeer.  As a little kid, this made one of life’s great pleasures ever greater.  There were also containers with homemade donuts fried up to be just a little crispy on the edges, and a basket on the kitchen table piled high with fresh yeast rolls.  The sad part to me was that my grandmother had “sugar”, better known as diabetes, and could not partake of any of the terrific goodies she whipped up for us, except for maybe an occasional yeast roll.  Between her many visitors and my grandfather with his sweet tooth, nothing ever went to waste though.

When going to visit my grandparents on Christmas Day, my parents allowed each of us to take only one new toy we had received that morning to show them.  This was mainly to prevent fighting and drama between us kids, and also to ease the stress on my grandfather, who loved us dearly but could only take us youngsters and our noisemakers in rationed amounts.  The choice of which toys to take was always one my brothers and I took very seriously, and I recall second-guessing which one I should have brought during the whole ride out home.  My grandparents always visited our house the day after Christmas to see our entire haul, but for some reason that toy taken out to show them was important.  Neither of my grandparents was really plugged into kid culture, so when we showed them the latest Star Wars vehicle or radio-controlled race car, they had the same level of curiosity as an archeologist having uncovered some artifact from the sands.  Their interest was genuine, so it seemed, but they had no clue as to what they were looking at, in spite of our best efforts to explain it to them.  I guess there was something special about us sharing something we knew about and they didn’t with them, instead of the other way around as it usually was.

One of the things I remember most clearly about Christmas out home as a kid was the sky.  We always dropped in to visit my grandparents for a few minutes on Christmas Eve after attending the early Mass at church.  In spite of the volcano of anticipation for Christmas morning that was ready to erupt within me, I remember stopping between the car and front door of my grandparents’ house to look up at the sky.  It looked so much bigger and closer out in the country than it did from our house in the middle of town with all the ambient light around.  You felt like you could almost reach out and touch the stars.  The sounds of the wind blowing through the evergreen trees in the woods just added to the aura.  When I was very little, I honestly thought I would see Santa’s sleigh come over the horizon at any second.  In later years, I imagined that this was exactly what the sky must have looked like for those shepherds outside of Bethlehem those many years ago just before all of those angels knocked their proverbial socks off.

It was usually dark when we left my grandparents’ house late on Christmas afternoon.  As we made our way out to pile into the car, my grandmother would plug in the string of the aforementioned firetrap colored lights with which she had decorated her annual outdoor Christmas wreath.  She was quite proud of that little outdoor light display, but since there was so little traffic on their country road, they only plugged the lights in when they knew someone would see it.  Gram always told me to call ahead before we came to visit around Christmastime, so she could have the colored lights plugged in for us as we arrived.  I remember that you could see them from far up the road if it was dark.  Once we got into the house, they were unplugged, and then plugged in again when we got ready to leave.  I used to watch out the rear windshield of the car for Gram to unplug the Christmas lights again when we were just about out of sight.  It’s a good thing those big old bulbs were beautiful, because they were also electricity hogs in addition to being highly flammable.  My grandparents’ practical nature just wouldn’t let them leave them on if no one was going to be looking at them.  (I am sure my grandparents would love LED lights if they were still alive.)

And the seasonal songs of Bing Crosby were the background music to all of it.  Even if Bing’s tunes weren't playing, Gram was humming or singing them, and they lodged firmly in our heads.

My grandmother has been gone for nearly seventeen years, and my grandfather nearly twelve.  She would be 98 years old if she was alive today, and he would be almost 102.  I still miss them, and think about them often, especially at this time of year.  A big part of the reason is the memory triggers that Bing Crosby’s Christmas music provides.  So the next time you hear him crooning White Christmas or any other of his holiday classics, toss up a quick prayer for my grandparents, who did so much for my brothers and me, and made our childhood Christmases even more magical in their own special way.  And maybe say one for Bing too.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How Tweet It Is

If you are online at all these days, most likely you are caught up in at least one of the various social media phenomena.  Facebook and Twitter, of course, are the biggest players right now.  I took to Facebook pretty easily a few years ago.  Sure, they are selling every scrap of personal data they can mine about me to the highest corporate bidder, but I have a hell of a virtual farm to show for it.  Plus, it has given me a way to connect with longtime and newer friends instantly, regardless of where they are or what time it is.  I dig that a lot.  As for Twitter, I've warmed up to it more slowly.  It’s a different animal than Facebook in a lot of ways, and I still don’t entirely “get it”.  Of course the same could be said of my understanding of women, politics, and the appeal of Justin Beiber.   Twitter and I are still trying to come to terms with each other, but you know, it’s really growing on me.

I first joined Twitter about two years ago, mainly to see what all the fuss was about.  Very few people I knew personally were using it at the time (and by “very few” I mean “none”), but it was getting a lot of play in the media, so I thought I’d give it a try.  It seemed like a fun enough idea: Set up a free account, and start tossing out your comments and observations to followers in 140 characters or less.  It sounded simple, fast, and non-committal, which could also stand as a description of me.  What’s not to like?

The first thing I had to do was come up with a username.  This is a fairly crucial step in the process.  If you choose one that is direct and simple (“Chris” for example), it was already snapped up long ago by people who are much more hip than you and jumped on the Twitter train early on.  If you choose something more complex (“B3ANF4RM3R$N33DLUV2”, by way of another example), then no one will ever be able to remember it, and you’ll be a lonely Twitter soul.  For mine, I took inspiration from one of my favorite songs of the 1990s, “Counting Blue Cars” by the band Dishwalla.  Playing on the title, I went with “@countofbluecars”.  It was mildly clever and easy to remember, even if you didn’t know the song. (You can see the video at YouTube if you click on this link.)

Putting your profile together in a brief way can be a tricky thing.  With all due respect to Shrek, I am like an onion.  No, I don’t stink or make people cry.  I have layers.  I am a former radio announcer, was a schoolteacher, currently work in a veterinary hospital, and am also a much-less-than professional writer and blogger.  Those are some pretty divergent constituencies, and I only had a few lines in which to describe myself.  So, I told everyone that I was a millionaire bachelor living in a house with platinum shingles.

Actually, I didn’t.  Though I have to admit, I am a little paranoid when it comes to putting too much specific information in an online profile accessible to anyone.  A Nigerian prince once told me in an e-mail that there are lots of scammers out there with clever ways to hijack your life.  Ways that the average person would never imagine.  He also had some helpful hints on male enhancement and offered to send me a free iPad2 if I just paid the shipping and processing fee of $50. 

*ahem* But I digress.

Needless to say, I’d like to avoid getting scammed.  I am not hiding behind some false façade by any stretch, but I am also not putting my shoe size and bank account numbers out there for web surfers to see either.  I’m Chris.  I live in northern Maine.  I’m 40-something.  I’m a former radio guy and teacher, and a current veterinary guy and writer.  That’s all true.  Follow me, communicate with me a little, and I’ll tell you more, except maybe the bank account numbers.

So, with Twitter account activated and set up, I was ready to tweet.  Problem was, I had no followers.  I felt like the first person in town to get a telephone back in the old days.  It must have been so exciting to have, until you realized that no one else you knew had one, so there was no one to call or to call you. 

After a few days, people still weren’t knocking down the door of @countofbluecars, so I decided that maybe I needed to start following others.  Give a little to get a little.  I took to following the suggestions on Twitter’s homepage as to who I should follow.  I followed athletes and actors, writers and musicians, journalists and politicians.   Anyone who was even remotely interesting to me got added to my list.  This opened the door to some extent.  I started accumulating a few followers. 

Very few. 

They were mostly young, orangey ladies with very busty profile pics and lewd suggestions in their profiles, although a couple of legitimate people started following me too.  Evidently, there are those who scope out the lists of followers of others and follow the followers.  I am not sure of the rationale behind it exactly, since they are following me, and not vice-versa.   My working theory is that if they found my account on someone else’s list, then someone else may find their name on mine.  Whatever.

It didn’t take long before some of the people I was following revealed themselves to be about as deep as a paper plate.  Quite a few only used Twitter as a means to hock their wares.  Now I get that aspect of things.  After all, I am looking to get people to read this blog once in a while, and use my Twitter account to publicize it.  But some accounts that I followed at first were nothing but promotional.  Remember Ralphie’s reaction when he got his Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring in the film A Christmas Story?  I felt a lot like that.  I “unfollowed” those lame accounts in pretty short order.

There were other accounts, however, that were kind of cool.  One writer I follow lamented the destruction of his favorite flannel shirt, his “writing shirt”, which was eaten by his Doberman pinscher.  A musician frequently shared his enthusiasm after great jam sessions in the recording studio with other artists. An actor gave a little insight into how he came to do a certain thing in a funny scene.  I really dug those tweets.

For nearly a year, my Twitter account lay in relative dormancy, like a cheesy red reindeer sweater given as a gift by an elderly aunt and kept in a drawer.  Maybe I’d have a use for it someday.  I would check my Twitter account maybe once a week, and tweet even more rarely than that.

Then, on May 1 of this year, reports came out that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S.Navy SEALS.  It just so happened that I was checking my Twitter account that evening just as the news broke.  I was home alone and it was late, but I wanted to talk about it.  Due to the universality of the event, there were a lot of reactions from the people I followed, so the floodgates opened.  Those I followed also “retweeted” (another term for forwarding) reactions of people whom they followed.  I became exposed to more interesting people, and followed them.  Not celebrities necessarily, but people who just had something worth saying.  Some of those people followed me back in return.  And the snowball kept rolling.  My followers list did not grow by leaps and bounds by any means, but I saw more clearly how Twitter works.  Just like in real life, circumstances throw us together, and relationships grow from there.  But you have to be involved for those circumstances to occur in the first place.

Now social media is no replacement for real life interaction.  People who limit themselves to social interactions on the Internet only are destined to become like those mole people in old sci-fi films who have lived underground so long that they could barely stand light anymore.  Twitter and the other social media outlets are a supplement to your social life at best.  In the case of the bin Laden killing, I had plenty of discussions with people face-to-face about it, but I also had some through social media.  The conversation was wider, richer, and better-rounded for me as a result of the two avenues of interaction.

If you are reading this and are on Twitter, follow me @countofbluecars.  If you want, I’ll even follow you back.  I believe a dialogue is always more interesting than a monologue.  And just remember, while I would be honored to make an acquaintance with Nigerian royalty, I don’t need a free iPad2, and please keep your male enhancement tips to yourself.