A Taste of On Hallowed Lanes

Warning – here there be spoilers for both Bone Carvers and Band of Fallen Princes. Turn back now, lest you scald your virgin eyes. Still hanging around? Good. Here’s a rough chapter from On Hallowed Lanes. Late in the story, this one doesn’t deal with a lot of plot-heavy stuff, but is a good slice of what you’ll find the book to be about, roughly in terms of its travelogue style (though I want to flesh out the Jasper National Park bits in edits) and what to expect from its main characters. Enjoy!

Had they known there was a fire ban in effect, Garrett might have pushed for them to spend their planned time in Jasper National Park in a hotel instead of camping. Instead, they were too busy bickering over postcards and packages to their friends and families to notice the huge, glaring signs as they paid their fees to enter the park  Garrett was firmly on the side of mailing some of the packages in the town of the same name as the park, but Brianna was set on the notion that the expenses would be staggering and they should just hold off until they were back in the States.

“Brianna,” Garrett said in what he hoped was approaching a reasonable, tolerating tone, “If we cram so much as a napkin in the back end of this SUV, we won’t be able to see through the rearview mirror. And we still have Vancouver and St. George to go through yet.”

“So we’ll rearrange. And what do you mean, to get through? You make it sound like you’re going to war, not vacationing with your wife.”

Still trying not to make little strangling motions with his hands, Garrett said sweetly, “I did rearrange. This morning. You were there. You helped. You sat on the curb and directed me.”

“Oh, now I’m not helping enough?”

The park employee helpfully waved at them. “Hey. You can go on through now.”

Brianna whipped her head so hard to gaze at the man, Garrett wouldn’t have been surprised if she started spitting split pea soup. “Thanks.”

“And enjoy your…” But Brianna was already pulling forward, and the park employee sighed. “…stay in Jasper.” She adjusted her uniform, reaffixed her smile, and waited for the next car, full of happier Australians.

Back in the Durango, Brianna squeezed the steering wheel as she leaned forward and grimaced. “Stupid road butt ache’ll never go away.”

“We’ve got the travel pillows-”

“Yeah, so my knees can bang up against the steering wheel every time we bounce over a pebble. Right.”

Garrett gestured at the mountain spines rising all around the gently curving road. “Oh look, hey, wow, nature, beauty.”

“Same damn mountain range is in Montana,” Brianna snapped.

That stopped him. He thought they’d been mock fighting. But there was a serious edge to her voice. “Okay. Hey. You want to just keep going through the park, that’s fine. I’m sorry I suggested it.”

“I…” Brianna blinked and ran a hand across her forehead. Her fever was back, and with a vengeance. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. Any of that.”

“Are you okay?” He had to bite back a comment on PMS. God knew that wouldn’t help defuse the situation.

“I… yeah.” She glanced around at the mountains. “They really are beautiful. I didn’t… I want to be here.”

“If you don’t, just say it. We can keep going or go home. But remember what you said to me about not wanting to go anywhere if I’m going to be miserable? That works for you too.”

“I know.” Her tone was harsh again, but she softened it immediately. “I know. I think once I can get out and stretch, and we can do some hiking, I’ll be good. I don’t mean to be bitchy.”

“Hey, it’s not like we haven’t been spending a couple of weeks within feet of each other. Bound to happen.” I guess, he mentally added. Seemed like they were snapping at each other or walking on eggshells more than they were actually talking.

But the Rocky Mountains really did bring back a soothing calm to their world, and in a hurry. The well maintained four-lane highway switched into a single lane road, the groves of aspens gave way to bare-bottomed, top-heavy firs, and with their windows down, the sharp wafting pine scent reminded Garrett of his own cabin. A pang of homesickness washed over him, unexpected and sharp in its longing. As much as he loved the Flats and the state in general, such a feeling had only ever belonged to his family in Florida or when he had to take time apart from Brianna. Homesickness was not something he’d ever applied to a place before. It was new. Beautiful, in a way.

Brianna finally, reluctantly agreed that they should get their friends’ packages out of the way, and they made the titular little town of Jasper their first stop. The postcards were surprisingly reasonable, the packages markedly less so, but at least the Durango was largely livable again. The packaging and mailing took up a solid hour, during which the ghostly child wandered away. Neither Garrett or Brianna seemed to notice their dampened moods lifting, but their snapping and verbal bites eased into a more comfortable quiet as they finished their business.

Cheery Jasper seemed like a bit of a tourist trap, but in a national park, that was to be expected. Still sore from their long drive, Brianna wanted to take a walk, so they wandered the town’s main street. Traffic was fairly light – it was noon-ish on a weekday – but a handful of people meandered here and there, largely hitting up the varied gift shops and a women’s clothing store. Neither of them felt like much shopping after their days at the West Edmonton Mall, so they kept their purchases to the town’s small Super A grocery store. There, they stocked up on some of their favorite camping staples – chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers for S’mores, cheap hot dogs, a pound of hamburger, condiments, and a loaf of bread. They debated on eggs for the mornings, and decided to risk it. After Garrett ran out to check their drink supply, they added a gallon of water, a few six packs of beer they hadn’t yet tried on the trip, and a couple of bags of ice.

Back at the SUV, Garrett unloaded the cooler while Brianna hoisted the bags, glancing around at the scenery, humming a little. When he turned to start loading their drinks, the sight of her there in the sun holding the grocery bags brought back a memory in a rush. Gently, he took the bags from her, set them on the ground, and embraced her, his hands finding each other around her back and not letting go for a full half a minute.

“What’s that for?” she asked as he pulled away.

He scratched his chin. “I hate to bring it up.”

“It’s okay. Tell me.”

“After Danny died… I was being kind of a selfish ass. I should have been focused on you, and all I could think about was that we were pulling apart.”

She smiled sadly. “I remember. Hard days.”

“Yeah. Then there was this morning, I woke up, and you were heading for the door, trying to be sneaky and not wake me up. And I thought that was it. That was the moment I’d lost you.”

She frowned, trying to remember, and shook her head. “I don’t-” Then it dawned on her. “Oh right, I wanted to have dinner with Rose and Ed. Do something normal again.”

“Right! And you left a note for me on the table. I was so wrecked I couldn’t even read it.”

A laugh bubbled out of Brianna, pretty and soft. “And all it said was something like ‘gone for groceries. Dinner with E and R?’”

Garrett’s own smile gleamed as he lost himself to the memory. “Murphy thought you’d gone too. He was just standing there, watching over me curled up on the couch. And when you walked back in, I… I don’t even know what I thought. I was so wildly confused. Everything in me said you would run. I thought for sure it was over and up until then, I might have thought you’d be better off.”

“Garrett-”

“No, let me finish. I know in my head I’m not good for you. But that day, when you came back, it was the first time I didn’t care. I knew I had to have you in my life. Even if it means someday something horrible happens, I had to stop thinking I needed to push you away. I know I’ve tried a couple of times since then, but… I’m glad you always came back.”

For that, she gave him a kiss and a hug of her own. Into his ear, she whispered quietly, “Will you do something for me tonight?”

“Anything.”

“Would you read your vows again for me? Please?”

His vows. He’d written them the day after their first date, though at the time he hadn’t known they’d someday become the words he’d speak to her on their wedding day. They were words of love and gratitude, ill-written in his childish handwriting and badly spelled, but still the greatest and hardest words he’d ever put down. There was more to them – instructions for her if something happened to him and a few contacts and phone numbers – but the words were the important part.

“Of course.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t get to keep his promise to her. He would make good on his word the next day, but their first night at the Pocahontas campsite north of Jasper belonged entirely to the strange Rogier Mesman.

* * *

After setting up their tent at their campsite, they headed first for Whistlers Mountain, which not only afforded them views of the surrounding valleys and mountains, but had a chairlift over to another peak which sounded amazing in theory. But only an hour into their climb up the beautiful trails cutting through groves of trees, Garrett caught sight of a pair of squirrels racing diagonal rings around a fir and was laughing too hard to see the sharply jutting rock right in front of him.

The ankle wasn’t broken, Brianna told him but he wasn’t going any further up the mountain, either. There wasn’t much they could do for the ankle up there on the mountain aside from letting him rest for a bit, but a pair of youthful parents leading a small horde of children and teenagers crossed paths with them not long after they started down the mountain gingerly. The father and his oldest boy hustled back down to their van for a first aid kit. Brianna bandaged Garrett up, and by that point, a ranger had been notified and was on his way with a pair of crutches.

Red-faced and feeling more than a little stupid, Garrett tried to pay the couple, but they insisted that it was their duty as Good Samaritans. That got them a ferocious hug from Brianna, and a mumbled, almost bashful round of thanks from Garrett to all the kids and their minders. They looked after the family as they charged up the hill, all smiles and shrieking and laughter and laughter. Brianna turned to start down the trail, but it was a long minute before Garrett tore his eyes away from the family. Had Brianna really doubted he wanted a family with her? Good God, he was ready for eighteen kids right then and there.

The ranger walked with them back down to the Durango. An irritated, grumpy man, he pointed out several of the mountain ranges around them as they walked, grunting the syllables like he was a sergeant belting out the morning’s commands to his troops. When asked where they could get firewood for a campfire, he stopped completely, practically up on the balls of his feet like he might take a swing. He told them, his words clipped, that if they’d read the signs, they would know there was a fire ban in effect. At the parking lot, he took back the crutches, gave Garrett a once-over, and muttered, “Next time, don’t be an idiot.”

It was, by and large, some of the soundest life advice they’d received in Canada so far.

* * *

Back at the campsite, Brianna made Garrett rest and elevate his foot while she made up a makeshift ice pack to treat his ankle. He grumbled that he was fine and that he could go hiking if she wanted, but she turned that right back around on him and asked what he’d want o do if she was the one who had been hurt. That shut him up for a while before they started in what they should do with the burger and dogs they’d bought now that they couldn’t cook them.

The solution for that came from the Halls, two retirees from southern California traveling North American national parks much the same as Brianna and Garrett were traveling Alberta. They were parked in a nearby RV hookup site, and struck up a conversation with the younger couple while they were strolling around the campsites. Garrett offered them the still-chilled foods in danger of spoiling, but the couple instead offered to cook dinner at their campsite. It worked out well for both parties, since Garrett and Brianna had the food and the RV had a stove.

With full stomachs, Garrett and Brianna headed back for their campsite. A man strolled along the road, his long coppery hair tied up in a bun atop his head with a rubber band. His lips cracked apart in a smile as he ambled towards them, bony knees bobbing up and down rhythmically, as though he were keeping time to a tune inside his head. “Wotcher, folks!”

Brianna gave him a polite, friendly smile and a wave. “Hi there!” Garrett echoed her, but his hands were full with the cooler, even more packed now with snacks and plastic baggies full of leftovers. The Halls had been as doting as long-lost grandparents.

“Name’s Rogier.” The stranger pronounced it raj-she. “I smelled the food down in my camp. I thought I would take a stroll, see if I could find the source of this magnificent scent.”

Rogier’s accent was all over the place. Garrett couldn’t pin down if he was French, French-Canadian – which accent they’d heard from a few travelers in Edmonton – or someone doing a bad impression of a New Orleans accent. Rogier never quite settled on any one of those, brutalizing his consonants and trying to sing his vowels.

“Well,” Garrett said uncertainly, but Brianna jumped right in.

“Would you be interested in a bite? We’ve got plenty of food.”

“I would love some, if you do have extra.”

Brianna gestured at the cooler. “Sure! Got a last name, Rogier?”

“Mesman. And your name, kind lady?”

“Brianna. Moranis. And this is Garrett.”

Garrett grunted something vaguely approaching friendly and headed towards their campsite. Rogier trotted along behind them like a puppy, glancing all around with wide eyes and an easy smile. “Americans!” he exclaimed when he saw the license plate on their SUV. “Just out for a Sunday drive to our national park?”

Brianna laughed politely. “Something like that. We’re on our honeymoon. Traveling through Alberta and a bit of British Columbia.”

“Get out,” Rogier exclaimed. “Your honeymoon? Congratulations!”

Garrett settled the cooler on the wooden table, and Brianna opened it to offer him a burger, a small bag of chips, and a beer. Rogier made what should have been a short meal into a grandiose affair, asking them question after question about their trip and where they’d been. Not long after he started talking, the ghostly young teenager flickered through the woods, walking towards Garrett with a sullen expression on her face, like she’d been told she was grounded.

One beer for Rogier quickly became three after an hour, and when he finally finished off the chips, he gave the cooler a mournful glance. “You’ve been such good hosts, and I’ve nothing to offer you,” he said. “Can I at least take a picture with you both? I’d love to have this moment to remember you by.” When Brianna cheerfully agreed and Garrett reluctantly nodded, Rogier patted his pockets and swore. “I must have left my camera back with my truck. Perhaps you could take one and send it to me.”

Brianna hopped up and dug out her cell phone from the Durango. The three of them stood together, doing a variety of goofy smiles and poses. Brianna insisted on giving him their leftovers, and finally Rogier bid them a good night. When he was out of earshot, Brianna said quietly, “You sure weren’t friendly.”

“He wasn’t exactly shy about wanting something from us, Brianna. I don’t think our neighbor was such a nice guy.”

“What, you’re pissed about me giving away our food? Garrett, I’ve seen you leave a twenty-dollar tip for a Coke.”

“No, not the food. Did you see the way he got you to dig out your cell phone? He was looking to see what kind of model you had.”

“Oh come on, that’s a stretch,” Brianna protested as she ringed one of their solar lamps around the driver’s rearview mirror. It would be dark soon, and they’d want the light.

“Really? When you got up to grab some napkins from the car, did you see him cataloging the stuff we had inside? Brianna, he was practically drooling.”

She laughed and crossed over to him, cupping his cheek with one hand. “Baby, relax. You see the rotten shit people do so much, you’re imagining it now. Some people are just… people. He needed food and company, we gave it to him. That’s all. You’ll see.”

* * *

The small pup tent retained some of the day’s warmth even after the night threatened to drop down into freezing temperatures. Brianna snored softly – well, for her, anyways – tucked away in their roomy two-person sleeping bag, a travel pillow tucked under her neck. She dreamed of her father and Ransom Galbraith, an old nightmare by now, still wicked but lacking its sharp ugliness. When she came to the part of the dream where Ransom came around the corner of the door, his gun in hand and moving faster than her own – unlike real life, when she’d managed to draw on him first and put down the psycho fuckstain – she whimpered and came awake, aware for the first time that she was alone.

Just gone to the bathroom, she thought blearily. He’ll be back in a second. Then she heard the voices.

* * *

Given the soft solar lamplight, there weren’t many places Garrett could have sat in waiting comfortably, so he took up a position near a tree further in the darkness, hoping like hell a bear didn’t make him its dinner.

Just as he thought, someone kicked dirt on the road an hour later. For a moment, he thought it might be the Halls – it was coming from their direction, and the thought of the elderly couple being the ones to show up and steal from them would have made an amusing twist. But no, Rogier was just being clever, circling the whole camp and coming around from the other side.

Almost lazily, Garrett rose to his feet, keeping loose. Rogier tested the Durango’s back hatch. No luck. The back door on the passenger’s side. Still nothing. The front passenger door? That was unlocked. Garrett had left it that way.

Though not as trained in wilderness tactics as he was in urban stealth, Garrett had enough practice moving through the woods silently from various cases with Murphy that he effortlessly crept up on Rogier until he was just feet away, still ringed in darkness. “You’re a disappointment, you know that, Rah-jee?”

The would-be thief jumped hard enough to bang his head on the oh-shit handle. “Motherfuck-”

“Keep your voice down,” Garrett whispered. “Accent’s gone, huh?”

“Fuck you,” Rogier muttered. Now he sounded just like a thousand other Canadians they’d heard in Alberta – that is to say, he had little accent at all.

“You know what I’d do to you right now if it wasn’t for my wife? I’d break every bone in your good hand. We already gave to you, and you’d take more.”

“If the choice is a lecture or the bone-breaking, I’ll take the pain.”

Garrett grinned in the darkness. “There was a time I would have obliged you, asshole. But that woman in there, my wife, she still believes in goodness, in decency. I love that about her and I never want it to change. I’m not about to break her heart and neither are you.”

“So… what?”

“In that side compartment, there’s a notepad and a pen. Get it.”

Rogier scuffled around and came up with both. “Okay?”

“Write her a thank you. A nice one, but keep it short. It’s cold and I want to go back to sleep.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You’re going to thank my wife for the food and her generosity. Leave it under the windshield wiper. Then you’re going to vanish, whoever the fuck you really are. If I see you again tomorrow, I’ll get you alone and make good on all my threats.”

Rogier scribbled out a note. Garrett approached out of the night, took it from him with two fingers, gave it a cursory look, and passed it back for him to put it in place. Garrett gestured at the road, and the man took off, practically running. A flick of the Durango’s lock later, and Garrett was headed back for the tent.

At the flap, he stopped to take off his shoes, and stepped in gingerly so as to not drag the muck of the forest floor with him. Brianna was as he’d left her, snoring, her arm outstretched across his side of the sleeping bag. He lifted it gently and slid in with her. She murmured a sleepy question, and he quietly told her nature had called. With a mumble of something unintelligible, she slipped back into the void, and soon he followed after her.

* * *

In the morning, across the table as they ate Fig Newtons and boxes of tiny cereal dry, Brianna couldn’t stop smiling at him. Garrett tried to frown, found it was an abject failure, and finally asked with an amused lift of his lips what she was smiling about.

“Nothing,” she said. “Just thinking about how good people can be in this world.”

And she was. Not Rogier, not like Garrett thought she meant, but him. Always him.

Legally Blind #13 – Driving Again (Sorta)

Ever since I went legally blind, I have to be choosy about the games I play. With modern HD televisions and gaming graphics came an unfortunate byproduct – fonts so tiny that they’re completely unreadable by me. While developers are slowly learning how to implement things like “color blind modes,” there’s still no great solution to the font size problem, even nearly a decade after it first started to crop its ugly head. Even then, the “color blind” name is a misnomer, since there are wildly different variations on each individual’s color blindness.

This leaves me having to pick apart videos of games I’d like to play to see if it’s feasible for my eyesight. User interfaces aren’t likely to see marked low-vision improvements until a big advocate gets a foot in the door with game developers – it’s not feasible for the business to stop and adjust their games in development for the sake of low-vision gamers. Sony’s done something fascinating with the PS4 in that they’ve implemented a zoom feature, enabled in the system’s disability settings, but it’s not a perfect solution – you can’t act while the zoom is locked in, and in action-heavy games that require quick reading of text, that’s not ideal. Still, it’s a huge step in the right direction, one I hope is being improved upon by system programmers.

One of the unfortunate casualties of my post-legal blindness was racing games. With the sheer speed of the games and the often sudden corners, I was left unable to play an entire genre. Disappointing, but in the late aughts, this changed.

A Microsoft-owned developer by the name of Turn 10 cranks out a series of racing games called Forza just about every year now. I liked the look of the games from a distance, but figured they weren’t really for me. But one of the big flags they waved for the third Forza was accessibility.

“Sure,” I thought. “And by accessibility, you don’t mean for the legally blind.”

In fact, that wasn’t the case. What they meant by accessibility was ease of use for people new to the racing genre. This included a lot of neat-sounding stuff, like racing lines that showed you where to brake, make your turns, or put the hammer down. Most importantly, though, it had a neat little rewind feature – screw up badly in a race, and you can just reverse time in small chunks to correct your mistake.

A lot of gamers boo-hooed this as a cheat for gaming babies. But I was curious. If I could correct my mistakes driving in a racing game, theoretically I could actually play the game, regardless of how terrible I was. I bought Forza 3, popped it in, and I’m not kidding when I say I had one of the great emotional experiences of my adult life within the first few hours.

I was driving again.

Sure, it wasn’t the real thing. There was no feel of the tires gripping the road. Most of the cars sounded exactly alike and more than a few drove fairly similarly too. And everything around the fringes was definitely not low-vision friendly (especially in Forza 4, which had some of the most awful contrasting color schemes in its main menus that you could imagine – hint, black on white is never a good choice). But in-game, I was behind the wheel again, and not just in a few cars, but hundreds of them.

I knew the differences. Forza wasn’t going to cure all the mild depression that comes with being legally blind in a small town. The game wasn’t going to whisk me off to a bookstore, or let me drive aimlessly for no good reason other than to see some random site on my bucket list. But what it did do was offer me a taste of what I was missing – feeling the wheel between my hands has never been so close to me as Forza 3 or 4.

Fast forward to 2017. I managed to make enough writing this year to afford a decent computer capable of running many new games on mid-to-high settings, leaving me excited about the prospect of what I could play. It’s been a neat year – with my magnifier turned on and certain games in windowed mode, I can play a lot of PC games that were, before now, inaccessible to me. It’s not a cure-all – loads of games don’t want to work with magnifiers, but you’d be surprised at how well I’ve adapted. And with the ridiculous PC game sales that happen on Steam and elsewhere, I’m not lacking for things to play when I have a few extra bucks.

And best of all? Microsoft’s started putting its Forza games on PC – and Forza 7 is just over the horizon (it’s a clever joke if you’re familiar with the series. Oh, piss off, it is!). I look forward to running off the road, smashing into other cars, whacking walls, and being an absolutely terrible driver – then getting to do it all over again.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Legally Blind #12 – The Hunchback of White Sulphur

I’m not staring at your boobs.

Well… yeah, okay, I kind of am, but it’s not on purpose. Please don’t slap me. It’s a disease, and not some sexually perverse one. It’s called ankylosing spondylitis.

Before you ask, no, it’s not really tied to my eyes at all, but my diagnosis did actually come about as a result to a visit with my amazing eye specialist Dr. Patricia Cosgrove (who will warrant an entire blog dedicated to her and the fine folks at Medical Eye Specialists in Bozeman, MT, with whom I’ve been a client for about two decades).

About eight years ago, I started to develop chronic pain in my left shoulder, which was initially diagnosed as complications from a torn muscle thanks to a sedentary lifestyle. I lost most of the range of motion in that arm, and despite working out and trying to rehab it through the years, it’s still only at about 80% of its normal range of motion. Not great, but initially just irritating.

About three or four years ago, I started to develop an irritating constant crick in my upper back and neck, which developed slowly into constantly tensed shoulder muscles and a slight stoop to the angle of my neck. I literally could not relax my back muscles – still can’t, by and large. If you want to try to emulate this, do a sit up, hands reaching for your toes as far as they can go. Feel that stretch in your muscle when you hit about the three-quarters mark? That’s the way I feel on a minute-to-minute basis. Not fun.

But that wasn’t the end of it. About two years ago, when I laid down at night, my back would remain tense until I felt an odd little shuffle in my spine, a sort of forced relaxation of the bones there that would leave me gritting my teeth and practically shouting from the sudden jab of pain. If you’ve ever fallen and felt your spine accordion, that’s what it felt like every night when I went to bed, along with a distinct pop of some of my vertebrae. Now that was worrying.

And here’s something I didn’t realize was wrong with me until I was treated – I was tired. Not your average, every-day fatigue, but bone tired. I slept at least ten hours a day, something I’d done since my sophomore year of college, and I still felt sleepy almost every day. More on this in a second.

Me being an idiot, though, I figured it was just a posture thing. After all, I’m a fat man with a sedentary lifestyle, so hey, of course I’m going to suffer a bit of back pain, right? No need to get it seriously looked at. I had a couple of x-rays here locally, got a prescription for some mild painkillers and a muscle relaxant, and figured the problem would work itself out.

A few weeks or months on, and I go to visit Dr. Cosgrove for a regular eye appointment (well, regular for me – I’m guessing most of you don’t have to endure the dilation and half-an-hour of lights shining in your eyes to make sure your lattice structure isn’t shredding like toilet paper after a Taco Tuesday). Dr. Cosgrove read over my recent updates to my case history, and saw the discomfort when I had to put my chin in the Mickey Mouse contraption she uses to shine her eyeball cooker of a flashlight into my retinas.

We went over the history of my back pain, and I expected her to say what me and every other medically trained individual thought – live a healthier lifestyle. Instead, she asked if I’d been to see a rheumatologist, which aside from sounding like something only an elderly person would need to see, is extremely hard to spell. It’s the “a” instead of the “o” that gets me. Anyways, I kind of laughed her off and told her I’d just lose some weight and it wouldn’t be a problem anymore, but she told me if I had what she thought I might be diagnosed with, that it could severely affect my eyes somewhere down the line, either through infection or inflammation (or something similar – I’m not great at the medical science part of this).

I wasn’t laughing so much anymore. We scheduled something with Dr. John McCahan out of Bozeman Health, who took a long look at my back, my posture, and my case history, and agreed it was worth testing for.

I’d been in some pain for a while, but getting those tests done by the lab in Bozeman is maybe only third in terms of pain to some of the worst of my migraines and my infrequent fights with bursitis in my hips (which may have been related to an unnamed hip disease I found out I had at the same time as ankylosing spondylitis was diagnosed).

Getting my blood drawn wasn’t really the problem, but if you’re an aspiring lab tech and your future patients tell you it’s going to be easier to draw blood from their hand instead of the crook of their elbow, please do them a favor and listen. Don’t look at it as some personal challenge. The guy must have jabbed me eight times in the arm before deciding I knew what the hell I was talking about.

The real pain came from the X-rays I had to take – and I had to take a bunch of them. Holy shit, even the memory is making me want to break out sweating. There were a few that could be taken standing, which was fine, except the x-ray tech kept telling me to stand up straighter, which – spoilers! – isn’t possible for me anymore. I kept trying to tell her I can’t, but she was new and, more dangerously, obstinate, mostly because she’d never had to deal with a case like mine. Story of my fucking life when it comes to doctors.

The real, unsweetened pain came when she told me to lie down on the x-ray table. I treid to tell her I needed something to prop up my head, but she said that would taint the x-rays. Couldn’t be done, she said. I tried. I laid there shaking like a leaf, sweat from the muscle spasms rocking my body forming little lakes under my head and rolling down to my bare ass hanging out of the two-sizes too small “one size fits all” hospital gown.

Also, screw hospital gowns. Give your big patients sheets, or big beach towels, or something less humiliating than that crap.

Anyways, there I was, trying to bite back a scream when spasm after spasm was hitting me like ocean waves, and all the while this baby-fresh x-ray tech is telling me, N”no, no, you have to lay down straighter, you have to try harder to hold still.” I’m biting my tongue, because not only am I in just miserable amounts of pain, but Creed comes on the goddamn radio. Creed. As if my misery wasn’t complete enough.

Finally, the x-ray tech sighs in annoyance and calls down her supervisor from an extended lunch I’m guessing took place in Vietnam, considering how frigging long it took her to show up. She sees the distress I’m in, calmly tells me to try it one more time (which turned into another three or four times), and then they finally realize, oh, hey! This guy in pain might know that he’s actually in pain and needs a pillow to brace his head if they want to get an x-ray. Shocker!

I came out of there something like two hours after I went in, white as a ghost and having sweat so badly I could have drank a gallon of water. And probably did – I drink water like a camel even under the best of circumstances. But the tests were done, and I was called back by McCahan’s office to tell me a few weeks later I sure did have this funky disease called ankylosing spondylitis.

So… that aside, what is AS? It’s basically an inflammatory disease. My dumbass healthy cells got confused somewhere along the way and started attacking my spine’s healthy cells, confusing them for outside invaders. Sort of fitting – I’ve been playing video games my whole life, and now my white blood cells are playing their own game of Space Invaders inside my body as some sort of gross fit of karma coming back to bite me in the ass – or spine.

That’s a very basic definition, though, and the reality is a bit weirder than that. The AS has actually caused spinal growths on my vertebrae, leaving me with an upper spine as stiff as a board from the base of my shoulder blades to my neck. I have a limited range of vertical movement in my neck, which fluctuates a little, but not by much. It’s not something that will heal, at least not with modern medicine. Maybe someday they’ll implant me with some sort of Terminator spine, but I’m not counting my breath.

The treatment is basically a means of creating a holding pattern in my body – I can’t improve, but they’ve essentially halted the disease in its tracks through treatments. This treatment unfortunately has one big drawback – my immune system is now, effectively, as useless as a condom with a hole poked in it. Sure, it’s there, but it sure isn’t doing a whole lot.

That said, the effects have been astounding. As I mentioned before, I didn’t realize how tired I used to be until I was diagnosed and treated. Where I was sleeping ten to twelve hours a day, I’m now sleeping maybe six or seven, tops (with an occasional nap thrown in). I’m up every day by about eight o’clock at the latest, no matter how much I might want to sleep in. I’ve got a fire in me now that I just didn’t have before, and I feel the need to go, go, go.

Better sleep and more energy has put me in a better mood, too. Though I’ve slipped on losing weight, I still feel like I’m energized spiritually to do it, to get out on the track and push myself.

And in the most visible sign of improvement, I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. From June of 2016 to May-ish of 2017, I produced five novels averaging about 110k words apiece. Counting rough drafts and synopses, in the last year and a half, I’ve produced well over 1.5 million words. I’m not bragging about this – I could and will do better, because I’ve been graced with all the free time a person could ask for and very few responsibilities except to myself and my dogs. Given that amount of free time, i should be producing a book nearly every other month, if not faster.

But it’s a hell of a start considering I spent the last six years prior to 2016 doing little more than shitting, eating, sleeping, and consuming media.

I write all this especially to those of you males in your late twenties who might be suffering from chronic back pain. Get yourself checked out. Don’t be satisfied until you have a solution for your problem, and I’m not just talking painkillers or muscle relaxants here. Find out if there’s real treatment before it leaves you staring at chest level the rest of your life – which, believe me, leaves you pretty wanting in the dating department.

And to those of you with boobs, boy, am I sorry.

Writing fight scenes

One of the best tips I can give you budding writers is that when you have to write a fight scene, blow it out in your first draft. Go nuts with everything and everything you possibly want out of it, then scale it back to what you actually need afterwards. It’s way easier to craft a fun, intense fight scene that way, whereas when you have to pad it out, it tends to read like that’s what you’ve done.
 
I’ve had some trouble writing gunfights as opposed to fist fights. The former just don’t come across as creative enough, in my mind at least, whereas with the two big fistfight scenes in my novels (Garrett and the shapeshifter in Shifting Furies and again with Garrett and Dash Pendleton in Band of Fallen Princes) I can get down and dirty with the characters in a way that’s a joy to write. There are also two big Brianna fight scenes I’m really fond of in similar ways in For All the Sins of Man and Bone Carvers. In all of these, it was fun not just thinking about how the characters would interact and move from moment to moment, but it was a lot easier to keep track of numbers and bystanders, when applicable. With my gunfight scenes, tracking bullets, bodies, and injuries tends to require a lot of flowcharting and planning, which dulls the speed at which I can write a scene and therefore the overall quality of the writing.
Got any favorite fight scenes from books or movies? I think my very particular favorites from novels have to be the Sharpe battle scenes, which are both excellently written and easy to follow. Joe Abercrombie also writes fantastic battle scenes in his fantasy novel The Heroes. In film, it’s Heat, Collateral (sensing a Michael Mann thread here), and the end of the first half of Kill Bill. Whaddya got?

Legally Blind #11 – Colorado Addendum

My friend and co-conspirator on the Rankin Flats novels Erik Wehler just reminded me in an offhanded fashion that I completely forgot to talk about my experiences with some of the more odd classes I took at the Colorado Center for the Blind.

I’m not good with tools. Never have been, never will be. I’m not going to excuse myself by saying “I’m just not wired that way” because, c’mon, everybody can grab a hammer and throw in a nail. Except… not really. I try it, and I guarantee you that nail’s going to wind up in someone’s pituitary gland, the hammer’s head will explode, and within minutes, Ron Swanson will show up to my place, gun in hand, ready to rectify the world of the worst carpenter there ever was.

Mechanical devices at large are foreign to me. Just Friday, I was struggling to understand how to knock the legs down on a folding table, something I’m pretty sure my four year old cousins could do, probably while building a brick outdoor barbecue and shoring up the windows on their trailer.

I have really weird cousins.

Anyways, one of the classes I had to at least dip my toes into at the Colorado Center for the Blind was a woodworking class. Me being the guy who was immensely proud of himself for building an unsanded, unpolished, infinitely ugly table in his college set-building class in college was expected to work power tools, not just with my low vision, but completely blinded by sleepshades.

I’m still giggling like a school girl meeting… who’s a famous celebrity these days? Tom Jones! I’m giggling like a school girl meeting Tom Jones!  Wait, even I’m young enough that joke doesn’t play. Uh… giggling like a school girl meeting… Elvis? The Cookie Monster? Frodo Baggins? Just pretend I said something culturally relevant and let’s move on.

JUSTIN BIEBER! Nailed it.

So here I was, expecting to be tossed out of that woodworking classroom in minutes, because I’m not just all thumbs when it comes to this stuff. I’m limbless. I don’t think I’ve ever so much as owned an electric screwdriver, unless you can attach the little screwhead thingies to a vibrating toothbrush. Is that a thing people can do? Yes? No?

The teacher was a cool guy. Chilled and relaxed, and unfortunately unmoving on the possibility of me getting out of the class. He was also either married or divorced from my supercool (shut up, I’m bringing back supercool) home life teacher there, which should come as no surprise.

I was piss-my-pants scared when he told me everything I’d be doing, which essentially amounted to me building a small shelf for home use. It had to fulfill several specifications, including nice, fancy edges, a good sanding job, and a stain.

I kid you not, I thought I was going to die in a bloody, horrible shop accident in five minutes.

The classes were about twice a week for… mmm.. two months? Something like that. During the first month, there were other students, all of whom were more qualified than I was to run machinery with sharp, pointy edges that could very easily slice my skull open like a watermelon on the 4th of July. And each of them was blind. Not a little blind, not behind sleepshades blind, but blind-blind.

They whipped through their woodworking projects like they were cutting up a sandwich for dinner. I… mostly walked around with some boards in hand, trying not to be noticed. Pro-tip? That doesn’t fly at the CCB.

My teacher cornered me and asked me what I was afraid of. Well, “cornered” is a strong word. More like he approached me all Zen-like and told me he wasn’t going to let me hurt myself if I wasn’t stupid about things, and he didn’t believe I was stupid about things. He started me off on a jigsaw. Or a bandsaw. Or some kind of a machine that would spell the end of my fingers and hands that also ended in “saw.” He showed me, by touch, that the power cord wasn’t plugged in, and guided me to every point of interest on the machine, showing me the safety guides, where the blade would come down, how I could measure with guides, and what I’d need to do with my hands when feeling for the power switch after every cut.

It was, and still is, the best training I ever received with power tools. He was patient. He didn’t talk down to me. He didn’t get frustrated or make me feel stupid in any way. And unlike one or two of the other teachers there, he took the time to make sure I understood what I was doing, that I was comfortable and ready to take the next step.

I wish I could detail for you the specifics of how I made my little shelf, but I don’t remember a damn thing about the process. All I do remember is taking it slow, learning each machine in turn. I burned the hell out of the edges on the edger thingie. I went through twice as many boards as I should have trying to make the right cuts. My sanding was rough. I didn’t end up screwing hooks into the back so it could be put on a wall. But by the end, I had… well, not a shelf, but something approximating shelf-like.

And I didn’t murder myself in the process.

Then there was art classes.

Art at the CCB was a funny thing, because I so very rarely had it. I think I came into the Center near the very tail end of one art cycle and didn’t get involved with another class, though I don’t recall the specifics of why. I think by the point they were starting up another art class, I knew my time there was drawing to a close and I was focused solely on learning as much Braille, computer tech, and home living stuff as possible, covering the essentials of what I’d need.

But those few weeks I dabbled with art classes there were really fun. Our big project was a clay landscape of sorts. We could define it however we liked, imagining the landscape as an extension of our personalities. Mine at the time was meant to be vaguely Taoist, representing the balance of anger and calmness I felt in equal measure at the time. It wound up being something like a mashup of divots and crude hills, but still!

The process itself was largely straightforward. If you took a class in high school molding clay, we did pretty much the same thing. Clean-up was the hardest part, because cleaning a mess of clay by feel is almost always a pointless endeavor. You’re always bound to miss huge swaths of dust crap on tables, no matter how many swipes you take at the thing.

Unfortunately that’s a problem that has persisted to this day for me – cleaning, even with limited sight, often means I miss easy-to-spot details and leads to great embarrassment for me. As much as I’d love to say I keep a clean bathroom – and I do try – it’s often led to horrific moments of shame when guests try to point out things that need to be touched up. That’s not to say they shouldn’t – it’s actually greatly appreciated, because who the hell wants a filthy bathroom? But even just writing about it makes me red in the face.

And let me tell you, that makes the dating thing oh so very much fun. “Need to pop in and freshen up? Oh, there’s a fungus growing on the wall by the toilet? Errrr…. yeah, no, I completely understand running out of my apartment at full steam.”

Don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that particular shame online before. Hey, I promised honesty. So… there you go.

Anyways. Art was fun. My favorite memory was of us trying to go to some artistic thing and us breaking down somewhere along the way. It sounds miserable but it actually gave me a chance to get to know a bunch of my soon-to-be friends. That’s a good memory, just one of a thousand I have of that place.

And it’s also a good place to leave this off. Thanks for reading, as always, and I’ll be back soon to maybe talk a bit about my other fun physical afflictions.

Life is Weird

Eight years ago to this day, I lost my job.

That’s nearly a decade of days spent staring at a computer screen. Watching television. Playing games. Saying stupid shit on the Internet. Walking my dog(s).

It’s also nearly a decade of self-loathing, of pity parties, of anger, of mild paranoia. It’s nearly a decade of trying to get over my newfound distrust of people. It’s a decade of a lake of loneliness, the life preserver of which has been twenty five pounds of fur and farts (and my family).

But. But.

But it’s also been a decade in which I’ve come to understand myself. In which I’ve figured out who I am and who I want to be. Of what’s important. Of the lines I’m willing to cross and the ones I won’t. I’ve learned what defines family – real family, not just blood. It’s been a decade of rebuilding. Of healing. Of trying to reconnect with a world I no longer feel I understand.

And recently, it has been a decade in which I’ve actively begun not just a reversal of my fortunes, but an attempt at throwing myself back out in the world again. In a business sense, that’s been going… well, slower than I’d like, but it’s going. In terms of my social life, I’m trying to push past being the weird guy in the corner of the bar at night drinking diet Pepsis and wishing there was a bookstore around, but I’m out there. It’s not easy rebuilding a list of friends I can call and hang out with, especially given my age.

I’ve done more healing in the last two years than the entire previous six. I’m taking gambles on my future and seeing small dividends that will someday blossom into larger ones if I just keep pushing forward. I will probably never be that twenty-seven year old man again, but I don’t think I want to be. This Cam, the one you’re mentally talking to right now, is maybe more broken, more jagged, but it’s also the only version of me that has looked at the mountain in front of him and just started climbing. I’ll get to the peak someday. If my friends, if my family want to come with me, then start climbing too and we’ll do this together.

It has been a very long, very odd eight years.

 

 

Legally Blind #10 – A Sea of Familiarity

I don’t recognize you.

I don’t know your face. I don’t know your clothes. I don’t know your vehicle. I don’t know the way you walk.

I’m sorry about that, I really am. And if you know me, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, Cam means someone else.” No. I’m sorry, but no. I’m not. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been best friends for decades. It doesn’t matter if you’re my parents. It doesn’t even matter if you’re my brother, the person I’m closest to in the universe.

I do not recognize you.

One of the questions I get asked frequently – and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this, but this blog can and will repeat itself as topics will frequently intersect, and because my memory is absolute shit – is just what is it I actually see. That’s not a question people want to know in numbers (which, as of this writing, is -27 and -30 diopters in each eye, and if you know what that means, send me the bill for cleaning your underwear). They want to know in a quantifiable, real-life situation what I could actually see.

Defining that is often difficult, but as I’m pondering this idea of not being able to recognize anyone, it makes for a good teachable moment. The best way to describe my vision is I don’t see details. I see vague ideas of things, sometimes a bit more solidly when I’m up close and personal, but often times even then it’s a crapshoot. I don’t really see fine print anymore. I don’t see what’s up and down grocery store aisles – nowadays, I usually rely on common sense and the items you’d find at the end of each particular aisle as my beacons, but someday I’ll lose that latter one too.

And in what might be the saddest way vision has affected me, I don’t see people. I see the idea of you – your rough shape, the color of the clothes you’re wearing (although even that’s an illusion to me – I’m partially color blind to boot), maybe a few generalities, especially if you’ve got big hair or a heavy beard or sit in a wheelchair. Sometimes, within context, that’s enough to say, “Oh, that’s enough visual information that I feel confident in saying that’s X.”

But when I don’t have that contextual information, like when I’m in an environment where a lot of people come through the door or say hello, I’m very much socially paralyzed by an inability to distinguish what makes you you. This is compounded by my aforementioned terrible memory, because this should be offset by a recognition of people’s voices. But unlike a few of my blind friends who have developed sharper memories for these things, my brain seems to leak like a sieve.

Sometimes, this is helped by the way someone will talk to me. “Hey boo!” my mom will shout across a store. In a sea of voices, I could probably pick hers out – but the way she says it, “hey boo,” it’s an audible signal that helps me out a ton.

And though the responsibility is most definitely not on you, if you see me out and about, one of the ways you can help me tremendously is to just say, “Hey, Cam, it’s X.” Not all my blind friends like or need this, so it’s definitely not universal. But my God, does it ever help me out. When people shout hello at me, I always feel terrible for giving a generic, “Hey!” and then ignoring them, but I really am rendered socially awkward because I don’t have any clue who they are, generally speaking.

So yeah. Usually when people say this, it’s placating, but for me, it’s one hundred percent the truth – it’s not you, it’s me.