Thursday, May 19, 2016

How I got from There to Here

How I got from There to Here

[Catching up with an old friend from high school.]
Dear Bob,

Damn, it’s been more than a year since I finally found you on the Internet, and what do I do after decades of regularly wondering “whatever became of…?” I drop the ball. Thank you for your reply via Facebook message. It was short enough to be modest and long enough to open the door to seriously catching up. I’ll start by replying to it.

You may remember that, in high school, I had precious few friends, that I was socially reclusive, and that my religion seemed to be against almost everything. Fair enough. Somehow, you found it in yourself to be kind to me and I still count you (other than the two women I’ve married) as my second and last “best friend.” So, that means a lot to me, but enough with weeping and gnashing teeth.

Memorizing 100 digits of pi? The way I remember it, I discovered that, as with trying to memorize “The Ride of Lochinvar,” I have an exceptionally poor memory for raw detail. You mastered that beast to about 130 places while I struggled to retain about 20 digits. I learned to pick my contests more judiciously. I’m still good for 3.14159, which seems adequate for most purposes. OMG, it just came back: You used to joke that: “Pie are not square. Cornbread are square. Pie are round!”

No, I’m no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even in school, I was struggling with some issues of faith. In 1972, I married Debbie from Springfield, Missouri. She and her mother converted within a year of each other while Debbie was in college. She was a devout believer and together we raised two boys as active JWs. We almost got them grown and out of the house before they bailed on the faith. On the other hand, I kept struggling to make everything work out until I blew out the whole thing. Debbie and I were ill suited. She was raised by a hard driving career Army officer and didn’t hesitate to butt heads. I never figured out, in 27 years of marriage, how to make her happy with herself or with me.

I have a theory about depression being a natural result when the self becomes exhausted in battling intractable issues. By about 1994, I was at odds with my family, my church, my job and myself. The medical psychiatrist I saw prescribed drugs, which I judged brought me from about 15% functionality to about 35%. I was probably being optimistic; I hit just about every indicator for diagnosis of depression except attempted suicide, although I had recurring urges to swerve my car under the trailer wheels of big trucks and started making inventories of unguarded concrete pillars. It truly called to me, but I was too stubborn to do it; there is always hope for change.

I picked up the advice somewhere: “If your behaviors are contrary to your values, pick one and change the other.” And, so I did. In 1998, the boys were grown up and moved out and I bailed too. I left my home, my religion, and my work. My stated intent was to stop being a burden, recover and then return. (Nobody claims that I was thinking rationally.)
As it turned out, I quickly discovered that Debbie was determined to stay rid of me. It was the start of my recovery. I discovered immense relief from the mental burdens I had been holding onto. She filed for divorce several years later and we hardly communicate with each other yet.

On the bright side, my sister eventually convinced me to put my profile up on and see about “meeting a nice lady.” It wasn’t a very good idea at first. Most women quickly identified me as an unemployable basket case. I was surprised when Dianna, from 200 miles away, sent me a “wink.” She saw something intriguing and appealing about my self-description. We visited about four times before we decided to marry, which we did within another two weeks. We agree that if any of our children had pulled such a stunt, we would certainly have condemned their haste and threatened to lock them in a closet.

Dianna and I continue to love and adore each other. She thinks I’m the kindest person she’s ever met and I admire her character and love her great and empathetic heart. I’m still socially reclusive but she has me back in harness and on the path. In short, we’re as comfortable with each other as two puppies in a basket.

Okay, back to high school and my career path. As a “good JW youth,” I rejected higher education. I believed, as I had been taught, that it would only raise questions and lead me away from the faith. In retrospect that would have been more desirable than less, but we sometimes have to learn these things the hard way.

So, I got a job as a stock handler at Hallmark Cards’ Liberty distribution warehouse. I contracted a dreadful case of infectious hepatitis and was admitted to Smithville hospital two days after Debbie and I were married. I was as weak as a new kitten for weeks and, from then on, required about ten hours of sleep each night. (That didn’t get us off to a good start.)

I was able to bid into a technical job doing first-response maintenance on Hallmark’s twelve mobile warehousing elevators. These things were computer-controlled (in 1969!) and ran down towering storage aisles on railroad tracks while also moving a forklift platform vertically. Upon arriving, they stored or retrieved a pallet of goods and returned to an automated set of roller conveyers. The job was a hoot. I did it well and was taking the initiative to study the control schematics in hopes of advancing to a full electronics maintenance position.

But, being a good JW, when the warehouse went on rotating shifts and I discovered that I would miss congregation meetings on a regular basis. I gave up what promised to be a stable job and fascinating career and moved the two of us to Marshall, Missouri, where we rented half of an old house for $65/month and I opened a CB radio repair shop in the back of a well-known CB store. Leaving Hallmark for self-employment was a bad idea, and not just in retrospect. We had no money, and most of the money we didn’t have had to go into the business. Debbie took a job in the PR department of the local college.

One night, in a fit of uncharacteristic loss of caution, we started our first boy. After a few months of growing recognition of the consequences, I took a full-time job repairing televisions (and helping to deliver appliances) for a local appliance store. After another few months of growing recognition, I realized that the other guy always gave me the heavy compressor end of air conditioners to carry. But, I digress.

Determined to better our situation that spring, I selected six towns where we thought we might like to live, and sent out resume letters to 50 businesses. Curiously, this actually resulted in two sight-unseen job offers. I took the one from Cheyenne, Wyoming and began repairing commercial two-way radios and helping to raise antenna towers. They had a contract that summer to install a 50-location emergency medical radio system in the southern part of the state. I got to do things like crawl on top of a $75,000 Cadillac ambulance, sight down the middle and drill a ¾” antenna hole in the roof.

We also maintained repeater towers in places like Cheyenne Peak. I went up that mountain once in a helicopter and once up the rocky backside in show shoes. However, come Christmas time, the business slowed down and the new guy had to go. By now, our boy was toddling and we had enough money (only if we sold the car) to pay another month’s rent (in the middle of winter in an isolated corner of Wyoming) or rent a U-Haul and move in on my parents in Liberty while I looked for work around Kansas City.

I managed to land a great job at DIT-MCO near Central Park. They used be the “Drive In Theatre Manufacturing Company” but they invented the technology for an automated wiring analyzer. They suddenly became vital to the aerospace and electronic circuit manufacturing industries. I got plopped down in the middle of the final-assembly quality assurance test department. It was a sink-or-swim environment. Fortunately, I was in the habit of self-directed learning and floated to the top.

The machines were essentially glorified ohmmeters except that:
  •          they used up to 5 amps for very low resistance tests and up to 1500 volts for very high resistance tests,
  •          instead of two probe wires, they could have up to thousands of relay-switched wires that would be run to every wire termination in an aircraft, space capsule, or electronic assembly, and
  •          the system could examine a known-good sample under computer control and then use that information to rapidly test other parts to verify intended connections and assure no unintended connections. It then printed an exception list for needed repairs.

I was promoted to an engineering assistant and was assigned to build custom and prototype systems. I was also put in charge of metrology standards for a NBS-traceable calibration program. It was a great work environment but, although they were generous with learning-curve time, they were tight with wages.

I applied at other places. The electric shop at the Amoco Refinery in Sugar Creek (just north of Independence) would have doubled my wages, but they didn’t invite me for an interview.
However, ElectroDynamics, just over the Kansas line, needed a go-getter maintenance engineer. They manufactured quartz oscillating crystals – mostly to keep time in digital clocks and set oscillator frequencies in radios and televisions. 

This was another great job. I worked with their full range of manufacturing equipment. They grew large, uniform quartz crystals in converted cannon barrels and then sliced, shaped, and ground the quartz wafers. They sputtered silver electrodes onto the surfaces under high vacuum, tuned them in baths of iodine vapors, precision-welded them into miniature cans, and tested for leaks in liquid-nitrogen cooled spectrophotometers. It felt like glory days.

Then, Amoco called and offered me impossibly high wages; primarily to repair their 2-way radio systems. In my time there, I also learned pneumatic, hydraulic, electro-mechanical, and digital process control systems. I came in as a journeyman electrician in the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union. I would install or repair darn near anything. I might go from replacing a miniaturized resister three components deep inside a radio to wiring a massive 1200-volt 3-phase motor, to polishing the drive take-off plates of a locomotive, to calibrating an analytical instrument in the lab.

My peers called me “Two-Gun” because I wore carefully packed twin tool pouches when I left the central shop. I was loaded for bear. Then, the warehouse installed an inventory computer; I was the only one interested in learning how to wire-up the terminals and their digital networking interfaces. Oh, and I also joined the refinery and City of Liberty volunteer fire departments.

And then, Amoco closed Sugar Creek. I was offered a place in the electrical department in Whiting, Indiana, but it would have been a dead end job in a miserable town. I found a job advertisement in the Houston Post for a salaried job in Amoco’s Texas City computerized process control engineering department. I applied outside of the take-it-or-leave-it transfer system and landed the position; getting a salaried-employee’s moving bonus in the process.

In seventeen years at Texas City, I worked with three generations of plant-wide data acquisition systems. One of my first jobs was to take $750,000 (this is in 1978 dollars) of newly appropriated capital funds and invent a new system from scratch. They must have been desperate to give a new-to-the-plant, non-degreed, un-tested bloke project management and engineering responsibilities. Nonetheless, I worked hard, pulled some inventive stunts and got the job done. I wrote and helped present a paper on it for the National Petroleum Refiner’s Association’s annual conference in New Orleans.

My last data acquisition system was the largest of its kind in the world, monitoring and archiving over 50,000 temperatures, pressures, flows, and levels at 6-second to 1-minute intervals. I ended up as the Systems Manager for this network of DEC VAX computers. In the meantime, I did database programming on an IBM VM mainframe, helped start-up a computer and PC support group/helpdesk, organize and present computer classes to the refinery’s engineers, served as Chairman of the Refinery Communication Committee, and introduced their first refinery-wide network for computer and video. Everybody started calling me “Computer Dave.”

I got pissed when, after several years of prime yearly appraisals and no promotion, a supervisor confessed that they had to throttle my advancement to accommodate “career potential.” I immediately understood that they would never formally put someone with nothing but high school, self-study and moxie into a supervisory role over chemical, electrical and mechanical engineers from Purdue. I stayed pissed. Having already peaked in the best (and best-paying) job I could ever hope to get, I developed an interest in herbalism and redirected my interests. I decided to become “a nationally-known natural health educator” within ten years.

At about this time, the oil industry was being squeezed financially; international exploration projects were costing a mint and turning out badly. We started belt-tightening like everybody else. There was no money for important maintenance, training or even money-saving projects that previously would have been no-brainers. The culture in the technical departments degenerated from we-all-work-together to don’t-talk-to-me-without-a-charge-code. I was more than pissed; I was disillusioned.

When a voluntary retirement downsizing offer hit our department, I signed up. I decided to open a supplement store and become an herbalist. And, become an herbalist, I did – doing a lot of good for a lot of people.

However, like my CB radio shop, this was stupid on a grand scale. It didn’t help that I was becoming severely diabetic and didn’t even realize it until 1997, when my peripheral neuropathy was raging fire and needles. This development was really embarrassing; “herbalist heal thyself.”

I was thoroughly consumed by depression by this time, but I hired good help. Eventually Debbie (sorry, she insisted on being called Deborah by this time) left her hair pulling job as a legal secretary (for a man I believed to be an alcoholic stress-jockey) and became the store manager and bookkeeper. This allowed me to retire to the back room for the self-study, customer consultations and writing I could still manage.

One of the things I wrote was an index card set explaining the rational for the medicinal uses of individual herbs and standard formulations. I eventually sold 38,000 copies of this self-published work, along with subscriptions to semi-annual updates. For about 5 years, it was the go-to reference in its niche. I also wrote freelance articles for journals such as Nature’s Field and related educational newsletters.

At the store, I had a $2000/year library budget and used it to build a reference collection that spanned six bookcases and a clipping file that filled 3 file cabinets. I was determined to find the best evidence-based resources. I leveraged this into and sold a CD version of the web site that contained over 10,000 linked pages. I actually got good in the field and endorsed complementary therapies that American MDs are only starting to recommend over a decade later.

I was asked to join an advisory committee for a new elective on CAM [Complementary and Alternative Medicine] at UTMB [University of Texas Medical Branch]. The instructor asked me to become a community proctor for Juniors and Seniors taking that elective. His medical students typically spent the better part of a full day with me, one-on-one, at some time during the semester.

However, my depression deepened and I struggled to remain functional. If you have had patients tell you how hard it is to find the motivation to roll over in bed, to say nothing of climbing out of the pit to do something useful, I will testify that it is real. Eventually, Deborah had to ban me from the store. I had started getting testy with perfectly good customers and locking the door if someone threw a cigarette butt on the sidewalk on their way in. I only got to come in to teach some night classes and for paid personal consultations. The 10-week group-study series based on Joseph Pizzorno’s Total Wellness had to be repeated for a waiting list. I managed to finish it, but that was about all I could do in public for the balance of the week, for 20 weeks.

As already mentioned, I eventually concluded that I must leave or die; I cut my family, spiritual and business ties and moved out of state. I was bound for Brevard, North Carolina where I was convinced that an herbal manufacturing company could not function without me. I found a part-time job as a clerk in a little health food store while I laid siege to every help-wanted ad that the herb company posted. The owner’s executive secretary eventually sent word that I was making him crazy and would I please cut it out.

I also set up a business as an used book vendor. I specialized in hardback nonfiction that I foraged at Goodwill stores, friend of library sales, and such. It was a tidy little business that I could work at my own pace and quite alone. I set up my computer to play a cash register “ka-ching” noise when an order came through; it always brightened the moment.

I was still writing freelance articles for magazines including one published by leading herbalist. When I heard that his senior editor was moving on, I was already known there as his “most outstanding (correspondence) student,” a writer whose “articles don’t have to be rewritten,” and the author of “that reference card set.” I called and he hired me on the phone. I packed everything that would fit in my Ford Aspire hatchback and moved to Utah. I lived on his couch for 3 weeks and in my car in the office parking lot for three more before finding a small rental trailer.

This herbalist is a gifted teacher. He is emotionally open and his audiences love him for his sincerity, enthusiasm and passion. He writes rapidly from experience, can record a flawless hour-long video presentation without rehearsal or hesitation … and needed an editor.

On the other hand, he wanted to commit to every clever idea he had – I became responsible for herding much of it to completion on tight deadlines. He also had a fragile ego and a girlfriend who would regularly reduce him to tears. I was slower and more deliberate, but we were a pretty good match.

However, after a year and a half together, he overextended himself developing a private supplement product line and keeping too many irons in the fire. He ran out of payroll money and tightened-up the business. With fewer irons in the fire, he had the time to resume the work I had been doing for him. It probably didn’t help that I had begun suggesting substantive edits to some of his first drafts.

Curiously, the timing was perfect. My aged parents called and told me that my 87-year old Uncle Ed was recovering in the hospital from hip replacement surgery and wanted to return to his home in Excelsior Springs. Mom said straight out, “we need you here.” For another year and a half, I was Ed’s in-home primary care-giver. Almost every day, we visited his wife in a nearby nursing home dementia wing.

I appropriated Ed’s basement and started an eBay business reselling items I acquired at local auctions. One of my best short stories progressively reveals the difficulty and repetitive nature of elder care (and Ed’s devotion to his beloved Jessie). Of the first few people to seen it; they all cried. [Read it in Life Will Get You in the End, “Going to See Jessie.”]

I was still taking care of Uncle Ed when I met and married Dianna, an elementary school teacher. Di and I lived apart for a while, trying to figure out the best way to reconcile our individual responsibilities. She had just moved to teach in a 1-school rural district. It was looking like a bad decision. We decided to move her from Russell, Iowa to join me in Excelsior Springs. But first, we agreed to drive a U-Haul with my sister’s furniture from Lenexa, Kansas to Los Angeles. While we were gone, my mother admitted Ed to a hospital for a relatively minor complaint. He was discharged to a nursing home and never got out. So, I moved to Iowa instead and took up residence with my new wife.

We finished the teaching year but discovered that the school would be closed soon [it struggled through one more year]. Deciding that we had the opportunity to live anywhere we chose, she sent resumes to several counties in the Appalachian mountains of Western North Carolina. Di is truly an outstanding teacher and was hired at her first interview. She taught for five years in an area with highly subsidized school lunch programs; it was poor and rural with many remote mountain families. Directly adjacent to Cherokee and the Qualla Boundary, Dianna was requested by name by many tribal parents. I became the househusband and supported her work at every opportunity.

After five years, a new principal, adverse to her “unconventional (creative but effective), tree-hugging liberal ways,” bluntly asserting, “I can buy two fresh graduates for what I’m paying you.” We were convinced that it was time for Di to retire. This meant that we could not afford to stay in our beloved hole-in-the-woods mountain home. We hired a management company and rented it out until it sold. I found a solid but neglected house in Iowa, just 12 miles from a set of grandchildren who needed our support.

My spiritual transformations continue to be a work in progress. I have read extensively about Buddhism and spent a lot of time studying the work of Ken Wilber and other developmental theorists. In a succession of worldviews I have believed that: God was always watching and fearsome, obedience was required to gain approval, I must work hard to achieve advancement, I must contribute to community and harmony, the diverse streams of action and knowledge can be understood and mastered, and row-row-row-your-boat-gently-down-the-stream.

It seems that the essence of morality (“goodness”) is the use of intelligence, energy and love to create. For instance, creating a garden path, butter churn, or piece of art is good; vandalism of a creative work is bad.

It seems like there may be a universal pool of consciousness from which we spring like drops and into which we return.

Perhaps acts of living contribute to a common memory so things that have happened increase the probability that they will happen again.

Perhaps continuous interactions of energy and events guarantee that unlikely events will continuously arise and generate new possibilities.

Perhaps some great cause unrolled itself into the chaotic plasma of everything-yet-nothing-in-particular and the whole mess is in the process of rolling itself back into a coherent unity of oneness.

It seems that the purpose of life is to contribute to the increasing sustainability, diversity, complexity and organization of life… sentience… consciousness.

It seems that we must “be the good that we want to see,” and commit to helping all sentient beings to develop toward greater goodness.

Best wishes and fondest regards,

[My lengthy piece, “Honoring My Father” is a natural fit to extend my autobiographical history. However, I have already published it separately. Dianna has persuaded me to not duplicate it here at the risk of irritating readers when they discover that they have purchased it twice. It is a memorium to the goodness in my Father’s life and an ironic take on the circumstances of a dysfunctional funeral. Naturally, I think it is a good read and recommend it to you.]