The Harsh Teacher

“Experience is the hardest kind of teacher. It gives you the test first and the lesson afterward.”
— Oscar Wilde

In all candor, I have been unable to verify the authenticity of this quote. With that said, however, I do feel more than qualified to vouch for the truthfulness of the statement.

My son got into a rather nasty altercation with a laminate router he had been using last Sunday and as is usually the case, the router won. The blade ate into three of his fingers, causing a slight fracture in one and necessitating 18 stitches overall, along with a tetanus booster shot and a course of antibiotics. As I sit writing this, the full extent of his injuries remains unknown. There will be significant scarring. There may be some sensory nerve damage but he should retain mobility. He will be seeing a hand specialist, to get more answers and decide on a course of treatment. When he started calling people from an urgent care facility, he opened with, “First off, I haven’t lost any body parts.”

When a parent’s child is harmed, no matter how grown up they may be, the parent feels that. This parent does, anyway. The swell of emotions that I felt when I heard the news was extraordinary. In a single instant, I wanted to comfort my son, encourage the healthcare professionals who were treating him, and drag that sonofabitch router into a back alley to beat it into scrap metal with a sledgehammer.

He didn’t need to be told how much worse this might have turned out. He knew. A larger router would have taken the fingers outright, period. Fortunately, he makes his living as a craftsman and an actor. When we spoke on the phone, I half-jokingly told him, “Well, I guess you know you can kiss your career as a hand model goodbye.” But every half-joke contains a measure of truth in the other half. I quickly added, “but only three or four years ago, I kissed my own career as an Olympic weightlifter goodbye.” We both went with the wisecracks but we both understood. What’s done is done.

That incident as well as the conversation that followed brought back some memories, none of them happy ones. And each of them brought the same message: Life’s consequences are for life. Coming up on four years ago, as a result of my own foolish, careless actions, I traded my left shoulder for a prosthetic assembly of titanium and plastic that will never do the work of its predecessor. I can never again lift as much or as high and I may very well outlive the artificial joint that is now inside my body. Still, my recovery was better than 90% of those who have had this type of surgery. I chalk that up to sheer will. I was hellbent on riding my motorcycle and traveling with my pillion companion again, and for years to come.

During my college years and for one year after that, I worked for a packaging company that was headquartered in my boyhood hometown of Blue Island, Illinois. The closely held corporation ran four factories across the US, including the one I worked at just about every summer, and some holiday breaks, from 1979 until 1983. The place I worked at was a paper converting factory, filled with corrugating machines, slitters, die cutters, stampers, printing and embossing cylinders, macerators, and balers. Just imagine lots and lots of large, motorized cylinders and blades, all in motion 24 hours per day, six and a half days per week. Me, I was lucky. I was just passing through, a college kid working there only as long as I needed to. But over the course of four years, I met many wonderful people. And many incomplete human beings.

There were several middle-aged women, housewife types I guess, with one or more short fingers. I never noticed it right away because they were such positive souls, always hard-working and never showing any evidence of loss. There was an older guy with a southern accent. He knew every machine in the plant, so people would often take his advice on productivity matters. And he was so jovial, everyone was always glad to see him. I can’t recall his name but he was short a few fingers and, as he claimed, a couple of toes.

I had an aunt who was both a physical and occupational therapist by profession. She was the only college-educated member of her generation in our family and we were very close. I talked with her about the things I saw at that factory and nothing seemed to surprise her. The industrial injuries, she pointed out, were largely a matter of human nature, reflex reactions. “Your job is to run this machine. You’re working one day and suddenly something falls into the machine. Without even thinking about it, your gut reaction is to reach in and grab that object. The machine takes you in, too, but it’s too late.”

I saw that firsthand, working on a Sunday, when this kid — a young teen, probably working a summer job — was placing old newspapers onto a conveyor belt that fed into a macerator, which instantly pulverized the paper, to be used in the manufacture of insulated envelopes. The drive chain on the conveyor was a bit loose and always slipping off the gears, so at some point, the chain guard had been left off. You know, to save time. So the kid is sitting there, tossing old newspapers on the conveyor, when the drive chain slips off once again. He’d seen the maintenance workers put the chain back on, so he tries to feed it onto the moving gears himself, but his hand is on the wrong side and the chain draws his hand right in against the rotating gear wheel. He yanked his hand free at the last second and didn’t lose any fingers but his right hand was cut and bleeding badly. There was nobody on the limited Sunday shift to authorize anybody to do anything but work. Everybody is standing around trying to decide what to do. Blood is pouring from the kid’s hand. Me, I had nothing to lose, so I yelled, “Come with me!” I took the kid and one other guy to hold his hand up while I broke every law in the book to drive him to the local ER. No regrets. Nobody even questioned me about my actions the following week.

There was one guy, the sole member of the shipping department on the third shift (I heard they paid a buck-fifty an hour extra for people to work on that shift). He would have been in his twenties when I was there — older than me at the time but would seem like a kid to me now. Tall and thin, with thinning blond hair, he had a solitary digit remaining on one hand, which was always wrapped in a dirty whitish bandage. That lonesome appendage was long and judging by the way he used it, I thought that was his index finger. It was his thumb. A machine had taken the rest of his hand.

Some of my coworkers assured me that the guy I’m describing here had been guaranteed a job for life. I’m not sure how that played out, since the company was bought out the year I left and the Blue Island factory was shut down the year after. The kid drove a very nice Pontiac TransAm, metallic silver with the big firebird emblem on the hood. It was an awesome-looking car. I never once saw that young man smile, though. Not even once in four years.

These are the memories that flashed through my mind when I heard that my son’s fingers had gotten torn up on a Sunday afternoon. What’s done cannot be undone. Hopefully, though, we all learn from this harsh teacher called life, as we continue along. Thanks for hanging with me.

My Apolitical Take on Masking

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On the evening of Friday, March 13, 2020, I drove to Berwyn, Illinois to meet up with a friend of mine. We started with supper at Capri Ristorante on Roosevelt Road and then walked next door to Fitzgerald’s to catch an awesome performance by Chicago bluesman Toronzo Cannon. On that day, fourteen new cases of the novel coronavirus called COVID-19 were reported in Illinois, bringing the statewide total to 46. Nobody outside of the healthcare field was masking in public yet, although I’m sure some people had already stopped doing things like going out for dinner and attending night club concerts.

On that day, Governor J.B. Pritzker had announced statewide short-term school and casino closures through March 30. More telling was an announcement that day by the Archdiocese of Chicago that public masses would cease beginning March 14. The thought had crossed my mind that the show might get canceled in view of developing circumstances but Fitzgerald’s stayed open and I was there. The only thing out of the ordinary that I observed, other than there possibly being a smaller crowd than usual (but not small), was the presence of a hand sanitizer station just inside the front door. The show was great and as far as I know, I didn’t get sick from having gone.

Of course we all know that things only escalated from there. The number of confirmed cases rose, deaths began to occur, short-term closures became long-term closures, and were expanded to include more businesses, institutions, and gatherings. By May 1, we had a statewide mask mandate but a number of communities had already put requirements in place by then. Throughout all this came the rise of individualistic rants against forced shut-downs and mandates of any kind, including masking. Somewhere along the line, a minority of the population began to mix politics into the pandemic health crisis. I guess that was inevitable, given the already toxic political culture in which the US finds itself, but I still find it pathetic.

IMG_8484I wish I could find the words to express how much I have come to detest politics, especially party politics. I identify as neither Democrat nor Republican. Can’t get far enough away from either. I think the current Republican president has substantial character flaws. On the other hand, I voted against his Democrat predecessor. Twice. I see the upcoming presidential election pretty much the same way I have viewed the last three: a case of two poor choices who are there not on any absolute merit of their own but by virtue of their perceived chances of beating the opponent. This time around we began with a field of many and if all plays out as well-planned by the two pathetic parties, it will all come down to a choice between two geriatric white guys — dumb and dumber. I hope I have made my political stance clear. Now let’s talk about masking, which is not and should not be political at all.

When it became apparent to me that I would have to wear some sort of face covering to do things like go grocery shopping, I took one look at the mask shortage of the time, as well as the exorbitant prices being charged by anybody who had some to sell, and IMG_8487_Momentimmediately went to my drawerful of biker bandannas. I discovered that I could tie one of these on bandito style and with a simple bit of folding, have four layers of cotton fabric covering my nose and mouth. Sure, there was a little bit of a struggle to keep it in place, especially if I turned my head to look at something on a store shelf, but I got the hang of it after a while. I even conditioned myself not to be so hyperaware of my breathing while wearing a mask. That took a little effort because at first, it was all but impossible for me to breathe normally while wearing the darned thing. What I found harder to deal with was talking to people — or to be more accurate, listening to them. I have a form of hearing impairment that makes speech recognition challenging and I have come to compensate for that by reading lips. That’s difficult to do when everybody has their mouth covered. But again, I have adapted and life goes on.

IMG_8549My work life never stopped because the industry in which I work was deemed essential by the state. We have followed CDC and state guidelines to the best of our abilities, prohibiting face-to-face visits, both inbound and outbound, permitting remote working when and where feasible, and enforcing a variety of hygiene best practices. I have only worked remotely on a few occasions and even held a few virtual social hours on Friday evenings. But for the most part, I chose to be with the rest of my office team and also to set an example.IMG_9013 I am a vice president at a company that employs people to work outdoors in order to provide our essential services. They are required to wear a variety of PPE, including masks when and where required according to state guidelines. In my heart, it just wouldn’t feel right for them to have to be out there, potentially exposed to the virus, while I stayed hidden in my house. We have daily cleaning routines, promote frequent handwashing, and even imported our own hand sanitizer when it was still difficult to obtain. Still, we never mandated mask use in the office and very few people have ever worn one there. We are prepared to strengthen or ease up on our in-office practices as the situation continues to evolve but to date, we have not yet had an employee out with COVID-19 symptoms.

IMG_9260At first it seemed like the COVID curve had begun to flatten but then things began to go the other way. Thanks to a variety of variables, some of which may have been preventable, the pandemic threat appears to be far from over. Misinformation abounds, the finger-pointing never stops, and people continue to die. From all appearances, the need to protect ourselves from this virus is going to continue for a while. Here in Illinois, it hasn’t been as bad as in some other states. More businesses have reopened, with restrictions and precautions in place. IMG_9261While my bandanna seemed fine for the occasional jaunt to the grocery store or gas station convenience mart, I didn’t think it would work so well at my local gym, which has reopened. Besides, all my friends and family members were already using disposable or reusable masks, usually the latter, so I decided to step up without making a huge investment. The option I went with is a mask made by Hanes — that’s right, the underwear people. The product appears to be made out of cotton tee shirt fabric and features three layers of fabric and nonelastic ear loops. They are washable, up to ten times, per the package label, and are sold in packs of ten for $20. For me they work just fine but I couldn’t live with the ear loops so I use a couple of split key rings and an elastic hair loop to convert my mask for behind-the-neck fitment. This set-up works for me.

A few thoughts about masking while doing physical work. Me, I come from a long line of sweaters on my mother’s side. I’ll swear I could break into a sweat just by looking hard at something. Put me on an elliptical trainer or rowing machine and don’t be surprised if it appears to be raining all around me. Now slap three layers of cotton fabric across my IMG_9472mouth and nose… yeah, it gets pretty damp pretty quick. But it still allows enough airflow through the layers so that I don’t feel like I’m being waterboarded.

Another interesting point: The gym I go to requires its staff to wear masks but not its members. This seems odd to me in view of all the other precautions they have in place. Every other cardio machine is taped off, as are the water fountains. Gallons of hand sanitizer are placed throughout the facility, along with bottles of purple disinfectant and rolls of brown paper toweling for wiping down the machines before and after use. Plexiglass shields are set up all along the front counter and the gym is cashless. Yet members don’t have to mask up. I do, my choice. Some others do as well. Most do not. Again, it’s not required. Nobody gives me shit for wearing one and I don’t give anyone shit for not wearing one. I am fairly sure, though, that each of us thinks the other looks goofy by their respective choice.

My dentist office opened up last month. You want to talk about potential exposure to a respiratory virus believed to be largely spread via the droplets they travel on? This profession has it if any does. My last appointment got canceled back in April, when the dental office shut down to all but emergency work. I had no clue how long of a wait I was in for to get back into my six-month routine but I got lucky last week. See, I had put in for some time off well in advance in order to take an annual bike trip with a loved one. IMG_9415That trip didn’t happen and I was plenty down about that but lo and behold, my dentist had a last-minute cancellation and they called me to ask if I could come in. A blessing in disguise? Hey, I stopped believing in accidents years ago.

It’s not like it used to be. I got prescreened the day before. Then per instructions, I phoned from my car when I arrived. Shilpa, my hygienist for the day, was ready for me so I was invited to come in. The empty waiting room only had a few chairs in it, well spaced out, and there was not a magazine in sight. I think those are a thing of the past. Per instructions, I wore my mask into and out of the “op”. PPE-wise, the staff has been wearing masks, gloves, and eye shields for as long as I’ve been going there (now 30+ years). The only difference I saw this time was that Shilpa donned a full face shield instead of the little glasses. Otherwise it was business as usual.

IMG_9258In the end, I’ll gladly don a mask when asked to do so or when I deem it necessary. I’ll also gladly leave it off if it’s not a requirement and  I deem it unnecessary. In both cases, I’m not having a cow over the matter but in both cases I am being a law-abiding grownup. I am also very fond of the businesses I choose to support. If all I have to do to keep them open is put on a mask and/or observe distancing guidance, I got no problem with that. All the more so if that’s all I have to do to help keep my fellow man/woman alive and healthy. To me it just makes sense.

IMG_9488One last thought… Despite appearances fed to us by the media, there really isn’t a political argument to be made for either masking or resisting masking. I have a number of ultra-conservative friends who are also immunocompromised and will absolutely tear into anyone who is “too stupid to put a mask on.” They don’t see a political issue; they see a life-and-death issue. I also have a number of ultra-progressive friends who are relatively easygoing about masking up. It’s probably not so much that they don’t care as they aren’t Pharisees. Of course the bigger question that some of you may be asking right now is, how can people on both extremes, political and otherwise, all be friends of mine and true friends at that? Easy. That’s not how I choose my true friends.

Thanks for hanging with me.

The Sting

All I had wanted to do was adjust my throttle cables. I had been riding home from a DuKane A.B.A.T.E. meeting in West Chicago two nights prior, when my throttle jammed on me. Fortunately, I think, it jammed in the closed position, but it had jammed nonetheless, making it difficult to accelerate or decelerate in heavy traffic. With only a few centimeters of play in the throttle handgrip, I managed to limp along, slowly working up and down the gears as I moved on from stoplight to stoplight. Then about fifteen really long minutes later, the problem corrected itself and I was once again able to run Miss Scarlett, my Victory Vision Tour, under full power.

THROTTLE

The most likely culprit, according to Randy Weaver at Randy’s Cycle in Marengo (my Victory Motorcycles dealership of choice), was a loose throttle cable bunching up inside the housing. This particular motorcycle utilizes two throttle cables, one pulling in each direction, which the cruise control unit uses to regulate speed. It’s a simple enough adjustment, which I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that last evening I adjusted some slack out of the cables and needed to check the adjustment, under both manual control and with the cruise control engaged. So I took a short ride.

My throttle adjustment checked out just fine. Roll on and roll off were smooth, the engine responded better than ever, and the cruise control functioned without issue. Best of all, the throttle didn’t jam again, even when I tried to make it jam by abruptly opening and closing the throttle (while stopped of course). Satisfied with my results, I headed back home. That’s when the trouble began.

STING1

As is often the case when my family is at home, there were cars parked in our driveway, blocking the conventional path into the garage. When this happens, I usually just cut across part of my front lawn and get into the garage by cutting in front of the parked cars. So I jumped the curb and motored across the grass. About halfway across, I felt a sharp, hot pain in my left ankle, followed by another one in exactly the same spot. And another one.

I don’t remember all the words I uttered as I sped into the garage, but “Ow!” was probably one of them. The rest were probably a bit more colorful. As quickly as I could, I stopped the bike, set her down on the kickstand, and bent sideways to swat off whatever was attacking my ankle. I didn’t get a good look at the little bastard, but it was small and slender, with a body that looked more brown than yellow in the dim light of my garage. Too thin to be a honey bee, unless it was anorexic. Whatever it was (most likely a yellow jacket) stumbled about on the concrete floor a few feet away from me, then righted itself and took off. I wished my attacker a pleasant evening—maybe not exactly those words—and went inside to assess the damage.

The spot on my ankle was throbbing, but the sting site was barely visible at first. Just a red spot. Of course that changed soon enough, as the redness and swelling began to kick in. My wife looked at the spot to make sure there was no stinger present, even though I was pretty sure there would not be one, because it felt like that little bugger had hit me more than once. Okay, but how to treat it?

CHEMICALS

I pulled out my smart phone and began my research in earnest. According to Google, bee venom and wasp venom are not alike. One is acidic and can be neutralized with baking soda and the other is alkaline and can be neutralized with vinegar or lemon juice. Suddenly I wished I had been able to swat that bug and keep it for identification purposes, or at least detain it and conduct an interview, but no such luck. I tried the vinegar, but couldn’t tell much difference. I found an old bite stick and tried that; ditto. Then peroxide, figuring that I might bubble some of the venom out of the open wound. Nothing. I checked with my friend Ann, who suggested the baking soda route. I mentioned that to my wife, who suggested that I take the dog for a walk. I did both. By the time I got back from walking the dog, I had a nice, painful welt on my ankle, which the baking soda paste appeared to help. I ended up reapplying that a couple of times until I went to bed that night. I also began taking Benadryl to help curtail some of the reaction that would surely continue to evolve.

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The sting site is the red spot on the left. The darker blotch to the right is an old (presumed) spider bite that doesn’t seem to want to go away completely.

By this morning most of the swelling was gone and the pain had been replaced by an annoying itch. A glance at my left ankle revealed that some of the redness had subsided, too, and as long as I could refrain from scratching that maddening itch, I could keep i that way. As I prepared to go to work, I brought out the arsenal. I took two Benadryl tabs and sprayed some Bactine on the site. Once that dried, I lathered on some hydrocortisone and immediately put a sock on over it. The antihistamine and the  topical steroid each helped knock the itching down some, but it never disappeared completely.

I made it through the day, took the dog for a walk, and set about looking for something else to try. When I was a kid, we always had calamine lotion in the medicine cabinet. At the mere mention of that goopy pink liquid, I can recall its distinct smell. Calamine has astringent properties, which I thought might help. There is now a preparation called Caladryl, which contains both calamine and hydrocortisone. I went and got some. Whether it’s actually doing anything or only in my mind, I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s helping.

I do know one thing: I made it through the day without scratching that blessed sting site once. And that took some doing. Thanks for hanging with me.