Genre

Saturday, July 12, 2014

His Final Words

***

It was not unexpected, but it still seemed sudden and too soon.

He'd been known to have a degenerative nerve disease for 26 years, which was certain to be fatal eventually - if something else fatal didn't happen first - so his wife and children could not have been surprised, exactly. 

But it sort of felt that way, sitting with him now, back in his own bed after five nights in the hospital as tests confirmed the initial diagnoses and as hospice care was arranged.  He wasn't uncomfortable, and every so often he had a few minutes when he was entirely himself.  Quirky and crotchety, cracking wise: all his usual features.

Then he would nod off or lose track of the conversation, even if he was the one talking.  It wasn't painful for his sitters, except for its reminding them of what was near, but it wasn't during these periods unlike really being with the old guy they had come to know.

*

Late one Saturday afternoon, his wife was the only one in the house.  He was dozing most of the time, and she went about the condo tidying up, cleaning the bathroom or sweeping the back porch, little normal jobs she'd done for years and years when she could.  But she looked in on him often, every ten or fifteen or maybe twenty minutes or so.  He was peaceful, just sleeping.

*

Except one time.  His eyes were open when she looked in from the doorway.  He was looking at her.  His mouth was not smiling, but it wasn't slack as it was as he slept.  He wasn't smiling, but he seemed interested in her and his surroundings.

She walked over to him and took his hand, sitting in the chair she kept handy for this purpose whenever he was awake.

"Barb," she said (referring to their daughter), "Barb said she might drop by later this evening.  Young Leonard has a soccer game today, and then she might come by."

It was her job, she thought, to talk with him cheerily about the daily goings-on, keeping him engaged in their little world, enjoying sharing with her husband of forty-plus years some of the little things happening in the family and in the house.  She was about to tell him how she had mopped up a little mildew in the guest bathroom about a half-hour ago, when a slight hitch in his breathing caught her attention.

She looked him over carefully.  He was pulling on her hand just a bit and seeming to want to lean forward, perhaps to speak. 

He paused and, standing, she plumped his pillows up behind him so they could have a chat.  He pulled on her arm again and seemed to take in a breath.  What would he say, she wondered.  Did he want to say simply "Thanks" for... well, for straightening the pillows?  Or was he going to say he had to go to the bathroom?

She pulled the chair under her and sat, giving him all her attention.  Would he say he loved her, or recall a time they had shared together years ago when they were young?

"Can I get you something?" she asked with a little smile.

*

He took another little breath and pushed his jaw out, as though it was a little hard to speak.

"Yes," he said in just above a whisper.  "Tell me.  How are the Cardinals doing?"

***

Friday, June 13, 2014

Reaping the Old Guy

***

1

Hello? What you want out there? Who are you? In costume, are you?

That - is - a - grim - mask. But -like I said - THERE'S NO PARTY HERE! Get it?

Oh, all right. See? I opened the door so you can look inside. No party, right?

2

You need to use the bathroom or something? You'll have to leave that... that Thing you got over your shoulder. You need to leave it outside.

Now, look here. Outside! Well, you gotta put it down right there by the door, anyway.

What are you supposed to be, eh? An old-timey farmer? Is that the thing, the tool you use to harvest the grain with? "Shine on, shine on, harvest moon..." That kind of thing? Ha!

3

No, I'm not going anywhere with you. Are you kidding?

I don't know you, see? And I don't have a costume to wear either. Like your harvester outfit, you understand?  I don't have anything to wear!

4

Just stop it, stop shoving! You want me to yell for help?

Oh yes, someone will hear me, what do you mean I can't be heard anymore?  What do you mean "anymore"?

5

That's the boniest hand I've ever had squeezing my arm, you nutsoid.

Cold too...

Uh-oh...


***

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Handful for the Old Guy

***

I don't know what they were talking about!  And it was not dust, or ashes either, like they said.  What they threw on me was dirt, you understand?  DIRT!

...Like saying I was ashes, you know?, something all burned up.  Or dust: stuff covering everything in your house that you'd prefer to get rid of.  Ashes and dust: See what I mean? 

AND then, when actions speak louder even than what they were saying on this solemn occasion... DIRT!  "That's him," they seem to say: "the dirt.  We're gonna pour this on him, in handfuls."

*

Oh, well, somebody threw on a flower too...  Probably took it from the dead old lady down the row a little ways. 

Anyway, they might have thought it was a flower.  I'd say myself it was a weed: ragweed, you know?  Sort of fluffy. 

Maybe they thought it was a lily, but really...

*

Nothing much to look at... Did I tell you about my first MRI fifteen years ago?

That was no fun either.  Why'd I think of that now?

*

I didn't have a good angle to see this afternoon, but there may have been someone there I used to know.  Maybe not.  Probably not, as I consider it more.

But come on, really: weeds and dirt?

*

Call me sentimental, you know?  Call me sentimental, but sometimes it's kind of nice to think back, to remember in its details some particular event or occasion...

Not now, though.  Ohhh no...

*

Now I think of it: ragweed always made my eyes itch.  Or was that goldenrod?

***

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

In the Name

***

1

The regular second baseman for the Cardinals now is a young man named Kolten Wong.  He is of Chinese cultural heritage and was born and raised in Hawaii.  This reminds me of a friend I had 40 years ago in a little village in Michigan.

In the village is a small college, which highlights among its features the fact that despite its small size, it fields a full football team every year, competing in a league with some powerhouse teams.  Shortly after the Korean War, in fact, this small-college football team somehow became known to a southern Korean family whose 20-year-old son wanted to go to college in America and play football.  They sent him, alone, to Michigan.

2

This young man's first name was W-O-N-G.  When I arrived in town 20 years later, he was still there.  He had made a little place for himself in that community while staying a fifth year of college to finish his degree.  By the time I knew him, he was responsible for the upkeep of three or four small apartment blocks.  Everyone called him "Mister Kim."  He was very private, a loner.  But for some reason he told me his story.

Wong Kim was his Korean name, and even though he wasn't particularly athletic, the college was glad to have him on the football team.  He told me, though, he had been very embarrassed in the locker-room and the showers.  Maybe he was a little more mature than his team-mates.  Or maybe they were just looking for a way to tease him in order to make him one of them.  But anyway, he indicated to me that they had talked about Wong and his w---.  Well, you understand.  It was a kind of locker-room pun.

3

It seems a small thing, or even flattering, I guess.  But that was not the case in this instance for this shy, quiet Korean lad.  It bothered him enough that one spring, he saved up enough money to hire an attorney in the County Seat 12 miles or so up the road.  He filed papers to change his name.

Mr. Kim did not evince much emotion about anything.  If I thought he was quietly satisfied, looking back on his legal action as he told me about it, I would be making it up.

But evidently he did succeed in changing his name.  It was W-O-N-G no longer.  It was "Dick."

***

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Perfect Example

***

1

I took Introduction to Psychology in college in 1961-62.  The lecturer was the last Freudian in the department, a real leftover from past generations.  Even in his own Intro class, however, he could spend only 30 minutes or so on Freud, not happening to point out that Freud was important by then more to students of art and literature than to psychologists.

But when he talked of Freudianisms, it was worth paying attention.  I particularly remembered his example of "sublimation," the defense mechanism converting an unacceptable impulse into a socially useful action. 

His example was an extreme sadist who became a well-respected surgeon.  That communicated the point about sublimation concisely and well, I thought.

2

My wife has suffered with an intestinal disease for years, with occasional flare-ups not only causing pain and frustration but also locking her up at home, often in bed, for days or weeks at a time. 

Usually, we understand it is a tough sell for GI physicians to convince such folks that surgery is the best option.  But when A----- went to her new GI here in our new hometown, she was the one pushing for surgery and he merely had to confirm she was right.  After removal of her diseased organ, she would have to wear an outside appliance and empty or change it regularly, but gone forever would be the pain, the lockdown, and the danger of colon cancer. 

He didn't hesitate to recommend the surgeon either:  Dr. Brodgrin, leader in the field. Whenever we told someone intestinal surgery was scheduled in two months, they would ask about the surgeon and sigh appreciatively when Dr. Brodgrin was named.  She really is well known.

3

Well, it turns out that A-----'s surgeon is the classic example my Psych lecturer was talking about.  A highly skilled surgeon, known over the world for her innovations and bold new techniques... But she is basically, yes, a sadist.

We met with her to schedule the surgery.  That went fine.  We'd made the right choice.  Then, as the time approached, we had questions... There was no one to ask.  "Oh, Dr. Brodgrin will tell you about that before the surgery," we were told.  Then a session was scheduled for our orientation to the process: great!  But Dr. Brodgrin was not present.  Her nurse had a set script to read to us; she was not interested in answering questions.  "You must talk with the doctor before the surgery," she said.

On the day of the surgery, further reassurances.  Dr. Brodgrin did appear, but not until after the anesthesia drip had started.  A---- was able to say, as she had attempted to do several times, that she wanted to see her internal organ after it had been removed.  "Oh, sure," everyone said.  Dr. B herself did not reply.

After the surgery, assistants came by, nurses.  A "fellow" or two, talking with each other more than with A-----.  Finally, the doctor dropped by for two minutes, to say the surgery had been easy.  That was what mattered: it had been easy for her.

She couldn't show A---- the organ she'd removed, which had been thrown out.  She actually seemed to enjoy the anger, sadness, and disappointment this process was provoking.  Later, when we tried to tell her about the absence of follow-up training, advice and counselling, she pointedly didn't listen.

4

At the post-op session a week later, of course there were two "lesser" medico's before the doctor sallied forth herself.  One of the young "fellows" did express sympathy about the irritation caused by a stitch or two that wasn't disolving normally in the outer incision.  He said they would take care of that before we left.

Dr. B, on the other hand, seemed amused at the claim of an errant stitch.  She laughed it off.  When A----- persisted in seeking aid.  Dr. Brodgrin put her finger on the stitch and rubbed it around, as A---- squirmed and moaned, laughing ironically at her patient's discomfort. 

"That'll just take care of itself!" she announced as she led her little entourage from the room.  (The young "fellow" we had met earlier surreptitiously pulled out the prickly stitch when no one was looking.)

5

After-care in the case of those who have had an intestine or a bladder surgically removed is even more important than in other kinds of procedure.  There are devices to be used in very delicate places and situations, and it's only by trial and error that everyone can hope to learn how to take care of oneself forever afterwards.  There are also many different products, different sizes and shapes and functions, and so on, which the individual needs time and encouragement to get to know.

We in our area are fortunate that there is an active social group who meets regularly to share tips and advice.  A----- was especially fortunate to find this group - on her own - shortly after her surgery.

After about 8 months of our attending these meetings, someone divided us up in break-out groups: those without bladders, without colons, etc.  There was one group for spouses of the surgery patients.  So there I was when a newcomer politely but firmly shouldered his way into the focus of our little group's attention.  He must have been about 70, tall, white-haired, dressed casually but in quality clothes.

I suspect he and his wife - the patient - had not been married long, and that each had outlived their first spouse.  Neither had been particularly active religiously, but their childhood religious backgrounds had been very different.  He was from a very traditional protestant main-line church (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist...) and she from a more evangelical tradition.  That hadn't seemed important at their later stage in life together.

6

"My wife had been suffering a long time," he was telling us that night, "before they discovered the cancer."  Her son had been living close by and was a good support, as Erik (I'll call him, not knowing his name) worked with his relatively new wife through this crisis. 

"They started a rigorous course of chemo, then radiotion therapy," he told us, "to be as sure as they could be about the cancer spreading."  At the same time, they learned an old childhood friend had organized a prayor circle to pray for her in her illness.  She mentioned the friend's calls, apparently, but didn't say anything particularly about them.  Her son and her husband accompanied her to therapy each time, and followed along with all her meds and her symptoms and all that.  "After the course of treatments were done," he concluded, "her doctored went through a whole lot of new tests to see if they had done any good, getting ready for the surgery to remove the diseased organ itself." 

The doctor said he had never seen any results like these, but the tumors were no longer there.  He said they were sure to reappear, this time with the likelihood of having spread to other organs, but for now they were gone.  The surgery had already been scheduled, with the presumption that it would proceed as planned.

When they got home, the wife said she knew all along that the prayer circle was going to save her.  She had been praying too, and she knew the tumors' disappearance was the work of His divine hand.

Our speaker said that her son and he had persuaded his wife to go ahead with the surgery, since it seemed so likely the cancer in it would reappear if they didn't.

7

The surgery had been done about 10 days before our meeting when the husband was telling us about it.  He, his son-in-law, and his wife had had an emotional adjustment to learning the process of using the appliances (the creams, the seals, the removable bags, etc.) - which all of us there were accustomed to ourselves - but it was only that evening, as he had driven his wife across the city to our meeting, that she had said bluntly: "You made me have that operation.  I didn't need it.  God had healed me already."

8

No one said anything immediately after Erik finished, but the emotional support around our table for him was palpable, it couldn't have been missed.

One other spouse had been coming to the meetings since I started myself.  He always seemed engaged but never spoke except to clarify something his wife might have said.  As Erik told us his story, this man became more and more engaged, inching his chair forward, leaning on his elbows on the table.  In the seconds of silence after Erik's story, he said clearly and firmly: "You did the right thing."

I suspect Erik knew that already, but it was the right thing to say.  And lord knows, his wife's surgeon wouldn't have said anything!

***


Monday, April 28, 2014

On Her Deathbed

***

The old man - and his wife of 40-odd years too - they'd always assumed she would outlive him.  The husband always dies first.  A man's life expectancy is just less than a woman's.  That's why at movie matinees, two-thirds of the audience is always women.  Only old people go to the matinee, of course, and since the men die younger, it's mostly women who are left to go see the movie.

Also, he was expected to die first because he was the one with the big health problems.  Specialists.  Overnights in the hospital for special "procedures."  That was him.  Less of that for her, you know.  Any way you looked at it, it was going to be him first.

*

Then, she had a big stroke.  Catastrophic.  9 - 1 - 1.  EMTs.  Ambulance.  All the right stuff, but it just wasn't enough.

She was up there now, on the big hospital bed.  They had detached all the IVs.  The oxygen feed she had at her nose was tiny, quiet, and clear.  She was just sleeping.  Almost all the time.

He stayed there with her.  When no one was around, he talked to her because he had read somewhere or someone had told him that talking out loud helped bring some people out of it, whatever they had keeping them down.  But mostly he had a chair they could boost up so he could hold onto her hand.  She seemed to grip him back, but was otherwise still.

*

Once in a while she would open her eyes and turn her face toward him.  He would greet her and ask how she was doing.  He would explain what had happened to her and that their doctor (they called her their PCP) was looking after her.

She looked steadily at him on those occasions, but did not try to speak.

Until now, that is.

This time, she was looking steadily at him as he was saying he had been right there with her, and he would be staying, when she moved her head a little bit.  She nodded in a certain way that made him think she wanted to say something to him.

He squeezed her hand tight, and leaned in to her, looking searchingly into her face.  She opened her mouth a little and raised her jaw slightly.  He leaned farther in and brought his ear in close to her mouth.  He said: "Did you want to tell me something?" saying her name.

He was wondering what she would want to say.  That she loved him?  That he shouldn't be sad too long but should try and start a new life without her?  That she was glad they'd been together so long?

He leaned down to her, and he heard her take in a little breath.  "You - " she said in a strained little whisper. 

"Your nose is about to drip."

***

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Old Guy Crossing the Styx

***


So what happens if you fall overboard? Do you - for instance - say - DIE?

Then again, I don't suppose telling a little joke is quite the right thing down here, right?

*

It is "down" here, isn't it?  Down, not up, ...or sideways? Down?   Do you follow me?

See where I'm pointing? Down? We're down here?

*

You don't say much, do you?

Do you say anything? ever? Or just not much? Would that be rocking the boat?

Get it?

*

Ye gods, this is a gloomy place...    You don't say!


***

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Do You Have More Health Reports, Mr. Derrick? (Reminiscence)

***

I've been self-conscious writing any more about our family's current and most recent health experiences, since those topics have so dominated these pages for the last 18 months. But it is simply a fact that the most interesting things happening to us now are, well, mostly medical.

So... Here goes another one of those stories.

1

First, it was me. We were beginning to count the days until my daughter's baby was due in late February. We had the suspicion he (we knew it was a boy) would not come until sometime after that but it was a tempting reference point anyway. In the middle of one night a few days before the preset date, I woke up with serious chills and fever. By morning I had diarrhea big time, which lasted all day. The temperature calmed down soon but the intestinal disruption continued for pretty much of 24 hours. Then, in that second day, I appeared to have outlasted the virus and was merely tired... But really tired. My wife A---- had nursed me and was still feeling fine.

By the way, we had both had our flu shots earlier in the year. But that just didn't defend anyone against the onslaught of this Noro virus monster.

Sure enough, there was no sign at all of the new baby as yet.

2

A couple of days passed as we congratulated ourselves on A----'s having managed to dodge the Noro bullet.  Then ... Well, the slow-motion melodrama did resume, and in no time at all, I found myself on the phone to A----'s Primary Care Physician (in the 19th century - or was it the 20th? - we called this doctor our "GP").  I said:  "First I had a virus involving a high temperature and then diarrhea, and now my wife has both nausea and diarrhea - no fever - and we're finding it impossible to keep her hydrated."

I thought I was going to go on to describe that she was now so weak she couldn't even sit up on the bathroom floor, she wasn't as lucid and logical as usual, and so on and so forth.  But as soon as I said "dehydrated," the nurse practitioner in the PCP's office said to call 911 and get A---- to the Emergency Room.  She would call ahead.

This happened to be the same hospital where our daughter was planning to go to in order to have her baby.  If it had been a race, we were going to win.

3

The two EMTs with the ambulance - which surely resembled a fire truck, by the way - were fast. pleasant, and efficient.  A----- had made it as far as onto her knees in the bathroom by the time they came in.  But when the big guy asked if A---- could help them get her standing up and onto the gurney, she said loudly and in no uncertain terms, "I can't do it!"

Anyway, in a jiffy they had her up, out the door, and into the truck.  I was to drive myself and meet them at Emergency.  Perhaps I was a bit excited.  I had been in the Waiting Room almost 15 minutes before the Ambulance/Fire Truck arrived.  Using the back-roads route we had planned for the baby's arrival, it was a 28-minute drive.  (The EMTs had used the main roads and no lights or siren.)

Within minutes of the I-V setting the fluids straight and a few minutes more for the anti-nausea medication to get going, A---- was her usual self, although she didn't remember much about the last two or three hours.  They kept her overnight and then another day and night.  She was hooked up to the I-V much but not all the time.  In the second day, we did a few laps slow-walking the corridors.  One more day in her own bed at home, and A--- began to slowly resume ordinary activities.

Two weeks passed.  Still no baby.

4

Our daughter L------ was very sad to learn her body was not yet showing signs of impending delivery.  Then, she had a 24-hr bout with Noro Splats herself.  She was well cared for in the hospital and seemed to recover somewhat.  The drug they'd been considering administering to stimulate labor was begun, and then stopped again to allow her to recover more fully from the dreaded Noro.  The baby was waiting patiently.

Our son W-----, who had planned to come from his home in the big city for one of the baby's first weeks at home, arrived while his sister was still recovering from the virus in the hospital.

When the obstetrician started the birth process again, labor seemed on the way.  One of the delivery nurses looked hard at our son-in-law R---- and ordered him to the Emergency Room.  She told us later she had talked with her colleagues there to say it was up to them to get him back for the delivery, holding mean old Noro at bay.

5

R---- made it back in time to help all through a grueling delivery.  Our daughter struggled long and hard for 24 hours, with little progress.  Ultimately the baby-to-be began to show signs of stress.  The decision was made to deliver by C-section. 

That process went as expected, and our grandson was born.  L------ was united with her new baby and started to nurse him, and R---- dashed home to be sick.  Like me, he was not known to have vomited in many years.  He made up for lost time that day, as the Noro diarrhea did its work too.

Our children L----- and W----- have always been close, but never any more so than the next three or four days when he more or less substituted for L------'s husband, even staying overnight twice to help with the baby in L------'s room with her.  R---- kept in close touch with the action from home by phone.  A----- and I visited the hospital often.

6

The long labor, preceded by the intestinal flu, had weakened our daughter considerably.  She would not have been able to have the baby in the room with her, except for feedings, if one of us hadn't been on hand to help.  We took turns, but W----- took the night shifts.  The baby was doing great.

And the fifth morning after delivery, the new mom and her baby were able to go home at last.  My wife and I had spent the afternoon the day before decontaminating the youngsters' apartment - Lysol all around - sending ol' Noro packing once and for all.  R---- had got the car rigged up for the baby carrier.  He was reunited with his wife and new son, and he drove them and W----- across the city to their second-floor walk-up.  A----- and I followed.

L------ was still laid up from the surgery for a week or so, but W----- flew back to his home and work.  R---- had a few days leave, and we grandparents helped out a bit.  By the one month anniversary visit to the pediatrician, the latest arrival was doing great and his whole family was right as rain again.

Whew!

***

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Old Guy Arrives at His Final Destination

***

To himself: 'Bout as hot as Harlingen.  Or maybe downtown Dallas.

Hey! How'r ya doin'?  Yessir.  And do we say, uh, Mr. ...Lucifer?   Is that it? or is that right, sir?

Yass, well.  Quite a place you have here.  Not just anyone can come in, if I understand correctly.  Oh no, not just anybody.  I mean, am I right?

You know, it took a long time to climb that big ol' mountain.  At the last stop, I mean to say.  What's the name? Purr...?  You know what I mean?  That cloudy, dull mountain island.  Where was that?  Scandinavia?

And you couldn't rest much, oh no, oh no no no.  Keep on plugging away.  I had my say about that part, I'm telling you.  Yes, I told 'em what's fair and what's not.  They didn't get it.  No sense of Justice, if you follow me.

And, yes AND... it sure seemed like we were going up.   Up., you know?  on the mountains stairs?  And now, I mean, well.  Now, one has the sense we're down - I mean - down... low.  Am I right?

Surprised?  You mean me, was I surprised?  Well, let's say this: were you surprised when you got your orders?

Hello? 

Yikes!

***

Monday, March 3, 2014

Byron's Android

***

I have heard my savvy wife A------ say to some supposed expert on the phone or in a retail store, "I am not a Luddite, but..."  And so I have learned what a Luddite was and that in some ways I could be mistaken for one.  Moving to St. Louis brought this to light once again.

1

In our home in central New York I had developed the firm habit of listening to a local FM station playing classical music all night long.  The only problem was that at 5 a.m. this particular station stopped the music and started the morning news show.  I coped by having an appropriate CD available in the boombox through which I listened to the FM station.  That worked out fine.  When the news came on an hour before I wanted to get up, I switched on my CD for a while.  I was looking forward to re-establishing a similar system in my new home.

But, guess what, in St. Louis there are no regular FM stations that play classical music all night long!  Even my best CDs playing on Random tend to get old after two or three hours; I can't be changing CDs three or four times a night...  My well-established sleep pattern was in jeopardy.

A glimmer of hope was the fact that a small FM high definition station plays classical music 24/7.  The least expensive HD radio I could find, however, cost $120 or so, and it didn't play CDs.  I didn't want to give up ever listening to any of my great CDs, and I certainly wasn't going to spend over $100 when I already had everything I should need...  Besides my bedside boombox is an old, tried and true friend.

2

In the run-up to Black Friday last fall, we saw a new device, marked down to under $50 that showed promise.  On that Wednesday, A----- pushed and pulled me into Radio Shack to find out more about it.  The store manager seemed to think we old ignorami were a worthy project.  He didn't know anything about streaming classical music live through the night and was interested in my checking out I-Tunes and Pandora and something else for kids; but I knew enough about that side of it.

He was able to show us generally how to work this little thing.  It's a 7" android tablet.  It comes with a little transformer that is used to recharge the battery.  It's easy and cheap to get ear buds to use listening to it.

In other words, we could tell that it would fit on by bedside table (next to the standard boombox), and I could listen to it with the ear piece without disturbing A-----.  We went home planning to return at 8:30 a.m. Friday to get one of the three this store right around the corner from our house had in stock.

3

Late Wednesday, I thought I'd check it out one last time on the Radio Shack website.  There it was, and whatever last-minute thing I'd wanted to look up was good...  And by golly, it was already available for the Black Friday sale price.  Sorry, Mr. Sales Manager.  I ordered it: Trio, Stealth Pro, 7".  I could lay it flat on my bedside table, plugged into the wall outlet saving the battery, and not disturbing my boombox which I can use for CDs or the AM broadcast of Cardinals games.

Naturally, although I'm not a Luddite (did I mention that?), it did take me a few days putzing around with my new device before I could be sure how to call up a Google search, where I could enter the call letters of an appropriate station so that a page would appear where I could punch "Listen Live" or "Live Stream" before the music would begin.  Yes, it took a few days, but I did it.

4

It felt pretty good when I first punched in to the St. Louis H-D FM station that plays classical music all day and all night long.  It's just what the doctor ordered.

But that's not quite the end of the little story.  First, I noticed right away that this "new" station (to me, new to me) played a wide range of classical recordings but - unlike WSKG in Central New York - did not give a national news summary at the beginning of every hour.  I hadn't quite realized that I liked that: usually, its 4 minutes or so didn't wake me up but if I were between dozes, I enjoyed getting a sense of what was going on.  I took a wait-and-see stance on that issue, preferring to be glad just to have an opportunity to hear classical music through the night.

Also, though, I ran into something else.  I have always plugged in to my ear piece a little after midnight, after a first round or two of sleep.  I did that with WKMU-HD3 and went happily off to Wynken and Blynken land (Eugene Field's house is right downtown near Cardinal Stadium).  Sometime around 2:30 or 3, though, I awoke to find that my android's screen had gone dark and the music had stopped.  I was able after a few minutes to turn it off entirely, restart it, Google WKMU, and punch in again... but this shut-off or shut-down thing continued to occur.

...Which, of course, ruins the whole thing.  I can't be spending a couple of minutes three or four times every night rebooting my music system.

5

Batting around some more, I found the setting for my machine going to sleep.  The online manual says one can set Trio to go to sleep "NEVER," which sounds attractive.  Only, on my machine, the longest period visible is 30 minutes.  (It's never shut down that soon, in fact.  Maybe the screen goes dark after 30 minutes, while the music continues; I don't know about that... because I don't care.)

I emailed Trio support.  They said my query was too complex for email.  So I telephoned MachSupport.  The young guy was nice... Reminded me of the Radio Shack store manager.  But he was stumped and said he was sorry but I would probably have to live with it.

I emailed the Webmaster of WKMU to whine about their throwing me off after 1 hour, or sometimes after 2 1/2...  She said they wouldn't do that...

6

While banging around on my laptop trying to figure out how to get to the WKMU live stream in the first place, I had become familiar with several other stations who stream classical music through the night.  In fact, there are apparently two nationally available services with which local stations can contract to have "Music Through the Night" (American Public Media) or "Classical 24/7."

Guess what? Although once in a while one or another of these others throws me off after two or three hours, sometimes they don't.  They also play good music... In fact, the station in my New York home contracts with "Music Through the Night"  just as WKMU does! 

7

Now, I have at my disposal several different stations.  One of them runs their own music show, and another uses "Classical 24/7."  There's even one I have found that gives a national news summary on the hour.  For a week now, this station has not thrown me off during the night, no matter when I first tune in.  When they start their morning news show at 5 a.m., I can quickly punch in WKMU - which has the advantage of giving me the current weather report for right here in St. Louis.

Oh, and that other station I plug into when I want, the one which only rarely, if ever, has thrown me off, and who gives a news summary every hour....

Yes, it's WSKG from central NY!

***

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Don't Make Me Choose

***

The old guy saw the story in a vintage magazine in a used book store.  It had been published when he had been about 50.  He said he'd never read it, but he bought it, for a dollar, because it was so obviously about him.

The next morning, though, he had decided he was going to read it after all, aloud.  So he got his little music stand all set up in front of the full-length mirror.  He laid out the old magazine and began...

"It says the setting is a small music conservatory in the lower midwest, and
the objective is to build a good theater program to strengthen the music programs there.

And the people, now.  The people it says are:  Byron Derrick, Executive Director of the Conservatory; Neil Graham, Director of Theater, hired one year ago; And Jim Greenwood, Resident in Theater, hired one month ago.

"Jim Greenwood, they called me," he said to his mirror.

1

"Listening sympathetically to others' complaints about your colleague may seem generous and kind," as I said (the old guy read).  "But at some point, Jim, your just listening may encourage still more complaints.  Whether you say you agree, or not."

He nodded, as though 'everybody knows that, Byron.'

"So just tolerating the gripes might promote more gripes.  Do you see?"

"Oh, I don't criticize him myself. Oh my goodness no! I'd never be unprofessional like that."  (No, I'd never, ever be unprofessional!)

"I know, Jim.  I know you wouldn't," I kept after it.  "But there's a fine line between letting someone bad-mouth him - you know, without setting them straight - and bad-mouthing him yourself.  You gotta be careful about that."

"I can't just tell them them to shut up!"  (Shut up! What?)

"No, of course you can't.  But you can say, 'Look, he's an experienced director.  He knows what he's doing, probably.  You can say: Go with the flow, you might learn something."

"I couldn't just stifle their opinions.  Geez!"

"You can say you sympathize with their hurt feelings - or whatever it is - but it happens to everybody, that's what it's like in the arts world.  Sometimes we just have to suck it up...'  That kind of thing, you see?" 

"He's just terrible to work with, Byron!  Not only the volunteers but even the real cast and crew sometimes: they say it too.  I'm just saying it's not easy being the other guy, you know?"

"Let me just say this, Jim.  You need to distance yourself from this kind of gritching and bitching.  Otherwise, it'll begin to seem you're 'with them' (holding up his hands and making quote marks) and 'against him.'  You don't want that."

He nodded and smiled.  "I'm just telling you what I'm hearing, Byron.  Just sayin'..."

(Just sayin'...)

*

Byron's perspective:

Jim is so smooth and self-confident, it was surprising to me to see how naive he is.  He's trying to be sensitive to the emotional needs of our people and doesn't recognize the big picture, which is that to serve all our needs he has to pooh-pooh complaints and accentuate the positive.  Glad we had this talk.  He can charm a bird out of a tree, as they say...  He'll turn it around.

Jim's perspective:

Well, I guess I told him!  Byron has been naive about Neil's failings.  I've got a good start now on getting that Wanna-Be put in his place... Maybe even getting him out of here.  Glad we had this talk.

2

"So Neil," I said: "how's Jim settling in?  Finding his place, is he?"

"Oh, I guess so.  Actually, we don't see all that much of each other.  He's working mostly in the daytime now, and all my rehearsals - acourse - are at night..."

"And for the first month, it was the other way around?"

"I guess.  Although, with him being brand new and all, I tried to find reasons to be hanging around during their rehearsals.   In case he needed anything."

"It was a clever show, didn't you think?"

"Oh yeah.  Too bad we don't have an audience built up yet.  We'll get there.  We'll keep plugging away."

"How's your show progressing?"

"Pretty well, I guess.  A couple of the younger folks were a little cranky at first.  But we've gotten beyond that.  The results should be good.  Do you think we can get more people to come see us?"

*

Neil's perspective:

I don't know anywhere where the head guy takes such an interest.  We'll have this place up and humming soon with that kind of support.  I oughtta just poke my head in once a week or so, to keep him feeling a part of things.  Glad he called me in this time. 

Byron's perspective:

Neil must know Jim resents his leadership, but you'd never know it.  I'll have to keep in touch, if I can find the time...

3

Midway through Jim's second year, Byron's notes to the file:

We started our meeting five or ten minutes late, when Jim arrived.  I began by explaining that the new theatre program we three were trying to get started in the Music Conservatory now required us to spend some serious time together, on a regular basis.  I wanted them to mark their calendars on every Wednesday for the next couple of months from 10:30 to noon, when we would meet there in the conference room off the dining hall.  We should all plan on being there the whole time, since this work required all three of us together.

They didn't respond.  I didn't invite them to.

I said that for our hopes and dreams to work out, we had to function like a team.  We all had to share the same goals, and each of us had to support the others individually, if we were to have any chance to succeed.

The fact is, I said, you two aren't working well together.  In fact, you may knowingly or unconsciously be undermining the efforts of the other.  Our work during these weekly sessions will be to reduce and subdue the forces driving us apart, so we can get back to heading in the same direction again.

Both of you must resist any pressures you sense of volunteers, students, actors and tech people "choosing up sides."  Those for Greenwood and those for Graham.  That won't do.  Let's do whatever it takes to have one solid, unified team, okay?

They didn't challenge my claim that they were not working well together.  Neil said theatre is by nature a team effort, but paradoxically every performance is very personal.  Jim said he'd never had any trouble getting along with others before.

An hour passed quickly. The conversation could not be very well summarized, but it was not particularly emotional.  I concluded by telling them that next Wednesday, we'd begin by each of them sharing what positive features the other one brings to our program.  At least three things each, I said.

*

Byron's perspective:

That wasn't too bad.  I don't think they could have been expecting what I said.  For two strong-willed, arty guys they were quite subdued.  (I wish it were all over and done with already, though.)

Neil's perspective:

Byron doesn't avoid the oogy jobs, does he?  I hope he's not being naive to think we can work it out between us.  I don't know what's going on with Jim.  But he's a good director, creative, different.  I had high hopes when we brought him in...  Maybe each of us could just do our own thing.

Jim's perspective:

Well, I can waste an hour a week, I guess.

(I can waste an hour a week! the old man repeated, with apparent delight.  "Creative?" "Diffferent"?)

4

To Neil and Jim:

After three substantive conversations, I'm writing to summarize what we've learned is needed to improve working relations between the two of you, without which the program will not be able to move forward.

Whether justifiably or not, Jim feels Neil does not keep him informed about developments affecting the Theatre Department.  Actors, students, and crew members - and possibly members of the general public - sometimes ask him about this or that activity they've heard about but that Neil has not mentioned or explained to Jim.  This makes him feel like a chump, whose ideas and plans don't matter. 

(I am not a chump!)

Whether justifiably or not, Neil on the other hand is concerned that Jim may care more about his own success and reputation than about the Conservatory's or the Theatre program's.  It's a little as though he wouldn't care if the program failed as long as people thought he himself had done a good job.

Keeping in mind each man's worst suspicions about the other, Neil will consciously look for items of information about the program he can share with Jim.  He will communicate two or even three times a week, every week, about such news.

Jim, on the other hand, will make a conscious effort to think of ways he can contribute to the success of the Conservatory's theatre program above and beyond his own activities.  For instance, he can propose to Neil initiatives Jim himself will undertake to better publicize the shows Neil has in rehearsal.  He will do at least one thing a week along that line which he has brought up first with Neil.

Next Wednesday, at our joint meeting, each of you will report to me what you have done along these lines, giving the other an opportunity to comment.

*

Jim's perspective:

So now I'm his PR guy!  If no one come to see Endgame, it'll be my fault. ...But I'll play along.  I can handle it; I'm an actor, aren't I?

Neil's perspective:

Byron's plan follows logically from what what we've been saying.  But I can't help thinking we're only wandering around on the surface, leaving root causes untouched.  Some days I feel like I've already got too much to do, but it'll be pretty simple to pass along to Jim whatever chit-chat I might hear. 

Byron's perspective:

Put up or shut up.  Let's get going.

(I am an actor, aren't I)

5

"Hey, MariLou.  My secretary has gone to make some copies for me.  Can I help you?"

"Well, I came to make an appointment to see you, as a matter of fact. Just ten minutes or so, I would say."

"How 'bout now?  I could give you a few minutes now...?"

We went into the inner office and sat down, facing each other across a little table.

"I just wanted to say that... We like Mr. Greenwood a lot," MariLou said.  "He's about the best anybody's ever seen."

(The best!)

"Well, that's good to hear.  You and the others sure did a good job on the Shakespeare last month."

MariLou nodded.

"Mr. Greenwood's concept, setting the action in a toy box, was a novel idea.  And appropriate too!"

"Yeah," she said laughing.  "It was a lot of fun."

"Most of the Shakespeare plays I've seen which are that innovative, well you know; it just distracts from the original, but..."

"It was a good show.  My parents came all the way from Springfield."

"So, MariLou.  Did you discuss coming over to talk with me today - I'm glad you did, you know - did you and Mr. Greenwood talk about it?"

"He said it would be okay.  Did you two know each other before he started working here?"

"He directed my wife and daughter in some community theatre shows...  I was pleased we could make a place for him at the Conservatory."

"Well, he is the best to work with.  Better than some others, I mean."

"What does he do that Mr. Graham doesn't do, for example?  You're working crew on Endgame, aren't you?"

"Mr. Greenwood kids around a lot with us.  He hangs around just to chat, you know.  That Mr. Graham - I mean he is a very good director.  Last year, Cabaret? you know?  But he's, well, he's 'the Boss.'  You know what I mean?"

"MariLou, I'm glad you came over to say Hello.  We can both be glad, and proud I'd say, that in our little program we can have both Mr. Graham and Mr. Greenwood."

Jim wasn't picking up his phone, so I left a breezy little message telling him not to send any more actor testimonials my way.  It's how well he and Neil work together that matters, not how much the cast and crew love him.  "See you Wednesday, Jim."

*

Byron's perspective:

What have I done wrong?  When we interviewed for the Theatre Program Director, Neil Graham was clearly the right guy - right degree, right experience, good record - so I hired him.  But Jim Greenwood looked like such a good match for what we need to get this thing off the ground, building a theatre reputation to balance our long-established prominence in Music.  So I made a place for him and told Neil he was going to have a colleague after all.  Was it favoritism?  Did Jim sense it?  Does he think our friendship will give him immunity or something?

Jim's perspective:

If the dweeblings wanna go tell the Exec. how much they like me, what can I do?  Betcha no one's saying that about that other guy....

6

"Anton, you told me you came here to sing tenor and not to monkey around on the stage, but you were great in Endgame."  I had struck up a friendly relation with one of our proteges who worked part time in the cafeteria.

"Thanks," Anton replied.  "Thanks a lot.  It was hard work."

"Yeah.  How was it anyway?  The whole thing, audition right through strike.  A good experience for you?  Not so good...?"

"No.  It was hard work, like I said.  Exhausting, every night.  Emotional sometimes.  But the thing is, we had to do it.  We had to do it like that.  We had to work it out.  So it was not good.  But really good.  I learned a lot, I can tell you."

"Do you think the others thought the effort was worth it?"

"Two or three dropped out after the first week or so.  The rest of us right now are a team, or a family.  It's like that when it works.  Mr. Graham did that.  Gotta give him credit."

"Did some music and theatre folks you know from other shows come to see you?"

"Not as many as I'd hoped, but yes. ...And lemme tell you, they were impressed.  We might get some more auditions next month."

I'd sent Neil an email: "The Beckett was very good.  Don't let up...."

7

I asked:  "Do we have any progress to report?  50 at Friday's performance, 63 at Saturday's - That's pretty good for us, isn't it?  But can we be sure it's because of anything Jim did?"

"I did get that newspaper photographer and reporter out here," Jim said.

Neil chimed in:  "Yes, Jim did that.  And I just know that made a difference."

"Go on, Neil.  What other efforts did Jim make?"

"Well, he ..." as Neil looked over at Jim, "he talked it up with people he knows.  He told me he called that community theatre director down the road where he appeared last summer..."

Jim nodded.  "I know quite a lot of performing people in the surrounding towns."  Didn't seem like he had done much on his assigned task, though, I was thinking.

"Jim, what information has Neil shared with you about what's going on?  You know, his side of the bargain..."

"Well, he came by the office a couple of times," Jim didn't seem to have thought about this part.  "There were two different families this week looking at the conservatory for their musical children, whom he met with to talk about theatre. ...And he and I are going to get together next week to draft our season for next year."

"Do you feel you're a part of things? as far as you know?"

"As far as I know, well, I would say so, probably."

"So, are we making progress?"

Neil was nodding Yes.  Jim said, "Well, it's early, too early to tell, isn't it?"

*

Jim's perspective:

No one would be able to get them to come see a Graham show, why would they?  They can do better things with their time.  But they will come to my shows, and good things will happen, eventually.  No rush, no hurry.

Neil's perspective:

We're having a pretty good season.  A couple more, and a couple of breaks with publicity... and we'll be on our way.

Byron's perspective:

Neil's instincts are to dictate, not manage; that method can work on a show, but with his colleagues?  Can Neil work against his instincts?  Share decision-making with Jim, for instance?  But then, I don't know what's going on behind Jim's pearly whites...  Could be anything, from loyal cooperation to full-throat revolution.  He is an actor, isn't he?

(He is an actor, isn't he?)

8

To: Neil and to Jim

Thank you both for sending me your notes, Jim listing Neil's strongest qualities as he sees them and Neil listing Jim's.  I said you could write them confidentially to me, and I would make a summary.

Jim said Neil is very organized; he plans the work and works the plan.

Neil said Jim "inspires" his cast and crew, and "They give him more than they know they have to give."

 *

Byron's perspective:

But can they work together?  That's the key question, isn't it?  Or rather, do they want to work together: is that it?

9

"Jim, you seem upset."  We were just beginning our regular Wednesday a.m. session.

"I am upset.  You would be too."  

It turned out Jim was lodging a complaint that Neil was making plans without keeping his junior colleague in the loop, certainly without engaging Jim in making the plans.  Some actors had told Jim Neil had already sent inquiries to publishers about production rights for next season.  Jim was indignant.

Neil was surprised at Jim's reaction, explaining that preparing for his meeting with Jim to plan the season, he was finding out if some of the shows he was thinking about were within usual budget limits.  I said: "You mean you were just trying to avoid working with Jim on a plan that wouldn't work?"

But Neil's saying Yes didn't seem to calm Jim down.  He didn't seem concerned either that he hadn't made contact with the high school drama teachers in the region, as he had told Neil he would do last week.  Neil thinks we could do some Saturday morning workshops or a summer drama camp...

Next year Jim will direct the musical.  Neil was hoping it would be an audience favorite like "Oklahoma," although they couldn't get the rights to that particular one.  Jim had been looking for a real popular choice too, and suggested "Annie." 

As the conversation wound down, I said next week instead of our usual joint format, I would meet with each of these guys one-on-one beginning with Neil at 10.

*

Byron's perspective

I can't tell if Jim was really angry or if just acting upset made his point that Neil was impossible to work with.   Neil seems to be trying, working against his impulsive, go-it-alone instincts.  Is Jim working against his instinct to trash Neil so that he looks better himself?

10

Byron's notes to the file:

Right out of the shoot, I told Neil to relax.  I said I was pleased at his efforts to work with me on this project of trying to improve working relations in Theatre.  What did he think about things in general?

Neil addressed this question globally, repeating things he had said from the Get-Go:  a full time tech person, a better cyclorama, several new spotlights, stuff like that.  I listened and then asked, What about how it's working out with you and Jim?

"You know," he said, looking into my face: "We're getting the job done.  When you asked me if two actor-directors were hired instead of me plus a tech director, could between us we cover the tech stuff...?  Remember?"

"Yes.  You said you could, if you could work as collaborators, number 2 doing some tech for you on your shows and you yourself doing some tech for number 2 on his or her shows.  Right?"

"I guess so, yes."  He smiled: "Is that why we've been having these meetings?  ...Because there's never been any problem with that.  Ten minutes before Endgame curtain, Jim was sweeping the floor on stage - on his own initiative - because he didn't want anyone's footing to be unsure.  No problem.  We're professionals."

I laughed.  "No, that's not why we've been meeting.  But do you think, all things included, that everything's hunky-dory?  Really?"

"I think we're getting the job done," he said.  "But you're the boss."

*

"So, Jim.  I have to say I'm disappointed in your lack of effort to improve working relations with Neil.  Your heart just isn't in it."

"I've been doing what you told me to...  I mean, Haven't I?"  (Haven't I?)

"The point is, you don't seem committed to improving the situation."  I added: "Neil at least seems to be trying."

We talked for ten or fifteen minutes more.  Jim was his usual cordial, well-mannered self.  But he didn't add much.  I concluded as I had with Neil.  I would give it two or three more months before deciding what our goals should be.

11

"Now Neil, I told you, both... I told you together.  I didn't want to have to choose between you but if the two of couldn't work together, I would choose.  Didn't I say that?"

"Yes, sure you said exactly that."  He paused for a minute: "So, don't you see?  To me, that meant if Jim didn't want to work with me - and wouldn't bother trying to convince you we could do just fine working independently of each other...  Well, then you were going to choose him.  Not me.  Him."

(Not him.  Me!  See?  That - the old guy said out loud - That's what everybody thought.)

"I told him, Neil, you were trying to make it work between the two of you, and Jim wasn't even trying... And that meant he had to be the one to go."

"I get it now.  I won't let you down."

"But I still think the two of you would have made a great team."

*

Jim's perspective:

That dinky little place wasn't right for me.  I'm better than that.  Who's next?"

*

The old guy leaned forward.  "Maybe I haven't set the world on fire," he said.  "But...  Was I lucky to escape that madhouse, or what?"



***



Monday, January 27, 2014

The Faded Wheelbarrow (poem)

***


so little depends
upon

a faded wheel
barrow

marked with dust
veins

beside the quiet
coop


***

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Old Guy Finally Meets His Maker

***


"Yo! Somm-Beesh! 

"You couldn't do better than this?  Scoliosis, really?  Is that the best you could do?  What?  Did you leave your ruler in your locker that morning?  You couldn't draw a straight line any more from A to B?  Was that it, pal?

"And those allergies?  What's up with that?  That drippy nose? 

"You wanted to push more business toward the Kleenex people?  Is that the only way you could think of?  You made it that way, because...?

"And then...  Yeah.  And then...

"The what?  Brain? 

"Well, yes.  On that part, pretty amazing, really.  Yes!  Good on you there all right, you betcha. 

"Except lately, you know?  People like it for you to call them by name, by their first name, you follow me?  Like you know them, personally, you know? 

"But if you can't remember their names, after twenty or thirty years of seeing them just like every day or something... like they suddenly never had first names.  You know?  That was your precious brain work too, fella!  Ya get me on that one, do ya?

"What?  I mean, What?  Oh...

"What's deserving got to do with it?

"Anyhow and anyways.  What's up with you?"


***

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Travel à la mode, OR aux modes (reminiscence)

***

In 1960 when I finished high school in central Texas, intercity and interstate  travel was completed by car, by train, or by bus...  Some could afford to travel by air, but that was expensive and air routes were rather limited.  For a kid on financial aid 1,100 miles from home (undergraduate years) or 1,700 miles (first grad school), air travel back and forth was out of the question.

But in one particular trip home - for a summer break during my master's work - all three other modes of travel came into play.  This must have been in 1965.

1

I'd always been attracted to the idea of traveling by train, and after living a year in Europe, the attraction was stronger than ever.  On the other hand, in the early 1960s American railway companies did not want to run passenger lines.  There were too few regular passengers, traveling to too few cities, to make enough money to keep the cars clean and in good working order or to pay the extra staff that were needed to look after the dwindling number of passengers.  The government - who had provided the rail lines themselves and was proviing continuing subsidies - insisted that passenger service be maintained, in order to support full employment.  The rail companies responded by allowing frequent passenger train breakdowns and huge scheduling delays.

So the attractions of rail travel were considerably weakened.

Still, when I got started working in a large Eastern city on the famously "reinvented" New York Central Line, I gave in to my inclination and bought a ticket.  I had to take a taxi from my neighborhood way out to the suburbs to climb aboard - at about 2 a.m., I think - but I'd paid my money and I was taking my chance!

I went to sleep right away, of course, despite there being no sleeping accommodations - a thing of the distant past on U. S. trains.  I don't remember stopping at the station at Buffalo or Cleveland, but we may have done so.  I was concentrating on Chicago, where the "New York Special" ended and where I had to transfer to a southbound train.  Then, at St. Louis I would be transferring from the New York Central Line to the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Line, which used to rip by my family's home two or three times a day just at the end of the block (the station being in downtown Austin by the river).

Shortly after sunrise, though, our train began to slow down.  There didn't seem to be any reason for doing so, but after a gradual slowing process, right there in the middle of an empty field, we came to a dead stop.

It was quiet.  There was no one around to ask what was going on, but after twenty or thirty minutes, the word had circulated among the passengers that our train had evidently been going too fast, and now we had to stop until a big ol' freight train could motor on by us... It was understood that getting freight to its destination on time was more important than getting us to our destinations on time.  I was scheduled for a three-hour layover in Chicago anyway, so I wasn't worried about missing my connection.

Sure enough, after what seemed an awfully long time another train blazed by us, going impossibly fast, headed in the same westward direction, on our right side.  After five or ten minutes, we slowly began to follow...

2
 
Despite what you may have been expecting, I did make the connection in Chicago.  But our train from New York was late enough for me to scoot right over to Track #9 (or whatever it was) without taking a break even to look out the front door of Union Station.
 
...Only to discover that our departure had been delayed, so that we could wait for some passengers making connections from the north (Minneapolis?) or the west (Des Moines?)  Oh! I must have thought.  I didn't have to worry.  When you were running late, they held the connecting train for you.  Didn't they?
 
Only, after about thirty minutes I began to realize I had only an hour scheduled in St. Louis to make my connection to the San Francisco Zephyr heading south.
 
We pulled out of Union Station Chicago about 40 minutes late, I think it was.  It wasn't dark yet, so I could tell that we hadn't even left the metropolitan area before we stopped again.

3

So I was pretty nervous about ten p.m. when we pulled into the St. Louis station two hours or so after the "Katy" train was supposed to have left.  And, yes, they had waited "a full half hour," the ticket master told me, before departing.  Next train?  Well, you see, there's only the one passenger train headed to Texas every day.  The man helpfully pointed out that St. Louis has lots of good sites to visit...

I told him I'd probably just spend the night there in the waiting room, but he said No, it was cleared and locked at midnight.

4

I took my little grip and wandered to the exit.  I was beginning to remember having passed through St. Louis on a Greyhound bus sometime a few years before.  Right there at the curb was a taxi.  I told the man to take me to the Greyhound station.

He looked at me a moment, and then drove me one and one-half blocks to the Greyhound station.  That was silly, but what happened next marked the turning point on this trip home.  As I came through the outside door, I noted on the sign just below the ceiling that a bus was scheduled to leave for Laredo in about thirty minutes.  I knew that the regular route was Tulsa-Dallas-Austin-San Antonio-Laredo (with some intermediate stops too, of course).

What a stroke of luck!  (What a smart guy I was!)

There was a short line of folks waiting to buy tickets.  I took my place.  After a couple of minutes, a young couple lined up behind me saying they were headed to San Antonio, where the young woman lived.  (So I was indeed in the right place.)

After I had moved only one or two places nearer the ticket window, a man came through the big entrance doors.  He seemed a little out of breath and in a bit of a hurry.  He asked me, in a quiet voice - I clearly seeming to be the authority figure on the scene - if this was the line for the southbound bus.  I acknowledged that it was.

This man - middle-aged, with a mustache, brown check sports jacket and tie over his dress shirt - looked up and around at all of us in line and shouted: "Excuse me!  Excuse me?" he said.  People looked politely his way.

"Would anyone like a ride to Tulsa?"   He gave his name and offered to show his driver's license, and said he lived in Tulsa and just had to be home for an important business meeting by tomorrow morning.  But he was getting sleepy, and he was wondering if one of us might be willing to drive him home while he napped, in return for a free trip that far south.

5

I must have asked him a question or two.  He said it was a clear shot right down Highway 50, no turns at all.  His station wagon, parked at the curb outside, was all gassed up...

Anyway, we were not even all the way out of St. Louis before this fellow was asleep in his back seat, and I was motorvatin' over the hill.

6

And I drove.  And he slept.  And I drove.

The outskirts of Tulsa were just beginning to appear on the horizon as the first glowings of daylight began to light up the wide sky, when Mr. Auto-owner began to stir, right on cue.  As we approached town, he swung his legs around and leaned forward over my right shoulder.  His breath smelled strong, but did not reek of alcohol.  I never thought he had been drinking; he had just been sleepy.

After confirming that I wanted to go to the bus station, he guided me to the proper exit.  I believe he said it was right on his way home.  Once we got remotely close, in fact, the cityscape began to look familiar.  The bus station was on a corner in a residential district.  There was a Greyhound just beginning to load.  It was somewhere around 4 a.m. if I remember correctly.

7

I had agreed o make the to make the trip for nothing, but as he came up to the driver's door and took the keys back, the man gave me $10.  I didn't complain.

And, yes, when I asked the driver checking people's tickets, he said his bus was on the way to Laredo, stopping in Austin - as well as other places - along the way.  He said I could buy my ticket at the next station.

The man was gone, almost home by now.  I had a bus seat to myself and could settle right in to a snooze myself, with a straight, sure shot ahead of me to my chosen destination.

8

Late that afternoon I called my mother from the Austin bus station.  She came to pick me up in a half-hour or so.  When I got my refund on the train ticket from St. Louis on, this turned out to be the least expensive trip home I ever made.  It was not as cheap as hitch-hiking in Europe, but for the U.S., it was a real deal.


***

Monday, December 9, 2013

Class - Is as Does (story)

***

The Right Reverend Stanley Patmore, known as "Pastor Stan," found the story below in the In-Box in the narthex.  In the first months of this congregation (Pastor Stan's third), two or three messages were received each week.  Now that the congregation has grown to 4,500 or so, only one or two messages are left each month. 

1

The Executive Secretary and her boss met them all, took them all to dinner, the best and... well, the rest too.

Sallie was good at the intuitive part, the personality traits, values and attitudes, so while they waited for the waiter, or over their meals or coffee afterward, Sallie would be asking about hobbies, favorite vacations, maybe clothes or foods.  Often the candidates would speak of their spouses or children or pets, of their age or even their health.  The Dean focused on the professional side: why were they interested in moving? what was a typical work day?  current scholarly interests?  favorite class size and why?

And by the way, all of this was in the mode of pursuing the most important objective of the on-campus interview: to recruit the candidate.  It's so much better for the university to be able to be  making the choice, from among three or four good people, all of whom like the university!

Pastor Stan used to wonder why people turned in what they did. Did they think there was a possible sermon idea in there? 
2

So after dinner with Teri Underwood, as usual, both Sallie and Dean D--- were right there on the same page.  "Classy" was a word that each of them leapt to.  Teri was tall with thick hair cut pretty short, like the twenties' "bobbed" style.  Tweeds and plaids, very preppy.  Professional, not formal.  She moved gracefully and spoke well, looked you in the eye.  A nice person to have dinner with, in fact.

The Director of the Speech Therapy program - the redoubtable Sophia - was a little cooler on Teri than I would have expected, given the one or two other candidates we had considered over the two years we'd already been looking.  But she signed Teri up willingly enough.  Sophia was a feet-on-the-ground, no-nonsense kind of a woman, more focused on results than on how she and her team appeared while getting the job done.  D--- thought maybe that was why she was not as enthusiastic as Sallie and Dean D---.  Teri might have been Sallie's cup of tea, but not Sophia's "cuppa joe."

Another picture began to emerge after a couple of semesters, however.

3

D--- had been asking the routine "How's Teri working out?" for six or eight months, with Sophia - in her regular meetings one-on-one with him - giving the obligatory, "Oh, fine."

At one point, though, a little comment began to follow the usual response, like "Well, she likes to do things her way..."  But this wasn't presented as a real problem.  Teri was teaching what she was supposed to teach.  The students liked her.  She was exploring the possibility of adding a certification we'd like to have, and she was continuing a community health project on her own time that she'd begun before coming on board.

No complaints.

And Pastor Stan wondered who had turned in what. He was never sure... and he never based a sermon on the In-Box.

4

In the mean time Sophia had been going through one test after another for a considerable period already, hoping to rule out cancer.  But finally, everyone had to face the fact that she had it.  D--- wasn't sure she took real time off, as her various therapies got started.  She lost her hair, but got a great wig and kept on keeping on, slogging it out most of most days.  She was the bravest person anybody ever saw, and - even more impressive - she was the most determined too.  She just wouldn't give in.

The cancer was apparently in her blood, and she was taking lots of drugs, every day.  She went about 100 miles to some specialist about once a month too. 

And she kept the program rolling along just as it should, everybody pitching in.  Most people at the college didn't even know about Sophia's cancer in the first years.

5

The Speech Therapy program had more bother than most departments do of extra work, keeping up with Health Department regulations and that sort of thing.   In holiday periods and over summers, when faculty in other programs are busy on personal scholarly projects or working or re-working class plans, Speech faculty divided up various sections of self-study reports, gathered data, filled out forms and wrote up reports.  Sophia mentioned early in Teri's second summer that she was hoping she didn't have to nag Teri so much as last year to get her share done.  (It didn't need to be said that Sophia herself would be somewhat less available to step in and take over herself for anyone having trouble getting the job done.)

It was early that summer that Sophia took off her first substantial block of time yet.  She went up to the City for bone marrow transplant therapy, which was then still in the experimental phase; she had been lucky to have Health department colleagues who got her into the trial.  It was going to be a grim experience, Sallie learned from the senior faculty member in the department, but Sophia expected to be running things at the college from her hospital bed, using her laptop and telephone.

And she did.  As usual Sophia planned carefully, monitored closely, and things got done... even though there were always unexpected and unwelcome surprises along the way.

As for colleagues, Sallie co-ordinated an eager group's individual cards, letters, flowers or fruit-baskets, and the like, so that Sophia knew we were thinking about her (and her husband, who had taken the whole time off too, to be at her bedside), thinking of her routinely and not just in the first day or so.  Sallie ran the little plan as efficiently as Sophia might have done herself...

More than anything, Pastor Stan asked himself, every time: "What's the point?"

6

When D--- (and Sallie) next saw Sophia she had lost some weight, and her color was a little odd.  Skin-tone maybe  a little gray, or green?  Or maybe it was just the absence of a little of the usual rosy vigor.  Anyway, you couldn't say Sophia looked her usual self, but she was certainly behaving normally.  Showing up for routine one-on-one's as usual, never presenting a problem without a proposed solution, or sometimes two.  And so on.

She was a brick.  Come to think of it, she was built a little that way too, solid, stocky, muscular.  As her hair began to grow back in a little, the wig was sometimes a little askew but Sophia was still keeping on.

This experimental therapy and drug regimen worked too.  Her blood count improved, as her husband quietly mentioned in the margins of some formal event, and she got back up to speed and her customary robust demeanor.  The possibility of the cancer's return was an anytime thing...

7

The third year of a faculty member's appointment at the college is an important time.  Colleagues, the program director, and the Dean all have to go on record saying whether or not the individual is making satisfactory progress toward tenure.  In positions that are hard to fill, to be honest, one is inclined to give the individual second or third chances that might be denied someone in a more crowded field (like History or English or one of the fine arts).  But Teri didn't seem all that close to the knife edge of a year's notice.  She was not very accessible to her students, who did not seek her support as their academic or professional advisor either.  She was doing the minimal - or less than the minimal - scholarly work, was not much involved in faculty committee work or that kind of college service, and although Sophia did not mention it particularly, when D--- as Dean asked if Teri was pulling her full share of the unusual paperwork load the preprofessional program faculty had to produce, Sophia was noncommittal.

Still, Sophia's recommendation was unenthusiastic, and the Dean's concluded with the line intended to rattle the cage: "If the decision were to be made today, it would not be for tenure."  Teri asked to speak with me privately about my evaluation, but she just listened politely to my re-hash of the written review.  She talked about some professional goals, which - as D--- told her - were perfectly appropriate, but that she would have to make demonstrable progress toward one or more of them in the next two years in order to succeed.

Our personal bond renewed, she left graciously enough, head held high.

Just catching Sallie's eye as Teri let the outer office, D--- knew she was again thinking "classy."  And I was too.  I was relieved there didn't seem to be real ill-will on either side of whatever little division there was between her and Sophia.

Pastor Stan was now moving into fast-scanning mode, always seeking "What's the point?"

8

From the memorial service for her four or five years later, D--- learned that Sophia was not only respected, admired, sometimes feared a little... She was also loved.  Yes.  Even though that term seems totally out of keeping with her personality, looks, and character.  You knew she was someone you did not want to get crossways with, a person whose judgments were not lightly taken or easily challenged, who seemed to operate using reason and practicality more naturally than idealism or emotion.  A classic professional.  Competent.  Efficient.

But many of her colleagues did not know of the students to whom she had given a ride when they couldn't wait for a bus and couldn't afford a taxi, whom she'd treated to a pizza or a burger when it was particularly hard to make ends meet, whose tuition she had silently subsidized with private scholarship deals she'd quietly arranged through the college's Financial Aid staff.  And that kind of thing. 

9

It had seemed entirely out of character, and out of keeping for our their working relationships, one day when Sophia was telling the Dean in June that she didn't know whether she could carry her normal load and fulfill her usual duties the following September. 

She talked stoically enough, as always, and detailed how she would decide, and when, and how.  Her tone of voice was flat, businesslike as usual.  She was sitting bolt upright in the chair across from me, and her wig was just a little askew: all the typical Sophia.

But it astonished D--- to realize inside that when they stood at their meeting's conclusion, he was going to give her a hug.  That was just going to be the right thing to do.  This, you know, was not what one normally did with Sophia.

But D--- stepped toward her with his right arm a little out to the side, and she walked into the hug.  It was just three or four seconds, but it was a real hug.  They smiled a little as they separated; she turned on her heel and opened the inner office door.  She waved as usual at Sallie as she turned down the hallway and plodded out.

10

When Teri's tenure swam into sight, even rather far out there on the horizon, it was real clear she couldn't make it.  The fact is, she hadn't met even one of the standards we had reviewed that last time the two of us had met.  It didn't look as though she had made any attempt to do so.

Sophia had even quit covering for Teri's refusing to do the extras required by the professional standards self-study reports.  Only once, but once, she had admitted that the other faculty in the program were pretty disgusted with the extra effort Teri's laxities required from them.

In short, it looked as though Teri had surveyed the situation and had made the decision that, if we were serious about all we said we expected of her, this wasn't the right place for her.  But she was going to make us be the ones to take the responsibility to say so.  Okay, fine, D--- thought.  I can handle that.

11

As the next academic year drew to a close, Teri called Sallie to ask for an appointment to see the Dean and Sophia together for an exit interview.  That was unusual but not a bad thing in itself, and besides the non-reappointment process the year before had gone smoothly and Teri's terminal year had been problem-free too... So, why not?

Sophia was already with D--- in the inner office, having arrived precisely five minutes early, when Teri herself strode through the hallway door.  Sallie ushered her in, and they all took a seat.

"We want to thank you, Teri," Dean D--- started, "for having completed your contract this year coolly and professionally," adding "That's an anxiety I as the dean have in such situations, and - like most folks, I have to say - you did well."

"Do you have your future plans all laid out?" Sophia asked, keeping up the conversational tone.

Teri did not seem her usual serene, above-the-usual hullabaloo self, despite her normal preppy suit and slacks and just-so hair style.  "I know what I'll be doing," she said, then with a harder edge looking at Sophia: "no thanks to you."

"Well, that's fine then," I tried to get us back in the chit-chat mode.

But Teri wasn't having any part of it.  She had come with a mission, and she was going to get right to it.  "You're a miserable tyrant," she said to Sophia who looked back at her calmly.  And before the Dean could wedge in a cautionary word, she went on.  (Maybe it was a set speech she'd been rehearsing.)

"You know everything.  It's always what you say that matters.  You don't care about others, who have real lives and families and community obligations."

D--- was stirring but Teri just raised her voice so he couldn't intervene.  "You don't even like yourself!  So you're sick?  You deserve it.  You deserve to die.  You - deserve - to - die!"

Dean D--- had stood up.  Teri had, too.  "That's what I have to say, and I've done it," she turned on her heel, pulled open the door to Sallie's office and stomped away out the door.  Sophia was standing now, next to D---, side-by-side,

12

D--- asked Sallie to close the hallway door and come into his office to join him and Sophia.

"Sallie," the Dean said, "I have just witnessed the most despicable human behavior of my lifetime."

Sophia was sitting quietly again, looking impassively at the two of us.

"Oh gosh!" Sallie exclaimed.  "I'm so sorry, Sophia."  Then to D---, in a sort of stage-whisper: "At first, I kind of liked that girl."

D--- couldn't keep from laughing.  Sophia sort of chuckled too.

"At first," Sophia said, "she seemed perfect."

*

Midway through his scan, Pastor Stan had stopped wondering who had been in attendance Sunday morning who might have written this thing.  He didn't know of anyone who worked at the university... 

It didn't matter, though; it was destined for his trash can.  Would it be recyclable?


***






Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Prime (poem)

                                                                                                                                       ***


Prime


Some of you will remember
The eccentric schoolteacher who
Liked to speak of the prime of life.
The prime, she would say, or
One’s prime or my prime or yours.

And to us and the children, it may have seemed
She herself was passed what
May have been called her prime,
Passed and on the declining side, down
From the apex, the summit, the mountaintop...

But who’s to say she was not right
And that was in fact
Her prime, after one or more
Aborted lift-offs, scrubbed missions,
Abandoned dreams.

Or even that
Any time or every time has
A prime, if we can see it or sense it
Or be it or live it? Who
Could say that, for sure?

Heading what may seem to some
Down, or just starting up
Or upward,
Who’s to say?

From this little hollow, this quaint
Modest valley or dale or depression only,
Looking ahead, up I suppose,
I have entered, let me say, the prime
Of my old age.  Yes, Miss?

                                                                                                                                          ***