Twenty-four years at the same job!


I began working at Brown University in August of 1987, a little more than twenty-four years ago.



If I make to my twenty-fifth anniversary next year – and then to January first of 2013! – I will receive a gift from the University: a chair, or a mirror, or a gift certificate. My choice! Also some extra vacation time, so that I can go shopping for a coffin.



Some years ago I hired an office assistant who was (at the time) just shy of her twentieth birthday. She was born in 1989, two years after I started at Brown.



And of course it continues. One of my recent student assistants, Noah, was born in 1991, only a little more than twenty years ago. (I think of this as the “Goodbye, Mister Chips” paradox: those of us who work in education keep getting older and older, whereas the students never age at all. The seniors graduate, and are replaced by freshmen, and so on, and so on. You keep hoping for the students to grow up and mature – and they never quite do, because as soon as they mature a little bit, they’re gone, and they’re replaced by new – and younger – and less mature – students.)



Ay caramba!



Noah finished his stint in the office in mid-August. He enjoyed his time with us, I think; it was his first summer job away from home, and he spent most of his weekends with his friends doing all kinds of young athletic acrobatic things. We all enjoyed him too, because he was young, and we liked listening to his stories: it was a chance for all of us to relive what it felt like to be young, and have the entire future be open before you.



“This isn’t bad,” Noah said one day. “Working, I mean.”



“Ah,” I said. “Because, for you, it has an end date. For me, not so much. The end date is probably when I die in my office chair.”



Noah laughed, but a little uneasily. He could hear the slight bitterness in my voice.



But what am I complaining about? I’m happy. I have a good job, in which I feel productive. I’m advancing the interests of a prominent university. I make enough money to get by.



But Noah is looking out into a future of infinite possibility.



And I am looking out into a future of – what? More of the same. Until I die of a stroke in my chair. Until –



Oh, let’s stifle that.



Here’s to another twenty-five years of the same!



The coffin delivery man


(Here’s a riddle: What is it, that 1) if you see it, you don’t want to buy it; 2) if you buy it, you don’t want to use it; 3) if you’re using it, you’re not aware of it?)



(Keep reading for the answer.)



During jury selection this past summer, I was thrown together with five other people: a wiseguy cable installer who kept moaning about how bored he was; an older man (what am I saying? I mean “a man around my own age”) with his nose buried in a 1982 “Quick & Easy Crosswords” magazine; a raven-haired beauty wearing a teensy bit too much makeup; a nineteen-year-old girl, very nervous about missing work (it turned out that she was the Keno-machine operator at a local restaurant); and a short plump cheerful gray-haired man.



I was sort of fascinated with this last guy; he talked about growing up in Brooklyn, and he knew the whole state of Rhode Island, which is pretty unusual here (most people only know their own communities).  He was smart, and cheerful, and calm, and unaffected.



And he finally revealed that he worked delivering coffins from the warehouse to regional funeral homes.



I have always been fascinated by the business of death. Partner and I watched “Six Feet Under” straight through on DVD. And funeral directors are always so courtly and polite and considerate! Partner and I were at a funeral home a year or so ago, planning a “pre-need” funeral for a family member, and I was really charmed by the Italian-American funeral director who worked with us; the room was full of memorabilia of his immigrant father, and he had a big piece of Simon Pearce crystal on the table of which he was very proud, and I looked him up later online to discover that he is a very long-established community benefactor.



I think living with a constant reminder of mortality must be very bracing. To paraphrase Lady Jane Gray: it teaches you to live and learns you to die.  Monks used to sleep in their own (future) coffins, and drink from cups made from human skulls, just to remind themselves that life is, um, short, and probably you should get about your business, whatever it is, before it’s too late.



I hope Coffin Delivery Man is doing well.



Someday I’ll need his services.



(By the way: did you guess the riddle yet?)



Memorial Day blog: Great-Uncle Dewey


On the north bank of the Columbia River, not far from Goldendale, there is a strange monument: a replica of Stonehenge, built to represent what the English version might looked like when it was new, with all the stones upright and intact.


It was created by eccentric railroad tycoon Sam Hill (about whom I will tell you some other time), to commemorate the war dead of Klickitat County.



Among whom was my great-uncle Dewey Valley Bromley.



Dewey died in April 1918, only a few months before the end of the war. My grandmother, his sister, wrote that he never set foot in Europe; he died on the troop ship while crossing the Atlantic, presumably of pneumonia, and was buried in France. He was not yet twenty years old.



Imagine: a farm boy born in rural Washington, coughing himself to death on a crowded ship, and buried thousands of miles away from the country he knew. He never even got to fight in the war he’d enlisted for.



And now his name is written on a plaque and affixed to a concrete slab overlooking the grandiose cliffs of the Columbia Gorge.



The whole story makes me ponder furiously on the future of the human race, and what the hell we’re doing here.



Which is probably exactly what we should be thinking about on Memorial Day.



Remembering the dead


I had lunch with my friend Moira the other day. Her mother, who suffered from severe Alzheimer’s over the past couple of years, passed away about a month ago. Over a turkey wrap, Moira told me the story of her mother’s last few months: they’d finally found an assisted-living place for her, and then she fell, and broke both her hip and shoulder. The choices at that point were all bad. Operation: dangerous. Put her in traction for six weeks: she’d never walk again. Do nothing but medicate her: she’d die of infection.


They operated, and Mother made it through. But then she went to rehab, and she grew tired, and she stopped eating. And a few weeks later, she passed away.





Moira and her mother had always been close. But the Alzheimer’s had made Mother petty and mean and insulting and confused.  A few years ago, over yogurt at Ben & Jerry’s, Moira told me somberly: “She’s dead. I lost her. She’s another person now.”


We talked about the conflicting emotions that come after a parent’s death. Grief, naturally. Then guilt: you could have been a better son/daughter! You should have visited more! You shouldn’t have put them in assisted living! Then relief: someone you love isn’t suffering anymore, and you aren’t suffering anymore. Then (worst and most penetrating of all): guilt about feeling relieved!


“I’m not guilty at all,” Moira said as we left the restaurant. “I know what I did, and why. I think my brother feels guilty. I don’t.”


“I still feel guilty about my mother, even after sixteen years,” I said. “I know it’s silly, but I still do.”


Moira looked at me. “I’m gonna tell you what I told my brother,” she said. “Snap out of it.  You know better than that.”



And that made me feel better.


My sister Darlene passed away a few years ago, of the ferocious ovarian cancer that runs in my family. Darlene and I didn’t get along. She thought I was a spoiled smartass; I thought she was a stupid stick-in-the-mud.


When the news came that she’d passed away, I sighed and put it aside. I didn’t go to the funeral. We weren’t friends, I told myself, just siblings.


But the morning after I received the news, I had a sudden recollection: I was – what? Maybe five years old. And I was running out of the house, and my two sisters were walking home from the bus after school. And I was so glad to see them.


I was so glad my unconscious had unearthed that memory: one simple quiet happy image, for me to file away.


Now everybody can (maybe) rest in peace.



Rest in peace: Sol Saks and Madelyn Pugh


Sol Saks and Madelyn Pugh passed away last week.



You don’t know them?



Sol wrote the pilot of “Bewitched.” His name was in the credits every week. He died at the age of 100.



Madelyn was a writer for “I Love Lucy.” Her name was in the credits every week too. She died at 90.



I felt a tug at my heart when I saw these notices, both last Thursday evening, in the Times.  I associated both of them with my childhood, and with pleasure, and television, and entertainment.



I remember hearing of Jack Benny’s death when I was in my teens. I went outside and walked, feeling very odd and solemn. This is what happens, I thought. How strange. People die.



But it’s always old people, right? Old people die. Strangers die. Not your friends or family. Certainly not you. You’ll never die.



Will you?



Some years ago, at one of the Williams family reunions, I met my cousin Joyce’s husband Mel, a very trim handsome guy – a minister! – cheerful and smiling, like an athlete on the front of a Wheaties box.



He was dead within a year, of cancer. Horrible.



We are none of us exempt. We have the falling sickness, as Rilke said; we are all falling, like leaves in autumn.



But, for some reason, it hurts me most of all when comedians, and comedy writers, die.



None of it’s fair. But this seems least fair of all.



We can’t afford to lose them.



‘Bye, Madelyn. ‘Bye, Sol.



Roger Williams Park Museum


Providence, like New York City, has a large central urban park. It’s hilly and full of greenery, marshy and irregular, with a network of ponds and canals running through it. There’s a merry-go-round, and a “casino,” and a zoo (which is actually not bad), and a very nice exotic-species greenhouse, and a couple of bandstands. It’s also full of lots of secluded spots ideal for drug-dealing (which explains a good deal of the automobile traffic running through the park).



In the middle of the park stands the Roger Williams Park Museum. It is a fanciful castle, decorated with elaborate stonework. Inside: rock collections. Antiquities. Native American beadwork. A small but cute planetarium.


But I am always most fascinated by their huge turn-of-the-century taxidermy collection. It is beautiful, and horribly sad. Have you ever seen a passenger pigeon? Of course you haven’t; they’re extinct. But I saw one the other day at the Roger Williams Park Museum, long-dead, stuffed and mounted. There is, in fact, a display of every bird found in turn-of-the-century Rhode Island – some of which, like the passenger pigeon, are gone from the earth altogether now (thanks at least in part to museum collectors), and many of which are no longer seen in Rhode Island (or at least I haven’t see any Great Auks around lately). There’s a lioness and lion cub, posed together, and they are beautiful, until you think about them a bit. And two big polar bears nuzzling one another. And a big grizzly bear rearing up on its hind legs. All dead, all stuffed. “I wonder,” Partner said quietly as we were looking at the polar bears, “if they had any idea they’d end up in a place like this?”



The Museum quite evidently runs on next to no money. The exhibits seldom change. I think Partner and I were the only people there that morning; I spent seven dollars, including admission, and I was thanked profusely three times by three different staff members.


All those odd beautiful things sitting in an odd building in south Providence, gathering dust. All those artifacts of science and culture.


If they announce the world is ending soon, probably a lot of people will go to church to pray.


Myself, I think I’ll head over to the Roger Williams Park Museum and sit with the rock collections and fossils and stuffed passenger pigeons. It will be a good place to meditate on going extinct.



And I’ll be in excellent company.




My parents’ house


Venersborg, Washington, where I grew up, is a loosely-organized rural community on the side of a smallish mountain, about thirty miles southwest of Mount St. Helens. When I was a kid it was just a few farms scattered among the trees, with unpaved dirt and gravel tracks for roads. Venersborg had been settled by Swedish immigrants about sixty years earlier; later some Finns joined the mix, along with a few odds and ends like my parents. There was one church and one store. The store was almost always closed.



My parents’ house was at the end of the road, literally. Just past our driveway, there was a chain across the road. Past that chain, you could see some wheel ruts running up the hillside, and that was it. 



It was sold soon after my mother’s death in 1999. I’ve gone up there with Partner once or twice since, just to take a look at it from the road.  



It’s different now.



All of the old trees are gone. There used to be Gravenstein apple trees dating back to the 1940s (to be fair, they were scraggly and old and covered with lichen when I was a kid, they’d probably have died of natural causes by now), and a couple of nice old pear trees, and a huge Royal Ann cherry that attracted birds by the hundreds. And my parents planted all kinds of trees – blue spruce, pine, cedar – around the house when it was new. There were too many, and by the 1980s the house got almost no sunlight at all, but they were beautiful trees.



And all of my mother’s huge rhododendrons are gone, and the camellia she loved so much, and her roses.



I look at it sometimes on Google Earth. The new owners have built it up enormously; it looks like a functioning farm now, which is what my father really always wanted (he’d grown up on a farm, and spent evenings and weekends fooling around with his five acres of hay and a couple of cattle and a vegetable garden).



When I look at it online, I feel like a disembodied spirit, looking at it from above. It makes me want to reach down and touch it.



And then I can drift across the map, a mile or two away, to the Venersborg Cemetery, where Mom and Dad are both buried, and one of my sisters.



The image is so clear that you can see the gravemarkers on the ground.



Ah, me, kids.



It all goes by so quickly, doesn’t it?






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