Pill Talk by Kenneth Weene
It wasn’t my recent birthday that got to me; it was my checkup.
I have for some time decided that I would measure my age not by years but by the number of pills I take each day. That was the day that a cholesterol drug had to be added, which brought the number to six including that daily vitamin pill. In a fit of childish stubbornness, I refuse to include the antihistamines I take so often; they are more like a life companion lurking about and awaiting contact with flowers, grass, trees, or dust. Given that list those pink pills have become the uninvited guest in my life.
Two years later a good friend suggested I add a supplement, something to offset side effects of that “statin” drug. I resisted, started, stopped the new pill, re-studied the issue, argued with myself, and eventually raised the number to seven. I was seven pills old. No, I wasn’t going to count the antacids that had joined those antihistamines. Sure I took one every other day, but it was hardly a measure of my aging that food was so often indigestible.
That was enough – seven pills old. I counted myself lucky. Many of my friends were on far more. Better yet, two of the seven were over-the-counter medications. Maybe they shouldn’t count as full pills even if I did take them every morning. Still, seven was clearly older than six. It had been a blow. But over time I had come to live with reality. Seven pills it would be.
I should have known better. I never schedule doctors’ appointments right around my birthday. My ego is fragile enough. I look in the mirror each year and appraise the damage. That’s when I count the pills and breathe a sigh of relief. Seven pills and no more. But this year by a scheduling fluke I ended up in my doc’s office the day after my birthday.
I made the best of it. I even brought him a copy of my newest novel, Tales From the Dew Drop Inne. I was very consciously saying, “See, my mind is still sharp. I’m just fine.”
After a bit of poking and prodding, I obliged the customary urine sample and allowed the resident vampire to suck a couple of vials of blood from my easily available veins. “Piece of cake,” I thought as I headed home.
Two days later his assistant called. “Ken, you’re low on vitamin D. He wants you to take 300 units a day. We’ll draw your blood again in six weeks.”
The pills are tiny; yet they carry so much weight. Vitamin D – isn’t that something you get from sunshine and drinking milk? Isn’t that for strong bones and teeth? Good Lord, is my skeleton melting away? Am I shrinking? Disappearing?
That's when it hit, the great fear and trembling of aging. It isn’t that I have gone from being seven pills old to eight but that I am terrified of disappearing in the sad way the elderly have. It is a shrinking away – no one wants to hear you tell the old stories, nobody want to walk slowly enough to keep you company. The grandchildren no longer want you to play with them – only drop them off at the best hiding trail. Your grown children come to visit and ask in a voice that suggests you are no longer there what they can do for you – what you can no longer do for yourself. You become irrelevant, unnoticed, a frail body propped on a bench until the pigeons notice that you are gone and go elsewhere to look for bits of bread.
No. NO! I cannot accept it. I will do what I must. Not the gym – don’t be silly. I shall begin another book. Until it comes out, I hope that doctor can refrain from adding number nine.
Some Questions for Ken
|Ken and Sadie|
Your background of teaching, psychology, and pastoral counseling, are all fields where you help others. Now that you're a writer, do you feel a sense that your writing comes to your aid in that it provides you a means to help cope with concerns?
I hope that my writing will help people to understand what life can be like for those who aren’t quite so happily situated. I write about widows, quadriplegics, infertile women, lonely men, people dying of AIDS; and that’s just in Widow’s Walk. Hopefully, I am drawing on my interpersonal sensibilities and knowledge to help readers get a deeper understanding of what it means to cope.
You describe your writing as "tragi-comedic" and leaning toward the dark side. Yet, I wonder if a novel truly captures life if it can leave out both the tragic and the comedic side of life? Any further thoughts about this? Who is your target audience?
If we don’t appreciate the tragic-comedic, we end up losing sight of what makes us all “more nearly human than otherwise.” Life is very much like a baby first learning to walk, falling down, perhaps crying for a bit, but then getting up and trying again. Each time that little one lands on his/her bottom we tend to laugh. But, when the child tries again, we cheer and applaud. My characters are very much like that kid. Hopefully readers get that same sense of alternating sympathizing and chuckling. For example, almost every chapter in Tales From the Dew Drop Inne tells us of human foibles and also of the need for these characters, who are barely holding on in the world, to connect to and care about one another.
So, who are my target audience? First, since I love the sound and feel of words, it is people who share that passion for poetic writing. Second, because of my sense of what life is, it is people who feel the “tears of the heart,” an emotional connection that is so uniquely human.
Here's pushing you a bit against the wall (hope you're not flinching too much): want to share one of your favorite paragraphs from your novels as an example of tragi-comedic?
That’s a bit hard since you really need the entirety to capture the duality of emotion, but I’ll try—not with a single paragraph but a short excerpt: the beginning of Chapter thirty-one from Memoirs From the Asylum. I think it captures the balance between sorrow and comedy that is so essential to life. In this chapter, the narrator, a patient in the hospital, is… Perhaps it is enough to just say that he is. The Marilyn to whom he refers is a catatonic patient whose hallucinatory world forms another of the “memoirs” in this novel. Buford Abrose is the resident physician who treats them both.
So let the madness begin:
“Sanctuary,” we scream. “Sanctuary!” We, the new hunchbacks, the new deformed, we have founded a new church, the cathedral of mental illness. Devoid of God, yet serviced by chaplains – perhaps not chaplains as much as missionaries, missionaries sent by make-believe-caring people who want no contact, caring people who do not care, caring people who donate balaclavas in the heat of summer and shorts for us to wear in winter.
“Do not release your huddled masses,” they say, “but give them the leavings of our church bazaars that our consciences might sleep more easily.”
“Give them the unsolds of our stores that our tax deductions may show love.”
A violent death in the midst of madness. “Keep them locked in. They’ll murder us in our sleep. And here are woolen mittens to wear while they are locked in their secure over-heated wards.”
It is cold – unforgiving cold – the kind of cold that creeps around doors and through windows. Unwelcome, unbidden, it chills not only the body but the spirit as well. The winter rain lashes at the windows and pelts off with the crack of whips. Rivers stream from leaders eroding the gravel and overflowing the sewers. The hospital is under attack from the elements. It is as if the heavens are trying to obliterate it – us. Flush madness into the sea, and what do you have? A sea of madness, a sea in which we are adrift – as if we have ever been safe at anchor.
It is during this time of complete confinement created by the conspiracy between the particles of death, law, politics, and weather that Allan washes into our unhappy lives. Allan, the latest bit of detritus to find its way onto our island of the mad, claims to be a philosopher, a searcher after true knowledge. It had, he assured us, only been with that intent that he had been watching through the windows of various women. “Knowledge requires transparency,” he opines with a deferential smirk and a knowing nod, “which means that windows are there for use in both directions.”
Allan takes up a position outside Marilyn’s room, a position from which he can indulge his endless obsession with watching while she lies in catatonic nothingness. It is only with great effort that the aides can remove him from his sentry’s duty and close him out from her care. When she is periodically folded into a geri-chair and placed along the dirt stains of the dayroom wall, he stands by her, resting against the wall witha look of extreme satisfaction. At some point he offers to feed her, and, with no objection from the ever-silent Marilyn, Allan takes over that duty – watching, ever watching as she slowly masticates and swallows.
“I am content,” Allan tells Buford Abrose. “Demosthenes searched for a natural – an honest – man, and I have found – in her most primitive – the natural woman. Marilyn is total honesty. I am content.”
“But she’s catatonic. What on earth is natural about that?”
“I am content,” Allan repeats. “Let us talk about something else.”
“Well, what brought you to the hospital?”
“The police car.”
And for fun: You're originally a New Englander but now live in Arizona. Do you have any funny incident that shows you can't take the New Englander out of you?
First, let me note that I have spent more of my life in the mid-Atlantic states, New York and New Jersey, than I have in New England. Still, I call myself a New Englander not only because of my accent, which people catch almost at once, but also because of a certain sensibility — a sense of roots.
Since there aren’t many “native” Arizonans compared to the vast numbers of “new-comers,” especially not in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, I am always particularly glad to meet natives. They, on the other hand, are less thrilled to meet me. I guess there’s a conflict for them: on the one hand wanting the economic development that growth provides and on the other wanting to hang on to a world of open spaces, horses, and six-guns. They assume that I can’t imagine that world; after all I’m from the East, the world of crowded cities.
Having done quite a bit of my own growing up in small town environments, I am aware of a very different distinction. In New England we assumed that there was a shared, community basis for life. Decisions were made at town meetings and while sitting around the soda fountain. In Arizona I find much more emphasis on the individual, on an attitude of “I’ll do what I damn well please.”
Given that libertarian bent — some might call it more an oppositional turn of mind — it seems inevitable that people here will simply ignore rules. Every summer we have a period of short, heavy rainstorms. Gullies turn into raging torrents and dry riverbeds become floods. And every year vehicles get washed down stream. Who is driving those cars and pickups — especially pickups? Not the unsuspecting tourist, not the new comer, no it is the native.
I guess their sense of liberty means you are free to make a fool of yourself. We New Englanders would never set ourselves up to be laughed at.
Ken looks forward to hearing from you, especially on your take about revenging the aging process.
Life itches and torments Kenneth Weene like pesky flies. Annoyed, he picks up a pile of paper to slap at the buzzing and often whacks himself on the head. Each whack is another story. At least having half-blinded himself, he has learned to not wave the pencil.
A New Englander by upbringing and inclination, Kenneth Weene is a teacher, psychologist and pastoral counselor by education. He is a writer by passion.
Ken’s short stories and poetry have appeared in numerous publications including Sol, Spirits, Palo Verde Pages, Vox Poetica, Clutching at Straws, The Word Place, Legendary, The New Flesh Magazine, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Bewildering Stories, A Word With You Press, Mirror Dance, The Aurorean, Stymie, and Empirical. Ken’s novels, Widow’s Walk and Memoirs From the Asylum, and Tales From the Dew Drop Inne, are published by All Things That Matter Press.
To learn more about Ken’s writing visit: http://www.authorkenweene.com
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And, if you'd like to listen to Ken read one of his short stories: