Nothing ventured

I had lunch yesterday with an old friend from my days on the road. He moved to town about a year and a half ago, and we re-kindled our friendship which had lain dormant for years. But life has a funny way of getting in the way of things, and in the year and a half since he’s lived in town we’ve only seen each other 3 times. Such is the life of a parent.

He lost his job as a VP of Marketing for a local industrial corporation during last spring’s bloodletting, and had been looking for work the last time we spoke. I caught up to him a few weeks back and found out that he had taken a job in India, and was in the process of re-locating his family there. While he’s going “home” to a place he hasn’t lived in 20+ years, for his wife and daughters this will be their first time in India.

So we met for lunch yesterday to say goodbye, and stand once more looking out across the gulf of 20 years. My God, it is hard to believe that it has been that long. When I met Rajesh he had just finished his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M, and had inexplicably taken a job as a field service engineer. He arrived in the Denver district about 3 months after I did, and being a veteran of one year’s experience, I was assigned to train him.

While Rajesh had been in the U.S. for a year already, he was still pretty green on U.S. ways and customs, and being assigned to the far west did not make his life any easier. The world of rural coal plants and paper mills is a world of pickup trucks, and hunting rifles, and nobody expected this tall, bookish, asthmatic Indian to last 6 months on the job. We hit it off immediately. After a year of living like a hermit, devouring books, and writing in my journal, I loved having someone to hold deep and far ranging conversations with. From his side, I think I was the first “civilized” person he had met during his year and a half in the United States. (He did attend A&M after all where “books are fer sissies”)

I have to say, I didn’t give Raj much chance of making it either. He was so overeducated to be crawling through boilers and sucking flyash, and yet he had so much to learn. It wasn’t the only the hands on technical side of the job, which required more mechanical aptitude than mechanical engineering, it was the cultural side. Everywhere he went he was met with intolerance, and misunderstanding. I wouldn’t have lasted a week in his shoes.

I definitely underestimated his determination. He approached each experience like an open book, willing to be the fool. I took a lot more courage than I would have been capable of, but he learned from each experience. I can remember teaching him about what was considered appropriate personal space, after he sat too close to a boilermaker in the unit one day, and almost got his head taken off.

I learned a lot from him as well. He was the person who introduced me to Espresso (it was 1991 after all, and Starbucks were not yet as ubiquitous as McDonalds). He had an amazing way of discovering the underground intelligentsia in every town he visited. He found coffee shops, jazz clubs, and Thai restaurants in the most unlikely places. He taught me that there was more to food than red meat and French fries.

We worked together on and off for three years. Eventually he ended up taking a transfer to the deep south, which he found fascinating. We used  to talk on the phone, and he would entertain me with his stories. Like the one about the plant operator who stared at him for 3 days before mustering the courage to ask “what are you?” Rajesh didn’t understand the question, but eventually figured out that this guy from rural Mississippi had never seen someone from India before. So Raj explained he was “an Indian”. For the next week the operator called him “Chief” which amused Rajesh endlessly.

I left ABB in 1994 but Rajesh hung on for another couple of years. In the end he succeeded in becoming one of the best field engineers in the company. He was requested back by customers, and took on a big international assignment in Indonesia. He left the company not long after and was accepted at Kellogg for his MBA. He met his future wife there, and began a long series of moves up the consulting rungs, relocating 7 times in 10 years, until he had achieved his current “Veep”ness.

Thinking back to that first time we met, and went out for dinner at “The Greek Streak” in Price, Utah I could never have imagined it. I’ve met fewer people in life more willing to risk exposing their ignorance in their quest for knowledge. That is something that I have never been able to do. In this age of cynicism, and skepticism of opportunity, he is living proof that determination and will power can still get you places.

It’s funny, but he’s not the only ex-field engineer that I know that has ended up as a VP or higher in Corporate America. I can’t help but to look at him and wonder what I might have achieved if I’d been as willing as him to risk failure, and in some cases even embrace it, in the effort to learn. Yes I have gone farther than I ever thought I would, but if I am honest with myself I know that I am capable of so much more. Why I have not chosen to follow that path has less to do with any loathing of my Dark Corporate Overlords, than it does with my longing and desire for peace and comfort. Sometimes I wonder, is that a good thing?


Swimming with the Fisheaters

This is a big week for us Catholics. One that that is full of symbolism, and meaning. Once a year at this time we pause in silence, bow our heads, and await the arrival of this momentous occasion. I am referring of course to the Twin Cities Catholic Athletic Association swimming championships.

CAA Finals

Last night 20 Prospect Jr. and his teammates competed in the finals at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center. This was his second year on the swim team, and his first swimming individual events at finals. He qualified in 3 events, and placed well in each of them. We couldn’t have been more proud of him, and the way he overcame his shyness, to swim in front of several hundred people. I’m not sure I could have done that at age 9.

Tonight the girls take to the pool, and Lil’ Miss 20 Prospect will be competing in 3 events as well. She continues to amaze me by the easy grace with which she competes. She seldom seems nervous, and is a calming influence on some of the other kids on the team. She’s not a competitive kid, and goes out each time focusing on beating her previous time. This is her 3rd year swimming in the finals, and has become old hat for her. I never get tired of watching her and the way she cheers on her teammates.

So tonight it’s a quick dinner then back to the University.


Optima dies…prima fugit

The best days…are the first to flee – Virgil

No, I haven’t been reading Virgil in the original Latin. I haven’t even been reading him in the unorignal latin. I just came across that quote in a book by Willa Cather, and it seemed like it could be a motto for this site. Maybe I’ll place it in the banner head.

Yes, it may sometimes seem like I spend all my time looking into the past. Don’t be fooled. It’s just the easiest thing for me to write about. The present is too near, and real sometimes to be written about. You can’t paint a landscape when you are standing in the scenery. There has to be a certain distance to provide perspective.

Having a game of catch in the golden hour last night with 20 Prospect Jr. brought the realization that life moves in circles. We pass the same point many times, but see it through different eyes. Our game of catch in the slanting rays of the setting sun was seen by him through the eyes of a 9 year old, when each day seems to spill over the top of the cup with events, and potential. Don’t let the sun set! I’m not done playing!

Through my 41 year old eyes, those golden beams took on an entirely different perspective. I was savoring each throw, each pink contrail in the blue sky above, the white bellies of the gulls swirling up from the lake at the bottom of the hill, holding that moment for as long as I could. It’s worth to me at 41 is so much better understood than at age 9, when a whole lifetime of days stretch out before you. I wonder how I will feel when I circle past in another 20 years.

Enemy of Industry!

Sheesh. Sorry for the late posting today. I had meant to put this up sooner but the Dark Corporate Overlords have had me buzzing about the hive like the drone I am. I came across this poster while browsing the Library of Congress digital collections over lunch.  This puts our H1N1 contingency planning into a whole new perspective.

WPA Poster from Library of Congress

And they said the 40’s were a simpler, more innocent time. Don’t believe them for a second. My grandparents were wilder, and crazier than any baby boom generation ever dreamed of being. They just didn’t like to brag about it in front of the kids.

Have a good weekend, but heed the poster and be careful out there.

The Heart can be Filled Anywhere on Earth

“When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)

While there is no disputing the wisdom of St. Paul’s words, I have always felt he left out a key piece of information. At what age does a child become a man? For me, I’m guessing it was age 27, although Lord knows I have regressed from time to time.

Late spring 1995 was unusually warm in Minnesota. It was one of those years when we seem to fast forward directly from winter into summer. It was a busy time for me and Mrs. 20 Prospect. We had been engaged to be married for a few months, and were in the process of planning a wedding, and buying a house. Looking back at that time, I seemed so young, even if 27 felt like middle age to me then. Oh, how wonderful it would feel to me now.

It was a time of taking on commitments and responsibilities that we could never really understand until afterward. What kids can? Marriage, and committing to love, honor and cherish in sickness and in health, in good times, and in bad, until death do you part, is taking a step into a deep dark woods without knowing what may lurk in the shadows inside. It may be a gingerbread house, or a magic unicorn, but it can just as likely be a pack of hungry wolves. All you have to hold onto is the hand of the one who is taking the journey with you. If you are blessed, that is all you will ever need.

photo from the Prokudin-Gorski collection - Library of Congress

Somewhere deep within our unconsciousness, these dark forests of the Brothers Grimm are hard wired into us. These myths, and legends are not simple children stories, but wisdom older and deeper than memory, put there long ago like shiny pebbles to help us find the way. I have been a lucky man. While the path through the woods has not always been smooth, other than a few scraped knees, and bruises, we have come this far unscathed.

We found our house quite unexpectedly, and the moment we saw it we knew we were home. We had been searching for only a week, and had little luck finding anything in our price range that wouldn’t require a lot of work. Beginning to despair we told the Realtor to extend the search into a few adjacent suburbs and neighborhoods to see what we might find. Then we spent a glorious Saturday afternoon, driving around with a map, checking out the home listing. Some were too big. Some were too small. Some were too hot, some were too cold, but the new 20 Prospect was just right.

It was empty at the time, the previous owners having moved to Alabama with a contingent sale in place. To our luck, that sale had fallen through, and now the place sat empty, its mortgage weighing on a motivated seller. We pulled up to the end of the street and saw the place, and we knew it had potential. We parked the car and walked around in the yard peeking in windows. The property was circled by a line of bridal wreath bushes in full bloom, their white petals falling like snow on the grass around them. The grass was long and shaggy, and the gardens choked with weeds. It seemed so verdant and wild, that if it wasn’t tended within a few weeks, the home would be swallowed up.

When we turned the corner of the house and entered the backyard, our jaws fell open. The back of the property was lined with honeysuckle bushes, blooming in pink, and the north side of the yard was lined with wild, and untamed lilac bushes, bent low from the weight of all the flowers. The scent of lilacs was hypnotic. It was a paradise, a wild, overgrown Eden, just waiting for us to tend to it.

photo fro the Prokudin-Gorski collection - Library of Congress

We rushed home and called the Realtor to get in for a look inside. We returned the next day and confirmed what we had hoped, the 1950’s rambler was solid, and well kept, and would only need a little bit of cosmetic upgrading. We held our breath until Monday morning when we could make an offer. To our luck, the owners had just dropped the price that very morning. By the end of the week, the home was as good as ours.

We moved in at the end of June, and began the work that has never stopped. Trimming bushes, planting things, moving stuff around, painting, and remodeling as we went. It was to be our starter home, a place we’d live for 5 years and start our family before moving into something bigger, newer, and nicer. It’s been 15 years and we have yet to feel the urge to move. Instead we have continued to make the place our own. Now with the kids half grown, there seems little need to move to someplace bigger. They’ll be out of the house in a blink of an eye, and who needs more rooms to clean?

I don’t know what the future holds for our home. I don’t know where that wooded path through the forest will take us. I talk of someday moving into the country, to get away from the city life. But life has a way of slipping quickly by, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find us here in another 15 years. A home is built with memories as much as boards, and bricks.

It was the late great Minnesota writer Bill Holm that said it best. “The heart can be filled anywhere on earth.”

The Passenger

134 West Main

I may as well have been born in the backseat, so soon after birth did I find myself there. Being the youngest by 7 years, my siblings were well into elementary school when I joined the clan. Born at the end of May, in the middle of parade season, it wasn’t long before I was on the curb following Little St. Joe’s Drum Corps as they marched through the shimmering heat in the local Fireman’s Carnival parades. At 2 weeks old I was sleeping in my buggy on the sideline of Woodward field as the big corps competed in the annual Drum Corps competition. Crashing symbols, rolling drums, and the blare of horns were my bedtime lullabies. I was the tag along, carried on a hip, pushed in a buggy, dragged from Drum Corps practice, to Girl Scout meetings, to grade school Basketball games. I grew up in that school, and in the back of our blue Rambler station wagon.

My memories begin to form around age 3. I can remember playing basketball with Sister Mary in the school cafeteria which doubled as the gymnasium. As the Girl Scout meetings were going on, I played games on the brown and tan tiled floor. That cafeteria is stamped into my memory, the smooth brick walls, the green paint, and the old Coke machines with wooden crates of empty pop bottles stacked next to it. I got to have Grape Soda if I was good, but I always got what I wanted whether I behaved or not. It was good to be the baby.

I can remember going to pick up Dad from the old Niagara Mohawk garage on Ellicott Street one evening as he finished his shift. In my flannel jammies I rode along in the back of the Rambler. After Dad climbed into the passenger seat, I crawled up to the front seat to snuggle up to him, and soak in the security of his “fatherly” aroma of motor oil, perspiration, and aftershave. On the way home our beloved Rambler was rear ended by a drunk, and the glass from the back window came flying through the car. All that time around the nuns must have had the angels watching out for me.

Those were the days before Mom worked, so I spent every waking moment with her, tagging along as she paid the bills. We didn’t mail in checks, we went to the Gas Company, and Electric Company and stood at the counter to pay the bills. Check cashing trips to the bank were always good for a Ford Gumball from the gumball machine. Of course, it also meant being around other grownups as Mom ran her errands, and attended her meetings with the old ladies. Oh how I hated the old ladies peering down at me, telling me how beautiful my eyes were, and what a pretty little girl I would make. Is it any wonder I hid behind Mom’s skirt, to escape from their polyester and hairspray world?

Lost Batavia

Batavia was changing, even then. Walking down Main Street in a light rain, the women wearing their little plastic rain bonnets, we stopped for lunch at the lunch counter in J.J. Newberry’s. Across the street the wrecking balls were knocking down buildings for the great urban renewal. Piles of bricks lined the street , with wooden beams poking out of them like crosses. Main Street wasn’t the only loss. Our new church opened in 1970, and I can remember the work crews knocking down the burned out shell of old St. Joseph’s Church, after the fire. We collected a few bricks as keepsakes, and they sat in the cellar of 20 Prospect for years. Even then we felt the loss.

The Dipson Theater in its final days

The Drum Corps folded in 1974, the instrument room was emptied, and a hole was knocked in it to use as a hallway to the new gymnasium that was being built. I started school and Mom went to work keeping books for Braukmann Industries. In the springtime she picked me up after school on her bicycle, and we rode back over to the Industrial Center on Harvester Avenue. There, in the ancient hulk of the old Massey-Harris factory, we rode the elevator up to a long, dusty hallway on the 3rd floor. Her office was in a corner of a large empty warehouse. Sunlight struggled to shine in through the stained windows of the old factory, and fell in uneven blades across the room. Thermostats from Germany, were stacked in boxes, on long rows of pallets. When the teletype machine purred to life, it’s typing echoed through the vast emptiness, delivering mysterious messages from old Europe. Afraid of the shadows, and the ghostly silence of that building, I amused myself putting “Made in Germany” stickers on her bicycle.

Our life at home was changing too. Granny was sick with cancer, and moved from Buffalo to live with us. She slept on a rollaway bed in our front living room, her green Oxygen tanks stood in the corner. One by one my siblings moved off to High School, and then college, leaving behind their belongings which I searched through like an archeologist. They were gone, but these things had stayed. While all over town, the empty lots, and vacant buildings stood like belongings left behind by a city that had moved on too.

Maybe that is why I clung to the past, and refused to surrender anything as I grew. My favorite orange sweatshirt with the numbers on it that I wore long after it had faded, and become riddled with holes. The winter coat and hat I wore well into May, refusing to take them off even though sweat soaked my hair. Maybe I knew that something was slipping away from us, never to return. What else can explain the melancholy that haunts me still, and brings me here, to this keyboard, and this glowing screen, searching through the cellars of memory. Surely there is something here that we have forgotten. Something we left it behind. Something that will show us the way back.

134 West Main - today


Photo Copyright - Library of Congress

It’s one of those fresh early spring mornings when the world smells like someone just broke the seal, but I am as ornery as hell, or as they say in Missouri “On-ree”. I have half a mind to chuck it all and move back to the land, and live a life of colloquialisms with women in gingham. The only problem being I didn’t come from the land, and would have no idea what to do with it. So instead I will sulk under my little black cloud all day.