Friday, May 30, 2014

Oh Brother

We’d been planning yesterday for a couple of weeks, but the concept of being together again for a day like that was born a long time ago. My brother, who left Illinois for the last time in about 1967, moved home. It gave us the opportunity to see each other at more than weddings and funerals. It was a really good day.

All my siblings lived in Illinois but my older brother Denny, born in 1940. He went away to the Army, came back and finished college, then enlisted in the air force and had a career that took him everywhere. His post air force life kept him near military installations working for defense contractors. Finally he retired for good. Bucking the trend, he left Southern California and built a retirement home near Elgin. He moved back January 28th of this year, and endured the brunt of our bad winter. As the weather warms, and the landscape greens, he’s increasingly glad to be back.

Yesterday was sunny and bright. I arrived mid morning at our brother Don’s house, one I’d helped him build while I was in college. Don was the third of seven of us to pass away. He left us too soon, a victim of cancer at 64. It was in my brief conversations with Denny at Don’s funeral that I realized Denny was serious about coming back. He used that trip as an opportunity for him and his wife to look at real estate. Until then I doubted he would really make the move. He owned a home in a nice town. His patio was shaded by an arbor that grew green grapes like we buy at the store. He had a pool and a hot tub. Winters were a breeze. What were the chances he would give that up to come back to the Midwest?

Turns out they were pretty good. There were complications, financial considerations, a house to sell, aging parents to consider, a cross country move to organize; but he and his wife steadily moved forward. Now they’re here. I hope they’re glad they did it, because I certainly am.

I take for granted seeing the rest of my family. Although we don’t do it as often as we should everyone lives a few hours away. When graduations happen, or holiday celebrations take place, we see each other. That’s the key I think. We’re so wrapped up in communications these days that we somehow think they take the place of real interaction; handshakes and hugs, smiles and eye contact, sitting down and eating together, the unrecorded, unamplified sound of a human voice,. That’s what you miss out on when you live apart. And that’s what you gain when you get back together.

Denny moved back close to where our brother Don lived. His wife, Cheryl, stayed in the house after his death. She first thought after Don was gone she would leave, that the house was too big, and she would feel too alone. But that didn’t happen. We’re so sure about our future sometimes aren’t we? And yet life changes. She stayed in the house I helped Don build in 1972. I know how the studs run in the walls. I remember changes we made in the design. The three of us ate lunch there yesterday, and the house had a familiar feel to it.

Later Don built a second garage/shop down the hill from the house. In the fall of 1972 he went back to his job as junior high school shop teacher, having spent the summer building his dream home, worked a few days and quit. He became a carpenter, and made a living building and remodeling homes for families. Denny, who majored in Industrial Arts and also taught shop for a short time before rejoining the military, is an accomplished wood worker and furniture maker. With Don’s shop basically unused and with Cheryl’s blessing, he moved his extensive collection of tools into Don’s shop, which isn’t far away from his new home. It’s become his man cave so to speak. That’s where we met yesterday. I pulled into Cheryl’s driveway, Denny walked out of my brother Don’s shop, we hugged each other under the oak trees, and commenced work on a project. We’re in the end a farm family, and we relate less by sitting around talking and more by working together. We spent the day making a set of shelves for the shack.

I showed Denny my problem, and made the ask, while there was still snow on the ground. I’ve run out of room for things in my shack. It’s a small place. I have CD’s and books, and various other necessities of shack life, overflowing the shelves I built in between the exposed rafters. I needed a place to put the Mason jars, big and little, I use to serve wine and whiskey to guests. I needed a place for the coffee and tea, sugar cubes, iron tea pot, sardines and beans, various other things I find it hard to live without. There’s a lot going on in the shack. And when you’re out here, especially in the winter, you need things close at hand.

“So what exactly do you have in mind?” Denny asked.

“Nothing exactly. I don’t have a lot of wall space so I want them in the upper corner of the patio door. I never open that door, although I suppose I should make the shelf unit removable if I ever need to. Like moving or taking out something big. I don’t want to block the light. And I’d like for them to you know, look good.”

I have a lot of things that look good. I have a good looking cabinet for the stereo that my friend Joe made. My brother Darwin welded the very cool steel table my small stove sits on. It’s perfect for storing the little chunks of wood I burn. I have a handmade hickory slab writing desk, actually two desks, one for the keyboard nesting underneath. I have a handmade oak clock given to me as a retirement gift. Life is good in the shack.

“What’s the tallest thing you want to put on this shelf? You got a tape measure?“

I dug out a tape and got out the Mason jars I use as wine glasses. I brought down the fancy round tin of good green tea. Denny measured them and started taking notes.

“What’s the widest thing?”

I showed him the iron tea kettle Colleen got me for Christmas, with the matching trivet.

“OK.” And with that Denny got quiet and took to measuring the window frame, the trim, the distances from the window glass to the frame, the trim outside the frame.

“What kind of wood you thinking of?”

“I don’t care. The shack is mostly pine. But anything that looks good.”

“Mahogany is nice to work with. I brought some nice mahogany from California.”

“Denny I’ll leave it up to you.” Everything Denny makes is nice. He’s a detail and finish guy. I’m a rough framing kind of guy. Actually, my real specialty is demolition. I have my own crow bar and sledge hammer. In that way I’m different from my brothers.

“Let me work out a design and then I’ll show you.”

Within a few weeks Denny e mailed me a design, hand drawn on graph paper and scanned, of a meticulously worked out set of shelves. My brother prints really well and draws straight lines. So did Don. I’m not sure why that didn’t get passed down to me but it did not. My plans in comparison are doodles. When I got the e mail with the drawing attached I called Denny.

“This looks great,” I said.

“How about we build them together?”

“I’d love to.”

Retirement is a wonderful thing. I reserved a Thursday from a remarkably uncluttered calendar. That same Thursday last year, in 2013, I was in Springfield agonizing over, and trying to impact, the last Illinois State budget to affect the kids and families served by my former agency. It was both a madhouse, and a mess. I’m sure it was in 2014 as well. But this year I was in my brother Don’s shop spending the day with my brother Denny.

I fished out the mahogany boards; wide, dusty, a little banged up, from a rack near the ceiling.

“Honduran mahogany is the best,” Denny said almost apologetically, “but you can’t get it anymore. This is Asian, probably from the Phillipines. Not quite as pretty, you know the grain and color, but nice to work with.”

Following the plans closely we cut the shelves and the sides. We ripped them to the proper width on the table saw, cut them a little longer than we needed on the radial arm saw, and ran them through the joiner. Then we put them through the planer to make sure they were perfectly and uniformly 5/8ths of an inch thick. Denny decided that would be the best thickness. I had used neither a joiner or planer before. Like a shop teacher, Denny explained their function, and stressed the safety measures we needed to follow. I did the simple stuff, hooking up the dust collector to various machines, switching plugs to the 220 outlet, sanding.

We used the table saw again with a dado attachment, which makes cuts wider, to make grooves in the side pieces into which we would fit the shelves. I never would have done that. I would have used little “L” brackets with screws from the hardware store. In fact, before I asked Denny to make them, I thought I could drill holes in the corners of pine planks, put rope through them, tie knots in the right places, and nail the rope to the rafters, ending up with suspended shelves. As shelves they would have been shaky and crude but they would probably work. Denny’s shelves, however, are the real deal.

It was intricate work. We used a band saw to make the cut away detail on the side pieces and to notch them out where they fit around the trim. Denny took a long time lining up the saw blades to his thin pencil marks on the wood, tapping the machines softly with his fist to reach alignment, then slapping them lightly with his fingers for fine tuning. He measured in 32nds of an inch. I always ignore those marks on the tape measure along with the 16ths, and usually the 8ths.

Denny routed the front edges of each shelf and the trim piece at the top. He keeps his router bits in a special wooden box he made. Not loosely thrown in the box but lined up between little rails. He pointed each out to me, what kind of cuts they make, what he uses them for. Denny has every tool and gadget for wood you can imagine. I have a hammer and a chisel. A dull chisel.

When we’d finished all the pieces we put it together, glued and clamped it. Denny has way more clamps than he can possibly use. With the good glue he used it set up in twenty minutes. He gave me specific final instructions on sanding and applying the finish. We decided given it’s use polyurethane would be best, although we discussed both lacquer and shellac. I’m not to round off the edge he routed while sanding the shelves, as it is an edge design that should remain sharp. He pre-drilled and counter sunk the blocks I’ll mount on the window frame. He even gave me brass screws to use with extras in case I lose a couple. I asked him to sign it, like you would a painting. He has a little branding iron, electric, that he heated up and pressed into a corner under the top shelf.

“Hand crafted by Dennis McClure”

I left Cheryl’s a little after five with the shelf unit in the back seat of the Buick. When I get it finished and hung I’ll post a picture here on the blog. But the shelf is not the story. I’d spent the whole day with my brother. When he left the farm I was about eight. And while we’ve had the occasional day together since, we haven’t had a day quite like yesterday in a very long time. It’s good to have him home.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Tunes for the Old Crowd

Whenever I find myself mostly in the company of old people, I think of my Dad. Sometime long after I left home, when my parents were in their seventies, the little town of Danvers organized a Senior Citizens day when the community’s old people would gather each week at the fire station, do some kind of pot luck lunch, and play cards. My Mom was all enthused. My Dad, himself then old, wouldn’t go. His standard line was “Who wants to be around all those old people anyway?” He said the same thing about Florida by the way. That line kept him out of going to a lot of places, which was fine by him. He liked staying home on the farm.

I’ve been staying home a lot myself over the past year. But once in a while I do take advantage of my fairly open schedule to do things I wouldn’t have done while I was working. For example, over the past few months my wife and I have gone to the symphony in Chicago a couple of times. Quite the place, Symphony Hall, and going there quite the experience.

We first went to see the LaBeque sisters, Katia and Marielle, on a Sunday afternoon in early April. I’d heard a recording of theirs by pure chance at the home of a friend, a mailman who appreciates all kinds of music. How he found them I don’t know. They play grand pianos face to face, these sisters, and I thought I’d take a chance on them. I was able to get a deal on floor seats not far from the stage. I didn’t really know what to expect.

Maybe it was the section we were in, but the concert goers that afternoon were OLD. Very old and extremely well dressed. How they look so nonchalant, even slouchy, in such elegant threads is beyond me. When I get dressed up, especially these days, I feel kind of stiff. Boxed in and anxious. These old folks strolled in casually like they were going to a ball game in the bleachers, except they were dressed to the nines. I half expected them to break out peanuts salted in the shell.

Strolled might be the wrong word. There were plenty of walkers, none with neon yellow tennis balls on the legs that I could see, and an occasional wheel chair. The ushers removed their appliances to the back and inquired at intermission if they needed them back. They took care of that old crowd really well. But wow, the clothes.

Lots of fur, lots of Italian suits, and plenty of white haired men with soft colored handkerchiefs stuffed casually into the chest pocket of their jacket. Wrinkled women with lots of jewelry wore lavish silk scarves intricately looped and arranged around their necks and shoulders. But still they managed to look bored. I was glad I at least wore khakis. I took my Cubs hat off fairly quickly. It was Chicago after all. I didn’t think you could go wrong with a Cubs hat. I was wrong.

As I might have told you before,here in the shack while I write I’ve been getting into piano players who record without vocalists. Do you think they’d rather be called pianists? I don’t think I would. Ever since another friend gave me a bunch of his jazz CD’s I’ve had a veritable musical buffet of piano players to pick from. Anyway, at the shack I’ve been listening to all these piano players, pianists maybe, but I have to think the jazz guys would rather be known as players. I listen to people I’ve heard before in a new way, Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, and Dave Brubek, along with others I have just now found; McCoy Tyner, Gil Evans, Oscar Peterson. And one guy that especially stands out named Art Tatum. What is it about Art Tatum that makes him different I wondered? Where did he get that sound?

I’m blessed to be around a lot of accomplished musicians at my church. I asked one of our keyboard players (pipe organ on Sunday, piano at choir practice, sometimes both.)

“What it was about Art Tatum? Why does he sound so good?”

“Art Tatum? He has the best left hand in the business.”

“Left hand?” I’m musically illiterate. She might as well have been talking about the rules of cricket, or quantum physics.

“Left hand. Yeah.” She noticed my blank response, knows from choir practice I’m illiterate, and she is patient. She explained it slowly and simply.

“So on piano the left hand keeps the beat, drives the tempo. It’s the steady hand. The right hand carries the melody, does the riffs. That’s the hard part you know, getting one hand to do one thing while the other does another. It’s the right hand the listener notices more. But Art Tatum. Art Tatum does things with his left hand that no one else does. You can do it, if you practice a lot, but it’s sort of magical, and so difficult, the way Art Tatum plays. And it’s all about his left hand. You can hear it. So much range. So quick but still steady. Yeah. Art Tatum.” Her eyes looked up, her face tilted back, and she shook her head. I could tell she was a fan of Art too.

So I’ve got it figured, in my illiteracy, that if Art Tatum does that well with one hand, the LaBeque sisters do that same thing with one whole piano. While she does her sister takes the right hand part with all of her 88 keys. You get a lot punch with two pianos. They play together wonderfully, these sisters.

When the concert began their pianos, black Steinway grands, were cradled together curve to curve like spoons. One LaBeque woman came from the right side of the stage, the other from the left. I never knew which was which. I asked around but no one knew. What does it matter? They took their places opposite one another with flair. One dressed in red, the other black. the each had long shiny black hair which they tossed while performing.

They started by playing three preludes by George Gershwin; Prelude No. 1, Blue Lullaby, and Spanish Prelude. The only thing I ever heard of his was Rhapsody in Blue. These pieces were more formal, but equally beautiful. I wanted to applaud after each song. I quickly found out that was, like my Cub hat, de rigueur as they might say, out of bounds as I would. For no apparent reason, we had to wait till the whole set was over to clap. Heck I wanted to clap in the middle of the song, to compliment them right after the best parts, the way you clap after the guitar player in a rock band takes the lead and shreds, playing an insane number of notes. But none of that at Symphony Hall. I learned the rules fairly soon. I may be a farm kid but I catch on quick.

The energy they brought to the stage was infectious. They, each of them separately, smiled at the fast jumpy parts, closed their eyes when it got too beautiful. They played the meaty parts hard, popping the keys, rising off the bench sometimes, giving it a mean face. They looked across the keys at each other a lot. On the soft slow parts they swayed ever so slightly, sometimes leaning back and turning their faces up, like the keyboard player at church when she imagined the sound of Art Tatum. They enjoyed what they were doing. I know how that feels. I’m enjoying writing this right now. They brought something special to Gershwin I think. Watching them play, in addition to hearing their music, brought something special to the crowd.

Next they played four untitled pieces, four Movements for Two Pianos, by a guy named Phillip Glass. It was spare. The program called it “minimalist” a term Glass apparently hates. It’s sort of hypnotic music, lots of repetition. I thought it was terrific. I can’t imagine how, with the LaBeque women choosing it and playing it, it would be anything else. When I got home I found one of Glass’ CD’s among the many given me, “Glassworks” recorded in 1981. It’s equally good. The four pieces played by the LaBeques were pastoral, rhythmic, and serene. It put the old people to sleep in droves.

As the LaBeque sisters played, passing the left handed and right handed roles back and forth, carrying out these long slow progressions of Phillip Glass, I began to hear strange noises around me. Whooshes of air, nasal thrumming, out and out snores. I looked around. Old people were conked out left and right. A tiny woman in the row in front of me had her head on her larger husband’s shoulder, slumped forward, her white hair fanned out onto his heavy wool herringbone tweed, her mouth hanging open. It was after all going on four o’clock in the afternoon. Back home she might have been sawing logs in the wing back chair, her feet on a fancy ottoman. Here in Symphony Hall she was getting her rest just the same. God bless the old farts. Occasionally one would wake up, wipe drool daintily from his or her chin, and check the program to see where exactly they were and what was playing. On the whole most of our section slept right through Phillip Glass. My wife and I felt young.

It was then I thought of my Dad. He didn’t talk a lot about his past. But as a young man, after his father died, his mother moved with him and his siblings off their farm in Danvers to the city, rented a house in Oak Park, and they all got good jobs downtown. Good thing. Soon after they arrived the depression hit. Dad worked downtown at U.S. Gypsum, his brother at Sears, his sisters at other good firms. I thought of him as such a farmer, it was hard to imagine him in Chicago. He moved back to Danvers and farm life soon after his first child was born. Just once, he told me about going to the symphony.

“Sometimes I would just go there after work on a whim, walk up to the ticket window, and see if I could get a cheap seat. Didn’t matter what they were playing. I’d go all by myself, sit in that big hall, and marvel at the sound. I’d never heard such music. I didn’t know it could be that beautiful.” And so I felt close to my Dad sitting there these many years later, beauty filling the air for me as it once did for him.

The crowd woke up with the last set played by the LaBeque sisters. They played the best songs from “West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein. And boy did they play it. It was all I could do to keep from singing along. They played “Jet Song” in boogie woogie that made me want to dance. They were accompanied in the West Side Story set by two percussionists, Gonzalo Grau from Caracas, Venezuela on congas and Raphael Sequinier from France on a more traditional trap set. Both walked away from their instruments and clapped, feet stomping the stage boards, synchronously, infectiously, dual hand clappers, with dual pianos, on “America.” I remember a guy in Spain, all by himself waiting for a train on the platform, clapping softly, rhythmically, and stamping his foot to a tune in his head. But on stage at symphony hall? Woven in with hard playing pianos, you’ve never heard hand clapping anything like it.

The LaBeque sister, Katia and Marielle, with the percussionists (not drum players I don’t think) Gonzalo and Rafael, played all the good stuff from West Side Story that you know. “Maria”, “Mambo”, “Cha Cha”, “I Feel Pretty”, “Tonight”, “Somewhere”. All the music, none of the words. The words played in our heads. The LaBeques playing those beautiful pianos. The hall filled with joy.

And so I continue on day after day, taking retirement slowly, staying home a lot but doing new things now and again, like driving to Chicago and listening to music with well dressed but tired old folks on a Sunday afternoon. There’s a lot to do out there. I’m finding more all the time.

Friday, May 16, 2014

For Some, Winter Never Ends

I’ve been working on a project, writing the history of an old organization, which defies brevity. It’s taking a lot of time. So last week’s blog post was a shortened earlier YSB essay on mushroom hunting. I’ve been retired almost a year so I took the hook out of that story and simply ran with the mushroom part. I should have left it alone.

In the original essay I used the time span, from being a little boy finding mushrooms to being an older man hunting them in the woods, along with the full lives of my parents as the backdrop for a lives cut short by untreated mental illness. I wrote that piece following a young man’s death that affected me very much years ago. For a long time following that I wore a rubber bracelet on my wrist to help people realize the best way to prevent suicide is to treat depression. I’ve since taken it off. It’s silly though to think you can quit being actively involved in social work and lose your concerns. In many ways social work never ends, because once you know how lives can be affected, and improved, you see needs all around you. I used to think those insights and concerns were an occupational hazard. Turns out they’re a permanent condition.

As I was editing that story we lost another person to the preventable affliction we call suicide. In reality the cause of death in the aggregate is mental illness. It’s the same, and just as deadly, as dying of cancer. It’s the second time people close to me have lost their life to suicide since I retired. It happens too often. It is made worse by knowing it doesn’t have to happen at all.

While you were at work, on a Thursday morning, nineteen people attended his funeral, with a few more acquaintances paying their respects during the visitation before. Nineteen living souls huddled in the front few rows of one of our area’s oldest and biggest churches, a gaping emptiness behind us. A man with a beautiful voice sang sacred songs, a sorrowful young priest said the mass, altar boys attending them lit candles, prepared the incense, rang the mysterious bells, and carried the cross ahead of the casket. The funeral home people kept it all organized He was almost unnoticed, I thought as I watched it take place, in both life and death. Such a quiet and unassuming life and such a violent and awful death.

He was an older man, a few years younger than me, who lived in a small house on a seldom traveled blacktop road among farm fields in the country. I have an affinity for people who live in the country, even though I left the farm 44 years ago. I equate it with peace and tranquility. Quiet and beauty, or silence and isolation, were this man’s daily companion since he was four years old. Fifty five years ago his parents built that house and moved there, with their only son, from town. After the funeral I drove to the house. From his living room window last week he would have seen no houses but rather fresh black dirt just now showing long green lines of sprouted corn. From the kitchen window in the back, past a white board fence, he would have seen a line of trees angling across the field, trees that leafed out in the past two weeks. After a steady diet of windy snow covered fields and bare icy branches on the trees, the unchanging landscape of that winter that seemed to never end, didn’t he see the world changing around him? Wasn’t he warmed and encouraged by spring? Couldn’t he feel the world coming back to life? I guess not. We won’t know.

He left no note. He reached out in a fashion at the end, clumsily, turning down offers of assistance, assuring others he was fine. His world was small. In his retreat from the wider world he settled into caring for his mother, who in her old age developed dementia. I think of him and all the hours he spent in that house. He must have felt desperate for human contact, but unable to initiate it. We can’t really understand the thinking of those who lose all hope, and consider the future as a life sentence of overwhelming pain. It’s like a foreign language. If we know help is needed by someone considering suicide we can provide it. Sometimes we don’t do enough. Sometimes our help is not accepted. But regardless we are left with the emptiness of lives ended prematurely that could have been so different. It is such loss. It is such a needless loss.

I’m a selfish man. While I don’t know what my future will bring I think that unless I am boxed in by some predictable and painful death in my finals days I will not cut my life short. For starters, I would miss my next meal. I would not know how it turns out with the Cubs. I would lose precious time with my family. But I should not, we should not, be so smug as to believe we could not be similarly afflicted. We are after all together in this boat of humanity. To escape personal pain, my friend risked inflicting pain on those around him. Was he thinking of us? I don’t think so. He had to leave. He took the only way out he could find. I don’t blame him.

He could have gone to the emergency room of any hospital, his personal physician, a mental health professional, any caring person, admitted he was considering harming himself, and been afforded treatment. Psychotropic drugs, much better drugs than ever before, psychotherapy, and the attention and care of others could have saved his life, perhaps changed it forever. Perhaps not. But I wish he would have tried. He tried to live life all alone. I think very few of us are equipped to do that, maybe none of us. Suicide is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of mental illness which more often than not can be overcome with help.

Take care of yourself. Take care of those around you. And enjoy every day of this beautiful spring. After that? Enjoy summer, fall, and winter. Repeat. Life is a gift. Unwrap it and use it till it’s gone.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Mushroom Hunting

I went mushroom hunting yesterday. Ottawa had its Morel Fest, this year teamed with home brewed beer tasting, last weekend, just about a week early. Didn’t matter much though, they had a great turn out. We’d yet to have a really hot day, the kind that when they happen, in early May, make the mushrooms pop up. Morel mushrooms grow wild in the woods around here. I don’t go expecting to find a lot of mushrooms, because I’m not that good at it. I go mostly to put myself in the woods in early spring. It reminds me of growing up.

We had permanent pasture on our dairy farm and one corner of the pasture was timber. We maintained a fence through that north end of the farm and it ran through our woods. There is a family story my folks used to tell about mushrooms and me. Before I had started school my parents took me out to the timber to fix fence. That was a chore saved for the spring to repair any damage to the fence before putting the cows to pasture when the grass greened up. As the story goes I wandered off into the timber while my Mom and Dad were working on the fence and when I returned I had a baseball cap full of morel mushrooms, the big creamy ones not the little grays. Mom used to tell the story and she would say that the first thing my Dad did when he saw the mushrooms was to kneel down, look me right in the eye and say “David, where did you get these?” I led them back to the spot where we found gobs more of them. My Mom and Dad looked at each other, laughed, and hugged me. Their laughter echoed through the timber. Later that night my Mom split a mess of those morels in two with a paring knife, floured them, and fried them in butter. She served them hot and salted. We smiled, the three of us, as we ate them in the kitchen.

So I’m in the ravine behind my house, walking slowly, looking at the ground. I can’t concentrate. That’s why I’m not a good mushroom hunter. To do it right you scan the ground slowly, imagining the shape of a mushroom, sweeping back and forth with your eyes, looking closely at the leaves, the twigs, trying to pick up that spongy top of a morel. The mushrooms are nearly the same color as the timber floor. It’s tricky. I get distracted.

The best mushroom hunting happens when you can barely see the first purple on the red bud trees. Some of the other trees are just showing green, but you can still see through them. It’s beautiful. If you are lucky enough to get a hot day soon after a rain the mushrooms pop up, some say, overnight. I have a hard time keeping my gaze on the ground. I love this time of year. I keep looking at the trees. I sit down on a stump and let the quiet take over. Its spring and life is good. I look at the back of my hands. They are starting to look old. Brown spots are beginning to show under the skin below my knuckles.

Off in the distance I see some May apples coming up. A farmer up the road, Bait Correll, always looked for May apples when hunting mushrooms. He thought May apples grew in the same rich dirt that grew morel mushrooms. Bait never took anyone with him to hunt mushrooms because he wanted to keep his spots secret. My Mom, whom Dad always said was a lot better mushroom hunter than he, looked for dead elm trees that had shed their bark. Her idea was the bark on the ground helped the mushrooms grow. They had lots of different theories, those people who long ago hunted morels in the woods around Danvers. If they were alive today they would be over 100 years old. They lived their whole lives on those little farms, milking cows, raising kids, hunting mushrooms, enjoying life.

It starts to spit a little rain while I am on the stump so I get up and start back to the house. I look only half heartedly for mushrooms on the way back. Actually the morels were pretty safe from me. I look for dead trees that could be cut for firewood. It will be a job to get them up the slope and into my yard. I’ll save that work for another day, maybe in the fall. This day, this beautiful spring day, is one made for thinking, and remembering, and finding mushrooms if I’m lucky. But really, I think I have both found and eaten more than my share of morels during this life. This year I’ll let those mushrooms, wherever they are, grow for someone else.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Computer Hell

It started one morning when my daily e mail messages didn’t appear in Outlook. I quickly checked my I Phone. E mails were coming to my smart phone but not to my laptop. After repeated attempts at sending/receiving in Outlook I discovered an error message, 0x800CCCIA. When I googled the error message, Yahoo appeared instead. As I entered the search terms in the box a short video clip, constantly repeating, of a large woman throwing me a kiss appeared on the screen. Something is terribly wrong I thought.

But I did complete the search for the error message. I was provided an elaborate set of instructions explaining how and where to go to repair the error. I was deep into a long list of steps when it directed me to click Tools, then Settings, then a tab that said “Advanced.” I thought to myself “I have no business being in an advanced area.”

There was a time, when I was working, that I wouldn’t have gone this far. I would have looked at the error message on my screen, called Tracee, and said “Would you come in here? I have a problem.” God, what a blessing it is to have smart people working with you. Now I have no one. It’s only me. Bravely, I pushed on. This kind of stuff makes me nervous.
Turns out I was right to be nervous. When I clicked the advance tab a bunch of stuff appeared that looked almost foreign. I went back to the step by step directions.

• Uncheck the box that requires encrypted connection SSL.
• For Outgoing change the port to 587
• Select TSL in the Drop Down Box
• Click OK-Next-Finish

I did all that. I went back to Outlook, hit Send/Receive and got the same error message. It didn’t work. I was not receiving e mail. To make matters worse, I had no contacts, no e mail addresses, nada, zip. I had over 500 contacts accumulated over the years. I was panicked at the thought of losing them. For example I had lost all of you. My family was in there. They were still in my phone, but I had to get them back to Outlook. That’s where I did my real communicating. But I remembered what Tracee often said. “It’s usually there someplace. It’s rare that things are really lost, you just can’t see them.” I was trying to stay calm. They were, after all, still in my phone.

I like my I phone, but I love my computer. My computer is where I really work. I mean, I’m a two thumbed texter, and I can go fairly fast, but I’m a ten finger typist. I took personal typing as a junior in High School and have been typing ever since. If you saw my handwriting you would know why. I was hardly ever without a portable Royal typewriter. I got faster while working as an ad taker in college at the Pantagraph, the newspaper in Bloomington. I sat alone in the big classified office, after hours, at a typewriter with headphones connected to a telephone and listened as people described things they wished to sell. I simply stared ahead and typed what I heard, putting it into an order suitable for an ad in the paper. Very low level writing but writing all the same. And lots of typing.

Now when I think of words my fingers just tap them out. I don’t really consider what my fingers are doing. That must be what it’s like for accomplished pianists; they hear or imagine notes in their head and their fingers hit the keys that produce those sounds without thinking. That’s what writing on a keyboard is like for me. Whatever happened to my computer didn’t affect Microsoft Word. Nothing prevented me from writing. But how could I send what I wrote to those of you who read it without Outlook? I went back to the instructions. I followed them again. I failed to fix it again. I tried some different things. I got different error messages. It was apparent I needed help. I called Tracee anyway. Thankfully, she took my call. She certainly didn’t have to. I explained my problem briefly and then got to the real purpose of my call.

“Tracee, could I pay you to look at this laptop and fix this deal?” Tracee is a whiz. She could probably fix it in a minute.

“I can look at it, and you can pay me, but that’s really not necessary. Call your ISP?”

“What’s that?”

“Internet Service Provider. That’s their job, to get those messages to you, and they specify how your computer needs to be set up to get them. Put them on the spot. I bet they can help you fix it. You can do this Dave, really.”

I was not convinced. But I thanked her profusely nonetheless and tried to figure out who my ISP was. ATT&T I guessed. They give us everything: phones, TV, Internet, maybe more. My wife takes care of that stuff. I found a number on line and called. It wasn’t easy. I got into one of those automated phone systems that uses voice recognition. I always find myself yelling into the phone with those things. At some point it looped back to the beginning. I was just trying to get a real person. Anyone really. Finally I did. It was a man with a heavy accent.

“Hello, this is Jake. May I help you?” He didn’t sound like a Jake.

“Where are you Jake?”

“Bangalore, India.”

I described my problem. After only a short while his accent was understandable. He wanted to take control of my computer remotely. I was glad to let him do so. As he talked me through the commands I needed to give my computer over to him he asked who handled my e mail function

“Outlook. Microsoft Outlook.”

“No, that is just a software application. What is your mail extension.”

“No. I use g mail.”

“That’s a Google product. We don’t support Google products.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that it is very possible that ATT&T is delivering your e mail messages to Google and Google is not transferring them to your Outlook properly or your Microsoft product, Outlook, is not receiving them from Google as it should. If you were using an ATT&T e mail service, we can support that easily. However, you are our customer and I will do what I can to get your working again. But Google can be difficult.”

At that point the cursor began moving over the screen by itself. Actually, it was being moved by Jake in Bangalore. Amazing. He went to my actual g mail account. I never used it. It was there all the time, working in the background, but I only used Outlook. Lots of things are not as they appear with computers.

“Does your computer always operate this slowly Sir?”

“Uh…yeah. It has lately anyway. I’m on wireless from the house, and I’m in a shack some distance away.”

Jake wasn’t very interested the details. “See Mr. McClure, here are today’s e mail messages. You can use this account if you like. ATT&T has delivered them as they should. However they are not being forwarded to Outlook.”

“Can you fix that?” He had reached the same error message I had nearly an hour ago.

“I will most certainly try sir, you are our customer, but I can make no promises. Please be patient.”

Jake talked as he worked. On another screen he was searching for instructions. Soon, much quicker than I, he was in the advanced area, reading to himself the same set of instructions I had previously read.

“I've done this already Jake.”

“Please be patient Mr. McClure.”

Jake did everything I did and much more. He tried different things. He changed the port numbers. He used different options in the drop down box. As he did he talked, sort of to me, sort of to himself.

"I’m trying these things just based on past experience” he said. He was blindingly fast. But in the end unsuccessful.

“I’m very sorry Mr. McClure but as you can see nothing I have tried has worked, and I believe I may have exhausted all the options. You must have a more serious problem. But as I said previously, we do not typically support Google products. I suggest you call them. I’ll give you a number.”

“Thanks Jake, you’ve been helpful. I hope things go well for you there in Bangalore.” I would never know his real name. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Jake.

I picture Google’s office, in Mountain View, California, as sort of a digital Mecca: bright colors, lots of light, full of beautiful people, all young, thin, bright and clean. There would be comfortable work spaces, no paper, and sleek desks with the best and latest computers. Staff would be relaxed, helpful, courteous and so smart. So very smart to have created such an empire and made so much money. That is how I pictured it. I couldn’t wait to talk to someone there, who would surely be able to fix my problem right away.

I never broke through. I called three different numbers and encountered beautiful soothing recorded voices. They led me gently through voice menus and spoken prompts. It was soothing. But I could never connect with a real person. I was caught in a maze of loops that repeated themselves and never offered an option of pushing a number on my phone and conversing with an actual human being. I gave up and called Microsoft.

At the other end of the Microsoft number was a Payal Chopra in New Delhi India. It was at least possible that he was using his real name. He asked how he could help. Soon he had taken over my computer as Jake did. But Payal went further. Commenting on the slowness of my computer he did some quick diagnostics, my computer screen flashing from one mysterious screen to another, and determined I had a serious virus. He suggested I download a “spybot” virus detection program, follow their directions, and call back. It was more than I bargained for. But I took a deep breath and did it.

Who knows where these digital afflictions come from? And why? Why mess with a retired man’s laptop in a shack in Illinois? What do they gain, the people who launch these digital diseases, from infecting me? What is the point really?

Like so much concerning computers and this world we live in that feels so new and strange, we simply don’t know. I slowly and cautiously let the virus protection program identify the bad stuff, whatever and where ever it was in my system, and then deleted the files it suggested. I closed a bunch of stuff running in the background (I hardly know what I’m saying now) and when it was all done I called Microsoft back.

This time I talked with Anurag Singh. Anurag was a quiet man, soft spoken, and very patient. He methodically walked me through the problem of my still blank Outlook program, explaining, when I could understand, and simply directing me to do things when I couldn’t. In the end, he fixed the connection between my g mail account and Outlook by deleting and reinstalling one of them or the other. He told me that the next step would be the most time intensive.

“Mr. McClure you must now download your g mail data into Outlook. Unfortunately it must come over in its entirety. And by the looks of things here, you have a very large amount of data. Lots of messages. Did you not delete any messages from your g mail account?”

“I deleted messages in Outlook. I only kept a month’s worth of everything.”

“But they remained in g mail. It appears they go back to sometime in 2010. In order to get your current messages, and your address book, you must import all that data. And given the slowness of your connection, I am afraid this will take a considerable period of time.”

Anurag’s English was very good. He explained things very patiently and very well. I asked him

“Do you grow tired of helping computer illiterate Americans, especially old ones like me?”

“Not at all Mr. McClure. We are here to help you.”

“How long have you done this?”

“I am working now in my fifth year.”

I think that if the situation were reversed, if I were tasked with talking over the phone to relatively ignorant Indian computer users, in the middle of the night, who knew little or nothing about how the expensive machine they owned functioned, and were so dense in understanding how to use it and fix it, I might go absolutely nuts. I’m quite sure I could never be as kind and patient as the people I encountered on the phone.

“Well you’re good at what you do.”

“Thank you sir.”

Long story short, I spent hours and hours downloading and deleting newly arrived e mails that appeared in my Outlook program. It was like reliving my life of digital communication. It was eye opening. Why, in God’s name, did I spend so much time and energy on the things representing in those e mails? Scores and scores of drivel and nonsense flashed across the screen representing countless hours of attention and thought on my part. It made me want to unsubscribe from damn near everything, turn off all but the most important sources of information. It was a disturbing display of crap. And it didn’t even include Face Book, which is quite possibly the king of crap.

I called Microsoft back once more. Rishu Wahal looked over my computer one last time and declared it good. He advised me to keep my virus definitions up to date and to use more than one protection program. He talked about malware, bots, spyware, more I can’t remember. It’s a jungle out there.

But I got through it. Most importantly, my contacts reappeared, and along with them your e mail address. They were altered, but there. I spent a long time editing them, putting them back into a format to which I was familiar, alphabetizing them by first names, recreating my distribution lists, including this blog list. My daughter, whom I consulted with from time to time during this episode, sort of like a crisis counselor, asked me why I was doing it at all.

"Dad, you don’t need Outlook. Outlook is old. This is your chance to escape. Dump it. Use g mail, it’s just as good.”

“Honey, you don’t understand. I’ve been using Outlook since it was invented. I know where all the buttons are. I know what they do when you click them. Outlook goes hand in glove with Word and Word is my daily friend. I feel comfortable inside those programs. It’s like driving a LeSabre.”

And so I survived. My thanks to everyone who helped; Tracee, my daughter Moe, Payal, Anurag, Rishu, and yes even Jake. Where would we old people be without smart young people across the globe guiding us through the world?

Mailing letters with stamps I’m afraid. Have a nice weekend.