22 February 2009

The Tao of 911

The Heirs of Irrascible Fire Chiefs and Other Rough-Cut Characters

I’ve talked now and then about the rise of the emergency services system in West Virginia generally and Marion County particularly. Tough and hardy souls ran individual departments throughout the first two-thirds of the twentieth century and protected their neighbors. Around 1970, there was an outburst of innovation in communication technology, government funding, interdepartment cooperation and in the development of EMS as a healthy third service. That was not without some birth pangs. I well remember hours upon hours of meetings over operational policies of the most mundane variety that were head-banging, hang-yourself, fingernails-on-a-blackboard miseries.

The first thing that made these meetings so unenjoyable was the nature of the people involved (me included.) The emergency services do not attract normal people. If you have a group of those folks, it is not a group of quiet people with just a few leaders talking. It’s a group of aggressive people with considerable egos and questionable tempers. So, when those folks are meeting to make progress on something, the first half hour or forty five minutes is spent with bitching, invective, personal slurs, irrelevant war stories and general bad disposition. That makes it unpleasant, but it’s the nature of the beast and that’s the way those meetings have to go. Then, you get down to business, and slog through uninteresting-but-important stuff.

How, for example, will structures be identified or addressed? Marion County has a rural numbering system, and whenever I’m driving out in the county and see the fire locator signs, I remember the guys who came up with it. (The county is switching to city-type street addressing. In 1977 or so, a group of us went to the postmaster to suggest that the new locator system do just that, and the postmaster swore that the government would never abandon the rural route & box system.) When you call 911, the call is answered a certain way, and the call dispatched to the department(s) another certain way, and so forth. The result is that all of these thousands of irrascible people-hours by 100+ dedicated people have produced a system that now looks like off-the-cuff simplicity to the citizen-user.

This morning, LaG needed taken to the hospital. (This evening, she’s been admitted and is doing much better.) I called 911. “911, do you have an emergency?” Same question that was decided on in 1978. And so forth. Engine company comes from one direction, rescue squad from another, calm, smooth, no problem, everyone does their job, and it looks easy. But oh, so much against-the-table-head-banging went into making it that way.

I imagine that there are lots of systems that are similar, a great deal of work to yield a smooth and simple effect to the “consumer.” This is just the one that I know from both sides.

Care of Equipment

At the grocery store on the way to No. 3 after leaving the hospital, I parked the Audi in front. A kid at the register complimented the car. I told him, it’s 10 years old, and has 140,000 miles on it. How, he asked? And I passed on a bit of what my Dad taught us about care of equipment, that slight fanaticism in maintenance and care leads to a much longer service life.

Addendum to Society Stand-Down Proposal

Yesterday’s stand-down proposal was not well documented. Not that every idea that comes undocumented from my mind is automatically a lame one, but it is nice to have a little authority from time to time. While I was passing the time in the ED this morning, I was flipping around on the Kindle without focusing on anything intensely. I ran across a passage in the Tao Te Ching (haven’t read it in many years). It says that a muddy pond will clear up if you just leave it alone for a while.

I'm trying to think of a Biblical equivalent, but I am coming up blank. The idea that sometimes you need to stand back and let your options clarify themselves or that you need to quit messing with things makes sense, so I wonder if there is a Biblical passage or two that addresses it. Scholarly readers, any idea?

Hmmm - a thought. "Scholarly readers." I hope that doesn't sound snooty. When I was in college at Fairmont State, a janitor in the building where the English Department was housed would overhear lectures in the "Bible as Literature" class and then discuss them with any of us interested. Red was his name, and Red was as much a scholar as anyone there.

Pippa passes.


21 February 2009


World-wide Stand-down

In some mechanical or social systems there appear lots of imbalances, questions, disputes, failures and discomfort (e.g., several unexplained accidents), whoever the decision-makers are will, rarely, call for a "stand-down." They stop the system. The day-to-day pressure of operations is lifted, and those within the system have a chance to review what's right, what's wrong and carefully run some alternate methods of doing things.

There is, as I have pointed out, a "disturbance in The Force." Not only do I find that in the news, I look at the writing and blogs of friends (samples in links to the right) and find the same: everyone seems particularly on edge and on guard. I know that I sure as hell am.

And so, I modestly propose a "non-week," or even a "non-month." Stand down. Stop. Chill. Quit demanding, quit bitching. Quit spraying aerosol negativity, gloom and depression. As Jim Belushi said in the movie, The Principal, "No more!" As Roberto Duran said in a fight, "No mas!"

Sit alertly. Stretch your senses to perceive whatever it is that's going on. And let's empty our minds of our ready-made certain-to-be-effective fixes that never seem to work.

More ethereal than normal? That's OK.

Pippa passes.


12 February 2009

A Patchwork of Melange

Science in Action

I've actually had two people decline to schedule things for next Friday because it's the 13th.

Thomas Jefferson Quoted:

“I have come to a resolution myself as I hope every good citizen will, never again to purchase any article of foreign manufacture which can be had of American make be the difference in price what it may.”

Screwing Up

Two of President Obama's cabinet designees bailed out this week due to tax payment issues. Part of the President's response was "I screwed up." Compare this with the reaction of President Reagan when the Iran/Contra mess came to light: "Mistakes were made." Now, I really admired President Reagan. He was a decent person who made some policy choices that have continued to work out badly, as well as some that have continued to work out well. This assumption of responsibility does not guarantee particular success of the current administration. No one thing does. It is refreshing, though.

Dull, Uninspiring Cars

Talking to my buddy, who is driving to Michigan. He says that he’s taking the dull car. And he recognizes the humor of that. Why do we need interesting cars? What, after all, is the purpose of an automobile? How many models do we NEED?

Freedom Fighters

In a couple of blogs, I’ve seen declarations by the minority party that some parts of it now see themselves as “freedom fighters,” conducting a guerilla war against Obama-ism until the Next Coming of The Great Paler Hope. Others (e.g., Rush) express hope that Obama fails miserably. Hey, if you’re going to go for your Truth, really go for it. Call down Satan and the demons of Hell on America until the Ungodly are chased out of Washington.

How can these guys call themselves loyal Americans? "I can do better" does not mean that the other guy has to fail miserably.

Theodore Roosevelt Abandoned

TR spoke strongly in favor of open immigration and adoption of and assimilation into American society.

"There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts "native" before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance. But if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else.”

TR is wrong! I’ve done a 180˚ turn on hyphenation. I’ve found a way that I, too, can be a hyphenated American, be a victim, be entitled to sympathy, be entitled to whine.

I am an Appalachian-American! I live in a deprived area, deprived, I tell you!

Oh, hell, this is boring and stupid. If you want to be a fill-in-the-blank-American, drag your ass back to Fill-In-The-Blank.

Lonely Old Lady

LaG and I were at Ruby Hospital so she could get some outpatient medical testing done last week. (The hospital is named after Wes Ruby and Hazel Ruby McQuain. Wes was a friend of my Dad’s. I don’t recall how he made money, but he made a lot of it and both before and after their deaths, the money did a LOT of good in the community.) As we were sitting in a waiting room in one of the cardiopulmonary testing areas, a cardiac surgeon came out to talk to a dignified but very fatigued old lady who had been sitting quietly since we’d gotten there. Perhaps the doc should have taken her aside, but he didn’t, and he gave her pretty negative news about a procedure just done on her husband. He did start out “He’s alive,” which was the first thing she needed to hear. He was going to be in some recovery room for a good while, so we sat and talked a while. Ssure, everybody has problems. It’s fair to remind ourselves that, yes, others do have it worse.

And we are all in this together. Why is that lesson so hard to get?

A Significant Goof

Last Saturday, the County held a school bond election. For you “foreigners,” operating bonds are a major way that schools are funded. When news schools need to be built, yet other bonds need to be approved, which is a much dicier proposition. In any event, I had some clue that this was coming because I’d walked by the open-voting station at the Courthouse over the past couple of weeks. But I didn’t remember the damn election. And so, for the second time in my life (something like 80 elections), I missed voting. That is stupid.

There is a disturbance in The Force.

Pippa passes.


07 February 2009

For God’s Sake, Should There Be Joy in Faith?; Harry Shaw Reprised

For God’s Sake, Should There Be Joy in Faith?

Last evening was “Movie Night” at the church. Pastor Josh is a movie afficionado, and shows films which have possibilities for appropriate discussion. At times, this is a great bloody bore, viz., last month’s painfully turgid rendition of Wizard of Oz. (Everyone else found it enthralling. It was the newly color-enhanced, sound-enhanced version, and provided joy to all-but-one present. Me, I was in a garbage mood, and the movie didn’t have a thing to do with it. So my opinion on that movie is not worthy of much weight.) Other times, the movie is schmaltzy, which tickles my impropriety genes, and sometimes the movie is genuinely thought-prodding. Last night, the movie was Say Amen, Somebody, a 1982 documentary about Gospel music in the black churches mostly in the Midwest. It focused on a key founder and composer, Thomas A. Dorsey, and one of the most prominent singers, Willa Mae Ford Smith, both now deceased.

Gospel music is distinct and, indeed, there are many sub-genres which are vastly different from one another. There’s a bit of distance between Mahalia Jackson and The Statler Brothers, but the idea and (as nearly as I can tell) the motivation is the same: Tell the story, spread the word and experience the joy. It’s that last which has me puzzled. Take 18 church members at random, me included, and I’ll be a solid 17th in confidence that I know what’s going on and why. I must be missing something. There are times of reflection and sorrow where religion and faith and God are not happy things – the beginning of the Easter observances are the best example I can come up with in the faith world. And that’s OK, that’s a reflection of our human reality. “Life’s a bitch and then you die” is how the most cynical among us put it. I’m not sure that the faith community always disagrees with that, maybe it just builds on it. But at other times, does the focus on “proper & dignified” behavior suppress the expression of joy or, worse, suppress the formation of really pleasing and smiling and grateful feelings?

I have no formula here. I don’t know what is “proper” for the expression of a happy faith. In our tradition, rolling in the aisles speaking in tongues is definitely over-the-top. But singing with gusto even if you’re a touch off key? Laughing? Letting your heart fill with froth without feeling ashamed, is that OK?

I’ve heard it said by a few old people that it’s a “world of trash.” How stupid is it to turn our backs on opportunities to expand our essence?

Harry Shaw Didn’t Anticipate Speaking Through a Blog

I “collect” all things “Fairmont.” When I’ve a bit of extra scratch, I’ll go on eBay, enter “Fairmont,” and winnow through auto parts and references to Fairmont, Minnesota, and the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to find Friendly City references. Some months ago, a letter came up for auction, really cheap. It was a handwritten letter from August, 1944, from Fairmont lawyer Harry Shaw to a lady with whom he was acquainted in Pennsylvania. I particularly pay attention to things regarding the Marion County Bar, so I bought the letter (I think it was $5). Things that strike me:

- Mr. Shaw makes a very casual and natural reference to God: "With your good health and good children, God has certainly been good to you, too." Sixty years later, we either strictly avoid any such reference, or make it so boldly and loudly that we’re auditioning for a guest spot on The 700 Club. (Assuming that’s still on-the-air.) This was, to Mr. Shaw, a natural part of his life.

- The latter didn’t have any urgent point. It was friendly. It said, how are you, I’m thinking of you and your family, I extend you good wishes. It doesn’t have the least hint of “I need something from you.”

- It’s handwritten. That is still a world more personal than any printed or electronic medium. I keep a couple of boxes of cards & envelopes behind my desk and have good intentions to send at least one out every day. (That means that three a week or so actually make it out.) And the best thing of all is to send them to people who can do nothing for you.

Pippa passes.


01 February 2009

Groundhog Day: Happy Birthday, Mrs. Nutter

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day, which anyone without tolerance of the inane at least ignores. It’s stupid, and is an opportunity to pretend to observe an irrational superstition and act the fool. The point, however, is that sometimes it’s fun to act the fool. Perhaps that reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.

In recent years, Groundhog Day has been most connected to the Bill Murray movie of the same name. In the movie, Murray consciously relives the same day over and over. It’s a queer “quest” movie, temporal rather than geographical, and perhaps the lesson is to think about what we would do if we had the time or were willing to take the time. In his case, it was to learn to play a mean jazz piano. Or perhaps I’ve missed the point entirely and there is a much more meaningful lesson or perhaps I’m an intellectual snob and it’s merely fun and there’s no lesson at all there.

(Aside: I use the word “queer” intentionally. I will not countenance the hijacking or our language - queer, straight, life, choice, for example - by political pirates.)

First thing in the morning is the annual Groundhog Day Breakfast put on by First Exchange Bank. This is a rather fun event which represents marketing for the bank, but also one of those y’all-come community business things that are don’t-miss. Oh, there’s a strong slug of boosterism involved, and that’s OK, too. I think that Babbitt gave boosterism a bad rap. What it amounts to is a positive attitude of a community which, if followed by helpful action, usually produces positive results. There’s also an annual prognostication contest which is mostly blind luck, since economists and futurists consistently get short-term forecasts dreadfully wrong.

None of that really impresses me to death. The meaning of Groundhog Day, to me, is that it’s Mrs. Nutter’s birthday.

When I was growing up, our family moved around a lot due to my Dad being transferred to various jobs within the Power Company. About a week into the school year of third grade, we moved to Bridgeport, and I entered a new grade school, Bridgeport Elementary. By “new,” I mean newly built. Whenever I've gone into a construction project or a new building ever since I was a kid and smell concrete dust and the other odors of construction, it's taken me right back to Bridgeport Elementary.

I was placed in Mrs. Nutter’s third grade class. Mrs. Nutter was an unforgettable figure. She was short. I mean, she was short. And she was old. Now, to an 8 or 9 year old, “old” is relative, but she was white-haired and wrinkly, so I’m sure she was into her 60's. She wore matronly dresses and big clunky heels and had a raspy country voice. I don’t remember much about the academic subjects, other than flashes here and there. Mrs. Nutter was a wagon boss about handwriting and drilled us kids mercilessly. My mother still comments - no, laments - that I got certificates for good handwriting from Mrs. Nutter. Oh, the lamentations are because that training didn’t stick and my cursive now is perfectly readable - to me.

But I remember Mrs. Nutter’s lessons. I remember them because they affected me and still have an effect on my behavior. Some find me a bit stiff in my constant use of “sir” and “ma’am.” That comes primarily from Mrs. Nutter. She preached courtesty, politeness and respect. She demonstrated how goofy disinterested slang sounded and how interested and respectful proper address was received. Well before I read Robert A. Heinlein’s explanation of courtesy as the lubricant of human interaction, Mrs. Nutter had demonstrated that concept.

Mrs. Nutter also pushed respect for others through the herds of the 60's sacred cows. Racial discrimination certainly was a part of West Virginia at that time, but not so blatantly as in the Deep South for the simple reason that there weren’t nearly so many black folks. Mrs. Nutter’s lessons about tolerance were nothing short of passionate sermons, about how totally stupid it was to judge somebody by color. I remember her talking about suntans and eye color and probably other stupid stuff to illustrate what a lame concept the whole thing was. There is a lesson there. Pass all the civil rights acts and so forth you want, if you are attempting to modify the actions and beliefs of adults, you have the ol’ tough row to hoe. Teaching children and trusting them enough to reason with them and tell them why, that is our responsibility as parents and as communities and as a society.

Let’s see: I remember Mrs. Nutter talking a lot about human hardship. Like many in the early 60's, she had been through the great economic Depression of the 30's, and she brought that feeling of hardship to us as much as she could to little kids. I remember her talking about the Shinnston tornado. To my midwestern readers, know that tornados are very rare in West Virginia. Every couple of years, our county gets what appears to be a really small vortex that damages a few acres of woods, and that’s a big deal. Out and out tornados are almost mythical. The only one that I’ve ever really heard of which took lives was the June 1944 tornado which destroyed much of Shinnston, Harrison County. I remember Mrs. Nutter describing the noise and the funnel cloud, and the aftermath, the devastation, people with dirt blown into their skin. And I remember Mrs. Nutter talking about human failings. She talked about how stupid it was to light something on fire and suck down the smoke, way before the surgeon general did. She talked about obesity when nobody really was noticing. When we did organized physical activity, she exercised right along with us, clunky heels and all.

I’ve no idea of Mrs. Nutter had biological children. But she did have children and did leave a legacy.

So Happy Birthday, dearest Mrs. Nutter.

Pippa passes.