Sunday, December 23, 2012

Making a list…

He quietly stood in the window of the large serving window ladling beef stew into Styrofoam bowls and asking folks if they wanted an extra piece of carrot.  “I grew them in my root garden along with the potatoes, and onions.”  He never seemed to ever smile.  He just went about whatever he was doing with a quiet manner and a solemn look on his face.  Little did I know the miracle I would discover in this short, plump, melancholy man I would attend group with on Thursday nights.

His face came to me often as the holidays approached and I neglected to give it much credence.  I went about my life and thought less and less as time passed.  One night I found myself driving the country road leading to the church where the group was held.  It was about 9:30 and I was on my way home when I came upon this gentleman walking on the side of the road.  I stopped and inquired about his well-being.  He told me that his truck would not start and he was just walking to his house.  I convinced him to get in and took him home.  I offered to help him with his broken vehicle the next day and he smiled at me without committing to anything.  At his house he asked if I would come in for a cup of coffee on the pretense of giving me some money for helping him. After a near heated conversation about the idea that Christian charity requires no remuneration, I finally got the offered cup of Joe and sat in his living room enjoying the company and conversation.

His house was a massive clutter of canvas bags with envelopes bulging out the end.  Not wishing to be nosy, I kept my own counsel, and he never offered an explanation.  The coffee cup emptied and I found cause to leave.  He told me that I could come help him with his truck if I would allow him to take me to lunch for my efforts.  Easily agreed on, we made time plans for the next day.

I showed up the next day and found him at his kitchen table slumped over a pile of letters.  He looked to be in distress and I called an ambulance.  He had had a heart attack and a stroke.  He spent several days in ICU before transitioning into a private room.  He had no feeling on one side of his body, and was going to have to endure a rather extensive series of physical therapy sessions to attempt to get him able to take care of himself.  He was beside himself with worry and kept asking me what the date was.  He made me promise not to tell the folks at the church about his problem.  He refused the in-home nurse and therapy opting to attend physical therapy sessions at the hospital.  How he was going to accomplish this without the use of half of his body did not seem to faze him.  He was adamant that nobody come to his house.  I tried to talk reason to him and finally convinced him that he did, indeed, need assistance.  He told me that he would pay me to drive him every day.  He told me that people who would come to his house would instantly wish to clean and arrange it to make it more livable and he would not have it.

I talked him into giving me nothing more than gas money and to find someone to help him in his house that would not disturb anything he did not want disturbed.  I knew a young lady who was in need of work who had worked in a nursing home for several years and would work cheap.  She was a Certified Nursing Assistant so he could pay her wages with his health insurance as long as a doctor prescribed the need.
Once set up with what he needed he seemed happy enough until, that is, he got home and found out he could not sit at the kitchen table and deal with the envelopes.  He sat at the table and wept over his dilemma.  I could do nothing but offer to help.  He became agitated and almost had another stroke when I reached for one of the envelopes.  I withdrew from the pile and sat down to have a serious talk.  I told him that he needed to start trusting me.  I had earned that consideration for the things I had done for him, and the secrets he wanted me to keep.  I had grown frustrated and angry at the situation.  It must have shown in my tone of voice.  He made me, once more, swear to silence before he told me his secret.

He was retired from the Post Office.  He put 40 years in starting as a handler in a transfer station and worked his way through the ranks of postman, to selling stamps at the counter and on to being the Postmaster.  His father had done the same before him, as well as his grandfather and a few more “Great” in his lineage.  It was all he knew.  Retiring left a hole in his life that he tried to fill with church, and activities in service to the country house of worship…to no avail.

He remembered from his days as a handler that every year the post offices around the country had been swamped with envelopes, mostly in crayon, addressed “Santa Claus, North Pole.”  He always found himself smiling at the phenomenon. He never seemed to figure out how they deluge of mail bags would mysteriously disappear every year.  He just accepted it and was thankful that a few less bags had to be handled in the midst of the holiday onslaught.  When he moved out of being a handler and on to better things, he forgot about it.

His grandfather passed away, and he wondered what would happen to his house (the same house in the country where we sat).  His father told him not to worry and moved into the house himself.  His mother had passed away a year before and it seemed a good step for his Pop.  Then the time came when it was his turn to move out in the country.  What he found was that the house was really just an extension of the handling facility where he worked in younger days.

Apparently, years ago when the North Pole letters had begun to appear, one of his Great Grandfathers had diverted the letters to the house in the country and began reading and answering letters.  Not all of them, but as many as possible.  There had been a fund set up, in treasury bonds, to sustain this activity after retirement.  The service had been passed down to the next generation and it was his turn.  Only he had no children to pass it on to.  His wife and one child had died in childbirth.  His grief never allowed him to marry again causing the dilemma where there was no one to inherit the letters.

He would answer as many letters a possible before burning the rest on New Year’s Day so as to start fresh the next year.  It kept him busy and seemed to give him purpose when his family died. He wept because the only thing that gave him comfort had been taken away by the stroke.

The girl and I listened and felt like weeping ourselves.  We volunteered to inherit the job.  I was unemployed myself, and the girl had a few kids that she could pass it on to. 

He looked at us and sat speechless.  When he regained his voice, he told me that it was a big job.  I told him I was looking for a job. He wondered how I would get the letters.  I told him to dictate a letter of reference and I would take the exam to get hired at the Post Office.  The girl shrugged her shoulder and said that her six year old liked to write letters.  He told me to start reading letters.  He asked to be helped to his easy chair, and we brought him letters.  When he was ready to answer, he would dictate his response to the girl it and then would sign it…

I walked out to my shop that morning remembering my somber friend.  I walked in the door and discovered the first of the year’s mail bags being off loaded.  I glanced at the picture of my friend along with the girl (now my wife) sitting in the living room of the house, surrounded by mail bags and smiling as if we had good sense.
With both the Misses and I working full time we were able to use the fund money to purchase enough land surrounding the house in the country to qualify for incorporation as a town.  Once that is, we built several more homes for the kids to move in when they got married.  As expected, I had progressed in the Postal Service to a position where I was able to work the system to assign a zip code for “North Pole Township.”  The shop was really a huge warehouse/handling facility with an office that served to house a few post office boxes and a counter for selling stamps. It did not take long for other areas of the country began sending the crayon addressed letters to us.

The kids, her two and the five we had after marrying, all worked at the small rural post office at some time while growing up.  Three of them became postal employees while the rest went on to college, careers, and families.  Everyone in the family spent time everyday answering letters.  Even those with no return address.  New Year’s Day became a family celebration with the burning of the leftover letters.
I grew a long beard and ponytail when my hair went gray and ultimately white.  I got a set of wire frame reading glasses for Christmas that year and suffered gratefully through the loving ridicule from the kids.  My lovely wife has always made sure there were sugar cookies for all who walked in to buy a stamp or mail a package. 

Standing there, soaking in the joy in my life, I found myself smiling and remembered stopping on a dark country road to help….a jolly old man who was having trouble with the reindeer's.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

“Tonight Heaven is too crowded…”

For certain this quote from the television series “West Wing” is applicable to the emotions I find myself encountering.  The seeming cultural deviancy we are experiencing in this country where people find it acceptable to illegally walk into schools and murder whoever is in sight has proven most perplexing.  Outrage and thoughts of vengeance circle my head and bring me to a point of anger that is extremely disconcerting.  Children?!?!?  What in the name of all that is holy or, unholy, can there be a justifiable reason for murdering a child that you do not know?  The children in this latest massacre were ELEMENTARY students?  What could they have done to merit the taking of their lives?

What about the teachers and school staff, some of which charged into the hail of fire in order to protect their students?  More than one gave their lives in order to protect the lives of their kids.  This fact hit me the hardest.  I am a former school teacher who misses the great gift I received each day I taught the wonderful kids that came into my classroom.  They were “my kids” in that I came to a place where I felt towards them with great affection and ownership.  I had been given the phenomenal gift of using the skills and abilities that my God had bestowed on me to affect a child’s life, and cherished and continue to relish in the memories of life in “Mr. Reilly’s class.”  Specific memories have been written of in previous posts on this blog.  Look for them if you will, I have the memories and they make me smile even as we speak.

I found myself in an ever increasing emotional state over the last thirty-six to forty-eight hours, and need to ask, even though I know better - God?  Why did this happen?  I have always struggled with the negative side of life where it relates to my beliefs in a Higher Power.  For years I wrote things such as what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary off in my mind almost as soon as I heard about them, primarily because I had come to a place where this kind of news reporting had become so common.   My feelings today are somehow different.  I find myself in a place of shame for the apathy, and guilt for maintaining that apathy for as long as I have. 

I think about the brave principal who charged the crazed gunman using her body as a shield to protect her kids. I think of the principal who took a chance on me and gave me a classroom to run.  I can see her doing the same thing.  I now find myself in fear of this type of abomination occurring in the school where I taught.
When is this crap going to stop?  When are we, as a species, going to wake up to the realities of modern living?  We allow these incidents to occur and have no realistic idea of how to prevent them from reoccurring.  What about that kid you meet that is a little less sociable then the other in the class?  What is in their head?  Are they going to grow up to do these types of things?

When I say that we allow this sort of atrocity it comes from a decided anger over the way we treat those who are mentally disturbed.  There are people everywhere like this Adam Lanza fellow.  Only, it is against the law to intervene in the life of another person until…they actually do something.  This mentality goes along with a general dissatisfaction I hold with those “Inalienable Rights” our founding fathers set down and have grown to be obsolete in the face of the sort of atrocities that are feasible under the protection of these “rights.”  

The right to bear arms was, at least in my mind, never meant to be a done deal and inviolate when speaking of effective policing of situations like what happened in Newton, Connecticut. I have cause to discuss this area quite often.  My premise is that citizens should be able to own guns, but the guns they own should be restricted.  John Q Public has no need to own a machine gun.  When I speak to my friends I ask them when the last time they were in enough danger to warrant the use of a gun.  Everyone consistently answered in the negative.  

I can easily see the necessity of rapid fire weapons.  Human beings wage war.  We are engaged in one as you read.   The men and women fighting that war need to have weapons that have the ability to fire rapidly and accurately at an opponent who is intent of taking the lives of the enemy.  John Q. who lives in an apartment complex and works at the local Wal-Mart has no business owning a semi or automatic weapon.  Police agencies consistently suggest that the best weapon for home protection is a shotgun…not an AK-47 or an AR-15.

Recently I went to a friend house that lives in the country outside the medium sized city where I live. While there he decided to show off his latest acquisition.  A fully automatic Israeli UZI.  He strutted around like a proud peacock and talked everyone, (except his wife) into going out to shoot this weapon.  Five of us went out and proceeded to light up the side of one of his barns that was in the process of demolition to make way for a newer version of building.  Everyone had a go and there must have been a thousand dollars of spent shell casings lying about on the ground.  Most were expelled with one pull of the trigger.  Everyone laughed at the fact that the targets (a silhouette of a man and one of a woman) had escaped unscathed.  None of my friends had ever served a day in the Armed Forces.  They turned to me and with less than one extended sixty round clip I shot out the head and heart regions of each target completely out of existence. Jaws dropped.
I am no sniper or a real life version of Jason Bourne if that is what you think I am inferring.  I am simply a guy who at the tender age of eighteen raised his right hand, took an oath, and was informed that I would most likely serve the better part of my enlistment in Vietnam.  I found it to be of some importance to listen and learn well when it came time to use and maintain various weapons of war.  When I was released from active duty I decided that those skills were best left on the firing range back at Fort Dix.  I never fired a weapon at another human being while serving in the military.  I did have some bullets fired at me during training.  I have no desire to shoot at anyone, or be shot at.  I do keep a shotgun in my house because I have had occasion to listen to gunfire in my neighborhood while I was watching television. 

 Today’s world is, or at least can be, a dangerous place.  Being prepared for a home invasion is a reality in this day and age.  However, defending that home with a weapon that can shot 800 to 1200 rounds per minute is ridiculous.  If one hits the burglar with a shot and he/she collapses, the sheer force and rapidity of the common combat weapon would make an untrained person shoot up whatever room they are in into oblivion.  Grandma’s pictures and wedding pictures come to mind lying on the floor amidst broken frames and glass while the room is pockmarked with bullet holes that will take a professional Drywall contractor and painter to repair(for thousands of dollars at best).  Additionally, what if one of the rounds goes through the wall and ends up in somebody next door whose chief crime is that they chose to live next to an ignorant maniac.  Then there is the statistical reality of this happening to consider.  Feeling safe is just as much accomplished with a shotgun or a pistol.

The astounding reality is that we, as a species, indeed do allow these things to happen by the manner in which we live inside the news media.  The fact that these stories always drive up ratings and garner corporate sponsors for news media companies serves as nothing more than blatant encouragement for this kind of behavior.  Disturbed or deranged killers strive for the recognition they receive by their acts. So what is the answer?  This is what Morgan Freeman the famous actor has to say about it –
“You can help by forgetting you ever read this man's name, and remembering the name of at least one victim. You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem. You can help by turning off the news."

Amen, Brother!  I find myself long in verbiage and do not know what else to say.  The old saying bandied about by the gun lobbies and companies on how “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” sounds weaker and weaker as more massacres transpire.  Perhaps another great writer (☺) might have something to say about massacres…

"It is so short and jumbled and jangled, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?"

"I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that." – Kurt Vonnegut


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Raison d' etre

“You've got to do your own growing no matter how tall your father was.” (Irish Proverb)

For a time here lately I have been finding myself in a position to question the ideal of existence and how it applies to me.  It is my belief that I am serving penance for the arrogance I have towards some schools of philosophy.  I liken myself as a thinker of great thoughts and have, indeed, spent much time in the contemplation of varying ideas and have read and studied quite a few.  I originated this curiosity back in the ‘70’s when a guy I was getting drunk with asked me a question that, to me, made absolutely no sense.  At the time I gave it little consideration due to a mentality at the time that young men existed to get inebriated with liquor, high from whatever psychedelic material came available, and laid as much as possible.  In later years, while at university studying at the knee of a philosophy professor who I thought much of the question came up again, and I resisted the urge to fade into flashback city.  It was the old “if a tree falls in the forest…” gig and I still had no clue how to answer.  Twenty years later, I still don’t.

I also delved into conversations of mind and body, existence of God, and (most vexing) the existence of my own self.  I learned all the terms: Ontological Arguments, Empiricism, Epistemology, A Priori, A Posteriori, A Fortiori, causality, Platonism, pluralism, pragmatism, rationalism, realism, relativism, skepticism, Socratic Method, Teleological Argument, Theism, Thomism, and Anselm's Ontological Argument.

The English language was never meant to be spoken this way.

Learning these things served, at the time, to further show me that I probably needed to stick to things that I understand.  I chose to live life in the realm of the understood and leave the great question to others who delight in being intensely perplexed.

I made this grand and seemingly wise decision to no avail.  I became a writer and the focus of my life became (paraphrasing a Twelve Step slogan) the getting and using and finding the ways and means to get more…words.

Along with this getting and using etc. came the principle of understanding the words I use.  Understanding the meaning behind the words that I string together in order to make a cognizant piece.  And this meant that I had to learn about whether or not I exist.

I was sitting in a meeting the other day of my favorite Twelve Step group, reading about the theory of existentialism on my smart phone when another member sat next to me and asked me what I was reading.  I told him and he scrunched up his eyes and asked me why the F%@# I needed to learn that.  Slipping into the ease and comfort of sarcasm I sat up and announced that I was in search of evidence that I really and truly exist.

He reached over and slapped the hat off of my head.  “Feel that?” he demanded.  I said that I did and that it hurt.  “Well there’s your answer.  If you can feel you exist.”

Still sputtering in righteous indignation, I attempted to launch into a debate and possibly an argument, such as a philosopher would, when he held his hand in the air.  “Dude I got run off from the bridge I have been sleeping under and it is going to be 34˚ tonight.  Do you seriously believe that I can think myself out of being cold?”

Therein lays my issues.  I spend time sitting in my comfortable apartment with heat, electric, water, food, and electronic media to entertain myself while other are lucky to even get out of the wind for a few minutes.  All my great and grand thoughts seem to fade into oblivion in the face of confronting irrefutable proof that I, as many others do, in fact, exist. 

I got the muse for this piece from a writers group I belong to and they wanted to know what my reason to exist was where it concerns writing.  Being the ever complicated fool, I thought the focus too narrow and decided to write one of those great and grand pieces about how I intellectually can solve the problem of existence.  I let it ruminate and percolate in my brain for several days.  I looked things up, and cut, copied, and pasted really cool things to put into it.  I started an outline.

And then I deleted the entire batch of bovine excrement.

Looking at that guy, remembering having my head slapped, and realizing the reality of life in the world today brought me back to my initial issue with existentialism as well as philosophy.  The crap is too hard to read, and is not relevant in my life as I am living it today.

What is my reason to exist?  Today it is to write this piece and cook some baked ziti.  Tomorrow has no real plan because it does not exist and will not exist until when, and if, I wake up tomorrow…if there is a tomorrow.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Debt Allotment

Reality and mortality collided that year of Our Lord in a less than agreeable fashion.  As the approach of the annual feasting beyond human capacity approached, he found that there would not be the normal trip to familial environs.  There would not be the apple pie of which there is no equal baked in the magical device owned and operated by his sibling and champion.  The Oatmeal Cookies from the recipe passed down from his progenitor were also to be absent.  There would be no mushrooms in cream sauce, no poorly peeled potatoes of a certain smashed consistency, and no grain based stuffing/ambrosia packed into the unfortunate creature sacrificed for the occasion. 

The trip to the land of origin would not occur as well as the stop along the way to purchase steaming links of smoked sausage.  The culinary delights would be sorely missed and the lamenting had already begun.  Boo Hoo, Boo Hoo.

Life had interceded in the festivities and he knew that staying at home was the better part of selfishness.  There would be other times to enjoy in these pleasures.  That year life had offered to opportunity to test the mettle of any thinking, caring, and compassionate person.  There is a necessary order to life that does not always coordinate itself to one’s appetite, libido, or desire to commune.   Sometimes the best you can do is stay at the house and pray.  That year proved to be just that type of situation.

Shuffling along in the days prior to the gorge fest he wondered how he might salvage some semblance of merriment.  He perused the store of rations and searched for methods to mirror that which he would miss.  No options were made feasible and he was about to give up when, seemingly from nowhere, all the ingredients for the feast appeared on his door.  The mysterious source of this blessing chose to remain anonymous and retained that position in the years to come.

Joyous at the prospect of prospective gluttony, he came to realize that the amount of food was beyond his ability to cook, or ingest in a timely enough manner to avoid salmonella, botulism, and Ptomaine Poisoning.  Additionally he was reminded of his complete lack of acumen where it comes to baking.  The apples were not meant to be crunchy or crusty through the process of improper baking while the oatmeal cookies should most definitely be crunchy and  crusty…not cement like.  The mushrooms (well those he knew how to gather) should not encourage or induce hallucinations.  He resided in a topographical region where stuffing came from a corn field, and the cranberry sauce was natural berry based, and not jellied.  With the exception of retrieving the sacrificial feathered friend from the aviary and placing it in a pan on its way to the oven, he was lost.

Lost as he was, he still retained the perspicacity to realize that with a small amount of original thought, he could solve his dilemma.  While the ideas percolated in him, and differing paradigms occurred, the truth at the core of the plebian definition of Ockham’s razor stood out deafeningly.  If you do not know what to do, go get some help.

He gathered his abundance into his home.  He rested and ruminated further.  Looking at the enormity of the task before him, he first attempted escape by appearing pitiful and lonely enabling him to interject himself into some friends feast.  The dishonesty, sloth, and greed proved more than he could bear.  He drifted off to sleep for a while and had a dream that entailed a beautiful sleeping woman eating a poison apple and a group of very short men.  The dream appeared familiar with the difference of the girl’s name being Mabel, and the dwarves were actually a band of professional wrestlers. The absurdity of the fairy tale in his dreams somehow gave him his answer.

Upon awakening the morning of the feast, he decided that he would simply post a sign outside his dwelling inviting whoever read the sign to enter and help cook the meal that would be served that evening.  He then performed what preparation he could (including completely peeling the potatoes), got himself a beer, and sat watching football while he waited for the mystery chef’s to appear.

Astonishingly, he got exactly what he wished.  A knock on his door revealed a reasonably attractive woman who asked to use the bathroom followed by a troupe of dwarves.  As she ran to the bathroom holding her mouth and rear end, the head dwarf explained that she had eaten something that did not agree with her, and they needed to find her some Pepto Bismol.  They were headed to Boca Raton for a match that Saturday night and she was there announcer/driver.

He told them to go and tell her that the pink panacea was in the medicine chest, and offered the rest of them a seat and a beer.  One particularly droopy eyed dwarf came up to him and held the sign for the door up while asking him if he was for real.  Receiving a nod from their host, the dwarves huddled up and, after checking their watches several times, announced that they were what he was looking for. 

Dumbfounded by the scene in his living room, he simply pointed to the kitchen.  The diminutive denizens of the sports entertainment industry disappeared into the depths of the kitchen only to return in a few hours proving themselves chefs extraordinaire.

All was as it would have been if he had made his expected excursion.  The mushrooms were as creamy as they could be, the apple pie delicious, the stuffing moist, and the sacrifice a picture perfect golden brown with white boots on the legs.  After the presentation, the head of the group stood on a chair and, in the guise of slicing it for the meal, de-boned the offering enabling ease of storage for the obligatory day after sandwich.

Mabel, after ingesting a complete bottle of the pink panacea, had regained her appetite, and turned out to be a delightfully funny dinner companion.  She looked around the house, later when it was time for bed, and strolled towards my bedroom.  Turning and giving me that look that all men crave from beautiful women, she held her hand up and crooked her finger beckoning me to join her.

The next morning, the troop was dressed and assembled when he got out of bed.  Fresh orange juice, with a complete breakfast waited on the dining room table.  There was a guy, normal sized, added to the group who they introduced as “Dude”.  After breakfast, Mabel came out of the bedroom and gave each of her companions a hug and kiss on the cheek.  The droopy eyed one pointed to a suitcase and told her to call when she could.  With sandwiches packed for all, they departed in a garish van touting the “Smallest Storm in the World Wrestling Company” on the side.

When the left overs ran out, I discovered that I really did not know how to cook, and neither did Mabel.  She got a job at the local IHOP, and I learned how to boil water for ramen noodle soup as well as mac and cheese.  We didn’t starve, and every year since have enjoyed the best feast prepared by the smallest cooks in the world.