Sunday, April 27, 2008

Looks like it's going to be a perfect 10

According to Gene Norman, the weather guy on Channel 11 here in Houston, these past few days have been unusually warm and humid. As he says, “The muggies are back!” Compared to Maine where I lived before moving here two years ago, “muggies” are not too hard to take, especially with temperatures near ninety during the day and low seventies during the night.

Most of my neighbors in the apartment complex where I live have had their AC's cranking at full force, but I leave mine off and instead go old fashion by opening my patio screen door. With a tower fan in my living room, and a slight breeze blowing through the screen, I find I'm more than comfortable, and don't really seem to be too bothered by the humidity.

Today was a particularly exhausting day at work. As a disability advocate, I occasionally have to represent clients who’ve had their claims for Social Security disability denied. When clients have been denied on their initial claim, they can file for Reconsideration. If the initial decision is upheld, they can then request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. I spent most of this day writing a brief for a hearing that I have coming up within the next month

Preparing for a hearing is pretty intensive work. It involves a complete review of medical history and records, job history, and what an individual's specific limitations are as a result of their medical condition. Also involves considerable research sometimes. Especially when a client has a medical diagnosis you're unfamiliar with.

For instance, I once had a client diagnosed with cauda equina syndrome. I never heard of that before but I recognized the meaning of the Latin words right off. “Cauda” means tail, whereas “equina” relates to horses. I translated her condition as “horse tail” syndrome and was struck with a bizarre image of a poor lady switching flies. Turns out that it’s a very serious condition that involves compression of the peripheral nerves at the base of the tail bone. As a result the condition can make sitting extremely uncomfortable and painful, and can often lead to paralysis of both legs from the waist on down. In her case I was able to get her claim for disability approved at the initial level.

As the sun begins to set, the air begins to fill with the song of birds, punctuated by the melodic tones of my wind chime. I add to the harmony by putting on Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The ambiance I’ve created calls for a bottle of Guinness. I sit down on the couch facing the patio to do a little writing in my journal, and then pick back up on a couple of books I've been reading.

This year has marked a particularly interesting milestone in my life. Both my son and daughter are now “legal.” Last year my son turned twenty-one, and this year it was my daughter's turn. Last month my son arrived here in Houston from Afghanistan on 18 days leave. First thing he wanted to do was take me out for a beer. Imagine that, my son buying me a beer. It was good to see him, and we were hoping to make a trip up to Maine to visit with friends and family, but it turned out 18 days really wasn't enough time to fit in every thing he had hoped to do before having to head back.

He'll have leave again this coming September and hopes to make a visit with friends and family then. The community of Belfast has been incredibly supportive to him and the men he serves with in Battle Company, 2nd/503rd, 173rd Airborne. They adopted the 173rd and provided much appreciated necessities during the long, cold winter months. Warm socks, tuna fish, beef jerky, hand-warmers and other items sent by the community went a long way in keeping their spirits up during that frigid time. In an email sent in response to my question of how he was handling being out in the cold, my son said, “I know I grew up in Maine and experienced a lot of cold winters, but I was never like, 'Hey, let's go camping out in this.'”

It was so good to see him. He's so full of life and at times, himself, but that goes with the territory of being “bad ass.” When I was a Marine, I had the same attitude and can-do spirit. Considering the immense fighting he has had to participate in, he has done a terrific job with keeping his emotions intact. Oh, sure, occasionally you can catch a glimpse of him locked in a “battle stare,” but his sense of empathy and compassion toward others has not suffered much--nor has his sense of humor--and he is optimistic about his future.

I put my journal down on the coffee table and step outside for a short walk. As the sun begins to slowly dip below the horizon, the clouds begin to appear brushed with the soft hues of pink, white and purple swirls. If I were Gene Norman, the weather guy on Channel 11, I would say tomorrow, “Looks like it's going to be a perfect 10.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

Distractions, boredom and a new URL

It’s been almost two years since I moved from Belfast, Maine to Houston. During this period I have spent most of my time trying to become acclimated to my new surroundings. When you come to live in a city so expansive in its geography, it’s kind of hard to figure out where in Houston you want to be. There’s the Heights, Montrose, the Galleria, Downtown, the Medical Center, the Museum District, and the list goes on. Each area mentioned is large enough in size and population to be its own city. And if you were to isolate the Medical Center by itself, you would have the ninth largest city in the United States.

Needless to say, getting lost in Houston is very easy to do. But I’ve gotten to where I now have a general sense of what direction I’m going in whereas before I couldn’t tell east from west or north from south.

The distraction of trying to become comfortable with a new job and a new place to live unfortunately doesn’t contribute to getting much writing done. But I’ve become comfortable in my new apartment, and have a screen to my sliding glass door that lets in a good supply of fresh air. I hung a three foot long wind chime just above my patio door that creates the perfect background noise for reading a book, or for sitting down to write.

While lost in distraction these past few years, I’ve spent more time watching TV than I normally would. Becomes a habit that’s hard to break sometimes. But I can only take so much mindless absorption before I’m completely bored. A couple of weeks ago I decided to turn off the television and become reacquainted with my thoughts.

First thing I thought I’d do was dust off my blogsite and bring it up to date. That’s when I learned Blogger made a switch in its formatting, and as such, I couldn’t log into my site. Tried everything I could think of and spent hours trying out different suggestions I found by researching the internet. Even sent Blogger a couple of nasty emails to which I have yet to receive a response. Finally I gave up and recreated my blog by switching to a new URL.

Unburned Pieces of the Mind still shows up under However, I can’t post to it anymore. So I copied the source code and recreated my blog that now uses the following URL: The next hurdle to overcome is with getting everyone linked to my old site to hitch up to my new site. Why Blogger had to make something relatively simple and easy to use so extremely difficult and frustrating is beyond me.

Anyway, getting late. We had a good line storm that came through this morning with lots of rain, lightening and thunder. It’s a little on the cool side tonight but the sky is a dark cobalt blue . Think I’ll grab a Linda Ronstadt cd and take a drive through downtown. On a night like this, all the buildings will be perfectly lit up against the sky. After driving down Smith Street, I’ll head over to the Pie House on Kirby and sit myself down to a cup of coffee and a big slice of egg-custard pie.

By S. L. Cunningham

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Getting lost in Houston

On July 11, I called my mother to wish her a happy birthday. As I was talking with her, I could hear a loud crackling over the phone. “Do you got static going on?” I asked.

“Yeah, I got a rip-roaring thunderstorm going on over my head.”

We talked just long enough for me to give her the news that I accepted a job offer as a Public Assistance Advocate.

“That’s great. Almost a birthday present in itself now that I don’t have to worry about you,” she said as the line crackled again. “Did you hear that?” she asked. “I think I need to get off the phone.”

“Call you tomorrow,” I said.

The job offer from MASH (Medical Advocacy Services for Healthcare} could not have come at a better time. I’ve been in Houston for over a month now and I’m just about flat broke. Thanks to food and other expenses being less than what I had anticipated, my funds have held up fairly well. But I’m not sure how I’m going to get through the next couple of weeks until my first check. I told my cat not to worry, though. Pigeons are plentiful here.

The job almost didn’t happen, and I really didn’t expect to be offered the position since I was horribly late for the interview. Although I’m getting better at finding my way around, Houston is, as some people say here, “inmenso” in its geographical size.

How big? Well, bigger than the state of Connecticut. Yeah, imagine that. Over 6,200 sq, miles compared to Connecticut’s area of 5,800 sq, miles. I’ve learned that when somebody says, “Oh, we’re just ‘cross town,” you better look at a map. They could be 40 to 60 miles from where you are. Though Houston is the fourth largest city in population, its geographical area makes it the largest city in the United States. Good luck if you get lost here. MapQuest even has a hard time figuring out where you are, much less where you want to go.

And so it was on the day of my interview with Tim Lacy that I happened to get quite lost on the 610 Loop. I headed out an hour before my 2pm appointment, figuring it wouldn’t take more than a half hour to get to the Washington Mutual building where he said his office was located. I followed the route exactly as MapQuest had given, except that when I got off the exit it gave, I could not find any of the landmarks Mr. Lacy had indicated. No cross street named Buffalo Speedway, no stadium, and no bank building. And even though the frontage road sign said I was in the 3000-3500 block, which is where I needed to be, something clearly wasn’t quite right.

I looked at the directions again. From the route it gave, I was where I was supposed to be, but it was obvious something was wrong. The only things adjacent to this block were a lone convenience store, and a run-down residential area. I looked at the time. Ten to two. Great. The one job opportunity that looked tailored made to my background in social service and education, and I felt like I was about to kiss it goodbye.

I hopped back on the 610 and started to backtrack in the direction I had come, but when I didn’t see anything that made sense as to where I was, much less where I was going, I pulled off and stopped at a Valero station. I approached the lady behind the counter. “Do you know how to get to S 3003 W Loop?” I asked. She shrugged her shoulders and said she didn’t know.

After asking a few more people, I gave up. It seems most people don’t know how to get to any other place in Houston, either, except the place they’re already in. Knowing I didn’t see anything that looked even close to what Mr. Lacy had described, I got back on the 610 and headed south. Ten minutes past two, I called Mr. Lacy and apologized for being late, and then explained I was quite lost. “Where are you?” he asked.

As if I knew.

“I just went back over the harbor channel heading south.”

“Oh, my, you’re quite a ways out. Didn’t you see Reliant stadium? We’re right across from there. You want to take the Buffalo Speedway exit and then turn left. The Washington Mutual building will be on the right. Don’t worry, though. My 2:30 is early, so I’ll start with her. Just try to be here in the next thirty minutes. I have a plane I need to catch back to Dallas.”

“On my way,” I said, thanking him for being understanding.

Twenty minutes later, Reliant Stadium came into view. And there on the left was the Washington Mutual building, I parked my car and jaunted up the stairs to the second floor. “Hi, I’m Scot Cunningham,” I said, announcing myself to the receptionist.

“Oh, you’re the gentleman who’s lost,” she said.

“Was,” I said.

“I’ll let Mr. Lacy know you’re here.”

Mr. Lacy proved to be very gracious and accepting. As I stood up and thanked him for taking the time to meet with me, I apologized once again for being so horribly late.

“Can I see the directions you got from MapQuest?” he asked.

I handed him my printout.

Chuckling, he said, “Well, here’s the problem. We’re S 3003 W Loop, but the address you put in is N 3003 W Loop.”

All I can say is I’m glad it wasn’t a Yellow Cab position I had applied for. Still, I seriously doubted I’d be offered the position considering I was such a numbskull on passing the mental test with typing in the wrong address. The position I applied for requires accuracy with processing information, and yet I botched a simple rule of always making sure to double check. No wonder why Map Quest couldn’t figure out where I needed to be.

When Mr. Lacy did call and offered me the position after reviewing the results of a personality and temperament test I’d taken the previous morning, I just about gelled into my car seat. Come Monday, I’ll begin a new adventure in a career that will be similar to the work I did as a Medicaid eligibility specialist with the state of Florida many years ago.

Moving to Houston from Maine has been like moving from the trunk of the car to the engine. It’s a city with a lot of rev. As I sat on the Woodhead Bridge over Highway 59 later that evening, watching streamers of red shoot out from underneath me, I felt grateful that after several applications and interviews, I finally had a job. Taking in the sun setting on an orange creamsical sky, I thought, I'm going to like it here just fine.

By S. L. Cunningham

Village Soup Citizen, 07/19/2006:24