This is what I wrote my first novel on
Being grateful is a test.
A few weeks ago, my wife was sent to get a CT scan. The doctor thought she might have an obstruction in her gastrointestinal tract. She was having nausea and pain.
Turns out her appendix, which is usually the size of your pinkie, was extremely swollen. They sent us to the hospital. The doctor initially thought the measurements were incorrect, her appendix was so engorged. It had to come out. So my wife had the operation. A scary thing, but happens every day, and in a week she was making a good recovery. Then they called us back in. They found ‘neoplasm’ in the appendix. Neoplasm is a no panic word substitute for cancer. She had a rare form of it. That’s why her appendix was swollen. It was full of mucus produced by the cancer cells.
They said it was a low grade cancer, an oxymoron if ever there was one. The good news was that they were 99% certain they had gotten it all. The bad news was the 1% chance they had not. The only way to be certain was to perform a right hemi-colectomy. That’s where they remove the entire right-hand side of your large intestine, along with blood vessels that feed it, and a lot of lymph nodes. Then they staple the large intestine to the small intestine. A much bigger surgery and a much longer recovery time. Also, an increased chance of bad things that can happen. Like the staples not holding and stomach acids leaking into the body. Very bad. Or worse, when they test the lymph nodes they took out, the cancer was present, meaning it was spreading.
Things got a little more emotional before this surgery. You start thinking about things you don’t want to think about. A lot.
She had the surgery and everything went fine. They tested the lymph nodes and it came back negative. And yes, the road to recovery is looking a lot longer. But we were, and are, very grateful. A lot of people aren’t so lucky.
Like so many facing a nasty situation, we prayed and promised and meant it. We’ll change the way we are living. We’ll strive harder. Take time to do the things we never made time to do. We’ll go to church more. Eat right. We won’t sweat the small stuff. And so on. We will, in short, be better at this gift we call life. And like so many other promises, they’re really hard to keep. I was tested, I believe, almost immediately.
After the post-surgery goods news of being cancer free, I took the elevator to the ground floor and headed for the car. The path consisted of a short walk past some tables situated outside of the gift store and food shop. Then right into a hallway that stretched a distance to a large atrium. After the large atrium, there was another hallway and then the stairs to the car. As soon as I got off the elevator, I found myself behind a group of people. I followed them slowly past the tables, lost in thought. We took a right into the hallway. We were creeping, and I was in a hurry for some reason I can’t remember. I look up and realize the procession in front of me is one family. A grandmother pushing someone in a wheelchair, a father, a mother, and two small children. They are moving really, really slow. They are also spreading themselves out so that they can effectively take up almost the entire hallway. The mother looks back and sees me behind them. She turns back around and does nothing. Nothing. In fact, she lets the smallest girl veer off far to their left. The girl is walking, head down, playing a tile game of some sort inside her head. It would have been cute in other circumstances, but now they are taking up the entire hallway. And when two people in oncoming traffic have to swerve to miss the small girl, the mother does nothing again. We are still not to the end of the hallway. I’m getting irritated.
Then, we finally reach the atrium. I move to the right and immediately speed up, taking long strides to pass. The atrium is about fifty feet across. Big. But about half way across, I realize I’m not going to make it. You see, now that they have hit a wide open space where people can get around them, grandma is doing everything but jogging behind the person in the wheelchair. Much like the same type of people do on wavy county roads. They drive a cautious 45 during the curvy parts where you can’t pass. But when they hit those open spots where passing is allowed, they’re in a fucking dragster. So I realize that I’m not going to make it and I slow down. I’m also aware that I’m racing a grandmother pushing a wheelchair in a hospital. I see how ridiculous, in a matter of seconds, the whole thing has become. I ease off the accelerator and relinquish the road to indifferent mother and grandma juggernaut.
But she spots me from the corner of her eye at the last second and looks back. She slows down slightly and says, “Oh, sorry. Did you want to get by?”
I smile, say no, and head straight for a bench in the atrium. I sit down, stare at nothing, and count my blessings. I ending up doing good. And kept that up for a couple of days even though, as we all know, when it rains it pours.
In no particular order, here are some things that have happened within a week of the surgery.
A fender bender. Although the fender wasn’t bent. I was heading across two lanes of traffic to a small median. I scoot across and am waiting for a car to pass. The car pulls past me and into the median to my left, heading across the two lanes of traffic I just crossed. It’s clear now, so I start to move forward, but notice that the guy who was moving to my left is no longer moving. I punch the brakes. I’m right next to the rear of his car. And although my bumper slid over his, leaving a long paint stroke of maroon, and even though my tire was resting on the very backside of his bumper as we both stopped, I had to lean out of my window and ask him if I got him. I wasn’t sure we had actually hit. We did.
He gets out and his first words are Oh, great. Thanks a lot.
He immediately has his panties in a wad. I say that everybody’s okay and this stuff happens.
Yeah, but this same thing happened not a year ago. Guy demolished my bumper. Tried to get me to not call insurance. You do have insurance, don’t you? Accusingly.
Yes, I do I say calmly. Do you want to look at it and see if you think we can buff it out?
It’s not on me to see if I can fix it.
Okay, I’m dealing with a whiny prick.
He continues on and for some reason suddenly states, like it’s a threat and not something you would normally do anyway, that if need be we can just call the police.
Okay, call them. And why would you not get a police report? He continues to stew and wait for the police, but now he is impatient, as if he wasn’t aware that calling the police would mean he would have to wait until they got there. He asked me, because the median is small, if we should move the cars. I say no, because you aren’t supposed to. I’ve already got my flashers on. I’ve already taken pictures of the paint stroke and two, centimeter chips on his pristine bumper. He goes over and stares at it for the fifth or sixth time and actually says it just gets uglier every time I look at it. Seriously, dude. I’m looking at him and thinking the same thing.
The cops arrive and without going into detail here, the funniest thing was his demeanor. He was already in a courtroom somewhere in his sassy little mind, and was talking and behaving as such. The cops take our information and, after the guy’s calmed his nerves a little, I tell him that he can handle this anyway he wants, but that it would only take about $150 to fix it and never know it was there. If they didn’t try to rip us off, I would hand him the cash and we wouldn’t be looking at a possible rate increase. He obviously didn’t have much experience with cars and explained that they charged him $1,200 last time to replace his bumper. Okay, like I said, however you want to handle it.
He had asked to exchange insurance info earlier, right after his assumption that I didn’t have insurance, and I had not immediately given it to him then. I was outwardly calm, but inwardly pissed at his whole demeanor. After the cops left, I gave him my contact and insurance info. I ask him if he wanted to write his down for me.
Why would you need mine? He asked through narrowed eyes.
Even though he had offered to exchange the info earlier. I put my hands up. You’re an idiot, dude. Whatever. I smiled as best I could and told him I was sorry for the trouble. He finally asks me again where the paint shop was I was talking about. Then he tells me it might be a few weeks before he can get around to it. Makes sense. A guy who is so bent out of shape over a bumper scrape that he was about to wet himself in public, and seems to think of the paint as a symbol of shame and embarrassment, who seemed to have an out of body experience at the thought of someone violating his prelude, is sure to not make it a point to cover up a blemish on his ego.
I handled this one good, too. Inside I was thinking are you fucking serious, dude. This isn’t even on my radar. This doesn’t matter. You sure as hell don’t matter. And I have my wife. The big picture is good, and you’re not even in it.
I signed on as a contractor through a company that had me working for another company. The recruiter was nice and the people at the company were nice to work with. But a while back I was approached by another contractor working there. They had given him a four day notice. Wow. Okay. I start asking my recruiter to find out a hard date for my end of contract. It hadn’t been agreed on beforehand, it was just agreed to last three or four months. But now I could feel the end was near. I have a family to support and a need to know when the end is coming. I don’t need it sneaking up on me like it did for this fellow. My recruiter couldn’t get an answer from them.
A couple of weeks later, I got a congratulation from the recruiter. They had extended my contract. They were happy with my work. Which was awesome, except that I realized my contract, as far as their records were concerned, had come to an end without me knowing it. Yes, they extended it, but they could have just as easily not extended it, and I would have been taken by surprise like the last guy. I continued on for a couple of more months and then another contractor was gone with a one day notice. I start asking again for a hard completion date. They say they are checking on the budget for next year. It’s a month before Christmas. I’m thinking they might ask me on or at least wait until next year. Nope. Unlike the other guys, I did get a two week warning. And when I asked to extend that for a day to get some vision benefits, they did that with no problem. But there really couldn’t be a more horrible time for my job to end than with my wife less than a week out of surgery and a month before Christmas.
And what about tax time? That’s always been a net of sorts in January. But thanks to me not being able to afford a $650 a month payment on both of our student loans, the government, as of last year, began taking out taxes to pay it back. So there’s a $3,000 yearly net gone. Kids, don’t ever take a student loan unless you’re forced to, and even then only take what will get you barely by.
A girl attacked my daughter at school for no reason. Really, she did.
An uncle died from a type of colon cancer. This was before my wife’s second surgery. So we had that very real possibility of an outcome looming in our peripheral.
One of our vehicles is sounding like it may be on its last leg.
The other one needs a part that’s close to $200. We can’t drive it until we get it.
The car that needs the part was hit by a Jeep. This time it was someone else’s fault. My quarter panel was dented in. But no, I didn’t react like that pecker-wad did when I clipped him. I had my son turn the wheel to make sure the wheel didn’t scrape anything and then we went our separate ways. No drama.
My son’s new thyroid medicine was making his problem worse. Both my wife and son have changed their medications as a result.
We have no health insurance.
During and after my wife’s second surgery, I missed three days of work. So, one of my last paychecks I just got was a fifth of what it would have been.
My mom was checked into a hospital back home for what they told her was a heart attack. Then they weren’t sure. Then they kept her in there for three days. Then they sent her home, unsure of her status.
I’m in such a state of mental fuckedupedness, that when my recruiter gets me an opportunity with a good company, where I can again work from home in my pajamas, keep us afloat, and save us from homelessness, I manage to fuck it up. How?
I hate tech tests. I’m a web developer. And a lot of companies buy into these ridonculous online testing where they ask you silly hard questions or a bunch of irrelevant questions that don’t pertain to your niche. I always, always, do horrible on these tests. I actually got hired based on some of these tests once, but I still hate them. And since I always fail them, I got to the point where I would just tell the recruiters ‘No.’ I don’t take tests. You can get hired without taking tests. There’s no need for me to do something that’s just going to make me feel like less of a developer and not get the job. So I stopped. And this recruiter tells me there is a test.
I panic. I have no choice but to take the damn thing. And so I procrastinate, and wait until late at night and I’m tired, and then I take it. And what do you know? It’s a decent test. No crazy questions you have to know both physics and calculus to figure out. No trickery. Just real-world questions. Except for one. And it triggered something in my head. It opened the flood gates of negative emotions tied to these tests.
The question was what’s the difference between an Interface and an Abstract class? I had researched this question before for these same types of tests, back when I took them. Abstracts are more functionality and interfaces are more how to. There are five or six more technical differences, most subtle. I couldn’t remember them. I got flummoxed. Irritated. I was tired. Saw myself failing. Could see a picture of some nit-picking, test designing know-it-all laughing at my lack of understanding. Feel free to dive deeper into my childlike psychology if you’re a glutton for meaningless emotional reactions, madness, or depression. And since at my very center I’m a sarcastic comedian and writer, I referenced Andrew Dice Clay. That’s it. You read correctly. On a test that could decide the quality of life and welfare for my family in the months to come, I made a reference to the man who is the reason you can’t remember how the Little Miss Muffet rhyme actually ends.
Dice once told a joke about a math teacher who asked him What’s the difference between 9 and 2? His answer was Yeah, what’s the fucking difference?
This was my exact feeling at the moment. Yeah, what’s the fucking difference? And so I wrote something to the effect of wondering how the Dice Man would answer that. A few questions later, there were a couple of questions that referenced an earlier question. One that at first, because of the insanity I had succumbed to, I couldn’t remember. And I thought, you know, if I had short term memory loss I wouldn’t be able to get these questions. So I mentioned that in my answer. I was on a roll. Never mind that a person with short term memory loss wouldn’t be taking a goddamn software test. Never mind the fact of how important this is. Never mind that everything that’s snowballing down the steep incline of dread and helplessness could be stopped in its tracks with one good grade and a follow-up interview. Never mind all that shit. What’s important right now is for me to lash out mentally like a five year old idiot whose time for bed is past. To have an online mini-tantrum. To throw a giant fucking wrench in the middle of all those Life gears and see what happens.
And so I did. As soon as I hit submit, I immediately regretted it. But that was it. Everything that was hope flushed down the toilet in a few keystrokes. And I’ll get that call from the recruiter. I know I will. Um, yea . . . They, uh, decided to pass for now on moving forward. And that will be the floater. The one piece that wouldn’t flush. Come back to stare me in the face.
So you may wonder why in the world I would even confess to something so amazingly stupid. Why not just keep my mouth shut and never tell anyone. Hey, I just failed another test like I always do. No big deal. And the only people who would know would be the recruiter and the few people who grade the test, who print it out and pass it around the office maybe. Reference it as a joke in meetings and such. Well, here’s why.
I’m a writer goddammit.
So you’re a writer. So what? That means that you have to be a crazy person? All the writers who are reading this, by the way, just answered that question silently, to themselves. It’s kind of a prerequisite. But I’m not just another crazy author with otherworldly idiosyncrasies and questionable predilections. The problem is that I’m writing software and not bestsellers.
You see, some people know when they’re 10 what they want to do with their lives. Like four or five people. Then there are some folks who know when they enter college what they want to do, or have some sort of idea. That’s a good bit more. Then there are the people who, even after four years of college, with degree in hand, still have no idea what they want to do with their lives. I believe this is the majority. But I knew at an early age that I was a writer. I started my first novel before I was out of high school. So my parents, recognizing my interest in writing, put me in architecture school. Of course.
We made paint. We made paper airplanes. Drew walls with bricks. Drew plants. Camped out in freezing weather in cardboard projects. After 3 ½ years, they decided I couldn’t paint good enough and stopped letting my parents give them money. I didn’t even know they could do this. But they did. I was out. I moved to electrical engineering. I hated it. I told my parents I needed a break. I had spent those years in a 12 x 16 efficiency apartment with a fluorescent light above a twin bed. They said no, I had to keep going. So I stopped going to classes. I knew they were important. Knew if I didn’t go, that I would fail. My grades would drop. But I would wake up in the morning and not be able to convince myself that getting out of bed was worth it. I should have withdrawn, but didn’t know any better, so I zeroed out 13 hours’ worth of classes. Drug my GPA down to a 2.98.
Then I spent over a decade climbing up the management chains. I was a manager at a rental company. I figured out, after 13 years, that the title of Regional Manager wasn’t the Promised Land. It was a way to make sure you worked 70 hour weeks and stayed on the road. So I went back to college. Now you could point the finger at me. I went into computer science, and not journalism, like I should have. But I had a family by that time, and knew I’d have to take care of them somehow. I had, by this time, turned into a dad myself. And so like my father, I just picked something that I knew was around to stay and made good money. So twice I took the wrong path. It seems that Father Knows Best isn’t always true. We fathers tend to worry too much, and not always for the right reasons.
The problem with taking the wrong paths in life is that those paths are like the branches of a tree. Here’s a horribly long metaphor.
When you start out, there is no tree. Just a big playground with lots of toys and no worries mate. No path. Just time. Then you graduate high school and you suddenly notice there’s this huge, nasty Oak that’s planted right in the middle of your playground. You try to climb it and realize that the trunk is as big around as the merry-go-round, so climbing it looks almost impossible. The nearest branch is 30 or 40 feet above you. You know there are people up there. You can see them swinging from the branches. But you have no fucking idea how they made it up there. It looks like magic.
You start climbing it anyway. You have no choice. Besides, everyone else is doing it. When you get a couple of feet off the ground, someone walks up behind you and kicks you in the balls really hard. You fall to the ground and begin crying. You look around for some help or sympathy. But there is none. A guy does walk up to you though, with a knowing smirk on his face and says, “Friend, That’s Life.” Then he walks off. And now, at least you know the tree’s name. Life. And you also know that not everybody who says they’re a friend actually is.
It takes a long time to climb the tree and reach that first branch. And when you get to that first fork in the tree, a nice person greets you and gives you a piece of paper. The paper states that you have climbed the tree to the first branch. Then the person who greets you leans forward, smiles, and shoves you backward. You hit the ground, the breath knocked out of you. At least they stayed away from your balls this time. Now there is a makeshift wooden ladder nailed to the tree. You see that you can climb to the first branch anytime you want. As you look around, you also notice that you’re on the same playground you’ve been on all along. Nothing has changed. Except now, you have a piece of paper in your hand. When you look at it, you want to smile, but can’t. Because now, the people who dropped money freely from the trees, the ones who made it so you could go to college without taking 10 years to do it making $10/hr, those guys want their money back.
After climbing back up to the first branch, and after yelling at the branches above for weeks on end, someone lets down a rope for you and you climb slowly up that rope to another branch. You’re making money now. More than you ever made in your whole life, just like you knew you would. But now you realize that the cost of living in this tree is extremely high, and there’s always people around, at least one on every branch it seems, that would like to throw you and your whole family off the tree. As a few years pass, you realize that the branch you are on is weak, and that the same people who let the rope down have chainsaws. And they sometimes trim whole sections of a tree away before they’re finished with their morning coffee. The amount of warning you get is the sound of the chainsaw cranking. Not very much. But you climb and climb and climb. And you see after a while that you’ll never be able to pay the people back that were throwing money at you freely. You see that just existing in this tree is nearly impossible.
You’re a good climber. But you’re tired of falling out of the tree, with your whole family in tow, at the smallest fluctuation in wind currents. You look at a branch you saw long ago. One you really wanted to climb on, but never did. Now you can think of nothing but getting to it. You know that it is your only shot at happiness. But it costs money and time to climb it. You have neither. And when you climb down to the first branch to try and get on your happy branch, there is always a representative from the Department of Everlasting Bills and Trouble standing there. These people follow an evil entity called Policy, a deity that robs its believers of the ability to reason or use logic, and implores them to feed off of your desperation.
You climb back to the end of your branch. It’s cold out. All the leaves are gone. Your family huddles around for warmth. You hear a chainsaw cranking. In a few moments, you will all fall to the ground again. And when you do, you will march right back to the same fucking branch you’ve been climbing forever. Because that’s the only branch you’re allowed to climb. And you’ll stare up into the cold, dark recesses of the branches. And you’ll hear a faint, but repetitive voice asking you questions that might get you back to a branch, one that looks exactly like the dreary one that was sawed out from under you a few days before. The questions will all seem reasonable enough. Except for one.
And you won’t know the answer. You won’t even really give a shit what the answer is at this point. But you’ll know that there are people out there who could answer the shit out of that question and then stand there, proud and glowing, on their pedestal of Giving a Shit. And you’ll know that they are there because they love this branch. And you’ll know that you’ll never be there, at the top of this particular branch, because you’ve grown to despise the branch. Not because you really hate it, but because the one path you should have taken two decades ago is lost forever. And you know that branch is the only one you could reach the top of. And because a total loss of hope is always overwhelming, you scream back up into the tree.
“YEAH! WHAT’S THE FUCKING DIFFERENCE?”