Sunday, March 20, 2005

Witch Town Am I In?

Today is the first day of Spring. I took Dixie out for a walk first thing this morning and the day looked like it was going to be just like yesterday – gorgeous. Now, looking out the window that faces north and having listened to the radio I find that on the equinox it’s going to be rainy. The rain’s not supposed to start until after Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade – luck of the Irish, I guess. Maybe I will be able to get her out again before it does. I wonder if, when it finally does rain later on, it’ll rain green. Regardless, better than yellow rain.

Yesterday, Dixie, the Airedale dog, and I ventured over to Salem for the day. In one fell swoop we also visited Peabody (pronounced Pee-ba-dee), Lynn, Swampscott (pronounced Swamp-skit) and Nahant. Five towns visited for the price of one. Our host took us for a long walk on Long Beach, which is actually in Little Nahant, up to and through the beach at Lynn, which is not as nice as Long Beach which it abuts and for which you’d never know the difference unless you lived there, and then for lunch at Red’s in Salem. Fortunately for us during our beach walk, it was low tide.

People were out walking, jogging, flying kites, letting their dogs run, and essentially doing everything one does at the beach this time of year in New England other than swim or picnic. With the tide out the beach was, from the sea wall to the water, about a hundred yards wide. There was enough room for everyone to have space to do their own thing. One guy was walking his dog and stopped to tell it to sit. He must have told that dog to sit about 10 times. The dog just stood there and looked at him. Finally it sort of backed up a little almost as though it might sit (or want to get farther away from him) and the owner profusely rewarded it. They then continued on their merry way.

We ended up walking from the Little Nahant parking lot where the sea wall was about two feet above the sand and the spit of land not much wider than the road we took to get there up to Lynn, where the concrete sea wall was about 30 feet above the water. It looked like it was also about 30 feet thick, double layered. Altogether, up and back, we walked just about 3 miles. Dixie had a good time running along the water’s edge and in the hard sand, chasing golf balls we found in multitudes along the beach. Dixie won’t fetch; she’ll go after what’s thrown then she wants you to chase her to get it back. A one sided game, for sure. However, since there were so many golf balls washed up on the beach, almost as many as there were Skate egg sacs, getting a sufficient supply for her to run after wasn’t difficult at all.

We left the beach to get lunch and to walk around Salem. Salem is an old sea coast town and a burgeoning tourist mecca. The town is now a combination of maritime history and black magic. It includes a witch museum in an old church, a maritime museum finally large enough to show off all of it’s contents and numerous small shops dedicated to either the sea or witchcraft or appealing to the tourism of both. Among it’s rich history, there’s an historic 3 masted sailing vessel, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables and numerous other attractions worth seeing. We saw one place, maybe a house, that was sort of a museum.

The owner was also an artist, sort of, and made a variety of sculptures out of various and sundry metal parts, many of which came from cars. I saw a dragon made of a car’s camshaft and pistons and other parts gotten from who knows where. There was a perpetual motion water pond complete with a bucket that continually filled then tipped over and emptied itself. The entire house and grounds were covered with metal art. It was definitely something to take a long gaze in awe at. We were standing there admiring and trying to figure out the different sculptures when a person who had been talking to the owner started talking to us. He was a tall thin guy and, on this bright, blue cloudless sky day, wore yellow wrap around sunglasses. As soon as he started talking to us the owner walked away. This guy seemed to want to be more important than the owner was. After politely listening to him for a while, I looked around and noticed a dog walker quietly come up to the edge of the yard and open a can of cat food on top of a concrete piling.

Wondering why he was doing that, since he had a dog with him, I stood there and stared at him. A couple seconds after he dumped the cat food on top of the piling and began quietly walking away a black and white feral cat appeared from out of nowhere. Dixie unfortunately barked and spooked the cat. I decided we had to move on in order to let the cat eat and so cut off the more important guy from his continuing story.

We wandered around the town, meandering through the Common, poking our heads into shop windows and walking out to the lighthouse. We also walked through a fake witches graveyard, where everyone “buried” there was hanged in July, August or September, 1692. As we walked around the area I heard one tourist say to another, “Look, here’s the guy who was squeezed to death.” I read the “tombstone” and it said that so and so had been “pressed to death.”

Our host said that during the actual Salem witch trials, which were really held in Danvers (an adjoining town which disassociated itself with Salem after the trials to escape the rap), persons who would not tell on others’ were tortured in an effort to extract a confession. One way was to literally squeeze a person to death by means of a mechanical press. I started thinking of the 1950’s McCarthy hearings on alleged communists. My father had been a union organizer and had been hunted down by Senator McCarthy himself. It made me shudder to think that, in another time, what having been “pressed” for information about ones affiliations would have meant.

We ate lunch at Red’s, a local eatery worth the visit. My host had a tuna salad wrap (two meals worth) and I had the fish and chips. Lunch for both of us, including coffee and tea, was less than $15. I would recommend anyone visiting Salem to seek out Red’s for either breakfast or lunch. Since they close daily at 3 p.m. you need to get there early. I would recommend visiting Salem anytime.

On the way home I started thinking about all these little towns up here in Massachusetts. It struck me that I live in Waltham and drive down Newton St. to get to the train station. Then, once in Boston I walk down Waltham St. to get to work.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Dixie's Depression

You know, it’s always like this: you feel sick, finally get around to making an appointment to see the doctor and then start feeling better. By the time you actually see the doctor you’re on the road to recovery. Then, loaded up with medications, prescriptions and test results, you get the bill and feel sick all over again. Taking your pet to the vet is no different, except that they don’t see the bill.

Dixie, the Airedale dog, and I moved up to Waltham, MA in February. Admittedly, February was a rough month for the both of us. In the early part of the month we moved north 400 miles, going from a 3 bedroom house on a corner lot with grass all around us to a one bedroom apartment in an old building that sits on a corner surrounded by sidewalk. Then, after a week of being there, we drove back to Baltimore where I went to South America for a week and Dixie stayed with a dog sitter. Then, a week later, we both drove back to Waltham. A week after that, I started work. The day I started working everything changed. Just like that.

Overnight, Dixie stopped eating, put her tail between her legs, hung her head down low, growled when I got too close to her, and walked very slowly far behind me. I didn’t even need to have her on leash; she had lost all interest in going anywhere. She began limping on her front leg and would stop and scratch herself mid-walk. You could almost see a dark cloud of depression hanging over her head. She went from being a happy, almost four year old to an old, broken down dog. I found a school field where people took their dogs to exercise and started taking her there every evening.

Unfortunately, most evenings we were the only ones there, and, like the rest of Waltham, it was covered in over a foot of snow. Dixie would walk, sniff and then lie down in the snow. Occasionally, another dog would show up and would want to play; Dixie would mostly mope around and maybe want to get patted by the other dog’s owner. I had also found a dog park in Cambridge, which I wrote about in another posting, but that was too far away to go to regularly. There was another “unofficial” dog park I took her to in Newton, but hadn’t considered going there regularly as it was also a drive away, though not too far. In the meantime, Dixie was going downhill.

She would come into the apartment after having gone out, regardless of where or for how long, immediately flop down on her bed and not move for hours on end. When it was time to go out, she would lie there and look at me until I was fully ready and had the door open. Then she would get up and slowly walk out. Her toys lay unused in the toy box. I spread some of her favorite ones out on the floor in front of her. I’d look over or come home from work hours later and could tell they’d remained untouched. She seemed to have lost all interest in life. My dog was slipping into the depths of depression, I thought. The vultures had gotten to her. Somehow I needed to bring her back to being the happy, leash pulling, tail up and wagging dog she always was. I needed to take drastic measures.

We had a long talk. I did Reiki on her. Andrea did distance Reiki. I sat and meditated to try to hear her. I sat in front of her and looked deeply into her eyes. I stroked her head. I kept up the two a day walks. I made an appointment with a vet.

I decided a couple things. Maybe there was something going on medically for which I needed to get her to a doctor. I also needed to get her back to having as close to the former environment as possible that she’d previously enjoyed. And, I needed to do it ASAP. I even stopped going out myself, especially to the Friday night dances, to stay with her (whether it was out of guilt or concern, I’m not sure). It didn’t help that there was already several feet of snow on the ground and that last Saturday it snowed, literally, from about 10 a.m. until 8 p.m., dumping another 10” of snow on the Boston area.

I kept up the morning walk and I started taking her, every night, to the unofficial dog park in Newton, since there were always, it seemed, other dogs there and even if no one else was there, I reasoned there would be the smells of other dogs that would attract her. I thought that maybe if I took her to the same place at about the same time every night she’d eventually start to get involved with the other dogs, or at least sniff around. I also took her out later on in the evening for a final walk around the neighborhood. I figured that with more exercise maybe she’d get so hungry that she’d start to eat again. It was for sure that it built up an appetite in me!

At the unofficial dog park we would walk around a field, following along a path that went in a large oval. I guess the regular walking area is like walking around the edges of an area the size of a football field. There was also a woods to explore and a part of the Charles River that I learned the dogs, in summer, would go in. Most of the dog walkers walked around the oval like it was them getting the exercise; some walked with a purpose, others with a dedication to get the damn dog walked. There were people disposed to being friendly and used the time to talk to friends and acquaintances. Regardless of the type of walker, their dogs romped, played and generally ran around with each other.

The first night there, Dixie shuffled around slowly, tail between her legs. She would occasionally stop and watch the other dogs play. When they would come up to sniff her she’d just stand there with this look on her face that seemed to indicate “poor, poor pitiful me.” The dogs would then go away and play with others. It seemed that Dixie was isolating herself. The dog walkers who were more socially oriented would engage in conversation with me and I’d explain our northern journey and my theory about Dixie’s Depression.

They would nod their heads in agreement and give Dixie extra pats. I would fall into place with them, wanting socialization myself, and walk with them around the endless loop a few times. Dixie would mope along behind, as if to say, “Well, I’ll do this but I don’t have to enjoy it. And I want you to know that I don’t.”

After the third night, Dixie started to come around. She almost played with a couple dogs, getting into the play position: front legs mostly down on the ground, rear end up in the air and tail wagging. It was as if, almost in spite of herself, she started to lighten up to have a good time. We also went off alone a bit, on the second and third nights, to explore the park a little more. She started to perk up.

This morning, before going to the vet and while taking our morning walk, we met up with Thunder and his owner, Cicero. Cicero and his wife, Bridgid, were the first two people I met after moving to Waltham. They were very helpful and told me about the school field and also about some good places to food shop. They’re good people and I’m glad I met them. Anyway, as I had the day off and so could afford to let Dixie have an extended walk, the four of us went over to the school field. Cicero and I let both dogs off leash. Thunder, a six month old German Shepard puppy, was ready to play. He tried to engage Dixie as best he could, and Dixie almost allowed herself to play. Then again, Thunder’s a puppy and Dixie’s a four year old – teenagers don’t play with little kids, do they?

At the vet’s, Dixie had the royal treatment. The vet pulled, probed and poked Dixie. She took blood tests, a fecal test, gave Dixie some shots she needed and others she hadn’t had – “Dogs in New England need these shots. It’s different up here.” She gave Dixie a full physical. Dixie had lost two pounds. Her heart murmur was not to be worried about; the Lyme disease test came back negative. She pronounced Dixie healthy and gave her a milk bone. The vet gave me Cosequin pills to administer to Dixie twice daily to keep her joints loose, a giant bag of special low-salt dog food, an appointment to come back in early April to have Dixie's teeth scraped and cleaned and to have another shot, and a bill for $365.00. Dixie’s healthy but now I’m sick.

We left the vet’s office, Dixie with her tail up in the air and me with my tail between my legs. No, only kidding. I’m glad she checked Dixie out as thoroughly as she did. I think she's turned the corner. At least I hope so.

Yesterday, as part of my new employee orientation training, I completed the module “Community Integration.” People with mental retardation, we learned, can become valued members of their community and can interact effectively, given sufficient exposure and integration. We had explained to us the four tenets for integrating a person into the community. Take the consumer to the: Same place; at the Same time; to be with the Same people; and, for the Same staff person to take them. In that way, they’ll eventually fit in, participate and develop relationships that will be beneficial to them as well as to society at large. “Hmmn,” I said to myself. I think there’s a correlation here.

So, I have decided to take Dixie to the unofficial dog park in Newton every night at about the same time (depending on when I get home from work) to have her (and me) meet up with the same dogs (and people) to, hopefully, enjoy the same activities. I think there’s something to this community integration stuff. If it’ll help people with limited cognitive abilities get along with others and participate meaningfully, then certainly it’ll help a person and his dog who’s just moved to the area be able to do the same. Smart people, these human service workers. So that’s my plan to eradicate Dixie’s Depression: community integration. I think we both have something to offer and, in return, we’ll be better off for it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

What the **Blog** Do I Know?

Web logs are interesting ways for people to say, in public, their thoughts, opinions, feelings, observations and reflections. These “blogs” allow the writers a public forum by which to rail against or for any issue they feel like ranting and raving about. On the one hand it reminds me of the olden days when people would literally get up on a soapbox and orate. Any passersby who wished to stop and listen could and, if the orator was good enough, he or she would draw a crowd for as long as the orating was interesting to listen to. If the people didn’t like what they were hearing they could just move on. I suppose some speakers got themselves pelted by eggs, rotten vegetables and the like if the listeners got really ticked.

Blogs have become the cyber space version of the soapbox. They’ve become just as popular today as a means for those whose voice would otherwise go unheard as those from long ago who dared to stand up and, by virtue of being on a box just above the heads of the crowd, stick their necks out to get heard. Just like in the old soapbox days, if a reader doesn’t like what they’re reading, or finds it offensive or whatever, they can move on by clicking delete, hitting the return key or “next blog.” In extreme cases, blog readers can, if they choose to have a vendetta against the writer, take the writing and show it to others who would share the same opinion as they, in an effort, perhaps, to justify their own feelings. Of course, sometimes the blog writers can get themselves in trouble by their own postings.

There was an interesting article on AOL’s web site about people who are bloggers running afoul in the workplace by their postings. Railing against fellow employees, supervisors and their job in general got a couple people fired, even though the company they worked for had encouraged their employees to have blogs. One woman got fired for posting pictures of herself while in uniform and partially exposed. It would seem to me that doing either or both of those things might get one separated from their employment. It’s always a mystery why people do what they will.

So blogs can be used for a lot of different reasons. Recently I read an article in the Daily News Tribune about a Ph.D from Brandeis who keeps a blog on the same site as I do. She writes a lot about the holacaust and debunks those who say it never happened. I felt proud to be among such an esteemed writer, humble and simple as my writing is – mundane was how one person described it.

Blogs can also be a way for people to keep in touch with others. I can remember having friends who would get a photocopy of a letter that was sent out periodically by another friend who wanted to keep in touch with a bunch of folks. The writer didn’t want to write each person individually, saying the same thing to each, hence the photocopy. I sort of see my blog that way. It’s a way for me to keep in touch with family, friends and people I don’t get to see anymore, now that I’ve moved a considerable distance away.

Personally, I like to write. I like to express myself and to tell about what’s going on in my life. What I have to say may be of interest to some, no interest at all to others and, if people don’t like what I have to say, they don’t have to read it.

So recently I’ve given thought to why I decided to have a blog. Am I feeding my ego? Is this some kind of twisted way to get my voice, picture and opinions out there, as though what I had to say was of some earth shattering consequence? The blog is on a public site and anyone who stumbles across it can read it. I’ve asked my family and friends to stay in touch with me through it; I’ve begun to correspond with at least one person who ran across my blog and liked what they’d read.

My blog is a reflection of what I’m doing, of what’s been happening to me. It’s not designed to be inflammatory, to be a place in which to air out dirty laundry or a place to feed my ego. At least I don’t think so; but then again, whatever people read into what I write is what they get out of it. I only put it out there. I realize I have a responsibility to the readers, which I am assuming is mostly family, friends and an occasional stray reader. However, as I have had come back at me more than once, when we “assume” all it does is make an “ass (of) u (and) me. I won’t claim innocence, but then again, what the **blog** do I know?

Saturday, March 05, 2005

My Dog's More Pure Bred Than Yours

Yesterday Dixie, the Airedale dog, and I discovered a new place where she could run off leash. We had taken a ride over to Cambridge so I could scope out where the VFW hall was for a swing dance I was going to on Friday night. As anywhere outside of walking distance from the apartment is new, everywhere we go is an adventure. We load up the car with maps and guides, not that Dixie has any interest in how we get to where ever we’re going. Nonetheless, I’m always surprised at her tolerance for riding in the car. We’ve driven for up to 8 hours, going from Baltimore to Boston, and she’s never once complained. Maybe it’s because I’m not listening.

At the moment I’m reading the book, Learning Their Language, by Marta Williams. I’m currently on the chapters having to do with exercises on increasing the intuitive communication between my animal and me. I sit and look at Dixie and she lays there and looks back at me. I send out love and positive vibrations and she lays there and looks back at me. I still my mind and open myself to the universe and she lays there and looks back at me. Finally, I say “do you want a treat?” and she lays there and…no, actually, she thumps her tail on the floor, yawns and looks back at me as if to say - Ok, go get it already.

So we went over to Cambridge looking for this VFW hall, which we found successfully. Along the way, we discovered this place, Kingsley Park, which allows dogs to run off leash, so long as the owner can control the dog, clean up after it and all parties live in Cambridge. Kingsley Park sort of surrounds the reservoir, which provides Cambridge and some other towns close by with fresh drinking water. There’s a fence that goes around the reservoir to keep dogs, people and anything else that might want to get into the water out. A 2.5 mile trail circumnavigates the reservoir that walkers, runners and dogs all share, more or less equally, as each exercises their right to exercise in what ever manner they wish, within socially acceptable limits. I saw runners in spandex, walkers in mufflers, hats and heavy coats and dogs in the raw.

When we first pulled into the parking lot I saw signs on light poles closest to the park that said for Cambridge Residents Only so I parked in the back of the lot. Later on I found out that the entire parking lot was restricted to Cambridge Residents Only. Interlopers would receive a $10 fine. Fortunately, dumb luck and ignorance of the law did not conflict and I was able to get away with being there illegally.

While standing at the billboard reading the rules, regulations and upcoming and past events, I noticed what appeared to be contradictory information about dogs being on/off leash, where they could and couldn’t go, staying off the grass/being on it. So, being the kind of person I am, I stopped the first person with a dog who happened by to ask them about all this. Again, maybe by dumb luck or maybe it was just the confused look on my face, the dog walker turned out to be friendly and explained it all to me. We ended up, the four of us, two humans and two dogs, making the loop, talking and stopping to chat with other dogs and dog walkers along the way. We even met the dog police who wanted to know why the dogs didn’t have a license. I was going to say that Dixie had a license on, though it was from an area 400 miles away; but it wouldn’t have mattered as only a Cambridge license would have sufficed. So I didn’t say anything and let my newly found friend do all the talking. And I thought I was a story teller. This person, whom I came to know as Marget (at least that’s how her name sounded to me), told a story to the police person that was so outrageous, probably true and, by the time she was finished, had the cop with a look on her face that seemed to say – if I let her go on the license thing maybe she’ll shut up and go away.

Marget, a Christian Scientist therapist, was a really nice person. Dixie and her dog, a black lab, got along well, romping and playing in the snow and sniffing the spandex clad runners while they stretched along the fence line. Marget explained to me that the City of Cambridge was willing to make the accommodation for dogs in the park so long as the rules were followed and, since they didn’t want the woodworking effect to happen, restricted the park to valid Cambridge residents whose dogs also had valid City licenses. Marget told me that it got especially bad on weekends when folks from all over would descend on the park with their dogs.

At first I thought that sounded a little elitist but, upon reflection, agreed with her. I was reminded of Robert E. Lee Park, a reservoir area in my old city, which became a haven for city dwellers to take their dogs. Unfortunately, people didn’t pick up after their animals; and, dogfights were not uncommon. The couple times Dixie and I went there, the place was rife with feces and even walking on the paths required visual diligence. On a hot, humid summer’s day, the place literally reeked. Eventually, the City closed the park to everyone. So, I had to applaud the Cambridge City officials for working with the community and the community being willing to work with the City. It didn’t help me though, as Dixie and I would be considered felons whenever we went there. Marget told me to park across the street in the adjoining neighborhood and just come on over. I guess I’ll have to find out what color the dog licenses are and make Dixie a fake ID.

Marget and I and Dixie and her dog were enjoying the 2.5 mile walk. We met dogs and humans of all stripes, shapes and colors, most of whom were at least courteous. About two-thirds of the way around the reservoir a copper colored, wire-haired dog that almost looked like it had dread locks came along. Its eyes were completely covered by the hair hanging down over its face. I wondered how the poor thing could see where it was going. It came up to us, friendly as could be, and let me pet it. I asked the owner what kind of dog it was. I could tell it was a terrier, but didn’t recognize its type.

The owner told me it was an Irish Terrier. He then, in a very matter-of-fact way, launched into this story about how the Airedale was a man-made dog, one that came out of the Irish Terrier line. He said the Airedale was actually a cross breed, not pure like his dog. At first I was taken somewhat aback and wanted to say something like – yeah, well, at least my dog can see. I also wanted to counter with my own story about how Dixie was AKC registered, was from the offspring of the 2001 world champion Airedale Terrier, Dominik, Ch. Traymar’s the Dominator, and how my dog was better than your dog and you better take it back, buddy. But I didn’t. Who cares? If he felt better having a more pure bred dog than someone else’s, then that was his right. I don’t think Dixie, the Airedale dog, felt slighted. At least she didn’t say anything to me about it.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A Psychic Told Me

I’ve lived in Waltham now for about a month. Every time Dixie, the Airedale dog, and I go out we meet somebody new, get into a conversation, and once more answer the question – What brought you up here? I’ve developed a stock reply about having become bored in my position of 13 years as a non-profit executive director and about having had a long distance relationship with a woman who lived in northeastern Connecticut that fizzled out and how the relocation just took on a life of its own. And, that’s all true. It’s not the entire truth, though. The real truth is that a Psychic told me that I would move to New England; two of them did, in fact. In two separate readings about a month apart: one in May 2004 in Leiscester, Massachusetts and the other a month later in Linthicum, Maryland. The skeptics I’ve told this to have just looked at me like I was nuts; the believers nodded their heads knowingly; the others, who sit on the fence on these kinds of things, said “well, what about free will? You didn’t have to do it.”

A few years ago I read a book, written in 1997, entitled “A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East” by Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani. In 1976 he was told by a psychic not to fly on any airplanes for all of 1993. He covered the far east and traveled extensively, mostly by plane. However, he remembered what the psychic had said and, during 1993, traveled by bus, train, taxi and boat as he went through Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Thailand, and into Russia where he went by train back to Italy. In every town he went through he looked up the local Fortune Teller and asked to have his fortune told. It was a fascinating book about what each of them told him – there are charlatans and then there are those whose perceptions cannot be ignored. Whether he was right not to fly that year I’ll leave up to you. I suggest reading the book, be you skeptic, believer or on the fence.

I had gone to the first psychic, the one in Leiscester, on a fluke. She was a local area celebrity of sorts. She and her sister have a call in radio show called “The Psychic Sisters.” The person with whom I was having a long distance relationship with and for whom I had traveled up to her place for a long weekend had booked two slots with one of the Sisters. I went in place of someone else who decided at the last minute not to have a reading done. When I went in to meet with the Psychic Sister she said – “I thought you were going to be a woman.” Surprise! She recovered and asked me my name, date and time of birth. She then proceeded to tell me a number of things, the most significant of which, to me, was that I was going to be moving either to the northwest or to the northeast, but in either place it would be both near the woods and the ocean, that I would be working with people as a teacher of sorts and that the move would occur within a year. I decided to get a second opinion.

The second psychic pretty much corroborated the first, but said that I would be heading to New England, not the Pacific Northwest. She said, among a lot of other things, that I would be working somehow around group homes, that I would be living near water and that I would be spending a lot of spare time in the woods. She told me I was going to struggle with being a recluse. And, she said that right around my birthday there would be a lot of activity about my getting a new job and relocating. I decided not to go for a third opinion.

At the end of September I traveled up to CT, hooked up with the long distance since fizzled out relationship person and went to Boston and up into New Hampshire, where I spread around my resume. While in Boston talking to a professional acquaintance it was mentioned, almost as an aside, why didn’t I apply for a Trainer position within the department in which she was employed. So I did. On the last day that applications were being accepted. A couple months later, right around my birthday, I had an interview and, a couple months after that, got the job. I moved to Waltham in February, a few months shy of a year after the first psychic’s reading.

It’s funny how things work out. You know how people say “it was meant to be.” My house sold in a week without a hitch. I came up to Waltham over Martin Luther King Holiday, looked at five different places on that Sunday and took an apartment without problem. While trying to arrange moving my furniture and stuff up here I was able to trade my sofa and love seat for the move itself. My only brush with Murphy’s Law was my computer crashing while trying to install a CDRW drive. Fortunately, my own psychic sister, Andrea, was available to completely reinstall the operating system and re-load all the software. No matter what the psychics may tell you about what’s going to happen to yourself, without friends you have nothing.

So here I am in Waltham. I’m a few minutes walk from the Charles River, a few minutes drive from the woods and about an hour from Boston’s portion of the Atlantic Ocean. My job is going to be working with people with mental retardation, many of whom live in group homes and my position is that of a trainer, a teacher of sorts. Since I’ve taken the apartment, aside from walking Dixie, I’ve holed up writing to this blog. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Camilo and Me in Colombia

“So, Mr. Pinter. After ten years, it ends here.” We were standing in the Cali airport lobby with moist eyes, giving each other a final embrace. It was not lost on me that when I turned and walked away I may well never see this man again. Camilo, whom I had hired and taken under my wing a decade ago when I was looking to provide services to un-represented and under-represented populations, had now grown his own wings.

As the plane lifted off the tarmac I wondered whether he’d pursue the Ambassador position that had been offered to him. In order to accept that he’d have to decide to return to Colombia permanently, uprooting his family once again. We all make choices that affect the course of our lives. My decision to leave the agency after 13 years and move to Massachusetts was no less life altering than would be his decision to return to his native country. Whichever decision he made, his life, like mine, would be changed forever.

Camilo and I had traveled to Cali to present at a two day professional conference on issues related to Colombian people with disabilities. We learned that the United Nations had placed sanctions on the country for not being more aggressive promoting accessibility for persons with disabilities to live in the mainstream of life. The conference, while not promoted country-wide, was nevertheless clearly designed to raise awareness to issues of persons with disabilities living independently in the community. My presentation was entitled Creating A Barrier Free Society. I listed the two biggest barriers as being attitudes and architecture; I also explained Universal Design principles.

Camilo’s presentation traced the history of the independent living movement in the United States, including the various laws that provided for the civil rights of people with disabilities; his focus was on advocacy, grassroots organizing and self-determination. At one point during his presentation, which was in Spanish, I was standing at the top of the stairs overlooking the auditorium and everyone in there turned to look at me. As I stood there, perplexed, the conference organizer passed by behind me and whispered that Camilo had just said that I had been a father to him and had given him all the knowledge that he was now imparting to the audience.

I had provided Camilo the tools that he was now able to use to teach others; the cycle had been completed. There were a number of other presenters from the surrounding universities whose presentations were more academically oriented; another American who spoke gave a presentation on issues related to people who were blind.

As with any event, what all went on separate from the conference was much more interesting than the activity itself. Before we even left the States, Camilo told me that whenever we were in a taxi cab that I should not talk. He said that the cab drivers could be informers for the guerillas and that there was a very real chance, since I didn’t speak Spanish, that I could be kidnapped and held for ransom.

On our second day in country we went to the city of Cerrito and visited with the mayor. We had lunch with the mayor’s wife and a group of his ministers. They took us to El Paraisio, the former home of Jorge Isaacs, a novelist who wrote “Maria,” the most famous love story to ever come out of South America. It has been translated into many languages. Needless to say, the house and grounds was truly a paradise. Nestled in the base of a mountain, the early 1800’s house and grounds that were now a national historic treasure overlooked a lush valley. We walked up a long, rose lined path to the white stucco and red clay tile roofed house. A tour guide took us through the estate and explained the history, intrigue and charm of the place. I noted Bird of Paradise blooms in the garden and many plants and trees unique to the region.

At one point, as I was not interested in buying souvenirs from the gift shop, I wandered off from the group to look at the outdoor kitchen. Camilo came down to me and said that the guides wanted me back with the others. We found out several things at that point. The first was that the place was officially closed but that the mayor’s wife had been able to have them open it just for us; that the mayor had gotten 50 military troops to surround the area to protect us; and, that there was a troop of guerillas on foot less than a half-hour away. I had noticed that we had gone through a military checkpoint while on the road to the estate but had not made any connection. I innocently assumed it was part of the country’s paranoia.

The first night in Cali our host, Jorge Vallera, took us to see many of the city’s cultural and scenic sites. He pointed to the top of one mountain in which there were three large white crosses. I noted that the crosses were now almost dwarfed by telecommunications towers. On another mountain top was a single white cross.

Cali is a city surrounded on three sides by mountains. The city sits in a bowl, much like Mexico City. On the fourth side the plains fan out to the east. Because of this geographical location a lot of smog is created by all the vehicular traffic. In addition, the temperature changes very little. It is always in the mid to high 80’s F. The temperature, coupled with the car and truck exhaust, mars the otherwise beauty of the city and its environs. At one point I was admiring the mountains and telling Jorge that in the United States that would be prime real estate. He said that the poor people, driven out to the fringes of town – in this case the mountains – lived in the worst of conditions but had the best view. He told me that 28% of the population went without any of the three basics – electricity, water or plumbing. Cali was also the first big city the refugees came to from the Pacific coast. Consequently, there were a number of Indians and coastal people begging and hustling on the streets in an effort to stay alive.

Jorge took Camilo and I to the Chipi Chape Mall for lunch. The mall had been converted from its earlier incarnation as a train repair facility. This large and long red brick building housed many shops of all kinds, including a food court. I noted that Jorge sat with his back to the wall. He had explained to me earlier that his wife, an architect and sister to the country’s Minister of Energy had a bodyguard with her whenever she went out but Jorge refused to have one. Camilo told me later that Jorge had a panic button in his Nissan SUV that would summon the military at a moment’s notice.

On another occasion we were taken to another Cali mall. This mall had several fountains and a lot more shops than at Chipe Chape. What I noticed about both malls was that they were just like the malls in the United States. Not exactly replicas, but certainly very North American. The shoe stores sold Rockport, Bass, Bata and all the other American brands. The clothing stores were stocked with men’s and women’s clothing that was definitely North American in design.

We were taken from place to place in either Jorge’s SUV or via taxi cab. At first I found the traffic to be in complete chaos. Fiat’s, Renault’s, Ford’s, Hyundai’s, Kia’s, Mazda’s, Chevy’s, SUV’s, and even a few Ford F 150 pick ups drove down the thoroughfares while the motor bikes zipped in and around them from seemingly all directions at once. After a while I started noticing a pattern. At first it was as if each vehicle had a cushion of air surrounding it that kept everyone from banging into each other. Then I noticed that while the drivers were assertive, they were not aggressive and everyone gave quarter when another took the opening.

I had been studying Argentine Tango and learned that this improvisational dance, once the basics are learned, is achieved through intention. The leader gives the follower the opening through the intention and, while subtle, that’s what makes the dance as beautiful, sensuous and flowing as it is. The traffic followed this same pattern: when a driver found an opening in the traffic and took it, the others would back off and let him through. It was subtle, to be sure, but it was there. Unlike the typical New York City drivers who would rather ram each other and let the police and insurance companies sort it out, the Colombian drivers had this “dance” going on which, once one understood it, could see it as a long, flowing movement. Not always graceful, to be sure, but one in which there was no malice.

Camilo and I stayed with his sister, Marleny, and her two grown daughters. Marleny’s husband had died of a heart attack about three years ago. Camilo had asked whether I wanted to stay in a hotel as an option but I wanted to truly be within the culture and so opted to stay with family, provided there was room. “No problem,” he said. “My sister has a lot of room.” When we arrived it didn’t take long to determine that both daughters had given up their bedrooms to accommodate us. In the morning, after eating breakfast, I started to clear my plate. Camilo stopped me, saying that “Here, Mr. Pinter, we do not do that. You can to just leave it on the table.” Dutifully, his sister came and bussed the table and cleaned up after us. In a discussion with a close female friend after I got back, we talked about the subservience of the women in Latin America and how, while there was equality on the surface, underneath there was much resentment of the paternalistic, male attitude. I was told that Colombian women got the right to vote in 1959; yet, males were still in the major positions of authority. I remember when Camilo first came to work with us he said to Ruth, a peer, “Ruth, can you to get for me a cup of coffee?” Ruth replied: “Camilo, I’ll show you where the coffee pot is. You can get your own damn cup of coffee!” That encounter became a running joke for a long time; however, it also left a certain amount of resentment between them for a long time.

Marleny, an IT manager for a bank, had a nice apartment in a middle class neighborhood in west Cali. She lived on the first floor of a two story building in the middle of a long block of row homes. Like virtually everyone in Cali whose door opened to the street, the front of the building was gated and the windows were grated. Her home was long but not too narrow. One entered into a small living room/dining room combination then passed through an arched way into the kitchen. On the other side of the wall of the front rooms was the master bedroom. Passing through the kitchen one went down a hallway in which two bedrooms were off to the left, a bathroom to the right and then a small family room housing the TV, stereo and computer. At the end of the apartment there was a small courtyard used mostly, it seemed, to hang laundry and, opposite that, a utility room. The walls were painted a pale yellow and the ceilings white.

When we finally arrived at Marleny’s, after connecting flights totaling six hours air time with an eight hour lay over in Miami, I couldn’t wait to take a hot shower and get to sleep. It never occurred to me, even though I knew the temperature in Cali remained in the mid to high 80’s F all year around, that there wouldn’t be any hot water in the shower. I guess one eventually gets used to taking cold showers and, during the succeeding days when we returned to her home after being taken around literally from dawn to beyond dusk, I welcomed cooling off in the shower. I wondered about the cold water deal, though, and while using the bathroom in a wealthy person’s home, decided to conduct a test. I turned on the hot water faucet while using the toilet to see what came out. He didn’t have any, either. I guess there’s not much need for hot water in a hot climate.

I also noted that Marleny’s washing machine had a permanent custom slipcover over it. While in the wealthy person’s home, I noted the same thing. There were flaps in the slipcover that allowed for the raising and lowering of the lid and for accessing the controls so the cover never had to be removed. In talking to my sister about that, I decided that covering the washing machine made it look less obtrusive.

The other thing I noted, in general, was that everyone whose home or business I went into had a computer. In addition, literally everyone had a cell phone. Many wore their cell phones suspended from a lanyard draped around their neck.

Finally, I took a look at how people dressed. Our host had requested that we wear a shirt and tie each day; he wore a suit and long sleeved, French cuffed shirts. Many years ago I traveled through India and saw those people there wearing loose fitting, loosely woven cotton, linen and/or silk clothing; many wore sandals. It was really hot in India and their culture accommodated for the weather. In Cali, while it wasn’t as hot but very warm nonetheless, the average person wore denim jeans, a t-shirt and socks and shoes.

Working people wore slacks and cotton dress shirts while businessmen wore suits and ties. Women wore tight fitting tops and tight fitting pants. The young girls wore their clothes so tight fitting that it looked like they had body suits on. In fact, a hostess in a restaurant we went to wore a body suit. It was hard to look at the menu or at anything else when she was in view. Very few people wore shorts; so few, in fact, that those who did stood out in the crowd. I remarked that the Hispanic people I saw and met at home were dressed the same as those I was seeing and meeting in Cali. I guess one adapts but it sure seemed to be too hot to me to be dressed in long pants, denim jeans at that, and a cotton shirt. I thought the guys in suits were really excessive (what price success).

We also met the mayor of Cali. Casually dressed, he was blind and had been elected by popular vote about a year earlier. His popularity was based on his being a “regular” person instead of one of the wealthy elite. However, as was noted by several people, the mayor did not surround himself with a good group of people. The mayor was to open the conference but never showed up. At first, Senator Clopotofsky, a wheelchair user, the first speaker and the one responsible for Colombia’s main disability rights law, implied that perhaps the mayor was snubbing him since apparently they were at odds on several issues. Later on we found out that the mayor had his own set of problems.

It seemed that a developer in town wanted to build a building and had gotten all the permits and had jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops to do so. Ready to break ground, the mayor said that he couldn’t. Now, graft was never hinted at nor did anyone bring it up but it is very common; at any rate, the mayor said the developer couldn’t build. The developer took the mayor to court. The mayor remained adamant and refused to comply with the judge’s ruling against him. So, the judge had the mayor arrested for refusing to comply with the law. Instead of opening the conference, the mayor was locked up in jail.

In all, we visited about a dozen or so private foundations, non-government organizations and government run agencies, all providing services to people with disabilities. Many of the service providers were disability specific. No one had a lot of money to work with, all were doing the absolute best they could and, just as in the United States, turf battles were everywhere, trying to get the scarce resources. One private foundation we visited, Compania Artistico Estimulo, was very unique.

Estimulo’s founder, Jose Fernando Sarrio, began his professional career as an elementary school special education teacher. He didn’t fit in with the rigid structure of the school system and, while it was unclear whether he left on his own accord or was asked to leave, he nevertheless stopped teaching in the public schools. What he did do, though, was to combine his three interests of working with special needs children, dancing and art and start his own private foundation. Estimulo works with mildly mentally retarded children and, combining education, art, and dance, gives them an education complete with socialization skills. The students have become an internationally recognized performing troupe. They sing and dance to traditional Colombian music, play traditional and contemporary musical instruments, make their own costumes, and design, create and paint their own backdrop sets. They enter into competitions against performers from all around the world, not against others with disabilities.

They performed for us Friday night, the night after the final day of the conference. It was quite an experience to see the students, who ranged in age from around 10 to in their early 20’s, perform as well as any professional on stage. We were invited up on the stage to dance, as well. Given that we had been fueled by beer and rum and marinated meat, we joined in and participated with vigor. It was an exciting finale to a long week. Camilo and I didn’t get to Marleny’s until well after midnight.

The trip to Cali, my presentation at the conference and visiting and meeting with the various service provider executive directors was also my swan song. Unbeknownst to the Colombians, I had already left my former employment and moved to Waltham, MA. Only Camilo knew the truth and he had made me swear not to tell. On the one hand, I felt like a betrayer. On the other hand, though, I gave them my insights and thoughts, gleaned from twenty-two years of experience of working with people with disabilities and promoting full inclusion into the mainstream of society. Since 1992 I had been an executive director of a non-government organization; I had faced and worked with the same pressures, lack of resources and bureaucratic intrusions that they were. Even though I was exiting that arena and moving into another, I shared a kinship with them and understood that, across cultures, we were all having the same struggles. I recognized that, as people, we are all the same. People are people and we need to embrace the diversity.
Standing in the airport at 6:30 a.m. the following, Saturday, morning, I gave Camilo and Marleny a final hug and walked to where my bags would be searched, my body patted down and my passport stamped. Ten years had come and gone in a week. I was a father, a betrayer and now a memory. Hoping my teary, glassy eyes wouldn’t be misunderstood by Customs, I headed in the direction of both the closing of a chapter in my life as well as the entering of another new one.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Two Tire Guy

This morning Dixie, the Airedale Dog, and I went to Prospect Hill Park for the second time since we moved 392 miles north to Waltham less than a week ago. We are both outdoors oriented, her bein’ a dog and me bein’ restless, and so one of the first things I did, after finding the grocery store, library, fee-free ATM machine, and transit station to get back and forth to my new job in Boston, was to find places outdoors to walk. We’ve also found the local school field that people walk their dogs in and the unofficial dog park in Newton (pronounced nehw-in; that’s how the locals can tell the foreigners. If one pronounces the “t” in Newton you’re from out of town. The jury seems to be out on whether Waltham is pronounced Wal-tham [as in Wal-Mart] or whether the emphasis is only on the first syllable).

Prospect Hill is a city park in north Waltham. Comprised of 250 acres with a scenic overlook of Waltham and Oz-like Boston ten miles off in the far distance, the park is a long rectangular swath of nature running from its northern low end to its summit at the southern end. When you start from the park entrance off Totten Pond Road, the walk seems almost vertical. The legend at its entrance boasts of a number of hiking trails, ranging from easy to difficult. It seemed to me that the walk up the road to the top was fairly strenuous in and of itself. Since there was about a foot of snow on the ground, except for on the roadway, we didn’t traverse any of the trails. It was of ironic interest to me that the road was closed during the winter months, apparently due to snow accumulations, yet it was plowed.

When we went to the park for the first time the day before, we walked almost to its top, bearing off to the left where the winding, almost meandering, roadway forked and where we found two fenced off circular buildings. Determining that we’d walked far enough and assuming correctly that we’d probably gone in an incorrect direction to see the scenic overlook, we turned around and, leaning back to compensate for the incline, trudged back down the road. When we were about two-thirds of the way back to the parking lot we ran across a lady who explained that we had, indeed, taken the wrong fork in the road. Had we gone to the right we would have made the scenic overlook. It was, nonetheless, an interesting walk; not too many birds in mid-February and the trees were as bare as could be. Still, we saw a Robin, heard the stream gurgling as its water cascaded over small rocks and the felt the wind as it blew through the barren boughs. The winter sun was warming with partly-blue skies overhead. We saw the signs for various trails that looked inviting when not covered in over a foot of snow and saw a rock formation that looked like the name of the trail that started at its one end: Dinosaur Rock Trail.

On the western edge of the park a series of red brick high tech corporate-industrial buildings rose up out of the ground to almost dwarf the trees and to serve as a definite boundary. Its many windows faced the park. I imagined the corporate folks inside looking out and I wondered if they could see the forest for the trees. Then again, it occurred to me that maybe they all had their noses to the grindstone of corporate greed and so never even noticed the changing of the seasons. Maybe all they saw when they looked out their window was something foreboding, not inviting, something out of a Grimm Brother’s fairy tale instead of out of a Peterson’s Field Guide. I wondered which was scarier to them, the jungle in there or the forest out here.

It seemed like such a contradiction walking in woods with trees and streams and rocks and animal tracks and nature abounding, even in the middle of winter, and yet at its very fringe civilization imposed its will, threatening to overtake the natural order of things. I looked closely at the space between the buildings and could see the trash dumpsters and, just beyond them, the macadam parking lots. I wondered whether the raccoons and the foxes would find the dumpsters a dining area or a place where they would meet their demise. Just this morning, in the Daily News Tribune, there was an article about how covering the earth in concrete and macadam caused runoff and prevented water from seeping into the ground to refill the local aquifer, which in turn created drought like conditions during the summer months. Water use restrictions would begin in June, while commercial and residential construction brought in needed tax revenues.

When Dixie and I went back the next day, for our second walk, I tried to ignore corporate America and concentrated, instead, on the beauty of the park, the warmth of the sun, the rustling of the wind and the singing of the stream. As we neared the top of the hill and took the right fork we started down along another road that stretched out before us with woods on either side. It was very bucolic and peaceful. I noticed picnic areas, camping spots, additional hiking trails, the Summer House and a whole host of other inviting aspects of the park. We reached the overlook and I stood in awe at the vista in front of me. Dixie stood there with me and looked out over the peak. What caught both of our attentions was, way down at the bottom of the hill where the houses began, a dog barking while chasing a car.

On our trek back down from the top, we ran across a not too friendly couple who seemed more intent on summiting Prospect Hill than on wasting time giving the time of day by saying hello. I’d heard that the only really friendly Mass. folks are those who have relocated to the state from elsewhere. I decided to pass them off as locals and paid them no further mind. What did intrigue me, however, was a sight I’d seen the day before and which I was about to see again. Both this time, as well as yesterday, I heard it before seeing it.

Imagine the sound of something heavy being dragged along the ground. Imagine the grunting, snorting and heaving associated with dragging something heavy along the ground. I couldn’t imagine, from the sound, what I was about to see as I rounded the bend in the road. Dixie, curious as always, ran up ahead to find out what the noise was and was met with a gruff, bellowing: “Get away from me! Get away from me!” What came around the bend was a tall, cut-from-granite man who, looking like he was in his early sixties, was decked out in layers of winter work clothes with a large leather belt strapped around his waist. There was an iron ring fastened at its back and from it trailed a chain about six feet long. Attached to the end of the chain were two automobile tires.

The guy was sort of half-walking, half-jogging up the hill dragging these two car tires along the ground behind him. Although he was all bundled up, it was easy to see that he probably didn’t have any body fat on him at all. He looked very strong and sinewy. He looked very focused on his task of walk/jogging up a long, steep hill for more than a mile dragging two tires. He looked like he may not have been wrapped too tight. I wondered what kind of penance this man was serving. On the other hand, I wondered if maybe he was preparing for the iron man triathlon. Maybe he was seeking attention. He seemed angry, almost as if he was working off a lost bet that he had originally been assured of winning. I said Hi to him and wanted to ask him what he was doing that for but he ignored me. Maybe any interruption would cause him to lose his concentration and throw off his rhythm. As he passed me, dragging these tires, I stopped, turned and watched as he trundled off uphill. Like the couple I saw before him, I decided he was a local.