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Joseph E Bird

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non-fiction

margaritaville is not for everyone

nibbling on sponge cake
watching the sun bake

Sure, that’s one way to go.

His plan was to resign as Vice President of the largest engineering firm in the state and start his own company.

Then came the unexpected diagnosis: cancer.  The prognosis was not good.

He could have stayed put.  He had good insurance, made good money.  He would have the support of the entire company as he started his fight for life.  It would have been the easier path.  But Harvey Chapman seldom chose the easier path.

He left anyway.  He started the company from a spare bedroom in his house.

He landed a couple of projects and quickly hired some help.  It was hard, grueling work with long hours.  Add chemotherapy to the mix.

One evening he was going to an interview for another project, his young employee driving as he sat in the passenger seat going over his presentation notes.

“Pull over,” he said.

On the shoulder of the road, he opened his door and vomited.  After a couple of minutes, he put himself back in order and closed the door.

“Let’s go.”

They got the project.

It would go on like that for twelve years.  More treatments.  Bone marrow transplants.  Experimental procedures.  The company grew.  He bought a historic building and renovated it to house his thirty-some employees.  He ran 15-mile road races.  He got married.  At times he would feel great; other times he was kicking death away.   But he was always looking for the next challenge.

He pushed his employees hard.  Starting a company from the ground floor is no easy thing and he needed people to be committed.  But there was more to it than that.  He saw their potential.  He saw that they could do great things if they made the right choices.  As he had.

Not that he never made mistakes.  But the one choice he made over and over again that was always the right choice, was to live life above the common.  To choose, not necessarily the easy path, but the right path.  To sacrifice the moment’s pleasure, for the promise of a future with meaning.  He went through the Air Force flight training.  He didn’t have to.  He flew C-130s for the Air National Guard, even while he was running his company.  He didn’t have to.  He gave his employees generous bonuses and cared for their families.  He didn’t have to.

Cancer eventually won.  That was 22 years ago.  The company he started still bears his name.

I don’t know what his last thoughts were, but I know he had to be content.  It sounds cliche to say he fought to the end, but he did.  And not so he could go sip margaritas on a beach somewhere.  No, if he would have rebounded again, he would have been back at work, ready for the next challenge.

Ready to again live life above the common.

 

 

 

 

An Iraqi, an Iranian, an Italian, and two Americans.

Not the beginning of a joke.

Not the beginning of a tragic story.

Not the beginning of a world-changing summit.

Just strangers meeting in an Italian coffee shop in West Virginia, of all places.

Joe and Gloria, the Americans, trying gelato for the first time. They take their little dessert cups to the sunroom and wait for their coffee. It’s a cozy little room with seating that’s just right to encourage conversation, even with people you don’t know.

Enter Nadia and Ester. Young ladies in their twenties. We exchange hellos and other pleasantries.

Ester is outgoing; Nadia a little more quiet.

Gloria is outgoing; Joe a little more quiet.

So Ester and Gloria talk. Ester says she will soon begin working at the Italian coffee shop we are now in. Gloria inquires about her accent. Persian, she says, but everyone thinks she’s Italian because she currently works at a local pizzeria. She is from Iran. Nadia is from Iraq. They’ve been in the United States a few years, each coming under different circumstances. They met here and became friends.

Gradually, Joe and Nadia enter the conversation. They all talk about language (Farsi, Arabic, English, and Mandarin), they talk about work, they talk about coffee. They don’t talk about politics.

Until Roberto walks into the room. He can’t help himself. He owns this coffee shop and has worked hard to make it a success. He’s a successful business person. He’s a nice guy and is very, very outgoing. And he has a heart for the less fortunate. He expresses his heart in terms of worldwide political and economic philosophies.

The others listen, the others being the Iranian, the Iraqi, and the two Americans. Geopolitics is beyond their realm of understanding, really. What countries do is beyond their control. They speak of respect for individuals and love and taking care of your neighbor in need. That’s all.

Ester says she is blessed to be in America. Joe says America is blessed to have her.

Roberto would have gone on all night, spirited man that he is. But it’s time to go. Roberto is very pleased with the international exchange that has just occurred. Everyone seems pleased. There are smiles all around. Nadia gives Gloria a hug.

We’re different. We’re the same. We have different perspectives, but we all want the same thing.

Just to live a life with meaning.

This is what the world should be.


Editor’s Note:  This is a true story.  The names have been changed to respect privacy.

how to squander your right to vote

I tried to vote today.

Of course that’s not the story.  I vote in every election, if I’m able.  Last year (I think it was last year) I voted by filling in circles with an ink pen, just like I did on high school tests back in the olden days.

But technology has finally arrived to the backwoods corner of my world.  This morning at 7:15, I arrived at the polling place to find brand new touch screen voting machines.  The poll workers felt obligated to teach me how to use them.  Not that I couldn’t figure it out by myself.

So I slide in the ballot to get things going and start touching away.  I knew some of the candidates, but rather than vote for people I don’t know anything about, I’ll skip to the next office until I see a candidate in which I have some confidence. On these new machines, it meant I touched “Next”.  I did that a lot.

I finally finished and then the machine started making me review all my choices.  I didn’t have time to do that.  I had to drive to Lexington.  More on that in a little bit.  I needed to end the voting exercise.  So I hit “Exit.”

And out came my ballot.

I took it to the next station where it was inserted into the magic vote counting machine. The magic machine spit it back out.  They tried again.  Same result.

“Did you hit Exit?”

“Yes.”

“You weren’t supposed to do that.”

“Oh.”

“You should have hit Print.”

“Oh.”

“Hey, Jimmy.  He hit Exit.  What do we do?”

“He should have hit Print.”

“That’s what I told him.”

“Try it again.”

“We did.  It didn’t work.”

They huddled to consider the options.

“Nevermind.  I have to go.”

“But sir.  We’ll figure it out.”

“I don’t have time.”

They were still huddled when I left.

It’s ok.  The people I vote for never win anyway.

the race is not to the swift

shoes 1 for web

This morning one of my New York friends, Cat Bradley, was describing her first experience with mile repeats.  Yeah, you know what those are.  Run a mile at an elevated pace, recover with a slow jog (or walk) for a few minutes, then run another mile at an elevated pace.  Repeat.  For as long as you can do it.  Ahh, such fun.

Now Cat is young.  I am old.  I used to do those.  I still do speedwork and intervals when I’m able. But here’s the thing: my body won’t let me do what I used to do.  It’s one annoying minor injury after another.  Definitely age related.  My latest is a calf strain that’s kept me from putting in the miles.

Last Saturday morning I was at the church working in the garden with our spring work crew and a block away, runners gathered at the starting line. The gun goes off and the hoard runs past.  I so much wanted to be with them.  I love those times when you push yourself and see where you are, see what you’re made of.

And I will again.  This age thing has some benefits.  One, you learn patience.  I’ll be back.  I’ll do those long Sunday runs again.  I’ll do the intervals on my lunch hour.  I’ll run a few of those Saturday morning races.

I also know that I won’t be as fast as I was five years ago.  I won’t run as far as I did twenty years ago.  And the good thing is, I don’t want to.  I love running, but I also love writing, and playing my guitar, and being with my family, and having a relaxing breakfast on Saturdays.

Still, when you’re young like Cat, you have to do it.  It’s part of finding out who you are.

my friend, Chuck

The Gang
chuck, first row, far right.  me, back row, center.  so many years ago.

i’m a kid
riding my bike
near my house
and another kid
rides up and says
Hi.
I’m Chuck.

so many years ago.

i’m a teenager
riding in that
unbelievable green
GTO convertible
with Chuck driving
his father’s car
singing old Black Water.

so many years ago.

i’m in college
rooming with Chuck
and he’s up all night
recording music
on his reel-to-reel
driving me crazy
because he’s Chuck.

so many years ago.

i’m at Fat Daddy’s
Chuck is the DJ
and everyone
is dancing
and all the girls
want to dance
with Chuck.

so many years ago.

i’m standing
in the church
getting married
and Chuck is standing
with the others
and all the girls
smile at Chuck.

so many years ago.

so many years ago.

so many years ago.

i have moved
and live near the
very place on
the same street
that i rode my bike
and met Chuck.

so many years ago.

i am older
as is he
and we haven’t talked
in decades
and time
and distance
separated friends

so many years ago.

and then i hear
that Chuck
was in an accident
and his pain is great
and his recovery long
and it hurts
because he was my friend

so many years ago.

i am here
he is there
i’ll send him a note
i’ll say a prayer
and hope he will
dance again
as he did

so many years ago.

i write words
that seem shallow
and inadequate
to try to capture
the spirit that
he shared
with me

so many years ago.

so many years ago.


copyright 2018, joseph e bird

First Place

Of the top five finishers in the 5K this morning, one had run 8 miles before the race. Another had run 13 miles.

I was doing well to get out of bed and drive to the race just a half mile from my house.

The winners’ times were fast, these young men in their man-buns and the sleek bodies of youth, who are not even bothering with water as they stroll easily along the sidewalk, not even out of breath, because they finished 6 minutes before I did and have already cooled down, as I labor to the finish line, feeling like a runner, but knowing that I’m just another old guy, old being anyone over 25, because anyone over 25 is just a pretender and not even an afterthought to those who run in the fast lane of youth.

So I won my age group.  First place, the little trophy cup says. So what. Who cares.

I care a little. Because I made myself get out of bed. I made myself run those 4 miles on Wednesday when I didn’t really feel like it.  And the speed work on Monday, which is ridiculous and serves no purpose other than to satisfy my ego. And the 7 1/2 miles last Sunday that I don’t have to do.  But there’s something gratifying about being out on the road in the early morning by yourself, and wanting to quit after a couple of miles while you still feel good, but enjoying the morning so much that you just keep pushing until your legs become weak and a little wobbly but you have to push on because you just can’t quit because you have to push on.  Because you have to push on.

And because of all of that, there’s a little cup that says First Place that means nothing to anybody but me.

And then there was Bach.

I heard a piano playing.

I recognized the hymn, despite the missed note here and there. Probably coming from the gathering place where the residents sit in wheelchairs on Sunday afternoon and listen to the local Church of Christ preacher.

Except I had already passed the gathering place. The piano sounds were coming from down the hall.

She sat in her doorway in her wheelchair, the keyboard resting on the armrests. She kept playing as I approached.

That’s really very good, I said.

She laughed but she didn’t look up. She was unable to raise her head. She looked at the floor as she spoke.

I play by ear, she said. I can’t read music.

Then I noticed the plastic rat sitting on the keyboard. It was so out of place that I couldn’t bring myself to ask about it. I should have. There’s probably a good story to go with it.

This hand doesn’t work very well, she said as she held up her twisted right hand.

Well, you sound great.

And she did. Not that she was going on tour anytime soon, but I’d love to be able to play at her level.

I went on.

While I was visiting, I heard her playing. One hymn after another.

And then there was Bach. Unmistakable.

The rhythms and the patterns of the master composer. And a familiar tune. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Another hymn, of sorts.

As I was leaving, she had quit playing but was still sitting in her doorway.

I heard you playing Bach, I said.

Bach? As if she didn’t know who I was talking about.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, I said

She laughed. That’s Bach?

Yes.

She laughed again. Good old Bach, she said. Good old Bach.

Privilege

He’s pretty much lying on his back on this unique contraption, part wheelchair, part gurney. He’s in the sun, because when it’s not too hot, it’s good to get out of the building, out of the darkness, out of the smells. A lot of people are out. Some are by themselves, smoking, some are just sitting. They all acknowledge visitors, maybe with a smile or a sideways glance, but they all notice. Even the guy on his back, strapped in so he won’t fall off, follows me with his eyes.

He’s wearing a Cowboys jersey. I offer a quick hello as I walk by. He returns the greeting.

Are you a Cowboys fan? I ask.

Yes, sir.

I can’t tell if he can move his head or his arms, but he pushes the joystick with his fingers and his chair moves to face me.

They looked pretty good at the end of the season, I say. They have a good quarterback.

I want to talk specifics, but I can’t remember the quarterback’s name.

Yeah, he says. Dak Prescott. He’s going to be good.

And the running back? What’s his name?

Elliott, he says.

Then he says the defense has to get better.

I say something about how the Cowboys are fun to watch, but my knowledge of the team is limited. Like all conversations with strangers, this one has run its course.

I’d better get inside, I say, not really wanting to. I turn to go and remember to ask.

What’s your name?

Del.

Hey, Del. I’m Joe. I’ll see you around.

After my visit inside, I leave, but Del’s no longer outside.

I see him again a few weeks later, in the same chair, the nurses taking him in for rehab. I wanted to say hello but before I reached him, they had pushed him on down the hall.

I go on and make my visit. The usual ten minutes.

Then I leave this world of offensive odors, vacant looks, cries of loneliness, incoherent conversations, and people who depend on others to help them eat pureed food or drink juice through a straw, and guys like Del who have no other options.

I walk to my car and drive away. A few minutes later, I stop for coffee, maybe drive around a bit because it’s such a nice day. It’s Sunday, and I have no other obligations. For me, it’s a day of rest.

I think about privilege, and how that term is used today. It’s become a pejorative. I have able-body privilege. I have sound mind privilege. I have the privilege of good health and mobility and the privilege of being able to make my own decisions and act on those decisions.

I have all of that. Del doesn’t. And there’s nothing I can do about it.

Ten Rules to be More Interesting

Author’s Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are opinions and as with most opinions, they cannot be verified by any supporting factual evidence, which is especially true in this case, as the author has absolutely no experience in being interesting. In fact, if he wanted to be factual, he would change the name of the article to Ten Rules for Being Uninteresting, and just describe himself. Maybe he should take that approach and reverse engineer this whole interesting/uninteresting phenomenon.

Here we go.

Rule One: Don’t talk in terms of reverse engineering and don’t use the word phenomenon.

Rule Two: Be the kind of person other people like. There is no how-to for this rule. You either got it or you don’t. But we’re not talking about winning a popularity contest here, we’re talking about being interesting. Apples and oranges. Or at least clementines and tangerines.

Rule Three: Don’t read books by Ha Jin. Or if you do, don’t tell anybody. You’re better off if you know who Doosledorf is. Doogledrone. Dumbledore. I had to look it up. (Google Harry Potter.)

Rule Four: Learn to fish. Talk about small-mouth and walleye. This only works with certain people.

Rule Five: Travel extensively. Trips to Wallback and Big Ugly apparently don’t count.

Rule Six: Shop at Kroger, or whatever big, overcrowded supermarket is in your area. People love to talk about their horrific experiences while being forced to shop at stores with great selection and low prices. Relating your own experience will make you more, well, relatable.

Rule Seven: Shop at Walmart. See Rule Six. Same, but different.

Rule Eight: You know, maybe there’s just seven rules.

Rule Nine: Oh, I thought of another one. Ask people about their favorite restaurants. People love to talk about eating and they will appreciate your interest in their dining habits. Don’t tell them that you think Wendy’s makes great baked potatoes. It will destroy your restaurant street cred.

Rule Ten: When it doubt, play like Chauncey Gardner. “In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.” Ahhh. Very wise man. Except he really was just talking about gardening, because he was, after all, Chance, the gardener. Peter Sellers in Being There. Stick to Harry Potter.

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