Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pinball Wizard

We are sitting at the table, and I mention that I’m worried about the future. I say:”I feel like this is a pinball game and we are one of the bumpers in the corner. For some reason, we haven’t been whacked by the pinball. We are just sitting here waiting for a shiny steel ball to scream out of the corner and hit us. We are so lucky that it hasn’t happened yet.”

Eileen looks at me curiously and says “but we have both already been hit.”
I think and realize that I have set aside the fact that we both cared for our spouses at the end of their lives. But I’m just looking ahead and worrying about the future pinball. I ignore surviving a giant hammer that beat us up every day… for years.
I had thought I had managed my grief to the point that I was no longer –re-living some of the more ghastly scenes. I’m still hoping to be able to enjoy the memories that preceded Cancer. Or as I just read in a short story: “Cancer World.” If you have been there as a caregiver, you know all about Cancer World. If you don’t, I’m not going to tell you.

A few days ago, I heard an 80 year old man speak of his grief at the loss of his spouse (50 years). The hatch-cover for my grief, which I thought was pretty firmly in place, came quite loose. In fact, the door swung wide open and I felt quite overcome with tears and sobbing.

After Sarah died, I didn’t do much crying. I have been able to do more of that these past 4 years. Eileen and I understand and I can cry with her. We both have our moments. But this gentle man, who spoke of wrapping love around his grief really unlocked me for a few moments.

Later, I marveled at the strength of my emotions. I used the term electrocuted and then realized the term was electric. I felt shocked.

Although I didn’t need a reminder, this was an affirmation that grief is forever. When Sarah first died and I was speaking with people, I began to say:” I have a wound that will never heal. It is not infected. I’m o.k. but it is never going to heal.”
Still true.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

When Mike Understood

When I first went off to college, I lived alone in a basement apartment. I rode the number 7 bus each day to campus and came home after dark each night. I was very lonely. I had zero friends for the first semester.  I frequently spoke to absolutely no living person for an entire day. Remember, my history class had hundreds of students in a huge auditorium.
I didn’t feel like a cipher, but I certainly didn’t feel very good. I was totally ready to drop out of school and move back home. Fortunately, my wise mother would not let me come home. She told me I had to finish at least the first semester before I quit.  Somehow, that contract seemed reasonable and I stayed. I was firmly committed to being a self-pitying miserable lonely dog. But, I stayed.
I had been a fairly good high school student, but at Berkeley, I felt rather like a dull knife. I could not tell what was going on because I lived alone. I did not leave class and go off with my fellow fraternity brothers, or with my fellow dorm dwellers. I went off by myself. Poor me. Even now, I feel sorry for that kid.
But one day, late in the Fall, I did my first series of mid-term exams. I wrote in my little blue book. I waited for the grades. I think they were typed and posted on a bulletin board. Somehow,  I discovered I was getting passing grades at Berkeley. I wasn’t doing “A” work but I was not failing.  As I later learned, many of my fellow students got the boot.  At Berkeley, they would let you know you were failing, but it was totally up to you to do something about it.  A couple of warnings and then bye bye.
On the day that I understood I was going to make it, I suddenly calmed down. I began to consider that I might be reasonably bright. By the time I graduated 4 years later, I did know that I was intelligent.  That is pretty big learning event.  I’ve met many adults who are still questioning their own intelligence. I’m grateful that I figured it out when I was 18.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Food Service Stories

For almost the entire time I attended UC Berkeley, I worked, in one capacity or another, for the UC Food Services.  I washed dishes (big bucks 1.75/ hour when minimum wage was 1.25).For one job, I worked in a tiny dish room and exclusively sorted huge containers of silverware.  As we managed it, the silverware  was quickly taken off of the plate and dumped into some kind of green slime.  The slime removed all the food and grease. As it turned out, it also removed our skin as I recall a lot of skin peeling off of my hands. We probably had gloves but you can't sort very fast wearing gloves. I became extremely fast. I could do it without looking.  I put the forks, knives and spoons into little containers. You know, you pick your silver out of these containers in self serve restaurants.  Ever wonder how clean silverware gets into these containers?  Well, I'm here to tell you.

I was quite a whiz at this.  I imagine I was about 19 at the time and we had fun working in this steamy room with very loud dish machines. One vivid memory is about a popular song: "On Woverton Mountain".  You can hear it on the link below.   For some reason, we  4 young men decided that we liked to sing this song at the absolute top of our lungs. Because the machines were so loud nobody but the 4 of us could hear us singing. We loved the chorus "On Woverton Mounnnntain!.  We did this night after night.

 So, since I'm telling Food Service stories, I must share another . This time, I am working in the big on-campus cafeteria dish room. Yes, I'm a versatile fellow. At this location, I did not do silver. I worked at the end of a conveyor belt. Students would put their trays of dirty dishes on a belt and it would disappear. Ah, but where does it go.

In my workplace, I stood at the foot of a belt that was descending from the roof about 12 feet above us. We stood in front of these extremely huge (and probably dangerous) garbage disposals. They had openings big enough to accept an entire dinner dish. We particularly liked to drop ceramic gravy boats into the machines. The disposals were powerful and they would just glurp them up in about 1 second.

I worked next to a student from China. He was continuously amazed at home much food we were dumping. We worked at a very fast pace and if we didn't keep up, the belt would just throw things all over the room. If we got totally behind we could stop the belt, but a very loud alarm would ring. We rarely stopped it.  My Chinese co-worker selectively picked out his lunch each day as plates of half eaten food came down the ramp.  He had a little spot and he would pick out things he liked and then eat them.

Now to my delicate  sensibilities this was strange. He was eating food destined for the great mouth of the disposal. Germs, I thought. Ick. Germs.  Now, here I should pause to tell you that I grew up in a very germ phobic home. My dad had had TB, so our entire family practiced very careful germ management. (I didn't know why we did this until I was 13 years old and my dad had a recurrence.)
We never ate or nibbled off of one another, drank from a "dirty" glass... you get the picture.

Now fast forward to me the-clean-germ-phobe. I am literally up to my elbows in garbage for 2 hours every day. I even was occasionally  assigned to scrub out garbage cans . How did I overcome my fears. What therapy helped me!  Pretty simple, if I didn't do the work, they would not give me my $1.75/hour.  Also, I developed my germ-cancellation theory. I designed this theory my very first day on the job.  Here is the theory: "There are so many bad germs in this pile of garbage that they are killing each other and therefore if I just wash my hands at the end of my shift, I'll be fine." I did wash my hands and I was fine. By the way, my Chinese associate was also fine. 


Monday, April 12, 2010


I am at a small village inn in China with my grandchildren, Nathan and Emily. We are having dinner while mom and dad go into town for an evening alone. Papa (me) is having wonderful ginger tea while the kids finish up their ice cream.

We walk a very short distance back to our room. The narrow path is muddy, but we all have boots. I am surprised that when walking down a street where the homes have little or no electricity, the street is dark. It is completely black.

As we walk, I hold Nathan’s hand and Emily’s hand. I absolutely cannot see anything. I see nothing at all. Emily says “We could walk into a wall.” I am thinking exactly the same thing, but say: “Don’t worry, our eyes will adjust.” I walk carefully trying to stay in the middle of the path. Our eyes do not adjust since there is truly no light. After a few moments of walking blindly, we do come to a small lamp and then return to a lighted path.

I think this happens quite often .

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lab Partners

Lab Partners
I was 19 years old. My first year at Berkeley, there was no on campus housing, so I rented a room in the Berkeley hills. I took the #7 bus down to campus and returned after dark. Hanging around all day on campus was probably a good thing as it combated the loneliness that I felt very acutely.
I had a little radio and “was allowed” to watch TV in an adjacent family room. I rarely did that as I felt I was encroaching on the couple above me, who were my landlords. My little radio picked up a radar signal or some other type of mosquito like sound, so I could only tolerate a bit of that. No telephone, e-mail or other links to the outside world. Happily, I did not lose it. I studied A LOT. I actually read everything I was assigned and sometimes more. I discovered I was intelligent and that was the big learning event for my first year at Berkeley. It was a revelation.
After my first year, I managed to get into a dorm and that is where the story really begins. The dormitory was a series of linked World War II barracks. They had been put up to handle returning veterans and as such things go, the barracks stayed. So, in 1962 I lived there with my new friend Malcolm. That first year in the dorm is full of stories, but I am determined to tell just one--- and it only partly in the dorms.
I worked in the food service. I had a variety of jobs as a bus boy, dishwasher (my specialty was silverware) and on Sundays, I worked in the Snack Bar which was an old fashioned counter with ice cream and sauce dispensers. I worked the grill and discovered that you get tiny cuts from the popping grease. At the end of a shift, I could wipe my face with a napkin and turn it black. But we truly had fun at the snack bar.
Steady now. I need to focus and get to the story.
While working for the food service, I met Sarah. I had not dated much in high school and not at all in college (see above for hermit life in the hills). Sarah made me break out of my troll style life. I knew she was the one. Sarah later told me she dreamed of marrying me very early in this process. She told me that at the time of the dream, she thought I was very weird.
One of the reasons she thought I was weird was that she thought my name was Alex. For some insane reason, I told her I was Alex Brown and my friend, Alex, went along with this. I still don’t know why I did this. Part perverse undergrad humor, part shyness, part grand scheme to get her attention.
Sarah was very “popular”. Everyone knew her. She was on various student committees and was part of some type of inmate council that ran the women’s dorms. So, as a “popular” girl, I would normally put her in the “don’t bother” classification. But, I was driven to pursue her and I did.
In those pre-computer days, if you wanted to know about someone, you went to the lobby of Sproul Hall, (the administration building that looks like the Supreme Court). In the lobby were many file boxes filled with 3X5 cards that contained basic demographics on the students. From this I learned enough about her that I somehow got her entire class schedule. I then took all the same classes.
Sarah and I laughed about this story many times and she shared that in today’s parlance she thought I was a stalker. I was everywhere. Eventually, we got to know each other with real names (no more Alex Brown) and I got in to her Physiology 101 lab section. We became lab partners.
So, our not quite adolescent romance played out over the large black lab tables where we mutilated various creatures including one prominent rat. The rat was either dead or was very soon dead after we began our work. The big event, was opening the rat’s stomach. Think ick. Think “oooh”. Think don’t breath through your nose.
Sarah wouldn’t do it. Although, as life showed me over the next 40+ years, she was much braver than I, on this particular rat stomach issue, she demurred. I cut it open and shortly thereafter had my very first cigarette at Sarah’s urging. She smoked and whipped out her Kent’s and told me that cigarette smoke was vastly superior to rat stench.
Telling this story, I realize I have a lot of good stuff to share. Stay tuned. No more rat stories.