Monday, October 26, 2009

Back by Popular Demand

Owing to the overwhelming demand for another short story, here y'all go.
Another Late Night

“I didn’t hear you come in last night, Fred.”

“Damn right you didn’t, Lady. I still have skills.”

“Another night skulking around town?” she asked.

“Yeah, found a great new bistro. Not too far away, fabulous food. Dining alfresco is wonderful in the summer: And the girls; oh my, the girls.” Fred slicked his hair back behind his ear.

“You get any action?”

“That’s a rather indiscreet question, don’t you think?”

“Well, I don’t get out much anymore. I sort of live vicariously through you.”

“Yes, since the operation…” Fred let the sentence trail off, then he sauntered over and whispered in her ear, “but since you ask, I’ll say this; it was a hot night and some screaming was heard in the neighborhood.”

“Yeah,” she replied dreamily. “I remember a few nights like that out with the boys myself.”

“What about them?” Fred asked, nodding toward the bed.

“Nothing much, he snores, she goes to the bathroom every hour.”

“Still with the huge stomach?”

“Yep, I don’t know what’s up with that. They never tell us a damn thing. I think she should have a doctor look at that.”

“Relax, girl. If it were serious we would know. She’s a big girl; she can take care of herself.” Fred arched his back in a stretch and a yawn. “Well, I’m gonna hit the sack. I need my strength for tomorrow night.”

I suppose you’re right, good night, Fred.”

“G’nite, kiddo.” Fred hopped up onto the bed and found a nice warm spot in the small of the back of the sleeping woman.

She roused slightly, threw her arm back and scratched Fred behind the ears. “Stupid cat,” she murmured, “been out all night again?” Fred purred loudly.

Lady circled three times in her bed on the floor then curled up and went back to sleep.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It's in the Jeans

Married life is much like white-water rafting. In the beginning there is uncertainty mixed with great expectations. Toss in a dash of trepidation and a generous pinch of exhilaration and the stage is set. Then you get in the boat and begin the journey. You start in fairly calm waters, then a few ripples rock the boat and pretty soon, great founts of water are crashing over you as you slam headlong into rocks and swirl around in eddy traps. Most times you float into placid waters again, life settles down and the business of simply getting through the rough patches and enjoying the scenery when you can, proceeds at the pace of the river.

Sometimes the raft is overturned. You find yourself in over your head, gasping for breath, flailing for something to cling to to survive. When you are very lucky someone grabs your hand and saves you. Your are luckier still if that hand belongs to your spouse. I'm the luckiest man alive, and I have the family to prove it.

Recently I have had reason to reflect on family life. The precipitating occasions for this introspection are two-fold. First is the passing of the torch from one generation to the next, and with it, all the memorabilia and family treasures reaching back more than a century. The second is the imminent nuptials of my eldest son.

In the first case, the care needs of the nearby Patriarch and Matriarch precipitated a change in their living circumstances to allow for more care and less room. This in turn created a need to begin the difficult process of winnowing the accumulated treasures packed carefully away in boxes and bins, files and folders, and sometimes just piles and pillboxes. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of photos to sort.

We all have them. Shoeboxes of snapshots, racks of slides, old albums with black and white Box Brownie snaps of people in front of old houses and old cars. People we don't recognize, places we don't remember, events erased from our memories, or just faded, like the photos. Moments frozen in time, collected for a posterity that will not want or understand them.

Many of these photos, along with newspaper clippings and old yearbooks, antimacassars and doilies, and favored dollies and souvenirs are deeply meaningful to our elders. The old cars and houses weren't old when they were photographed. The elders remember riding in the autos and running through the screen doors into kitchens smelling of freshly baked bread. They recall sitting in the chair protected with the antimacassar and the vase with the doily underneath. These were the homes and family of their youth, more vivid in their memory now than last night's supper. When they are gone that link will be broken, so while they are still with us we work to get a name attached to a face and a date and with great effort sometimes even an address. Someday, we assure ourselves, we will put together a proper record. Someday is so easy, and so distant and so comfortable; and so it goes that the demands of everyday life overtake us until someday we will be the Elders, needing less space and more care. We will be the ones struggling to put names to faces and places. We will be living vividly in our past.

Which brings me to the second case; imminent nuptials. I remember well excoriating a teacher on behalf of my eldest son when she casually and wholly erroneously charged him with a grievous scholarly sin. I remember playing a role in a movie he was making with a friend. I remember the birth of my first grandchild. I rub the scars of fixing cars and the more recent scabs of porches and railings. I look at photos of all these events and I am glad to be a thread in the life we all weave together.

It was a patient explanation my youngest son gave me when he was six. The roly-poly bugs were cold outside and needed a warm place to stay. This shoe box under the bed, he opined would be just right. His indignation was righteous when his good deed was underappreciated as the sow bugs made an abrupt departure to the garden. To this day his heart is moved by the plight of misfortune and injustice. He strives to make a difference as an educator and a thoughtful human being. Another life, another thread and there I am, part of the warp and weft.

My daughter wants to fix broken things; mostly broken hearts. She wants to rescue every puppy that needs a home, feed every hungry cat in the neighborhood and find a quiet place in a sunny window of her brain into which she can retreat. She has told me things which troubled her that she hasn't told another soul because she knows she can trust me. I cannot begin to explain what a gift that is and how valuable beyond measure it is to me. I am incapable of betraying such trust, yet I weave it still into the cloth.

My wife and I belong to what has been labeled the 'sandwich' generation. We care for the elders while managing our own lives and helping where we can with our children and grandchildren. We share the joys and shoulder the burdens willingly, knowing that each generation gets it's own turn as the filling of the sandwich. It is the richness of the fabric of family. We get tired and discouraged; we're only human, after all. But we carry on looking forward to better days and times and gazing backward to happy memories and preparing to introduce a bright new thread at the wedding.

Family and friends will gather from near and far, tears will be shed, joy will be shared, children will be embarrassed by old stories, bread will be broken and glasses raised in salute. I will be with my beautiful bride and her parents, my children and grandchildren, and our friends and our children's friends. Together we will weave just a bit more of this tapestry we call family.

It is particularly fitting for me personally; I was adopted as a child, never to know my birth family. So too was I adopted by this family; taken in, loved and embraced without so much as a single shared gene. Despite what you see in the movies, I'm pleased as punch to be a stepdad.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Health Scare Reform

I don't want to write this post. I don't want to relive the agony of watching family members wither and die because a treatment wasn't 'covered' or was 'experimental'. I don't want to be reminded of living six years in personal agony because my condition wasn't sufficiently acute to warrant a surgical repair. I don't like being reminded with each step I take of the permanent nerve damage that resulted from the delay. I don't want to recall my drug-induced fog of depression the family was forced to endure as a result. I don't want to think of the knife-edge my family still lives on because of pre-existing conditions and unaffordable health care coverage. I despise knowing that we can't afford to get sick. I don't want to write this post; yet I must.

As we are wont to do in this country, we have chosen up sides in the health care game and sent our warriors into battle. Shirts vs Skins with most of us on the sidelines rooting for 'our' team. Like some of the fans in this metaphorical contest, a few get way too deeply involved in winning at any cost and lose sight of the greater prize, the love of the game. It's easy for insurance companies to sway the poorly informed who lack the time, perhaps, or the resources, or even the capacity to understand what is at stake. It is simpler still to scare elders with misleading innuendos and damnable lies about what is proposed in reform packages. It is cynical, dangerous and ultimately not in the best interest of the public or the forces that seek to defeat reform. It is time to embrace the word re-form in its most fundamental sense. Let's 'improve by alteration, correction of error, or removal of defects' as the dictionary suggests.

Let's begin with the notion of what health care is and isn't. It is essential in a modern society. Maintaining a healthy populace is not optional in the age of the Internet. Economies worldwide depend on a well trained cadre of producers and consumers to keep things humming along. Interconnectedness is the rule now, not the exception and keeping up means keeping fit and ready for action. This cannot occur in the system currently in place in the U.S.

In the rural, agrarian nineteenth century, health care was often distant, ill informed and performed in crude settings by people with marginal skills. Even in the best of circumstances medicine was performed by common sense and instinct with a dash of experience tossed in. In the same time frame producers, industry and labor were engaged in titanic struggles for control of the levers of power. Rail lines colluded to fix prices for transporting goods. Steel producers drove smaller competitors out of business with unfair practices. Oil giants cornered markets and crushed competition. Does any of this seem familiar? More recently financial manipulators created paper phantoms that were meant to look like money and profit, but in the end went right back to the heart of the nineteenth century; they stole dreams and dollars from the most vulnerable among us with our unwitting consent. Everyone was chasing the elusive American Dream right down the rabbit hole. The common denominator was money, corruption, collusion and manipulation (or outright purchase) of legislators. I ask again, does any of this seem familiar?

The solution at the turn of the twentieth century was for a courageous President to bully Congress into reform. Theodore Roosevelt, Republican conservative to the core and part of the elite moneyed American aristocracy, broke the trusts. He understood that when any industry corners a market it's first instinct will be to bleed it to death, then move on looking for another body to turn into a carcass. Unconstrained profit motives drive companies and their leaders to kill the host without considering the consequences to the parasite. It is an exquisite death spiral that is even now being played out in Washington D.C. Look no further than the financial industry crisis, the insurance crisis, the housing crisis and subsequent market meltdown as proof positive of the postulate.

So, what to do? What we have now clearly doesn't work. It seems to me that we have missed something in the analysis of What To Do Now. From time to time government has seen fit to alter the relationship between business and consumer by deeming a business as essential to the modern functioning of society. We call those businesses utilities. When it became apparent that electricity was going to be essential, governments set out guidelines. Everybody needs the service so yes, Mr. Businessman, you may make a profit, but you may not rapaciously exsanguinate your customers. Water, sewer, garbage hauling, cable TV and sometimes even cemetary districts are all public utilities. Employees are properly compensated, CEOs make a decent living, investors make safe, if relatively modest returns and the public is provided with an essential service. Sometimes those services are provided by government agencies, like Medicare and Social Security, sometimes by private companies like Puget Sound Energy or Con Edison, but they are provided. Is their performance perfect? No, humans haven't quite conquered perfection yet, which is why our Constitution seeks to work at perfecting; understanding it will be a task always in progress.

Until meaningful reform occurs we are all at risk. Our nation, our status in the world of nations and our chance to compete into the future hang in the balance. Those who claim to love the health care plan they have now have probably never had to truly test that plan. I pray for their sake they never will. Let's support another President seeking reformation of dangerous business practices. Let's not screw this up. Let's not settle for second-rate. Let's win one for the gimper. That would be me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I'm watching you

The old proverb reads, "those in glass houses should not throw stones". What to do when everyone lives in a glass house becomes less prosaic and more practical as more lives become transparent in the Age of Cameras.

I'm titling this post 'I'm watching you' because chances are someone is doing just that: At this very moment while you're reading this post. If you are in an internet cafe' there is probably a security camera posted nearby. Same thing if you are in an office, sitting on a park bench perusing your Blackberry or even driving. Cameras are everywhere, and some of them carry guns. Like some omnipotent being, revealing all, passing judgement and carrying out executions. Video games with real life consequences.

I have recently begun to engage in the 'social networking' phenomenon on the internet, having been assured that any chance at business success depended on 'having a presence'. So, I have a presence. Finding success as a writer in the Age of Cameras apparently depends on having a blog, which hopefully gathers a large following over time, eventually attracting the attention of someone scouring the web looking for the next breakout bestselling author. Think Julie & Julia. Therefore, I have a blog. Next, I suppose, I will need a website, where people can download a story for 99 cents, or subscribe to a podcast of me reading my book. Technology everywhere, and not a moment to think as we follow threads, keep readers informed of the most inane (and eminently unimportant) minutiae, and follow one another over the cliff.

The irony of this state of affairs seems lost to those adrift in a sea of 'too much to do, not enough time to do it'. There is much wailing and lamentation for our lost 'free time', yet no clear grasp that we have sacrificed that free time willingly to peer into the electronic window. We are like an army of peeping Toms hoping to catch a glimpse of something shocking. Be careful what you wish for; your most embarrassing moment, captured from different angles from multiple cell phones may have a date with You Tube destiny.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this phenomenon is observing how quickly it spreads. Viral is now probably thought of more as an electronic event rather than a biological one. Unquestionably humans are social animals. Our lives are more entangled with one another than any other species and social webs let us keep in touch with family and friends easily. Graffiti probably started as a means of communication among tribal groups (and mostly serves that function still), then letters became family events. For some they became touchstones of contact with those still remembered but far removed. Telegraph, telephone, pictures, home movies, radio, television, cell phones and now the internet have sprung from fertile minds to become common tools. The laptop replaces the plow as the principle source of income in a household. Try to imagine doing whatever you do for a living without using a computer, or the internet.

Thus has it happened that we all live in glass houses. We see what we are all doing by staring through the digital looking-glass at one another. 1984 was a novel predicting a future where Big Brother watched over everyone, monitored every move and corrected behavior according to an acceptable set of guidlines. George Orwell was on the right train but missed the correct track. Big Brother has turned out not to be a central governmental authority, but instead it has become us.

Don't look now, but I'm watching you.