Saturday, December 23, 2017

Our Last 'Real' Conversation

To his friends, co-workers, and extended family, my father was friendly, even gregarious, charming, polite, and an intelligent conversationalist. To his children, though, all six of us, my father was, well, kind of a dick. Sometimes he could be a mean dick, sometimes a sarcastic dick, always an impossible-to-please, self-important dick.

You didn't have so much conversations with him as debates, with his point of view always correct and ours always naive and undeveloped. Growing up I thought that's how all dads were. They knew so much and had so much experience and wisdom, of course they were right.

I remember watching and listening to my father entertain business associates at home. He was the genial host, making effortless conversation with a diverse group of intelligent men and women. Everyone loved his jokes, and they all listened intently whenever he offered his opinions. But we children saw someone quite different, which is why I found our last "real" conversation so fascinating and, ultimately, disheartening.

He was dying at that point, his 90-year-old body giving out following a stroke and a bout of the flu. Lying in a hospital bed in the living room of his home — he wanted to die at home, which he did — he asked me one night for some beer. Try as he might he couldn't remember the kind he wanted. He drank only one kind, though, a non-alcoholic brew I found in the refrigerator, so I brought him some in a glass. He sipped it a few times, and then reminisced about how he and my mother used to love to drink different beers. Occasionally delusional during those final days, he told me to look over there, over in the corner of the room, and count how many different beers there were on the shelf. There were no beers, not even a shelf, but he looked them over nonetheless as he reminisced.

His voice trailed off as he went to sleep. A few minutes later he awoke and asked, "How are the businesses going? Are we still profitable?"

My father (right) receiving a presidential
commendation for his work with
the Small Business Association
It took a moment to realize that he wasn't in his living room at all, but in a board room at the company he ran for many years. I wasn't his son, but one of his division managers reporting to the president.

"Yes, they're doing quite well," I answered.

"Are any of the departments having trouble?"

I answered from my own perspective as a publisher. "Well, we always have problems with the production department, but that's not unusual."

"What would you need to make the department successful?"

I responded using as much business jargon as I could think of, the kind he might have been familiar with, and what came out didn't make a lot of sense. "We really need to add head count and leverage our most valuable assets on promising new markets."

He absorbed it all fully, and I realized that I was seeing a unique side of my father, his business side, one I had never seen before. He asked open-ended questions and trusted the answers. He wanted facts first, and then your opinion on what should be done. He didn't hint at the decisions he would make, but rather solicited a rational assessment of an issue, a clear goal, and a description of materials needed to meet that goal.

"What are the bottom-line figures?"

Hoo, boy. "Well, the margins on the vertical assimilator (a term I invented, because somehow we had moved into a conversation about the aerospace industry, of which he knew a great deal and I knew not a thing) are low, so we don't have a lot of wiggle room in the overhead. We need to find ways to legitimize our actionable end-goals." And so it went for a solid 10 minutes before he took his final sip of beer and fell asleep.

I have been fortunate in my life to have had a few really good bosses. (Thank you, Pat and both Nancys!) I suspect that if I had worked at my father's company, he would have proved an excellent supervisor. Then again, I was just one of  his children, so it's hard to say. What I felt after that conversation, though, has stayed with me.

At first I felt special. I had been the one to have engaged in that type of conversation, one that none of my brothers and sisters had ever experienced. Later, though, I felt bitter and resentful that I, that we all, had been left out of a key part of our father's life. He had deprived us of experiences that as developing adults we would have found immensely helpful. He had taken whatever unhappiness and displeasure he struggled with during the day and turned it on us. He rarely, if ever, used his supervisory techniques in his parenting, preferring to just lash out at whoever was closest.

It is only now, nearly three years after his death, that I have felt sadness, and the sadness is for him, not me. Sad that he lost out on the pride he would have felt had he been a better boss to us. Sad that he expended so much energy on anger and nowhere near enough on what we needed to become successful adults. Sad that his final bottom line dealt with memories of his businesses and not of the family surrounding him at the last.

I often wonder how he ever became the person he was. What made him so angry? What made him treat his family so much worse than his colleagues? Did he ever have real compassion for his children?

We'll never know now, and, to be honest, I'm okay with that.






Monday, March 27, 2017

Life and Death Meet in a Vet Clinic

Lots of big dogs in here today, I thought, as I sat in the waiting room of the Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center in Leavittown this afternoon. That Bernese mountain dog is huuuge!

Two men with a large, black dog, maybe a lab. A woman and her two young children with her cocker spaniel. Only one other person in here with a cat. It's a dog day, for sure.

My eyes were suddenly drawn to the front doors, where, just outside, five people had gathered and seemed to be crying. A couple, with their teenage son and two older daughters, who had come in separate cars, met at the door. Yes, they were crying, dabbing tears with tissues.

I watched everyone hug, and then the dad entered with a pudgy, beige dog trailing behind. It was old and seemed frail. It had a bandaged foreleg and walked with a limp. The dad walked straight back to the clinical rooms. The mother, who entered behind the dog, stopped at the desk for a few moments, dabbing her eyes. The daughters and son remained outside, seeming to console one another. The boy was mostly silent and lost unto himself.

I suspect everyone witnessing the scene knew exactly what was happening. The old dog's time had come to an end.

Putting a beloved pet to death is a sorrowful task and as inevitable as our own demise, and as many times as I've had to do it, the task never gets any easier. I find those final moments -- from a distance only -- to be unique moments in life. It is there that we see death in all its raw power, emanating from a decision that we, ourselves, have made. We, ourselves, are causing this animal's death. The vet may be carrying out the decision, but the decision has been ours alone.

Grim. Necessary. Unforgettable.

After about a half hour the dad and mom came out again. They walked straight out, shoulders heavy from what had just happened, and joined the three younger attendees in kisses, hugs, and tears. The dad and mom bid the girls adieu, and then left with the son walking silently behind.

And just like that it was over. We were the same people in the same waiting room, waiting our turn, relieved that we were not putting our pet to sleep, that we were just bringing it in for treatment, that life, for our pet, would continue, but also knowing that someday, sooner or later, those sad people would be us. Someday we would arrive with a pet and, in tears, leave without one.

Life and death, in one waiting room on one day in one town.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Where I've Been and Where I Probably Will Never Go


Create Your Own Visited States Map


The map above shows all the states I've visited for one reason or another. Most of the reasons involved healthcare conferences I attended or exhibited at.

In those states I had my favorite cities...
  • San Francisco
  • Chicago
  • Charlotte
  • Portland
  • Seattle
  • Louisville
  • Alexandria
  • Boston
  • Breckenridge
  • New Orleans
...and my not so favorite cities:
  • Nashville
  • Las Vegas
  • Dallas
  • Nashville
  • San Antonio
  • Orlando
  • Phoenix
  • Did I say Nashville?
Of the states I haven't visited yet, there aren't any I think I'll someday visit, except for Wyoming, Hawaii and possibly -- possibly -- Montana. I'd love to visit the national parks in Wyoming, who wouldn't like to visit Hawaii, and I've heard from too many people how beautiful Montana is, though a visit there remains a rather long shot.

Of the rest -- Alaska, Idaho, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama -- I have absolutely no desire to visit. None. Nada. Zip. Zed.

Well, maybe Alaska. If I'm forced.

Reasons for not wanting to visit those states:
  • Idaho: Seriously?
  • North or South Dakota: Not enough draw, I guess
  • Nebraska and Kansas: Too much corn. Too flat.
  • Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama: Way too conservative and racist for me, especially Mississippi, which needs to bring itself up to, at least, the 1980s.
Gaylord Opreyland Resort in Nashville.
Or as I call it, Hell on Earth.
I'm sure all of those states are beautiful in their own way, and obviously not everyone who lives in Mississippi, et al, is racist or conservative. It's just that my overall impression of them doesn't make me say, I would really like to visit there. No.

Honestly, if I never visit any of those states in my lifetime, it will be just fine with me.

What will most assuredly NOT be fine with me is if I am forced to go to Nashville again. No, that will NOT BE OKAY!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

My Best Little Poop Watcher

Our littlest doggie, Georgie, has a detestable little habit of defecating in the dining room. She was a rescue that had been picked off the streets of Philadelphia, which is what we blame this particular nuisance on. IT'S NOT OUR FAULT!

Anyway, the dining room is where she poops. Luckily the, um, released elements tend to be well-formed little marbles all in a neat little pile. We pick them up, dispose of them, and that's that until the next day.

Lately, though, those little piles have disappeared. There are now little brown marbles all over the dining room floor, on account of how our newish puppy, a 5-month-old, 36-pound golden retriever named Lola, likes to play with them.

Enter our little granddaughter, age 2½, who calls me Pepe, an homage to my own grandfather. This little girl loves to help. Her latest assistance has been coming in the form of letting me know when there are little marbles on the floor.

"Pepe, I see POOOP!"

That's my cue to grab a couple paper towels, head into the dining room, and let her guide me to said poops.

"Thank you, sweetie, you're the best Poop Watcher ever!"

"Hhh-yuhhh!" she says, as if, you know, of course she is.

I'm not sure she'll brag about this little gift she has, the ability to spot little poopies, when she gets older, but she sure is proud of it now. And I just love her for it.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The 5th Street Stairs: A Sweet Story

There's a town along the Monongahela River, just north of the bright yellow Stan "The Man" Musial Bridge, called Donora. The old mill town is famous for being the "Home of Champions," most prominently the aforementioned baseball legend, plus Ken Griffey, Sr. and his son, Ken Griffey, Jr, who was born in Donora but moved with his parents to Cincinnati when he was six.

Original 5th Street stairs, of which
there are 163. I counted.
The Musial and Griffey homes are located uphill from the main drag, McKean Avenue, which runs along the flood plain next to the Mon, as locals call the Monongahela. When I say uphill, I mean it. Pretty much all the roads emanating from McKean upward are rather steep, particularly 5th Street, part of which was closed off years ago because it proved too dangerous for car travel.

On 5th Street now, between Prospect and Murray Avenues, there is a street-wide swath of grass with a set of stairs on either side. The stairs on the right, looking upward, are replacement stairs installed a number of years ago. The stairs on the left, however, are original and tell an interesting story.

Each riser, from the very bottom to the very top, is but 4 inches tall. Most stairs today have risers about 8 inches tall. So why do the 5th Street stairs, and many other staircases in Donora, have risers half that height?

It turns out that Rose Marie Iiams' grandfather-in-law was the engineer who designed the stairs. Mrs. Iiams, 90, was a long-time pharmacist in Donora and worked all day, every day during the 1948 smog event. The story she tells may be apocryphal but it's adorable nonetheless.

Hobble skirt, 1910
"Women were wearing hobble skirts then," she says.

I didn't know what a hobble skirt was, so she kindly explained. "The skirts were sort of tight, so you couldn't raise your legs very far..

Go on.

"Well, his wife was a little woman, and his daughter was a big woman. And he measured the distance that each could raise her legs, and he made the steps halfway between."

Then she laughed and said, "Isn't that a marvelous story?"

It is indeed, Mrs. Iiams, it is indeed.