Taking A Creative Risk: Commenting As A Writer

I think it’s time for me to comment on the previous post, “Enchiladas, Margaritas and Illegal Immigration,” this time as a writer.

As Greg Levin says in his comment on that post, I took a “creative risk.” The risk was that some people would not read beyond the first paragraph. This would cause one side to think I am completely in agreement with them and the other side to think I am completely bigoted. Both of these first impressions would be completely wrong, as you would see by reading all 440 words.

My main goal was to show the ambivalence of the American people towards illegal immigration by personifying it in myself. I try to give discerning readers a hint of this ambivalence in the first paragraph by contrasting the major issue of illegal immigration with the petty issues of littering and pressing “1” for English.

In the second paragraph, continuing the imagined discussion with illegal immigrants, I come to the realization that all of my feelings are not negative. Then, in the third paragraph I reveal my confused feelings with the “reprehensible, disgusting lawbreakers with adorable children” declaration and by saying I would do as they have done if in their shoes.

In the last paragraph I contrast the stereotypical symbols of Mexican culture, “enchiladas and margaritas,” with a very beautiful piece of classical music by Mexican composer Manuel Ponce.

These were my intentions and writing devices.

Enchiladas, Margaritas and Illegal Immigration

Let me get this out right off the bat. You were not invited to come here and you did not wait your turn. You jumped ahead of tens of thousands of people in other countries who are doing their paperwork and waiting years to enter the U.S. legally. You littered on the way up, for God’s sake! Do you think this is fair? And it really pisses me off that now I have to “press 1 for English,” thank you very much.

Yes, I did see the movie, “Day Without a Mexican” and I do realize what could happen if you all left at once. Yes, I know there are many jobs waiting for you when you get here and many businesses that want your labor, especially at a low price. Yes, I know that you serve honorably in our military in very high numbers. Yes, I do know that your children want badly to speak English and blend in with all the other teenagers, just the same as all previous generations of immigrants. Yes, I can see that you have a work ethic. In fact, by toiling in the lowest paid jobs and holding your heads up, you are bringing back the dignity of all honest labor. We were losing that before you crossed the river.

Actually, I love to see your teenagers who have been here a while and are so completely American, but who can speak Spanish when they want to. It makes me glad I’m an American. And I love to see you out with your families. Your kids are adorable, by the way. And when I was in that long line of people waiting for the H1N1 flu shot, I didn’t want anybody to ask you for your papers. (See “In Line for the H1N1 Flu Shot“)

So, let me sum up. I think you are reprehensible, disgusting lawbreakers with adorable children. But if I were you, I would do exactly what you have done, especially if I thought it would be best for my family. If you are here because we collectively lacked the will to keep you out and because we all have lawns that need tending and houses to be built, we are complicit. If I could wave a magic wand and send every one of you back to where you came from, I would not do it. Nor do I believe most Americans would do it, though most of us would like to get back in control of our immigration situation.

By the way, did I mention I love enchiladas and margaritas? And that song, “Estrellita” by your composer Manuel Ponce…well, who knew!

Confessions from A Life Revised

I had a small business, which a big business bought, leaving me with a blank canvas (at 53), a reasonably young age. But I continued pursuing life as if I were still in business, with to-do lists, time management system and all that. It took several years to metamorphose into the new me. I was surprised at some of the things I decided to do with my time, but for the most part I have been drawn to projects that involve my creative tendencies.

Comment left by the author on Madison Woods WordPress Blog, “Blank Canvas”

I know some financially successful people, people who could retire tomorrow, who say they have no idea what they would do if they stopped working. They say this is why they continue. They are sad about it and they are not joking. They have spent their entire lives focused on their work. It’s all they know. Most importantly, although they don’t admit it, they believe their status in life is wrapped up in what they do for a living. It’s who they think are.

I try to encourage them. I tell them they will never know who they really are until they drift for a while, until they just empty their minds. I offer a metaphorical suggestion: Drop your bottom into one of those big black truck inner tubes on a warm day. Float down a lazy stream until all the thoughts that follow one after another, on the power of association, are gone. When you reach a mental dead-end you will have actually arrived at a new beginning. Now your canvas is blank.

It takes time to shed the symbols, mannerisms, “corporate speak” and attitudes acquired in the work world. It takes time to realize that deadlines are not always necessary. And it takes time to completely empty out the self-imposed and self-limiting choices anchored in your own mind.

The attitudes about what’s important and unimportant in life are the first things that need adjustment.

During my headier work days, I once referred in conversation to “the real world,” meaning the “important” world of pressure to perform and compete, of deadlines, of movers and shakers, and of travel with perks. This comment and my attitude were quickly put down by a few stay-at-home-moms and a guy who went to a regular job everyday. They wanted to know what world I thought they lived in and why I thought I lived in the “real world.”

Today, I would completely take their side. I’ve seen it from both perspectives now. People who don’t have a day job do manage to stay busy – and worthy. They take care of children and the elderly. They do all sorts of volunteer work. They create amazing pieces of writing and works of art, for the free enjoyment of others. The list goes on and on.

Here’s a clue to what’s really important in life: Observe people who are retired. They rarely talk about their past work lives. They may talk about their travels or the people they worked with, but not of the work itself or even their most worthy work accomplishments. Everybody has to work to live, so big deal. (An exception to this is military service, about which older men frequently reminisce, because they see it as something different from just making a living.)

So, what have I done with my own blank canvas? I have become a person I’m much more comfortable with than the person I have relinquished. I have done a turn as a house husband and found out how rewarding it can be. (Yes, ladies, I know I had a choice and it was not automatically expected of me. Plus, Mr. Mom gets praised for things real Moms are expected to do as a matter of course. But you’ve been keeping quiet about the many satisfactions!) I have been able to help others with medical situations (some terminal) and have been the executor of somebody’s will. I have hiked a bit on the Appalachian Trail at age 62, sleeping alone at night in a lightweight tent that fit me like a hotdog roll, and I have encountered bears at close range.

The author, happy and revised on the Appalachian Trail

I have become a competitor in the fast world of draw-from-the-holster defensive shooting sports, something I would never have imagined given my previous attitudes. It has tested me, humbled me and given me a new circle of friends. I have volunteered my photographic and video services for Boy Scouts, church, my younger son’s lacrosse teams and to help preserve a Civil War battlefield. I have become my dog’s best friend and constant companion.

Now, just so you know, there’s one more check-in-the-box I need. It’s something I saw on a postcard once in trendy little shop in Austin, Texas. Here it is: I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.

Impossible.

Dusa

“You know it’s really nice that you kept her, don’t you? A lot of people wouldn’t have.”

I hear this all the time. I’m a grown man and it makes me want to cry. It’s true. A lot of people, sadly, would not have kept her. You know what that means.

She’s not ordinary. She’s blind. Even after medications and laser surgery, the pressures from glaucoma were wracking her eyes with pain and she could hardly see with them anyway. So her beautiful amber eyes were removed two years ago and the pain went away with what was left of her sight.

When we go somewhere I guide her into the car and while we walk in the park I watch the ground ahead of her to make sure she won’t step on something sharp. I also look for mud puddles and snakes and guide her around. I slap bees away from her. I keep her from falling off steep embankments. When we come to a curb I say, “Up!” or “Down!” She knows what I mean. I am a seeing eye human.

In the beginning, after her eyes were removed, she often banged her head into things in the house. I would cringe and console her, but she would just shake it off. In an amazingly short period of time she had the house memorized, so this problem went away for the most part. When we go away for a holiday and leave her at The Perfect Pet Resort (it’s actual name), they always comment on how amazed they are that, after the first time she goes out in their fenced play area, she gets around like any other dog.

One day, not long after her eye removal surgery, she and I were walking in the park. It was autumn and the leaves were gorgeous, but she couldn’t see that. A single leaf came tumbling out of a tree and helicoptered slowly down in front of us. She tracked it perfectly in the air, pointing like a bird dog, following it until it came to a skittering, rustling halt on the sun-dried fall grass. I emailed her eye surgeon about this and got a quick reply: “You just made my day!”

Some people say the worst thing is that she can no longer see me. “That little dog really loves you.” This is what a woman sitting next to me on a bench at a lacrosse game once said, watching Dusa gently put one front paw and then the other on my knees so she could get closer to my face and simply stare into my eyes with her deepest affections. I miss that and she must, too, but we make up for it with lots of nuzzling. I think I have become more dog-like and it’s wonderful.

Sometimes when we’re walking in the park, a passerby will comment on her “blue” eyes.

Dusa's "Blue" Eyes

Usually, I smile and let it go. What they see are her fake eyes, her silicone ones. Sometimes I don’t let it go and say, “They’re not her eyes.” This is for the amusement of watching their puzzled expressions. Then I pull a laminated photo out of my wallet that shows her before her surgery, so they can see how beautiful her real eyes were.

In the winter months I cover Dusa up in her bed with a fleece blanket. I know she loves that and she looks so contented with just her head showing. When she gets up and turns around to reposition herself in the middle of the night, I cover her back up and nuzzle her.

Our bond is so strong because we really need each other. She shows her affection in countless doggy ways. She depends on me and I adore her. She will be nine years old this October. I am blessed.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

“…we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
John of Salisbury in Metalogicon, 1159

Cleaning out the storage area of his basement in February 2010, he came across a large white flipchart he had used in the early 1980s. It was the sort used before powerpoint presentations and was only slightly yellowed by time. On the top page was written, in his own handwriting, the word “THE” in large capital letters. That was all – just the word “THE.” “The what?” he wondered.

He flipped the large first page over and smiled. In somebody else’s handwriting was written, “The Irresistible, Inescapable, Irrevocable Coming of Electronic Distribution of Newspapers.” That was his style for sure, to leave no doubt about his position and no wiggle room either. After writing the word “THE” he had decided to delegate the time-consuming task of copying his presentation onto the flip chart to an employee. Somehow, the original first page was never torn off and thrown away. Now it was a message from the past that symbolized his early days as a telecommunications consultant.

He swelled with pride, thinking of how farseeing he had been in predicting the coming of “electronic” newspapers. But as he flipped over page after page of the presentation he knew that was a crock. Only the title of the presentation was original to him. Following the bold pronouncement on page one were page after page of bullet points showing the results of his research of the literature which supported his thesis. He was not a technology scholar. Nor was he an inventor of technology. He was a consultant. His role had been to stay abreast of advances in telecommunications technology, to persuade clients to adopt new technology and then to help them justify its costs and implement it. To a large extent he was in the vision business.

Finding the old flip chart got him to thinking about one special person who had influenced him. He had met this person only briefly and only once.

A few days passed. Early on a Saturday morning, he impulsively typed the special person’s name into the Google search box: “Ralph Lee Smith”. He thought it was a waste of time because there must be a million Ralph Lee Smiths. And sure enough, Google’s first search result showed a “Ralph Lee Smith, The Dulcimer’s Number One Friend,” with a picture of an older man lovingly holding the musical instrument known as the dulcimer. No telecommunications connection here, he thought. And the photo brought no recollection of the Ralph Lee Smith he had met so long ago, so he paged back to the Google search results. That was when he noticed this Ralph Lee Smith also claimed to be an author.

He decided to return to the webpage and click on some of its links. First he clicked on a link titled “Books and Records.” All the books listed were about the dulcimer and folk music. Next he tried the link titled “Greenwich Village Days.” This time his persistence was rewarded. The book he was looking for was listed there.

At 8:14 A.M. on the same day he sent an email:

Dear Sir:

I was working for the old Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company in DC when I first read “The Wired Nation” back in 1971-72. It made quite an impression on me and I decided to go for a Master’s Degree in the University of Colorado’s then new Telecommunications Program. I was privileged to hear you speak when you visited Boulder. That was in the fall of 1972 or the spring of 1973.

I just want to thank you very much for inspiring me and giving me a vision of the future which became largely true. I tell young people today about how you influenced me and gave me a vision that pointed me in a good direction. I tell them that they need to find such a vision also.

Warm regards and Deep Respect,
Gordon MacPherson

The vision had been the vision of broadband communications and digitization of information. These were the two interlocking advances in telecommunications that made possible the high speed networks and advanced communications services we have today. The idea that we would also wind up with a wireless nation had barely crossed anybody’s mind at the time, but the concept of broadband communications was inclusive.

He wondered if he would get a response. Ralph’s webpage said he was born in 1927 and that the website was designed by his granddaughter, Robin.

He was surprised and gratified, therefore, when he received this email 17 minutes later:

Dear Gordon,

Thank you so much for this very kind message! I think that the coming of new things inspired all of us in the days when The Wired Nation was published. I stand in awe of the many things that have been happening in the communications world in recent years and that are happening now.

In addition to writing and communications, I have had for many years an interest in folklore and folk music, and these days I write and teach in this field. You can see some of my writing in this area, on my website http:///www.ralphleesmith.com

Thank you again for writing!

Very best regards,

Ralph

But he wasn’t going to let it go at this. The matter of exactly when he had met Ralph Lee Smith still needed to be resolved. Was it 1972 or 1973? He just wanted to know, for no particular reason except that he was wired that way. He might find a clue in his copy of “The Wired Nation,” so he found the old book and opened it up. On the fly page was Ralph’s autograph:

For Gordon with very best personal regards.
Ralph Lee Smith
October 1972

He sent another email to Ralph informing him of this finding and received this in reply:

Dear Gordon,

Gosh! Amazing! Thank you!

Ralph

It appears that giants come in all shapes and sizes. And some of them play the dulcimer. Expertly. After all, if they were one-dimensional, they wouldn’t be giants.

The Ballerina Sister

Eighteen tiny ballerinas occupy center stage, all on their knees, heads lowered to the floor, ruffled tutus up in the air behind them. Their next movement will depict flowers blooming in spring. The recorded music tapers down and the lights dim. Amused moms, dads, brothers, sisters and grandparents hold their breath to preserve complete silence in the elementary school auditorium. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds… One tiny head, cheeks so red they appear rouged, pops up, searches quickly through the audience, then pops down again. The audience roars with laughter.

The ballerina who didn’t keep her head down is Debbie. She has brown hair, brown eyes, an impish little face – and diabetes. She will live to be 49.

She is the youngest child in her family, the one who can get away with doing things her parents would never have tolerated in her older siblings; the one who can get away with being sassy because she’s so cute.

The Ballerina Sister with our mom.

She will become a good student and play an instrument in her high school marching band. She will go away to a good university but will return to live with her parents and finish up at a local college. She will never break the parental ties, will always live nearby and will be her mom’s best friend.

She will get a job with a large utility company because she needs the healthcare benefits. She will refuse promotions because the stress of management is too much for her, but she will run every office she is ever in without receiving the pay. Her bosses will love her. She will always pay her own way, in every relationship.

She will love all holidays, especially Halloween and Valentines Day. She will love life and everything living. Animals, even cats, will do her bidding. Squirrels will dance for her. A wild goose will return to her each year. She will name the goose Gossard and it will leave the other geese and come to her when she calls its name. Older people who witness this will say the term for someone with this ability is “God’s child.”

She will marry and her only child will die shortly after birth. Her husband will get into tax trouble and money will be taken from her paychecks for backpayments. She will divorce him to keep this from happening and vow never to marry again.

Men will be attracted to her. There will always be a man. She will make no demands on them, so they will keep coming back to her. There will be a guy who once was a multi-millionaire, but when she meets him he will be a delivery courier. They will live together. He will be a loving caregiver when she gets a kidney transplant. He will die of pancreatic cancer. There will be one more man after him, the most loving, gentle and caring man imaginable. He will be there for her in her last years.

In her forties she will frequently be in and out of hospitals. Her eyesight will deteriorate. She will walk with pain. Shortly after her 49th birthday she will enter a “rehabilitation facility” and hate it. She will endure great pain and her foot will be amputated just above the toes. There will be discussion of amputating more, but she will go to a contract hospice bed in a real hospital instead.

There she will die and the nurses will spread her beautiful brown hair across her pillow.

R.I.P., Little Sis.

In Line for the H1N1 Flu Shot

My son is home from college, so my wife sends me with him to get the H1N1 shot. She says I need the shot, too, because I have a chronic health condition. She drives us to the designated location for this Saturday, our local community college.

Traffic slows before we get onto the campus. Cars by the dozens share our destination. We want to arrive 30 minutes early so we’ll be among the first to get our shots when they open the doors.

Now we’re on campus, still in the car. A large white van with antennas sits in the parking lot. I count about a dozen police officers and one sheriff’s deputy – and this is just what I can see from where we are at the moment. The sheriff and fire department EMS are also present.

My son and I get out of the car and start walking to the back of the line. On the way I hear someone say that when we get to the back someone from the Health Department will give us tickets. People who come after the tickets run out will not be able to get the shot. It’s a neat system and is needed because before the ticket system a lot of people were breaking into line and there was a lot of tension and worse.

People have brought lawn chairs and blankets. We pass moms and dads with kids, moms alone with kids, dads alone with kids, grandparents with kids and aunts and uncles with kids. Kids in this case includes teenagers. We pass others in the “initial target groups,” which also includes people aged 25 to 64 who have a chronic health condition. We pass people who are way over 64 and are not accompanied by kids. This scene is playing out all across America and the rest of the world. We’ve all seen the photos.

There are thousands of illegal immigrants in our county, but we see very few who might be in that category standing in line. Where are all the others? Are they coming on a different day? Are they coming at all? Did they have a meeting and decide not to all show up at once because they would draw too much attention to themselves? The people in line who look like they might be illegal immigrants are all parents with small children, just doing what any parent would do. I wonder, as we walk by, if anybody in line actually resents these parents and their kids.

Everybody understands the situation. There’s a shortage of a potentially life saving drug. Only certain categories of people are eligible to get the shot. The County website says “once vaccine supply is sufficient and demand in the initial target groups is met, we will be able to expand our vaccination efforts to those beyond the initial target groups.” Wash hands. Wash hands. Wash hands. Purell. Purell. Purell. Bow, don’t shake? Preposterous.

We walk and continue walking. Finally we are at the back of the line, which is the back of the line only for an instant because hundreds more are still coming. From the sky the long line of people must look like a skinny upside-down letter “U,” with the side where people are facing towards the front being much shorter than the side containing people still walking to the rear.

We enter the line and face forward. A Health Department staffer gives us our tickets. Fifteen minutes later the line begins to advance. We feel good now because the still arriving masses have changed our relative status to “front of the line.” Eventually we are within sight of the entrance doors, maybe 150 feet back. Health Department staff are working the lines, keeping them moving and orderly, answering questions, telling people to have their coats off and be ready for the shot because “it will go fast” once inside the building. Now, every 25 feet or so, there are signs specifying who is eligible to receive the vaccination.

I have a few minutes of mental consternation as we get closer and closer to the door. I’m pretty sure I could just keep going and get the shot. Finally, I take a deep breath and decide. I hail down the next Health Department staffer to come by. I give him my ticket so that somebody else can have it. I secretly wish that I could see the person he will give it to.

I am over the age limit for people with chronic conditions. I am 66. My son continues moving forward and I go to wait outside the door from which he will exit after getting the shot.

This is rationing. It is necessary, assuming that the vaccine shortage can’t be helped. We may have more rationing in the future. I’m not saying it’s bad and I’m not saying it’s good. At least the shot is free.

My wife is going to be very angry with me.

Wash. Wash. Wash. Purell. Purell. Purell. Bow? Still preposterous!

Epilogue: On December 15, 2009, after the county lifted restrictions on who could get the shot, the author got his H1N1 flu shot. It took only one hour and was completely uneventful.