How Will I Know When You Die?

FeaturedHow Will I Know When You Die?

No. No. No.

A friend asked me if I’ve given my son a list of people to call when I die. And right then I felt the future running away with me so fast I could hardly catch my breath.

“No.”

“Why not?”

I told her he’d never do it. “He’d get mad if I even approached the subject.”

“How do you know?”

How do I know? He hardly talks to me as it is, much less about an uncomfortable subject.

“It’s a hard job—to call around to strangers and tell them their friend has died. Think of the responses—the oh-no’s! and the demand for details. No. He wouldn’t do it.”

“Well, how will I find out?” pleaded my friend.

There’s that future again, coaxing me to live in it, whispering that it’s my responsibility to inform my friends when I die.

I’m drawn to a passage in Pascal’s Pensees: “We never keep to the present…we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up,” He writes about our failure to live in the present, “we think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control…” So, no. I’m not going to try to control what happens to me after I die, other than keeping my end-of-days papers in order. I’m happier owning this moment and this moment and this moment. I’ll let time future govern itself.

On the Sunday after All Saints Day, November 1, my church recites the names of those members who’ve died the past year. This year there were more people on the list I knew. I mean, I knew them. Not just their names. I knew them. After the service, as I sat alone in my pew listening to the organ postlude, I popped open my iPhone. I read an account about two women who guarded the dead body of one of the synagogue victims in Pittsburgh so that, in keeping with Jewish custom, the person would never be alone. I had descended into the grace of solitude, a still point, wondering if Jews believe the soul lives beyond the body when I heard someone call my name.

“Hi Regan,” came the voice of my pastor, Shannon Kershner. I looked up to see we were the only two people left in the church after the All Saints Service. She had just delivered a sermon on John, 11:35: Jesus wept. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible. Pastor Shannon reminded us Jesus cried over the death of his friend, Lazarus, joining in the collective grief of his community.

“Are you ok?” she asked.

“No,” I answered. “The dead.”

“Yes.”

She knew.

 

Talk To Me, Dogs

Talk To Me, Dogs

Facebook told me this the other day—that talking to my dog is a sign of intelligence. Whew. I’m glad of that. I talk not only to my dog but to all dogs. Out loud. In public. On the street. I’ve questioned whether their tethered humans might think I’m crazy but I can’t help it. It’s an irresistible impulse, a compulsion, this talking to dogs. And now I know it’s smart.

“Thank you for saying hello to me,” I say to the miniature poodle springing up and down in boyish spirals in the elevator.

“Mac, Mac, come see me,” I yell to Angie’s labradoodle on the sidewalk.

“Henry! Here comes that German Shepherd. Hang tight. Let ‘im sniff. Uh. oh. That scrappy Spitz. Just go ‘round him.”

The word for this is anthropomorphism. Facebook quoted behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley, a University of Chicago anthropomorphism expert. He says that I and others like me are actually showing signs of “intelligent social cognition” in talking to our pets. Because God made us social creatures, we talk to things we love, to be social, to have friends. For thousands of years dogs have adapted as companions to humans. They want to bond with us too, to be a part of the family, to please us. They even want to talk to us, which is why they bark. Dogs evolved from wolves. Wolves howl. They don’t bark.

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“O people, we have been taught the utterance of birds.” (Quran, 27:16)

Somewhere along the evolutionary highway, dogs learned to bark to communicate with their human packs.

Literature old and new is full of talking animals. Some writings are called fables as in Aesop’s The Hare and The Tortoise, who challenge each other to a race. Some are fairy tales—the big bad wolf misleading a red-caped girl in the woods. Snakes and donkeys converse with humans in the Bible. The Koran says Solomon communicated with birds. How could all these stories be based on non-facts? Surely humans once chitchatted with both household pets and wild animals. 

Henry retired at seven years old as a West Highland Terrier stud. His official registered name was Clipper. My friend, John, drove me to Indiana Amish country to fetch the castoff sire. I sat in the back seat with the dog on the way home so I could talk to him, bond. It was the month I first feared I was slipping into cognitive decline.

“He’s not responding to the name Clipper,” John said. “I’ll bet they never called him that. They just bred him. Why don’t you call him something like Henry?” 

And so I did. All the way home to Chicago. The next morning I hollered, “Henry?” He ran from the next room and jumped in my lap. We’ve been conversing ever since.

I suspect the non-pet owners who find me talking to Henry when the elevator door opens haven’t heard of Dr. Epley’s research. To them, I’m just the batty old pensioner with the th-6fluffy white dog on the third floor. 

But I know better. 

I talk to animals.

 

Haircuts – by Alan Ganz

Guest blogger Alan Ganz is a retired lawyer and memoirist. He’s a member of the Memoir Writing Class at the Center for Life and Learning at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago. His colorful stories tell us about growing up in East Gary Indiana.

In our grade school years, we had a Zenith radio in our home. Dad, Gary and I listened to one commercial that was frightening. In a deep male voice, the announcer discussed B.O. From his talk, it could almost rise to the level of leprosy. Friends would fall away and people would avoid you. What was it? Body odor. To prevent it, all one had to bathe with Lifebuoy soap.

Dad said we were going to take a bath every Saturday to fight B.O., easier said than done. The problem was hot water. Our furnace was the worst possible. It did not connect to any radiator having hot water or steam. The system was to heat air in the furnace which would supposedly rise and fill heating ducts of our house. The system heated our house as much as an small outdoor campfire. Further, the furnace did not make hot water. Pa finally put a small kerosene heater in the kitchen. Gary and I would put our behinds on the grill to get warm before breakfast.

The solution to the hot water problem was to buy a small furnace 24” x 24” x 24”. It was my job to fire it. I enthusiastically stoked it up with coal until the entire furnace was cherry-red. Before getting into the bathtub, I turned on the hot water faucet from which steam came out of for a minute. Wow could I generate hot water! We did not use Lifebuoy soap because it was slippery and sunk to the bottom of the bath tub. Instead, we used Ivory soap which floated. After our baths, Baba gave us our weekly ration of clean clothes: socks, underwear, jeans and shirts which was our clothing throughout our grammar school days.

However, we paid no attention to our hair length. It reached such proportions that it could compete with the hair of the violin player at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At that point, Dad would give an order: “Alan, you and Gary need haircuts. Do it!” We had to obey or get the belt. Dad gave me money for our trolley fare and haircuts. Since East th-5Gary had no barber, we had we had to go downtown to the city, i.e., Gary (population of East Gary was 6500, Gary was 100,000).

Gary and I went to the nearest streetcar stop. It ran to Gary, Indiana, on rails with overhead electric wires powering it. Gary consisted of a large number of square miles which had the streets laid out on the grid system. It was named after Judge Gary, legal counsel to U.S. Steel. The main street was Broadway which ran in a north-south direction until the city limits were reached. The furthest north was the entrance to the U.S. Steel plant. Broadway held the premier stores of Gary: Sears, Goldblatt’s, J.C. Penney and Tom McCann for boys shoes. To ensure a good fit, you put your feet in their X-ray machine! Yes – I still have my toes.

Our objective was to get haircuts at Goldblatt’s. We took the elevator to the fifth floor which was entirely devoted to boys haircuts. A quick glance revealed the Goldblatt’s employees – a cashier and six barbers. We paid the cashier and got a receipt. Instantly, our noses were filled with the foul smell of sweating and an almost unbearable B.O. of the boys.

Our eyes saw 80 to 100 boys of grade school age waiting for haircuts in an orgy of sound and movement. The sound was the boys shouting, screaming, talking, cursing, whistling, singing, belching and farting. Gary and I were well-mannered; we only farted outdoors. The movement consisted of shoving, running, hitting, fighting, scuffling, racing, wrestling and jumping on and off the chairs and couches. It was on par with a serious adult riot. WHY such SOUNDS and MOVEMENT? Answer: No supervising adults to control the raw energy of grade school boys.

Above the voices of the rioting boys were heard the adult voices of the barbers. With the strength and loudness of an Army drill sergeant, they shouted a number. For example, “85!” You would look at our receipt which had a number on it. If your number was th-4called, you quickly went to the barber and sat down in his chair. The barber asked you what kind of haircut you wanted: a Baldy (where the barber took off all your hair) or an Inchy (where the barber set his electric shears to cut hair 1 inch above the skull). Either haircut could be done in 45 seconds. Combs and scissors were not used. I think the barbers worked on commission and became millionaires.

There was also a tragedy on the fifth floor. “26!” bellowed the barber. A boy with the 26 on his receipt hurried to the barber’s chair. The barber, who towered over the sitting boy, looked at his head of hair and yelled, “You have cooties [head lice]! Go home and get rid of them!”

26 was crying with a cascade of tears running down his cheeks. Having been embarrassed, there was only so much a human being can bear. He quickly got out of the chair and ran to the fifth floor elevator, and disappeared.

When the barber shouted “Cooties!”, the riot immediately stopped. The only sound was that of the barbers’ electric shears.

Each boy thought, “Do I have cooties?” Our teacher said you could determine whether or not you had them by running a fine-toothed comb in your hair and then examining the comb. Your eyes would be able to determine if you had cooties. But, I didn’t have my fine-toothed comb with me! To get a haircut or not to get a haircut, that was the question Hell, let’s get the haircut! The riot started again with renewed intensity.

Gary and I finally got our Inchy haircuts, and went home.

The haircuts were on Saturday, so we could play on Sunday. On Monday, Gary and I went to our grade school classes with heads held high. We had no B.O., we had clean clothes, and we had spiffy haircuts. We were the cutting edge of boys’ grade school fashion.

 

The Once and Future President by Regan Burke

The Once and Future President by Regan Burke

Barreling out of Washington National airport on Friday afternoon, October 5, 2018, my cousin, his wife and I headed south for a family reunion in Charlottesville, Virginia. Leslie, in the back seat kept a close watch on her iPhone messages for news of the controversial vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh who had been accused of sexual molestation as a teenager. I sat in the passenger seat next to my cousin, Bill, making sure my iPhone didn’t jiggle out of the USB charging port in the console. I’d arrived from Chicago where the verdict of Jason Van Dyke’s murder trial was about to be announced. Van Dyke shot 19-year old Laquan McDonald sixteen times on a southside street in full view of a dashcam. When I left home at 7:00 in the morning police were already positioned on every corner of the Loop anticipating riots in the streets if the jury acquitted Van Dyke.

Messages started lighting up the car halfway down Route 66. All the Senators we thought might vote against Kavanaugh caved. 

Leslie reported from the back seat.

“Collins is a yes.” 

“Flake’s voting for him now.” 

“Manchin is a yes.”

It was like the reading of the dead at a war memorial. Our once hoped-for heroes were dead to us now. Through my gadget came news that the jury came in with a 2nd-degree murder conviction for Jason Van Dyke. Justice prevailed somewhere out there in the middle distance but I was geographically removed from quick-fix relief and drawn into the pall in the car on the Virginia highway. I anticipated a gloomy night in the larger group of our politically-charged and mostly-Democratic relatives. 

In the dusk of warm Virginia horse country two hundred of us gathered on the lawn of th-1our kind and generous relative, Ann—sisters and brothers, cousins, 2nd cousins,1st cousins once removed, spouses, partners and all their small children. Our casual salutations were loving and genuine but often cut short.

“Did you hear Manchin voted yes?”

“I just saw Kavanaugh’s getting sworn in tomorrow.”

During afternoon free time the next day, some of us wound our way up a forested valley road to Monticello, the mountaintop plantation of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. Up until the 1950s, this father figure came to us a hero, our 3rd President, author of the Declaration of Independence, purchaser of the Louisiana Territory and the guy who sent Lewis and Clark to Oregon by canoe. We began to hear about his slave ownership in 1960s periodicals. All accounts were accompanied by declarations that Jefferson hated slavery and tried to abolish it. So we still had our hero.

Sometime in the 1990s historians uncovered research documenting that even though Virginia had a strong free-slave movement in the early 1800s, Jefferson was not a part of it. He even built a new road to Monticello to hide his slave quarters from visiting abolitionists. We started to doubt our hero-father. 

Then came Sally Hemmings.

In 1998 DNA testing showed Thomas Jefferson fathered his slave’s six children. The Sally Hemmings exhibit at Monticello tells us the relationship started when fourteen-year-old Sally lived in Paris with Jefferson and his daughter. The exhibit rightly asks the question, “Was it rape?” 

Indeed it was. 

And what of our hero now?

 

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Monticello’s slave quarters

 

Magazine Man by Annette Bacon

When I was six years old I remember watching my Dad go around the back of our house to a small brown shed, more like a small barn, on the side of our property.  I was cautioned not to go into this space as it might have a hitchhiker or a kidnapper in there waiting to grab someone.

One day, after my dad went to work and my mom left to go to the grocery store, I took our small kitchen stepladder to the shed and set it against the south window.  Looking in, th-4.jpegI saw old tires, a broken lawnmower, lots of papers and magazines on a wooden counter along with old tools and flashlights.  Since there was no stranger in there, I reasoned that I could go inside.  I slid the door open and went over to the bench, hopped up and that is when I saw the pile of colorful magazines in a box on the floor.

I jumped down and picked up several of them.  Turning the pages, I saw they were all pictures of naked women. I saw tall, short, blonde, and brunette women in various poses, some with fur coats and some with animals, like camels and horses.  I was shocked.  Since my dad was the only person who came out to the shed, he must know about this.  How could I ask him about the magazines, if I wasn’t allowed to go into this forbidden space?

Suddenly I remembered that mom would be returning from the store.  I carefully placed the magazines back on the pile in the box, picked up the stepladder, and hurried around the back of the house.  Imagine my surprise to hear my mom talking on the phone.  Her back was turned to me so I put the ladder down quietly and went out again.  I knew the berries in the raspberry patch were getting ripe, so I grabbed the container on the side of the garage and went to pick some.

I heard my mom calling me, so I went inside trying to be nonchalant and careful.  She hadn’t noticed that the ladder had been missing. “Hi Mom, I picked some berries for breakfast.” “Wonderful,” she answered.  My heart was racing as I made small talk with her as we ate together.

All morning I tried to think of someone I could talk to about the magazines, but I couldn’t think of a single soul whom I thought would keep my secret.  Then I thought of my grandmother.  Maybe she would be quiet, but I wasn’t sure.  And I couldn’t figure out why there were magazines of nude women who didn’t look anything like the women in my family or me.  I decided at the next chance that was possible, I would look in the box in the shed again, to see what else was in that box.  Since my parents usually slept later than I did on Sundays, I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore further.

In the meantime, I had cocoa with my grandmother on Saturday morning as usual.  I walked the four blocks to her house, thinking about my discovery and whether or not I should tell her.  After I made our cinnamon toast, I mentioned that I had done something that I had been told not to, but I could only tell her if she promised not to tell anyone.  She looked sternly at me and said she couldn’t do that if it involved my safety.  I said it didn’t and launched into the story of my adventure.  She thought for a minute before thsaying, “Lots of people keep old magazines.”  “But Gram,” I persisted, “Why were all the women naked?”  She said she didn’t know, but that my dad loved to read and was called “the magazine man” in our family. This was puzzling to me, but I was resolved to look again.

The next Sunday I woke up very early and snuck out to the shed, hoping to discover that my dad kept other things in the box like comics.  But when I reached up to slide the door open, it wouldn’t move. There was a padlock on it.

Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

On a ridge near the Fox River John and I soft-footed along the sidewalk stopping here and there for Henry, my terrier, to sniff unfamiliar markers deposited at the base of old-growth trees by squirrels, chipmunks, and, of course, dogs. I asked John the usual grandmotherly questions about school, his grades, homework. Science is his favorite subject and he likes moving from class to class now that he’s in Middle School. He pointed out homes of his school ’s vice-principal, classmates, older kids he knew. He said there are often turkey vultures shuffling around this lawn or that, looking for dead worms and garter snakes. 

“Did you know vultures ride the thermals?” He asked. And I knew what he was thinking—he wishes he could spread his arms like wings and let the thermals airlift him into the sky. I do too. We probably have the same dream.

Further along we saw a robin jumping across the grass.

“I never see robins in the city except in the park,” I said, “do you think that’s the robin singing?” 

“No, that’s a cardinal. In the trees. A robin goes yeep.yeep.yeep. A cardinal goes schwee-eet. schwee-eet,” he said.

When we returned to his house, we headed for the deck off the kitchen. He asked if Henry and I wanted a drink, then disappeared inside for a few minutes. He came back through the door caressing a lizard that stretched from his neck to his waist. 

Catching me staring at the hummingbird feeder dangling from the railing, he said, “We haven’t seen a hummingbird since we put up the feeder. But there are lots of yellow finches flying in and out of the lilac tree.”

I have no clue what 12-year old boys are supposed to know. There was a time when he carried a pocket computer around with him so he could play Mario at every possible moment. After a few years, Mario took a backseat to Minecraft and I thought cyber games would possess him for the rest of his life. So I was thrilled to hear these lessons in bird behavior so confidently plucked from deep within his genetic code.  

I shouldn’t be surprised. As a fledgling, before he could talk but after he’d learned to walk, his mother and I took him to Target. While we loaded bags in the car, John sat 1motionless in the shopping cart transfixed by a seagull preening in the sun at the top of a lamppost. A few years later, John and I were sitting on the sunny side of Navy Pier, taking a lunch break after whiffling around first-grader attractions in the Children’s Museum. Sparrows started hopping around our table and John surrendered his bagful of beloved McDonald’s fries to the birds. Crouching down on the pavement stretching his arm as far as it would go with a soggy cold fry dangling between his thumb and finger he tried to get the birds to eat from his hand. The outstretched arm tired and weakened so he propped it up with his other arm and went for at least a half hour. 

I rue that I see him so infrequently. But I’m comforted by my brood of friends with the same grandmother’s lamentation. Like birds on a wire we gather and chirp about our grandchildren, clucking out their accomplishments, funny remarks and milestones, ending with a feathered sigh.

The Hair Revenant

Such a big deal. The hair.  

“What’s wrong with your hair?” my mother asked every time I saw her until her death when I was forty years old. “Get your hair out of your eyes,” and “Go brush your hair,” were common salutations when I was a child. My hair looked like her hair when she was a child, cut straight and short. Hers was blonde, mine brunette. We had moderately thick hair, not wispy or curly. Hairdressers cooed how they loved cutting my hair because it’s so healthy.

My mother disdained long hair as unfashionable, her tip-off to an inferior human being. She let me cover my short hair in bandanna-type scarves tied at the back of the neck like the picture on the Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. I loved that picture. Aunt Jemima symbolized what I wanted my mother to be. Happy, warm and always flipping pancakes for breakfast.

Our household of five females acquired a portable hairdryer just in time for me to revamp my hair for high school. The tabletop boxy machine had a four-foot flexible tube that connected to a soft plastic bonnet with holes on the inside. I’d curl chunks of short wet hair around plastic tubes, called rollers, and secure them to my scalp with long metal bobby pins. Then I’d cover my caterpillar-like head with the bonnet, switch on the heat, light up a Marlboro and sit on my bed reading Time Magazine while hot air transformed my pubescent healthy hair. Too loud for listening to the radio, the cranked up hairdryer sounded like I’d plugged into the exhaust end of the vacuum cleaner. The result, supposedly a Jackie Kennedy style bouffant, gave my dehydrated hair the look of a puffy rippled helmet.

I rebelled against the home hairdresser and the bouffant during a beatnik phase when I grew long hair, straight-parted in the middle. I wrote poems, learned folk songs, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Albert Camus. I armed myself with facts from Village Voice articles to counterpunch a friend’s parboiled views bubbled up from his father’s membership in the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. We debated in the local sweet shop after school before bicycling to the town cemetery to skateboard.

For my senior yearbook my mother persuaded me I would look sophisticated with a pixie haircut. I wanted to be sophisticated, to go to college and write for the New Yorker. But I became a stoned out alcoholic hippie instead, and let my hair grow long again. 

Coming to my senses, I’ve conceded to medium length hair, give or take, for more than half my life. Once in a while around three o’clock in the morning I wake up in front of the bathroom mirror holding scissors and looking down into a sink rimmed with leavings of healthy grey and white hair.

My Bohemian hairdresser tells me it’s uncommon but not unusual.

“A revenant wants you to cut your hair and has visited you in your sleep.”