If we were having coffee today I’d admit I didn’t have much to talk about today until I read the lead-in WeekendCoffeeShare posting from EclecticAli.
Her 80’s Mystery Party reminded me of something. I always think of my first published novel this time of year. Virtually all of the action takes place from October through December, and it is set in 1980. I liked writing in the 80s. All this fancy technology we enjoy today was still in an infant state back then; things were simpler. It is an easy era for me because, well, because I lived in it. I just have to reflect on my own experiences as I allow my characters to do whatever it is they do.
A writer can’t help but add a little autobiographical info into anything they write, but writing in the recent past allows for a bit of mundane reflection. If I wrote in, say, the 1860s, I would have to do a tremendous amount of research. Writing in the 80’s, I’ve already done that research. When my character found themselves in an ice storm in the middle of nowhere with a non-functioning heater in the car, I can draw on my experience because, yes, that happened to me. (I had one reader tell me she had to get up and put on a sweater while she was reading that section — high praise indeed). It’s what I call “writing with a slice of life.”
Anyway, it’s fall, and I am once again thinking about my novel, The Fever as the season progresses. This weekend would easily match the late-October setting in the opening of the novel. It’s an adventure and a time machine.
If we were having coffee today I’d tell you that I found out this week that my darling bride Gretchen had not been very truthful to me recently. After she told me the details I was not mad. I understood her reasons.
When she first told me she had found a lump in her breast, we initiated a series of diagnostic actions that culminated in a cancer diagnosis and major surgery. She’s doing well now, thank you. She still has significant bouts of pain but she came out of the ordeal with no chemo, no radiation, and, so far at least, no cancer.
Ah, but this week she told me it wasn’t as simple as “she found a lump.” In reality, she had hundreds of lumps and nodes. This was the main reason she had a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy. Every nodule and papilloma was a potential cancer bomb and she was looking at a lifetime of biopsies and surgeries.
So if she hadn’t found a lump, what was it?
She heard a voice.
It wasn’t a physical manifestation but it was just as real as if she had heard it with her ears. Somewhere deep within her soul a voice emerged in early January and said, “You have cancer.”
It unnerved her. I could tell she was more than just concerned, she was visibly upset when she told me she had found a lump. I later wondered to myself how she managed to find one cancerous lump amongst the hundreds of targets in her breasts. I attributed it to luck. Obviously, it was much more.
We’re human. It’s easy to assume others won’t understand if you say you heard a voice. Now, voices, the potential for a deeper problem exists there. But I find the notion of a prophetic warning to be quite acceptable. I cover such things in several of my novels, both published and unpublished. I believe in ghost stories too and I don’t discount many other prophetic happenings.
Whose voice was it? Does it matter? If could have been the massive supercomputer we call the subconscious brain. That’s a clinical answer. Myself, I prefer a more spiritual explanation. The voice of God? Perhaps. Or maybe what people call a guardian angel. Sure, that works for me too. It could have been the spirit of a loved one, like her mother or her grandmother. Heck, my mother passed away in the last year, it might have been her.
It doesn’t matter who said it. Not really. The real point is: she listened.
There are many things in this world that are far beyond our understanding. I think it is best not to question the good things. Miracles? Who am I to say?
Here’s a fun thing: Gretchen has a notion that I really like. When she finds a random penny on the ground, she considers it a reminder that her late mother is watching over her and she picks it up because she considers it to be a gift from her mother. I do it too. Hey, it means someone is looking out for you. Besides, this notion is much better than that “see a penny, pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck” saying.
Have you had similar experiences or do you know someone who has?
If it happens to you, my advice is to LISTEN.
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. There are prophetic and otherworldly glimmerings in both of his published novels too: http://thefensk.com
If we were having coffee today I’d no doubt go out of my way to tell you I’m going to work on Monday.
“Yay, big news,” you’d probably say.
Then I’d lay the bombshell on you. “It’s my last day.”
Yep, after much consternation and worry, I’ve decided to take the leap to retirement. Actually, my plan was to retire at the end of the year anyway. but a well-timed employer early retirement offer popped up so it seemed a good time to rush everything. And I do mean rush. I spent two weeks of agonizing over this decision, writing numbers on the back of envelopes as one friend put it. Finally, I made up my mind and sent in the form. Two days later I got an acknowledgment and was also informed it would be another ten days before the final determination would be sent. So, it wasn’t a done deal … yet.
In this hurried configuration, I could research but I couldn’t take any final steps until I had “the word.” When I finally got the word that it was really happening, I had two weeks to get all the details taken care of to back away from almost twenty years of employment.
Things are moving quickly now. Monday is my last day.
My darling bride is already making lists of things for me to fix around the house. I also plan to dig in and write a LOT. I can’t say that I’ll do a lot of sleeping in … a multitude of cats and a needy dog will generally take care of that. But even if I do have to get up early, I can take a nap, right?
So come Tuesday I’ll wake up to a new world: Forever Saturday.
If we were having coffee today I’d again be waxing all nostalgic on you. I saw this picture in the Spring 2018 University of Houston Magazine. Wow, what a flash from the past. I see from the banner that this dates from the campaign days of 1976. I could so easily be in this picture as during those years I went up and down those stairs countless times. I was even grabbed by a Secret Service agent on the bottom of the stair case on the left when I attempted the go up the stairs while President Ford’s son was getting ready to speak on the upper landing during the 1976 campaign.
I got nostalgic seeing this picture because I have very deep roots to this building and most of my experiences there went way beyond just being a student. For over two years I was employed there with two different jobs. At that time the building comprised of two sections, the three story primary structure (well, basement and two upper levels) and an adjacent one story underground structure. Just behind and below those stairs is where the entrance tunnel to the underground section was. My first job was in an office down there and I was heading to class from work when the Secret Service grabbed me.
I worked for what was then called the “Campus Activities Department” and they provided support and advisors for all on-campus organizations like clubs, honor societies, student government, campus programming, fraternities, and sororities. This service center took up the major portion of the underground portion of the building. One of the services was called the Organization’s Bank, and it allowed qualified groups from all aspects of campus life to have an “account” for their treasuries, all managed through a central Campus Activites bank account. I first encountered this when I volunteered in the campus programming board, then called Program Council. The woman who ran this bank was very friendly and pleasant so I’d drop by and visit from time to time just to say “Hi.”
In early 1975 she needed a new assistant and offered me the part-time office job. It was convenient working on-campus and it helped draw me into the mainstream of virtually all of campus life. This was long before mass computerization so all the transactions were handled manually via an even-then ancient Burroughs automatic posting machine with individual ledger cards for each account. Young people are always amazed that we were able to use tools such as this in those pre-computer days but the machines and the procedures worked quite well. I worked there for over a year and quite enjoyed my time there. The office was down a back hallway and I was working once when a fire occurred in one of the maintenance closets on the far edge of the building. They evacuated both buildings as a precaution and that office was so out of the way, I was found happily working away by someone making a last pass through the building. It was news to me. Of course, they had suppressed the alarms. So much for fire drills, right?
I could have worked in that office for another year until graduation, but through contacts in the building I became aware of a job in the maintenance department of the same building, as a student assistant to the building mechanics. Office work was okay, but this job provided the opportunity for more hours and an even more flexible schedule. My hours were quite limited in the office job but in this role, I could work evenings and even weekends and pretty much set my own schedule. There was *always* something to do. Some weeks I could almost work full-time if the evening mechanic was sick. On a student economy, more hours was always a plus.
This job was great, and because of it I eventually came to know almost every inch of the building complex. I’m talking every office, every mechanical room, every deep dark cranny, even disgusting places you don’t want to know exist. Those steps in the picture? I painted those once, with a non-skid coating. I regularly had to go onto the roof of the building too. One of the main duties was to go on rounds and make sure there were no problems like squeaky belts or grinding motor bearings (remember that fire I mentioned). Once, while working over the holidays, I found a large amount of water pooling in the corridor between the main building and the underground offices and checked outside on the ground above that corridor. It was obviously a major water main leak. University repair crews had to be called in for an emergency repair even though it was Christmas Day.
The building was extensively renovated a few years ago and I’m sure when they were doing that, they found my scrawl on any of the older breaker boxes that had survived 35+ years in the building. Once, some electricians were working in the ceiling above a dining room of what was called the old Cougar Den on the bottom level. The workers found they needed to flip an unmarked breaker and this unfortunately cut power to the cash registers in the main dining area one floor above. This happened in the middle of the lunch rush. Nobody realized that during some past construction work power had been tapped below the floor to a circuit in the Cougar Den to facilitate installation of new outlets for a cash register station that had no other access to power. It took a frustratingly long time to locate the problem because no one thought to relate the work on the lower floor to this problem. After that, another student worker and I spent a weekend mapping all the breakers in the building.
That particular work came in handy too because not long afterwards, we had been called in to help the short-staffed custodial group to do a rather large banquet reset in the third level ballroom late one Saturday night. When we were almost done I was in the hallway outside the ballroom and detected a faint whiff of burned tar, which I knew was most likely the tell-tale odor of a fluorescent light ballast shorting out.
Sure enough, a quick survey discovered a nearby display case just beginning to fill with smoke. We immediately ran to shut off power at one of the recently audited breaker-boxes down the hall. My boss found a key to the case, which was thankfully almost empty and I removed the bulbs which rendered that fixture totally inoperative. I replaced the ballast the next Monday morning and found it had suffered primary short that had already burned a hole in the ballast case (sometimes they just get hot and stop working) — this would have definitely continued into a bad fire and would have caused a lot of damage. It was just pure luck we were there (hey, it was a chance to grab a couple of extra hours pay, right?) and we knew the smell and immediately went hunting for the source. A hot ballast can not be ignored.
Ah the anonymous life of the Unsung Heroes.
I checked every maintenance closet and machine room every day I worked, mostly for just that sort of thing. Problems were always cropping up on equipment that ran 24/7 (I return again to the fire, even though that pre-dated my maintenance work). I had other regular duties too, for instance I changed all the air filters in the building every month or so. I also changed uncounted numbers of light bulbs in every section of that building. To this day I still find myself instinctively scanning ceilings in big buildings and secretly noting the lights that are burned out. I worked on plumbing repairs, helped with repair work on the food service equipment, and was involved in really unusual stuff too.
Once, one of the sewage sump pumps (one of those disgusting areas I mentioned earlier) jammed and bent the long drive shaft. It needed to be machined but most machine shops around the area could not handle a shaft that long; it was at least ten feet. Somehow my boss heard about a super machine shop in the Physics Department, which even back in 1977 was an amazing facility. We both carried this disgusting, mumblemumble-encrusted hunk of metal by hand far across campus to that shop in one of the science buildings and they machined it. It barely fit in the service elevator, which opened directly into the machine shop floor.
The curious thing about working in that building was that, as it turned out, both jobs were unplanned extensions to my education. The office and bookkeeping skills I learned in the Organization’s Bank were a huge help in every job I held later. Note: computer business processes were all built on the models of the tried and true manual process. In he next job, by doing the varied maintenance work I gained invaluable on the job experience in electrical, plumbing, and carpentry repair. These are things I still use to this day.
The other great part about the maintenance job was that it was a blast most of the time. The two senior mechanics were WWII veterans, one was a marine in the pacific and the other one had been with the Flying Tigers and was later a B29 mechanic in India, working on the bombers that flew over the Himalayas, so the stories I heard were personal and insightful. Truly they were part of the greatest generation. Once that B29 mechanic and I had to make a long excursion across campus in the underground tunnels that snake under most campuses. (Maybe I’ll share that story another time.)
I had other duties too. I served as projectionist for campus-run movies and there were times I ran the sound and lights in the ballroom for dances and other events held there. As I previously said, there were also times we helped out the custodial staff for banquet setups.
Neither one of these jobs were college “work-study” positions, they were considered regular employment; part-time jobs that added to my seniority when I later held a position at another state institution. But just like any work-study job, it was a great convenience to work on campus.
Heck, I even had a master key to the building, something I needed to use while doing my general rounds. Even custodial staff with many years employment there didn’t have a master key. If I had to work on Saturday/Sunday mornings, I had to be on-time because I was the guy with the key!
Who knew what a flood of memories would come from that simple picture.
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. He’d like to say he was a product of the famed writing program at the University of Houston but sadly, that program came into existence the year after he graduated. Missed it by *that* much.
If we were having coffee today, I’d be inclined to give you a little update. About two months ago I posted about going to a local animal shelter (Avoiding Shelter) while looking for our son’s lost dog.
I included a sad story about a dog named Daisy being surrendered while we were there. Although we were very moved by the experience and thought about rescuing her, we found out she was quickly adopted and were hopeful that she had found her forever home.
I’ve found out a little more about her in the meantime. This shelter posts pictures of the pets that they have. I had still been periodically looking for my son’s lost dog (still lost!). A little over three weeks after we had seen Daisy at the shelter, she popped up again on the shelter’s website. I called and inquired about her.
“Is there anything wrong with her?”
“Not a thing. It’s people that are her problem,” the nice lady at the shelter told me and gave me a little more info on her past.
The owners who originally surrendered her in February had no real explanation. They’d had her for four years and had adopted her at the shelter. After that, she was quickly adopted, then returned after ONE DAY. That was the day we saw her. Another couple adopted her pretty quickly. As the story goes, they tried to sneak her into their apartment but weren’t allowed to have a dog and of course, they didn’t get away with it. After three weeks they either had to move or get rid of the dog. That was when she showed back up at the shelter and on the website. So, within five weeks, Daisy had been surrendered at the shelter three times. This last time she was fostered and I had a good long talk with her foster mom. She too was at a loss to understand Daisy’s problem finding a home and was quite fond of her.
I think you can guess the rest of the story:
She’s a bit blurry-eyed … I woke her up for that picture. She’s spent a little over a month with us so far. She’s an outstanding dog. She’s five years old, is house trained, is completely obsessed with our neighbor’s chickens, guinea-fowl, and ducks (who all seem to love to visit, hopefully eating ticks in our yard), and is trying to figure out how to be friends with our existing clowder of cats. She’s trying, but the cats still want to keep her at paw’s length. The vet says she is a beagle/spaniel mix.
She is just now starting to really feel at home with us. I don’t blame her for some of her confusion. She’s bursting with love for just about everyone she meets. I hope she doesn’t do that with burglars. (“Hi, take anything thing you want!”)
When she’s really happy to see you, she doesn’t just wag her tail, she wags the entire back end of her body.
Thomas Fenske is an author living in NC. My lead picture is still a pink ribbon. My wife is mending and I want to thank all of you who responded to my last posting. Please give to breast cancer research … even a little goes a long way.
If we were having coffee today I’d have to tell you about my daughter’s recent award. Well, it wasn’t a formal award. It was more a bit of recognition from one of her students. As you can see from this picture, it was an homage in the form of a 10 reasons list. It brought tears to my eyes.
I posted this on Facebook at first. It got a lot of likes and a few comments mentioning that we, her parents, had done such a good job. Sure, we enrolled her in dance. We paid for it. We rallied through rehearsals and competitions. We volunteered where we could and continued to encourage her. But, seriously, that is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a good metaphor. Beyond all of that, lies the truth. She worked hard. She formed and molded, she learned, she studied, she practiced, and she focused. She did everything she could. This is all her.
We’ve seen a lot of dancers come and go, a lot of them very dedicated dancers too. A very few have progressed to the level Audrey currently enjoys. In short, most of those past dancers burned out. Audrey continues to flourish.
I’ve seen her take recital classes of tiny dancers, four and five years old, who most teachers feel lucky if they manage to go through most of the motions and make her dancers actually dance. They stand out. Where others see a bunch of little kids who find it hard to keep focused longer than five minutes, Audrey sees a class she can teach and then she motivates them to learn. She is a master teacher, one who makes it fun while instilling knowledge and skill. Little students love her and older students love her even more.
It hasn’t been easy for her. She’s short. The common perception about “tiny” ballerinas? It’s a myth. Ballerinas need to be at least four or five inches taller than she is. Almost always. But she learned and practiced and applied herself. And she thinks dance, a skill she very early figured out makes her an exceptional choreographer.
She’s done some remarkable things too. Did you know that she was the first person at Duke University to earn an official Bachelor’s degree in Dance? The first. Their department had a dance minor for a long time and she was a dance minor her first year. But while Audrey was there, they upgraded the program and she was the first declared dance major. She’s concentrated on teaching but has had some great experiences professionally dancing in a few companies.
Teaching dance pays okay, but most of the time it’s a part-time job. She’s compensated by teaching a lot, sometimes at as many as five or six different studios. That, my friends, is true dedication to her craft. I frankly don’t know how she keeps her schedule straight.
So go back and reread that list after reading this short essay. One could easily change “Jazz” and put in “Ballet” or “Modern” or “Tap.” THAT is my daughter. Her mother and I couldn’t be more proud of her.
Thomas Fenske is a writer and “dance dad” living in North Carolina. You can get more information at http://thefensk.com
If we were having coffee today I’d tell you about the lost dog. It belongs to my son’s family, slipped out a week ago when a gate was apparently left ajar.
Sadly, Bert is a bit long in the tooth, an older dog with a variety of mild illnesses. Partially blind, not too worldly. Poof. Gone.
We’ve joined the search, but I’ve been here before and it is harder than trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. We’ve all done all the usual things. It is just amazing how completely they can disappear in such a short period of time. I half-expect them to show up on the island of odd socks or the valley of the missing coat-hangers. They disappear that completely.
They live three towns west of us, and the shelter for that county/town is on the eastern side of town; it is actually closer to us than it is to them. So, we’ve been going to the shelter. There are no happy dogs or cats at the shelter. Excited, yes. Running the gauntlet in the hall of the German Shepherds is evidence of that. There was no Bert, either.
When we first arrived, there was a woman there with a quiet dog sitting patiently by her side. I thought she was perhaps in the midst of adopting. Quite the opposite.
As we returned we witnessed her handing over the leash and walking out the door. The dog moved to follow her, was stopped by the leash, looked back and then forward at the closing door, a look of total confusion on her face. Then we could see a distinct look of realization and resignation flash over her face. Welcome to the shelter, right?
We just lost a dog last July, by natural causes. We have ten cats. We are overrun. But we were sorely tempted by this dog, Daisy.
We followed up on Daisy’s status. She was almost immediately adopted. We’re both happy for her, but we’re also just a little sad. We got totally involved and invested in that few seconds. But we’re both hopeful that she found her forever home.
Bert’s still missing. We’re checking the shelter online now. They update their webpage hourly, which we know for sure now.
You can find out more about Thomas Fenske at http://thefensk.com … the Kindle version of his novel THE FEVER is on sale for $1.99 for the rest of February.
Fifteen years ago today, I was driving south on US 29 in southern Virginia when I spied a bright light moving across the sky. There were no blinking lights associated with, just a smooth steady motion, very bright, across the sky from West to East.
I knew what it likely was. No, not a UFO. I figured it was either the space station or the shuttle Columbia. I also knew how to verify it, once I could get to a computer. I had long been a space station watcher, and I knew a website where one could check for possible viewing opportunities. It included other satellites, but nothing shows up quite like the space station or the shuttle.
I checked the website and found out it was indeed Columbia, well into its second week of a long mission. It gave me a good feeling to know I had seen it pass because I had a special personal association with the shuttle Columbia. In 1981 I had driven to Florida to watch the first launch. It was the culmination of a lifetime fascination with space flight, dating all the way back to Alan Shepard’s first Mercury flight.
Anyway, I didn’t think too much more about it that week. Until Saturday. Our son called and said turn on the TV, there was something about the space shuttle. I was with our daughter Audrey and as the news channel came on a deep pit opened in the bottom of my soul. “Ooooooo,” I said.
Audrey must have noticed visible shock on my face and asked me what was wrong.
I pointed at the screen. “See all those trails in the sky?”
“That is supposed to be ONE.”
She realized what I was implying and asked, “Can anything be done?”
“No. It’s over,” I said, “They’re gone.”
It was a horrible tragedy, but space flight had always been dangerous and always will be. Is it worth it? As I sit here typing on a device that can trace its widespread use, along with the networking and other technology that make this communication possible, I’d have to say … yes.
In a way, I always thought the Columbia disaster was even more tragic than the Challenger explosion because these astronauts had a very successful mission up to that point, most of it doing hard science. And a high percentage of their data had already been transmitted home. They had completed their jobs and were fifteen minutes from landing. So close, in fact, that people were at the Florida landing area anxiously waiting for their imminent return. It just never happened.
On a personal level, with the people and families involved, it’s a tough call, but every single person who flies into space has to accept the risk; they know it is extremely dangerous. Life is full of such risks. If we were suddenly whisked away from the nineteenth century and plopped onto the freeway into a car driving seventy miles an hour along with hundreds of other cars … we’d probably drop dead in fear. And at any moment, even those of us who are used to it should realize that it is extremely dangerous and in a split second, we could suffer the same sort of fate as those astronauts.
I think Alan Shepard explained the astronaut side of it best when he said, “It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
Anyway, as we approach the fifteen-year anniversary of the tragedy I’ll be thinking about the Columbia crew and their families. Tragedies like this make us all stronger and help to make space flight even safer. The shuttle was the most complicated machine ever built. That we lost three out of five was regrettable, but even more regrettable is the fact that we lost continuity … we should have continued building them, making them better and safer, maybe a new one every four years. At the very least we should have had a replacement vehicle ready long before we retired the fleet.
Now, we are on the cusp of a new era of exploration. There will no doubt be other tragedies. Advancement sometimes has a high price.
I was just thinking to myself … dang, it’s still January. Is it just me or do November and December seem to fly past and after New Year’s Day, January just creeps along. Maybe it is just anti-climatic or something … after all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, maybe we just hunker down.
Well, the doldrums can get some help. I got knocked off my feet by this awful flu that is spreading around, then we were snow-bound for several days. My darling bride got the flu right after me (funny how that works, right?) and spent those snow days off her feet as well. And here, now, we’ve got another week of January left.
Most of you know I’m from Houston Texas. Suffice it to say, I didn’t grow up with snow. I found an old family picture a while back of a dog standing in the snow in front of my great-grandfather’s house. It wasn’t dated but other similar pictures were from the roaring twenties. I found a site that listed significant snowfalls in Houston. It wasn’t a very long list. I figured it was either December 1925 or January 1926. One of those unusual years where it snowed twice in a short time.
The point is, I never personally saw snow until 1960. Yeah, that one was on the list too … right before Valentine’s day. It was quite an event. I didn’t see snow again until 1973. It snowed an unprecedented three times that year.
I’ve lived in NC since the late 1980’s … it snows more here, but not that much more. We’re lucky to get a good snow every year or so. The snowfall last week was unusual … close to a foot. That is a lot of snow for this area. I know you northerners and mid-westerners scoff at that but understand this: we have minimal snow removal. Houston and Austin have almost none. When it snows, those places virtually shut down. We’re not much better, but we have maybe 10% more snow removal. They actually do a pretty good job on what are considered main roads. The problem is … 98% of the people don’t live on the main roads. Side streets and side streets of those side streets become icy wastelands. I lived for a couple of years just two hours north of here, in Virginia. They get even more snow and you get spoiled by all the extra snow removal they have there.
I actually do pretty well driving on ice and snow, but I dislike testing my skills. I don’t worry so much about going out of control myself, I worry about other drivers losing control and hitting me. Several times in my life, even when I lived in Texas, I’ve been in situations where I simply had to drive fairly long distances on snowy or icy roads. It is a white knuckle experience that is taxing physically and mentally. I even included a scene in my novel, THE FEVER, where the protagonist is dealing with exactly that situation. In that scene, the heat in the car was not working so it was further complicated by episodes of his windshield being covered in a sheet of ice every time a big truck passed him. Yeah, been there done that. Write what you know, right? Seriously, one reader even told me she had to get up and put on a sweater while she was reading that section.
Anyway I’ll take snow over ice any day. Our last ice storm knocked out our power for five days and dropped about ten pickup truck loads of branches and trees on our property. But that was in March and we were talking about January, right?
How did TS Eliot put it … April is the cruelest month?
Maybe. But January is probably the longest month.