What my mother taught me (My Mother, My Hero, Part 2 of 2)

August 10, 2015

In my last post I wrote about my mother’s battle with cancer, and her death 2 weeks ago. But what mattered much more than her death, was how she lived her life. I had the privilege and honor of being her son, something I am immensely grateful to God for. I think everyone you are close to makes an impact on your life, and no one made a bigger impact on my life than her. Here is a list of the biggest things she taught me.

1) Be kind to others. This lesson came before all others. I’m sure that my mother told me to be kind, but like all the lessons on this list, I don’t remember her saying this explicitly. She taught me to be kind by how she lived her life. She poured herself into the lives of others. She was always so gracious and giving. There were a million examples of this, in the 46 years I knew her. But here are just a few:

A) Shortly after her terminal diagnosis, she started receiving in-home hospice care. When the social worker arrived and introduced herself, she said her last name was Jones. “Oh, you are Welsh!” my mom said. “Don’t you know that everyone with the last name of Jones is descended from Wales?” The social worker was delighted and started talking happily about her family background. Instead of worrying about herself, my mom was interested in the other person. Not only that, she said, “We have a book about Wales here. Would you like it?” and she went and got the book off the shelf. In the space of five minutes she had not only turned the conversation away from her illness, but given the social worker a gift. It was little things like this that made my mom special.

B) Since I was a child, my parents worked with a program at Oregon State University that paired foreign students with local host families. This program was called Crossroads. Every year the program would assign a student, and my mom would call them and invite them out for Thanksgiving and other holidays. She and my dad got to know so many foreign students this way. They became lifelong friends who we’d exchange Christmas and birthday cards with. When word of my mom’s death got out, almost all of them called or wrote. A week ago my dad even got a call from Jerusalem. It was from a man and his family who my parents had hosted 30 years ago. They were heartbroken.

C) Whenever I came home from Portland to visit, even up until 2 months ago, my mom would bake muffins for me. I’d arrive on Friday night, and they’d be sitting on the counter, cooling. I’d sit at the kitchen table with my mom on one side and my dad on another, and they’d make tea and then talk and listen to me while I ate. When I left two days later, my mom would come down into the basement with me, and load me up with frozen containers of her special vegetable soup that she’d made just for me. She’d pass me 4 or 5 and then say, “Do you want another? Are you sure? I’ve got lots.” And then she’d say, “How about an applesauce? You want two?” And then, “And some Christmas cake? I have an extra loaf here. And here’s some frozen stew.” And then we’d go upstairs and she’d give me a plastic bag full of apples, and then a big bag of left-over muffins, until I had to stagger out the door, I was so weighted down with food. Dad would press money into my hand (“Gas is expensive.”) and my mom would kiss and hug me, and thank me so much for coming. “You brighten up our days,” she would say. I’d struggle out to the car with what they’d given me, then get inside and pull up the driveway to head back to Portland. As I turned my head to wave they’d both be standing by the window, smiling and waving. I remember thinking to myself so many times as I drove off, “How is it that I am so loved?” I always thought of them as human representatives of God’s love for us— immense, unconditional, and thoroughly undeserved. I’d beep on my horn twice as they faded from view, and always feel sad that I was leaving them. The last time I saw my mom (when she was conscious) was 3 weeks ago when I was driving away. I turned to wave, and they were both waving. But this time only my dad was standing. My mom was sitting on the living room couch, weakly extending a hand in the air. She no longer had the strength to stand, but she was still saying goodbye. I think that image will haunt me forever. But it will also stand as my final memory of her love.

D) After my mother died, my sister and I got an email from her long-time friend, Edita. Edita lives in the Philippines, and in the fall of 1960 was a scared young foreign student who had just arrived in Berkeley. In her email to us, she described how homesick and scared she was, and how she was thinking about quitting and returning home. It was then that she met our mother, outside the Newman center. Our mom told her she was going to church, and invited her to go along. “I was so excited to meet a fellow Catholic!” Edita wrote. She and our mom went to mass, and then afterward they walked down to the Eucalyptus grove near campus. It turned out they both lived in the same corridor at International House, and Edita said our mom would come over to visit her and cheer her up. This is a story we had never heard before. I’m quite sure we never would have, either, had Edita not written us.

2) Don’t just be concerned with yourself, be interested in life. I think this is something my mom learned from her own mother. Grandma Bruning was a towering woman, even though she only stood about 5 foot 1 and used a walker. She was born in 1888, was married at 18, and had a son. Then her husband walked out on her. As a single mother she worked nonstop to keep a roof over her and her son’s head, working as a telephone operator and in a post office. Later on she married my grandfather, and in their mid-forties they adopted my mom and my uncle. She had a very hard life but refused to feel sorry for herself. Even when she was in her mid-nineties, crippled by arthritis and legally blind, she followed the news, either via her beloved radio, or by staring at the TV screen from 18 inches away. She was a passionate fan of Wayne Gretzky, and every night had to tune in to her favorite game show, “The Joker’s Wild.” In the early eighties a young man named Terry Fox was running across Canada, trying to raise money for cancer research. When his cancer came back, she watched the news every day and prayed for his recovery. She could have sat in her house and just worried about her arthritis, blindness, and poor health. But she wasn’t interested in that. She was interested in LIFE.

I saw how this rubbed off on my mom. You can even see it in the three examples above— being interested in the life of the social worker, instead of her own cancer; Wanting to know and learn about the lives of local university students, instead of being consumed with her own day to day tasks; worrying about what I was cooking and eating, instead of thinking, “he’s an adult,” and sending me on my way. Perhaps being interested in things and people that are outside of yourself, is a necessary prerequisite of kindness? True love looks outward.

I think there are many old (and young!) people that are rather self-absorbed, but that wasn’t my mom. She was very interested in:

A) The Oregon State Beaver football team. My mom once told me, “I’m always glad when they start playing again. It tells me fall is beginning.” She would always have the pregame and postgame on in the kitchen, and listen carefully to the commentary and analysis while she sat in her rocker. But when the actual game started she would vanish, crying out, “I’m too nervous!” and leaving my dad to stoically sit by himself and endure the carnage. When I was living in Colorado she would take her scissors and carefully cut out clippings from the sports page and send them to me (usually with hand written comments on the margins).

B) World News. This usually came to her via NPR and OPB radio, which she listened to while bustling about the kitchen. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear the theme music for “All Things Considered,” and not think of her. On Saturday nights she loved to listen to “The Piano Matters,” a classical music show, and no Sunday morning was complete without “The Puzzle Master Presents, with Will Shortz.” She would play along with the contestant trying to solve the riddles (Either commenting, “She’s good!” or “He’s not very good, is he?”), and then when it was over scoop up her pencil and paper, listening hard for the clue to next week’s puzzle, then hopelessly trying to figure it out (she never even got close).

I once asked her, “Mom, would you send in your answer if you solved it?”

“No,” she always said. “I’d be too afraid I’d get picked!”

Sometimes she, my dad, and the dog would descend to the basement, where they’d turn on either “The McNeil-Leher News Hour,” or (on Fridays) “Washington Week in Review.” On the latter show, when they’d go around and introduce the journalists, she’d always beam at the TV screen and say in a loud voice, “Hi Jim! Hi Bob! Hi Pete!” as the names were announced. She was always so glad to see them.

Yet another form of news she loved was The Christian Science Monitor, and later on, “The Week,” another news magazine. She’d carefully subscribe to them, and when there was a lull between her constant cleaning and cooking, would sit quietly in the rocker and pour over them. If there was a list of best movies of the century, or top books of the year, she’d pull out a 3 by 5 index card, scribble down the selections, and send them to Anna or I.

C) Classical music concerts. Music was a lifelong passion for my mom, although she was very specific in that it only be classical music (my Grandmother and she would sometimes butt heads over this, as my Grandmother liked to listen to people like Harry Bellafonte, and my mom thought all forms of music besides classical were inferior. Although I did get her to like Sting, and a few years ago saw her reading his autobiography in the Banff public library).

Every summer she and my dad would attend the Bach Festival in Eugene, and when they were younger they would drive down to Idyllwild for elderhostel choir workshops. They also attended countless concerts at the LaSelles Stewart Center in Corvallis. In her letters and in our phone conversations, my mom would always tell me about the latest quartet or trio they’d seen.

3) Don’t be afraid to take chances and move to new places. I can say with 100% certainty that if my mom hadn’t done this, I would not be here. Most people are born, raised, and die within the same 100 mile radius. Not my mom. She was born in a tiny town on the prairies of Saskatchewan, moved away for high school, then moved again for college, and in her early twenties moved clear across Canada to live near Vancouver. Most people would have been content with that. But after a few years, she decided to get a graduate degree at the University of California-Berkeley. Instead of living in an anonymous off-campus apartment and quietly going to class, my mom joined International House, a graduate-student-only dorm that consisted of 50% American students, and 50% students from foreign countries. She became very active on the board, even working alongside future California governor Jerry Brown. It was at International House that she met my dad, another person not afraid to take chances and move to new places.

My mom and dad passed this lesson along to my sister and I, encouraging Anna and I to work at Glacier National Park one summer, encouraging Anna to attend colleges and take jobs far from home, and driving me out to Denver when I got an airline job there. Of course they wanted us to stay closer to them, but they never said this. Instead of putting themselves first, they said, “You’ve got to go where the jobs are!”

One chance my mother took was to study abroad. In 1956-1957 she studied organ in Vienna, Austria. It was a tremendous highlight in her life. She often told me stories about the churches she’d seen there, and the concerts she’d attended (“Standing room only! Way in the balcony!”).  When she got her terminal diagnosis I sent her a book on Vienna, full of pictures of the city. She beamed when she took it out of the delivery box, and hugged it to her chest.

4) Don’t let people take advantage of you. She believed in love and kindness, but she got angry when she thought someone had given me unfair value in a  trade for my Thurman Munson baseball card, or had talked me into working for them when I was tired. “Some people will try to take advantage of you,” she said. “Don’t let them!” She also took a dim view of people that acted like they were smarter than everyone else. “Don’t let them snow you!” she’d shout.

5) Don’t gossip. After she died I found a stash of photo albums and diaries that she’d hidden away in a hall closet. I was staying with my dad for a week, and my downtime consisted of obsessively taking the contents to my room, dumping them on my bed, and paging through them. When I thought I WAS NEVER GOING TO SEE HER AGAIN, I’d start crying. But by reading her old diaries, letters, and emails, and looking at the photos of her, she became present again in my mind.

One of the diaries I found was dated 1950. She wrote in it every day from January 1st through July 5th, stopping on that date for some inexplicable reason. I found it fascinating to read the thoughts of her 17 year old mind. However I was also a bit worried; I looked up to my mother so much, I was concerned I’d find nasty entries that would shatter my illusions. My fears were unfounded. Every entry shines with happiness, and she never says anything bad about anyone. The only thing she says is, at the end of her March 3rd entry, “Puzzle: Did I or did I not hurt Maryanne’s feelings?” There is no further mention of it in any future entries, but it’s plain that even there she is worried that she might have hurt someone else, not that they had hurt her.

The few negative comments are humorous. Apparently, she hated math. She refers to Algebra as “the dumb stuff (a sentiment I definitely shared when I was in high school),” and to herself and a few other girls as “the dumb bunnies of Algebra class.” She also describes with delight a failed lab experiment where a beaker exploded. Otherwise it is all about her friends getting sick and her feeling badly for them, or three or four of them going out tobogganing in the cold. She never complains about her family. Once she writes sadly, “No mail from back East,” and then when it does arrive, “Got a big fat package from home!” Her love for her friends and family jumps off the page. While reading it I could only imagine what my own high school diary entries would have consisted of, had I written them. Have you ever been ashamed of something you did not even do? That is the feeling I had when contrasting my imaginary high school diary, with my mother’s.

6) True love is unconditional. My mother taught me this in a thousand ways. I could write for a hundred pages all the ways my mom showed me unconditional love. By encouraging me to follow my dreams (even if it meant leaving her), to always being my biggest advocate and friend. When I would get frustrated and despondent as a teenager she would shout, “Tim! You’re only seventeen!” Walking into the living room on Christmas morning, seeing my mom sitting at the piano, playing a Christmas carol to welcome us. How lucky were we, to have a mom like that??? When she would take us to school it wasn’t enough to sit in the car quietly, she would lead us in rounds. When I stood at the window while she watered flower beds, she’d smile and shoot water on the glass, making me laugh. When she tucked us into bed, she’d put on a classical music record, in the hopes the music would seep into our unconscious. She would read us stories at bed, and then tell us what the moral was. She wouldn’t let me ride my bicycle on the back roads when I was a teenager, because she was worried about my safety. And when she knew I would be riding in a century ride, she was out weeding the front flower bed, nervously casting glances down the road, “just to see what was coming.” When I was half an hour late driving home in the fog, she was standing nervously in the dark when I arrived, waiting for me. “Tim!” she shouted, flinging open her arms. “I was worried!” This and a thousand other memories all added up to one thing: Love, love, love, love, love.

7) It’s okay to cry and be scared. This is a lesson she taught me without knowing she was teaching it. I heard her sobbing in the bathroom, when her own parents died. Then she’d compose herself, and walk out as if all was fine. She didn’t think I heard, but I did.

When I was going through her diaries, I came upon a letter to herself dated April of 1967, before I was born. She and my dad had just moved out to their house in the country. She wrote about how she felt so lonely and isolated in the country, and how she was letting down “Myself, God, and Don.” How she should be happy, but wasn’t. She wrote over and over again, “I am so lowly.” She wrote, “I make Don so unhappy,” even though she made him happy for 52 years. But at that point, 3 years into their marriage and at only 34 years of age, she felt like a failure. Her anxiety and sadness pours out onto the page. She is so hard on herself. And yet she carried on. She probably would be embarrassed to know I found that letter. But it made me proud of her. It taught me you can be disconsolate, and yet your life can turn out to be full of joy, if you just keep trying.

Two weeks before she died, I was home and she was lying on her bed. I sat down beside her, and she started crying and shaking. “I’m scared,” she said. “Of what?” I said. “Dying!” she said. “And I know my faith should be a comfort, but it just isn’t. And I feel like I’m setting a bad example for you by being scared.” Mom, you didn’t set a bad example for me. Can you imagine if you would have not been scared to die? Then when my time comes and I am scared, I will think something is wrong with me. This way I will remember it’s okay, because you were scared, too.

8) Trust in God. I realize this is controversial if you don’t believe in God. But my mom did, with all her heart. She was raised Catholic, and she attended mass all her life, usually more than once a week. When my parents went on a cruise to Alaska in 2014, she even attended mass on the ship. And she was one of those “whole nine yards Catholics,” in that she would write to me in her emails what feast day it was (they sure have a lot of them), and that she’d been to confession, and what the Pope had said, or what the reading had been that morning. And then she’d ask casually, “What’s the name of that Catholic church near you? Is it Pius X?” Because she wanted me to go. Yet she’d be the first one to tell you that the only thing she wanted was for me to trust in the Lord, as she would say. I stupidly threw out many of her letters and emails over the year, but I was smart enough to save at least a few of them, which I now consider priceless. She ended most of them by saying she was praying for me, that I’d grow closer to the Lord. “You’re doing a great job,” she’d write. “Just take each day one at a time.”

Even though she believed in Catholic dogma, her faith in God was inclusive, not exclusive. She didn’t judge people by their beliefs, ethnicity, orientation, or social class. She just loved them. I never heard my mother say, “He or she is going to hell.” She believed in the Lord and His love for all.

I have next to me as I write this a letter from her dated June 6, 1993. The first words are, “Dear Tim, Tomorrow you will be 24 years old….” and then later comes my favorite passage. She writes, “I often say, ‘Dear God, let Tim know, right this instant, that he is greatly loved by us & by you.'”

I return again and again to this letter, in the days since her death. To me it encapsulates the great love that my mother had for me, and brings me comfort in my sadness. How lucky am I, to have a mother like that? I like to think that she is still saying that, right now. Because I can feel it.

“Dear God, let Tim know, right this instant, that he is greatly loved by us & by you.”

Thank you so much, Mom. I do know that. Right this instant. I love you, too.

9) Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions. This is a sad lesson for me, because I didn’t ask my mom the hard questions I should have. Since she’s died I’ve been haunted by the questions I DIDN’T ask, but so very much so wish I had. I wish I had said, “Mom, how can I talk to you after you die?” “Mom, what is the one lesson you want me to carry with me for the rest of my life?” “Mom, how do you want me to live the rest of my life, without you?” “Mom, how did you deal with your own parents’ death? Was it really hard for you? What helped you get through that? How did you carry on? How do I carry on?”

I can extrapolate the answers from these questions, from what I know of her. But they are only guesses as to what she would have said. I wish so much that I’d actually ASKED THE QUESTIONS, and heard her responses to them. I think that would have given me so much more comfort and certainty than I have now. I had over 46 years with her; out of all the innumerable conversations we had, why did I not ask her these things? I think they simply did not occur to me while she was healthy, as you feel your parent will always be with you. And there was not much time after her terminal diagnosis. They gave her 3-6 months, and she died in 6 weeks. I think I was waiting for a better time. But there really isn’t a better time. I was in shock and denial, and avoiding the truth.

It’s possible I would have asked these questions had her illness extended the full 6 months. However I think it is equally likely I would not have asked them even then. Why? Because I didn’t want to make her cry. They are indeed hard questions. But now that I can no longer ask them, they haunt me. To the people reading this whose parents are still alive, I encourage you to ask them these questions. And to the parents reading this, I encourage you to write letters to your children, for them to open after your death. This would have given my sister and I great comfort. I did ask her to write her memoirs, but she was so weak by the time I asked her, she never even got started on them. That’s why it’s important to start them while you are still healthy. You can always add to them later.

I also wish I had taken more videos of her, so I could hear her voice. This was hard to do in the old days, but is easy now with the advent of smart phones. Do it; you won’t regret it.

10) Life goes on after your parents die. This is the lesson I’m struggling with hardest now. My mom loved her parents beyond all measure. Her father died in 1983 and her mother in 1985, and I already wrote of hearing her sob in the bathroom, when she thought no one could hear. Her brother died in 1994, at only age 58. This left her all alone in the world, as far as her original family went. And yet for the last 30 years (in the case of her parents) and the last 21 years (in the case of her brother) she carried on and lived life fully. I often wondered, Does Mom find it hard to live, when her parents and brother have been dead so long? I remember seeing her out watering the flowers, just a few months ago, and thinking that. I think God gave me that thought to prepare me for her death.

That is not to say that she didn’t miss them. She rarely said so, but I know how much she did. Just a few weeks before her death we were talking about how it’s okay to die after a long life, but for loved ones, it is never long enough. “My mom was 97,” she said, “And it still hurts!” and her eyes welled up with tears. This taught me yet another lesson: that if you really love someone, you don’t “get over it.” The pain will always be there, even 30 years later. You will always miss them terribly. But you try and live your life in a way that honors them, and live the lessons that they taught you. Which is what I’m trying to do here. Thanks for reading.


My mother, my hero (part 1 of 2)

July 28, 2015

My mother died last Friday. July 24, 2015, at 7:15 pm. She was 83 years old. She was the person I loved the most in the world, and who loved me the most. How do you get over such a loss? The thought of living the rest of my life without being able to pick up the phone and call her, or get her emails, or just sit with her and discuss the newspaper, does not seem possible. I have never felt grief like this before. I told several people over the last few days, that if I could have had the option to go with her, I would have. Because at least we would have been together. But I also know that she would not have wanted that for me. She would have told me to go back, that she wanted me to live my life and be happy. I am not sure how to do that. But I wanted to write this post as a way of honoring her, and telling you who she was and what she meant to me.

Let’s get the sad part out of the way, first. Her death. My mom had been healthy all her life, outside of a persistently weak back that she’d had since childhood. I’m not sure what caused this, but for much of your youth she wore a corset, which is an old fashioned brace that you lace up really tight over your midsection. She later found out that it was one of the worst things you could do for your back, but nobody told her for a long time. I remember she wore that when I was a child, and it had metal hooks on it that once set off an airport metal detector, causing her great embarrassment. When she was about 50 her doctor told her to get rid of it, and gave her a series of back exercises to do every morning. She continued with this regime every morning until about a week before her death, even after her diagnosis. Even 2 weeks ago, the last time I was home to see her, she was doing her back exercises in the morning. I remember when I hurt my back years ago, she showed them to me, as she was always trying to help me out and teach me knew things, particularly if she thought they would help me.

Bad back aside, as I said she was very healthy. All the way until about age 78. One day in the Spring of 2011, I was home and sitting at the kitchen table, and she got up, said, “I need to talk to you,” turned off the stove, and sat down next to me with a smile on her face. I immediately got a chill as I knew it was bad news. Cancer! I thought. And I was right.

“I’ve been having some problems, she said, so I went to the doctor. He did some tests and found out that I have uterine cancer. Now the good news,” she went on hurriedly, trying to calm me, “Is that it is only stage 1, although the doctor said it is more aggressive kind. I am going to a hospital in Eugene to get a hysterectomy next week, and then after I recuperate from the surgery for a month, they are going to start me on 6 cycles of chemo. After that there will be radiation. And I should be fine.”

In her typical style, she did her best to allay my fears and the fears of my dad and sister. She had great faith in her doctor, Dr. Dodders, and although I know she was quite scared, she did not show it because she did not want to scare us.

I remember the day of her surgery, in May of 2011. My parents live in the country outside of a small town called Corvallis, and while the hospital there is good, the hospital in the nearby city of Eugene is bigger and better. So they drove down there one morning, and had the hysterectomy. My dad called me on the phone and said it was a success, but she would be in the hospital a few days recovering.

I drove down from Portland to Eugene to surprise them. I got to the hospital and walked the long hallways searching for her room number. When I got there I knocked and came into the room, and they both looked up in surprise and then happiness. My mom looked so sick and fragile, sitting up in bed, braced against pillows, dressed in her hospital gown. My dad was sitting next to her, and a cot was beside the window where he was sleeping at night. I remember my mom’s stomach was bandaged heavily where they had made the incision, and she could not cough because of the pain. Most of all I remember the gratitude in their eyes when they saw I had visited them, and feeling their love.

Whenever you have a major surgery, hospital staff likes to get you up and walking as soon as possible, to keep the blood flowing and start the healing process. So my dad and I took several walks with my mom up and down the hospital hall outside her room. The first one was only about 20 feet, and she took small mincing steps, wincing as she held the IV pole with one hand, and one of our hands with the other.

I remember my dad and I went down to the hospital cafeteria for lunch, and picked out food from the cafeteria and sat opposite each other at a table by the window, the Willamette river flowing lazily outside and down the hill, partially obscured by some brush. Later that day I would walk down there by myself, and watch a grey heron and some ducks fly up and down the waterway, clearly at home in their kingdom. I remember thinking I had almost lost my mother, and how I hoped so much she would be okay and the doctors would cure her.

After a few days was well enough for my dad to drive her home. Then began the recovery process, as she healed from the surgery and prepared for her first round of chemo. They had gotten all the visible signs of cancer out, as it had not spread beyond the uterus. But they still wanted to give her a lot of chemo, “throw everything at it,” as her doctor said, so it would be fully eradicated and not come back.

My mom was scared of the chemo, as she’d heard so many horror stories about how hard it was. But she resolutely went in for her first treatment. I remember calling her the next day, saying, “How did it go?” “It wasn’t bad at all!” she said brightly. “I think this is going to be okay.” We did not know that the full effect of the chemo does not hit you until about a week after your treatment. They space it out over 3 week intervals, because each treatment wipes out many of your white blood cells, and your immune system is compromised and needs time to build back up before you hit it with the next treatment. It is literally partially killing you, in order to kill the cancer cells at the same time. So a week after her first treatment she was sick in bed, vomiting and clutching her stomach which gave her great abdominal pains.

I believe she went to the doctor after this first horrible experience, and she gave my mom some pills to reduce the nausea, and lessen the cramping. This helped a lot on the 2nd dose of chemo. Her stomach cramps and nausea lessened, she was just so tired.

Her 6 treatments got harder and harder to do every time. The first 3 she did okay, but then her poor body got weaker and weaker, and had a harder time bouncing back after each one. Before giving her another treatment, they would test her white blood cell count, to see if it was high enough. If not then they’d send her home and not give her her next treatment, until the cell count got high enough. I think this happened at least once.

She lost her hair after the 2nd or 3rd treatment, and took to wearing a small scarf or knit cap on her head. Because of her compromised immune system, she stayed in the house all the time and did not go out, for fear of catching a virus. Only a few friends were allowed to visit her, and only after being sure they did not have a cold. I always made sure I was free of disease before I came down to visit.

I did not know how to help besides calling and writing with my support, so I started sending her lots of books. I would order something on Amazon that I thought she would like, and have it sent to her. She was usually too tired to read, but my dad would read the books out loud to her. I know one series of books I sent her was a humor series about an Austrian soldier and pilot in world war 2, who had a series of misadventures that my parents really enjoyed. One time I came home and lay on the rug in the living room while my mom lay on the sofa, and my dad read out loud to her. Our yellow lab Tessa came in and lay down next to us, as well.

Although it nearly killed her, my mom finally finished her last chemo treatment. It took a total of about 18-20 weeks to complete all 6 cycles. She was so relieved when it was over! But apprehensive about the upcoming radiation treatments. She was scheduled to do about 30 of them, spaced out over a short period of time. Luckily it was much, much easier than the chemo— they just zapped her locally in her abdominal area where the cancer had been, rather than affecting her whole body like the chemo had done. She was so relieved that the radiation was easier. I believe she finished her final treatment in about October of 2011.

Her hair grew back in, and her glow returned. She had some neuropathy (numbness) in her feet, but was told that was normal after chemo. She could still walk fine, so it was a small price to pay for being cancer free. She had a CT scan 3 months after that, to make sure the cancer was gone. From then on she was to have a scan every 6 months, to make sure it had not come back. Her scans were always clear, and she reported this to me in emails and phone calls with happiness and relief. For almost 4 years, all was well and life continued as normal, if a little slower. She and my dad resumed their normal, unassuming way of life in their house: shopping at Winco, eating at the New Morning Bakery in downtown Corvallis, coming up to Portland occasionally to visit me (where she always tried to organize my apartment), listening to NPR on the radio every night, my mom going to mass several times a week and playing organ at the church, and visiting with me when I would come down to Corvallis every 3 weeks or so. One thing the three of us loved to do was go to Lake O’Hara every summer, which is a beautiful lake in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. My parents had been going there since the early 70’s, and I was lucky enough to go there with them almost every year since about 1997. It was just a way of spending time with people that I loved, and who loved me.

Her second to last CT scan was in January of this year (2015). It was clear and showed no evidence of cancer, just like all the ones before. She had always wanted to go to Greece and see the Mediterranean, so the 3 of us made plans to take an 11 day cruise there in September. My parents were so excited, and I’d often see my mom studying books about Greece and the Aegean sea while I was home, and telling me how much I’d love seeing Rome.

She started not feeling good in about March. Yesterday I printed out all the emails she’d written to me over the last several years, just to try and stay close to her and remember her voice. And you can see the way she made innocent comments in her emails, saying things like “I have a bit of a bug, but I am getting plenty of rest and drinking my chocolate Boost every day, and I’m sure it will go away soon.” Reading these comments is heartbreaking, because you know what it is, and that it is never going to go away. It also makes me angry at God when I read it. I think, really, God? Would it have killed you to just let her go on this cruise she was so excited about? Would that have been that hard, to just let her enjoy that?

When I came home in April and early May she was still talking excitedly about Greece and Pompeii, but looked pale and complained of back pain and nausea. I remember one day she was sitting in the white chair in the living room, a book in her lap titled, “Greece,” and the heating pad on her back.

Finally in late May she went back to her doctor, who had assured her before it was probably just a stomach bug and would go away. “Well,” he said, “you just had a scan in January and it was clear, but let’s do one again anyway, just to make sure everything is okay.” They did the scan and saw there was fluid in her abdomen, and spots on her liver. “What is it?” my parents asked. “We are not sure, we have to do a biopsy,” they said. “But it looks like cancer.”

Looking back on it, that is when time kind of stopped for my parents and me. I think we all knew that when a doctor said, “It looks like cancer,” it must be. But we held out some small hope that it was not. They drew some fluid out of her abdomen, and tested it. My parents had told me that they would get the results back Friday afternoon. Normally I call my parents every Sunday night, so I knew if the results were positive, they would wait to tell me when I called at the end of the week. I was sitting at home that Friday night, and my phone started to ring. I looked at the screen and it said, “Mom and Dad.” That’s when I knew it was cancer for sure, even before I picked it up. And I also knew that meant she was going to die.

“Yes, the cancer is back,” they said. We are going to the doctor on Monday to hear what this means.

They went on Monday, and said he sat them down in his office, and closed the door. He explained that since her original cancer from 2011 had come back, and was now chemo resistant, there was no cure. She was terminal and had, in his estimation, 3-6 months to live. As far as treatment, he said that she could try chemo again, and he recommended it, but it would not cure her. There were 3 main chemo drugs, and she had taken the 2 most powerful ones in combination, in 2011. If they were to do chemo again, she would take the 3rd drug, which was not as effective but the cancer had not seen before. The side effects for that drug were very bad, though, and she could expect the flesh on her hands and cheeks to melt. As far as how much more time it would give her, in 75% of the patients that took it and were in her position, it did not extend their life at all. 25% of them had an average increase in life expectancy of about 3 months. He said he was so sorry and to let him know by the next week what her decision was.

This was on June 5th, and I was coming home that night so that we could drive to Yachats, Oregon, a tiny coastal town where we’ve enjoyed spending weekends for the past 15 or 20 years. It was my birthday on June 7th, so we were going over to celebrate that.

June 5th was a Friday night, and I drove home from Portland, and sat down on my mom’s bed while she lay there, propped up on pillows, and my dad sat on a chair nearby. “Well,” said my mom, “the news is grim.” And she told me. I thought I would burst into tears, but I didn’t. I just sat there in disbelief We all just sat there in disbelief for a while. They told me that as soon as they left the doctor’s office, they went to their travel agent and cancelled the cruise. My mom’s dream of seeing Greece was over.

My mom wanted to go ahead and go to Yachats anyway, so we left the following morning, me driving us over the coast range, my dad sleeping in the passenger seat beside me, my mom sitting in the back seat and silently gazing out at the scenery, like I’d seen her so many times before on so many trips. She’s dying, my mind kept screaming. My mom is dying. It was like an alarm going off in my head, over and over again. But there was nothing to do and nowhere to run.

We got to Yachats and checked into our hotel by the sea, the one we always stay in. My mom spent most of the weekend in bed, resting. We would go out for meals at the Adobe or the Driftwood Inn, then come back to the motel room. She’d look out the window at the surf, but didn’t have the energy to walk along the trail and look at the surf. I didn’t really want to walk the beach, either. We watched a movie that night, I think. The Constant Gardener, which was confusing and none of us much liked. We discussed whether my mom would do chemo. “I know you want me to try,” she said with a quavering voice, “and maybe I will try just the first does. But I really don’t want to go through chemo again. And it won’t save me anyway.” I really did not know what to say to this. How do you say, “Do the chemo!” when you don’t have to suffer the side effects yourself? It’s easy to give people advice when they have to suffer the consequences. She knew my dad and I wanted her to try chemo, but we also knew she didn’t want to do it, and would only be doing it for us. We tentatively all decided she would maybe jus try the first treatment and see how bad it was. Later on I was to hear from my dad that she woke up in the middle of the night sobbing, and told him, “I don’t want to do chemo!” About a week later she told me she had decided not to do it, and “let nature take its course.”

I still had not cried. And I did not cry until her final hours. I think I was in shock and denial. Part of it also was, as long as I could still talk to her, it didn’t seem like she was gone. So even though I intellectually knew she was dying, emotionally it just didn’t compute.

I had all these plans for her final 3-6 months, as the doctor put the timeline. We all thought, okay, 3-6 months means we have 6 months. Probably the first 2 or 3 months she’ll feel pretty good, and we can do a lot of things together. Early on I even thought, we’ll have time for at least 2 trips. The first trip she and my dad can fly to Pennsylvania and see my sister (who has chronic fatigue syndrome and is unable to travel), and spend some time with her. And for the second trip I can drive us all up to Canada. She always wanted to go see her parents’ graves, and we can do that, and then keep driving up to Vancouver Island and visit my Aunt and cousins, and their children. Heck, maybe we can even go to Lake O’Hara one final time! I will take a lot of time off so we can take all these trips. It’s too bad we cancelled the cruise, but that was in September and she probably would have been feeling too ill to enjoy it. But surely we can do these other trips before that, and go to Yachats a few more times as well.

What I learned, is like dying of cancer in real life is not like it is portrayed in the movie, “The Bucket List.” If you’ve seen that movie, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson are terminal cancer patients, who make a list of things they want to do before they die (the bucket list) and then fly around the world doing them. They do things like run with the bulls in Pamplona, sky dive, and race stock cars. After completing each item on the list, they cross it off, and then are off to the next one. I envisioned my mom’s own bucket list, where she’d visit my sister, and her parents’ graves, and my Aunt and cousins. As it turns out, we never did any of those trips. We never even went back to Yachats.

My mom was just too weak. Even to sit in the back seat of the car while I drove. She spent almost all the time between the living room, the kitchen (where she’d pick at her food), and the bedroom. When the news got out she was flooded with cards, letters and emails of support. She was touched by them and vowed to answer all of them, but most of them she never got too. She was just too tired, and every small act that she previously would accomplish with vigor, now took so much out of her.

During our trip to Yachats, I remember we were walking out of the Adobe and back to our car after dinner, the thick fog all around us. I said, “Mom, I really want to learn more about your life. I don’t know anything about your child hood or where you went to school. Would you please write your autobiography? It would mean so much to Anna and I. It doesn’t have to be book length, just 30 or 40 pages.” And she agreed and said yes, I will do that.

I kept asking her over the upcoming weeks if she’d started, and she always said, “I will, but first I have to reply to all these cards and letters people have sent me.” Ultimately, she never wrote anything at all.

My normal pattern, since moving back to Oregon in 2000, was to drive down to spend the weekend with my parents, about every 3-4 weeks. But once she got her diagnosis, I started coming down every weekend. My parents protested and said I needed to live my life, and they would be fine, but I know secretly they were glad I was there. My dad has Parkinson’s disease, and moves very slowly. Due to her cancer my mom had stopped cooking and cleaning, leaving my dad to do tasks that she had done for the previous 49 years. When I came home I’d help him with that, and drive him into town to shop, bring in the recycling, and get things for mom which she needed. I was glad to do this. I wanted to be close to my mom for as much time as she had left.

I came home for 4 or 5 weekends in a row. The last weekend I was there, 2 weeks ago, I pulled out of the driveway to head back to Portland. For years past when I’d done that, I’d turned my head and seen my parents standing at the window and waving to me. This time my dad was standing and waving, and my mom was sitting down on the couch, weakly holding up her arm to wave. And that was the last time I saw my mom when she was conscious.

The next weekend I had a friend coming in from out of town and a hike scheduled the day after that, so I decided to stay in Portland, but I took off the next Tuesday and Wednesday to go home, and make up the time with them, then. I still called them on the phone every other night, after I got home from work. I had started by calling them every night, but my mom suggested that talking on the phone so much wore her out, so we decided I’d just call every other night. They always would get on the two phones, so they could both hear me, like they had for years. “Hello, love!” my mom would always say. “How are you today? Did you have a good day at work?”

On Sunday night I called them. “It has not been a good couple of days,” my dad said. My mom had fallen in the shower on Saturday morning, and my dad couldn’t lift her so had to call 911. No bones were broken, but she was bruised and the hospice nurse that visited their house periodically suggested she start taking OxyContin. This affected her mental state, so when I called on Sunday night she was very upset, angry at my dad because she thought he was telling her the wrong time to take her next pill, and so upset she didn’t even want to talk to me. She did get on the phone eventually, but was confused and scared and wasn’t making any sense.

In a Hollywood movie, you have a last great talk with your loved one, before they die. But this wasn’t Hollywood, and that was the last time we ever talked. Of course, neither of us knew this. I felt so bad that I was gone that weekend, and wasn’t able to pick her up out of the shower, and help calm her the following day when she was confused and scared. But there was no way of knowing it would happen so fast. The doctor said 3-6 months, and we were only about 5 weeks in.

Looking back I should have known. She has always had a poor appetite her whole life, and since her diagnosis was eating very little. Even though they drained the fluid in her stomach, another 3 liters of it filled back up just 3 weeks later. This caused pressure on her stomach and killed her appetite. Her doctor also said when cancer cells grow on your intestine, you stop wanting to eat. My dad would urge her at meal times to “Eat, Ione, eat! you’ve got to eat!” And she would resent him for pushing her like this. One morning I was there and we were eating breakfast. She ate a spoonful or two of her oatmeal, then set it aside and sed, “I’m full.” He told her no, you have to eat, you didn’t eat more than a spoonful. Finally she got mad and said “Well, all right!”and forced herself to eat a bowl of blueberries. He was very pleased, and so was she that she had done it. I walked out of the room and soon heard retching. She had vomited them up all over the floor.

On Monday morning she fell again, this time on the bathroom floor, trying to get up off the toilet. My dad tried to pick her up, but again failed. He didn’t have the strength, and the strength in her legs was just gone. Again I was very angry at myself for not being there, to help. Although it was Monday morning so I probably would not have been, anyway.

Her hospice nurse said she should go to the Samaritan Evergreen Hospice house in Albany. Its’ a very nice facility with 12 rooms, and people with less than 6 months to live can stay there 5 days per month, before they have to leave and go home, or to another facility. So they took her there and checked her into a room. My dad said that night she was in a lot of pain, and scared. Again, I wish I could have been there to comfort her.

I called my dad that night, and he said the nurses now thought she had only 2-3 weeks to live, instead of 2-5 more months. I couldn’t believe it! They said the disease was progressing faster than they thought— the 2011 cancer was very aggressive, so it made sense that when the surviving bits of it came back, it would move fast. Again, I did not cry. My mind was just too in shock.

I should have left for home immediately and not worked the next day. But I had Wed. and Thurs. off, and so determined to work my shift on Tuesday, and then drive down afterward. I did that, and came to the house. The door was unlocked, and when I walked in my dad was just sitting all by himself in the dark, in silence. I’d never seen him look so alone and so fragile. The Parkinson’s makes him mumble a bit sometimes, and I could barely hear his voice. It shook as he told me that they now said my mom had not 2-3 weeks, but it would be “a matter of hours.” So we’d better drive to the hospice center tonight, and spend the night in her room. “I don’t want her to be alone when she dies,” he said.

I think we were both zombies after that. We tried to eat some food, but it was hard to even swallow it. And who wanted to eat, when my beloved mom no longer could? We got in the car and started down the road, in the dark. He filled me in on the events of the day: She had been in a lot of pain that morning, but there were many visitors and well wishers who wanted to stop by, so she did her best to smile at them and be polite. But finally she reached the end of her rope and shouted, “no more visitors!” and threw her bedsheet over her head. So everyone left but my dad and the hospital staff. He did tell her I was coming down that night, and I hope that comforted her. Again, I feel so bad I wasn’t there. Why didn’t I leave work early? I guess because I had the next 2 days off coming up, and I didn’t know she was in her last hours.

My dad said her stomach was hurting so much she was writing in bed, and she started having delusions, saying there was smoke coming out of her bed. She was very teary and fearful. And I know she had been very scared because the previous weekend, she had been lying on her bed and told me, “I’m scared!” and started sobbing. “Scared of what, Mom?” I asked. “Of dying!” she whispered. And then cried some more and said, “And I know my faith should be a comfort, but it just isn’t. And I know I should be setting a better example for you to follow.” My heart rushed out to her, and I assured her that she was setting a good example. She’d always set the best example of anyone in my entire life, of how to live. And I held her hand and told her it would be okay.

I think it’s important to say that my mom was not ready to die. I think my dad was much more ready. He’d worked as a volunteer hospital chaplain for years, and seen death up close. He also was in much worse health, with his Parkinson’s, and my parents always assumed he would be the first to go. My parents had discussed how she would still bet 3/5 of his pension, and she told me she wanted to live in a rest home she liked, right next to her Catholic church in Corvallis. So she could walk next door and go to mass anytime she liked. She had only just turned 83. She was looking forward to our Mediterranean cruise in the fall. We were going to Vancouver Island in 2016, and probably on a St. Lawrence river cruise after that. She had so much in life she enjoyed and was interested in. She read the newspaper avidly every day, was interested in current events and sports and loved to write her children letters. She was enjoying life. And then this living nightmare had sprung up out of the blue, just 6 weeks before, and she was told oh, you won’t be going to the Mediterranean, you won’t be going to Canada, or the St. Lawrence river. You are going to die in 3-6 months. And then, oh, now it is 2-3 weeks. And then, oh, sorry, you are going die NOW. I can only imagine how scared she was. And meanwhile all these well meaning visitors are stopping by and trying to “cheer her up,” by quoting bible verses, saying she has nothing to worry about, she’ll soon be in God’s loving arms, etc. Easy for them to say, when they are going home and will wake up the next day and be fine.

The nurses decided to put her on a “pain pack” that afternoon, to numb the pain and ease her troubled mind. She immediately fell into unconsciousness, from which she would not emerge. The nurses said if they reduced the morphine they could wake her back up, but didn’t want to do that because she’d be in pain again. I didn’t want that either. But I longed to talk to her.

My dad and I got there at about 10:30 at night. The hospice building was quiet and we talked in hushed tones to the staff, which let us into her darkened room. “She is unconscious now, and breathing softly,” they said. “It could happen at any time.” I stepped over to her bed, saw this tiny figure curled up under the blankets, her head on the pillow, and her mouth wide open to take in air. It was obvious she was not going to wake up and be able to talk. Still, I did not cry. Too much shock. It was like being trapped in a horrible nightmare where you just wait to wake up. Except I knew there was not going to be any waking up. 7 weeks ago she was fine! We were eating breakfast together and talking about Greece. How is this possible?

My dad and I got some blankets and lay down to go to sleep, the soft puff of my mom’s breath in our ears.

When we woke the next morning (last Wednesday) she was still with us. Still unconscious, still breathing, and this time her breathing was even a little stronger. Will she ever wake up? I asked one of the nurses. “No,” she said.

All day long, my dad and I sat by her bedside, taking turns rubbing her head an stroking her hair, holding her limp hands and telling her how much we loved her. The nurses thought she might be hearing us even though she was unconscious. There were times I was sure she could hear me. I’d say something, and she’d raise her eyebrows a little bit. See! I knew she could hear me, I’d think. Then I’d leave the bedside for a moment, and after a bit her eyebrows would twitch upward again, for no reason because no one had said anything. So then I thought oh, that was just an involuntary action. Or her mouth would twitch when you said something funny or loving, and we’d think she was trying to smile and talk. But then it would twitch again when were not talking, and not touching her. I do think she was having dreams, and maybe was reacting to stuff in her dreams. But as to whether she heard us or not, I do not know. I really hope so, as long as she was not in despair and fear. I told her over and over again how much I loved her, how she was “the best mom ever,” and the person in the world I loved the most. How she would see her beloved parents and brother soon, but would she please wait for me there? That dad would be along soon and I would not be that far behind, and I needed her to wait. That when we met again, I would give her the biggest hug in heaven. There were a few times when I thought she could hear me. Or a tear would come out of her eye. But then at other times a tear would come out for no reason. Her one eye was always partially open, and glazed over. I’d get within 18 inches of it, hoping she could see me. But it was impossible to tell if she could or not.

My dad would sit and tell her stories about their years at Cal Berkeley, where they met in 1960 and fell in love. They were married in 1963, and have been together ever since. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said, his voice breaking. “And you always have been.” I learned more about my parents’ lives in those 30 minutes of stories he told, than I have in years.

My parents’ dog was at the house still, and I had to leave the hospice center twice a day to go let her out and feed her. I also knew she was lonely, so I would spend about an additional hour with her after the feeding, before putting her back in her room and heading back to the hospice center. My mom lived 3 days at the hospice center, so every morning when I would drive over to the house to let out the dog, I’d come up to the silent empty house, unlock the door, and step inside. It as a beautiful summer morning every time, the kind of mornings my mother would have loved. She would have been there in the kitchen, eating her breakfast and listening to the news, gazing out at the river flowing past. Then later going out on the deck to lower the awnings, and just enjoying the beautiful light.

When I let myself in every morning, her spirit hovered in the stillness. Everything in the house had her touch on it. Every vase, decoration, and plant had been hand picked and cared for by her. It was almost like walking into a holy place. And it made me so sad that she would never come back there again, the house where she had lived for the past 49 years, and given so much love and care. It was more emotional to go back to that house every day, than it was to sit in the hospice room, by her bedside. I felt more of her presence in the house. In the hospice room, she was far, far away.

By the 3rd day (Friday) the pressure was building in me. I couldn’t read, couldn’t sleep, and could hardly eat the food the kind staff brought to my dad and me. It felt so wrong to eat when my mom was lying in that bed, starving to death. And we worried about leaving the room when she died. But it had been 3 days we’d been there, and my dad and I were exhausted.

My poor mom. At hospice they don’t feed you or give you water unless you are conscious and ask for it. So she had had nothing since Tuesday morning. Now it was Friday, and her thin body had turned into a near skeleton. As I sat beside her and rubbed her head, noticed her arms and shrunk to the size of sticks, as if they were bird wings. The hollow in her eye socket had deepened and grown more pronounce. “Hi Mom,” I kept saying as I rubbed her head. “It’s me, Tim. Can you hear me? I love you so much.”

Finally, on that 3rd day, I had to leave the room and go on short walks. I was so torn up inside. Her breathing had grown more labored, and her heartbeat irregular. She was so thin you could see her pulse twitching rapidly like a baby bird under her skin, jumping irregularly. She’d take a ragged breath, then there would be a long 10 second pause, and she’d breath again. She was struggling so much, but she was unconscious so I hope she didn’t feel it. The nurses were so amazed she was still with us. “I don’t know what’s keeping her going,” one nurse said. My mom was so strong. If not for the cancer returning, I think she would have lived another 10 years. But I know she had premonitions that something was wrong. This Spring I got my license renewed, and told her I didn’t have to get it renewed until 2023. “I suppose I won’t be alive by then,” she said sadly, as she sat in the rocker. “Oh, sure you will, Mom,” I said. And she just smiled.

I walked outside for a break that afternoon, so upset. I wanted her to not suffer, so I wanted it to end. But I didn’t want it to end, because I loved her so much. What a horrible mixture emotions.

When I went outside, a black cat was sitting there. I since learned that he lived in a little house outside the hospice doors, with “Sydney” written on the top of his house. There was a fountain next to it, and I saw him playing in the fountain sometimes. When I came out of the hospice center, it was like he was waiting for me. I walked around the corner of the building to find a place to sit down, and he came running after me, jumped into my lap, and started snuggling into me and purring. It was like he knew I was suffering, almost as if God or my mom had sent him. From then on whenever I left the center, he would be waiting for me.

That afternoon we put on a piano CD, for my mom to listen to. She has always loved classical music so deeply, and no other kind of music. She studied and taught piano extensively, and later spent a year in Vienna, Austria, studying the organ. Music has always been her greatest passion, outside of her family.

When we put on the CD and the music started softly playing, her breathing got softer, as if she wanted it to be quieter so she could listen. Every couple of hours the nurses would come in and turn her, and this time she was turned toward the window, and the CD player. We sat there in the room with her and listened to the cascading notes, while the afternoon sun shone in throw the window. When “Claire de Lune” came on, I almost started crying. It is such a tender piece of music, one I know she loved, and something about seeing her lying there in the beautiful light, eyes closed, mouth open, and her beloved music playing, just brought me to tears. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to Claire de Lune again without crying.

There was a kind of beautiful intimacy in talking to her as she slept. She was a conservative person as far as personal touch went, and never would have let me stroke her head over and over again if she were healthy and conscious. But now I did over and over, and rubbed her forehead. I said, “Where did you get that scar, Mom?” and touched the white spot over her left eye. I rubbed my hand along the skin of her arm, that smooth skin that I remember so well as a child. Her mouth was wide open, and I could see her teeth. I remembered all the times she’d told me she had to go to the dentist and get a crown put in, and I could see the crown now. I don’t know, when you really love a person that much, and know so much about them, you sit there next to them and just feel how precious they are. It was so sad but such a holy thing, too.

We had thought she would die that day, but it got to be after 5 and she was still with us, so my dad and I thought she would live through another night. She had already lived through 3 nights, after all. I didn’t want to leave but it was already 5:30, and Tessa was hungry and needed to be fed. I told my dad I’d be back around 8. I had the sense I might not see my mom alive again, so I bent down over her and kissed her on the cheek, said, “I love you so much, Mom,” and left the room.

I was at home with Tessa at 7:30, getting ready to drive back, when the phone rang. It was my dad. “Mom died at 7:15,” he said, voice cracking. “I was sitting there stroking her head and talking to her, and she suddenly opened up her eyes, looked me full in the face, and smiled. Then she was gone.”

I instantly felt bad and jealous that it had been him, and not be. Or better yet, why not both of us. I wish I could have been there to see her smile. Maybe she didn’t want to disturb me with her death, and waited till I was gone. I don’t know. But I am glad that my dad was there with her. The love of her life, together since 1960. And what a blessing that he was there when she opened her eyes, and that he received her smile.

He later told me that he’d been talking to her, as we both had been all day, hoping some of it got through. He said he’d been telling her how sorry he was for mistakes he’d made during the marriage, like insensitivity. And he asked her to forgive him. He said that was when she opened her eyes and smiled at him. He said the smile only lasted a second or two, then “it was like a switch was pulled,” and she died.

He and I like to think, and desperately hope, that she had seen a glimpse of heaven. Or maybe her beloved parents had come to take her away. Whatever it was, he said her face was free of fear.

When I got back to the hospice my dad had already spoken to my sister. Earlier that day he had held the phone up to my mom’s ear, so that Anna could talk and hopefully my mom could hear her. I really hope she did.

My mom, or rather her body, was lying back on the pillows, gazing up at the ceiling with half open eyes. Her formerly pink face had changed to white, but she was still warm. I kissed her face, and bent over and smelled her hair, which even after 3 days in a hospice bed, still smelled wonderful. In hospice they give you as long as you want to sit with the body, after your loved one has passed, before they call the funeral home. But as I told my dad, “mom is not here anymore.” And I really felt that. Her soul was gone from that room.

We had to wait about 30 minutes for the funeral director to arrive and take away her body, so we picked up our things from living 3 days and nights in that room. My mom wanted to be cremated, so with the nurses help I used vaseline and soap to get her wedding ring off her finger. I am going to wear it around my neck on a chain. She had had that ring on every day of her life since June 22, 1963, when she and my dad were married. Then I took off her watch, and I cut off two locks of her hair. I have it all here in my apartment, and sometimes I take out the locks of hair and smell them. They still have her beautiful scent.

The funeral home director got there, offered his consolations, and my dad and I stepped out of the room so he could prepare the body. We sat, stunned, in the foyer of the hospice center whited become our home over the last 3 days of waking nightmare. In the Albany hospice house, when a patient’s body is wheeled out, all the nursing staff stands at attention, and harp music is softly played. Soon we saw the gurney slowly moving down the hall. We saw my mom’s white head poking out of the blankets, and her nose pointing up at the ceiling, that nose that she used to fret about sometimes. When she passed by I wanted to reach out and say, “Mom!” and wake her up, but I knew I couldn’t, of course.

When we got outside it was almost fully dark, with just a faint glow of sun left on the horizon. My mom would have appreciated the significance. The black cat was still there, watching us. The funeral director loaded my mom’s body into the back of his van, and then closed the doors gently and drove off. The nurses hugged my dad and I, and we stumbled over to our car and drove home in the dark.

It has now been 5 days since she died. A week ago today she was still conscious, and about to go on the morphine. But it feels like she has been gone much longer. The last time I talked to her was a week ago last Sunday. That is the longest I’ve gone without talking to my mom in years. I would always call at least once a week. It hurts so bad to realize I will never talk to her again. How am I supposed to live the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years? And part of me doesn’t even want to live that long, a very big part of me. I would have rather gone with her just so we could keep talking and face whatever was next, together.

I know my dad feels the same. He is beyond shattered. I got a week of bereavement time yesterday, after I was a wreck at work, couldn’t concentrate and was crying. When I called my dad and told him I was coming home today for a week, he almost started crying.

She did everything in that house, for the two of them. Last weekend he asked me, “Do you know where the towels are kept?” He’d been in that house 49 years, and never known. She always took care of all that stuff. All the cooking, cleaning, and washing. Without her, he is lost. When we ate breakfast the morning after she died, her place at the table was empty. It seemed so horribly wrong to not see her sitting there, cutting her toast into thin slices with her knife, like she always did, and listening to the radio with a pleased expression.

How did this nightmare descend into my family? We were going to go on a cruise! It was as if we were all at home one night, and a killer crept in through the back door, and murdered my mom in her sleep. And in a way, he did. The killer’s name was cancer. It robs people of their dreams, and their loved ones of their joy and companions.

My dad wants to sell the house. It isn’t safe for him to be there alone. His balance is bad with the Parkinson’s, and he is so, so lonely without my mom there. If he can move into town and be around other people in a facility, at least he’ll have some human contact. And it will be much safer. But I know he is also just going through the motions for my sister and I. He feels like his life is over, now that his beloved wife is gone. And I can understand why he feels that way. “I don’t know what we’ll do without Mom,” he said over and over again.

As for myself, I am a complete wreck. I think I didn’t cry before her death because I was in shock, but also because even though she was sick, I could still talk to her. Now I can’t talk to her ever again. The enormity of this fact is crushing to me. I tried to go back to work on Monday and it was a disaster. I cried in front of at least 3 different people that asked about her and I never cry. She had not used all of her L’Occitane products, which she loved, so I gave some of them to a woman in the office who is really sweet, who my mom would have loved. She also has cancer, and is going through chemo now just like my mom did in 2011. We hugged each other and cried.

I could not concentrate on my work. Every time I looked at the computer my mind just wandered and wouldn’t stay focused. The enormity of never seeing or talking to her again took the breath out of me. I wanted to throw up. It was like she was snatched off the street and stuffed into the back of a car, and never seen again. 7 weeks ago we had no idea she was even dying, and now she is dead. Impossible. How does 3-6 months become 6 weeks?

Since she has died, I find myself doing things to try and bring her back to life. When I went home I found a treasure trove of her diaries and photo albums in a closet. My dad did not know that stuff even existed (not surprising, given the towels). There was a diary there from 1950, when she was a 17 year old girl. Priceless! And also one from 1955 when she was at University, a travel diary from many years of her life, and also one from the 70’s, when my sister and I were young children and my mom was in her 30’s. The photo albums are mostly old black and whites from 65 years ago, when my mom was a happy teen in Saskatchewan. The joy of her smile jumps off all the photos. It is so comforting to see and read all this. She seems alive to me again, and I discover new things about her that I never knew. I think she wanted me to find those things, and new I’d find them, instead of her writing a memoir which she would probably be very understated and modest about.

I stayed 2 extra hours after work yesterday, just so I could go over my old emails, and print out hard copies. I had her emails going back to 2008, and luckily I had not erased them, having some instinct at the time that it was wrong to delete them. I’m so glad I didn’t. I now have a thick binder of her emails to me, and reading them I can see her love and hear her voice, even though he is gone.

I also was up until almost 2 going through a box of old letters, where her handwritten letters and postcards to me are. So great to find them and read them again! Her love shines through. It as in reading these again that I realized that my mom is my hero. She is the most loving, giving person I have ever met. I was so lucky to be her son. My grief is suffocating, especially when I focus on her absence, and never seeing or talking to her again. That is too much to bear. But when I focus on her writings to me and her photographs, she comes alive again, and she is still here in my mind.

I’m sorry this has been such sad blog entry. I had meant to write about her death, and then talk more about there life before that, why she was my hero, and what she believed in. But this has gotten too long and I need to head down to Corvallis to comfort my dad. This will be the first of two parts, and I will write more about her life and who she was in my next entry, in about a week, give or take a few days. I look forward to writing that and sharing it with you. My mom always encouraged my writing, and was my biggest advocate and champion in everything. I feel close to her when I write things about her. I hope this post honors her. Thanks for reading it. I will return to write part 2 of it in a few days or a week.

March 3, 2013

Unemployed, part 1: Hired and Fired

I’ve only had one serious, long period of unemployment. It was during the summer of 2001, and I wondered if it would ever end. I’d started working full time in the 1990s, when the economy was booming. It was so easy to get a temp legal job in Denver during the 90’s, all you had to do was stumble into a temp agency with some semblance of clothing and a pulse, and they’d give you something. Like many Americans, I thought it would always be that way.

Even though this story takes place in 2001, it really starts in May of 2000. That was the month I came back to Oregon, after living in Colorado since 1992. I was in a bit of culture shock. Not only is Portland very different from Denver (trees!), the air is even different. In Denver it is thin, dry and crisp. The first few weeks I was back in Oregon I spent much of every day mesmerized by how thick and damp the air was. I felt like I was almost drinking it. While unpacking the many boxes scattered around my new apartment in Southeast Portland, I called up the temp agency I’d visited a month previously.

“Do you have any temp assignments?” I asked. Yes, they said, we have one next week. With a very reputable law firm. One that’s been in Portland for many years. I smiled, took down the information, and thanked them. See? I thought. It’s easy to get a job here.
The following Monday I took a bus downtown, found the office building where the firm was, and waited in the lobby for someone to meet me.

Most people are familiar with the term “flag.” As in, “I should have seen that as a red flag,” aka a poor omen for the future. This particular flag took the form of a 21 year old file clerk named Lisa. Who walked up to me in the lobby and brusquely said, “Tim?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling as a I stood up. No smile back. “I’m supposed to show you around. Follow me.” Maybe that isn’t much of a flag, but when your first point of contact with a place is an unsmiling, unfriendly person, it doesn’t set a good tone. And as far as that job went it turned out to be remarkably prophetic.

For the first three months I was there they assigned me to work in the file room. This is your probationary period, they told me. If things work out we would love for you to work with us full time. As a paralegal assistant. The obvious question (what the hell is a paralegal assistant?) occurred to me, but I wisely kept my mouth shut. 13 years later I am still wondering what a paralegal assistant is, as I’ve never heard the term before or since.

In this particular law firm, paralegal assistant apparently meant “white collar slave.” Specifically, a white collar slave that worked in a file room with unfriendly women. In all my other jobs I had had the following experience: when I was nice to people, they were nice to me back. But when I started working in the file room, all I was met with was coldness. It made me question if there was something wrong with me. Or if there was something wrong with Portland. After all, this was my first job since moving back to the Northwest from Denver. Was that just the way things were here?

There was a cart outside the file room where attorneys and staff would dump files after they were done with them. Every day it was my job to pick them up off the cart and reshelf them. I’m not sure what the file room ladies’ job was, but as far as I could tell it consisted of gossiping and sending out cold vibes. They were fond of telling me to “shuffle,” which meant whenever there was a gap in the shelves, I had to move armloads of files to fill in the gap. Which of course created a new gap, which I then had to fill with the files behind that one, etc. If the gap was in the middle of 10 shelves, it could take hours. A shuffle exacted a stiff physical and psychological toll. At the end your muscles and joints would be aching, back covered in sweat. I grew to hate the phrase, “Tim, let’s do a shuffle.” I especially liked the term, “let’s,” since there was nothing plural about it. They weren’t going to help. But by using the word “let’s” it made it seem like a collaborative venture. People have been abusing the term “let’s” for centuries. The general rule is that whoever says “let’s,” immediately followed by some odious and horrific task, will not be the one participating. Examples from history are, “Let’s attack that heavily fortified hill,” “Let’s start trimming those rosebushes with the 2 inch long thorns,” or “Let’s go into the lion cage and give him his monthly vaccination.” These people are rightly hated. It is the true leader and that proposes a hideous task with “let’s” and actually means it. A good example would be, “Let’s attack that heavily fortified hill….and I will be leading the charge.” Such individuals are rare. And probably will get slaughtered during the charge. But by god, they are appreciated.

A few months into this process, a new member was added to the file room crew. His name was Tyler. He was a young kid only 22 or 23 years old and had just graduated from college. He actually smiled and was friendly to everyone. It was a bit of a shock. It also confirmed to me that I was not crazy. It took an actual nice person there to confirm it, just to illustrate the contrast. The others seemed a bit threatened by him. A nice and friendly person? We can’t have this. It won’t do! He started making outlandish suggestions, such as “How about we get a radio in here?” and “We should go all go out to lunch together once a week, that would be fun.” There is an ancient saying: “The nail that sticks up, must be hammered down,” and poor Tyler was fired a few months later. You can’t attempt to change the status quo and not expect repercussions.

Once my three month probationary period was up, I was mercifully transferred out of the file room and moved up to a tiny office a few floors above. This, it was explained to me, was where I would start my glorious career as a paralegal assistant. And I even would have an office, with my name on it!

Before I go on, let me describe this office. It had no window. It had one desk which filled up 75% of the floor space. think in the past my office must have been some sort of janitorial closet. Filled with brooms, mop buckets, and other devices of the cleaning arts. If you stood dead in the center of room you could swing your arms in big circles without striking anything. That is, if you were afflicted with some degree of genetic dwarfism. Otherwise, better keep those elbows tucked in. My office would have given claustrophobia to a chipmunk.
But still, it was all mine. I was across the hall from an attorney named Whitlow. I am not sure what kind of law he practiced, but as far as I could tell his main specialty was shouting. He was really quite good at it. He had this deep baritone voice, and you could hear it booming across the hall at all times of the day. He thoughtfully kept his door open so I could hear. And so he could shout at his secretary and not have to get up. He was especially good at shouting into his phone, which he would leave on speaker so I could hear both sides of the conversation. He didn’t seem to be a bad guy, but he sure liked to shout. And cuss. To Whitlow, profanity was not an expression of disgust or anger, it was more a form of punctuation. “Where’s the complaint,” always sounded better when expressed as, “Where’s the fucking complaint.” It gave it that extra added oomph he was looking for. Communicated to the listener, I don’t just want the complaint, I want it right fucking now. Such details are important when you are a high powered attorney.

I do give him credit, though. His son would frequently call him, and thanks to the speaker phone I heard every conversation. Whitlow turned into a teddy bear when his son called. His son was obviously troubled, and they had a close relationship. So it was hard to really dislike him. And besides, he was kind of entertaining. At one point I decided to try and “bulk up” as part of a weight training program, and took to bringing a big thermos of protein drink to work every day. After I was done drinking it, I’d take the thermos into the bathroom to wash it out. One day he spied me walking into the bathroom with the thermos. He raised his eyebrows. “Urine sample?” he boomed. No, Mr. Whitlow. But thanks for making sure everyone else heard your thoughts on the matter. Please say that a little louder next time.

It was while I was in this office that the infamous earthquake of 2001 hit. Here in the Northwest we have been bracing for “The Big One” for a long time, mainly because there is a big subduction zone off the Oregon and Washington coast, and geological evidence shows we have a major earthquake here every 400 years. And, it’s been about 400 years since the last one. The earthquake of 2001 was not The Big One, but it was a Little One, which we aren’t used to getting either. I was sitting in my closet / office, pretending to be busy, when I felt the floor start bouncing under my feet. What is that? I thought. Another shudder and sudden bounce. The secretary outside my door screamed. Another secretary said, “Is that the wind?” Whitlow shouted, “That’s not the wind. That’s a fucking earthquake!” And so it was. Let me tell you something about an earthquake. It is a pretty helpless feeling. You have this sudden, animalistic urge to run. And then you think, “Run where?” There is nowhere to go; it is everywhere. After about 20 seconds it was over. One of the secretaries was so shaken up she had to go home. Even Whitlow dialed it down a few notches for the rest of the morning. I heard him mutter something about “the fucking building codes,” but he did not regain his usual volume until later that afternoon.

I worked directly under a paralegal named Susan. She was the main one I was assisting. She was very nice, but didn’t trust me at all. To give her credit she was very good at her job, and was a major perfectionist. I think it scared her to give over any amount of control to another person, especially one that involved much thinking and that they could screw up. She would give me simple assignments such as “See those 45 boxes lined up against the wall by the freight elevator? Go through all of them, make an inventory of what they contain, and then bring me the list.” I was good at stuff like that. A mixture of grunt work and elementary thinking. Plus I got to write stuff down, and people left me alone while I was doing it. Much better than the emotional deep freeze of the file room and their dreaded shuffles. Which, by the way, I was still required to file for. But only to empty the cart and then I could leave. This was a big relief.

As I said, Susan was very nice. But also a different breed. I remember standing in her office once, and seeing a poster above her desk that read, “I became the man I always wanted to marry.” Yep, I thought, that sounds about right. For a while I think she was trying to groom me to become a full time paralegal, and then I got on her bad side and that was that. How did I get on her bad side? It was something very simple.

One day she had given me a simple task: take some 3-hole punched legal documents, and put them into a 3-ring binder. This I did, but I made the stupid mistake of putting the documents in the binder upside down. Or rather, the documents were right side up, but the binder was upside down. When I brought her the binder, she opened it and exploded. “This is unacceptable!” she yelled. “I can’t believe that you would do this. This is a professional law firm. What were you thinking?”

Now if there is one thing I can’t stand, it is people yelling at me. It’s always made me angry, and it goes back to childhood. When I worked for the airlines in customer service, I had lots of people yell at me, but they were passengers and after a while you make peace with it. But for some reason when Susan yelled at me, I got mad. She was sitting down at her desk and I stood right over her, stared into her eyes, and said, “Don’t. Yell at me. Just don’t. I don’t deserve this and you are not going to do that again.” Her mouth dropped open as we continued to lock eyes, and then she turned away. From that day on, she was never nice to me again. I’d go into her office to have her sign my timesheet, and she wouldn’t say a word. Just coldly take it, sign it, and hand it back with no eye contact. And she didn’t give me any more assignments. She wanted nothing to do with me. I had done something unforgivable by yelling at her. The fact that she had yelled at me first did not enter into her thinking.

This put me in a really strange place. I had been getting all of my work from Susan, but now since she was ignoring me, I had no work at all. Sure, I would go into the file room for an hour or two and reshelf files, but once I had done that, my day was over. And I would still have 5 or 6 hours left in it. If I had been more mature I would have gone and talked to her, or talked to the office manager, explained the situation, and asked for more work. I am not sure why I did not. Part of it was probably laziness, and another part was fear that I would get fired if I told them I didn’t have anything to do. If they realized that, why would they want to keep me around? So I spent most of every day sitting in my broom closet of an office, listening to Whitlow yell into his phone and looking at things on the internet. I think part of it was I felt emotionally lost after leaving Colorado. I missed everyone there, and my old life. Things in Portland weren’t working out for me, and I didn’t know who I was or where I was going. I was working in this unfriendly law firm with unfriendly people, and maybe I started to feel sorry for myself. Whatever the reason, I didn’t handle it well. I just retreated into myself like I had in high school.

I would still attend staff meetings, more out of sheer boredom than anything else. These meetings were open to anyone who wanted to attend them. And they usually had free food. So I’d show up to almost anything, sit there during the presentation, and eat. I can say with absolute certainly that the only thing I learned in these meetings was the proper way to open a plastic package of crackers. A paralegal showed me how to seize each end of the plastic and pull in opposite directions. I had been pulling toward and away from myself instead, and it wasn’t nearly as effective. So thank you, whoever you are. Because of you I will be opening plastic packages correctly for the rest of my life. Namaste.

Another thing about this firm was the food. I have never worked in an office before or since that was so big on food. And the food was 90% sugar. Every day you’d walk into the lunch room and they would have set out cookies, or cake, or doughnuts. As a result, a lot of the people in the firm were fat. After a while you felt a bit like a veal, and wondered what they were fattening you up for. My answer would come in a few short months.

In Spring of 2001 our firm acquired some offices a few floors below. I forget if we were leasing or bought them outright, but it was determined that some of us would be moving our workstations down to this new space. I was one of the chosen ones. Actually there were only two chosen ones: myself and a corporate paralegal named Anne. In retrospect it is easy to see how this was a preliminary step to being fired — the firm’s version of the death house in prisons. Wherein the condemned are taken from their death row cell a few days before execution and moved closer to the chair. It was kind of laughable where they put us: the room we had leased was full of old furniture no one had bothered to remove, so that we had to wind our way through it to get to our desks. Anne had a desk on one side of a gigantic mound of furniture, and my desk was on the other. We had to shout at each other over the top of the mound, and I could always hear her radio playing, the music wafting over the upside down swivel chairs and plywood cabinets. She always listened to Z-100, I remember.

It was pure isolation down there. The rest of the firm was a few floors above us and no one ever came down to the dungeon, as we called it. Anne was an interesting case. She had gone to law school and become an attorney, but her first job was a horrible experience where she worked for an abusive partner. After being screamed at by him for about a year, she quit. The only job she had been able to get after that was as a paralegal. And she was fine with it. Working as a lawyer had been such a bad experience, she was happy to have less responsibility, and didn’t seem to mind the lower salary. I wondered if it didn’t bother her to spend over 100 grand and 3 years going to law school, and not be a lawyer in the end. But it didn’t seem to. I think she came from a rich family and was engaged to a wealthy man, so money didn’t mean as much to her as it did to someone like me.

One of the only people to come down to the dungeon was a guy named Jason. He was the same age as I was (31), and even went to the same high school, although I never mentioned that to him. We weren’t friends back in high school and I knew he wouldn’t remember. So I didn’t mention it.

Jason was a nice guy and a bit goofy. He worked for office services and his wife was an ER nurse. He wasn’t any happier working for the firm than I was. He was the only male working in office services, and a big male at that, as he was about six foot four and over 200 pounds. As such, the manager of office services gave him all the “heavy lifting” jobs, and in that firm there was no shortage of heavy lifting. “Jason, move that desk into that office. Jason, take those 30 chairs and move them to the conference room on 19. Jason, bring all the UPS packages down to the lobby in five minutes.” They were also short handed in office services, so Jason was asked to work overtime every week. He was tired and had had enough. I think he came down to the dungeon just for a temporary escape from the chaos upstairs (“Where the hell is Jason? I need him to make 4,000 copies and then carry them to the courthouse!”). He’d come down and shoot the breeze with Anne and I, staring forlornly out the window as he talked. We were like three refugees on an island in the Pacific, surrounded by the discarded jetsam of law firms past. I’d be sitting there “working” at my desk, hear the door slam at the far end of the room, and a minute later Jason would come carefully picking his way through the furniture, a grin on his face. He often talked to me about his dream of becoming a clown. Seriously. He had real aspirations of becoming a professional clown and mime. He had the costumes for each, and would practice at home after work. He called it “working on my act.” As in, “My wife wanted to watch a movie last night, but I didn’t want to because I had to work on my act. But she’d just watched two people die in the ER, so I said okay.” Being a clown is tough. Miming and clowning was his ticket for getting out of the legal world. I got the feeling he was suffering for his art. Clowns are often misunderstood. A prime example of this was when Anne (from beyond the furniture mound), got wind of our conversation and yelled over the din of the radio, “I hate clowns, Jason. I HATE CLOWNS! And I hate mimes, too!” Jason looked at me, rolled his eyes, and shrugged. Clowns cry on the inside.

I said previously that Susan never talked to me. That isn’t quite true. At some point it had gotten so ridiculous with me not having any work, I sent her an email that said, “Is there anyone I could help? I have nothing to do down here.” She instructed me to every morning send out an email to the litigation and corporation practice groups saying “I am available to assist anyone who needs my help today.” I came to understand that this is why you never tell your boss you don’t have enough work: they will come up with a suggestion that makes you look like a moron. So every morning for months I had to send out an email saying, “I am available to assist anyone who needs my help today.” Do you know how often someone responded and said Hey Tim! I have some work you can help me with? Never. I never got a single response. So all my email did was serve as a daily reminder to dozens of people that, “Tim has nothing to do.”

Aside from occasional visits by Jason, Anne and I were all alone down there. Just us and the furniture. However this changed in May, when 2 secretaries and an I.T. person started spending their lunch in our room, rehearsing for the upcoming firm talent show. The talent show was to take place around Memorial Day weekend, and in addition to a nice banquet, some of the attorneys and staff had volunteered to perform talent acts onstage. The two secretaries and a guy named Sean from I.T. had volunteered to dance and lip-synch to “Dancing Queen,” by Abba. This took on an added level of irony, since Sean was gay. An irony that he delighted in. Sean was a good guy, as were the secretaries. I enjoyed it when every lunch hour they’d come down into our room, plug in their CD player, and dance and lip synch over and over again to “Dancing Queen.” It was funny to watch and they were pretty good at it. Spinning around and pointing their fingers during the chorus. I don’t think the people working in the adjoining office enjoyed it as much, but who cared about them. After the lunch hour was over, I could hear them making fun of the song through the walls. Corporate idiots. I never got to see the performance because I didn’t attend the talent show or banquet, feeling estranged from everyone at the firm except for the few kind souls who would come down to visit us in the dungeon. But I’m sorry I missed that performance. I’m sure it was a good one.

I had been hired by the firm in June of 2000, and it was now early June of 2001. My one year review was coming up, and I couldn’t imagine what hilarity that would entail. What could Susan say? He never does anything, because he made up a binder incorrectly, we got in a fight, and now I never talk to him. I hate him so much I stuck him 2 floors below the rest of the firm, in a room full of used furniture. But yeah, let’s give him a cost of living raise. As the days closed in on my annual review date, I wondered just what was going to happen. I should have guessed: they were going to fire me. I often think they did it just to avoid having to do the annual review. Which makes perfect sense to me: it would have been a disaster. Maybe I could have brought the 2 secretaries and Sean along to my review, so they could sing “Dancing Queen,” while Jason performed some clown tricks and miming in the background. That would have livened things up a bit. But otherwise that review would have been death.

One day I got an email from the managing partner. “Can you come to my office?” he wrote. I should have known that this was the firm’s version of getting whacked. The email was the proverbial dead fish wrapped in newspaper. I got up from my desk, picked my way through the furniture to the door, got on the elevator, and rode it up 2 floors. I got off and walked to the managing partner’s office. As soon as I caught a glimpse of who was in there with him, I knew I was done for. Not only was the managing partner in there, Susan was in there too. And also the office manager. It didn’t take a genius to know that when those 3 are in a room waiting for you, your number is up. A mime or an Abba fan could have told you that.

“Sit down, Tim, and please close the door,” the managing partner said with a smile. One of those smiles that are too wide and too fake, like a shark showing the front row of his teeth before biting you. I kept waiting for his eyes to roll back into his head, because that’s what sharks do when they bite down. It protects their eyeballs from the desperate flailing of seals. But his eyes didn’t roll back, and I didn’t feel like a seal, or any of their close cousins of marine life. I felt more like a mime. A trapped, soon to be executed mime. Good god, how long had I been down in that room full of furniture? I was turning into Jason.

I sat down. Susan had obviously filled the managing partner in on my escapades. “Tim,” he said, smile quickly turning to a frown. “We had high hopes for you. But you have not met our expectations. NOT AT ALL.” He emphasized, rather meanly. He thrust his hands behind his head and leaned far back in his swivel chair, so as to not get too close to me. Like I had a disease he might catch. I didn’t, but if I had one I’d have gladly passed it on. Preferably something that would make him hurt when he urinated. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Susan and the office manager sitting immobile in their chairs. I thought I could reach Susan in less than two seconds if I moved fast and knocked over the large potted plant between us. Maybe whack her with an upside down 3-ring binder. But mimes are a non-violent people.

The managing partner lectured for another minute about how it “was not a good fit,” and obviously expected me to argue back. As Susan must have told him, I was a troublemaker. I should have said, “How could I do any work when no one would give me any?” but I knew it was a waste of time. This wasn’t an intervention to see if they could improve my work quality. They’d decided to fire me, and nothing I could say would change that. So I didn’t argue. They seemed stunned I wasn’t fighting back. “It’s okay,” I said. “I understand. Do I need to sign something?”

As soon as I said this, their whole attitude changed. Now they were nice again. You could tell they were relieved. Now the smiles were genuine. Susan was nice to me for the first time in 6 months. Why shouldn’t she be? I was almost out of her life. The managing partner stopped leaning away from me, and set his elbows happily on the desk. “You can file for unemployment; we won’t contest it,” he said. As if this was the kindest gesture in the world. The office manager went over my COBRA options with me. Susan said, “When would you like your last day to be?” We settled on June 21st, a week from Friday. I filled out the forms, shook everyone’s hands (they were all my best friends, now), and went back to the dungeon. “I just got fired,” I told Anne. “What?” she shrieked, and scrambled over the furniture to hear more.

When the last day arrived, Jason came down into our room. “This is my last day too,” he said. “I’m finally going to be able to work on my act.” There was something fitting about he and I leaving on the same day. He was the person I got along with the best. And even though he didn’t know it, we’d both graduated from high school together. So it was kind of poetic. “Good luck on being a clown and mime,” I said. “I know you can do it.” He gave me his email address and I gave him mine, even though I think deep down we both knew we’d never write. It wasn’t that kind of relationship. It was a work relationship, with the firm as our common binding foe. Once there was no more firm, we would really have nothing left in common. It wasn’t like I was going to take courses at Clown College, and ask him for tips.

I shook his hand, gave Anne a hug, and left the furniture room forever. I was in a sentimental mood. I even stopped by the file room, and told the ladies I was leaving. Lisa, the 21 year old file clerk who had welcomed me to the firm, seemed embarrassed and guilt ridden. I held out my hand to her and said, “Goodbye, Lisa.” She flushed and looked down as she shook my hand. I think she knew she’d treated me poorly, and felt bad about it. Well she was only 21, so that’s a partial excuse I guess. When I was 21 I couldn’t even tie my own shoes.

It was weird walking out of the building for the last time. It had been a bad experience, but I’d spent a year of my life there, and now it was over. I headed down the sidewalk and looked for a bus to take me home. (To be continued)


February 18, 2013

This might not be that interesting to anyone that reads it, but I’ve had a lot of friends that have suffered from depression, and I don’t think people talk about it enough. It’s something no one likes to talk about. Occasionally you’ll hear people lower their voices and whisper that Uncle Johnny is having problems because he is depressed, and then the subject is quickly changed to the Winterhawk game. Well, I submit that dealing with depression in this way doesn’t do much good. Lowering your voice and whispering about it like it’s the bubonic plague won’t help remove the social stigma of depression. It won’t help The Winterhawks. And it sure as hell isn’t going to help Uncle Johnny. In the spirit of this, I’m going to write about a time in my life when I was most depressed, so badly that I didn’t know if I would survive it. Maybe reading this will help someone else. It’s important to talk about depression.

One of the things people don’t understand about depression is that it is independent of your life circumstances. Sure, sometimes your life circumstances can make it worse. If you lose your job or get dumped, two things that have happened to most of us at some point or another, you are going to be depressed. But the kind of dark, pit of hell depression that leads to thoughts of suicide, that usually doesn’t come from circumstances. Sometimes you hear about a famous person attempting suicide, or God forbid committing it, and the first thing everyone says is, “I can’t believe he would do that. He had everything a person could want!” If you’ve never been severely depressed, this is a common reaction. What it fails to recognize is what everyone who’s ever been in love can tell you: intellectual reasoning and emotions can be as far apart as you can imagine.

So where do the emotions come from? I don’t know. I am not a psychologist or an expert in the field of mental health. Sometimes depression can stem from physiological reasons, such as low serotonin levels. I think for many it may be related to childhood, and feelings of low self-esteem. It’s been my experience that many severely depressed people have deep levels of pain in their past, and traumatic childhoods. But this isn’t always the case. At one time I was severely depressed, and I had a great childhood. In the end I don’t think it matters much how you get to that place, where feel like you are lying at the bottom of a deep, deep well, staring up through the darkness and trying to focus on the glimmer of light far, far away. It only matters that you find a way to get out. Alive.

When you are severely depressed, you feel like no one in the world could ever understand. One thing that can help you climb out of that well, is learning that other people are down there with you. And by talking about it, you can help each other. So in the spirit of that, here is my experience.

In typical fashion, my depression hit me at the exact time in life when I had the most to look forward to. It was the summer between high school and my first year in college at the University of Oregon. I was 18 years old, had just graduated from West Albany High School, and was living at home with my parents. The plan was to get a summer job and then head to Eugene in early fall, for freshman orientation.

The trouble began when I tried to get a job. My parents lived out in the country, surrounded by farmland, but the nearest town was Corvallis. It was about 7 miles away. The only job I’d ever had was working in the high school cafeteria, which qualifies one for something between trash pick-up on I-5, and professional strawberry picker. Ironically, I would have been thrilled to land either one of those jobs.

Seeing as I had no experience, I went to the one place every young person can find employment: McDonald’s. I still remember asking for the manager, and nervously handing him my resume. Then I had my first “interview.” We went to an empty booth in the restaurant, and sat down facing each other. The tone was deadly serious. Did I have what it took to be part of the McDonald’s team? Did I believe in customer satisfaction? Did I know how to mop a floor? Did I enjoy working with others? Was I okay with clogging the arteries of unsuspecting Corvallis citizens and sending them to an early grave? Okay, I made that last question up. But the rest were pretty much as I remember. I had two problems with this interview. One: I stuttered. Not severely, as I could hide it. Two: I was the shyest person north of Red Bluff, California. Unless that guy has moved. Put these two traits together, and you have a crackerjack interview in the making. As I recall it mostly consisted of me staring at the manager in silent terror, afraid to blink or breathe. After a few minutes he shook my hand and gave me that classic line used by American employers for generations, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” It was a measure of my 18 year old naivete that I thought he actually would. After about a week of not hearing anything, I called him back. McDonald’s would not be offering me employment. They had “no openings.” That is like the Hindenberg not being filled with any gas. I was in shock. How could I be rejected by MCDONALD’S???? Even now, many years later, this still kind of sticks in my craw. I mean if you are not up to McDonald’s hiring standards, that is enough to spiral you into a major depression right there. It reminds me of the time I was unemployed in 2001, went to sell my plasma, and they told me that I didn’t qualify. But I digress.

Even though I was shocked McDonald’s didn’t hire me, I wasn’t upset about it. The thought of having to speak to customers, and interact with fellow employees (many of them girls!) scared the hell out of me, and I was relieved. I thought maybe I could try to get my old high school cafeteria job, where I served three years as a Hydro Ceramic Sanitation Technician. That is a dishwasher, to the layperson.

So I went to a restaurant named something or other, in Corvallis, and asked to speak to yet another manager. I said that I wanted to be a dishwasher, and gave him my resume. He eyed it suspiciously. There wasn’t much to eye, given I’d only had one job in my entire life. “Well,” he said. “We do have a possible opening.” He cocked an ear toward the kitchen, and I could hear cries and splashing water from within. He cleared his throat. “It all depends on what happens with Mitch.” I looked at him blankly. I didn’t know who Mitch was, or what might happen to him, but I had the feeling Mitch was on thin ice. More cries and splashing water from the kitchen. A sharp curse, then silence. The manager shifted on his feet. “Well, I’ll call you,” he said. “Don’t call us! We’ll get back to you.” I thanked him and walked out. I’m not sure what ever happened to Mitch, but he must have pulled out of whatever steep dive he’d gotten himself into, trimmed his sails so to speak, because I never heard back from that manager.

By this time (after waiting a week for McDonald’s to call back, and another week to hear from Mitch’s master), it was already late June. It was getting late to get a job. If I was really determined to get a job I would have been out there pounding the pavement all day long. But I didn’t have a car or a license (my mom drove me, another boost to my self confidence), and I was terrified of people so I didn’t really want to work anyway. So I did what any other 18 year old kid with no direction in life would have done: I quit trying. Yessir, it was time to go home and batten down the hatches until college started. Gentleman, start your engines.

Here is an example of my typical day:

Wake up at the crack of 9. Maybe 10. Eat breakfast, which consisted of cold cereal (Wheaties of course, the Breakfast of Champions), O.J., and 2 slices of toast. Wander downstairs to where the TV was, and watch some inane talk show like Donahue. Feel briefly better, because I wasn’t as screwed up as any of the on-show guests. Come back upstairs. Go in my room. Turn on radio. Lie down on bed and listen to songs for about an hour and a half. Get up. Go back downstairs. Turn on TV. Watch some horrible talk show or soap opera that I may or may not have gotten sucked into out of sheer boredom. Lift weights on my dumbbell and barbell set, while watching said visual atrocities. Come back upstairs. Eat lunch. Read the paper. Okay, just read the sports page. Toss aside rest of paper. Do some “chores.” Typically this involved watering about 1782 plants and flowers on the back deck and front and back yards. Maybe walk the dog, maybe mow the lawn on the rare occasion. Go back in my room. Turn on radio. Listen to songs for another 2 hours. Overhear whispered conversation between my parents regarding “why he won’t come out of his room.” Eat dinner. Go back downstairs. Watch the best TV of the late 20th century (MacGyver? Family Ties? Simon and Simon? Spenser for Hire?). Finish watching programs at 11. Watch local news from 11 to 11:30. Turn off after sports report. Go upstairs. Creep past darkened parents’ room and sleeping labrador retriever. Go to sleep.

This epic lifestyle was one I lived until about mid-July, when the awful depression hit me. I don’t know where it came from, just like when a dark storm cloud suddenly appears on the horizon. One minute it’s a warm lazy day, and the next moment everyone is screaming, pointing, and running.

I can’t describe it except to say that suddenly I no longer wanted to live. Why did I feel this way? I don’t know. That is the mystery of suicidal depression. You can’t explain it to someone that hasn’t been there. Even now I have trouble remembering how I got that low.

This is the crux of it: People can tell you what great things lie in store for you. How your future is full of limitless possibilities. And none of it means anything. Why? Because deep down, you don’t believe any of those things could ever apply to you.

For instance, let’s look at the facts in my situation. I was 18 years old, about to go to a 4-year university, free of charge because my parents had saved for it my whole life since I was born. When I got to college, I would have the opportunity to take any course I wanted to, and to choose any major I wanted to. I could literally plot my course in life, for the rest of my life. And it was all up to me! Not only that, I was going to meet an endless amount of people. I could become friends with whoever I wanted to. With these new friends, we could enjoy 4 years of growing together in college, and sharing new life experiences. I was going to be around thousands of young, beautiful women my same age. I could get to know them, date some of them, maybe even find the woman who would become my future wife, and the mother of my children. In short, I had it all. So why was I depressed?

Because I didn’t….believe…..any of it. Not one single word. Sure, I knew intellectually that all of those things were true. For SOMEONE ELSE. It truly was an incredible opportunity for someone my age. Just not ME. You take those same facts, and now reframe them from my point of view:

It’s true I could take any course that I wanted to. But I was convinced I’d flunk most of them. I knew I was terrible in science and math. So those were automatically excluded. I was scared to death of people and stuttered, so I knew I didn’t want to take anything that would require to get up and speak in front of a class. As for options like becoming a doctor or engineer, those were so far removed from my self-image, they were ludicrous. I could never be good enough to be someone like that. So I immediately disqualified myself from 95% of the majors out there.

Meeting new friends: did I mention I was incredibly shy? At one point early in high school I had been a happy kid, one who loved running cross-country and hanging out with my teammates. But then I got a stress fracture that never healed and other injuries, and was never able to run again. I spiraled downward for the rest of high school and finally just tuned out, waiting for it to be over. I guess you could call that a precursor to the major storm.

As for meeting a girl that I could go out with, don’t make me laugh. My self-esteem was so low I never even considered a girl could like me at all. I didn’t like myself, why would anyone else? I was convinced college would be just like high school: 4 more years of social alienation and loneliness. I didn’t want to go there. I was scared of going there. I didn’t want to leave the house. And yet I hated being there, stuck in the country, isolated. Listening to my parents whisper their concern about me, and if I was okay. The guilt of disappointing them, of turning out to be a bad son, just made things worse.

Before long, probably late July or early August. I started to think about suicide. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but it became real in my mind. I had no hope for the future. It was just a shroud of darkness, stretching out in front of me. I knew nothing good would ever happen to me. Those good things happened to other people. They didn’t happen to someone like me.

I remember telling my mom I was suicidal. I remember she lay down on my bed and sobbed. Then she made me play the violin with her, while she accompanied on the piano. My parents had paid for me to take violin lessons ever since I was five, and she hoped getting into my music would make me not want to kill myself. To get out of my head. It didn’t help. But I did it to try and make her feel better. I felt horrible that I had made her cry. So I never mentioned it again and indicated I was feeling better. It was just a lie.

A couple things helped. One was to have a friend. Our family at that time had a black labrador retriever named Belle. She was only about 18 months old then. When my depression got so bad I couldn’t sleep, I would go down into the basement and she would sit beside me. That meant a lot. Animals can tell when you are suffering. And that’s all you want sometimes. Just for someone else to acknowledge that you are suffering and that they care.

Another thing that helped me was lifting weights. I had this primitive weight set in the basement. The plates for the barbell were made out of hard grey plastic and filled with sand. It only weighed about 110 pounds total. I had an old rickety weight bench, and I’d prop the barbell up on it and do bench presses. After a few weeks it got too light, so I found some old bricks, ran rope through the holes in the bricks, and hung them inbetween the plates to add more weight. At one point I had about 8 extra bricks on a side, and they’d clatter and bang together as I did my reps. I’m sure it looked ridiculous. There was also an old wooden apple box in one corner of the basement, and I pushed it up against the wall, sat down on it, and would do military presses there with the barbell resting on an old rolled up carpet. I knew nothing about weight lifting so I didn’t do any lower body exercises, just did the same 4 or 5 basic upper body lifts every day, 7 times a week. It was then that I discovered the power of exercise to help depression. Just the routine of doing something physical once a day, the movements that your body gets used to, is therapeutic. At the end of it when you set the bar down that final time, you feel like, “My mind may be hopeless and I may die soon, but at least I did THAT.” And it helps.

When you are on the verge of suicide, it all becomes about survival. Living in the country, away from any town and isolated, it felt like I was adrift on an ocean. My past was gone (high school) and the future was invisible (college). One of my lifelines during those “months at sea” was my radio. It was an old cassette player with 2 speakers, the kind of radio we called a “ghetto blaster” in the 80’s. I didn’t have many tapes, so I just listened to the radio all day, every day. There was only one Corvallis station that played rock, so I listened to the Portland stations. They were close to 100 miles away so often sounded a bit fuzzy, but on a good day they came in clear. My radio was always on, and I would lie on my bed and listen to it. I never had the volume up very loud, because I didn’t want to disturb my parents. But it was always loud enough so I could hear. Anyone who has ever been young and listened to a lot of radio can attest to this fact: when you hear the same song come on twice, you know you’ve been listening too long and it’s time to get up. That happened a lot. I’m not sure why, but listening to music every day was a comfort. Not as much as my non-judging dog or my non-judging weights, but it helped.

When I became suicidal, my sleep schedule went all to hell. I would imagine it does this for a lot of people. Being suicidal is like living in a walking dream, one that is horribly wrong and you can’t wake up from. So I guess this is no surprise. I had always gone to bed at 11, and gotten up around 7 or 8. Now I started going to bed at 2 or 3, and waking up at 10 or even later. Needless to say, my parents weren’t happy. I never undressed for bed anymore. I would leave the lights on, and wear my clothes to bed. Sometimes I wouldn’t even take off my shoes. Kids, when you go to bed with your shoes on, this is probably a red flag. Just as an aside.

At night I never listened to music. For one thing, the house was very still. If you live in the city there is always a little bit of noise, even very late at night. The sound of a car, the distant bark of a dog, someone walking by on the sidewalk. In the country, in the middle of the farmland, there is nothing. You can hear a pin drop. Or, as a friend of mine says, “a mouse pissing on cotton.” This meant that in order to listen to my trusty ghetto blaster, I had to remove it from the top of my chest of drawers, put it down on the floor, turn the volume up VERY SOFTLY, and lean toward it, so only I could hear. Why didn’t I use headphones? I can hear you asking. I don’t know. I guess I didn’t have one, or the radio didn’t have a headphone jack. Listen, when you’re on the Titanic and it’s going down, you don’t remember the color of the wallpaper in the dining room.

As I said before, I would watch TV down in the basement until 11:30. Then I’d sneak back upstairs (past the sleeping dog) and into my room (past the sleeping parents). Close the door, turn on the overhead light, carefully set the radio on the floor, turn it on ever so softly, and see what was on at 11:45 in the evening. And the answer was: Not much. Not much at all.

I wanted to hear people talking. Not singing. I’d listened to people singing all day, about fantasies of true love and broken love, money and partying and dreams of the future. None of which I related to. No, it was close to midnight, and I wanted to hear a human voice. I remember the first night I did this, quietly scanning the radio dial from left to right, past the crackling static, listening in for the sound of a voice.

And I found one. A crystal clear, booming voice. Coming from, of all places, Las Vegas. It was a sports talk show from the Stardust hotel. The voice belonged to a man named Lee Pete. And it being Vegas, they weren’t really talking about sports. They were talking about BETTING on sports. The whole show was a promo to try and get you to come down to the Stardust, and bet on a point spread. I’m sure that’s all they meant it for. But every night for an hour, it was an oasis for an 18 year old kid in Oregon. I’d sit there hunched over the radio and listen to Lee and his friends analyze the upcoming football season, who was likely to be good and who wasn’t, and then why you should bet on this team or on that team. And it took me away. Transported me out of that lonely house in Oregon, all the way to Las Vegas. I know there are many people, probably more women than men, that wonder how people can like following sports. Being passionate about a game, where it doesn’t mean anything, and it isn’t real life. Well, the very fact that it isn’t real life is a huge part of it. To someone like me, real life was a nightmare. I had had enough real life. I needed an escape to a place where there were rules and you could understand what was going on, where there was a winner and loser but there were reasons, and there was always another game coming up. The bottom line is, when I listened to this show, I was no longer thinking of myself. I no longer wanted to die. I was in their world.

At 1 am the Stardust show went off the air. But I still wasn’t ready for bed yet (anything to avoid being alone with my thoughts). So I kept the radio on. I discovered that immediately after the Lee Pete show ended, a man named Roy Masters came on. Roy is the sort of radio host that can only come on at 1 am. Because he was a certifiable, 100%, LOON. He is still on the air today, if you look. I was shocked when I googled his name a year or two ago and discovered this. My old buddy Roy! It was like finding out a relative you thought was long since dead is alive and living in Boca Raton. Roy ran and still does run something called the Foundation for Human Understanding. The only thing I understood is that Roy was 100% bat-shit crazy. But I couldn’t turn him off. He was so nuts I kind of admired him. Roy talked about the government taking over, and how he had an uzi, and he would be on the front lines fighting back when they came for him. Well I guess nobody has come for him yet, because he’s still out there. He has an English accent and sounds like an insane George Plimpton. Hey, I can’t explain my depression, and I can’t explain why I liked listening to Roy. I will say that I would never have listened to him during daylight hours, but at 1 in the morning he was perfect.

I wish I could say the same about Lee Pete. I read that he died a few years ago. Of ALS. And the Stardust is no more, either. They tore it down some years ago. That was sad to hear, too.

One night while I was sitting there on my bedroom floor, crouched over my radio, my mother came storming into my room, blinking in the glare of my overhead light, and shouted, “Enough! This has got to stop!” and then slammed the door and went back to bed. I just went back to listening to my radio. Would that it were that simple. That I could have just turned off my radio, turned off the light, and gone to bed. And it all would have been okay. There was no way she could have understood. I barely did myself.

At last the day came when I was going off to college. I remember I was sitting in the basement with the dog, watching a Seattle Seahawks’ preseason game on TV. Because I didn’t want to pack and was avoiding it as long as possible. Finally my parents came downstairs and said I had to load my bike into the car, I think. So I turned it off and went. I remember sitting in the back seat, all slumped down and not looking out the windows, on the hour drive to Eugene. Surrounded by boxes. I felt like I was being driven to the gallows. I remember thinking, okay, I will just kill myself at college then. I don’t know when but it will happen.

I got to my dorm and got dropped off there. My roommate wasn’t there yet. I sat on my new bed and just started crying. I had no hope of anything.

And then……….guess what? The nightmare went away. I am not sure why. But there are some reasons I can pin down. The biggest, and probably most important reason, was that my environment had completely changed. The entire summer I had been living by myself. My parents were mostly in the background. And they knew I was depressed, which only added to the guilt. Suddenly I was away from them and around thousands of new people, none of them who knew I was depressed, nor cared. This was wonderfully liberating. And there was so much to see and experience, that I started looking outside myself more, instead of looking within.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still very depressed. I just moved out of the suicidal part of depression. I still did things that a depressed person does. I spent large parts of my freshman year alone. I did have some friends in the dorm, but I remember feeling strange about it. In particular I remember my friend Duc, a Vietnamese guy who (inexplicably to me) wanted to be my friend. I remember one night I was hanging out in my room studying, and he was sitting there studying also. And I remember thinking, “Why is this guy sitting here?” I was so used to being alone, it felt strange to have another person in the same room.

My freshman year in college, many people did not have TVs in their dorm rooms. My roommate Chris had one, but it was receptionally challenged and spent much of the time flipping images while he banged on the side of it and swore. I felt most depressed at night when there were no classes to go to, so I’d go down in the “dungeon” beneath the UO dorms, where there was a subterranean TV room with a big screen. I’d sit there and watch Johnny Carson back to back with David Letterman every night, until 1:30. Then I’d go back upstairs and go to bed. Watching talk shows late at night always helped with my depression. Some years later I was watching David Letterman interview Drew Barrymore, and she told him that during the worst times in her life, his show was a lifeline for her. Because she could always count on it being on every night. I knew exactly what she meant.

Bit by bit, year by year, I came out of my shell. My friends at the dorm were true heroes for me, because they gave me their friendship and made me realize maybe I wasn’t a worthless loser after all. Did I ever date any girls? No, I wasn’t THAT far along, self-esteem wise. Rome was not built in a day. And because I feared having another suicidal summer, I never spent another summer at home again. The summer after my freshman year, I worked and lived in Glacier National Park. Which is the subject of another blog entry in here. And for the summers after that, I lived in Eugene with some friends from Singapore. Those guys weren’t going to fly for 24 hours to get home, and then have to do it again in 3 months. No, they were going to stay for summer term and bang out that degree in three years, by god. And they needed a cheap roommate to save on summer rent. I was just the ticket. This sometimes made for amusing living arrangements. One summer, 2 Singaporeans and myself lived in a studio. Yes, a studio: a tiny living space meant for one person. In this studio there was a couch, a futon, and a bed. They argued and argued, and made me take the bed. Douglas slept on the couch. Steve slept on the futon. I think our rent was only about 80 dollars each. Per month. It was ridiculous.

Anyway, that is the story of my lowest point, and how I almost killed myself, but didn’t in the end. I was saved by a lot of things, from a cheap weight set in a basement, to a looney toons radio host. But most of all by my new friends at the U of O, my parents, and God. I realize all that, now. Do I still get depressed? Sure, we all do. But I’ve never gotten to that point again. I’ve suffered after breakups, and used a lot of the same coping mechanisms such as watching late night talk shows, and working out a lot. And those things helped just like they did that one summer. But while I was depressed after a breakup, I never wanted to die. That is the difference, and it is a huge one. I feel so, so sorry whenever I hear that someone has killed themselves now. Because I had a glimpse into what they must have felt. The hopelessness, the feeling that there is no way out, not for you at least. I wish I could have been there friend and helped them, the way friends helped me (usually without even knowing it). If I could give any advice to a suicidally depressed person it would be:

1) It will get better. This is the biggest thing to know, and you must believe it. That summer when I wanted to die, I was convinced, ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED, that it would never get any better. And guess what? I was wrong. Just because you feel something is true with every fiber of your being, doesn’t mean that it necessarily is.

2) Talk to people. I realize now that being isolate in that house, with no friends to talk to, was the worst thing I could have done. What helped me pull out of my depression was just being around other people and interacting with them. We all crave human contact, human connection, human caring. It’s the most important thing for us, and the most important gift we can give to another. You don’t have to tell someone, “I care about you,” just by hanging out with them and doing something like shooting baskets, or watching a stupid TV show with them and laughing about it, you are showing them that you care.

3) Exercise helps. The only fond memory I have of that summer, is my workouts in the basement with my weight set. I am proud of that and I enjoyed it. Everything else was either hugely painful, or comically twisted (see Roy Masters comments).

4) Change your environment. Sometimes we get depressed just because we are in a depressing environment. If your current life is dragging you down, try taking a night class, or taking up a new sport. It will get you in new environments and around other people.

And my biggest, final piece of advice of all:

5) Help others. When we are depressed we are turned inward. And focusing on ourselves. I felt better when I watched TV because I was thinking about the TV show and the people on it. I wasn’t thinking of what will happen to poor Tim. I felt better when I was working out because I was working externally. The pain in my body from struggling to lift that damn bar and those damn bricks, let me know I was alive, not just existing. Even better than watching TV or working out, is seeing a friend who is down, and reaching out to him or her. When you lift up someone else, you lift yourself up as well. This is why we are here. To show love. Otherwise we are just existing. One of the only times I felt good that summer was when I mowed the lawn, twice a week. My parents have a huge yard, and it took a couple of hours to do it. It was my way of helping out, and by helping out, I was showing love. And exercising at the same time. Which leads to my final comment:

Damn you, McDonald’s! If you had hired me, probably none of this would have ever happened in the first place! I would have been in a new environment, talking and listening to people, and helping. Oh well. But I’ll never eat another happy meal, again.

Okay, this has gone on long enough. Whoever reads this, I hope I did not bore you to death. It was very cathartic for me to write this, and brought back a lot of memories. Whenever anyone asks me if I am suffering from a midlife crisis, I tell them I don’t have to, I had mine when I was 18 years old.

On a more serious note, if there is anyone reading this that is depressed, I hope what I wrote helps you.

Lessons from Hell Week

July 30, 2012

I’ve always been drawn to stories about the human spirit. When confronted with a massive challenge, why do some succeed, but others fail? Sometimes the answers are obvious – this person was younger or smarter or stronger, that person had less natural aptitude to cope. But often the answers are mysterious, leaving one with only questions. In many cases the person who stands undefeated at the end is not the smartest or strongest. The only logical explanation is that the difference must come from within.

In the last year I’ve been on somewhat of a kick reading books about the Navy SEALs. Some are good, some not so good. I’m not fascinated so much about what they do once they become SEALs, but rather about the training to get to that point. It’s the toughest training in the world— about 80% of those that enter SEAL training drop out. I find it fascinating to read about what those 20% endured, and their thought process that allowed them to endure it. I know I would have quit in a heartbeat.

SEAL training is called BUD/S, which stands for Basic Underwater Demolition / SEALs. The complete journey to become a SEAL takes 6 months, and takes place in Coronado, California. BUD/S training is divided into 3 distinct phases. The first phase is basic conditioning, and is 8 weeks long. At the midway point of this 8 week course is the part where most people quit, “Hell week.” What is Hell Week? Here is a short description from the internet:

“This is when students train for 5 days and 5 nights solid with a maximum total of 4 hours of sleep.”

Note that this isn’t 4 hours of sleep every day. This is 4 hours of sleep total.

The description of Hell Week continues:

“Hell week begins at sundown on Sunday and ends at the end of Friday. During this time, trainees face continuous training evolutions.”

What kind of evolutions? Based on the books I read, they consist largely of carrying around zodiacs (rubber boats) and wooden logs over your heads, getting “wet and sandy (diving into the 60 degree surf, then coming out and rolling on the beach until you look like a sand monster), paddling your boat out into the surf, dumping it on command, then getting back into it, over and over and over. There are also timed runs on the beach of up to 4 miles, where the people that finish under a given time limit get a brief rest, and the people that finish slower than that get punished. A particularly cruel “evolution” I read about involved putting trainees into the ocean at about midnight, and requiring them to tread water for 20 minutes. Instructors had calculated that any exposure in the water for greater than 20 minutes would cause hypothermia, so they’d leave them in the water for exactly 20 minutes, take them out, dunk them in tubs of warm water, and then after they’d warmed them up, stick them back out in the ocean again. Four meals are provided each day, to keep hypothermia away, and compensate for the massive amount of calories burned. But the mess hall is a mile away, and they are required to run back and forth to it. When you imagine doing this nonstop for 5 days and nights, with only 4 hours total sleep and occasional short breaks for meals (during which time many people nod off into their food), it’s easy to see why most people quit. They psychologically snap, or decide it just isn’t worth the suffering.

And of course, this is the point. They want to weed out almost everyone, until the only people that are left are remarkable.

I read several books about SEAL training and Hell Week, and it occurred to me that there were many lessons that could be gleaned. About not giving up, perservering in the phase of extreme suffering, and even about how to comport yourself as a human being. I’d like to list a few things that I found really interesting, and that stuck with me.

1) A survivor doesn’t consider quitting to be an option. In his book “Lone Survivor,” Marcus Luttrell recounts his experience of hell week. He writes that so many people cracked, that they decided while shivering endlessly in 60 degree water, teeth chattering, muscles screaming and cramping, that this could not possibly be worth the agony. He said one of the reasons he didn’t quit is the thought simply never occurred to him. He wrote that at the start of hell week he figured he might not make it if he broke a limb, or if he drowned or was otherwise killed, but the thought of actually QUITTING VOLUNTARILY, was not even a possibility to him. He suspected that those who considered it as an option (“I’m going to do my best but if I have to, I can always quit”) almost never made it. Marcus actually did break his leg the first time he attempted hell week, but came back in the next class and passed.

2) Humor helps ease suffering. In his the book “The Warrior Elite,” Dick Couch shadowed a BUD/S class and reported on the trainees in it from the first day (about 160 classmates) to graduation day (about 23 classmates). He recalled two instances of humor during hell week that stuck with me. In the first one, a BUD/S instructor was screaming at a recruit and making him do calisthentics on the beach. The recruit didn’t complain and suffered in silence. Suddenly the instructor ordered him to do duck walks. The recruit started making quacking noises as he walked, and pretty soon both he and the instructor were laughing. In the second instance of humor, the remaining trainees were deep into hell week, on night 3 or 4. The current “evolution” consisted of paddling their zodiacs out through the surface, then turning the boat over in the frigid water when one of the instructors blew his whistle. Then righting it and climbing back in when he blew the whistle a second time. This had been going on relentlessly, and finally when an instructor blew his whistle again, signifying the trainees to dump their boat, a long cry echoed over the waves, “Asshole!” Everyone laughed, even the instructors.

3) You do better if you’re trying to help others, and not just yourself. In his excellent book, “The heart and the fist: the education of a humanitarian, the making of a Navy SEAL,” Eric Greitens writes about his experience in hell week. Unlike Luttrell, who went into SEAL training as a sailor, Greitens was an officer. This meant that during training he was in charge of a small group of fellow trainees. Greitens didn’t feel better than them. He felt responsible for them. This sense of responsibility weighed on him, and he would search his mind at night for ways to help them graduate, to convince them to keep going and not quit. His commanding officer warned him before SEAL training that this would make it harder for him to graduate. Because not only would he have to worry about himself, he would have to worry about the men he was responsible for.

But Greitens said a curious thing. He wrote that he found that being responsible for others, made his enduring EASIER. He said during hell week he wasn’t thinking of his own pain and suffering, he was constantly watching his men, trying to think of ways to help and encourage them. As a result he didn’t have time to think of his own pain. He said the only time during hell week when he wavered was when they were given a 2 hour nap, about halfway through the course. His men immediately passed out in a tent on the beach. He lay down next to them and tried to close his eyes. But he couldn’t fall to sleep. He tried and tried but he was still wide awake. He writes that he remembers getting up and thinking, if I can’t fall to sleep, I am not going to be able to survive the rest of hell week. My career will be ruined! And then he realized that this was the first time he’d felt sorry for himself. And it was all because he had stopped worrying about his men, and started worrying about himself. Once he realized that truth, he immediately felt peaceful, lay down, and fell asleep.

4) The right way to treat others is not necessarily what society would have you believe. Again in Greiten’s book, there is a passage that really brought this home for me. He is describing a training run they went on, along the beach. It wasn’t during hell week, it was just a regular training run led by Instructor Reno, a popular BUD/S instructor that was tough but fair, and that everyone liked. The trainees were running along Coronado beach, and Greitens said they passed a bunch of young women who were lying out on the sand in their bikinis. The men stared at them as they ran by. After they had passed them and gone further down the beach, Instructor Reno said, “You know what a real man is, guys? When a real man leaves a woman’s side, she feels better about herself.” Greitens said that stuck with him, all these years later. It resonates with me, too. It doesn’t only have to reply to romantic relationships, I think it can apply to any relationship between two human beings. Popular culture teaches us that in a relationship you should “get what you want,” and “get what makes you happy,” and be selfish so that “no one takes advantage of you.” There is even a popular saying that says don’t worry about other people, “Just do you.” Instructor Reno’s definition of what makes a real man, is completely different from the way most people think in relationships. Most people just think about getting what they want, and that’s it.

There were a lot of other things I learned in reading about hell week, but those lessons stood out for me. It also made me think about the book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl. In this book, Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, explores the title theme. When he was in the camp, he writes that he watched some people give up and die, while others continued on until the bitter end, refusing to capitulate. He concluded that the difference was not in who was weaker and who was stronger. He writes almost invariably, the people that gave up, gave up because they could no longer see the point in anything. The ones that carried on, did so because they had found some meaning to their survival. Whether the meaning was staying alive for their children, spouse, or a higher belief, this mental attitude made all the difference. I couldn’t help but think of that line from Frankl’s book, when reading about Hell Week.

Great books!

July 25, 2012

If you know me and clicked on tminore.wordpress to read this blog, you might know that I love to read. Or maybe you don’t know me at all, meant to type in something with “tonguepress” in it, fat fingered your keyboard, and are wondering why you are staring at my blog rather than porn. In either case, I’d like to share a few books I really enjoyed reading this year.

“Wild: from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” by Cheryl Strayed. You know that one book that just stuns you, making you want to go up to everyone you know and shake them while you shout, “You must read this! You MUST!”? Well, that’s how I feel about this book. I have been telling everyone I know they have to read this. I mailed a copy to my sister and one of my friends, unasked. I feel like some kind of “Wild” evangelical Baptist, wandering around in an old goatskin, scratching occasionally because of the fleas. Seriously, you’ve got to read this. You might think, what’s the big deal, Tim, it’s just a book about a hike. Superficially, yes, but in reality, the hike is not even the point. It’s merely a vehicle by which a person who is totally lost and in great pain, manages to find herself. If you like true stories about the human spirit, about how a person can be lost and then found, this book is for you. And the writing, did I mention it? It’s incredible. Cheryl Strayed is an incredible writer, and one living right here in our own Portland, OR, to boot. If you want to read more about, go to her site http://www.Cherylstrayed.com . There is even a short film on the book, with pictures of her on the hike. It’s the kind of book where I sped up as I went along, and then slowed down because I didn’t want it to end. Please. Read this book.

“The Queen’s Gambit,” by Walter Tevis. This novel was written in 1983, a year before Tevis’s premature death. It’s about a young girl living in an orphanage, who was sent there when her mother was killed in an auto accident. At the age of 8 she watches the janitor playing chess, and discovers she is a world prodigy. The story takes many twists and turns after that. You really feel for this character. I’d find myself worrying about her when I wasn’t even reading the book, wondering if she’d be okay. Let me tell you, you can feel pretty stupid worrying about a fictional character. How good does a book have to be to make you do that? The answer is, really good.

“11/22/63,” by Stephen King. This is his latest book, and (in my opinion) his best since he wrote “The Stand,” which is one of my favorite books of all time. As the title would suggest, it’s about the Kennedy assassination. A man in 2011 America discovers a time portal in the back of a restaurant supply room, which takes anyone who walks through it back to 1958. Can he live there for 5 years, and stop the Kennedy assassination? How would that alter history? And can he change many other things during that time period, as well? Will he make friends there? Will he fall in love? Can he ever tell anyone who he is and where he is from? A fascinating novel that I loved. Just like with the previous 2 books on this list, I just kind of sat there after I finished it, and wanted to say a prayer or something. Or at least mumble a few words of Latin, just for general effect. Damn you, Stephen King. How can you be so good.

“Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain. So funny and entertaining. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant like I have, or have sat in a restaurant, looked at the swinging doors to the kitchen, and wondered “just what the heck happens back there,” this book is for you. Side note: I was blown away by how good a writer Bourdain is. Not only is it well written, I was constantly having to look up words I didn’t know the meaning of, like putative, apocryphal, and spurious. Folks, chefs aren’t dumb. And they carry really long knives.

“Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand. Okay, I may have spelled her last name wrong. Shoot me. She’s the same woman who wrote “Seabiscuit,” which is another book you don’t want to miss. Unbroken is the true story of Louie Zamperini, who was an Olympic athlete that flew bombers during the 2nd world war. While on a mission in 1942 his bomber crashed in the Pacific. He and another man floated for 2 months on a tiny life raft, surrounded by hungry sharks, baking under the sun and living off rainwater, fish, and the occasional seabird. They finally drifted to an island held by the Japanese, and were prisoners in a brutal POW camp for the next 3 years. Against all odds, they survived. An incredible story about the human spirit.

……Okay, I think that is enough. I read a lot of books, but those are the ones that really did something to me. I hope anyone who reads this will pick up at least a few of them. And regarding “Wild,” just remember. Don’t make me shake you.

“The Roberts”

May 6, 2012

It’s hard to believe, folks, but summer is almost here. This winter was a tough one, wasn’t it? For months I went to work every morning clad in a heavy woolen coat, ski cap stretched over my skull like I was performing some sort of bizarre heist. The coat had been my constant companion since late October. Then 2 weeks ago I stood at the bus stop, and a stunning realization hit me. I was warm. I removed the coat. Since then I’ve only worn a light hoodie in the mornings, and soon even that will go in the closet.

It’s not just me—people everywhere are shedding their winter clothes in favor of more modest attire. And many are shocked to discover what they see. Fat. Lots of fat. Which can only mean one thing: time to go on a diet.

The Great American Diet has been around for over 200 years, ever since George Washington looked at the portrait of himself crossing the Delaware and thought, I need to get rid of that gut. There are many diets, called by many different names. Most of them don’t work because they are either flawed to begin with, or because people don’t follow them. It’s understandable if they are flawed, but why don’t people want to follow the ones that work? I think the answer is simple. Everyone wants to lose weight and get in shape, but nobody wants to work at it. In other words, the idea of being fit and thin is appealing, but the idea of eating a Krispy Kreme is even more appealing. So people try to do both at the same time. This doesn’t work. In fact, all this gives them is a cascade of guilt. Is there a way around the guilt? Yes. It is to fool yourself. And how do you fool yourself? By making yourself believe you are following the diet, when you actually are not.

A great way to do this is to not keep any records. Yes, you have an Aunt in Boca Raton who lost 80 pounds keeping a food journal every day, but who has time to write all that stuff down.

Another good way is to make sure every restaurant order you make is followed by, “and a small diet coke.” If you tack that on to any order you make, it will reduce the guilt by at least 25%. Try it now and say it with me, “I’d like a cheeseburger, fries, onion rings, and a small diet coke.”

See? Makes you feel better already. You ordered a small diet coke. This shows you are committed to your diet.

Perhaps the most common method is to re-organize your eating schedule. Don’t eat anything for breakfast, have a salad for lunch, and then go home and devour 5,000 calories at 9 pm, preferably in the form of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Papa John’s pizza, and chocolate Hagen Daz bars. That way you are following the diet because you “don’t eat breakfast, and only eat salad for lunch.”

These are all tried and true techniques. But the following technique has never (to my knowledge) been seen in print before. I call it, “The Roberts.”

The Roberts is named after the managing partner at my old law firm. At this firm we had many birthday and other social celebrations, all served with copious quantities of junk food and desserts. Roberts performed this technique at every one of these celebrations, and yet remained undetected by 95% of the participants. As such The Roberts is the ultimate undercover technique, fooling all.

It is performed like this: The subject (in this case, Roberts) sees a forbidden object that HE MUST ABSOLUTELY NOT EAT, sitting on a table surrounded by other sweets. This object could be a slice of cake, a chocolate covered donut, or a large slice of key lime pie. It doesn’t matter, the point is he is on a diet and the object is off limits.

Phase one of The Roberts is performed psychologically. Everyone is here to have a good time, he thinks, so it would be bad manners not to celebrate. No one likes to be around the stick in the mud who is on his diet.

This leads directly to phase two, where he picks up a knife, goes over to the forbidden object, and cuts off a very narrow piece. He eats it, and then walks directly to another part of the room. Leaving the scene is key to The Roberts. It doesn’t matter what he does on the far side of the room, only that he has moved away from the dessert table. Since it’s a party he will most likely socialize for a few minutes, and eat a few healthy items such as carrot sticks.

Then he comes back. This is the second and most important key to The Roberts— the re-entry. He circles the table a few times so as not to attract attention, then reaches for the knife. This is better than approaching the table obliquely, wherein both casual observers and his conscience might think he was there on purpose. Another small slice of the forbidden object is cut off and consumed. Then he leaves again. Waits a few minutes, then re-enters. It usually takes a half dozen exits and re-entries, but within 10 minutes the object is gone. Totally consumed. Slice, by slice, by slice. In this way he eats the whole damn thing, but with none of the guilt that eating it all at once would have produced.

Can you not see the brilliance in this technique? It’s really shocking in its simplicity, in the complete web of deception it drops not only over all observers, but also (and especially) the perpetrator. With the help of The Roberts, you can eat all the sweets you want at your next holiday party, with none of the guilt. After all, you only cut off a little piece. And it was purely to be sociable. Now hurry, go stand on the other side of the room.

The Airline Saga: Shuttle Bus Wars

May 15, 2011

Right after graduation from International Air Academy in Vancouver, Washington, my parents and I drove home to Corvallis. I only had 5 days before I had to report to work in Denver, Colorado, a place I had never been before in my life. I was in a daze as I packed my belongings and prepared for another unknown step in my life. Since I did not own my own car, the plan was for my parents to drive out with me to Denver, we would look for an affordable apartment, and then I’d ride the city transit system to and from work at Stapleton airport. As plans go it didn’t sound too great, but if you have no car or money the world is not your oyster.

It took us two days to drive the 1,300 miles from Corvallis to Denver. I don’t even remember where we stayed the first night, but probably somewhere in Wyoming. I have a vague recollection of driving the 2nd day along I-80 in Southern Wyoming, surely one of the most godforsaken roads in the entire universe. I-80 runs nearly the entire length of Southern Wyoming, and there is literally nothing out there. No trees, no people, no nothing but flat endless prairie. You can see for 15 or 20 miles in either direction because nothing is impeding your sight. Southern Wyoming makes the Dalles look like the garden of Eden. Fall asleep at the wheel in Southern Wyoming? Not to worry; you won’t hit anything. You’ll drive off the road for a while, and then sooner or later you’ll probably rejoin it. Veterans know the preferred way to drive through Southern Wyoming is at night— that way you don’t have to look at anything. Periodically there are large blank sign-like structures, square objects that appear to be left by aliens. “What is that?” we wondered as we saw the first one. Our labrador Belle was in the back, crammed between the suitcases, and whined softly as we passed. Later we would find out they were designed to block the snow, but at the time they merely looked ominous.

Rest areas were another Southern Wyoming treat. Not content to be right next to the road, their creators had for some reason stuck them 3 or 400 yards off the beaten path. When you finally got there all you saw was a stone structure, like a bomb shelter. No one was usually around, except for maybe an old trucker inside, standing frozen in front of a urinal and muttering at his pants.

Did I mention the wind? That was the worst part. It was evil cousin to the wind in Glacier National Park. But this Southern Wyoming wind was worse. It never, ever stopped. Just moaned and whined interminably, crushing your soul. And why should it ever let up? There was nothing out there to stop it. No, the best way to cross Wyoming on I-80 is at night, with your cruise control set to 80, your stereo blaring, and your windows shut tight. If you are a male, carrying a pee bottle is advisable. The more of those rest areas you avoid, the better.

At least we reached Colorado, and began seeing signs for Denver. The feeling of doom that had been growing over the past 2 days settled over me. We reached the outskirts of the northwest suburbs, reading signs to strange places called Northglenn and Thornton. My God, where were the trees? What was WRONG with these people?

We stopped at a Super 8 motel, and checked in. That night we walked across the parking lot and ate at a Perkins. You may never have eaten at a Perkins. In that case, I congratulate you. Although I have never eaten at a Jack in the Box nor a Long John Silver’s, and have no intention of ever doing so, either. Some restaurants you just want to avoid. However there was no avoiding this Perkins. In case you have not eaten at one, it is best described as a glorified Denny’s. Slightly higher class— only about 5% of the patrons are homeless, in comparison to a good solid 10-15% at Denny’s. Of course this depends on location, and is considerably lower in the suburbs. Perkins is one rung up the culinary ladder from Denny’s, about on par with its evil twin sister, Sherry’s. Or is it Shari’s? Mercifully, I do not remember. If the short order cook does not have a cigarette in his mouth, you are probably in a Perkins. Look for those key indicators, I always say.

The next morning we sat in the motel room and looked through the yellow pages of the local phone book for apartments. This was in 1992, an ancient time when cell phones and the internet did not exist outside of Michael Douglas movies, and NORAD. We spent at least an hour calling around to various apartment complexes, and finally settled on one in a southern suburb named Aurora, at a place called Fairways apartment. Note to self— anytime a business has the word “fair” in its title, be wary. They are probably trying to compensate for something. The fact that the complex name went beyond “Fair” and took it up a notch to “Fairways,” was an even bigger warning sign.

We drove over to Fairways apartments, and met the staff. They were all smiles in the complex clubhouse, and had me fill out the copious apartment application. “I’m sure you’ll get in,” they said, “but it takes 3 or 4 days to process your application. We’ll contact you when you are accepted and can move in.”

Beautiful. My parents had to drive back to Oregon the next morning so my Dad could get back to his job, so I would have to wait the 3 or 4 days by myself until I could get in. Then somehow I’d have to get a ride from someone, in order to move my meager belongings over to my new home. My parents and I went to a furniture store and we bought a futon, some pots and pans, and a few other essentials. I think we were able to store them at the complex while the paperwork was going through, but to be honest I don’t remember. What I do remember was my parents dropping me off at a nearby motel 6, where I would wait out the application process before I could move into Fairways.

“Well, goodbye,” my Dad said. “Make us proud and don’t forget to call if you need anything.” My Mom started to cry. I tried not to cry and succeeded. They walked away and I shut the door.

I don’t know if you have ever had a transitional point in your life where you’ve been all alone, with no car, in a strange city where you don’t know anyone. But if you have been, let me just say that a motel 6 is not a place that gives you an emotional boost. The padlock on the phone, the monster chain on the TV, the 3 channels of reception and the 12 of snow— it is all pure gold. Of course you could soothe the stress by going in the bathroom and taking a nice hot bath, except there is no bathtub. What you get is a stand up shower, with the same amount of water pressure they use to quell riots in 3rd world countries. I stayed there for 3 days, and the maids never changed the sheets once. Every morning I would see them walking past and say, “Can you change the sheets today, please?” And they’d smile and nod and say, “Yes! Yes! Si! Si!” and then it would never happen. Probably the lowpoint was the 2nd night, when I was lying on the bed and watching Charlston Heston in “Planet of the Apes.” There are worst definitions of depression than watching Planet of the Apes in a motel 6, but that is a pretty good one.

The one godsend was there was a La Quinta next door, and my fellow Air Academy grads and Mesa Airlines hirees Mike, Zack, and Annemarie were checked into it. I would go next door and sit in their hotel rooms, just to be in a motel that did not treat its patrons like convicts. Zack and Mike shared a room, and it was covered with empty beer cans. At night Mike and I would go on these long, stumbling walks out near the interstate, wondering how we had gotten here, and trying to grasp the significance of it all.

Before I got to move into Fairways, I had to go to work. My shift schedule at the airport was from 6:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon. I met Annemarie for breakfast at 5 AM, at the Denny’s that was next door. And yes, the short order cook was smoking a cigarette.

At this point my life had gone beyond being merely surreal, and had morphed into an alien life form. 4 months ago I had been living in a dorm room in Eugene and waking up at 9 AM. I had zero contact with girls due to my shyness, and had never even gone out on a real date. Now suddenly I was eating breakfast with a girl, it was 5 in the morning, and I was in Denver, Colorado. If the Easter bunny had walked up to the table I probably would not have batted an eye, and just told him to pull up a chair. I might have even offered him some of my French toast.

“So this is your first day, huh?” smirked Annemarie, as she poured maple syrup over her pancakes. Her orientation wasn’t starting until tomorrow.

“Yep,” I said morosely. “And it is pitch black outside. I don’t even know how to get to the airport. This is insane.”

“Do you even know how to take the bus there?” she said.

“Not yet,” I said. “I’m calling a cab.”

After we ate I dialed the Denver yellow cab line, which was (I believe) 777-7777. It is strange how little details like that stick in your mind. After shivering out on the curb for 10 or 15 minutes, a ghostly vehicle emerged from the darkness, and screeched to a stop. A Jamaican man smiled at me as I got in. All I could see was the gleam of his white teeth.

“Where you goin’, mon?” he said.

“The airport,” I said.

“The airport?” he shook his head. “At this hour? You must be crazy, mon.”

“Tell me about it,” I said.

I don’t remember what happened that day, or at least not much of it. I think we had to have our pictures taken for our airport I.D.’s, and then were shown around the various concourses. We stuck close together, like a flock of sheep scared of predators. It was also then that we learned that for a while we would not be boarding flights, checking people in—you know, the stuff we were actually TRAINED for; we would instead be driving shuttle buses.

The Denver airport in 2011 is state of the art, and is located well East of Denver, in a vast network of buildings called Denver International Airport, or D.I.A. for short. But that didn’t open until 1995. Back in the fall of 1992, everyone flew out of Stapleton International Airport, which was right in the center of the city, kind of run down, and feeling its age.

Mesa Airlines was a commuter airline. That meant we only flew small, propeller driven aircraft— 19 seater Beechcraft airplanes, and 30-seater Brasilia airplanes. Occasionally we would operate Dash-8s, which were ugly, noisome creatures that carried 50. But for the most part it was all 19 and 30 seaters. “Puddle jumpers” galore. We serviced the Western Slope, which translated to all the little towns along the Rockies, like Telluride, Grand Junction, Durango, etc. Because we weren’t “a real airline,” or at least did not fly any real airplanes like 737s or larger, the powers that be at Stapleton stuck us out in a satellite building, meaning we were separated from the other concourses, and from the main part of the airport. There was no way to walk to it from the rest of Stapleton, which is where we came in. We would pick up passengers from the main airport or the satellite terminal, and drive them to and fro across the tarmac, a distance of about 5 or 600 yards. This was our whole job. Some of us worked as drivers, some as “marshallers,” which helped back up the bus each time and send it on its way. And some to announce over a P.A. when the shuttle bus was boarding, when the next one would arrive (about every 5 minutes), and when it was full. Generally we had 2 buses going at all times, 1 marshaller, and at least 2 people on either end. Plus a person or two that was usually wandering aimlessly about the airport, doing nothing, dozing in empty boarding areas or buses, illegally eating danishes from the flight attendant’s commissary, and generally slacking off.

As newbies, it was our job to work the shuttle bus. The rest of our fellow Mesa employees worked “the gate,” or “the walkway,” and actually checked people in, boarded the flights, sent them on their way, etc. Not only were most of the other employees locals (Denver born and bred), but most of them had just walked in off the street and been given the job. They had not gone to 12 weeks of airline school as we had, not moved across the country, and not paid thousands of dollars for an education on the finer points of airline customer service. No, all of that was unnecessary. In addition, we were all being paid minimum wage, which at the time was only 5.25 an hour. But, the manager told me with a grin, since I was a college graduate, I would get a higher rate of pay! I would get 5.50 an hour, instead. Thanks.

The next day I got a call from Fairways apartments, and moved into a tiny studio with some help from Mike, my friend from the Air Academy, and fellow shuttle bus refugee. My futon set down with a whump right in the middle of the studio, and sucked up about half the space instantly. I had no TV but after a while did not miss it. I spent my evenings reading magazines or books, and Zack and Mike lived close by so we would often visit each other, largely bemoaning how alien it felt in Colorado, and wishing we could go back to the Northwest. I remember Zack saying, “The Northwest is so normal. Everyplace else is just so WEIRD.”

I learned to walk a half mile to Havana street, and take the 105 bus to Stapleton. This was shortly after 5AM, and riding the bus was like riding a zombie ship through outer space. Everyone was passed out or otherwise asleep, and the bus would lurch to a stop every 300 yards or so, to pick up another poor bastard who had to go to work. It took about 40 minutes to get to the airport, as I recall.

Upon arriving at work we’d have our “morning briefing” from Dan, a short little man of 5 foot 2 or so, who while being a great guy, believed in doing everything by the book. He had aspirations of being a station manager one day, and obsessively had us check the motor oil of every shuttle bus, each and every morning. When it is pitch dark and 28 degrees outside with a howling wind, this can get rather annoying after a while. I remember one day he told Steve, a 47 year old academy graduate, to go outside and check the oil. “It’s good,” Steve said. “How can you tell?” demanded Dan. “I have x-ray vision,” Steve said drily. Older people have a lower tolerance for bullshit.

My specialty was either driving, or marshaling. Of course, this is because both tasks did not require me to talk to anyone. If I was in a position where I had to talk to people, I did the minimum possible, making announcements while I hid behind a wall with the microphone cord stretched out to its full length, pretending to stare off into space so as not to talk to the customers waiting in line for the shuttle to arrive, etc. Folks, avoidance is not a good strategy in life. It is easier to fool yourself about that when you are 23. While other people chafed on the bus and wanted to know when we were going to be promoted to work on the gate and deal more directly with the public, I never complained. I was happy right were I was. I didn’t WANT to get promoted. That would mean talking to people.

I worked on the shuttle bus for 7 months. Mostly driving, where I perfected a one handed, slaloming technique where I’d zoom within inches of parked baggage tugs and support beams, on occasions making the more nervous customers scream in terror from the back, before fishtailing to a stop before one of the terminal doorways. We had to make an announcement when we got there, so I would shout out, “This is the final stop for all flights!” in a loud voice, which inevitably led most of the people to whisper, “what did he say?” When people got on or off the bus I would not say hello or goodbye, or smile; I would just stare straight ahead through the windshield, and act like they did not exist. Looking back on it I cannot believe I acted on that. If I were to work that job today I would say hello and goodbye and try to smile at each person who got on our off my bus. But back then I was incredibly shy and insecure so I would just cover it up by acting indifferent and ignoring everyone. Or, at least pretending to ignore everyone.

One of the main places we flew to was Aspen. Which, in the early to mid nineties, was the place for the Hollywood Elite to go. Consequently we saw a lot of famous people. Madonna, Duran Duran, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, Axl Rose, Paul Hogan (the Crocodile Dundee guy), Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, Bill Walsh (the 49ers coach), Michael Douglas (the nicest celebrity by far), Don Henley from the Eagles, random actors from Beverly Hills 90210, etc. One guy that I drove a lot in the shuttle bus, was David Brenner, the comedian from the 70’s. He would never say a word to me, just sit in the front seat with his sunglasses on, and stare straight ahead like he didn’t even acknowledge my existence. I thought he was a real jerk. Looking back on it, he does remind me very much of someone…..ME. Funny how I could not see that, at the time. But the one person who was acting exactly like I was toward people, I thought was a colossal jerk. There was a lesson in there.

Another thing I picked up from seeing celebrities, is they really weren’t any better than the rest of us. They just looked like ordinary people, and did not act any better or any worse. My friend Paul had Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn ask him if he could call ahead to the main airport and hold a flight for them, and they were kind of rude about it. He said he would call ahead, and told them to get on the shuttle. He never did call ahead and wouldn’t have known how to anyway, but he was tired of dealing with them and just wanted them to go away. Things happen.

Perhaps the strangest celebrity experience was with Michael Douglas. One night in 1994, he showed up to our boarding area, getting ready to fly to Aspen. He was there by himself and some friends. A very nice man, he smiled at us as he checked in, and made small talk. Later that evening I had to walk past his group, and they were all standing in a circle and talking. If you have watched any of his movies, he has a deep, distinctive voice. It was just SO WEIRD to hear that voice as you walked by, it creeped me out. Because I was used to hearing that voice in darkened movie theaters. And now I was hearing it just right next to me, as I walked past a group of people. Very strange. But cool.

We got bored on the shuttle, and started to “act out.” My friend Zack was the worst. He was eventually fired because of his bad attitude. He also did not have a driver’s license, something the crack staff at Stapleton neglected to check. So the entire 5 or 6 months he drove, he was illegal (he was 18 and just had a learner’s permit). During the winter the snow and ice came, and he developed this technique where he would get on the bus, put it in neutral, and rev the engine up to its maximum, then he would put his foot on the brake, set the parking brake, and then, right at the height of the RPMs, he would simultaneously drop it from neutral into drive, and disengage the parking brake, and mash the accelerator down.

The effect was nothing short of cataclysmic. If you’ve never seen a 40 seater shuttle bus peel out with all 4 wheels smoking, ice and snow kicking up in a huge wake as it fishtailed wildly, let me assure you it is hilarious.

Another fellow driver was Joe, a 23 year old like me and a recent graduate of West Virginia. In those days we all carried walkie talkies, to communicate to the other terminal when we were sending a bus their way, when a bus had arrived, etc. We waited until Joe had a full bus, and while he was in the bathroom we hung a walkie talkie about 4 feet behind his driver’s seat, where he couldn’t teach it, and turned the volume on high. We waited until he had driven off with a full load of 40 or so passengers, and then broadcast on the walkie talkie, “Attention passengers! You are being driven by a homicidal maniac! Please look to leap from the bus at the soonest opportunity! This man is unstable!” Joe told us later he kept trying to reach back and turn it off and drive at the same time, but it wasn’t working.

Mesa airlines taught me how to lie. Not only that, it taught me that lying was better than telling the truth. One day I made a careless turn, and drove the left fender into a metal pole. When I got back to the other side, the bus had a nasty chip on the paint. I told the manager, Jason, that I had made a mistake and it was my fault the accident happened. Result: 2 day suspension without pay.

Next time I wrecked the bus, I told him that I pressed down on the brakes, but they hadn’t responded. That is why the accident had happened. Result: no suspension, even a nod of sympathy. “These buses are pieces of shit,” he said. “I know they can be hell to drive. We’ll have maintenance overhaul it again.”

Had the brakes failed? Of course not. But I knew if I had told the truth and admitted it was my fault, I would have gotten a 2nd suspension, or been fired. So I lied, and was rewarded with no punishment, and even sympathy. That isn’t right, but it was what happened.

One night we were all tired, and my coworker Melissa and I were both driving buses. One of us tried to back up, the person marshaling made a bad decision, and we crashed into each other. Both buses were full of passengers, even standing up in the aisle of my bus. Everyone screamed and many people fell. I slammed my head off the front of the windshield and saw stars. There was a nasty gouge on the side of both of our buses. Our supervisor that night, Dwayne, a 25 year old guy from the Deep South, confronted us both at the end of the shift.

“What happened?” he demanded.

We both were almost shaking, knowing we would be fired. “We hit each other,” we said. “We don’t know what happened.”

“Well…” said Dwayne looking over both shoulders. “Just don’t say nothing to nobody. Let’s act like this never happened.”

So we never reported the accident, and no one ever asked where the nasty gouge came from. The buses were so old and beat up, it wasn’t like it stood out.

As in all jobs, gross miscarriages of justice began to occur, earmarked by blatant favoritism. 18 year old Mike, due to force of character and sheer bravado, became our daytime supervisor. His best friend at the airport was me, so many evenings he and I would take the spare shuttle bus out for lunch, drive it over to the main airport, and spend 90 minutes eating and hanging out. Mind you, we were only supposed to get a 30 minute lunch. Meanwhile, this guy Anthony was someone Mike hated. Due to the fact they both liked the same girl. So every time it was snowing, he would stick Anthony out on the tarmac for 8 hours, and shivering in the snow. It was quite mean, but we were all very immature. I still remember Anthony, a Cambodian guy with a thick accent, coming up to me one night and shouting in frustration about Mike, “That son of bitch stick my ass out to marshal all goddamn day!”

Dan, the anal retentive guy who made us check the oil every morning, eventually achieved his dream of becoming a station manager. I believe he took over a remote outpost in Kansas, like Dodge City or Garden City, where they got only about a half dozen flights a day. I am sure his wife was thrilled to live in the middle of nowhere, but in her defense she was proud of him. The last I heard he was in hot water for trying to de-ice a plane one winter, and accidentally dousing the entire airplane with jet fuel, which he mistook for de-icing fluid. Oops.

Soon it was Christmas, and one night Mike and I drove his pickup out to King Soopers. After deliberately running into 3 or 4 empty shopping carts (which was his custom), we parked and approached the deserted store. There were Christmas trees for sale piled up outside the doors, and we grabbed about 10 of them and threw them into his truck and peeled off. Luckily, no one caught us. We had done the same 2 months earlier, with Halloween pumpkins. We figured that all the stuff they put outside the store, they weren’t too concerned with people stealing anyway. Ah, the tortured rationalizations of youthful criminal minds. When you are making 5.50 an hour, they even begin to sound halfway plausible, too.

We handed out the Christmas trees to our friends, like evil Santa clauses. Then I got home with my tree, and brought it in through the sliding glass door of my patio. I set it up in the middle of my rug, and admired it. Half an hour later, I noticed all these needles were covering my rug. I picked it up and threw it out into the snow. That was the last Christmas tree I have ever “owned.”

One of my fellow air academy graduates named Robin, an 18 year old from Ashland, Oregon, with a great smile and sense of humor, got pregnant and returned to Ashland. Her son must be out of high school by now, which is hard for me to believe. He is older than she was when I last saw her. I remember that day, I was driving the shuttle bus and she was standing next to me, holding onto a pole and telling me she was moving back to Oregon. “I’ll miss you guys,” she said wistfully. “I wish I could stay.” I smiled at her and laughed, to cover up the fact that I would miss her even more. “What,” I said, sweeping my arm mocking at the tarmac as I drove, “and miss all this?” We both laughed.

Slowly the 7 air academy graduates I had come with, began to bite the dust. Brandi got pregnant like Robin did, but then had a miscarriage. She and Marie had a grungy apartment in Aurora, that was infested with ants and cockroaches. Brandi’s Mom came out, and drove her back to Eugene after 6 months. Marie moved back to Seattle. I saw her once about a year later, removing bags from my plane at the Sea-Tac airport. I waved at her through the plane window and she looked at me startled, then broke into a big grin. I miss all those people, and wonder what happened to them.

Mike got tired of abusing Anthony and crashing shuttle buses, and moved back to Phoenix, to work at Sky Harbor airport and live with his parents. I missed him a lot. He would always give me a ride to work at 5AM if I had missed the bus, with no complaints at all. He would take me to the grocery store when I didn’t have a car, and that winter when it snowed, he would do 360s in the parking lot in his pickup truck, laughing insanely while the truck spun around and around, and I clenched my eyes shut and grabbed tight to my groceries and yelled at him to stop.

Zack got homesick too. He was fired from Mesa after a couple months, and hung around another 3 or 4 months, working at Popeye’s chicken, and coming over to hang out with me most nights. We would argue about basketball teams (he was a Lakers fan and I a Blazers), and talk about the good old days back in Oregon. He missed his girlfriend terribly, and heard that she had started to go out with another guy. He went out to visit her once in Tucson, where she had gotten her job, but it didn’t work out. He fell into depression and would buy big 40 ounce bottles of Old English 800 malt liquor, and drink them at my studio and pass out on the floor. I felt really sorry for him. He needed to go home.

In the last few months they turned his heat off. The power bills were always addressed to the previous resident, and he told me that since it did not have his name on the bill, he did not have to pay them. So he refused. They turned off his heat, and pride would not let him admit his error and pay them to turn it back on. So he had icicles climbing up his walls. He would steal firewood from in front of King Soopers at 2 AM, and burn it in his fireplace to stay warm. In the middle of winter I finally took pity on him and just had him sleep on the floor of my studio.

Toward the end he hatched his master plan, and told me about it. He and I would steal one of the shuttle buses late at night, paint it a different color, and drive it back to Oregon. It was a completely hair brained plan, but at the time sounded halfway plausible. I am glad I said no. I am convinced if I had said okay, he would have done it.

I was good friends with this girl on the bus named Amy, who like Zack and Mike was 18 years old. She was from Carbondale, CO, and after work she and I would drive around town in her car, listen to music, and talk. We kind of liked each other but never really were going out, we were just kind of in that in between stage that you can sometimes be in when you are both really young and don’t know much about the world. We would eat at Denny’s late at night, and talked and laughed a lot. Like my other friends, she wasn’t very happy at that point in her life, and felt kind of lost. Eventually she moved to Kansas, to try to go to college at Kansas State, and we lost touch for a number of years. I really missed her.

Annemarie moved away, too. She transferred to work for Mesa at the Phoenix Airport. Last I heard, she was still there, 19 years later!

And why, you may ask, didn’t I follow suit and leave too? Was I any less lost, alienated, and lonely? Did I feel anymore out of place and disconnected? No. The reason I did not move, I think, is simply because I was 23 whereas they were 18, 19, and 20. They had never been to college, I had. I wanted to leave; I was very homesick and lonely. But when I thought about going back, I would think, “go back to what?” I had already been to college. I knew if I went back I would just have to take some lonely little apartment somewhere back in Corvallis or Eugene, and feel lost and alienated working there. It would be the exact same thing. That was why I stayed. No other reason.

So by spring of 1993, after only being in Denver 6 months, most of our original 7 from International Air Academy were gone. I felt very sad and isolated. I missed Rochit, the girl back at the academy who was my friend and who I thought I was in love with. She had stopped writing after I had “poured out my soul” in a letter telling her how much I loved her, and we no longer talked. My friends Mike, Zack, Annemarie, and Amy were gone. And I kind of thought I was in love with Amy, too, and now she was gone. This dating thing was turning out to be a drag. My friend Steve, the 47 year old guy who told Dan he had X-ray vision, also was leaving. I helped him load his furniture into a U-haul, as he drove off to Cedar Rapids to get a new job. I remember one day he asked me to drive to Georgetown with him, to see the big horn sheep. I said no. I really wish I hadn’t done that. He was a really great person and one of the most principled people I have ever met.

Just when I was convinced my life couldn’t get any worse or any more lonely, I got the word— I was leaving the shuttle bus, and had been promoted to the gate.

The Airline Saga: Vancouver (Part 2 of 2)

March 7, 2011

Once I decided to stick with the program, my life started to improve. I had always been painfully shy around girls, and my airline class was about 90% female. Most guys would have been ecstatic about this, but due to my shyness I just kept to myself. It looked like it was going to be a long 12 weeks, I remember thinking glumly. It was either wash dishes in a restaurant in Eugene for the next however many years, going home at night to a tiny studio near 13th Street, or stick this out for another few months. And once I graduated, I could be sent God knows where about the country! I felt utterly lost and hopeless.

Folks, this is what low self esteem does to you. You take a young man who is in excellent physical health, put him in a school that is 90% young women, promise him the adventure of living in a new part of America, with free flights anywhere he can go once he is there, and what does he do? Complain. And not just complain a little bit, complain deeply. When you have low self esteem / depression, everything seems extremely limited and negative. I should have been shouting hallelujah, but instead I moped around class and afterward went back to the apartment and shut myself in my room with a book. I could hear everyone laughing and having fun outside, but I was too shy to go out and join them. Deep down I wanted to, but when your self esteem sucks you just think you will never fit in. So you don’t risk that pain.

I kind of did this the summer I was in Glacier National Park, too. After their shifts everyone would be at the bar or the restaurant, and I’d be back in my dorm room with a magazine from the gift shop, listening to Van Halen’s “OU812.” My Singaporean friend Tou Yuen would call this being, “Anti-social!” Tou Yuen, you are dead on, my friend.

I gloomily trudged through life this way for about another week. I remember we had to take a self-esteem test in class. I scored 6 points. Then I looked at the answer key, and it said anything under 8 points is potentially suicidal. Great! That’s just what people with low self-esteem need, a test to tell them they should be suicidal. Idiots! It was probably designed by the same people that put those signs by the highway that read, “Illiterate?” and then give a 1-800 number.

The only time I felt halfway good was when I went on my run after class, no doubt because of all the endorphins I was slamming into my brain as I sweated through the local Vancouver neighborhoods. I also found this gym called “Excel Fitness,” which was about a 25 minute walk from the dorm. I would go there and lift weights about 3x a week, and that was nice. One day I saw one of the cutest girls in my class lifting weights there. To my shock, she said hi, came over, and offered to spot me as I did some bench press reps. This amazed me, but then I noticed she was lifting almost as much as I was, which kind of put the damper on that emotion. A positive person would have thought, “Wow, she came over and said hi to me, she must think I am pretty cool.” But a person with a negative self-image thinks, “She just felt sorry for me struggling under this pitiful weight,” etc.

One thing I enjoyed doing was shooting baskets. When I was at the University of Oregon my friends and I used to spend a lot of time playing basketball after class, and I missed it. I had my basketball with me (much like the character in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy carries his towel everywhere), and found a court in a nearby park. I soon found out that Vancouver’s disaffected and alienated youth played a lot of 4 on 4 and 5 on 5 there, and joined in a few times. One of the great things about pickup basketball is that you are accepted everywhere when you join a game; you interact with people you never would have otherwise, if not for the great game.

Still, in spite of these things, I was like a ghost in class and at the apartments. I didn’t talk to anyone, except maybe to ask Mike where he was going that night (No way would I be going out, also), and to listen to Greg ramble on about Ogden some more. I remember I got really depressed that Mike casually let it slip that one of our female classmates asked him if I was all right. Why did she say that? I asked. Because she said you looked suicidal, he said. And then laughed and walked out of the apartment. Yeah, that really cheered me up.

I decided that I would just do what I did the last year of high school— put my head down, not talk to other people, and get through the damn thing so I could move on with my life, whatever that turned out to be. It was the midst of this that the most amazing thing happened.

A girl in my class asked me if I wanted to study with her. Now, you may say, what is so amazing about that. And I agree, nothing. For 99% of the people on the planet. But for ME at that time in my life, it was nothing short of astonishing. You have to remember that at that time in 1992, I had never really had a female friend. All of my friends had been guys, because I was so damn shy around women I’d get paralyzed, almost. None of them had ever shown me the slightest interest, even as a friend. And I had stopped believing it would ever happen. I never considered that maybe because I walked around with my head down and never smiled or talked to them, PERHAPS I WAS SENDING OUT BAD VIBES. You don’t think about stuff like that when you have low self-esteem. You don’t realize that your internal state and thoughts create a lot of your reality. To a person with a low self image, everything is external.

The girl’s name was Rochit (Pronounced “Roquette”), and she was 18. Five years younger than me, and just graduated that spring from a high school in Seattle. She was Filipino-American, and I thought she was pretty darn cute. She told me she would come over to my apartment after class, and we’d study.

“She won’t show up,” I thought. “She’ll come to her senses.” But she did show up. We sat down with our books at the kitchen table, and in the best tradition of people everywhere that study together, got nothing much done. We talked for a couple of hours. All right, she did most of the talking and I listened, but still. Greg came in and shot us a second glance, surprised. Why isn’t Tim hiding in his room? he probably thought. He is down here talking to a real live woman, good grief. You could tell he was kind of shaken.

As I write this almost 19 years later, it seems ridiculous that it meant so much to me. Now if something like that happened, it would seem perfectly normal and no big deal. But you have to understand where I was at in my life.

This kept happening for the next couple of weeks. Every day I’d think, okay she is going to stop showing up now. Today is the day. And then she’d show up again and we’d study. My self-esteem was so bad then that I actually wondered why she was doing this. Did she lose a bet? Is someone paying her? I thought. I couldn’t fathom that she’d actually enjoy doing this.

Women usually have friends, and Rochit was no exception. After about the 2nd week, she brought over her two best friends in the school: Annemarie and Annadine. Annemarie was 20 and from Phoenix, and Annadine was also 18 like Rochit, and from Albuquerque. They were both quite a bit louder than Rochit. To my shock they both seemed to like me, too. Pretty soon every night after class, all 3 of them would come over and we’d watch TV and laugh while we studied.

Annemarie had a car (I remember it was a dark sedan that had a sign in the back that said, “No Fear”), and sometimes the 4 of us would get in her car and cruise around Vancouver with the stereo blaring. Unfortunately it was stuff like Boyz 2 Men or Keith Sweat (“chick music”) you might call it, but still I was just happy to have some friends. It kind of boggled my mind that they were all 3 girls, too.

We would often go to Denny’s to “study” because they were always open, and we’d pile into one of those booths, order food, put our textbooks and notepads out on the table, and then pretty much ignore them the rest of the evening. Annadine in particular was pretty loud, and we almost got thrown out of a couple of restaurants. She liked telling dirty jokes in a very loud voice, and sometimes one of the other diners would complain. I think they did it in part just to try and embarrass me (which wasn’t hard).

In a matter of 2 weeks I had gone from hating this school and hoping this time would end as quickly as possible, to being the happiest I’d ever been in my life, and hoping it would never end. My self image didn’t really know what to do with itself; foreign data was bombarding the mother ship so hard all systems were shutting down. Here I was a guy that barely talked to a single girl all through high school and college, and now my 3 best friends were all women, and we were inseparable. It was just downright bizarre.

One night it was just Rochit and I hanging out, and she began to cry. Her boyfriend in Seattle had just broken up with her. She was beyond devastated. When you are any age and someone dumps you, it feels like sledgehammer to the chest, but when you are only 18 it has to feel especially terrible. For the rest of the time we were in Vancouver I tried to comfort her, as did Annadine and Annemarie. But she was always depressed and struggling.

Inevitably, I suppose, I fell in love with her. Or at least I thought I did. When I say inevitably, it’s because if you look at my life up until that point, there was almost no avoiding it. No woman had ever given me the time of day, literally, and she was the first one who ever seemed to care and want to hang out with me and be my friend. And, she was pretty. I really had no chance.

Of course, she did not feel the same way. She was still very depressed over her ex, and would be for a long time afterward. You can’t move on to someone else before your heart heals. But I was too naïve to realize this, at the time. Luckily, my shyness saved me. I didn’t tell her how I felt, but hid it. I was afraid of ruining what we had. But as the weeks went on and graduation got closer and closer, I started to despair. I didn’t know what was going to happen. We would all get jobs that would take us away from each other, and that would be that. And I was in love with her.

Then the worst thing (for me) happened: Rochit flunked out. She had been so depressed about her ex, she had stopped studying. One day they pulled her into the admin office, and gave her the bad news. And we were only a few weeks from graduation. She was so depressed about life, she didn’t care. She was going to miss Annadine and Annemarie and myself a lot, but beyond that she was ready to get out of there. She just wanted to go home to Seattle. So she left.

I was distraught. And I still hadn’t told her how I felt. But even I was smart enough to realize that she was mourning her ex, not looking for somebody new. I just missed my friend.

Interview week arrived—- for every class at International Air Academy, there was a one week period where representatives for various airlines would come in and interview prospective candidates. I was pretty down about Rochit, and didn’t really care about the future. The gloominess was back. I was about to be cast out to some foreign place, some distant city where I knew no one. I had known this couldn’t last.

American Airlines, United Express, Delta— they all came around the school. After Mrs. Marks did one last check with Mike, Greg and I to make sure that WE WERE STILL WEARING SOCKS, we all lined up for an interview with a representative for a little commuter airline called Mesa. I had never heard of it. It was flew prop-driven 19 and 30 seaters all along the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains, and were based out of New Mexico. But anyone they hired would work in Denver, at Stapleton airport.

I dutifully trudged in for my interview. The woman was nice, and we started the interview. Normally when I am nervous I stutter, and I can’t talk hardly at all. But for some reason this interview just slowed. I didn’t block or stutter once, just sailed through all of my answers with a smile. When I walked out, I knew I had gotten it. Maybe I just didn’t care very much because I was so down about Rochit leaving. Maybe my self imaged was still so gob-smacked it didn’t have time to fall back into familiar patterns. But for whatever reason, I talked like Bill Clinton in there. For five minutes, I was Bubba.

7 of us from our class were hired by Mesa. For the last 2 weeks of school, we would go into our own separate class, and learn Mesa procedures. Then we would graduate on September 15th, and have to report to work in Denver on about September 18th. We all planned to drive out with our friends our family members. Driving to Denver took 2 days from Vancouver (1,300 miles), so we would have to leave in a hurry.

The class, like most of the Air Academy, was pretty mindless and easy. Everyone else was ecstatic about moving to and living in Denver; when they told us 6 of us burst into applause and started hugging each other. One person did not applaud and sat there with a gloomy frown on his face. I don’t have to tell you who that person was. Yours truly.

(And just to show life has a sick sense of humor, which of the 7 ended up staying in Denver the longest? That’s right, yours truly).

Graduation day finally arrived, and we walked up one by one and got our diplomas. Rochit had driven down from Seattle from the ceremony, and gave me a big hug. I felt both wonderful and terrible about this. Wonderful to see her again, terrible to know I would be moving 1,300 miles away starting that morning.

I said goodbye to Mrs. Marks, to our Mesa airlines class teacher (who cried even though she’d only known us 2 weeks), and to Annadine, who was moving back to Albuquerque, with no airline job secured. Annemarie, at least, was going to Denver with me. So was Mike, my roommate. And one of my best friends at the school, Zack. So that was some comfort. I remember thinking as I walked out of the school for the last time, a lot of momentous things in my life had occurred on September 15th. On 9/15/84, I rode my bicycle in the century I had trained so hard for. On 9/15/88, I left Glacier Park after working there all summer. And now on 9/15/92, I was leaving everything I’d ever known, the Pacific Northwest, and moving to this strange city called Denver. Every 4 years something big seems to happen on that date, I thought dejectedly, as I followed my parents to their car to drive home to Corvallis and pack.

The Airline Saga, Part 2: Vancouver (part 1 of 2)

February 4, 2011

I still remember the exact day I was going to leave behind everything I’d known, and start airline school in Vancouver, Washington. It was June 29, 1992. I had been so nervous to leave the University of Oregon, and head out into “the real world,” that I subconsciously didn’t take enough credits my fourth year, so I’d be forced to take 5 years to graduate. As you may remember in my previous blog entry, this didn’t seem to help much. I got sick of being in college, but was terrified to leave. College and I were in a dysfunctional relationship.

I had no car, so on June 29th my parents helped me load my possessions into their car, and we made the 2 hour drive north on I-5. I still remember sitting in the back seat, wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into, feeling a gathering sense of doom as the familiar landmarks slipped by and into the rear-view mirror.

School was not to start until Monday morning, but I had to get to student housing on Sunday afternoon to get settled in. “Student housing” consisted of 2 apartment complexes, each about 2 miles from the school, which was an unassuming single level white building off Mill Plain boulevard, with “International Air Academy” written on it in huge blue letters. Half the students were assigned to an apartment complex called Robinwood, and the other half, including myself, to a 2 level off-white complex called Greenwood. It was on a dead-end street, surrounded by lower income housing and with grassy strip of grass in the middle.

When I got out of the car I checked into the office, signed a few papers, and was given my room assignment. Each unit consisted of an upstairs and downstairs, with 2 bedrooms upstairs with 2 beds in each. In my unit, 4 guys shared the apartment. The first guy I met was named Mike Kunesh, an 18 year old just out of high school, from Glendale, Arizona. Mike had a flat top haircut and thick black rimmed glasses— he was an absolute dead ringer for Drew Carey. His personality was much the same. Kind of hyper, but give him a break, he was 18. Next I met Greg, a 28 year old from Ogden, Utah, who had a hearing aid and was just as friendly as Mike. As long as I knew Greg it was always nonstop, “Ogden, Ogden, Ogden!” as if it was some Shangri-La. “Let’s go to Ogden over the long weekend, I can make it in 18 hours,” that sort of thing. He drove a late 80’s dark blue sedan which inexplicably had police lights mounted on the back seat. Greg was neither in law enforcement, nor a Mormon. Let’s just say I never did figure out what was up with Greg. But like Mike, he seemed pretty cool.

Like myself, Greg and Mike were starting the first day of school the next morning. By contrast, my roommate Jason, a 26-year old surfer dude, was already 4 weeks in. Back in 1992, the length of International Air Academy was 12 weeks. After that, the fliers seemed to indicate, everyone would have a job. The classes were named after the start date: year first, then month. Mike, Greg, and myself were to be in class 9207; Jason was in 9206.

Jason was just a little bit off. Not in a bad way. But he saw life a little differently. If you have ever seen Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, that would describe Jason pretty accurately. A former drug addict, he had come to International Air Academy to turn his life around. Swearing off all booze and drugs, he had developed a regimen of rising every morning at 6 AM, and going on a run. In the afternoon after class let out, he would meditate on the grass outside the apartment for half an hour. As such things tend to do, in the time we were roommates I got a front row seat to the schedule’s demise. The first thing to go was the 6 AM run. But it didn’t go without a fight. For a while there he just kept hitting snooze on his alarm clock every 10 minutes, for about an hour. As his roommate I found this particularly lovely. Music, groan, hand slap, silence. Ten minutes of bliss, then music, groan, hand slap, silence. After about a week of this he finally embraced the horror of slacker-tude, his natural birthright, and slept in like the rest of us.

Mike and Greg informed me that there were tons of girls at the school and they would be having a great time hitting on all of them. When they were done telling me their theories of female domination, Jason would start in on the vibrations of the earth, and how it is all connected, man, and how meditation is so much better than speed or pot. Then Greg would chime in with Ogden! Ogden! Ogden! and by the end of the evening I was feeling pretty well adrift.

In the morning after Jason’s six alarms, I got up and got ready for the first day of school. At International Air Academy, or I.A.A. as we called it, you were expected to dress to a certain standard. The men had to wear suits and ties, or at the very least sport coat and tie, and the women had to wear skirts that went below the knees. I’m not sure why this was enforced, seeing as real airline workers often look like they’ve slept in their uniform for four days, but I guess it was all about the presentation. I had just learned to tie a tie a week or two before, sitting in a Eugene parking lot with my Dad giving me instructions, both of us trying to figure out how we had gotten there, and if the rabbit comes out of the damn hole or around the tree. Fortunately, the first morning at I.A.A. I got it right. Shaving was also an unpleasant experience, as in college I would shave about once a week, and in high school I lacked the sufficient amount of testosterone to bother (with shaving or much of anything else).

The four of us piled into Mike’s behemoth Buick with Arizona plates, and set out on the 2 mile drive to school. We entered the school and were immediately forced to stand in line filling out paperwork for the next several hours, which if you think about it is pretty much training for the next 40 years, no matter what career you are in. Half of 9207 was assigned to a crotchety old man whose name I forgot, and my half was assigned to a 30 year old blond teacher named Mrs. Marks.

About 20 of us got into our classroom, and Mike, Greg and I sat down together. Everyone else in the class was girls. This is one of the nice things about the airlines, come to find out. It is mostly female, and a large percentage of the men are gay, so if you are a heterosexual male working in airline customer service, you have a nice ratio going for you. This is balanced out nicely by substandard wages and constant threat of layoffs.

At age 28, Greg was the grand old man of 9207, or at least our half of it. At age 23 I was the elder statesman. Most of the women were right out of high school, with a few aged 20 or 21.

The first thing Mrs. Marks did was announce, “Okay, people! We are going to have a dress code inspection! Come on up here 2 at a time and show your classmates your clothes!” Since there were only 3 of us guys in the classroom, Mrs. Marks had Greg, Mike and I parade up there all at once. After sheepishly confirming that yes, we were all wearing suits, Mrs. Marks said, “Show us your socks, guys!” We pulled up our pants legs to confirm that yes, we were wearing socks.

One of the annoying things about I.A.A. is that for the entire 12 week course, they assume you have the mental capacity of a poached egg. Every single morning, 5 times a week, we would all have to get up in front of the class and confirm we had on the proper attire. And each morning for 12 weeks, when Greg, Mike and I got up, Mrs. Marks yelled, “Show us your socks, guys!” By week 11 I expected one of us to say, “Oh, shoot, you know what, I forgot to put on my socks this morning. Because, you know, it’s easy to forget. WHEN YOU’VE BEEN UP MY ASS ABOUT IT FOR THE LAST 2 AND A HALF MONTHS!” But instead we’d just smile, and lift our pants legs like submissive dogs.

I remember one morning the hottest girl in class (guys notice these things), Cheryl, stood up for dress inspection, and her skirt was deemed to be a little too short. It didn’t quite cover the tops of her knees. Mike, Greg and I didn’t think this was a problem, and in fact were in favor of it being even higher, but Mrs. Marks was in no mood for tomfoolery. She ordered Cheryl home to change, and “come back wearing something acceptable.” Cheryl immediately burst into tears and sat sobbing at her desk, as one of her roommates went to get her car. I always thought that was a really mean thing to do to someone. Great, you made an 18 year old girl cry. Congratulations.

So what kind of classes did we take at I.A.A.? All kinds. Most of them followed the scholastic formula of every school— learn reams of things that you will never, ever use. And, also like other schools, the most valuable class was typing. My Dad once told me that higher education is mostly about jumping through hoops until you can get the diploma, and while I wouldn’t call I.A.A. higher education, and the hoops you had to jump through wouldn’t have taxed a mid-sized show dog, they were at least challenging enough for a Maltese terrier to work up a good sweat.

Mrs. Marks’ teaching style was a tried and true one used by substandard teachers everywhere: she pulled out the textbook, and read to us from it. Our class soon shifted into predictable zones: the butt kissers sat in the first row, the confused sat in the middle, and the truly cynical and disgusted sat at the far back, as if the teacher had a contactable disease. I sat about 3/4 of the way back, so as to have a foot planted firmly in both camps. I have always prided myself as something of a passive-aggressive fence-rider, and I think it is one of my better qualities.

Every morning we would have a motivational speaker, except ours was always the same guy, and he was on videotape. Mrs. Marks would wheel in a big Panasonic, and for 45 minutes every day we were subject to a man named Bob who held forth on the beauty of hard work, achieving in life, and being a “go-getter.” It was not apparent what being a go-getter turned you into, except someone like Bob. The people in the back row inched back even further, noses wrinkled and backs pressing up against the windows.

After “Video Bob” (as we called him) was finished, we were subjected to a god-awful class called Tariffs. It was never exactly clear to me what Tariffs was about, and thankfully it only lasted for four weeks. Even Mrs. Marks said, “You probably won’t ever use this stuff—“ Which when spoken by a teacher means no one will ever use it in the history of mankind. “This is all done by machine now,” said Mrs. Marks. “But you should know how to do it anyway, in case the airport has a cataclysmic power outage and the machines don’t work.”

I wanted to point out that in a cataclysmic power outage people would be less concerned about tariffs and more concerned about picking up blunt instruments to beat each other with, but one thing I’d learned in my 23 years was that authority figures don’t like smart asses, so I just kept my mouth shut.

Another great class was Phone Reservations. Half of us would get in one class room, half in another, and we were connected by phones. We had scripts that we would each read from, where one person played the customer, and the other played the reservations agent answering questions. “I’d like to go from Los Angeles to New York,” you’d say. The role player in the other room would say, “At what time?” and then enter the data into the computer. Etc. When Mrs. Marks was out of earshot, the back row gang would start to make up their own questions and answers, each one more ludicrous than the last. “I’d like to blow up the Empire State building,” one would say, “Can you loan me some dynamite?” “Of course, sir. What kind?” That sort of thing.

The easiest class (for me, anyway) was typing. Even though most airline agents are hunt and peck gods, I.A.A. was bound and determined to turn us into Toscaninis of the typewriter. On the first day they ushered us in, had us do some basic keyboard familiarization, and then said, “Every day at the end of class you will be given a timed test. When you reach the ability to type 50 words a minute with less than 3 errors, you no longer have to attend class.” I typed 50 words per minute on the first day, and never had to go back. A fellow escapee named Mariah also made it out, and we spent the next 12 weeks in study hall, relaxing in the break room while a cacophony of typewriters hammered away on the other side of the wall, punctuated by shrieks of, “FIFTEEN WORDS? IS THAT ALL? AND WITH 8 ERRORS???”

You have to remember this was 1992, and those type writers all weighed as much as an Olympic plate in a Venice Beach weight room. If you’ve ever typed on one of those typewriters, and have also seen the movie “Misery,” you will have no doubt that the typewriter James Caan used to kill Kathy Bates with was UP TO THE TASK. It probably would have killed Mike Tyson. Caan showed impressive upper body strength just to raise it off the floor, much less into a full military press.

The typewriters came equipped with correction tape, the key of which was usually marked with a large white “X” resembling the logo for poison on household cleaning products. When depressed, it sounded like a machine gun. Pow-pow-pow! Pow-pow-pow! It felt like Mariah and I were sitting next door to a fire fight.

Class usually took place from 9AM to 3. During lunch we would cross the street in our absurd suits get a slice of pizza from the local Italian place, or Mike and I would roar off in his car to the local Arby’s. I always ordered the same thing, and remember it with crystal clear accuracy 18.5 years later: Cheeseburger, lemonade, and cherry pie. Mike always ordered a hamburger, fries, and a Pepsi, easy ice. I’d never heard anyone use the term “easy ice” until I met Mike, but apparently it’s a term used in lesser Phoenix dining establishments, and as of 1992 had yet to make its way to the west coast. The way he emphasized it, I got the feeling bad things would happen if the ice was not easy.

After 3 the first thing people did was race back to the dorms/apartments, and rip off their horrific clothes. Off would go my suit and tie, and I felt like a human being again. About this time I started going on a run after school. You have to remember this was July, about 4 pm, and it was hot as Hades outside. I’d put on my running clothes and head out down Mill Plain boulevard. I found this really cool route which went through a park with power lines above it, along a bike path, up a steep hill, and then finished in a 4 mile loop back at the apartments. I really enjoyed running it every afternoon. The hill was so steep the first few days I had to stop and walk up it. I was very pleased with myself when by the 3rd week I could run straight up it without hardly even slowing down. The human body is amazing.

What is not amazing about the human body is the joints. My right hip started to hurt like crazy. I eventually had to stop my afternoon runs, and my hip problems continue to this day. I have never been able to run for any extended period of time since. I have always thought running is the best exercise ever created for the heart and lungs, and one of the worst for everything from the waist down. As far as the neck up, it’s a wash.

One thing running is unparalleled at is giving you a high like a moving meditation, and I would get in a Zen-like state while running past all those houses in Vancouver. When I got back to the apartment I would be sopping wet with sweat, but felt like I’d really accomplished something. In those first few weeks when I felt very lost and alienated, running was a great thing to hold on to.

It also was the source of one of the funnier things that happened to me— One day I returned home from my run, and walked into the apartment. I immediately noticed 3 of my classmates and next door neighbors were sitting at our kitchen table. No problem, people drop in and out all the time to visit. Then I noticed the tile on the kitchen floor looked a little different. Huh. I guess I just never noticed it before. Then I reached in the fridge for my drink, and it wasn’t there. “Who took my damn Gatorade!” I yelled. My three classmates regarded me coolly. “You’re in the wrong apartment, Tim.” I beat a hasty retreat.

What else would we do after class? Well, earlier I mentioned that big strip of grass in the midst of our complex. Someone had set up a volleyball net, and every afternoon there was usually a big volleyball game happening. Those were fun, even though none of us could play worth a damn. The guys took off their shirts to show off for the girls, which in many cases was probably unwise and rather horrifying. I wisely kept mine on. The girls knew they were in control, heck they always are, let’s face it. The rap song, “Baby Got Back” was a big hit that summer, and it was constantly playing at high volume, over and over, and over….I really started to hate that record.

At night most people partied, or tried to party as well as 18, 19, and 20 year olds can. Much throwing up, passing out in peoples’ apartments, etc. I have never been a drinker, so was just a bemused onlooker. It was always kind of strange on Saturday and Sunday mornings, though. I would be up by 8 or 9, and walking around the complex. It was like I was the survivor of a nuclear war. No one else would stir until about 11, at the very earliest. Then they would groan and tiptoe around like shelling victims.

After about 3 weeks, I had had it. I was lonely, depressed, and besides Mike, Greg and Jason, did not have any friends. And they were only my friends because we lived in the same apartment and were forced to bump into each other. Somewhere during one of my runs, I decided I’d had enough. I called my Mom on the pay phone outside the complex (no cell phones in 1992), and told her I was thinking of quitting. My Mom then told me my godmother had died. A sudden stroke, while on vacation at the coast. Now I felt even more horrible. She had used to babysit me. My Mom started to cry and I did too.

Why do you want to quit? My Mom asked. I told her how lonely I was, and depressed. I’d always hid a stuttering problem, and the damn phone reservations class wasn’t doing me any favors in that department. I wanted out.

A little voice in my head started up, the same one that talked to me in my last term in college. “What will you do if you quit?” it said. I tried to ignore it. I had this mental image of me going back to Eugene, getting a menial job washing dishes in some restaurant or hotel, and renting a squalid studio apartment near campus. It sounded awful, but this airline school wasn’t for me.

Jason, my surfer-dude roommate, tried to help. “Dude,” he said that evening, sitting lotus style on the edge of his bed, “It’s okay to let go.”

“But I’m not sure if I want to go,” I said. “I’m not sure if leaving is the right thing!”

Jason smiled and nodded his head. “Then stay, dude,” he said, “stay.”

In the depths of despair you’d think being around an inveterate optimist would cheer you up, but it only irritates you and seems kind of maddening.

I remember I had my book of “best short stories of the century” with me, and took a break from talking with Jason to read “A good man is hard to find,” by Flannery O’Connor, a story about a serial killer who escorts an entire family into the woods one by one and shoots them in the back of the head. At the end of the story he disposes of grandma, and comments that she would have been an okay person if someone would have had a gun trained on her her entire life, because she was so much more agreeable and kinder then. Then he said, “Life is nothing but pure meanness.” The story seemed to suit my general mood. I even had Jason read it. “Far out, man!” he said after reading it, eyes shining, “that was like…epic!”

We stopped talking about it and turned on the radio. Eric Clapton’s song, “Tears in Heaven” was popular that summer, and when I explained the meaning to Jason, he thought that was even further out. Then the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” came on, and Jason thought this was even deeper, as he used to do drugs. Like, you know, under a bridge. Downtown. All in all none of this was really cheering me up too much.

“Just let me think about, Jason,” I said. “It’s late. I have to go to sleep.”

“Okay, dude,” he said, flicking off the light. “But remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”

WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN? I thought, and drifted off into uneasy sleep.

The next day I walked into the admissions office. A young woman behind the desk asked if she could help me. “Yes,” I said. “I want to drop out.” I expected her to say, “Okay, I understand. Here is the paperwork.” Or maybe argue. But instead she just smiled, turned her head slightly, and said, “Hmmm. That’s too bad. Can you tell me why you feel that way? Please sit.” She motioned to a chair.

There are some people that can talk you into anything by just listening. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that was certainly the case with her. Instead of trying to talk me out of it, or saying fine, here ya go, she just let me talk, nodded sympathetically, and used phrases like, “Well maybe if you gave it another week, things would turn around. After all, you never know what will happen.” After half an hour of talking to her, she had me completely turned around, and I agreed to stick with the program and give it another chance. I don’t know what her name was, but I wish I knew. She changed the course of my life. Another person would not have taken the time, would have merely said oh that’s too bad and here’s the drop form, and my life would have been totally different from thereon out. I never would have finished airline school, gotten a job, or gone to Colorado. I would have just gone back to Eugene or Corvallis, lived with my parents, gotten a bad job, and lived a sheltered life. We often don’t recognize pivotal moments in our lives, but that was certainly one in mine. It changed everything for the next 8 years, and many things forever. Just because I talked to that one person.

I think I will pause here and call this part one, and continue with part two of my airline school experience in a few days. Thank you, as always, for reading.