Monday, October 31, 2011

Anosmia means I can't smell...

Anosmia. As disabilities go, it's not bad. We (speaking as a human) typically have five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. I didn't put the words in any particular order, but those missing the first three have bigger problems than those lacking the fourth and fifth. I feel for the blind, and deaf, and those who can't feel physical sensation. Those who can't taste food have problems, too. I can't imagine what that's like.

In all likelihood, my sense of smell went out the window with the first touch of wernicke's. I didn't notice it go. Shoot... I didn't really notice it was gone until 2005, but I'm sure it went away before that.

I was able to smell when I was younger. Some people are born without a sense of smell, but I'm not one.

There are dangers in not being able to smell. Not as many dangers are there are to those who can't see or hear, but there are dangers. I just have to be careful.

What are the dangers? Thanks for asking (or reading).

I once cleaned my coffee maker with ammonia instead of white vinegar. We used to keep the jugs of both chemicals under our kitchen sink. Not anymore. I couldn't smell the difference between vinegar and ammonia. Fortunately for me, I hate the taste of vinegar. When I clean the coffee pot, I rinse it five or six times. I didn't drink the ammonia, but my wife knew something bad had happened the second she walked in the door.

I make doubly sure to change the batteries in our smoke alarms. If there's a fire and I'm the only one home, I won't wake up with the smell of smoke. I get a little worried when I clean behind our gas stove. If that pipe goes, I won't smell the telltale odor of gas.

If food in the fridge hits the dubious line between fresh and puke-your-guts-out, I have to ask my wife (she smells great!) to tell me which side of the line it's on. I mean, sure, sometimes I can see when I should toss it. Gray ham is never as good as it sounds...

Sometimes I can smell. The sensation confuses me. It tends not to last long. Goes away in a few minutes. When the sense does come and I figure out what it is I'm smelling, I have noticed that most of the time (darn luck) I'm around something that doesn't smell good.

In my case, there isn't much hope the sense will come back on a permanent basis. Nerve damage is the cause. I'm okay with that. I'm a survivor of Wernicke-Korsakoff. Losing my sense of smell was and is a small price to pay.

I did a little research tonight to see if anosmia is effecting my sense of taste. Some say it does, and they're probably right. I can taste food. I don't get the aroma that makes some food taste better. I don't get hungry for bread when I pull it out of the oven, but I do like the way it tastes.

I'll never be a good judge of fine wines, I say with a laugh, and that's okay! As a survivor of Wernickes, I can't drink that stuff anyway. Grape juice (the closest I come to wine) tastes like grapes whether I can smell it or not.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Don't fear the semicolon; love the semicolon

I think I gave more than one junior high teacher and at least one high school teacher a rash by asking about the semicolon. You know the semicolon: it's a period on top of a comma.

The semicolon seems to be a feared bit of punctuation. Most don't know how to use it, and if they do know how to use it, they're afraid of it. It's not a colon. A colon is a big deal. It adds emphasis, and it announces lists. The colon can make the leap from sentence to mathematics, where it announces a ratio.

But how do we use it in language? How do we use it in writing?
Don't feel bad if you don't know how to use a semicolon. And no, grammarian wannabe, I don't mean badly, I mean bad. As in "bad person." You're not a bad person if you don't know how to use a semicolon. 

Think of the semicolon this way--the way that finally worked for me: it's a hinge. A semicolon is like a hinge in that it can join two sentences very closely together, as a hinge on a door joins the door to the frame.

A semicolon is a marriage between the period and the comma. It's a partial stop. The acid test for the semicolon is whether or not the two parts of the joined idea can stand on their own. Take a look at this example:

1. I like semicolons. They're cool.

Two separate ideas. The way the example is written, we read two things. Two separate things, joined only by proximity.
But...if we want to speed it up and express the point in a subtle way, example two comes in:

2. I like semicolons; they're cool.

If I wanted to make a bigger deal of it, I would whip out the colon:

3. I like semicolons: they're cool.

There is a certain dubiousness to the semcolon, cast upon it by English teachers--the dusty ones who don't want to argue punctuation as style. Don't get mad at them for it. They're mostly human and have limited time to spend on the more subtle pieces of punctuation because they're too busy fighting the run-on sentence to give students the out by teaching that a semicolon exists, yes, exists, to make the run-on sentence a piece of good writing.

*I salute E.B White who, in addition to his famous book Charlotte's Web, wrote Elements of Style, a little grammar book that explains things like how to use a semicolon. Some people harried good old E.B for writing the book. Those people were pretty successful in burying the little book. Those people were grammarians who want to apply rules to communication by regulating punctuation and other rule-ish stuff like that. Those people, in their anal retentiveness, obviously couldn't read the title and didn't know the difference between grammar and style.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wrting--when it's gooooooood

I wish I could see a brain scan of what happens with my gray matter when I'm writing and I'm in the zone.

I was in the zone earlier this evening, working on Sexton Retribution. It felt great. What's it like to be in The Zone? I'll try to explain...

Stephen King called it "The Hole in the Paper", that special feeling a writer gets when he or she is able to write as thoughts occur, when fingers fly and words seem to appear of their own volition. I call it The Zone because it feels like a place.

If you've seen that TV show with the woman who works with the police and has a perfect memory, you'll know what I'm talking about. When she goes into her memory to revisit a crime scene, the viewer sees her in the middle of the scene observing everything around her. In those scenes, she's in what I'm calling The Zone.

Tonight I started a chapter with a frightened Cedric alone in his room in the Fortress Balfour. I could see him on the bed, struggling to stay awake, knowing he was about to be visited by what he thought was a ghost. That's the image I had in mind when I started to write. While I let my fingers go on auto pilot, I imagined (saw) pertinent things in the room: candles on the table by the bed, more candles on the table by the door. On closer examination, I saw he had blocked the door with a dresser and a chair.

I didn't have to think about him blocking the door, I didn't have to think about what he would block the door with. Those details were part of the picture in my mind. When Nick's form appeared in the room, I "saw" Cedric react. Writing about it was secondary. I didn't have to compose the sentences. They just came to me. The dialog came to me too. I was playing the scene in my head.

When I'm in The Zone, I don't feel like I'm directing a movie. I'm not conscious of composing sentences. I don't feel like I'm the one writing the dialog. My hands are divorced from my consciousness. They caress the keyboard.

That's why I write... I love the zone. I love to read the output, but mostly I love to be in the scene, unconsciously recording the conjurations of my mind.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Boy Scout training has helped me save a life or two...

I earned my Eagle Scout a few weeks before my 14th birthday, and stayed with the program through college, and spent 17 years as a professional Scouter. I've had the opportunity--by being in the right place at the right time--to save a couple of lives, but not because of anything special about me. I know how to react in a crisis, and I think most of that ability came from the years I spent as a kid in the BSA.

The first time I saved a life, I had to put my own at risk. We were in Peru, and a man did a foolish thing. He tried to cross a rope bridge over a river running through a narrow canyon in the Andes mountains. He fell. I jumped in after him. The water was glacier run-off, very fast, and it tossed us both against a rock like we weighed nothing. It wasn't a pretty rescue. We both made it out more by the grace of God than by any sort of swimming ability. I know two things about that: 1) I was able to stay calm because I was trained to stay calm, 2) I was also trained that doing something is better than doing nothing.

The second time I saved a life was at no danger to myself. My neighbor across the street was screaming at the top of her lungs. I couldn't see her swimming pool from the window of a bedroom on the second floor of my house, but I could see her over her privacy fence, staring down at the pool at something and screaming her head off.

When someone is standing by a pool, screaming their head off...odds are pretty good there is something in the pool that has struck sheer terror in their heart. There was. Her grand-daughter, a toddler, was in the pool unconscious. I ran across the street, ripped open the gate, and jumped in the pool after the girl. I pulled her out. She was unconscious and not breathing. She started breathing with God's help before I could remember how to do infant mouth-to-mouth.

Last night while at work, I heard someone fall down some stairs near where I was standing. I ran down the stairs and found an older woman lying on her back on the stairs. She was trying to pull herself up. I held her gently by the shoulders and saw blood on her forehead. She must have spun to her right and struck either the banister or the wall on her way down. I held her and told her not to move while I felt (gingerly) the back of her neck to see if there were loose bones. She was able to move her arms and legs. I told her to stay put until help came. Another man came down the stairs and took my position while I used the telephone nearby to summon help. I didn't notice the blood on my hands until after I called 911. I'm kicking myself a little bit for that--the blood came from a wound on the back of her head from striking the brick at the bottom of the stairs.

She was alert and conscious when the paramedics took her to the ambulance. I hope she's okay now.

I'm nothing special in this regard--I'm just trained to react. I think that's one of the many things the BSA means with the motto of "Be Prepared."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sometimes I love the old ways, like shaving soap & mug

Shaving cream is alright. It's a time saver. Just a shot of the stuff in the hand, smear it on the face, and you're ready to shave. I use it sometimes and get satisfactory, but not great results.

Like shaving cream, the new ways of doing things have their advantages, and most of the time the advantages are enough to win popular support and all but kill off the old ways.

This morning, and yesterday, and tomorrow, I shaved the old fashioned way.

You can still buy shaving soap in most places. It comes in a little box, about half an inch high, by three inches, by three inches. In the box is a little round cake of soap. I have a cake of that soap in a mug on the shelf in the bathroom and a shaving brush--an old one from my grandfather--with long, soft bristles. I get the brush wet and swish it around in the mug. I like the clink, clink, clink of the handle of the brush hitting the sides of the mug. I like the feel of the soft bristles as I paint my face with the thin layer of foamy, warm soap. I use a moden twin-blade razor. The razor does a good job, and the thin layer of soap is just enough to lubricate the bristles, but not so much that it clogs the razor.

When I'm done, I have a soft, smooth face. Sure, sometimes I still use the shaving cream. Sometimes I just don't feel like I have the three minutes or less that it takes me to make the lather in the mug. When I'm really feeling pressed for time, I use an electric razor. It's not the same, though. I can feel the difference all day and feel like I cheated myself out of a simple pleasure (and better shave.)

My fountain pen is another example of a thing of the past (mostly) that has been replaced by an inferior, but more convenient device. The ballpoint pen has trumped the fountain pen. It's cheaper, even if you buy a nice one that requires refills. The ballpoint pen doesn't spatter ink of you drop it. You're not going to bend it out of usefulness if you drop it. It can write on almost any surface.

It also smears ink on my left hand when I write, unless I handicap myself by bending my wrist unnaturally and obscure my already bad handwriting. No thanks.

I like the pleasure--yes, I said pleasure--of writing with a fountain pen. You can really feel the contact with the paper through the sound of the nib (the point, for the uninitiated) on the paper. The ink flows from the nib and sinks into the paper. There is no smear on my left hand.

For a couple of years now, I've been using my Cross fountain pen. I bought it with my first royalties check for about $60, and I don't let anyone else use it. It's my pen.

At first I bought modern ink cartridges that fit in the pen. No muss, no fuss with those ink cartridges. They're a modern contrivance for an ancient device. Yes, ancient. The first fountain pens appeared in Persia before the death of Christ. I discovered those little ink cartridges get expensive. I was going through about three a week.

So I went back to the old way. I fill my fountain pen from a bottle of ink now. That takes a little practice. At first I got ink on my forefinger and thumb when I filled the reservoir from the bottle. Now I don't.

Shaving soap and mug. Fountain pen and bottle of ink. I love them. I'll tell you what else I miss, for what it's worth. I miss writing on a typewriter. I don't do that anymore.Writing on a computer is much better (for me at least) in every way than writing on a typewriter. But... I do miss the sound of the keys clacking on the paper on the roller. If I could find a program that made those sounds to go along with my word processor, I'd be happier when I wrote. That would take some doing--I'm happiest when I'm writing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It was like watching a Benny Hill sketch, or someone try to herd cats...

I get a kick out of life.

Tonight was a slow night at work--where I greet people when they enter the building. It's a very large restaurant with several dining rooms, and guests need someone to make them feel welcome and tell them where things are.

A bus group came by for dinner, with 56 elderly passengers and one tour guide. After the meal, several of the passengers asked me where the gift shop was. I told them, of course. It's part of my job. They went downstairs to the shops in twos and threes. A couple wanted to know if they could get to the bus from the shops and I told them how...also part of my job.

Apparently (and this is the part I really like), they were told they didn't have time to visit any of the shops. As I stood at the top of the stairs, I saw the passengers going as many different directions as was humanly possible. The tour guide walked into the lobby, looking for her passengers.

Old doesn't mean dumb. Those passengers knew darn well the bus wasn't going to leave until they were all on it. The tour guide knew that they knew that. Her exasperation was obvious.

She went downstairs to round them up. I didn't laugh, but I could hear the music from The Benny Hill Show playing in my head as I watched pairs and singular elderly passengers hustle in different directions at the bottom of the stairs, while the tour guide ran back and forth trying to get them back to the bus.

It was like watching someone try to herd cats.