Wednesday, March 31, 2010

You Are Who You Is

My iPod holds an extensive collection of piano works by the enigmatic genius Glenn Gould.  It is also home to "100 Greatest TV Theme Songs" and two versions (live and studio) of Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" and several songs by Stompin' Tom Connors, Canada's best-selling country artist of all time, including his timeless hit, "Bud The Spud."  

When I'm blasting down Beltway 8 at 6:30 on a Tuesday night, and the ol' Pod is set to "shuffle," and I hear the first sublime notes of a Brahms ballade,  I quickly, shamefully hit "skip," until I find something really good, like Linda Lavin crooning the cheesy, lounge-lizardy theme from "Alice": "Early to rise.  Early to bed. And in between I cooked and cleaned and went outta my head..."   

I am who I am, a product of my times.  I know I should savor every brilliant note of The Goldberg Variations, but I can't, not when Bud the Spud is tearing up the 401, "with another big load of potatoes," and I'm riding shotgun.  

I will try to cultivate a more refined aesthetic, but it's hard, when Glenn Gould requires so much effort, and just around the corner, David Byrne's got no time for dancing, or lovey dovey, and somewhere close, very close, a lone guitar is playing the plaintive opening notes to the Theme From M*A*S*H...   

Fine Line

This is actually another song title, this one from one of the recent Paul McCartney albums.  I wasn't really thinking about that when I typed it, but the song fits.  Sir Paul notes that "there's a fine line between recklessness and courage," a "long way between chaos and creation."

I've been thinking about that lately.

B.H. Roberts, one of the great old warriors of Mormon culture, complained that too many missionaries take the Gospel of Peace, and "shoot it at people as if it were porcupine quills, stirring up needless animosities."  This is not a trait unique to missionaries.  I tend to mistake recklessness for courage.  I often pitch my tent in Chaos, mistaking its disorder and disharmony for Creation, and shoot out an endless supply of quills.

There are things I know to be true.  That is an audacious thing to say, to declare some unknowable something to be certain, unassailable, true.  It's an off-putting, even offensive assertion, when presented pridefully.  Years ago, I heard a man in a sacrament meeting say, "I can't wait for the Final Judgment, so I can see the expressions on the faces of all those people who ever told me I was wrong."  What a depressing prospect, living for an Afterlife where the great reward is not the sweet reunion with loved ones, or the privilege of meeting the Savior, but the chance to say "IN YOUR FACE!!!" to the world.  It's the Gospel According to The WWE Smackdown.

Knowing is a quality easily distorted, and easily misunderstood.  One of the many evidences of the genius of Joseph Smith is that he was able to assert his knowing, without dismissing or denigrating what others know: "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and afford all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may." I can know things, and still love and respect my neighbor, who holds to a different set of knowings, and not diminish my faith, or undermine his.

There are sure truths in this universe, I am convinced of it.  One day we will all enjoy a perfect knowledge, and when we have it, we will all feel chastened and challenged, corrected and confirmed.  We will all learn something.  Until then, we know what we know, and we go forward.

I need to do it more gracefully, more patiently.  

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Angry Song

 The photo is Totally 80's, but they were actually a pretty good little band

Yet another obscure song reference graces today's entry.  "Angy Song" was the ill-fated hit single from the eponymous debut album of the 80's group Shot In The Dark.  Caught up in the implosion and eventual bankruptcy of RSO records, the album received little promotion, and despite solid reviews, disappeared.  Today, one former member is a photographer specializing in Playboy-style cheesecake shots of Asian girls, another is dead, the victim of a rare form of cancer, a couple are successful LA session players, and lead guitarist Peter White has left tuneful rock for the soft sweet ooze of "soft jazz."  Soft jazz is like creamed corn: it takes something wonderful and satisfying and beautiful, and mushes it and mashes it and reduces it to this bland pulpy stuff, gummed by geezers in rest home cafeterias.  So things didn't really work out for Shot In The Dark, but thirty years ago, they wrote some spankin' good tunes.

A lot of things are making me angry today.  I'll limit my rant to one. 
 His only disappointment?  It's a temporary cast.  Ah, to be 13 again...
My son broke a digit yesterday, in a PE soccer match.  Playing goaltender, he threw himself in front of a shot, jamming and fracturing his thumb in the process.  We have pretty good insurance, and we only had to pay a couple of co-pays, a reasonable deal.  Our pediatrician agreed to see him immediately; we went straight from the school to her office.  At 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, she found a nearby orthopedist who was willing to take X-rays and set the fracture.  Even though we spent roughly 5 hours in doctors' offices, the process was pretty great.

It was not painless.  My son was lying on an examining room table, and the orthopedist turned to us and said, "You have two options here.  The thumb is fractured and needs to be reset.  I can send you to the emergency room, where they have anesthetics and it will take about five hours to get things taken care of, or I can reset it here, where I don't have any painkillers and it will hurt for a little while."  Before we could answer, my son said, "Just get it over with."  His thumb was grotesquely bent, not Joe Theismann's broken leg grotesque, but still mighty ugly.

The doctor wrapped one arm around my son's, holding him by the wrist.  With his free hand, the orthopedist grabbed the purplish, swollen thumb, and manipulated it back into alignment.  Noah didn't squeak during all of this yanking, although at one point he seemed to levitate about four inches above the examining table.

It's awful to see your child in pain.  I had tears in my eyes, my wife had tears in hers.  Noah was stoic.  We recently began using the name of a certain Roundhead leader as an epithet around our house (we are strange people); as we drove home, my son said, "When he did that, all I was thinking was, 'OLIVER CROMWELL!'" 

What makes me mad about this is that my thirteen year old understood, instinctively understood that sometimes, bad stuff happens.  And sometimes, the only way to rectify the problem is to square your shoulders and grit your teeth and accept the fact that it's gonna hurt some.  And then it gets better.

I am mad because this amazing, funny kid is just a few years removed from entering adulthood in a world where those qualities -- personal accountability, personal sacrifice, patience and Hope -- are considered liabilities, not strengths.  

I don't even have the energy to write about my recent encounters with Mormons who Love Benjamin Netanayhu, or Mormons Who Think Obama Is The Antichrist, or People Who Think Jesus Looks Like Dan Fogelburg.  And don't get me started on ERROR 0x00000044 that has plagued my computer for lo these last few days.  

There are a lot of people (and computers) who deserve swirlies.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Food, Inglorious Food

Jamie Oliver, a television chef from Great Britain (by "television chef" I mean he has a cooking show on television, not that he cooks teevees) has a new show in America.  It's a sort of modified reality show: he's in Huntington, West Virginia, the most unhealthy city in the United States, trying to convince people to change their diets.

I watched the pilot, and it was interesting.  Oliver makes some good points.  Americans eat a lot of garbage, calorie-rich, fatty, highly processed food that clogs our arteries and gives us cancer and makes us take on the approximate dimensions of Jabba the Hut.  What's more --and this is a genius observation -- the caloric, fatty, garbage we're eating doesn't even taste good; it is as aesthetically void as it is nutritionally empty.  We are habituating our children into accepting the caloric, the fatty, the bad as their standard.

Oliver is an affable fellow.  He sounds like he grew up in a London working class neighborhood, speaking a sort of refined Cockney that is for some reason tremendously appealing to the American ear (I have two theories about this. First, Americans are to the British what insecure newlyweds are to their successful and intimidating parents: resentful, too eager to prove their competence and self-sufficiency, but still in awe of the old folks.  Second, we heard Dick Van Dyke do that awful, ridiculous British accent in "Mary Poppins," and we've been transfixed ever since.  That, or we've spent the last four decades being secretly in love with Julie Andrews.)  He jumps around in a sort of controlled hyperactivity. And he seems to really, truly know his way around a kitchen.

Where the show breaks down for me is in the choice of battle field.  Oliver decides that the key to changing nutrition is changing school lunch menus.  His argument is that for most children, school lunch is their only meal of the day.  Teach them good eating habits there, and those will carry on to the rest of their lives.  Mister Oliver spends much time running his fingers through his hair, his forehead wrinkled in angst, fretting over the chicken nuggets and potato pearls and prefab pizzas the lunch ladies -- excuse me, cafeteria workers -- are shoveling onto the plastic trays of Young Huntington.

He's missed the point.  There are two universals in public school food service: a significant number of the women serving the meals look like they have lengthy criminal records; and the food they serve is garbage.  Forty years ago, lunch in North Tonawanda was a sad skein of bad pizza, suspicious-looking hot dogs and mystery meats, with nary a fruit, vegetable or free range chicken in sight.  We lived.

We lived because most of us, at least a few days a week, brought lunch from home.  And those lunches were reasonably healthy.

The problem is not what the kids are eating at school.  The problem is that families don't eat meals together anymore.  The problem is that people don't grow gardens in their back yards.  The problem is that mothers are too busy (or too disinterested) to pack lunches, or to mind what they serve at home.  Fat, unhealthy kids are a byproduct of family disintegration, not food at school.

You can change school lunches all you want.  If families aren't functioning, it's just straws in the wind.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Health Care Crisis Redux

Calvin Trillin, the great essayist and deadline poet, once remarked that you know you're a grown-up when all the idiots you went to high school with are now the idiots running the country.  Our President, Mister Obama, is a year older than me.  Most of the gaping maws flapping endlessly on about health care, the politicians and the pundits, the liberals and the conservatives, are all more or less my age.  They are indeed the idiots I knew in high school, or at least reasonable facsimiles of them.

The health care bill is a mess.  You know that you are staring at a doomed effort when the supporters are comparing it to Medicaid (a fiscally bankrupt endeavor) and some of the less savory aspects of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society (a morally bankrupt one).

Before you go Keith Olbermann on me, sir, let me explain that last statement.  Daniel Patrick Moynihan was right: the conditions of the ghetto, particularly the Black ghetto were created by "a tangle of pathologies," most of which had their roots in American slavery.  In slavery, Black men were denied the right to lead their families.  In post-slavery America, Black men were denied opportunities to adequately provide for their families, and to improve themselves.  G.K. Chesterton's observation that matriarchy is merely moral anarchy, for in it, men are no more than shadow figures, removed of responsibility and emotionally disengaged, applies here: America institutionalized the notion of the absentee Black father, and thus created a Black subclass.  Unlike the Jewish ghetto or the Polish ghetto or the Italian ghetto, there was no hope of escape from the Black ghetto (and you can make a very strong argument that our benighted immigration policies are creating the same hopelessness in our Latino ghettos, but that's another entry.  Suffice to say: Universal Amnesty Now!  Y Que Vive La Raza!)

The Great Society was an attempt to fix a problem without addressing the root causes -- white racism and white exceptionalism -- that created it.  Head Start is useless, if families are atomized.  Welfare is an insult, when good men are constantly denied opportunities to work.  Subsidized college tuition is pointless for kids who go to substandard public schools, and improved schools are wasted on kids who receive no encouragement, support, or guidance from home.  The Great Society -- and to this day, when I hear Johnson's speech announcing it, promising that "We will build a GREAT SOCIETY..." I get tears in my eyes and chills down my spine -- wasn't about poor people or Black people or fatherless kids.  It was to give people like me, white middle class folks who suffer from a lot of guilt, tears in our eyes and chills down our spines.  It wasn't meant to solve the problems; it was meant to make white folks feel good about themselves. (And when it failed, when, as Moynihan predicted, it made the problems worse, not better, it gave Whites the opportunity to say, "See, you just can't help those people.")

Which brings me to the health care bill.

I just heard a report about the National Health System in England, the universal health care program that affords all citizens essentially free care.  (Incidentally, most British love the NHS and are generally pleased with the quality of care they receive.  It isn't perfect, but, despite the hyperventilations of the Glenn Beck knuckleheads, it's not bad, either.)  The government has released a report saying that NHS is in deep trouble, not because of mismanagement or poor results, but because an inordinate amount of time and resources is being spent on people with routine conditions like mild colds, scratchy throats, and mild stomach upset, things that could easily be treated at home.  In other words, the system is being strangled by patient abuse.

The American system, while far from perfect, is being strangled, too, by patient vanity.  And no law will correct that ill.

It was not that long ago that if you were sick enough to end up in a hospital, you would most likely spend time on a ward, a big room with fifteen or twenty beds.  And because the nurses had a lot of patients to see, a family member would most likely spent a lot of time at your side, fetching you ice and plumping your pillows.  This was a perfectly acceptable system, cheap, efficient, and egalitarian (now there's a word we don't use much anymore!)

Doctors made house calls, mainly because they lived in the neighborhood.  They sent their kids to the local school.  They went to church with the people they treated, shopped where they shopped, vacationed where they vacationed.  They were respected members of the community -- no one begrudged them a slightly bigger house or a slightly newer car -- but they were of the community.   And everyone understood that you didn't abuse the privilege of the house call: when I accidentally dropped a pair of scissors while stepping over my brother, and they hit him right between the eyes and there was blood gushing like a geyser and we thought I had blinded him, we called Doctor Barnett.  If I had just punctured his cheek, it would have been "apply pressure and check it in the morning."  

Today, doctors live in gated enclaves, psychologically and economically removed from the bulk of their clients.  And they specialize.  You make more money that way.  

Specialization is a hallmark of the era.  Years ago, Fred Dean was a star defensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers.  In 1983, he played primarily in obvious passing situations, the ultimate defensive specialist.  He recorded 17.5 sacks, and made All-Pro (and eventually was elected to the Hall of Fame), in that limited role.  Twenty years before, Philadelphia Eagles star Chuck Bednarik played center on offense, middle linebacker on defense, and covered kicks on special teams,  playing every down of every game.  He's in the Hall of Fame, too.  But nobody wants Chuck Bednarik anymore.  We want specialists.

We've come to expect depersonalized care; it's the price you pay for what seems to be more specialized care.  And we demand our privacy: wards are the stuff of sappy 30's melodramas and war movies.  Well, private rooms and round the clock nursing and a team of experts costs money, lots of money.

We also want magic.  God is dead, or so we seem to think, and with Him, personal accountability is dead, too.  We choose to live like tract home Caligulas, eating to excess our rich and fatty foods, drinking and drugging to our desire, frolicking with abandon, contracting whatever social disease is in season, and then, fat and blighted, our arteries sclerotic, our muscles atrophied, our tender bits cankered, we ride our Rascals into the physician's office and demand the pill, the potion, the procedure that will restore us, no matter the price.

No health care bill is going to heal our hubris.

If any Obama is doing anything promote improved health in America, it's Michelle, with her efforts to combat childhood obesity.

What Mr. Obama should have done is get up and say, "Folks, you don't eat right.  You don't exercise.  You watch too much teevee.  You smoke and drink and consume way too many mocha grandes.  You want better health?  Quit going to McDonald's.  Throw away that Pappa John's home delivery refrigerator magnet.  Eat your vegetables.  Take a walk.  Read a book.  You'll feel better.  Understand that some of you can't afford top notch care; you'll have to settle for really good care.  Maybe that's not fair, but life's not fair.  Some of us drive a brand-new Lincoln, some of us drive a 1994 Taurus.  And accept the fact that you can't live the way you live and expect to see your 100th birthday."   Sure, he'd be a one-term president, but he'd be a one-term president I could respect.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Upon Further Review...

I have spent two sleepless nights, troubled by my last post.  A phrase kept running through my mind, "You don't know the terror.  This is your heritage, too."  

I'm no visionary.  When people talk of heavenly lights and ecstatic episodes, I tend to turn away; there's no time for visions when there is so much work to be done. And on those moments when I do feel the press of something beyond my understanding, when, to use a phrase popular in Mormonism, "the veil becomes thin," I keep it to myself.  These things are personal, private, not to be held up for public inspection.

But there I was in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, hands shaking, filled with a very real dread, a dread that was at once mine and not mine.  

We grew up in the era of detached empathy, our minds filled with the images of suffering in distant places, static suffering, frozen suffering, the little Vietnamese girl, her clothes burned away, forever running in terror from a napalm attack; the Russian mother at Stalingrad, black coated arms outstretched in agony like some lesser Jesus, eternally kneeling over the body of her fallen son; the solemn, hollow-eyed stares of survivors of concentration camps and ethnic cleansing and earthquakes and hurricanes, always mute and numb and victimized.  We feel sadness when we see them, shake our heads at the mindless brutality of this world, sigh with secret relief that it is not us, not our daughter screaming with pain and fear, not our mother aching with loss, not our wife or son or brother tattered and starving, staring blankly into the camera lens.  And we move on.

This is different.

I spent time on Sunday, rereading the military medical record of my long-dead ancestor.  He was fifteen years, two months old when he entered the service, blonde haired, blue eyed, and four feet, eleven inches tall.  His first visit to the infirmary, for treatment of a sexually transmitted disease, happened just weeks after induction.  

There were others, several others, and each time the hospital stay lasted days; he once spent fourteen days in hospital for what was termed a "minor outbreak."  Of the twelve years he spent in the service, he spent 244 days in hospital, nearly all of it for treatment of STDs.

Reading the notes -- which I will not detail here, for even though this man, my ancestor, is long dead, they are of a deeply personal and embarrassing nature -- it became clear that this boy was not a victimizer; he was a victim.

I do not know the details, but it seems clear that when you place teenage boys in close proximity with men who are bigger, stronger, and surely more debauched than them, terrible things will happen.  I have thought of this young man, sick, hurt, and traumatized, all alone and defenseless.  It is a terror that I have never known.  And because it was his, I have to take it up.  I have to help heal it.

Now, a bit about my grandfather.

Grand-Pa is one of the five most influential people in my life.  I am very different than him.  I tend to be cynical, where he was perpetually, naively optimistic.  I love books and solitude; he loved being around people.  He was a gifted musician; I'm musically hopeless.  But all that is good in me, I learned from him.  I learned the truth of King Benjamin's injunction -- "when ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God" -- through Grand-Pa's example.  I learned to value family, to cherish those cross-generational links of parents and children and grandparents and grandchildren, because his home was always open to me.  From him I learned that sometimes the best way to lead is to laugh, and the best laughter is when you poke fun at yourself.  I do not share his faith, but my faith is strong and sure and living because of the example of devotion he set. 

He was the round-bellied old guy who'd take us sledding and make us french toast and play old Polish carols on his violin.  He was also the handsome young fellow with the slicked back hair and the three-piece suit, the Don Juan of Third Ward.

Before he was any of those things, he was an eight year old boy whose mother died, whose father remarried very quickly, who was thrown into a house with lots of step-brothers and step-sisters, and a new mother who didn't have any time for him.  And the man who saw all of his children graduate from college was first the ten year old boy who said goodbye to school, and went to work in the lumberyards on River Road.  Working with the Poles and the Russians and the Irishmen in those places, with the saws and the sawdust and the shouting and the rough talk that flows when working men gather, he got an education of his own.   

So when ancient, senile Tony asked every single nurse in the assisted care facility, "Hey, do you love me?"  and I got flustered and blushed and went around apologizing, I shouldn't have.  It wasn't the old man talking.  It wasn't the young Lothario, either.  It was that little boy, sharing a room with people who hated him, working in a place too dangerous for little boys, awake and alone late at night, missing his mother.

Mormons believe that the hearts of the children must be turned to the fathers, that this is the reason Earth exists, that without this turning, this binding, this healing, the whole world would be utterly wasted.

 This is obviously a wedding photograph, although I am not sure of any other details.
Grand-Pa is in the second row, all the way to the right.  He is wearing a boutonniere, which leads me to think he was related to the groom.  I'm guessing this photo was taken about 1922.  Note that he's the only person in the photo who's smiling.
I felt my ancestors calling me this weekend.  And I hope that in some small way, my empathy, my involvement, my remembering has healed them, has given purpose to this place.

Friday, March 19, 2010

My Head Hurts

Grand-Pa & Grand-Ma, circa 1934

 Joshua's 5th Birthday, North Tonawanda, 30 December 1982.  Pictured (L-R): Nathan Grand-Pa, Mitchell, Joshua

Sixth Avenue, North Tonawanda, circa 1968.  Grand-Pa with (L-R) Jeffrey, Christopher, and Greg

 Christmas Eve, mid-1980's.  Nathan, Angela and Josh listen to Grand-Pa fiddle

I'm guessing the photo was taken on Sixth Avenue, mid-1970's.  After a truly horrible round, Grand-pa told me that
he loved the game of golf too much to ever again see me play it.  I've done my best to honor his wishes.

(The title of today's entry is another in our ongoing and occasional series of references to obscure rock songs.  Today it's the classic "My Head Hurts" by The Spanic Boys, a father-son duo from Milwaukee who enjoyed a brief spurt of minor celebrity in the late 1980's.  They were good, in a hipstery sort of way.)

I visited my Grand-Pa, just before he died.  He was 95, and he and his wife (my step-grandmother) were living in an assisted care facility in Ocala, Florida.  Grand-Pa was hovering in and our of sentience.  This led to some funny moments, like when we were sitting in the cafeteria at dinner time (trust me, there is nothing more dreary and institutional than dinner in an assisted care facility: short of the squeezable food tubes the Space Shuttle astronauts eat, this is the blandest, bleakest, least charming nourishment in the cosmos).  He turned to me, and said, "Boy, oh boy, Peter.  This is some cruise, isn't it?  This is some cruise!  Hey, how did you get on the boat?"

(Speaking of food and Grand-Pa, one of my favorite childhood memories is eating breakfast at Grand-Pa's.  He liked to make french toast, with a generous pat of butter, a sprinkling of powdered sugar, and a hint of vanilla.  Delicious.  

And one of my favorite stories about Grand-Pa involves food.  Grand-Pa was working the swing shift at the Wurlitzer plant.  He came home one night, tired and hungry, and rooted around in the pantry for something quick and easy to eat.  He opened a can, fried up the contents, and enjoyed a satisfying repast.  The next morning, he said to my grandmother, "Mary, I cooked up a can of that hash last night.  It was delicious!  You need to buy more of that stuff.  What's it called, anyway?"

Grandma looked at him with a withering look that only a five foot nothing, whip smart, chain smoking, wig wearing, daily Mass going little Polish woman can muster, and replied, "Alpo.")

So I'm in Ocala, talking with Grand-pa, who sometimes thinks he's talking to his son, and sometimes thinks he's talking to me, and sometimes thinks he's talking to a buddy from the R.T. Jones Lumber Yard, the place he went to work back in the 1920's, when he dropped out of elementary school to help support his family.  

This leads to some uncomfortable moments.  Grand-Pa made it clear, as he reminisced with whom he thought was his old R.T. Jones working buddy, that in his younger days he'd been, well, um, in the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, "a rambler and a gambler and a sweet talkin' ladies' man."  

This is not something you want to know about your grandfather.  You want your grandfather to be the old guy who takes you sledding and makes you french toast and plays his violin on Christmas Eve.  You don't want to think of him looking like a Polish John Garfield, hard and handsome and making the ladies swoon.

That's the thing about family history.  The dead aren't statues, or myths, or philosopher kings; they're people.  And people are messy.

Earlier this week, I obtained the full military record of a distant ancestor.  His medical record indicates that he did not live an exemplary life.  It was depressing, to think of this boy entering the service at fifteen, and learning all his values, learning how to be a man in the sad, sinful world of the bivouac and the barracks hall.  His life ended early, in part, I am sure, because of diseases he contracted while still in his teens.

It was depressing to think of the girls, the desperate, outcast girls who made their living consorting with soldiers, to think of their hopelessness, their shame.  It was depressing to think that somehow, across generations, I carry a piece of that exploitation, for I bear the exploiter's name: I live because he lived.

We do not have the right to choose our heritage, to pick our ancestry.  They are who they were, every whit, not just the lovable or noble or kind parts, but the dark stuff, the shameful and secret things, too.  And they are all ours, the saints and the sinners, the cowards and the heroes, the drunks and the do-gooders, the pious and profligate, all calling to us, all needed to be linked to us, to be remembered by us, accepted by us, respected by us.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Health Care Crisis

In 1921, my great-grandfather, Peter Litwin, spent a week in DeGraff Memorial Hospital, where he had surgery.  Here is his bill for that hospital stay, including the cost of the surgical procedure:

Nine days in the hospital, plus surgery.  Total cost: $30.  

According to the US Census Bureau, the average salary in 1920 was $1236 per year, so this bill represents about 2.5% of the average family's income.

In 2009 dollars, the bill equals $364.69; median US salary in 2009 was about  $27,580 annually, with a median household income of around $52,000.  In current dollars, the bill represents about 1.3% of the median US salary.

Surely health care is better now than it was in 1921.  Surely the improved quality of that care merits some increase, perhaps even a significant increase in cost.  On 21 July 2009, David Leonhardt, a staff writer for the New York Times, placed the total annual cost for health care in the United States at $2.4 trillion, or roughly $15,000 per household.  Theoretically, at least, the average American family spends 54% of its income on health care.  Those robot doctors in "Star Wars", the ones that took the smoldering hunk of poor Anakin Skywalker and turned him into Darth Vader, those guys aren't worth half my family's income.  Bones from "Star Trek" with the scanners and the whoosing noises on the sick bay doors, he's not worth it, either.  What we have, is insanity.

Peter Litwin's hospital bill predates modern anesthesia, and antibiotics, and MRIs.  X-ray technology was in its infancy.  By today's standards, his care was state of the art, if the state was Botswana, and the art was crudely drawn cave paintings.  For all of that, it was affordable.  Maybe he spent his recovery in a ward with twenty other patients.  Maybe his anesthetist was a guy in a silk top hat, wielding an enormous wooden mallet.  Maybe the pre-operative hygienic preparations consisted of sprinkling liberal doses of Holy Water and hoping for the best.

He lived.  And it didn't bankrupt him.

I grew up in a place where doctors were trusted, and respected, and loved, and where they lived in the same neighborhoods as construction workers and teachers and milkmen.  I also grew up in a place where construction workers and teachers and milkmen understood that doctors were just people, that things happened sometimes, and that you didn't roam around, filing malpractice suits when things went wrong.

Our system is broken.  We're broken. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More Photos, and a Brush With Fame?

I feel a certain urgency about getting these photos posted, for two reasons.  First, many of them are badly degraded, and the sooner that they are digitized, the sooner I can arrest the fading and disintegration.  

Second, I'm mildly terrified that I'll manage to destroy the photos before I digitize them.  I've been very careful, but every Titanic has its iceberg.  Before flying home from Buffalo, I packed them in my carry-on bag.  I checked my other bag, so that my hands wouldn't be too full, and my attention wouldn't be distracted from the precious cargo in my carry-on.  

You can probably guess what happened at the TSA checkpoint:  the blue-shirted apparatchiks manning the scanners decided that my bag posed A Threat To National Security, and one of them dipped her latex-gloved mitts into it, poking and prodding and ultimately dumping the lot onto a stainless steel table.  One of the oldest and most interesting photos -- a man who might be my great-grandfather Amasa Pearce, posing with his coworkers on a factory production floor -- got ripped during the examination.   This kind of thing keeps me up at night.

So here's another round of photos:

Dad, Grand-Pa, and Aunt Kathy, in front of the house on Sixth Avenue, on the day 
of Mom's graduation from high school, June 1960

Grand-Ma and Grand-Pa's back yard, Sixth Avenue, North Tonawanda.
That's Aunt Kathy in the front row, Mary Beth, Mom, Dad, Grand-Ma and me in the back.  Given Kathy's clothing, I assume this was taken the day of her First Holy Communion.  Given the size of Mary Beth, I'm guessing it's the summer of 1965.

Mary Beth, me, and in the foreground, Todd.  This appears to have been taken while on a family outing, most likely in the Summer of 1969.

The back yard at the Paul Revere House, Boston, Massachusetts, 1972.  
Me, Todd, Mary Beth, Mom, and Mitchell.

We close with a moment of sublime weirdness.  This is Colonial Williamsburg, 1973.  
The man is back is Dad.  The grinning fellow in red is Thad.  The boy in the tank top is a kid who wandered up and asked, "Can I be in your picture?"  As far as I know, we never got his name.  Why this kid wanted to be in our family photo remains a mystery.  Perhaps he was a local, who passed the summer days inserting himself into strangers' vacations photos, like some pre-teen Zelig.  Perhaps he'd been kidnapped by a cabal of tricornered hat fetishists, and this was a desperate attempt, in those benighted days when milk cartons were just milk cartons and not missing children posters, to get his face out into the world.  Maybe he just liked having his picture taken.  Maybe he yearned to be before the camera, craved it, was positively driven by the need, especially when the appearance involved wearing eccentric headgear.  This was 37 years ago, and the kid appears to be  about ten in the photo, which would make him the same age as...JOHNNY DEPP.  Coincidence?  You be the judge:

 ...And the Piece of Resistance:


Runner: A Drama in One Act

Top Row, Middle: Portrait of the Half-Miler As A Young Man
Caption under photo reads: McMURRAY, GERALD...Varsity Club & track letters...Says "You think so" to Roy...College Entrance..Wants to be an electrician...

The North Tonawanda Public Library is home to a microfilm archive, containing a complete volume of both the Tonawanda Daily News and its successor, the Tonawanda News.  The News is the Paper of Record for the Tonawandas, home to "Sound Off!", a column consisting of the often ranting comments left on the News answering machine; "Kegler's Corner", a compendium of notices from the local bowling alleys; and, of course "Police Beat", dispatches from the mean streets of the Twin Cities, where our brave boys in blue keep order in a World Gone Mad.

(Two side comments about this:  first, one of the truly depressing things about today's North Tonawanda is the dearth of bowling alleys.  Rojek's Lanes on Payne Avenue is long gone.  Deluxe Lanes on Oliver has disappeared, although it appears that a new venture has opened in its place.  Gratwick Lanes, the hole in the wall joint near the old Buffalo Bolt complex has a "For Lease" sign in its window.  Parkside Lanes is abandoned.  Second, on the same page as James Ocean McMurray's obituary, the Tonawanda News ran a story titled, "Motorcycle Cop Is Kept Busy Arresting Speeders", which reports that NT Motorcycle Cop Fred C. Sprenger had that weekend arrested 13 people for violating the city's 30 MPH speed limit, generating to that point $70 in fines, with five people still awaiting trial.  If I know my NT cops, Officer Sprenger dispatched his duties with equal parts Moxie, Grit, and the assistance of the World's Largest Motorcycle Siren.)

My father had been a track runner, that I knew.  I also knew that he ran track while working full-time as a stock boy at the A&P grocery store that used to be at the corner of Manhattan Street and Goundry, and that he spent most of his senior year exhausted and unable to practice.  Other than a white letter sweater and a couple of photos (which I have not been able to track down), that was the only record I had of my father's high school sports career.

Scrolling through decades of North Tonawanda history, I found the story of his star-crossed senior year of track.  Herewith, with no annotations or corrections, is the story, as reported by the Tonawanda News:

May 3, 1957 -- NT VS. LACKAWANNA

The Lumberjacks, looking to gain experience in a hurry before the crucial battles appear, posted five grand slams in the rout....Captain Jerry McMurray won hands down in the 880 with a good 2:20.5 clocking.  McMurray was running alone for most of the distance and was 40 yards ahead of his nearest competitor.  Jim Manth and Larry Drake completed the sweep in this half mile run.

May 8, 1957 -- NTHS Registers 2nd Track Victory While Tonawanda Loses Close Contest

Al Maglisceau's NT Lumberjacks raced to their second straight track victory yesterday while Tonawanda lost a grueling duel at Niagara Falls.  North Tonawanda defeated LaSalle 69 2-3 to 34 1-3 while Coach Paul Fenwick's Warriors were on the short end of a 51-44 score....Captain Jerry McMurray had things his own way with a flashy 2:05 effort in the 880.  McMurray again won handily, showing at least 20 yards daylight in the stretch.

May 15, 1957 -- NTHS VS. TROTT

Unbeaten Jerry McMurray breezed to the best time of his career with a 2:04.9 half mile.  McMurray finished 50 yards in front of his teammate Jim Manth who finished second.

May 22, 1957 -- NTHS Spikers Nip THS

North Tonawanda High School continued its track supremacy over its cross-cit rival yesterday but not without a terrific battle all the way at NTHS Field....Captain Jerry McMurray was an emphatic winner in the half mile with a 2:03.9, his best time ever.  McMurray as usual shook hands with all his opponents and proceeded to run them into the ground.  He won going away...

May 25, 1957 -- Blue Devils Set Two Records In Track Romp Over NTHS

Maybe it's that pure Erie County air, it certainly can't be "pep pills"; but that Kenmore High track team ran like the devil yesterday -- Blue Devil that is....[KHS] handed Jerry McMurray his first 880 loss of the season....The half mile run easily was the outstanding attraction of the meet.  NT's McMurray got off in a hurry with Tim Burns and [Ben] Woodward shooting early for the lead, even at the risk of passing on the turn.  McMurray blazed to a scorching 54 seconds in the first 440 yards but both Burns and Woodward remained at a respectable four yards behind.  It was at the 660 mark that the pattern began changing.  Burns turned it on to take over by a half stride but couldn't get any breathing space from the other two hard-running athletes.  The trio remained bunched in the final 100 when Woodward made a tremendous bid to take over.  McMurray was unable to step up the already swift pace but Burns refused to be shaken off by his team mate.  He matched Woodward stride for stride into the final 30 yards, with Woodward winning by a scant foot.  McMurray was two strides back.  Woodward, a member of the KHS cross country team, is the school's valedictorian.

June 10, 1957 -- Crack Kenmore Track Team Has 9 Scorers Returning

Kenmore High's track team has won the Sectional championship all but three times since 1940.  And, based on none returning point producers from this year's section VI champs, the Blue Devil scoring machine is cranked for years to come.  Kenmore outdistanced nine other Section VI AAA opponents before approximately 500 fans at the Kenmore Junior High track Saturday by scoring 43-1/2 points.  Following the Blue Devils were Amherst, 31-1/2, Olean 23-1/2, Jamestown 20, Trott 10-1/2, North Tonawanda 8, Lockport 3, West Seneca 2 and Niagara Falls and LaSalle 0....A headwind prevented any record-setting Saturday, but there were some tight battles.  One of the best was the 880, won by [Tim] Burns.  North Tonawanda's Jerry McMurray stepped into the lead with half a lap remaining after Kenmore's Ben Woodward had set the pace from the gun.  McMurray had a six-foot lead until the final turn.  Here, Burns and Woodward made their bids and passed McMurray 30 yards from the finish.  Burns edged Woodward by no more than a foot.

[Timothy Burns was inducted to the Kenmore East High School Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.  North Tonawanda has a Football Hall of Fame, located on Goundry Street, and a Basketball Wall of Fame, located inside the high school, but offers no venue for the acknowledgment of the accomplishments of its soccer, wrestling, swimming, baseball, or track and field athletes.]

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Another Small Sampling of Photos

This appears to be Easter, probably in 1966.
Front row (L-R): me, Mary Beth
Back row (L-R): Mom, Dad
Sweeney Street, North Tonawanda

Winter on Sweeney Street, probably late 1966.
That's the Miller's house in the background.

Another photo from the mid-1960s.
We lived in the upstairs portion of the white house on Sweeney; Grandma Mc. lived downstairs.
We had a living room, a walk-in closet, a tiny kitchen, a tinier bathroom, and one bedroom.
For a while, five of us lived up there...

It looks like this was taken in the living room of that upstairs apartment.
The photo is badly degraded, but it appears that there's a pile of wrapping paper in the foreground; this may have been taken just before Christmas, 1966.

Grand-Ma's back yard, 6th Avenue, North Tonawanda.  Note the birch tree and the roses: Grand-Ma grew roses outside and African violets inside.  This may have been taken in Summer, 1967.

This is the upstairs kitchen of the white house on Sweeney.  The only thing that's still there, as far as I know, is the radiator that's barely visible, just behind me.  When this room became my bedroom, I covered up the giraffe-skin linoleum with Astroturf.  Mary Beth blows out the candles at what appears to be her second birthday party, November 1966.

Halloween, 1967 or 1968.  I was Batman; Mom sewed the costume herself.  Mary Beth was a cow; Mom made that costume, too.  Mom always made our costumes: it was a point of pride with her.  I don't know who the kid in the mouse mask is.

 Antoher Easter, Sweeney Street.  I'm guessing this was taken in 1970 or 1971.  That's Todd on the left, me on the right.  Once again, in the lower lefthand corner, we see evidence of Mom, aka The Omnipresent Thumb.

 Totally unrelated to the above photos, but a classic, nonetheless.  Who are these fresh young fellows?  An up and coming boy band?  German exchange students?  The cast of the latest hit show on The Disney Channel?  No, it's Josh, Thad (holding Hannah?) and Nate, circa 1993.

As always, click on any photo to enlarge the image.

Saturday, March 6, 2010



One of my western New York stops was in Lockport, where I spent time with my father's cousin, Rick Heenan (I think that makes him my first cousin, once removed, but keeping track of that stuff is like the subjunctive conjugation in Spanish, or trying to pound out a text message on a teeny cell phone keyboard: Frustrating, Difficult, and Not Worth It).

Rick is one of those guys you're glad to know.  He's a gifted singer-songwriter, who performs all over western New York.  He is deeply involved in his community, spending his summers as an Official Greeter at the Erie Canal Discovery Center, an interactive museum near the historic locks that give his hometown its name.  He's been in the military, and he's worked the line at Harrison Radiator, one of the plants that drove Niagara County's economy for most of the 20th century.  He runs the annual "Erie Canal Songwriting Contest", and lives in the house he grew up in: "I've been mowing the same lawn my whole life," is how Rick describes it.

The image above is a copy of a portrait that hangs in Rick's study.  He was kind enough to make a copy for me.  "This is your great-grandfather, James Ocean McMurray," Rick explained as he offered me the print.  "I've been told that he's in his British military uniform, but beyond that, I don't know much about the details."

There is something about seeing an ancestor that gets you fired up.  I left Rick's home and drove a couple of miles down the road, pulling into the parking lot of the Niagara County courthouse.  I took another look at the image, the young man with the solemn expression and all the gold braid, and decided that I would find out as much as I could.

I already knew a little bit about James Ocean.  A couple of years ago, I tracked down his birth certificate:

I knew from the 1871 English census that he had an older sister, Sarah, who was born about 1859.  His mother died sometime between 1862 and 1871; his father is listed as a widower on the census.  I knew that the family lived for at least a little while in Quebec.  The following comes from the Drouin Collection of Quebec Vital and Church Records:

"On the thirteenth of September one thousand eight hundred and sixty two James Ocean McMurray born the second day of September  one thousand eight hundred and sixty two son of James McMurray Lance Corporal Royal Canadian Rifles and Sarah Frances Fellows his wife was privately baptized in the presence of its father and mother by me, C. A. Wetherall, acting military chaplain, Lacolle, Quebec."  (The original document includes the witnessing signatures of both parents.)

I knew that he married Charlotte Hanson in March 1890, and that they immediately left England for Antwerp, Belgium.  From Antwerp, they sailed on the ship Noordland, bound for North America.  Charlotte was 18; James Ocean was 27.  They arrived at New York on 24 March 1890, but their final destination was Toronto.  In April 1891, the McMurrays -- James, Charlotte, and 2 month old Edward James -- were living in Toronto's St. George's Ward, its boundaries Dufferin Street on the west, King Street on the north, Younge Street on the east, and the waterfront on the south, then an neighborhood of wharves and railroad tracks, today the home of the CN Tower, Rogers Centre, and the Air Canada Arena.  By 1893, they had emigrated to the United States, living for a time at 362 Walnut Street in Buffalo (a house which still stands, of Google Earth is to be believed), before settling at 137 Stenzil Street in North Tonawanda.

Those are facts, data culled from census records and official certificates.  They offer hints, but they do not tell the whole story of the young man in the military tunic.

The morning after my meeting with Rick, I visited the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, and found in their painstakingly collected obituary catalog another piece of information.  James O. McMurray died 2 September 1919, on his 57th birthday.  That entry led me to the North Tonawanda Public Library's microfilm collection, which includes every edition of the Tonawanda News.

There I found his full obituary:

"James Ocean McMurray, 57 years old, died yesterday at his home at No. 137 Stenzil street after a long illness.  McMurray was born on the British troopship Himalaya, hence his unusual middle name.  He spent seven years in the East Indies and was awarded a medal by the British government for mastery of the Hinudstan language.  He served 12 years in the British army and was riding school instructor for the Royal Horse artillery.  Besides his wife, three sons, Edward J., Alfred H., and Richard U. McMurray; three daughters, Mrs. H.A. Gierke, Eleanor E. and Myrtle M. McMurray and three grandchildren, all of North Tonawanda survive.  The funeral will be held Wednesday afternoon from the late residence at 2:30 o'clock and burial will be made in Elmlawn."

The original document, 3 September 1919, Tonawanda News.  Click on the image to enlarge.

A little bit of research uncovered these images:


The uniforms perfectly match the one James Ocean wears in the portrait.  This is his regiment.  (The Royal Horse Artillery still exists, as an elite ceremonial unit of the British Army.  They still wear the same uniform, and are prominently featured at royal events.)

He was born on a troopship, sailing the North Atlantic.  He was a husband, and the father of six children.  He was a solider and a linguist and a horseman and a world traveler.  He died young.

Isn't this thrilling, to know this man, our ancestor?  Isn't it amazing to hear his voice, calling from the dust?

A Small Sampling of Photos

I realize that there are a lot of words on this blog.  And that for most of you, all those words devolve into a slow, low drone, until you're Ferris Buehler, and I'm that nebbishy teacher asking, "Anyone?  Anyone?"

So not many words today.  Instead, the first batch of scanned images taken from the Family Archives:

Some of the family, dressed in souvenir Hawai'ian garb, brought by Grand-Ma and Grand-Pa after their trip to the islands.  Photo taken at 66-6th Avenue, North Tonawanda, circa 1967.  Front row (L-R): Cousin Chris, me, Cousin Gregg, Cousin Jeff.  Middle row (L-R): Grand-Ma, Aunt Kathy, Unca Pete.  Back row (L-R): Grand-Pa, Mary Beth, Dad.

 First day of School, September 1972 or 1973.  Photo taken at the corner of Sweeney Street and Payne Avenue, in front of the Carney's chestnut tree.  L-R: Thad, Mary Beth, me (note the salmon shirt and the jaunty striped pants with fashionable bells), Todd.

Photo appears to have been taken in the back yard of the white house on Sweeney Street, 1975 or 1976.  Mom's thumb appears on left side of image.  The rugby shirts were handmade by Mom.  Front row (L-R): Mitchell, Thad.  Back row (L-R): Todd, Mary Beth.

Colonial Williamsburg, Summer 1974.  There is so much to like in this photo.  Mitch is in the foreground.  Thad is behind him, having just placed his tricorn hat upon the head of a seemingly agreeable sheep.  (I imagine the sheep at Colonial Williamsburg frequently have to put up with such impositions.  Such is the price of celebrity.)  Those little spots are sheep poop.

I have perhaps 150 more photos to scan.  This should be an interesting few weeks!