Monday, April 6, 2015

The Gezzer Worries About Gus

Gus’s story starts with his mother.  She was beautiful, young, and socially prominent in her small Border Collie family in Southern Virginia, near the North Carolina border.  Living in her neighborhood---in the kennel next door, as a matter of fact---was a gorgeous red and white Grand Champion Border Collie, for whom, apparently, Gus’s mom had the hots.  Being young and, on at least one occasion, unchaperoned,  mom managed finally to meet Champ---face to face, to be polite about it---sometime in the Fall of 2011.  Gus’s mom and the Champ met and, weeks later, Gus and his 10 sibs appeared.

Gus was the largest of the brood and the only one who looked like his dad, the Champ.  He also had dew claws which, in the culture into which Gus was born, was a scandal.  Gus and his sibs were not wanted, to say the least.  Still, they were pure Border Collie, and it was decided to let them live.  His first three months were spent being fed and watered, and that’s about it.  Sanitation in his brood’s living space was minimal.  His mother seemed not to have a maternal bone in her body.  The woman who helped his mom with the raising of the children just wanted them to grow up and get out.

So it was that I came upon Gus.  He was a very shy, retiring giant of a pup who waited until he was very sure of a situation before allowing himself to get involved.  His brothers and sisters all seemed to be pronounced extroverts, vying to be the first in the crowd, while Gus always sat alone in the back of the room and just watched.  When he came to live with us, he changed a lot and changed very fast.  He loved to play with other dogs and with me.  He loved little kids.  He welcomed the attention of strangers.

In the last year or so, Gus has changed.  He’s become very aggressive with strangers, canine and human.  He bullies Baxter, our very large black Lab.  His behavior with strangers has become so unpredictable that he often isn’t included with the other pups who live here go out of the yard to play.  Now comes the news that he won’t be welcome in the new dog park the city built about a mile from our home.  This dog playground is a great place designed so that dogs can get together and run free in a large fenced park.  There are toys and structures that promote dog play.  But not for Gus.

Our daughter, Annie, has had similar problems with my grandpuppy, Marnie.  Her vet prescribed Prozac for Marnie and her inter-puppy behavior has improved 100%.  I hate to give Gus chemicals, especially those that will affect his brain, but I am thinking that I will have to get him some Prozac so that he can play with the other pups in the city’s new canine play area.
The fact that I feel the need to write about this shows to me, at least, what a huge part of my life and my heart Gus has become.  Like any dad, I want only the best for my (not so) little guy, and, like any dad, I want him to have the same opportunities that all his peers have.  So I guess Gus is going to start taking antidepressants.  I never would have believed I would do such a thing, until Gus.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Sad Memory

This is a photo from 1978 of my mother’s Aunt Alice and Uncle Charlie, my great aunt and great uncle. They lived near us throughout my life until they died. They were really grandparents to my brother and me, giving us many experiences, many presents, and lots of love.
Aunt Alice was my grandmother’s sister, second–generation Irish from Buffalo, New York. She was a warm, loving, and very light–hearted woman who loved her life, most especially Uncle Charlie. She was a terrible cook, but Uncle Charlie thought that she was his own personal Julia Child. He loved her cooking, lumpy mashed potatoes and all. She was a good Catholic woman, but most of all she was a great lover of her family: her son, two grandchildren, my mother and her siblings, and my brother and me. One of my favorite memories of her is from a trip she, Uncle Charlie, my Mom, my brother, and I took to Texas and Colorado in 1963. We were driving from Dallas, Texas, to Boulder, Colorado, when my brother started showing her his recent issues of Mad Magazine. Aunt Alice had never seen those silly things before, and she loved them. She laughed so hard that she had the whole car laughing with her, even though only she had read the magazines. I loved her very much.
Uncle Charlie was a second–or third–generation German American, also from Buffalo. He was a hard worker who loved his work. He made small wooden models of historic sites for the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior. He was an artist. When he turned 70 years old, he was supposed to retire. 70 was the mandatory retirement age for Federal civil servants back then (around 1970). He was given a year–to–year extension and so worked for two or three more years. My memories of Uncle Charlie mostly are of him in his chair in his living room, reading the paper (he took the evening paper, The Washington Star, so he would have the most up–to–date news when he came home from work), listening to the large radio they had in their living room, or just sitting and thinking. Another memory I have is from the same Texas/Colorado trip I wrote about above. He, my mother, and I were walking apart from all the others of the family during a visit to an amusement park in Denver. We decided we were hungry and Uncle Charlie bought the three of us a hot dog with sauerkraut. I still can remember how delicious that hot dog was! About halfway through the hot dog, my mother remembered that it was Friday, when we weren’t supposed to eat meat. She mentioned this to Uncle Charlie, suggesting that we toss the remainders of our hot dogs. Uncle Charlie said that he wasn’t going to chuck his. His hot dog, he said, was so good it was worth going to hell for. All of us finished our hot dogs, enjoying them even more because they were so good they were—literally—sinful.
Aunt Alice and Uncle Charlie have been on my mind all day. Last night, when I was saying my bedtime prayers, a memory came to me from Uncle Charlie’s funeral with a very clear image of Aunt Alice, inconsolably sobbing throughout the funeral Mass. By this time, Aunt Alice was about 90 years old. She and Uncle Charlie had been married for 70 years or more. While earlier in her life she had been a generously–sized short woman, at the time of Uncle Charlie’s death she had lost so much weight that everything below her head looked like bones in a loose container of skin. She sat in the front pew at church, a very tiny woman with her son’s arm solidly around her to comfort her, and she sobbed. She didn’t say anything. She just cried. When I went to kiss her at the Kiss of Peace, I soon regretted approaching her. Seeing me, for some reason, set off a fresh round of tears. I saw her several more times that day—at the cemetery and at her son’s home—but she didn’t react to me that way again, thank God.
My memory of this funeral Mass made me very sad. It made me realize again how much these two people loved one another, how deeply dependent they were on one another in their latter years, how they faced old age and death not alone but together. Although she never explained her grief, Aunt Alice didn’t have to. I had some understanding of it at the time, but now my understanding is much deeper. With a different understanding, my memory, with its crystal–clear images, has made me tear up several times, something I didn’t do at the funeral. I wish I had hugged Aunt Alice more that day. I wish that I had known then what I think I know now about her feelings.
I’ve heard from several sources that one of the biggest components of grief is the fact that the death of a loved one makes us immediately conscious of our own mortality. I believe that’s true, at least in part. But I also believe that Aunt Alice’s grief that morning had little if anything to do with her own death, which came two years later, and everything to do with losing her life’s one and only soul mate, the man she loved in the 1910's and the man she loved even more in the 1990's.
I’m asking God again to give these two beautiful people the eternal joy that they deserve. I’m also asking God to make sure that they stay together so that the journey that they began together in Buffalo more than 100 years ago may continue together now and forever.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wherein the Geezer Learns New Tricks

In 2005, when, as we know now, real estate values were akin to fairy tales, we bought a condo in St. Petersburg, Florida. Our purpose was twofold: (1) to have a condo in the same development as my mother so we could care for her in her last years, and (2) to put our money in a place where we wouldn’t be tempted to give it to the kids.
That was 2005.
Back then, condo fees were $90 a month. Now they are $265 per month.
Back then, if we had sold the condo in the year or two after we bought it, we would have been able to pay off the mortgage and make a small profit.
Those were the days.
Now, if we were to sell the condo (and units in our development are selling, finally), we would get at most about $15,000 less than our mortgage.
Since 2005, I have completely retired and our income is a little more than half of what it was before I retired.
Last year, the condo owners voted to assume management of the development on their own. A qualified condo management specialist was hired and procedures were adapted to this new management structure. One of the procedures that had to be adapted was the way in which condo fees are paid. Specifically, we changed the organization to which the fees are paid. Old authorizations for direct debit of checking accounts were moved to the new management company, and all of us were given the option of paying the fees ourselves rather than giving the management association authorization to debit our accounts directly. I chose to end the direct debit and set up an automatic payment, which I control, in my on–line banking with Bank of America. I notified the company by email on 30 November that I wanted this change. The change was to be effective 1 January of this year.
They say they didn’t get the email. They say it probably went to spam and was deleted.
So last week the condo fee for January was taken from my checking account twice: once by the standing automatic debit, which I thought I had cancelled, and once by my automatic on–line banking payment.
Even in the best of months, I have to pay daily attention to my checking account balance. Being on a strictly fixed income makes such vigilance a must. I am thankful that I caught the double payment the morning after the automatic debit was posted in my account.
The double payment had left me close to $0 in my account. Two on–line bill payments had already left the bank for the payees, and I wasn’t able to cancel them. I wound up being in the hole plus I was charged a $35 overdraft fee. Our savings are gone. I used the last of our savings for some emergency in October, 2013. I was up a creek. In addition to being in the hole in my account, I had no money for food, gas, and other necessities for the rest of the month.
I had to ask three of my four daughters for help. I borrowed the money I needed for my checking account from the three of them, spreading the damage among them so they wouldn’t suffer. One of them graciously went to the grocery store and bought us the food we’ll need for the next few days.
The manager of the condo association was very nice and agreed immediately to send me a check for the overpayment. This was last Wednesday, a week ago. Unfortunately, she told me, she was leaving town that very afternoon and wouldn’t be back until Monday (19 January, a bank and postal holiday). She promised to send the check on Monday, 19 January. I asked if she could either Fed-Ex it or send it by USPS 2–day mail. She told me that wasn’t possible. She did mail the check on Monday, but, it being a holiday, it didn’t go anywhere until yesterday.
So I’m waiting.
This has been a huge learning experience for me. I hate to ask other people for help, especially for financial help. I especially hate to ask our kids. It is absolutely humiliating! But I did it and discovered that the kids, and even the condo manager, were very kind and understanding and, at least our kids, were willing to do what they could to help us. Once the check arrives, I’ll be able to get us through till the first of February and from there I’ll just have to continue our Spartan "lifestyle," and maintain eternal vigilance on my accounts.
Life has taught me a lot in the last week. It’s taught me some humility. It’s taught me to be more open with others, especially my family. It’s taught me—AGAIN—that I am not in control of my life. It’s taught me appreciation. And it’s taught me that I can be at peace even when we have no money.
Most of all, it’s given me a deeper appreciation of those many people I see in our town who never have any extra money, who always worry about having food, who can’t afford a car, much less the gas to make it run.
I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: Wherein the Geezer Talks About Being Poor Yet Contented

Two posts here in one day! Will wonders never cease.
2014. . . One of my most contented years, all told. Strange, though, that I was so contented.
The challenges of 2014:
Back in 2005, I made two very poor real estate decisions that have impacted my family and me big time in 2014. After retiring completely in 2010, my income was halved. In 2014, I had gone through all my reserves, money that I had set aside for retirement travel, etc. We didn’t travel, but our standard of living continued as before until 2014. This past year, we have had to account for every penny — literally. So far, thanks be to God, we have eaten well and our bills have been paid. I haven’t lived like this since I got my first apartment in 1973.
Our daughter, Sarah, has been through hell, and we have been there supporting her. Family difficulties, tetanus, money problems. . . all these have made the year a horrible one for her and a struggle for us as we try always to help.
I had a third bout with pancreatitis. This one was the least severe of the three, but it reminded me that I am getting old and that my gallbladder–less body needs a lot more TLC than I give it. My pancreatitis comes not from alcohol (I don’t drink) but from a love of rich food, especially desserts, that my body can’t handle since my gallbladder was removed in 1997.
The great parts of 2014:
Beni and I marked 39 years of being together, having met on Christmas Eve, 1975. Our life together has been a huge adventure with lots of sturm und drang, but now we seem to have grown into a friendship that sustains each of us but no longer has the drama that once took so much energy.
We all grew to love out pets even more than before. Three dogs and one cat, with three grand puppies here most of the time, make our lives much more human, loving, and enjoyable. I can’t express the sense of peace and contentment I feel when we sit down at night and all the puppies are in their places with us.
Other than pancreatitis, which lasted about a week, my health was fine. . . no thanks to my neglect of my body.
I continued to participate in the Perpetual Adoration Chapel at the parish in Winchester, Virginia. Twice a week I am there — just Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and I — for the hour between 2 am and 3 am. These two hours of prayer, meditation, and silence have changed my life. Thank you, Lord, for giving such a great gift to me.
Beni Marie, our youngest daughter, continues to live here with us. She takes care of the house, cooks for us, cooks dog food (really!!! None of the "store–bought" stuff for our pups!!!), feeds the pups, and still has time to pursue her career in phlebotomy. She is a very sweet, caring woman who makes Ben’s life and mine much easier, healthier, and full of joy.
I pray more than last year. The older I get, the more I seem to want to be in God’s presence. Maybe its nature’s way of getting me ready for the next step.
So. . . No money, but still the most contented I have ever been.
I am grateful. Truly grateful.

If Teachers Were Paid Like Football Players

When I was a senior in high school, I won a New York State Regents’ award for achievement in a State-wide Latin contest.  I did so well because I loved Latin. I still do.
Why did/do I love Latin? Because I had teachers who excited me about Latin and who taught me well. They loved Latin, too, and they showed their love in their excellent teaching.
All my Latin teachers — in the 7 years of Latin I had — were Franciscan priests. Back then, all Catholic liturgies and our Franciscan house prayers were in Latin, but not every priest was good at it. And not every priest, regardless of the subject taught was a good teacher, although most of the priests who taught me anything were really good teachers.
The point of this reminiscence is that good teachers make a huge difference in the accomplishments of their students.
The article linked above, from this morning’s Washington Post, talks about teachers in South Korea, specifically, the salaries of good teachers. One teacher of math earns $8,000,000 a year. That’s 8 million U.S. dollars!!! A year!!!
Some professional athletes, specifically football and baseball players, earn that much and more a year, while teachers are lucky if they break $100,000 a year. My daughter, who teaches students with autism and other emotional/learning conditions, earns less than $50K a year and she has a Master’s degree in special ed. Her salary is probably above the median in Virginia where she teaches.
What is wrong here?
The Washington Post article says, "It’ hard to exaggerate the premium South Korea places on education." That’s obvious from the salaries teachers there earn. A similar article about the U.S.A. would have to say, "It’s hard to exaggerate the premium the United States places on professional sports."
Why are we willing to pay millions to sports players and pittances to teachers? Why do plumbers make more than teachers? Why, for that matter, do most people make more than child–care providers? Our social priorities are obvious, and, to me, they stink to high Heaven.
If teachers had the potential to earn millions, I’m pretty sure, given the depth of talent in our country, that we would soon have the best–educated population in the world. I have no doubt of that.
With a well–educated populace in the inner cities and rural peripheries as well as in the suburbs, I doubt that we would have many elections like the last one in which people vote against their own self–interest because of insecurities based on misinformation and prejudice about race, sexual orientation, and immigration. An educated electorate sees bullshit for what it is.
Maybe that’s why teachers earn less than almost any other professional group. As with immigration, Republicans don’t want an educated electorate because they don’t want another group that they fear.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

For the USA: Pride Goeth Before the Fall

Some days, it doesn’t pay to get out of bed. Like today. Having read this morning’s paper, along with the paper every day this week, I’m sick at heart.
I don’t write or comment about politics anymore. The reasons: (1) it’s useless – nothing is changed, neither reality nor minds; and (2) thinking about the USA and its government makes me very angry and ruins the equanimity with which I want to live out the rest of my life.
But I still read the Washington Post every morning and I still care very much about what’s happening to us.
This morning, this essay appeared in The Post. It’s by Philip Kennicott, a writer who usually reviews arts and architecture and who occasionally writes personal opinion pieces that are printed in The Post’s Style section.
This essay says so much of what I have been thinking lately. It addresses the revelations from this week’s Senate report on the CIA interrogation crimes. But, to me, it also addresses a much larger issue: the evolution of our government and country from a place where freedom, tolerance, and openness are held as ideals (though ideals never yet totally fulfilled) to a place where the values of the Spanish Inquisition, the Soviet paranoid mind set, the rage of ISIS, and the totally baseless self–love of the narcissist reign.
I have come to believe in the philosophy of "exceptionalism," but not the exceptionalism that is based on Ronald Reagan’s oratorical emptiness. I believe that the USA has become exceptionally immoral, cruel, full of hate, full of fear, and – I hate to use this word – stupid.
We gleefully abused and tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
We committed unconscionable cruelties against people being interrogated by the CIA.
We close our borders to people–CHILDREN–in great need because the Republicans don’t want to give citizenship to people they believe will become Democrats, denying the immigrants the safety on which their lives may depend, and denying all of us the richness of their talents, culture, and enthusiasm.
We idolize and promote ignorance in our public life, in our schools, in our churches, in our entertainment, and in our own acceptance of absolutely unacceptable know-nothingness.
We reduce benefits to infants and children in need, making it harder for the poor among us to raise healthy and integrated people.
We allow our political masters to make decisions based on absolutely false theology, and we sit still as Republicans bring us closer and closer to a new and infinitely more destructive "Christian" war on Islam.
We force women to jump through hoops to prevent or end unwanted pregnancies yet do NOTHING to assure the quality of life of the mother and child once the baby is born.
We sit still while poor, uniformed, and uneducated people elect philosophical monsters who act against the interests of these same poor supporters.
I could go on, but I won’t.
I wish, really, that I hadn’t started.
Scripture tells us that pride precedes (and contributes to) decline. As I pray every day for the USA, I’m beginning to understand that, maybe, God’s only recourse is to let people in the USA go down the path of prideful self–destruction so that, at its end, we all can see that we are as flawed as any other people, that we are NOT exceptional in the history of the world, and that the charism of the USA was and is its openness and love of freedom.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

I am a product of the 1960's. That decade was for me the period of greatest growth and greatest learning. What happened then forms me still, each day, as I struggle to understand what the hell is going on in our world.
Two deaths this past week have knocked me for a loop: Marion Barry, former Mayor of DC, died yesterday; Mike Nichols, former comedian and great stage and film director, died last Wednesday.
As a white boy growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, right outside DC, Marion Barry, in his dashiki, mesmerized me with his demands for equality for African Americans. He was one of the people who made me understand what African Americans had endured in the history of the U.S.A., and who made me think about justice, equality, and what it means to be a human being. I owe Mr. Barry a lot.
As a young gay boy in the late 50's and early 60's, I was entranced by the comedy sketches of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. They spoke to me of New York, sophistication, and a life beyond the life I endured with a tyrant of a father. I had an album of their routines and I listened to it constantly. When I was a Franciscan novice, it was the tradition of the house for the novices to present a skit in honor of the Novice Master on the Master’s feast day. Our Master was Fr. Theophane Larkin. The Feast of St. Theophane Venard is February 2. So, on February 2, 1967, a fellow novice and I replicated, from my memory of it, a Nichols and May skit about a woman who has a meeting with an undertaker to arrange for her dead husband’s funeral. I can’t remember anything more about the content of the skit, but I do remember the hearty and fairly constant laughter my brother and I got from the performance. Afterward, Father Master told us how much he had enjoyed the skit, but said he felt a little strange having a skit about an undertaker performed in his honor. I’ve never again been so great a fan of any performer that I would be able to replicate from memory a 10–minute piece of performance art. Mike Nichols grabbed me again, later in 1967, when I saw The Graduate, a film that, in its way, defined life for people like me who were just hitting 20 and starting life.
All the people who meant so much to me in the 60's are dying. . . one by one. For me, there have been no icons in the years since who can replace the ones that made the 1960's such a great time to be alive. Who in DC today has the wit and grace and moxie of Everett McKinley Dirkson, the great Senator from Illinois and leader of the Senate Republicans, who, with President Lyndon B. Johnson, got so much done in the realm of civil rights in such a short period of time. Senator Dirkson and President Johnson knew that politics and compromise are arts, not obscenities. Who in the government today has similar compassion, wisdom, and vision to change us into something better than we have been? Where have all the flowers gone?
I thank God for being born when I was born and having had the experience of that time and those places. I am today a much more vocal proponent of the values that the Church and society gave me back then, but the values and the understanding of life that produced those values were given to me in the 1960's by my Franciscan brothers, and by people like Marion Barry and Mike Nichols. Thank God for their lives and their contributions to so many other lives.
Some other of my personal icons from that time who have died this year:
Ben Bradlee, Editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate years
Lauren Bacall
James Garner (an early crush from his time on Maverick)
Maya Angelou
Elaine Stritch
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., from the TV show 77 Sunset Strip
Mickey Rooney
Maria von Trapp
Sid Caesar (Your Show of Shows)
Pete Seeger
May their souls rest in peace. All of them, in my book, were great. All of them are a part of my life forever.