Saturday, April 11, 2009

It is heartening to note that by switching to Blogger I have reduced my readership from about six to one – I soon may just leave all my entries in Word without posting at all, saving the wear and tear on my psyche that accrues from trying to paste Word stuff into the exacting and ever-changing requirements of the various blogvilles. So, hi there, jeankfl – or as I should call her, “my public”. I suppose I should rejoice, when one is shouting in an empty silo, one has a certain freedom of expression.

Age, too, seems to be increasingly gifting me with a freedom – or perhaps more accurately, a lack of giving a damn – in regard to expressing myself. This week, for the first time in a forty-year career that has been rife with opportunities to do so, I finally cussed at a user. Some years back, I mentioned in passing to a colleague that he was “an arrogant little prick”, but colleagues are one thing and users – i.e. customers – are another. It was the high point in what was a grueling week.

I mentioned last week that Smallville was minutes away from Binghamton, the scene of one of the NRA’s greater recent triumphs. I arrived at work Monday to find that a guy I’ll call Yan, who has been for more than two years my first-coffee-in-the-morning buddy, lost his wife of 37 years in the Binghamton tragedy (or for members of the NRA, I should say “celebration of god-given and Constitutional freedom”). In my entire life, I have met only a handful of men (I can think of three, offhand) who, after years of marriage, openly loved, respected and admired their wives without reservation. Yan was one of these. In two years of almost daily discussion on politics, religion, finances and everything in between, I never once heard him refer to his wife, even jokingly, as a brake on him – other than once saying she “wouldn’t let him” – at age 65+ - climb up and personally install a new roof on their home.

They had decided at the beginning of their marriage, that whatever the cost, he would do the earning and she would be a stay-at-home Mom. This did not mean she moped around, talking baby talk and watching soaps. She had been an immigrant just after World War II, at the age of 1, and she knew first-hand, and from watching her parents, the stresses and difficulties that face the new arrival. So she was determined to help other immigrants, and ultimately this cost her her life. If you have read the names of the fallen in Binghamton, you might have been struck by the diversity – virtually every victim was from a different country – one-syllable names, ten syllable names, names with more Js and Ks and Ws and Xs than anyone would think pronounceable – Hispanics, Asians, Slavs, Africans. These were the students with whom Yan’s wife, their language teacher, died on her day off, on the eve of a planned vacation to visit a married daughter, because she was called in – and went – to a class where the scheduled teacher had been unable to attend.

I did not know Yan’s wife, although from my conversations with Yan, I felt I did know her somewhat. These language classes were not her only community involvement. She was a very active woman, one of those intelligent sensible women that keep communities vibrant. At the funeral home, although the family requested donations to various non-profits in lieu of flowers, there were huge bouquets from every civic organization imaginable – not impersonal expressions of outrage at the tragic event at the Civic Association, but personal symbols of affection and thanks from groups with which she had been involved as her children left home for college and marriage. Although I called shortly after the ‘viewing’ hours began, the line of mourners waiting to enter the already-packed funeral home was already so long that I waited 45 minutes in a freezing wind to get inside; and when I finally got through the door, the line behind me extended an entire block. Next day, the church was so crowded for the funeral that I had to stand packed in the back, for the entire two and a half hour ceremony. The sanctuary, choir loft and staircases were jammed. This was more church time than I have endured in the last decade altogether.

I did know Yan, and frankly, I cannot imagine what he will do alone in his home where he had been so happy with his wife. On the table when I called at his home, and later in mounted collages created by his children at the funeral home , there were slews of photographs from his wife’s life – the ones I was most struck by were those of Yan and his wife together – always smiling or laughing , leaning unconsciously toward each other, poking their heads through those joke cutouts that one finds at carnivals where one appears to be a cowboy or a cartoonish sports figure, dancing, playing. Yan is a little older than I am, and is in the last throes of his career. Since his wife spoke a number of languages and had studied in France in her younger days, they had been talking about finally doing some travelling together after his retirement. He told me that, being several years older than his wife, he had always assumed he’d go first. I know from the experience of losing my youngest brother when I was in my early 20’s, that above and beyond the loss itself, there was this disorienting feeling of a break in the natural order – I am not sure that people realize how much they half-consciously foresee the orderly progression to the grave of the older or infirm before the younger in their family. It adds to the devastation when this order is broken, more than I would have believed before I experienced it. I completely understood what Yan was telling me. I am certain he had no alternate scenarios, and that he is cast, deeply bereft, into waters he had never imagined having to navigate.

Yan and his wife were deeply immersed in their unique culture – both had been immigrants as children after World War II. I remember as a teenager, when there were only about six radio stations in the area, how there would be a Polish Hour, a Lithuanian Hour, a Ukrainian Hour, and so forth, with all this music that meant nothing to me broadcast in languages that seemed odd and impenetrable and, to be honest, kind of pointless in this country. I supposed, subconsciously, that the listeners were all these matronly women in flowered dresses with peasant-type hairdos whose only thought was cooking native dishes, or men in grey ill-fitting suits who had no real life. It had nothing to do with me, and was both quaint and dull in my imagination. I never thought about this mental picture really, but I realize it has remained in my memory all these years; it is not unlike the feeling I have when I happen on the rebroadcasts of Lawrence Welk on our local PBS station - who listens to this stuff?

It is astonishing how many mental images we form as children and as young people (or maybe even later); unintentional rules, caricatures, beliefs, that we rarely have cause to re-examine. I suspect most people have a very fixed picture of people’s lives before their own birth, where nobody has quite real emotions. How often do we hear that Chinese, or Africans, or people living before 1800 did not feel the loss of a child so deeply, “because they expect to lose half their children” or some similar idea? What Muslims are like, or Jews, or Indians – if we don’t know anyone from a group, it is almost impossible to endow them with feelings as deep or as valid or as comprehensible as our own. Or with the kind of doubts we have; with dreams as real and brightly colored as our own; with uncertainties and jealousies and all the fabric or realness that we seem to feel that “our kind” experience. Or because people make different choices, see different options, they can’t care as much; I got to see this thinking from the other end in Saudi – a man told me that Americans didn’t have the same feelings for their parents as those of his culture did; “they put them in nursing homes”. Being in this position now, I feel that a good nursing home can and does bring my mother more security and happiness than any of my brothers or my sister could possibly give; before Mom went to Desolation Pines, she was frightened and worried and upset much of the time despite our best efforts, now she is serene, smiling and social. One sees caring from one’s own experience. One is trapped by one’s experience; because one did this, one can’t really completely on a gut level see why someone else would do that.

So after all these years, this week I got to see a vibrant, often young, caring, diverse culture that just happened to stem entirely from the same small part of Europe. I saw none of the mamas I envisioned, no hair in buns, none of the stoicism or quaintness or whatever else went into that old mental image.

What probably surprised me most was how much I was impacted by Yan’s loss. He and I were polar opposites on almost every issue. I never doubted his basic humanity or his instinct to kindness, but I just didn’t realize I’d feel his loss so personally. I feel immense sorrow for him; it makes me sad that he must face the long period of mourning which, I have heard and believe, lasts in some degree for as long as one year for every two years one was together. Yan lived a life of service and order – he was in the service in Korea, he planned carefully, and he always, always, put his family first, and then in a real wash-dishes-and sweep-up kind of way, his church and cultural institutions. I am not sure he has time enough left to him to get over the worst of the mourning. He just did not in any way deserve this. Only recently have I realized how much a sense of mourning for Tumwell’s death, not always recognized as such, has contributed to my sense of malaise for the past thirteen or fourteen years. It has been, on some level, brutal. Deep feeling – sad or happy – tends to make me snappish, I’m afraid. Hence my little outburst this week when the Witch of Endor pushed me past my breaking point.

I have GOT to retire, whether I can live comfortably or not. Something will turn up; it always has. I have lately been thinking about reverse mortgages; I think with my mortgage payments off my back, I can afford to retire if I am careful. I have never been careful, but as Maude told Harold, “Always go for the new experience!” Careful is not my style; rightly or wrongly, acting on impulse is, and it has worked so far.

And anyway, who cares what happens to old people – they don’t feel as much as you do; right, Youngsters?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Shots Fired

Well, who'da thunk it? I seemed to have moved my blog to Blogger; a thing which I had no intention of doing. Many of my friends from MSN Spaces moved, but I chose to stay, despite the fact that it got cuter and more jejeune everyday. But this morning I was completely unable to login to my blog which is more than two years old and which has only improved with age. I have spent half an hour or more and can NOT find a way to login to Spaces as ME. I can (after a struggle) get to MSN Spaces itself, and it welcomes me as a stranger, urging me to start a blog today, but when I say I am me, senior blogiste extraordinaire, an old resident, it knows me not. Just because I failed to make an entry for a month I am apparently a complete stranger to Spaces. Well, so be it.

You'd think after nearly 40 years in the computer biz, I could achieve anything, but the fact is that I have so little interest in, or liking for, computer work, that I learn nothing that I do not need to know for work - and my work does not involve the net. Here I am a babe in the woods. It took 3 tries to get onto Blogger - I HATE those faux words one has to type in to verify one's identity because apparently I can't read them. They are always cutely twisted together (what is that about?) and 'o's are set so closely to 'l's that the pair looks like a single 'd' or 'b' or 'p' and I kept getting spurned, and this is one dude that does not take kindly to spurning. Blogger, you are on notice.

I will, if ever I find my way back to Spaces, post a link from there to here, or perhaps from here to there, because there are a slim handful of folks whom I have come to value hearing from. I don't want them to think I left them without a word. I intend to find my old pal jeankfl who already made the switch from Spaces to Blogger and find out if she knows how the hell to get back into Spaces one more time to post the link and urge folks to visit my new digs. Anyway, my effort to get into Spaces came about because I finally wrote a new entry in Word which I planned to post, and I couldn't. Not one to waste, I am posting my entry below; viz:

Saturday! Is there any more glorious pair of words in any language than “Saturday morning”? If I may speak for you all for a moment, no, there is not. I knew you would agree. This, of course, assumes that there are no children in the house, no spouse holding a list and a tool of some sort, and favoring you with meaningful looks. True, outside my window I am being given spouse-like looks such as no bird should ever give a benefactor, as the fledged ones teeter in the wind on empty suet and seed containers. I fled Smallville yesterday, while a number of people were being shot in the nearby city of Binghamton; the cruelest of all fates would be to be shot late Friday, on a working day just before Saturday. What a disappointing end to a workweek that would be!

One accepts being shot eventually, of course; it is the American way – but just before the weekend? That is too cruel a fate. The gentleman doing the shooting seems to have lost his job recently, and based on the sketchy facts known so far, I would guess that he worked in a building adjacent to me, if not in the same building. I am suitably grateful that he chose to take out a crowd of folks who had no relation whatsoever to his grievance, rather than someone more closely placed to the source. This is a point where my friend jeankfl could point out the goodness of the Almighty, but I would point out that, given the overt religiosity in these parts, those who fell before the onslaught were statistically far more likely to share her illusions than me.

The wind blew fiercely all night and things outside seem this morning to be in places they were not to be found yesterday. Daffodils, hyacinths, crocus and blue scilla are a-bloom and it is with dismay that I notice that among the scattered drops of rain falling this morning are a few drops that might better be described as flakes, and that might better be described as snow. I waited long for the rewards of my brother George’s planting fervor, and I do not wish to see it reach the same premature end as the folks in Binghamton.

Speaking of George, he moved out last month to live in the city, closer to his social circle. I remain here, not having a social circle – or for that matter a social anything, although one of the old roomies from Saudi visited two weeks ago and spent the weekend. According to my friend, the changes in Saudi are many and deep, and he now rather likes living there, something that could not be said of him when I lived there – I loved it back then and would probably rue the changes, but despite having been born and raised in the third world, he is more westernized than I. We pretty much agree that the current king is the best since Feisal, and is making huge strides to improve life there for all but the most Wahhabist, a group that will not be satisfied until the entire world is either deceased or agreeing with them; in this they resemble closely many of my church-going neighbors. I suspect both are torn between their secret preference that we all be dead and the reflection that our conversion would put that much more cash into the old plate. Although at least the Muslims are not so overtly crass as to pass around a begging bowl in their actual places of worship.

I received a call from a lawyer – or one who hinted that he was such – claiming that he was calling to collect a debt I owed an apartment complex from 2005 in Milwaukee, WI. The actual facts are these: I moved in there and attempted to place my bicycle in the storage unit which was assigned to my apartment, judging by the number painted thereupon. I found it full of boxes and padlocked, so I went to the office and expressed my frustration. “Oh,” said the female therein, cheerily, “Just pick an empty unit and put your padlock on it.” This I did, and four months later when fate decreed a move to another state, I removed my bike and the lock, cleaned my place, had movers pack everything up and left after having given required notice and so forth. Two months later I received a bill for $660 for the labor involved for the apartment people (apparently they hired major league baseball players to do this, and paid them the wages to which they were accustomed) to clean out “my” storage area. I wrote and explained the above scenario and apparently they laid low and waited to sell my ‘debt’ to a collection agency, which calls itself a ‘law office’. Said agency seems to have been about a step behind me as I moved hither and yon, and did not reach me until this week, four years later. When I explained the scenario, the person at the other end of the call sniffed, “Did you get it in writing?” Which, of course, I did not; who other than another brazen thief would have thought to ask the clueless (or collusive) person who breezily suggested using a different space to please write that down.

I pay my debts on time – even when I don’t like them, such as the charges for leaving a lease early and so on; and it enrages me when someone tells me I didn’t. These people are opportunists and thieves and I was not long in my apartment before I got the clear idea that no one escaped the place without being dunned for something – it was one reason I used packers and movers to ensure my zeal did not flag while even a fragment of my belongs remained. It was clear that this debt collector would not go away until I paid and that even if I went to court in a now distant state, I would lose without any proof of my story, so I reverted to my most childish mode. I got the cheque – or money order - from the post office, then – and this took a great deal of time, science and effort - I carefully coated the entire perimeter of the order with human feces: to wit, my own. I then sprayed the whole with Deer-Off, and if you haven’t smelled that fine but foul-smelling product, you have not extended your olfactory experience anywhere near its outer boundary, believe me. Then I sent it off.

In this era of populist outage, it is my humble hope that scavengers such as these bill collectors who have no interest in the legitimacy of the claims they pursue, and tenants who are pretty defenseless against dishonest and avaricious tactics of unscrupulous housing complexes, let alone the sheer ineptitude of the best and brightest which taxpayers pay such handsome bonuses to retain, that the pissed off victims of job loss, and other disappointments will finally turn their guns to more appropriate targets than old folks homes, classrooms and the like. It is idle to deplore these shooting rampages; as Stokely Carmichael said accurately, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” Moreso, I’d think. One would not give every American a car and expect that no one would drive; similarly why would anyone expect everyone to own a gun and not use it? But just as we try to channel driving into certain areas, and use it usefully, why on earth aren’t shooting rampages similarly channeled? Why is a single member of the Enron or Citibank or AIG upper management left alive, while students and charity workers and McDonald’s customers are being mowed down regularly? Priorities, people! Let’s introduce a little regulation into these mass killings. The Earth will be a better place – at least this corner of it – and the shooters, one would think, can die a great deal more happily in the knowledge that they have in fact cured the ill that so disturbed them.

Hey, if there is anyone feeling really pissed off in the Milwaukee area, I have an address for you!