Book Review: I Know This Much Is True

In honor of today’s Readathon, which asks people to continuously read books over a 24-hour period, I thought I’d post a review of my best read of 2014 thus far. While I think the idea behind Readathon is cool, I know I couldn’t do it since I like to take my book in small bites and really digest the plot. But to those who are doing it, enjoy, and probably drink lots of coffee!

So I’ve just completed my second really long book of the year. The first was The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, which I may review at a later date. This one though is titled I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb.

On posting that I was reading this on Facebook, it quickly became clear that I’m the last person on earth to pick it up, not surprising I guess, given that it came out in 1998. Many immediately said they loved it also, having some deep sense of connection to and empathy for the characters.

The main characters are twins Thomas and Dominic Birdsey, (last name may or may not be spelled correctly but for that you can blame the fact that I read it in audio). We meet Thomas just as his Schizophrenia leads him to profoundly injure himself in an attempt to stop the oncoming Gulf war of the early 90s. He takes this action in a library, and other patrons and the librarian demand that he be put away quickly. He had already been in a lower-level facility, but they decide to escalate him to one with greater security, and a lot less flexibility for him and his family.

Much of the rest of the story is essentially told in flashback: through Dominic’s therapy sessions, thoughts from their stepfather, and a diary that their grandfather wrote about his coming to the US from Sicely at the turn of the 20th Century. It is a fascinating tale of hardship, bombast, and the strength of a special kind of love that only people with a fairly rare relationship can understand.

I think my favorite parts of the story were those concerning their life in the 1960s. How Dominic met someone at a place called the Dial Tone Lounge, a bar with tables that allowed people to dial in the number of another table if they saw someone attractive there. Did such establishments exist? That sounds like fun.

Of course, not all was great for them then. We get a glimpse of how their stepfather Ray treated, and often mistreated, Dominic, their mother, and especially Thomas. As with other books I’ve read, I can really feel Thomas’s discomfort, enduring taunts that he was a “sissy” and too girl-like, as my biological parent very regularly said such things to me as well. Later in the story, Ray claims that he had a hard time not doing this as he had been raised in an era where men were taught to always display a tough exterior. That’s sad.

I also liked the complexity of Dominic’s feelings. While he often yearned to have his own life and space, he nevertheless continued to fight vehemently for his brother and whatever his brother wanted. He did this even to the extent that it hurt his relationships with women. It was certainly a tough fight with a less-than-desirable outcome.

I would definitely recommend this book, though probably not as one to consume during the readathon. I’m not sure how many print pages it is exactly, but at 30 hours of audio it has to be of a pretty good size. It will however make for a great summer read, as there is lots of talk of waterfalls, beaches, and entertainment. There is also a deep exploration of those characteristics that make us beautifully made, if flawed, human beings.

On Becoming A Regular

Enter. Walk slowly toward the register.

“Oh hi John! I’ll get that medium coffee for you. I know just how you like it.”

Sometimes, I throw in a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich on Texas toast for good measure. MMM! I did today, in fact.

As time has continued on, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to our friendly neighborhood Dunkin Donuts, and in particular the people who work there.

Easters of Yore

One nice young woman always enjoys coming over to my table and making small talk as I chat, I think as a bit of a respite from the long hours of work she puts in. I guess I can’t complain too much about my eight-hour, five-days-a-week job when she might put in 12 hours and sometimes work six days. Man alive, I need to find that kind of drive.

No matter where I relocate, I usually find some place in which I become a sort of regular. In my last independent residence, Carrboro’s Estes Park Apartments, we didn’t have any nearby restaurants or convenience stores I could easily access. So, I often hung out in the leasing office. But hey, they made some of the best tasting coffee I’ve ever had in there. And it was free. Getting to know the staff like that also led to other very necessary perks during those broke days, like letting more than a few late rents slide by and helping with other things like going to the grocery. Even so, I certainly hope I never end up in that kind of crazy situation again.

Of course while there, I did establish regular status in Chapel Hill establishments like Sutton’s, an old-style soda shop that serves hot dogs, burgers, and big, filling breakfasts. I had been going there somewhat frequently even from Durham, until I came to like my current area and its more convenient access more. I have a server in Suttons to whom I enjoy talking, also an incredibly hard worker who routinely puts in six days. I’m not entirely sure we respect enough the people who put food on our tables, well heck we often plain look down on them. This shouldn’t be.

And then, there’s the place with which I think people most associate the idea of “regular”ness, Starbucks. They have one of those on Franklin in Chapel Hill also, but the reason I love it there is it has a local, homely atmosphere. Some of my best writing has happened in there.

Have you become a regular anywhere? If so, what is your typical order. Do the servers know you? I wonder to what degree this happens in other countries. I definitely find it fascinating the slow, predictable way that this credential comes into being.

We Are Family

I learned on Thursday that it was National Siblings Day. I had meant to write then, but haven’t really found the time or energy until now. I know most people posted pictures of their families, but for me my photo is usually my writing.

I mentioned briefly in my intro post that I have been blessed with a fairly large family of five sisters and a cousin who may as well be a brother. They are, from eldest to youngest, the twins who were born in December of 76, my next eldest sister born in 78, my cousin born in 80, another sister born in 81, and the final sister born in 84. Yes, we were bunched tightly together, with each of us six not including my cousin oddly sharing birth months of December, September, and May with the sibling right behind us in age. Interesting how that worked out.

According to a LiveJournal poll I did once, because we all know my polls are strictly scientific and conducted using rigorous research standards, ha ha, it would seem that my family size is atypical. I think it’s becoming even more so as people decide to defer or put off having children altogether. I sometimes wonder how my mom managed to work hard enough to keep us all housed, clothed and fed; but that’s a good mother for ya.

RELATED: Almighty Dollar

Family is everything to a person: where he’s been, where he’s going, and who he is. Whether these consist of biologically related units or not doesn’t much matter, but it’s more about the value system in which one is raised.

I can’t say that I always enjoyed that chaotic structure, wishing often to be in a household where I was the only child. Looking back though, I am glad I experienced having to negotiate for everything from use of the bathroom to what we would listen to on the radio. I believe that these skills have made me a more sensitive, understanding person, right? Right? Ah well, who am I kidding!

My sisters, especially the older ones, raised me with tough love. They used to play tricks on me that I’m surprised haven’t landed me in therapy somewhere. Buzzing around my head like bees, giving me pickled pepper juice and saying it was koolade, and how about the 9-volt battery thing? It was all good though, because I eventually learned to give as good as I got!

I think at heart though, they were always well-meaning. And let anyone else try to hurt me, or anyone else in our family for that matter. Uh uh! They’d become a roving pack of wolves, and the individual who’d made that choice would suddenly develop superior track skills as he or she made an escape.

If asked what the greatest gift my sisters gave to me was, it would be the joy of books and reading. At different times in their development, each of them would practice their skill of reading aloud with me as test subject. Well the twins were talented enough to write their own stories really, some of which were quite good.

I remember sometimes entering the bathroom with my youngest sister so we could find a little quiet, locking the door, and reading the climax of some book or series for hours. I’m kind of amused that my mom didn’t kick us out of there for doing that.

My youngest sister also equipped me with a great imagination. But, I think ultimately my cousin and I were the best creators of fictional worlds from practically nothing. He got me interested in acquiring knowledge by spinning elaborate tales of World War 2 Era figures, their families and all, only using the two of us to voice the many characters. It seems we never even needed to stop and ask about the direction the story would take, we somehow just knew and followed each other. It was improv to the max. We called this unique skit-making “Playing something,” and as with everything else in my childhood, we could go at it for hours. I think my family probably taught me to fully dedicate myself to a task or hobby, but I can’t say how well that lesson stuck. I think my cousin and I discontinued this game when, sadly, there was to be someone firing through the window of a world leader’s car, and right at that moment a rock flew through our room window! I feel I’ve told that story before, but whatever. I have old-man syndrome.

So that’s a bit about the fascinating and varied people who worked together to make me me. I am happy to have been assigned to this special group of individuals, and believe that we, like most of course, are bringing our own brand of crazy to the masses. Here’s to my family!

Job Days Redux

Assuming I’ve done this correctly, you should be reading this as I’m at work. this is because I’ve decided I’d attempt scheduling a post for the first time. Interesting idea.

Last year at about this time, ok a couple weeks earlier I’ll admit, I’d written a piece about the job I did at my current employer. At that time, I worked to assemble combination locks, getting my hands all greasy from the bodies as I piled them onto a tray with attaching chain. The orders for that dried up at the end of May, and it’s been so long now that I’m not entirely sure I can remember how to do it anymore. I think they’ll get us up and running over there again sometime soon.

One of the reasons I’ve opted to post about my current work is I saw via a Twitter follower that this is National Supported Employment Week. Or maybe that was last week. In any event, it’s a time to think about disability and employment.

According to what I learned from my brief stint in a graduate-level Rehabilitation Counseling program, Supported Employment pairs a person with a disability, usually a condition that’s may require a bit of adjustment to effectively do the job such as Autism, Intellectual Disability, or another developmental disability, with a job coach or trainer. The levels of SE, as it is often abbreviated, can vary based on a person’s needs. It is a good program that helps to bring meaning to the lives of many and engender pride and satisfaction and accomplishment. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who choose to enter careers that make this option available for those who can use it.

While I and most blind and low vision people don’t really use supported employment, we are still often employed in sheltered settings as I cuttently am. These are workshops that hire people specifically based on their disability status, and they at least provide some basic level of work, often as routine as the job I’ve done before and that which I’m now doing.

I currently am in a section where we make light sticks that soldiers can use in the field, and that don’t require batteries to work. I think they have some sort of chemical that becomes active when the top is broken off. We do the whole thing, from placing them into foil, packing them ten to a labeled box, and putting them onto a conveyor belt to be packed into larger boxes for shipment. I am one of the packers who place the boxes onto the belts. You can hear how that sounds here, if curious.

When the sticks are in high supply, the days sail by. However, I’m already noticing that we seem to be heading toward the typical summer trickle. So I’m more often finding myself with head bouncing off of chest or worse, off of the sharp edge of the pocket that holds the box as I rapidly shove sticks in on a specially made workstation. Fun times.

And on the subject of time, my routine has changed markedly little. I guess if anything, I feel I’ve somehow become more efficient with my use of time. I can shove down a bowl of cereal, make a sandwich, and complete other tasks all while still practically asleep. Then it’s to the bus stop, where I now usually have a couple of other companions waiting with me, come wind, rain, or freezing cold! Thankfully Spring seems finally to be settling into the Southeast.

Am I glad to be employed? Of course, as it’s leading to so many more freedoms. But I still desire to do something more with my existence than this. I admit to finding figuring out just what that should be is proving more of a challenge than I’d thought. Perhaps I can do one of these reviews every year, as a means of gauging my progress or if any has been made.

Booking it! Online?

I would venture to say that at some point or other, every blind and visually impaired computer user has experienced this difficulty. I’d say that it results from the varying combination of browsers and assistive technology we might use to interact with the sites, as well as the many ways a site can be designed and function when certain actions are taken.

I’m headed to Charlotte to visit my cousin this weekend, yay! We’re gonna watch the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four matchups this Saturday and probably talk a lot about any and everything.

In getting there, I’m taking the Amtrak as usual. I decided I would go ahead and finally create an account there for myself, so that I might get some Guest Rewards points since I’m likely to make at least this trip fairly often in the coming year.

I log on, and after a little of this and that, manage to enter my user information. A number is then generated for me, but I hadn’t known at the time that this wasn’t the end of the acquisition process for guest rewards membership. I sure wish I had realized it!

Next, I proceeded to attempt purchasing my roundtrip ticket between Durham and Charlotte. I like that I could add the two stations as favorites, which in theory would make future scheduling a snap. Once I managed to find the link labeled Passengers with Disabilities, which I needed in order to request assistance and get the small discount for which blind folks qualify, I made the, apparent, mistake of linking my Guest Rewards account to the trip I was attempting to book.

So here’s where I really became frustrated. I got my card info in, clicked the Purchase button, and it just sat there saying it was “Processing payment”. Paranoid about the idea that if I clicked it again I’d be charged twice, I allowed the machine to sit there for about 20 minutes before conceding and calling it a night, for it was already late.

Fortunately everything had been saved, so I relaunched the same search the next day and got the same hanging Now Processing result. I was wishing for at least an error of some kind, so that I’d know that something was wrong and perhaps what that something was.

I opted to give it a try with the iPhone app, but with that I couldn’t even get the date to enter correctly. So, I threw up my proverbial hands and called in to order the ticket as I had done on all previous occasions. I told the call center representative with whom I spoke I was doing that, throwing up my hands, and she laughed. She was nice though, and demonstrated to me that the problem was that I had not completed my enrollment in that Guest Rewards program.

I could go off on a tangent regarding my usefulness of loyalty programs, which often require you to have amassed piles of points to redeem one flight/trainride/pizza/what have you. I of course understand this logic, as the hope is that one will continue spending with said company in order to obtain the benefits, and that so doing will result in greater profit for the company. But I usually don’t see the need, and just buy the thing I want outright. I know there are some things to be gained from these associations though, which is why I was going to give it a go. Do you engage in any loyalty programs?

I do think I might sign up for Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards, as I’m slowly starting to use them more. They actually have done a good job lately of making their site a lot more accessible with a screen-reader, ad they offer great prices on nonstop flights from my local airport.

So that was a little of my trip booking fun. I guess for now I won’t actually become a Guest Rewards member, but I might feel like signing up eventually. I do have to say that the Amtrak site was usable for the most part, but just wish it could have been a bit more explanatory and that things could be more easily located.

Especially for those with visual disabilities, what have been some of your trip booking challenges and/or successes lately. I’ve also heard that Expedia isn’t exactly wrking well for screen-reader users lately either, but cannot personally attest to this as it’s been a while since I’ve completed a booking there. Weigh in.