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Broadening Horizons

We need some new stories.

I have alluded to my distaste for remakes of films before, but in a more specific sense I think we need to have a moratorium on films based on classic “public domain” stories so depleted and exhausted from over use that any further attempt to make them is boring at best and insulting at worst. Enough with Dracula and Frankenstein! Do we need another King Arthur movie? No, but God damn it, we are getting one all the same. I don’t want another Robin Hood, or Three Musketeers - EVER. I don’t want to see a “fresh 21st century adaptation”, nor do I want to see a “deconstruction”, either. And I think the fairy tale genre is totally played out as well, but we are still going to get a Beauty and the Beast, after getting a Cinderella movie this year, a Sleeping Beauty movie last year, and a Snow White movie the year before that, and a Jack and the Beanstalk movie before that. Hey, I love Western European culture more than most, but people, we need to look farther afield if we are incapable of creating something entirely new. How about we turn our gaze a bit further east? Russia has some intriguing folk tales and legends we could fashion something out of. Sure, they were the bad guys for a while, and look like they are becoming the bad guys again, but that shouldn’t stop us from mining their culture for tales of wonder and adventure.

Baba Yaga, anyone? The Firebird? Sadko? The Death of Koschei the Deathless? The Legend of the City of Kitezh? Something from Pushkin or Afanasyev? (Huh? Who?)

Failing that we could even sift through the central Asia and the middle East. I’m sure the 1,001 Arabian Nights and Sinbad was just the tip of the iceberg.

I should have become a screenwriter. Zounds, I would give you all some high-adventure you would not soon forget!

Backyard Clouds

Saw these clouds when I poked my head outside Saturday evening. Don't know how long they hung around because it was starting to get dark, but it looked like there was plenty of drama up there in the heavens. Half-expected to see some frolicking cherubs or other celestial beings emerge, a la some 18th-century ceiling mural...

More Conversations From the Workplace

Mechanical Engineer: "So what I would like to do is move this interior wall three feet over - past the window - and install the louver in the window."

Project Manager: "Is that the best option?"

Me: "No. He disregarded the best option. He's decided to conceal it from you and give you the second best option."

Mechanical Engineer: (grinning) "Thank you." He then can't hold it in any more and busts out laughing.

Project Manager: Stares at me with pursed lips and narrowed eyes.

But deep down, I know he thought it was funny.

Ingratitude

Recently I saw an old college comrade-in-arms that I hadn’t spoken to in quite some time and we caught up. He inquired about a mutual classmate of ours, an erstwhile friend that had serious depression issues. I hadn’t given him any thought for a while, and decided to see if I could find out a little of what he was up to these days. But I’ll get back to that later. I must recount the last days I saw him, which weren’t pretty… (note to my readers: this is the closest you are ever going to get to a "trigger warning")

Rich was actually from my home town, but was a year younger than me. We knew each other from high school band, where he was a kind of a hanger-on, a prickly but overall respectful chap that appreciated being with the upper classmen when he had the chance. There was always something fragile about him, and his slight build, thin blond hair and chalk-white skin could have made him a target for bullying in different circumstances. I think he tried to compensate by equipping himself with the standard accoutrements of the disaffected: black leather biker jacket, torn jeans with the long chain dangling from a side pocket, bandana, Doc Martin boots and so forth. The type of guy who loved Metallica and Megadeath, but also listened to Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan. He was, not surprisingly, by turns angry and sensitive. On occasion the world seemed too much for him, and once or twice he was caught crying for some reason that could never be determined – not that he was pressed to explain. Teenage boys don’t do that, you see.

He elected to attend the same university as me, although I don’t recall his major. He might not have declared one. That first fall quarter I happened to meet him on campus in passing, and we struck up a conversation imbued with the instant camaraderie of people from the same hometown who meet elsewhere. Over the next several weeks we hung out here and there, and one evening while he was in the throes of his most recent depressive fit, complaining about being homesick and lonely, I suggested that he move into my room next quarter. At the time I lived in a triple, and one of my roommates was leaving the dorm because he had joined a fraternity and was moving into Greek housing, so I had an opening. I thought it was a win-win: he would get to live with people more friendly and the improvement in his social life would wrest him from his funk. Also, my friends were all pretty good role models – mostly National Merit Scholars who always had been stellar pupils – for I liked to associate with people would could raise me up, rather than pull me down. On my end, I would get to turn an acquaintance into a friend, and fill an opening in my room before the troglodytes in student housing assigned some weirdo to live with me and my other roommate. At the time, I was quite pleased with myself for devising this ingenious turn of events.

The winter quarter started well enough, but then slowly but surely descended into chaos and become a bona fide suckfest. Rich started missing classes – first getting up too late for the early morning ones, then the later morning ones. Then he started skipping some of his afternoon classes. He stayed up late into the night, sometimes almost until dawn, grafted into one of the chairs in the sole smoking lounge in the dorm, watching cable TV, sucking on the occasional Pall Mall while flipping his Zippo lighter open and closed, listlessly talking to anyone who happened to be in the vicinity. He complained he couldn’t fall asleep – but had no problem slumbering all throughout the day when the rest of us were at class. He didn’t shower for days at a time and as a consequence sometimes exuded a sour stench. The well-intentioned efforts of my friends and I to advise him were to no avail. “Hey Rich,” we would suggest, “why don’t you stay up all night one night, then go to bed at a decent time in the evening the next day so you can just fall asleep right away, and then – having reset your internal clock - you’ll have a shot at getting up in the morning with the rest of us?” No. His future wasn’t worth it to even try simple strategems like this. Nor would he go to the student medical center to seek counseling or a prescription. It was rapidly becoming obvious that his mental health issues were more pronounced then I had previously suspected – and that furthermore, he was kind of a loser. He languidly hung about the dorm and often seemed genial in a dazed sort of way, but obviously he wasn’t satisfied with how his life was going – but he wasn’t going to do anything about it, either. No, he was going to face Life passive aggressively until someone from the university confronted him about his poor academic performance, upon which he would become resentful of judgment. The situation was clearly untenable.

This all came to a tragic climax one evening. My one roommate was out, and I had been in someone else’s room all evening hanging out, as a dorm resident is prone to do. Eventually I decided to return to my room, and upon entering it was confronted with quite the disturbing scene.

Rich was sitting cross-legged on the uncarpeted floor, a pool of blood in front of him. He had sliced open one wrist with a razor blade, and he had just started on the other. But that wasn’t the most disturbing thing. No the most disturbing thing was when he looked up at me as I entered the room he was smiling. He had this wild shit-eating grin plastered on his face, like he was either demonically possessed or a real ornery child (often I admittedly can’t distinguish between the two).

I carefully shut the door behind me and uttered words meant to be reassuring and sympathetic, something along the lines of, “Rich, however bad you feel right now I know this isn’t the answer.” I pleaded with him. “You don’t really want to do this, why don’t you put the razor down and we can talk about it? Things can’t be that hopeless.” He remained obstinate. Well, really there was only one thing for it: I briskly took a few steps towards him and before he could resume cutting into himself I launched a diving tackle onto him. We were rolling on the floor, and now he was shouting at me, giving voice at last to his desperation, all that anger and despair welling up and culminating in a colossal angst-ridden crescendo. I grappled with his arms, slippery with blood, and emerged the victor, wrenching the blade from his hand and flinging it to the other side of the room. Rich was now bawling. He crumpled inward, and for a long moment I held him in my arms as he sobbed uncontrollably. Odd how one moment required decisive force, and the very next tenderness.

The aftermath was perhaps uncharacteristically low-key. I discretely took him to the bathroom and cleaned up his arms and examined his cuts. Deeming them not as serious as I expected, I bandaged them and told him to go to the campus doctor the next morning. I made him drink some water, figuring he might be now dehydrated. Then I talked with him a bit, saw the fight had gone out of him, put him to bed after confirming that he would be going on a trip with some other people the next day (where he would be occupied and observed), and carefully mopped the blood off the floor of our room, all done before my other roommate returned.

Looking back on it now, I know I probably didn’t handle that part the right way. I should have called somebody – an RA or some housing official on duty in the dorm, an ambulance, some other people to help out – keep a watch on him, maybe. But it seemed to me a very private concern. The only thing I could think of at the time was that the entire affair was a manifestation of great weakness, and thus was rather shameful – an episode to be concealed and only divulged on a strict need-to-know basis. Not to be ignored by me or swept under the rug as if it had never happened, but nonetheless treated in a clandestine fashion that wouldn’t disrupt the rest of his life any further. I could see a potential tipping point or crossroads had been reached in his life, and instinctively knew that too many perturbations will shake a thing apart; furthermore, it was unthinkable to me that another course of action – say dropping out of school – would lead to a more positive outcome. I truly believed that once the immediate crisis had passed it would be possible for him to pick up and Move On. Look, there’s a reason I’m an engineer, not a therapist!

Was he serious about the attempt on his life, or was it merely a plea for help? I don’t know, although I began to suspect the latter when he rather “casually” flashed his bandages a day or two later to some mutual friends, and then of course readily disseminated the details when questioned. I don’t think he got the reaction he wanted. He got some pity, yes, but a lot of anger too. Level headed people who have never dealt with the mentally ill find it hard to understand, and thus to sympathize.

Rich hung around for a few more weeks, but then he dropped out and moved back in with his parents. If memory serves, it was meant to be a “break” from school, but you know how these things go, right? He came up to visit people a few times, like a spirit who hadn’t yet decided to GO INTO THE LIGHT. He never thanked me for what I did. But worse than that, I found out a few weeks later that he was actually bad-mouthing me to other people, to the effect that I hadn’t looked after him enough, that I had actually abandoned him when he needed me the most, and I confess that really made me angry. What, it wasn’t enough that I saved his life – what the hell else did he want me to do? It still rankles from time to time, even though I now know that a hallmark of addicts and the mentally ill is a towering selfishness, a malignant form of narcissism where they are so wrapped up in their own problems that the needs of no one else are even acknowledged, let alone provisioned for. Nonetheless, his behavior reeked of ingratitude.

But what about NOW – twenty-three years later? You would think at some point that he might think, “Hm, this life isn’t all that I hoped it would be, but I’m just glad to be here. Maybe I should look up the guy that saved me all those years ago and maybe see how HE is doing…” It seems like the decent thing to do, no?

I decided to search for him on Facebook, because to be honest I still felt emotionally invested. I’m sure I had done it before – the first couple years I was on FB I searched for all kinds of people I had lost touch with over the years, and many of them did not have a social media presence (and some still don’t). After not finding someone following a few attempts one tends to give up. But I tried one more time. And lo and behold – there he was. He had indeed created a profile years ago, although it hadn’t been used all that much – a lot of the traffic consisting of people wishing him happy birthday one year, and then the next – you know the sort I mean. But there were a few clues here and there as to his current state.

His stint at University of Toledo was not mentioned, but the fact that he “studied philosophy at Kent State” was. That’s kind of a big joke there – in northern Ohio there is a saying, “Can’t read, can’t write, Kent State”. And everyone knows that the people that take philosophy and psychology classes are usually the most screwy and shiftless – with philosophy being the more interesting but even less useful of the two subjects. So essentially studying philosophy there was merely an excellent way to waste more time and money simultaneously.

His employment wasn’t listed but it sounded like he was woodworking in a shop – his victim status burnished by posting a photo of his face cut up by a chunk of wood that he had been feeding into a table saw (the only photo of himself on his profile). And finally he mentioned that he would love to buy a house “with some land” and finally be “a real grown-up with real grown-up finances“, but it wasn’t in the cards now. But never fear, he was saving up money now that he was living with a roommate! Yikes, a 42 year old man living like a 22 year old.

No marriage. No kids. No house. No savings. So basically, he’s still a loser. I don’t know if his mental problems have been solved or not – I guess if they haven’t, it gives him an excuse to still not treat others with class, right? To be clear, I don’t claim that Rich is indebted to me, but would I accept an apology if he offered one? Absolutely. Would I appreciate him admitting that he had been a real, trying, pain in the ass? You had better believe it!

I used to feel a small amount of pride at my actions back during those college days – believing I had saved a life, having took the opportunity to actually be heroic as well as a friend. As if people could be saved and have their issues resolved by external forces! Now it all seems rather pointless. But then, most everything is. In the past, my great love of Nordic/Germanic mythology and culture would have led me to adopt the view that there is nobility in the struggle itself, regardless of success or failure, but this seems like wishful thinking now. What remains to me is only the hope that I do the best that I can with what I have, and to leave a place – and its people – better off for me being there.

Opportunities Lost

Several years ago I worked on the design of a new water park for my town which included a new pool house. I was rather proud of it, for despite its rather humble scope it was pretty high-profile job and it turned out well; it was something I could point to if people asked me what sort of work I did. I could point to it and say, “that’s what I do”. In the past I have also worked on small projects for the city’s schools: a new entry way for a middle school, new rooftop HVAC units at an elementary school and so forth. As far as I know the city is pleased with our past service and client relations are good.

Recently I learned that my town is demolishing another one of its pools due to deterioration and redoing the surrounding urban park. It will be constructing a new pool (presumably with an accompanying pool house), a new senior center, and an addition to an adjacent elementary school. But I don’t think the marketing “wizards” at my firm are trying to win the project, despite our past relationship and the fact that our office is only about 100 yards outside of the city limits. Don’t know why, I brought it up to a division head recently and she seemed vaguely interested but I didn’t get the impression she would give it the attention it needed and actively pursue it. And she is a fellow resident!

On a similar front, Cleveland is going to be redoing Public Square, which I am pretty certain has looked the same for at least the last century. As part of the redevelopment it wants a pedestrian bridge - and not just any bridge, but a curved cable stay bridge - to connect the convention center and a new hotel with the harbor.
(See: http://www.cleveland.com/architecture/index.ssf/2015/07/2017_deadline_helps_cuyahoga_c.html) We do pedestrian bridges, too, but are we going to try to get this project? No. Part of the issue is time – originally the city wanted it designed and built before the start of the Republican National Convention in 2016. This was so impossible that only one firm in the country submitted a bid. (An aside, they specified the most complicated type of bridge possible of course, which would require wind-tunnel testing and vibrational analysis, taking up more valuable time.) So Cleveland revised that plan and pushed back the deadline by a year – not impossible, but still quite tight. But to make matters worse is the way they want the project structured – the design build team of contractor and designer has to have “an ongoing collaboration” with the city and the city’s designated architect, effectively taking significant control of the project schedule away from the selected team. My firms’ execs were too uncomfortable with that prospect – too much potential for mishaps and too many cooks in the kitchen, which admittedly has been the death sentence for many a job. Still, it would have been quite the professional coup for me, to be able to work on such a project. Here we could put our indelible stamp on the city – a signature structure smack dab at ground zero, used and seen by thousands daily, but apparently the risk isn’t worth it. Back to counting rivets and ruining my eyesight, I suppose…

Either this state of affairs was always this way and I am merely becoming more aware of it as I get older, or society is actually making things more difficult. But one thing is for sure; I have a lot less power to make my opportunities than I thought I did. Then again, I always knew that it is by far best to be at the right place at the right time. And my timing always seems to be off. Or it's like I hear Opportunity knocking, but it is on my neighbor's door rather than my own!

Scenes from My Post-prandial Constitutional

Was up in Cleveland over the weekend visiting family and my older brother and I took a stroll after dinner, venturing into the northern portion of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, via the “towpath” that runs between the river and the remnants of the old canal system. Saw the last train of the day (belonging to the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad) pull into the station just as the sun was going down. It was hot and humid, but before being completely drained of blood by the swarms of marauding mosquitos that infest the vicinity, I managed to take some decent photos that capture the mood of the rewarding conclusion to a fulfilling summer day.



Midsummer Moment

No rainbow despite the ideal conditions for one, but the backyard nonetheless displays a hint of the magical...

A sharp observer will discern that the apples are already ripe, but with all the rain, and the assaults of insects, ravens and squirrels, the vast bulk of the crop is wasted and destined to be turned into a squishy brown mush swarming with flies and yellow jackets. Everything has an ugly side, sad to say.

On the other hand, the right lighting really highlights the positive and de-emphasizes the negative, no?


Embarrassment

One of the relatively few blessings of middle age is that I now hardly ever suffer the pangs of embarrassment. I don’t know if I just don’t care what people think, or simply engage in embarrassing behavior with less frequency. But I can still feel pangs from past incidents rather keenly – little aftershocks echoing through time and memory, occasionally making me cringe.

I can recall the first time I ever felt it. (Which is a topic that comes up rarely – I mean, obviously infants never get embarrassed, so there is a prerequisite for some amount of emotional and social development before the torment can commence). I must have been four or five years old, and my mother had taken me and my little brother - who was still small enough to comfortably ride in the shopping cart – to the grocery store. After loading up the cart we stood in the queue at the register, whereupon I got antsy and wandered to the front of the store. I was particularly taken with the automatic sliding glass doors at the entrance to the store – the way they sensed our presence and opened as we approached seemed nothing short of magical (hey – it was the 70’s!). So while my mother was preoccupied unloading the cart, I devised a past-time where I would scamper towards the exit door and over the threshold as it opened, and then dash back over it into the store as it was shutting again – as the door was only an exit, it didn’t have a sensor on the other side, apparently, and thus I was going “in through the out door”, or more accurately, out AND in through the out door… I recall gleefully accomplishing this daring feat three or four times, but then I got careless and disaster struck: the door closed on my trailing ankle and I was yanked to a stop, promptly falling to the floor. The door then kind of rolled over it, managing to shut completely, but refusing to open again for the gathering crowd of shoppers, who merely wanted to leave the store but were now gaping at my prostrate form with what was undoubtedly a mixture of pity and annoyance.

So I lay there in front of this burgeoning throng, on the filthy black grooved rubber mat, crying and in pain – caught like some trapped animal waiting to be put out of its misery and skinned. While the store manager was summoned and various baggers attempted to wrest me free or dislodge the door from its frame without causing serious injury, the blooming hotness of complete and total mortification surpassed my level of fear and discomfort and created a feedback loop of anguish: the more embarrassed I felt, the more upset I got and the more I cried; and the more I cried, the more embarrassed I felt…repeat and repeat to an exhausting crescendo which I would rarely exceed the remainder of my childhood. So, that was the day I discovered what embarrassment was. However, I was regrettably not inoculated against it.

Then there was gym class. Ugh. For a boy not athletically inclined, that always had the potential for embarrassment, but nothing was topped by the regular fitness tests and its most detested activity: pull-ups. Sure, my pathetic relay race times and the sorry attempts at rope climbing were also uncomfortable, but confronting the pull-up bar was the very worst. While the girls were off doing something else (probably flower-picking or embroidery), the boys would all be seated on the floor and would be called up by name, one at a time, by the gym teacher to grasp the bar and do the most pull-ups you could do, which would be dutifully recorded on a trusty clipboard, which, along with the whistle and track suit, forms the standard equipment for any gym teacher. I would absolutely dread my name being called, because I knew what the outcome would be beforehand. That was because the outcome was always the same – despite desperate struggling and wriggling, I never could manage to do a single pull-up. I could feel disdain coming in waves from some of my watching classmates, there would be a the occasional snicker or derogatory remark. And even the teacher seemed to share in the sentiment as he intoned a scornful indictment of my physical incompetency: “’Meistergedanken’:…zero.” The humiliation was total and indisputable. A worse performance was not even possible despite a universe of infinite possibilities.

And then, just when you thought childhood had exhausted its repertoire of embarrassing situations and setups, kids became fashion conscious in middle school, which exactly coincided with my parents’ divorce and our immediate descent into poverty. Let’s just say that making sure her children were equipped with stylish duds was nowhere on my mom’s priority list.

Now let me first say that I am a middle child, which means I had the full array of disadvantages that come with this familial position (like being overlooked by parents, etc.) . So my clothes typically consisted of hand-me-downs from my older brother. Incidentally, by the time I outgrew those, they were often too worn to be given to my younger brother, who then got new clothing of his own. Unfortunately, my older brother is five years older than me and styles can change quite a bit in five years. So in 1983 I was clad in disco-era clothing from 1978. Unless you belong to Generation X you cannot imagine how reviled disco-tainted apparel and accoutrements were at that time. This particular embarrassment culminated in sixth grade when we had a choir concert, and I was tasked with moving some prop or piece of equipment across the performance space between numbers. The “dress pants” I wore for that evening were the most enormous bell-bottoms you could possibly imagine (made of polyester, of course), and I could still recall the flapping sound they made as I gingerly traversed, the venue being characterized by complete silence otherwise (as respectful parents comported themselves in those days). I certainly felt humiliated at the time, but that humiliation was revisited upon me several-fold when the next week we spent a class period watching a video tape of the concert in choir class (the VCR still being a rather new-fangled technology in the classroom and not completely denuded of novelty). I watched the recording with mounting dread, hoping that somehow the camera wouldn’t be on me when the moment of supreme embarrassment occurred, or if it was, it would not be noticed by my peers.

No such luck. The break in the concert came, and there I was on screen swishing across the stage, those light-beige “floods” flaring out and catching the lighting, the sheen of the artificial fabric a beacon of tackiness. For a second there was still silence in the classroom, which proved to be the Calm Before the Storm. Then there came the voice, belonging to some catty female, so saturated with sarcasm that it was practically dripping: “nice pants.” The subsequent peals of laughter capped the moment, heaping insult upon injury (the injury being to my ego and social standing), and blushing scarlet with shame and embarrassment I think I just covered my face with my hands and put my head face down on the table. Not the most dignified strategy, but eventually someone else would become the target and I could resume being overlooked and ignored, which generally suited me just fine.

A Bit of Local Color

The town where I reside takes a large amount of [justifiable] pride in its Fourth of July observances - in particular, the parade. After weeks of rain, today turned out to be perfect summer weather - the clouds were banished, without a hint of rain, the temperatures starting cool and trending towards warm, just ideal (like last year, which I considered a fluke, but must be related to aftershocks from the last two horribly cold winters).

Anyway, here are some photos from the parade. People were having a pretty good time.








R.I.P. Chris Squire

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the death of Chris Squire, one of the founding members of my favorite band, Yes. Possessing a clear voice rooted in his boyhood experiences with a renowned church choir and a thundering though melodic approach to bass guitar that inspired many subsequent musicians, he was the only member to be on every album since the group's founding in 1968. A [literally] towering albeit genial presence during concerts, he will be greatly missed, and Yes, should it choose to limp on, will undoubtedly be a shadow of its former self. His death from a rare form of leukemia reminds me that many of my musical favorites will likely be departing from the earthly stage in the near future - the curse of the fan of classic rock.

Now I kind of regret not seeing Yes in concert last year at the Northfield "Racino" (a venue I considered dubious). You always think there's "one more time" left, you know?

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