Echoes of Mortality

Nothing has influenced my perspective on retirement so much as what happened to my grandfather. He was a truck farmer seventy-odd years ago, growing vegetables in the Hockomock swamp for sale in nearby Brockton. But New England farming isn’t ever going to be a fast track to riches, and he had other jobs as well.
But the time I was born, his farming days were mostly past, and he worked as a janitor in the public schools. He sold the big farmhouse and moved with my Nana into the cottage he had built years before for his then-newlywed daughter, who had moved away. Much of the farmland he sold to Cumberland Farms, who used it to grow cattle corn.

janitor-cropped

My grandfather, with the bow tie, third from the right.

His plan, when he retired, was to drive around the U.S. with his wife and visit the places he’d never had time to see before. But he was a good worker, and the district wanted to keep him on. They asked, and he agreed, to one more year of work before retirement.
That year, Nana died.
Having lived through a major health scare in 2014, my wife and I have both been given just cause to think about how and when our lives may end as well. But I’m relatively young for a heart patient, and unless I manage to miraculously pen the next Harry Potter novel I can’t see myself financially able to quit my day job, much less retire, for another two decades or more.
But if, between now and then, I agitate for the chance to blow some money on a holiday trip with my wife, I hope you understand why it matters.

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Exercise Beyond Futility

Frank used to be an engineer, like me.  Mechanical.  He worked at the Arsenal years ago, where they built that “bunker buster” bomb that helped win the first Gulf War.  The one where we were the good guys, defending Kuwait from aggression.  He told me his story as we walked the treadmills at cardiac rehab.

It’s what we do at rehab, swap stories.  There are a lot of stories in that room, earned during the active lives of men decades older than I.  Those who aren’t talkers usually have their wives in the waiting room, and I hear stories from them.  I learn how this one had a double bypass; that one, congestive heart failure.  We talk about treatments, and medications, and side effects.  I talk about my stent, and they marvel at how quickly a man can return to full activity after a heart attack these days.  “You look so good,” they say, and I thank them.  What else can I do?

Because I don’t feel so good, some days, and it never feels like full activity.  The nurse said I could push it this week, and I made it up to 4.3 miles per hour for half of my twenty minutes on the treadmill.  4.3 used to be my resting pace, for times when I couldn’t run any farther.  These days, I don’t run at all, and I haven’t even mowed the lawn myself in a month and a half..  I used to get up early on my days off to write; today, I get up early to take my meds, and stay up because I refuse to let my body stop me, even if my efforts lead to no more than a dozen words.

The restrictions placed upon me by the world seem worse by far than those imposed by my body.  I needed a doctor’s note just to return to my desk job, and now I find I will need a second note before they will let me travel by air for a customer meeting.  I monitor my eating of salt, of fats, of cholesterol, not because my blood pressure or cholesterol levels were high before my heart attack, but because people I love will worry if I don’t.  And I take my meds twice a day, every day, without fail, knowing my body will warn me if I forget, because I feel pretty good if I forget.  My heart rate is suppressed, my blood pressure low, and I feel best when they let me drive them back up through exercise.Piper_Super_Cub_N158FJ_02

I am pounding away on the exercise bike when Frank walks up to tell me about his loss.  He used to be a private pilot, he said. The Arsenal had a fleet of planes at its disposal, and they let their Aviation club borrow them for the cost of fuel and maintenance.  Frank describes them for me:  Cessna’s and a Piper Super Cub, and other planes whose names I don’t recognize.  Frank loved to fly, but they won’t let him do it any more. After his heart attack, they wouldn’t let him renew his license.  That seems deeply sad to me, but Frank seems happy just to share his story with me.  And I’m glad he can be happy.

At the same time, I’m not Frank. He is retired, and if he wants to sit and talk, or read, or watch TV, he can do so at his leisure.  I have a job, and a mortgage to pay, and two kids to put through college.  I have twenty years before I get to where he stands today, and stories to write before I get there.  So I’ll write my dozen words, and a dozen more after that.  I’ll go to rehab and work until I can run again.  I’ll work until I can mow the lawn, and shovel snow in the winter, and hike the Adirondacks with my wife.  And I’ll get that second doctor’s note.

I’m going to fly.

Photo “Piper Super Cub N158FJ” by Ad Meskens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Reputation

My new Mars story isn’t done yet, so I’m not ready to write about how I did it. While you wait, here’s a brand-new anecdote from the Mostly True collection.wbhs2

Every class has one student known by his negative reputation instead of his name, and some have more than one. Unable to excel at education, he strives to be known for rebellion instead. He may become the class clown, taking foolish risks to gain attention. Other times, he lashes out in violence.

As a high-school freshman (9th grade), my crowded course schedule placed me in gym with a class of 8th-grade students. This wouldn’t happen in most school districts, because most districts don’t teach 8th-grade classes at their high school. Ours was different. Eighth-grade students were using the gym in my only available calendar slot, so I was assigned to their class.a bubbler, or water fountain if you don't come from Massachusetts.

This left me in the unexpected role of “big kid.” I have never been athletic, and to this day I cannot truly comprehend the idea of being a threat to anyone in gym. Still, I was the outsider, older than everyone else, a clear target for the Worf Effect. And I drew the attention of the class tough guy.

We were in the locker room after class, he and I, jostling for position at the bubbler (water fountain). I was not a selfless child, and probably did something to provoke his ire, but the response I got was entirely unexpected: without a word, he punched me in the head. And I–

Did nothing.

Okay, to be honest, that’s not entirely accurate. If you’ve ever taken a haymaker to the left temple, you know it hurts. And while he didn’t knock me down, he did surprise me. And I just stood there, looking at him, while tears of pain filled my eyes. After a few seconds, he took his drink at the bubbler, and life went on.

Looking back, I wonder why this day lingers in my mind when nothing ever came of it. I didn’t hit him back. I didn’t meet him after school to settle things at a time and place when school discipline wouldn’t be invoked. I didn’t even change my standing in gym class, because I’m not a jock, and never will be. But despite all this, the memory of that day still haunts me.

Maybe it haunts me because I’ll never know what would have happened. I tell myself I did the right thing, that he led a tough life, and had probably been beaten on by tougher people than I. I tell myself that I was the “big kid” at that bubbler, and social standing being what it is, I had nothing to gain by a fight, while he had nothing to lose.  But I also know it hurt, and I tell myself I could have punched him back, and won.

Science is beginning to prove that it’s not the larger-than-life personalities who make the best leaders. For men, however, social ranking is still achieved by a Rambo-sized physique or a Napoleon-sized ego.  Ninth-grade boys desperately need to feel like a man, and society tells our boys that violence is a quick way to get there. But I did nothing. The adult in me knows I did the right thing.

The 9th-grade boy in me still doesn’t know.

The Continuing Effects of a Good Reputation

The year was 1950, and Italy was rebuilding after the Second World War.  In the small working-class city of Mestre, a girl was growing up. Like much of Italy, Mestre had its share of American soldiers. They came with money to spend in their caffes, and they brought gifts:  candy for the children, and silk stockings for the ladies.  She had received some of each over the years, and while the young soldiers would often ask for a dance or an evening of conversation, they never demanded anything she was unwilling to give.  Perhaps it was an order from their commanding officer that held them back, or perhaps it was simply a difference in culture, but these young men seemed almost shy when they were around her.autobus-mestre

Fifty years later, the girl had become an old woman. She had married and raised children, who in turn married and had children of their own. Finally her husband died, and she was alone again.

One day while returning from the market, she stepped aboard the bus to return home. The bus was full, as it always was that time of day, but a young man rose upon seeing her and motioned for her to take his seat. Once he saw her seated, the young man lifted his gaze to stare out the window at the passing shops. The man seemed so peculiar, both in appearance and behavior.

Sitting there, it all came back–the soldiers after the war, and how they had treated her family. She looked up at the young man, his hair tousled, his clothing so different from what the other young men in town were wearing.

“American?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied, and blushed.  She gave the man a gentle smile, and he looked off into the distance again.

Unlike most of my personal stories, the background on this one is mostly fabricated, but I was that man.  Somewhere in history an American soldier was kind to a local girl in post-war Italy, and I have reaped the gratitude he deserved.

It makes me wonder what kindness I can do that someone else may win that gentle smile.

Photo of an  autobus in Mestre cropped from “IRISBUS_ACTV.JPG“, licensed under attribution via Wikimedia Commons.

The Never-Changing Story

To a significant degree, the posts on this blog exist to record my old stories. Over the decades, I have told and retold them, to the point where they form the oral history of my life and my family.  Stories are a common way for us to connect with our history, but they aren’t the only way.

Twenty-five years ago, I was a single graduate student, and my then-fiancée was a special education master teacher of preschool-aged children. My summer schedule held a significant quantity of free time back then, so I was able to chaperone when she took her class on a field trip to Hoffman’s Playland, a small amusement park in our community.Hoffmans-Sign

I was given responsibility for two students — Decoda, and Stephanie — and spent the morning supervising them as they went from ride to ride. The two inner-city girls clamored and competed for my affirmation and attention, and I suspect they had no male role models at home. It was sweet and sad at the same time.

At the end of the field trip, we put the children on their buses for return to their homes in Albany. The school day was over, so Faith and I didn’t have to go with them. Instead, we took a few minutes and sat together on the Ferris Wheel, enjoying together the end of a day well spent. Faith calls it one of our first dates, and I guess it’s true.Ferris-Wheel

Flash forward twenty-five years, and we’ve been married for twenty-four. Unlike many couples, we probably date as often these days as we did back then. Certainly my budget can handle the prospect of a night out better than it could in those days. Hoffman’s is still there, but just barely — they will be closing permanently at the end of the 2014 season. In recognition of this, Faith and I went back this week to ride on the Ferris Wheel one last time. Like the field trip it recalls, the evening left me with bittersweet emotions.

A significant chunk of my family history is tied up in in amusement parks. My high school prom was concluded the next morning with a day spent at Paragon Park in Nantasket Beach.   This is the same place, my grandfather told me, that he and my grandmother, with my great aunt and her husband, became “stuck” atop the (then) worlds-largest roller coaster and had to be rescued.  Paragon Park closed the year I graduated, and only the carousel remains to remind me of that place.

"Scene in Paragon Park, Nantasket Beach, MA"  (see below for attribution)

Faith holds even earlier memories of a park in New York:  Storytown USA.  During our lives, the park has morphed from a simple Mother Goose-themed amusement park for children into a full-blown teen-and-adult theme park, renamed The Great Escape, and purchased by Six Flags.  Though popular, the park as it is presently constituted does not hold the same nostalgia for us as it used to. Real, physical amusement parks are too ephemeral.

This is, I think, the reason our stories are so important. My daughters tell me that my stories have the unusual characteristic of stability:  they are the same today as they were when I first told them. Other tales may drift over time, with different facts, features, and interpretations, but mine always open the same, include the same key descriptive elements, and end with the same moral. It has become a comfort to my children, not least because they can quickly identify a known story and ignore it, safe in the knowledge that they won’t have missed anything important.

Oddly, though, these same children want me to record my stories online, fixing them in space forever, to endure long after the amusement parks of their childhood are gone. I consider myself a writer of fiction, but it is these Mostly True stories they desire the most.

“Scene in Paragon Park, Nantasket Beach, MA” cropped from an original postcard published by M. Abrams, Boston, Massachusetts. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.  Other photos are the author’s.

A Late Night in Crawley

Every city has a neighborhood like it:  poor, heavily populated by minorities, avoided by the local gentility. In Albany, they call it Arbor Hill. In Schenectady, it’s Hamilton Hill.  For Crawley in West Sussex, England, that neighborhood is Bewbush.

Almost twenty years ago, I had the good pleasure of working in England for approximately three months.  I say good pleasure because, unlike most of my business trips, this one actually provided me with time off on the weekends. As a result, I often had some time to visit a local pub on the weekend. Everyone in England seemed interested in chatting with an itinerant American, so I was never lonely.

One weekend, I walked a few blocks from my hotel (the George in Crawley) to to a pub at the end of the High Street, a pub I had selected on the basis of the Guinness sign in the window. They didn’t sell Guinness, and I suspect they never did, but the nice young lady at the bar recommended I try Newcastle Brown Ale, so I had one.

1467801861 ae07518ec0My bartender was the epitome of punk chic, and I soon found she fit the style of this pub’s clientele as well.  Dressed in black, her copious patches of bare skin were decorated with a constellation of silver piercings, and she was young.  Armed with my beer, I settled in to watch the people around me, expecting to meet some new friends and perhaps learn a thing or two.  I was soon invited to join a group nearby.

The leader of this group was an older gentleman whose heavily-pierced body bore more tattoos than I had ever seen before that time. The remainder of the group were all in their late twenties or early thirties, and stood out as more conservative in appearance than most of the crowd at that pub. I joined their circle, and soon learned a bit about each. Sadly, I cannot remember their names.

  • The tattooed man, though fearsome in appearance, was actually the most mild-mannered of the group. By comparison,
  • the activist cared passionately about the fate of animals, and while physically small, was perhaps the most frighening of them all.
  • The BFF was close friends with the activist, and had organized this gathering on behalf of her boyfriend,
  • the muscle, who had just been released from prison.  He seemed nice enough, but he was sufficiently muscular that I didn’t want to learn differently.
  • Lastly, we had the schivuz[1], who had apparently attached himself to this party in search of free liquor.

In retrospect, I think a more intelligent man might have taken one look at this group and decided to move on, but I am clearly not that man. Having accepted a round from the group, I was committed buying one myself (and likely drinking four others)[2], even if it took me all night to accomplish. It was only after this round had been completed that someone in the party suggested we relocate to a more amicable pub across town.

The six of us piled into a cab (Britons are fastidious about avoiding DWI, in my experience) and rode a few minutes down the A2220 to Bewbush. They were right about the pub: it was a large brightly-lit space with a high ceiling and plenty of room for pub games.  Quite unusual for an English building, I think, and the broad range of available beers exceeded that of the small country pubs with which I was more familiar.

In any event, my round to buy came up, so I pulled out my wallet, and everyone placed their order.  At the time, reproductions of imported american beers were just coming into fashion, and the schivuz tried to order a Budweiser. I almost gagged.

“You people have the best beer in the world, and you want to drink that swill?” I asked.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at people’s bad taste (the Spice Girls were topping the charts at the time), but I was.

Appropriately mollified, the schivuz changed his order — to a Grolsch.  From this I was able to determine that he was more interested in spending my money than in buying a high quality beer.

Shortly after this, the activist indicated her desire to get back to Crawley, and the BFF placed a call on her cell phone.  We were told it would be 45 minutes before a cab could arrive to pick us up. I continued drinking my beer and played a round of pub billiards, losing horribly.  It is a very good thing I do not gamble.

After another round the activist tried to shock me by leaning heavily on her BFF and loudly proclaiming “she’s my mate!”  Probably she expected me to interpret her phrase sexually, but I was by that time bilingual (in both English and American) and knew exactly what she meant. There was plenty of joking all around, and we were having a good time.

Roughly an hour later, the cab still had not arrived. The BFF called the cab company and learned that we had somehow missed the cab, and it would be roughly another hour before we could get one.  This made the activist exceptionally unhappy, and she seemed to be the kind of person I didn’t want to see upset.  At the same time, the schivuz had somehow managed to get the muscle to pay for his round of drinks, and the two of them were beginning to argue as well.  The whole scene had begun to look like someplace I did not want to be, so I excused myself to step outside for some fresh air.

The sky was clear that night, and light pollution was absent in that part of Bewbush, so I was treated to a starry sky the likes of which one cannot get in my part of New York.  Looking up, I noticed the Big Dipper, then followed it by habit to identify the Little Dipper, the handle of which contains Polaris, the North Star. The peace of a starry night overtook me, and then I realized what I was seeing.

Inside the pub a conflict was brewing, a conflict I wanted to avoid.  Less than two miles to the northeast, though, lay my hotel, and now I knew which direction I was facing. My decision was clear.

It was a pleasant hike home in the cool night air, and the only person I encountered along the way was a little old lady pushing her shopping cart down the empty sidewalk. Buoyed by my self confidence and three or four Newcastle Brown Ales, I practically floated home.

When Monday rolled around, I was still feeling proud about my late-night orienteering, and told my office mates about my adventure.  One coworker was particularly stunned.

“You walked home?” he asked.  “Through Bewbush?  Are you out of your bleeding mind?”

I still think I made the right decision.

[1]schivuz (pronounced skee-vootz) is an Italian word used to describe someone of marginal ethical character. I use the word advisedly.
[2]in the US, a group of strangers (or even acquaintances) will frequently purchase their drinks on separate bills to insure that each one pays his share. In England, each person in the group buys a round for everyone in the group, and receives one from everyone else. This is a far more social practice, I feel, though it does force one to drink more heavily than I am normally inclined to do.

False First Impressions

I am older than the internet, which means I am older than dirt. It also means I had to learn typing (keyboarding to you millenials) on an honest-to-goodness IBM Selectric typewriter. I learned it in the business wing of our high school from Mr. R.

IBM_SelectricCollege-track students in those days didn’t often take business classes, but Mr. R. taught both history and typing at our high school, and I had him for several classes in my teens. Mostly, I did not respect him. I think, in retrospect, that this was a function of my disregard for history, which in my limited experience seemed to consist entirely of the memorization of unrelated facts. My brain focuses on relationships, not facts, and while I was able to find the relationships between topics necessary to earn my A, the whole process seemed tedious and somewhat pointless[1].

Although I have since learned that Mr. R. was a bright man, a hard-working man, and a good man, I in my ignorant youth confounded the dull, plodding, pedantic subject he taught with the teacher himself.  Moreover, Mr. R’s physique did nothing to dissuade me of this incorrect opinion. Mr. R. was obese.

I do not hide from the fact that I am generally considered overweight, and have been so for as long as I can remember. During this same time, I have had any number of friends whose BMI exceeded my own, and really thought nothing of it. In this regard, Mr. R was exceptional.

Standing a full head and shoulders taller than me, Mr. R. still carried so much additional weight around his middle that it was his girth, not his height, which caught your immediate attention. His waist was the widest part of his body, and I remember wondering how his belt could possibly suspend his pants above a pair of hips that were so much smaller in size. His broad neck supported no less than three chins, and his rolling gait suggested a sailor just beginning his first shore leave after a full year at sea. And those hands!

People in my family generally have narrow wrists and thin fingers. This feature has served my daughters well when learning to play the violin. Since the reality we know tends to define “normal”, for me, skinny hands are normal hands to me. Mr. R. did not have skinny hands. Indeed, his fingers were best compared with sausages, and I wondered how he could even bend them, much less use them to do actual work.

My bogus opinion was corrected one day in typing class when my ribbon broke. Unable to finish my exercise, I asked for help, and Mr. R. came to see me.

“Out of your seat,” he said, and I rose. Mr. R. slid into the chair. I craned myself over the typewriter from the side, watching as he extracted the broken ribbon cartridge and replaced it with a fresh one. Then he rolled a fresh piece of paper onto the platen and set his hands on the typewriter keys. Even with his thumbs held close together, Mr. R’s hands were so broad that they spanned the entire machine. Then his fingers blurred.

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs” appeared on the page, and I never saw it happen.

I later learned that Mr. R easily typed over a hundred words a minute, accurately, with a typewriter. These days, my best typing speed peaks out at around a hundred words a minute — on a computer.  The keyboard on a small laptop may be insufferable, but the keys on my 17″ Dell are far easier to use than anything I had access to in the 80’s.

From this brief incident, I learned in a practical way just how deceived we can become when our opinions are based on appearances alone. More recently, it has me thinking about how I can use mistakes made with first impressions to product conflicts in my stories.

[1] For those who would take this as a recommendation to do poorly in history, let me remind you that those who fail to learn in history class are doomed to repeat it.  Learn the material, earn a good grade, and you will only have to take it once.  Moreover, you will have earned the right to mock the whole process in your blog thirty years later.