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Archive for April, 2021

Homeless

When it becomes dangerous to live in your own home it’s time to leave, and leave I did, taking with me my cat, my Collie dog, and my Sig Sauer P239.  Yes, I had a permit to carry, so I was legal in case it might have become an issue.  It was early October in Roanoke, Virginia.  The weather was seasonably delightful, and my green tent blended well with the autumn color at the local campground nestled in the foliage alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I should have left years before, but had nowhere else to go.  I had no savings since my retirement income always got sucked away into the expense of running house and horse farm.  The bruises got worse.  I was fed up with being slammed against walls, brutalized in ways that cringe at even the prospect of description.  That hurts in every way there is to hurt.

My ’89 Acura Legend had a capacious trunk with a small seat-back door that folded down to allow access to the main interior.  It was designed to provide for carrying 2×4’s home from Lowe’s,  but I used it as a cat door for Espresso, my black Domestic Shorthair, so he could visit his litter box in the trunk.  He loved to ride shotgun with his front paws on the dashboard so he could see with those lovely golden globes where we were going.  Maggie, his canine counterpart, preferred lounging in the back seat on top of all the pillows, blankets, clothing, camping gear, food, and water jugs.  She had a twelve hour bladder, so I only needed to walk her morning and evening.  We managed.

My YMCA membership provided exercise, a hot shower every day, and a place to change clothes, which I kept clean at a Franklin Road laundromat.  It should have been doable, but things kept happening.  First somebody stole my tent while I was on my daily errands.  At least I had the foresight to empty it every day, stowing sleeping bag and other gear in the car.  That theft forced me to sleep in the vehicle, not nearly so comfortable but doable, tucked into my sleeping bag, a hefty Slumberjack.  My long-ago-husband and I had always enjoyed winter camping (no tourists, no bugs) so my sleeping bag was certified down to zero degrees Fahrenheit.

October gave way to November, then December.  The campground closed for the winter, and I was on my own to find a place to park every night for shuteye.  First there was the requisite stop at Mill Mountain Coffee to slip in through the back door and fill my hot water bottle, preventive for ice-cube-feet syndrome.

My State Farm Insurance agent had a back-of-the-office covered carport; I began appropriating it nightly, especially on stormy ones.  One bitter cold evening, after pulling into my spot, I ran across the street to a Seven/Eleven to pick up breakfast makings.  I left the engine running to keep it extra warm to start the night off right.  Of course Maggie had to protest.  She wanted to go, too.  Barking and pawing at the window, she managed to step on the back door lock, which on the Acura automatically locked all four doors.  Now I had a car parked and running with a cat and a dog inside.  What to do?  Again I ran across the street, this time to ask for help.

There are times when I suspect God was watching out for us.  The local emergency squad team had also stopped there to coffee-up, and they came to assist.  One of the team was a young very thin woman who was able to slip an arm through the narrow opening I had left to provide fresh air for Maggie and Espresso.  She reached in, pulled up the slick knob-less locking mechanism, and all was saved.  What luck!

I managed to live through a bout of food poisoning and was feeling pretty puny, having also run out of vitamins.  Christmas was the loneliest ever, and in January the jet stream conspired to send sub-zero weather.  One bitter night, as I lay trying to fall asleep, the Slumberjack bag failed me.  I began to shake, and my teeth commenced chattering.  It was then that my sweet dog Maggie, rose from her accustomed place in the back seat and carefully climbed to the passenger seat where I had been spending my nights with the seat-back fully reclined.  She placed her paws carefully as she crawled forward, careful not to hurt me.  When she was satisfied she had just the right spot, she covered me with her hairy body and remained there the entire night, while slowly I warmed and slept.

Another January morning I awoke locked in the deposit of an ice storm.  We were frozen in all day waiting for the parking lot, where I had parked for the night, to be cleared.  There comes a time to admit when you are beaten.  It was time to go home.  Some beatings are worse than others.  Knowing the difference leans toward wisdom.

In retrospect I realize that was only one of many periods of homelessness.  No wonder it felt like something that could be challenged and overcome.  When in 1949 my Dad departed, family home foreclosed, mother carted off to asylum, that was homelessness of the nth degree.  Being sent away to boarding school where nuns stood in for otherwise occupied mothers and fathers, being sent on countless airplane rides between Dallas and Boston that attempted settlement with a mother who wanted to, tried o-so-hard to, but just couldn’t make a home for a misplaced daughter.  Choosing an ill-advised situation that created a home where all else had disintegrated, with the inevitable sad ending, all presaged that so predictable leave-taking through the Virginia countryside.  Giving up on the possibility of home is the bleakest homelessness of all.

Perhaps it is a blessing that as such days are lived into, there is no way to give attention to what is sure to come.  How then could we manage to place one foot before the other to grace an uncertain future?  But then, isn’t future by definition the very kernel of uncertainty?  That’s what makes the adventure so exciting—the possibility—the hope so satisfying.  Hope is the antidote to homelessness of heart, even through long cold winters of discontent.  Home must be where the heart is, homeless a non-sequitur.

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Cow’s Tale

My son Dale was the first grandchild for Garnet and Ray Rex Taylor.  No wonder everything had to be just right.  As soon as mother’s milk wasn’t enough to keep him tick-full and happy, Garnet began hand milking an especially good Guernsey morning and night and bottling it on-the-spot for his benefit.  She explained that an infant’s delicate digestion would be less challenged by milk from a single cow than by mixing an uncontrolled assortment of sources.  The “Perrier” of milks, it was literally  “Bottled-at-the-Source.”  The cow’s name was Nosey.

The Taylors cash crop on their three-hundred acre West Virginia farm was keeping a mixed dairy herd of Holstein, Guernsey, and Brown Swiss.  As a newbie with fresh-off-the-sidewalks-of-Connecticut provenance, I undertook the crash course in animal husbandry accruing to my position as wife and new mother in that family endeavor.

I made it my business to follow Ray Rex around, plying him with questions and getting his take on all things pastoral.  The first thing I had to do was cut my fingernails.  That made it possible for me to learn how best to squeeze a teat without ensuing pain and swift kicks.  There was a never-ending series of new amazements to see and apply to this lovely nepotism.  While the pecuniary emolument was non-existent, its rewards were rich and gratifying.   I arose, dressed, and helped with breakfast every single day without exception, then leaving my lazy husband to his bed, I followed Ray and Garnie to the barn where the cows waited, impatient, tails switching and hooves stamping, registering the urgency of need-to-be-emptied.  A more benevolent evolution would have provided for self-evacuation, but when push came to shove, natural selection must have voted on the side of waiting for the calf to do the job.  There’s no Darwinian advantage to trickle-moisturizing a green grass pasture with fresh cow’s milk.

There was no end of things to learn about the farm animals.  I noticed, for instance, that most bulls are exuberantly bi-sexual, a fact demonstrated daily in the barn lot, along with much swinging back and forth of impressive sacks bulging with fecundity.  Life on a farm does make a girl lusty.  It’s no wonder that when Ray and Garnie disappeared down the road on a well-earned February vacation, the first thing my new husband and I did was to check out the milk cooler.  No.  Not to look in it, but to climb on it and make love.  That’s when Dale got his start in life as an October surprise.

But I digress.  As Ray Rex’s side-kick, I picked up the occasional veterinary tidbit.  He showed me, for instance, what to do when a cow gains access to early spring grass.  The first shoots of sprouting new growth (the dicotyledons) are often poisonous to cattle, causing gas to build in one or another of their rumens.  A Vet fixes this with an IV of calcium.  A farmer, lacking access to parenteral solutions, can save the day with a quick knife jab to the swollen stomach.  The pressure relieves, and the animal is saved for another season of profitable production.  Where evolution failed to install an escape-valve, the farmer makes one.

One lovely spring day Ray Rex brought home from a livestock sale a pretty and very pregnant black Jersey heifer.   He pastured her on our side of the river.  She was a little gem, unique to the farm, since the Taylors specialized in high producing breeds typical to commercial dairies.  They provided milk with relatively less butterfat than a Jersey milker, but with more volume. Since we didn’t separate the cream and churn butter, that made a lot of sense.  His idea was to sell her calf and keep the cow as Dale’s “source” when Nosey went dry.  Even a cow deserves a vacation, and Nosey had done her share.  She would get her three months of rest and cud chewing.

One day as Ray Rex headed off to town, I checked on the new black heifer.  She was in labor and was not at all happy about it.  Why did that have to happen when I was alone on the farm?  I kept an eye on her, and eventually she delivered a lovely fat bull calf but wouldn’t get up to let it nurse.  She lay on the barn floor and panted, her eyes glassy and unfocused.  The calf was up but hadn’t yet bonded with its mother, and had ended up in a heap in a corner of the barn.  Not good.  As the evening wore on the problem congealed.  It seemed to be a complication of what must have been too much spring grass.  A balloon gathered just forward of the animal’s right haunch and threatened to constrict flow of breath and blood.  I tried to get her to stand up, but she was having none of it.  Eventually she stretched out flat on her side and commenced groaning.  I was going to lose this animal.  It was then that I ran to the house and fished out my favorite paring knife.  I didn’t have a handy-dandy Swiss-pocket-knife that all farmers carried in their overalls, and had to make do.

When I returned, the cow’s tongue was hanging out sideways.  She was groaning in shallow pants.  I aimed the knife at the bulge and poked.  It bounced back.  The knife was good for butter, but not much else.  Another run up the hill to the kitchen yielded a serrated steak knife.  It wasn’t much better, but I finally worked my way through, sawing at the tough hairy outer hide.  Then it seemed a reasonable thing to open the internal organ at a spot not lined up with the skin access hole.  So I pulled the outer hole leftward and proceeded to saw open the taut rigid rumen.  As soon as knife achieved puncture the hole erupted, spewing gas and digesting grass all over me.  My eyes swam with green juice and it dripped off my nose, but I didn’t care.  It was so good to have relieved that killer pressure bolus.  Right away she sat up, shook her head, and tried to get up.  She lurched forward, scrabbling with back hooves, trying to find some traction on the wet floor. After a few attempts, she made it.  I collected the calf, gave him an encouraging rub-down, and he began to suck with the-diligence of intense hunger. The Jersey didn’t bother with thank-you, but I sensed a measure of gratitude.

When Ray Rex came home, he congratulated me on my emergency veterinary prowess.  He was proud of me, and I was feeling a wee bit cocky, but as time passed, flies laid their eggs in the wound.  They turned into maggots, which is what fly eggs are wont to do.  When I pulled the skin sideways to peek at the stomach hole, a stream of slime and maggots flowed down he Jersey’s flank.  I thought I had failed her, but Ray Rex assured me that everything was fine—just fine.  He said that flies and maggots conspired to provide cleansing for open air wounds as a natural aid to healing. 

The Jersey cow healed;  The calf went to the sale for veal;  Nosey got to retire for the summer; and Garnet began tapping the rich milk of my erstwhile surgery patient.  No wonder Dale grew up so hearty.  He started out with the big feet of a pick-of-the-litter puppy and lived into them with the integrity that has ever been his trademark. It wasn’t until I brought home a baby girl swathed in pink beribboned flannel that I truly realized how staunch was his hold on the life I had given him.  Compared to her dainty hands, his had the look of a stevedore’s.  It’s amazing what comparison can do to perception.  The week before, I had envisioned him as my sweet little baby boy.  Suddenly he appeared as a bumptious big brother who would one day put the cat in the freezer to create a “catsicle.”  I would love them both.  I would love them all.  It was I, after all, who had put a board on my duckling and stood on it to make it quack.  Who am I to judge creative persuasion? Performing veterinary surgery without benefit of license is an illegal bit of business, but since luck was along for the adventure, this cow’s tale can end with a wink and a smile.

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Imitation

Back in 1982 Johnson & Johnson made interocular lenses under the aegis of Iolab Corporation, to replace the ones removed by cataract surgery.  Those early lenses produced the miracle of restoring sight to the blind on a routine basis, and a lot of work went into perfecting their design.  Such replacements became part of a human eye and needed to be the best of medical grade implants. 

Each lens had a hole drilled in it to provide for handling it during implantation.  That hole must be round, portray an exact diameter, pass through the entire lens, and have extremely smooth edges.  Drilling those holes presented problems both at entry and at exit for the rotating drill bit.  Several considerations affected the aesthetic and function of the rims.  Configuration of the drill bit, such as point angle, rotation speed of the drill head, and speed of advancement through the plastic body all affected appearance of the resulting apertures.  Routinely those holes were rimmed with ragged burrs, and that was patently unacceptable.

That was the state of affairs when I joined Iolab as Manufacturing Engineer in October 1982, and my number one assignment was to clean up those holes.  I organized several studies that involved supervising the drilling of hundreds of holes, varying each parameter in a controlled and documented methodology.  The more experimental holes drilled, the more it became obvious that a major process change would be required.  No matter how the variables varied, the holes remained chaotic and unpredictable.

One day while enjoying a solitary liquid lunch at the local watering hole, I mused about how cool it would be to blast the holes with a laser. Star Wars lens drilling?  Why not?  A laser could melt the holes, but that’s not the only way to liquify holes.  Drill speed increased enough to generate heat could melt through the plastic.  That might leave smooth holes. It would have to be controlled to keep from melting the whole lens, but it could be investigated.  Star Wars’ initial release in 1977 had everybody thinking about zapping things.  I paid the check and headed back to the lab.

I had no internet access at that time and did some tech library research that involved pulling weighty tomes off shelves and flipping through them, squinting until my eyes watered.  Soon all that effort located a company right in LA that did ultra-high-speed drilling.  I visited their factory and compared our disparate applications.  Returning to Iolab, I set up for ultra-high-speed drilling in the engineering lab.  The results were phenomenal.  Rims were consistently smooth, even under the microscope.

I showed my good results to my boss, Ted Wilshire.  He was dispassionate about the idea and seemed not ready to believe the impact of the portended change.  He said to keep it quiet and just write up what I had done and give it to him.  I pulled together all my studies and documented the results, along with the cost impact of the change as a break-even analysis.  I copied only Ted Wilshire and copy-to-file.  It was a dead issue

Ted was new to J&J and had blasted any chance that we might get along by cracking a sexist joke at my expense when he and I were first introduced.  He commented to the whole group that where he came from women belonged in the kitchen.  I didn’t laugh.  Now getting credit for my important process improvement depended on his good will—his alone.

I didn’t hear much from Ted for several weeks.  Then suddenly rumors of a big engineering meeting to announce a new process began making the rounds.  The Iolab president would be there.  Nobody knew what was happening, and we looked forward to finding out.

While waiting my turn at the Xerox machine in the copy room, I noticed a meeting agenda being reproduced by the engineering secretary.  I scored a copy from her and went back to my cubby to read it.  It outlined a new drilling process invented by Ted Wilshire that would markedly improve the profit position of lens production, stating that he would be describing the entire concept at a meeting to be held in the management suite the very next day with all engineers and managers required to attend.

It was a while before I was conscious of taking a breath.  Ted was going to steal my idea.  How could he?  I didn’t have long to ponder the problem because I got a call to report to the office of the engineering group manager, Nacho Munos.  That was just as well.  If he hadn’t called, I would have been calling him, asking for a meeting.  I pulled out my copy of my Profit Improvement Disclosure and headed for Nachos’ office.

I might as well have left it in the file, because on arriving at the Engineering Group office Nacho let me stand while he directed me to gather my personals and leave the building.  My services were no longer needed at Iolab.  I asked Nacho where this came from.  He replied, “Ted Wilshire.”  That’s all I needed to know.  I kept my copy of my original disclosure, but was too devastated to even fight the betrayal. In 2021interocular lenses don’t even require holes.  It’s a good thing that such a great product doesn’t have to carry a feature reminiscent of such rapacious skullduggery.   In retrospect, it was nice to know that Ted thought so much of my idea he had to steal it.  Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

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My life has been a litany of successful failures and failed successes braided into a series of delightfully tortured complexities.  Whatever the result, it wasn’t boring.

First I wanted to be the best of children, but my mother, were she still alive, would attest to my having been  her one perfect child who all too often embodied the personification of evil.

I wanted to be an exemplary wife, but three divorces document my facility in trashing the male/female bond, seeing it surely as bondage.  It is now only in spousal death that I appreciate how much they were both loveable and loved.

I wanted to be a good mother, but fear my four children—three living—would gladly testify to my inability to do the mother thing with any dexterity.  Their proved successes ultimately disprove this fear.

I wanted to write poetry, but in spite of millions of lovely words frittered away, my poesy—often muddying up even my prose— remains steadfastly unpublished.  I keep writing, not to benefit the New Yorker, but because I love to see how contented the words appear nestled together on the page.  They, too, deserve to be happy.

Trying to be the son my father wanted all along, I refused to acquiesce to the condemnation of co-workers and cohorts.  I forged ahead for year after year, certain that just one more great invention would prove my case.  It never did, but I enjoyed being one of the very first women ignoring the possibility of glass ceilings and bosoming into the male bastion of military aerospace, all before Equal Employment quotas were ever even dreamed of.

Trying to be the songbird my mother envisioned—having named me for Jeanette Macdonald—I practiced countless vocalizes, sang Soprano in a kaleidoscope of choirs, attempted countless pharyngeal contortions, all sure to finally produce the desired mellifluousity.  They failed.  At an age when other singers have retired to gracious listening, I am still trudging up the aisle processing with my choir and struggling to keep my weighty music folder elevated where I can see it even with bifocals.  In spite of eighty years of devoted singing, I’m not a has-been; I’m a never-was.  But since I can still sight-read and match pitch, it’s still the best of fun to make like a bird even with feet on the ground.

Readers of this anguished diatribe will assume that I regret all this wasted effort and wonder why I didn’t just relax and move along with the flow of days.  When failure is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.  That would have been boring.  Far better it is to try and fail, than recall a life as might-have-been.  I had a wild ride and treasure every minute of it.  It’s the titillating triumphs in between the foibles and flops that texture the flow of the river of remembrance.

What I write in this rambunctious memoire will bear this out.  I hope to place a dear honest tome into the hands of each of my progeny, one that gives them something tactile to help them remember how we got through it all.  They will have something with heft to hand to their own children when asked how they managed to become the person they became, a tool that will help even the grands forgive themselves when they fall short of what they wanted to make of their own precious lives.  No, I’m not unique in either my successes nor in my failures.  Nobody’s perfect, but the best features of life are the parts where we get up, dust ourselves off, and keep trying no matter what.

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