Facing the Fall Alone

One of my favorite quotations is this observation by A Bartlett Giamatti:

“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

I grew up a Boston Red Sox fan. In the 1970’s, the Red Sox nearly always left one to face the fall alone, without even the solace an AL Pennant, let alone a World Series win.  Even in 1975, after a spectacular Series, even after Fisk’s 12th inning home run in Game 6…the following evening, baseball left us to face the fall alone.  And for those of us in the elementary school set, the Curse of the Bambino was to evolve into our first experience of predestination.  We’d never win.  We learned that hope is, by nature, edged with desperation and resignation.

It didn’t matter.  Every morning my sisters and I looked first at the sports page, the standings, and then at the front page.  We learned what the “magic number” was.  Our Saturday mornings started with Schoolhouse Rock; afternoons with WSBK Sox broadcast.  Memories of my father climbing onto the roof in Vermont during a downpour to rig up a better antenna to at least (maybe?) be able to see the game, of him Halloween morning with red and black Marks-a-Lot markers, transforming my white sweatshirt into a Red Sox jersey, complete with #19, for my trick or treating costume, of my playing catcher on the softball team with him breathing down my neck–umpire Dad, calling balls and strikes, which, at 13, I found wicked annoying.

I left home. I watched the 1986 World Series with a bunch of Mets fans in upstate New York.  I married another baseball geek, though he was a lifelong Yankees fan, and because we lived in upstate New York, the Yankees were the only games broadcast.  Summer evenings, driving the rural highways home from my night classes, I’d look at the farms and cows and the hills, and listen to the game.

By the time the Red Sox vanquished the Curse , I was long a confirmed Seattle Mariners fan.  Here was a team that was destined to break my heart and soul all over again.  It’s September now.  The Mariners have gone from an 11 game lead over the A’s to 9 games behind them in the Wild Card. There’ve been fisticuffs in the locker room, a star suspended for drug use, some spectacular pitching, a phenomenal closer and some truly great baseball.  Sadly, most of the great baseball occurred largely before the All-Star break.  It’s been a gently sloping ride into oblivion for our poor Mariners.  They’re so much better than they have been in years.  In any other division they’d look a hell of a lot better than they do.

I’ll root wholeheartedly for the Red Sox in the playoffs.  I’ll be ecstatic if they can win the whole thing.

But the Mariners.  Ah, the Mariners are leaving me to face the chill rains of fall alone.

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Waiting

I’m a marine science instructor at a local not-for-profit.  We get a lot of kids on field trips during the school year, as well as longer term regular programs with particular cohorts of students.  One of those programs involves kids doing their fieldwork from kayaks, and analysis and so forth in the museum classroom.  To run this program, we need many things, but most especially…we need the kids.  They arrive on school buses from their school, having gotten on the bus at school. Which means school must be open.

Right now, though, there is no school.  Our local teachers are on strike.  The walkout is stretching into the fifth day, and the school board and the union are no closer to agreement than they were in the last week in August.  I support the teachers’ union, despite this program’s being placed in some peril: We have a limited time to bring the kids out on the water, as the cold rains of fall could make it unsafe for them to be out.  By early November, we’ll be entirely at the mercy of the Aleutian Low, and the winds from coastal California, meaning storms with buckets of rain and temperatures in the low 50’s. Before you think “What are they?  Some species of delicate flower?”, think this: These are 12-year-old kids, on a body of water that tops out in the heat of summer at around 53 degrees, and even in protected areas has a strong tidal flow.  As the rains hit the higher elevations, massive dead trees are washed into the creeks and rivers and are washed into the Sound.  So time for this endeavor is limited. A strong teachers’ union, though, is critical to public school success, as it is an easily exploited workforce: For example they’re never paid by the hour, but what needs to be done each day and throughout the summer is seldom finished by the “end of the school day.” so they work off the clock daily, because they believe in the higher needs of education.
From a purely selfish standpoint, I want the strike resolved.  I want this program to be successful.  I want to be paid.  I want to see the progression of skills mastery as the students progress and gain confidence.  I want this to be unforgettable for these kids, as they develop reverence for the Sound, an understanding of the life within it, and the confidence that they can go out enjoy the Sound for both work and play.
The “moving parts” are legion: the school, the buses, the museum, the park system loaning us the kayaks, the pool and water safety instruction that we’ll do in the beginning of the program.  I’m hopeful we will get underway within the next week or so.

Refraction

Parts break away from us all the time.  I don’t mean the cellular detritus of moving through physical space that is so beloved  to the CSI television programs.  I mean the goals or ideals we hold, precepts we think are intrinsic to who we are, which become too dangerous to hold onto, or too painful even to bandage while we hope for healing.  Parts break away and we ignore the gaps;  try remapping those treacherous neural pathways; become who we were not, even if the new is less.  Smaller, tighter, and initially safer.

So we make different choices.  Verbalize different goals.  Something unexpected.  Something fantastical, coaxed from the prosaic routine-bound brain.  This.  This will stop the nearly leprotic sloughing of what we wish we could keep, but which has died, and just must go to save the shrinking organism.

And so we do.  We join groups.  We re-up on social media.  We decide to be different, for we hate what was.  What was, who was….well, that just resulted in job loss or other calamity.

So now I’m different!  I can social network!  I can manage up!  Yes, I am the sort of person who can negotiate the politics of human relations with warmth, while yet maintaining my personal privacy.  I can demand equality in human relations.  I can absolve my guilt over not meeting someone else’s needs.  I will not feel guilt over placing my own needs before another’s.     (Why am I hearing an old Neil Diamond song in my head?  You know the one…not even the chair….)

Am I really different?  I am unclear on that.  I’m inside-out, backwards and fragmented.  I’m unhappy.  I’m angry.  Though I am not at all lonely, not in a global sense.  I despair about losing friends and family members.  I can maintain my privacy while being a supportive loving friend.  I’d still put a loved one’s emergency oxygen mask on before I put on my own, but I’m working on bolstering those self-preserving neural pathways I’ve long lacked. Hey, at least I know my limitations.

Then add dirt, and stir.

I wrote a check this week.  It isn’t the largest one ever, or anything like that, but for me it was a lot of money.  The car dealership is holding the check until my car is delivered, likely on Monday.  I hadn’t wanted to go the “financing” route, thus I bought a car I could pay for outright.

The sales guy was good.  He was truly a people-oriented human being, and he wanted me to have a good experience…and to get the car I needed with as much of what I wanted as I could afford.  It’s the last week of the fiscal year, and the dealership was just hopping with customers.  The dealership offered “financing” twice.  They had me sign for a credit check (given that I was writing a personal check, I guess I’d have done the same.)  They needed to locate the vehicle I wanted.  It’s at another dealership and they’ll deliver it.

So…deal made. I had to wait for over an hour for the financial portion of the sale to commence,  in the little room with the glass door where I met the Finance Guy.  By this point, it was after 9PM and I’d been at the dealership since before 6PM.  The dealership team had been very solicitous: offering coffee, tea, water, granola bars, fruit …dog biscuits.  I settled for water: what I wanted was to go home, eat smoked trout on rye crackers and read a book.  Then the moment had come: The Finance Guy came to call me into his office….felt a bit like going to see the headmaster, were the headmaster a decade or more younger than I am.  He began his spiel by shaking my hand and calling me by a fairly logical but really unwelcome diminutive of my first name.

Next, he started what amounted to a word salad.  He prefaced his pitch with “People tell me a speak really fast, so if you need me to repeat something just tell me.” He proceeded to try his damnedest with fast speech, flashing papers in front of me, repeating himself in slightly different slant, not making sense, and, most alarming, not letting me see and hold the papers with these fees and recommendations.  He told me there was no warranty, and I ought to buy one…and “this is the most economical over the long-term…”

He recommended a clearcoat (Jay Leno uses this same product on his cars(!)) He recommended key fob insurance. There were other items…but I can’t recall them : he wouldn’t give me the print out.

He tried as hard as he could to sell me more than half again as much as I was spending on the entire car, in these “extras”.  “This is your chance for extended coverage and a bumper to bumper warranty!” he said. One extra was finally revealed as a line item that was just fee the dealership added, and not part of the licensing fee as it was portrayed on the sales agreement, and I tried to strike it.  Finance Guy said  “It makes the insurance cheaper….and blah blah blah.” He ignored my requests for copies “You can see them when the car’s delivered.”

I’d had it by then, but I do need the car….  I pulled out my checkbook.  He said to me “I can fill the check out for you.  It’s a lot of words.” (what the hell?) I did not respond to that “offer”and I wrote my own check.  Soon as we were done,  I fled the little room with the glass door. So glad to go home. Felt good that refused all these “warranties and protections.” Almost.  I still had that line item dealer’s fee in the total.

I dined on smoked trout and buyer’s remorse.  This morning I called the US headquarters of the manufacturer.  Talked to a delightfully honest man who explained that the car has upon my purchase a 3 year warranty, and if I wished to extend it, I can do that any time before the end of the manufacturer’s warranty.  He said the other “protections” are all third-party offers–and it’s all stuff Finance Guy gets commissions on.  The guy at the HQ was very blunt. Finance Guy makes his money and keeps his job by selling this stuff, so he’ll do anything to make a sale.  I said I felt blind-sided.  He said “It was time. Time to just add dirt, and stir.  Muddy the waters and people have no idea what they’re consenting to.”

This guy from HQ will be sending me a rebate after I get the title to my car.  He emailed me a form as soon as we got off the phone.  He reminded me that I can demand that line item mentioned above is struck and I can write a fresh check.

He closed his email:

“I will follow up with you on Thursday if I do not hear back from you.

Please be careful in the finance office.”

And I will be.

Update, 2 days later: Received vehicle.  I was careful in the finance office.  I did demand the line item be struck and I did write a fresh check.  Satisfied, though not enchanted, which is a fine enough position.

Lessons

I have an old friend from teaching to whom I was so very close, once.   He was, and still is, apparently, utterly invested in making his world entirely about him.  He’s not a selfish man, though he’s self-absorbed and staggeringly egocentric.  It makes me sad–I worked with him some years ago, and  he taught me a lot about myself…and about who I didn’t want my self to be, especially not in the classroom.  He is a good person, kind and moral.
He’s also a person who takes on a new hobby and suddenly is that hobby: take a flying lesson and “Yes, I’m a pilot” sort of thing.  Rather off-putting, though he doesn’t mean it to be.  He’s got talents, but mostly he has just mad drive to master things.  Always, I think, looking for a self.
Whenever one works with people, there are risks.  You become friend, or mentor, or simply a source of a college recommendation. You must give freely of these things, being sure they are about the person who needs you, moreso than about showing yourself as the Source Of All Wisdom And Kindness. For some people, it’s damned hard to recognize that when you absent your ego and focus on the joy of giving to another person: recommendations, or tools to succeed, or simply imparting knowledge, you’re actually a better teacher or mentor.
It can take more from you, for you have to cast yourself a skin of …not empathy so much as a skin of your old, naive self which willingly suspended disbelief…and within your brain you (briefly) become the student. It is exhausting, though the rewards are first hand witness to discovery, to the “aha!”, to the joy of learning. (Which, to be honest, is the true joy in teaching….Good teachers are joy-of-learning junkies.)
But when you experience joy through anyone, you will also experience pain.  Teachers know how fragile the human creature is, though they like to see the growing strong, the stretched wings, instead of apathy and stasis.  Apathy and stasis.  It’s a mask for depression.
Years ago, a former student of mine brought a shotgun out to the woods and committed suicide on DNR lands he’d grown up hiking and camping on.  I will never forget it, or forget Hans.  I can see his face in my mind right now, over 20 years after it happened.  His mother’s stoicism.  His schoolmates disbelief.  It was awful.
My friend had a similar thing happen to a former student just yesterday.  My heart breaks for his hurt, but I am having trouble grasping why he is couching the entire thing as a drama in which he’s playing a major part. It’s the family’s loss, the family’s tragedy. His alluding to himself as having a starring role in this grieves me.  He is simply missing the agony of the commons: the community has been diminished by the tragedy. Putting his own personal pain on Facebook display for likes and sadface emoji diminishes the greatness of the loss, and, to my mind, diminishes my friend.
Sometimes the hardest thing for a teacher to learn is this: It’s not about you.

A lasting lesson in office politics

I worked for a multi-national corporation for nearly 10 years.  I held a half-dozen different positions in that time, but all with the same manager, at least for the first 8 years.  I thought I got along with her.  God knows I tried my best.  I got all the good (meaning awfully difficult, hard to do, really need to troubleshoot, et cetera) projects that no one else wanted to tackle.  I never failed at anything, save having her respect.  There were times when work went poorly (like a stint in San Juan, PR in 2010) and when things went well –landing extra work for our site, accolades from clients and so forth.  Through all of it, she treated me poorly–verbal abuse, mostly, though sometimes just undermining me.  However….I was the earner and the source of all our insurances at that time, and I couldn’t leave my job: both for financial reasons and simply that I had no idea what sort of recommendation she might give me.

I was her second, always, and my coworkers always came to me with issues first: tech stuff I’d just do, other stuff I learned to pass on to my manager regardless of whether it was quicker and more efficient for me to simply do it. She would then pass it back to me.  She was verbally abusive, mercurial, inconsistent, egomaniacal…and would “work from home” frequently because she knew no one higher up would notice her absence–the office ran fine without her.

She had a distinct management style, likely from being involved in political campaigns from a young age.  She worried about things like her “brand” and that she needed to be the “face” of our office.  She tried (and sorta failed) to teach me to “manage up”, a concept that to this minute makes my skin crawl.  She did try.  Not in a brow-beating way.  But it seemed so false as to be worthless.

I learned.  Learned so much about perseverance, so much about loneliness, so much about being careful never to truly trust a co-worker.  I learned that “managing up” as a strategy would only net information about the target. Useful information, like, was he or she susceptible to the ass-kissing, and, if that was so, to tread very carefully and always, always to watch my back.

When my manager left, I threw a top-notch send-off party for her–she later informed me that it was the best day of her life, which was great–she’d opened the office a dozen years earlier and deserved a good “fest”.  I knew her well enough to know what would make her happy and what would make the staff feel as though it was something that we all planned together. (Note: it was a really great party.)

When the company closed our office,  I was the manager, and I had a very different style.  When we closed, we really closed. We palletized and shipped everything 2000 miles to another office.  Took almost a month, and during that time, many of my now former employees came by to visit, say hello, wish me luck.  A number of them wanted to stay in touch, asked what plans were and so forth.  Closing was tough.  I had learned so much working there.  About business, about tech work, about the way to build good teams from disparate people.

And I learned never to trust without hard parameters, set so as to insulate me.  I’ve found that one to be the most lasting lesson, as I start a number of new volunteer positions.  I find it off-putting and anxiety-inducing to meet new people…not the clientele or the students, but the co-workers.  People I meet in passing can’t touch me…people I may have to know? Arm’s length or further is the only safety one can have.  I’m amazed afresh almost daily at my essential fear of discussing myself, and my guilt over being a poor conversationalist or lousy lunch-mate.

Lasting lessons in office politics from such an unwelcome source.  Who’d have thought?

When will memories beat back loss?

It’s fifteen years today that I felt something just…wrong.  I’d tried to call my parents a couple of times from school, but hadn’t gotten them.  I called one more time before my last class arrived.  Got my mother.

 “Mom? Is everything okay?”
“No.  Not it’s not. It’s the very worst.”
“What!  What happened?”
“It’s the very worst.  Dad died.”
I think I screamed.  I was shaking, and one of my students scooted out to get the other biology teacher.  He got what happened, and went for the principal.  I tried to call my husband, but didn’t get him, as my mother had already called him and he was on his way to tell me. I was dazed.  People don’t die from having a medical test. At a world renowned hospital.
The rest of that day remains blurred and confused in my mind.  I remember sitting on my front lawn watching birds, but very little else.   I remember where
I was when I finally cried…in my study, alone in the house, over a year after he was gone.
Fifteen years later, and I wonder where I would live, and even who I would be, had he not died.  I think about that frequently.  I just miss him.