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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Benedictions for a Peninsula


It is here. No, not football season. That is well underway. The monster. It's here. It's eating Florida alive.

Charlie absolutely loved Florida. His big sister lives there, and he visited her often, with his last trip (by himself, big boy!) coming just a couple of months before he left us.

He got to go to a something like a zoo, where people can interact with wild animals. The pictures of young Charlie Wolf cuddling with wolf pups remain at once adorable and heartbreaking.

How he would chafe at returning to dreary, boring Michigan, the other peninsula, same as it has ever been, the place where not much excitement comes barreling into your existence.

By the end of the day, that wildlife zoo will be gone, just like Charlie, swept away in a disaster. The difference is we can see Irma coming. We can prepare for the shock and the sorrow, and stare in astonished horror into the uncaring eye of the approaching hurricane.

Florida faces this storm with the prayers and benedictions of an entire world behind them, and not much else. But, after the worst has passed, Uncle Sam will be there to lift them up, hold them in his arms, and try his best to make them whole.

That is truly the least an uncle can do.

pH 9.1o.17

***

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Fall


The heat finally broke. It's almost as if the moon wiped it clean off the face of the sun during the eclipse. All week it was brutal and muggy, and now, cool as one of the cucumbers we've been pulling out of the garden.

It's almost over - we'll harvest the food, turn the Earth, and wait for the rain to become snow the way caterpillars morph into butterflies - or like a negative of that.

This is not to be confused with the Farmer's Almanac, though. For my nephew Charlie, this was a bittersweet time of year. He chafed at the thought of going back to school, spending his time parked in the classroom instead of doing (as one of his teachers put it) pretty much whatever it was he wanted to do.

I was not the kind of uncle to let it slip his mind, either. "Sixteen," I would say to him on a random sunny day.

"Sixteen what?"

"Sixteen days left until the First Day of School!" Followed by his groans. Charlie loved to groan... It runs in the family.

The good part, though, was the new school clothes. Both my sister and Charlie's Dad had keen ideas about how a boy should be dressed for school. They weren't necessarily on the same page (or even looking at the same catalog), but that provided him with a broad fashion spectrum from which to choose, and Charlie liked that, too.

But soon enough the leaves would turn and then drop, and the bicycle would be put in the shed in exchange for the sled, and the rake swapped out with the snow shovel. Those fancy new duds would be buried, first under a coat, then under a hat and scarf, and finally disappear beneath an outright snow suit.

This is
the way the world turned for Charlie and his Mom. And for me, the not-silent observer.


And then, one day, the world just... Stopped.

These last few summer days will run out like beads off the end of a string. The school buses will still rumble by the house. The impending season, this time before us, is sometimes called Autumn. But we know it as the fall.

pH 8.22.17

***



Saturday, July 29, 2017

Back in Time


Well, we got through it; three days have passed since 26th July, the darkest square on my calendar. Last Wednesday marked twain years since our extended family flock lost its second-youngest lamb.

As I mentioned to my brother, quite a while ago now, go back in time to that terrible night. After all the neighbors and the cops and the medics and the chaplain and Charlie had gone away, he and I stood in the driveway and looked ahead at a long road that disappeared into murky blackness.

Didn't know how long it was. Didn't know where it would take us. But we were on it, all right, going full-tilt boogie with no headlights, no GPS, no speedometer, no seatbelts.

Now, quite the opposite. We rolled through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. We fear no evil. The road hasn't ended yet... I suspect our muscle-car era vehicles will break down before it ever does. Whatever.

We can look back now, in the light of day, and see the route we traveled. Some rough terrain, to be sure.

***

But nobody can live that way forever.

***

Although it takes quite a bit of (s)training, we've got to do it. We Hellers have got to stop ticking the time away from Charlie's tragic death as the starting point, as the Big Bang to our universe.

What we have become is who we are, yep, I get that. Still, we didn't teleport here. Nobody beamed us up.

It's both effortless, and not - letting your mind return to those easier, less painful times. Forgetting what you know. It is both helpful, and not. I don't just mean this thing. I mean everything, everyone.

Charlie's passing on July 26th, 2015 and all that has followed was our family's private 9/11. September 11th, 2001 was America's 9/11. Lost are the loved ones.

As described here, we have been engaged in a personal conflict ever since 7/26. America has been engaged in a global conflict since 9/11. What was lost cannot be found.

The road is closed.

But remember what it was like on September 10th of that year? It was a really nice day. Kids were settling into their school routines. The summer warmth had slacked off but the leaves were nowhere near turning color.

The night was capped off by Monday Night Football. It was Ed McCaffrey's last game. The Denver Broncos' wide receiver broke his leg. Falling asleep on pain killers that night, he probably figured his life had changed forever.

The next morning, it all came crashing down, out of a clear blue sky.

That is not where America's road began. But we treated it that way, and now look where we are: Billions of miles away from where we were, no end in sight (unless you mean that cliff up ahead).

***

That's not gonna to happen to us, Charlie. I will not remember you merely as my nephew who died, but as that spirited little boy who lived for 12 years, who made my sister happier than anything else in her life ever had.

That doesn't go away, kid... Not on my watch.

pH 7.29.17

***

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Songbird

***

   The words we would say
   as the time slipped away
   our carriage the horses had drawn.
   Through fields and farms
   I held you in my arms
   and wondered what cloud I was on.

***

You like that, eh? Everybody does. It's concise, a little abstract, but you still know what it's about... It's pretty good, if I may say so myself.

I wrote it for a girl I know. I'll call her Mel. We met at a bar where I was drinking and she was working. We struck up an odd friendship. We talked a lot about life. I found out she writes poetry, too.

Mel is very young, but already had a couple of kids from her teenage years. Like most young people with children, she struggled at times. When the bar job fell apart suddenly, I asked my boss to give up some telephone work to help bridge the employment gap (and stopped patronizing that establishment.)

I spent a few bucks on her family for Christmas that year, because I could tell she wasn't exactly able to shower them with gifts. Santa scored some fuzzy socks and slippers for Mel, too.

After that, we drifted apart, and she was mostly gone from my transom. Got married, had some more kids. We stayed only occasionally in touch electronically. She was like a bird who used to sing by my window, but then flew away, and only once in a while would I hear her again.

I managed to get in touch with Mel after Charlie's tragic, fatal accident. With a house full of boys, it was more than she wanted to ponder. I ran into her just once after, about a year ago now, and we had a nice talk. And then she took wing again. Of course she did.

I got to thinking about Mel last night, my young old friend, wondered how she was doing. When I gave in to the urge to look her up, the first thing I found was a GoFundMe page under her name.

I didn't want to click on it. I know that those are often people seeking funds for the purposes of giving their loved ones who have passed a decent, dignified burial. Or to carry on good works in their names.

So I clicked on it - and there was her smiling face! Mel was raising money so that she and her husband could legally adopt his two young kids from their own struggling mother, who wanted to go to Florida and had agreed to sign her parental rights away. (These things happen.)

Mel's page said they needed a couple hundred dollars per child, and another couple hundred on top that for a "home check fee". Many people had ponied up already, and she was within $25 of reaching her goal, accomplishing her mission.

I'd post a link to her page, but I don't have to, after making the capstone donation myself. Congratulations, kiddo. It was my pleasure.

***

As we have seen in this space, there are forces in the world that have no problem tearing families apart. I am happy to have been able to help someone, a good person, put a family together. I get to smile as I watch them fly away.

pH 7.16.17

***


Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Fistful of Summer


Well, here we are. July. The worst of the warm weather months. It wasn't always this way, of course...

It starts out great, with the initial week's heat and humidity still a thing to get used to. The grass is still green and soft and cool underfoot, damp with dew in the early mornings.

The first few days are for laying still and listening to the birds chirp. Most everyone has the work week off heading into Independence Day. The bluey haze of the afternoon air is escorted into dusk by grilling smoke and the sound of summer's lazy laughter.

It is the month of yard sales, street festivals, high school and family reunions. The nearby lakes are, by this time, warm enough to get in. Even if they aren't, that won't stop you once Old Sol stands on top of your head in the middle of the afternoon.

We have no July birthdays in our family, just America's on the 4th. Michigan's fireworks laws are quite liberal - not like the old days - so these next few nights will be filled with shrieks and explosions emulating the terrible battles that won us our freedom, and the ones that have kept it since.

But after the show is over, and only the fireflies light up the thick nighttime air, the real July kicks in. The temperatures find a happy new perch to sit on. The cicadas start up their ceaseless droning. The lawn dries to a crunchy, toasty tan color. And each day brings us closer to the 26th.

The pressure isn't just in our heads; it's literally in the atmosphere, cooking us on low setting. This will be the second one to come around since the boy went away.

Its approach is soothed by the balm of good tidings from well-wishers near and far. Thinking of you, too. What we experience is the opposite of a buildup. The anniversary of the death of a child is a finish line you crawl to grudgingly.

Charlie lived for 4,441 days. Three weeks from this coming Wednesday, our small, shiny planet will have rotated around our dim yellow star twice since that brilliant life ended.

Once it is past, July's last five days are strictly business. End of the month. Bills to pay. Early August is no different weatherwise, but there are a few birthdays on that calendar page... August also spirals toward the new school year. Even after two years, it's too hard not to mark it that way.

pH 7.o1.17

***

Friday, June 9, 2017

Ride

"You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon?…It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs." - Han Solo

***

I need a new car.

I'm still living in the last millennium, myself. I bought my 1999 Hyundai Elantra in 2011, from my man Roy at Dynamite Auto Sales in Phoenix, Arizona.

I was leaving town in a hurry, and needed wheels that could get me from there to here. I told him I had exactly two thousand bucks on me, and that I'd give him every penny of it to get me off the lot. I told him he could mail me the paperwork. He made it happen.

I'm pretty sure I hate this car.

That's no knock on Roy, who has helped me out many times. Dynamite didn't build the car. Hell, he gave it to me with brand new tires on it. But the power windows have never worked. The seatbelt constantly applies pressure to my left clavicle. It rides rough, sits too low, and displays no information on the radio.

It has hit me up for more than a few repairs: Wheel bearing. Radiator. Mass air flow sensor. Fuel pump. Clutch kit. Axle shaft. Driver's side door. Starter.

I am so sick of this car.

For all the grief it has given me, I've put over 50,000 miles on it. I've only found a couple other Elantras in our regional junk yards, so I guess they never die. It blows heat. The rust-free Arizona undercarriage is still solid. It gets 40 miles to the gallon on the freeway.

I can't get rid of this car.

As it sits, it still needs rear struts. The exhaust is cobbled together with soup cans and radiator clamps. It's time for tires again. The windows will never be right.

Try selling a car in that condition. Am I about to sink $500 into it to get $500 more out of it? No... Am I to sell it for $500 as is and then spend all that plus much more to replace it? With what? 

I am stuck with this car.

It has earned a few nicknames. The Gray Ghost. Little Grizzly. Millennium Falcon. It runs great, with a 16-valve, 2-liter engine mated to a short-throw, five-speed manual transmission. It's fast... Less than 12 parsecs.

The first time I had my nephew Charlie in the car, I warned him - Uncle Paul drives crazy sometimes. (And if you say that, you have to back it up.) Almost every time one of his buddies got in my car with him, he proudly informed them, "Better buckle up. Uncle Paul drives crazy sometimes."

He loved this car.

My place of employment was right by where his Dad lived, so I gave Charlie a lot of rides. He had to hear a good number of Uncle Paul stories. Some of them, he soaked right up. Others put him to sleep.

I sometimes put NPR on the radio for those rides, or on the many occasions on which I picked him up from school. At the conclusion of the journey, I often asked for his opinion on what they were talking about. And he'd give it to me.

I just don't want this car anymore.

I could really use a pickup truck. An automatic transmission would be a welcome difference, too. Up here, a four wheel drive is practically a must (though I'm telling you the truth: Little Grizzly has never gotten stuck).

The memories that are soaked into the oxidized paint, the grimy cloth interior, the greasy engine compartment - they make me want to part with it even though I would get almost nothing for it. And they make me keep it long after its day is done.

Maybe some of you have similar feelings; I don't know. I'll leave it at that. I have to go now. It's a beautiful afternoon...

I guess I'll wash the car.

pH 6.o9.17

***

Editor's Note:  On Thursday, September 14th, 2017, the Little Grizzly was sold for $200. The new owner indicated he would harvest its valuable organs and sell what remained as scrap metal.


"Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another." - Albert Einstein

*** 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day

***

Happy Birthday, Charlie! Look for the fireworks heading your way. Paper lanterns, too. Just like every year...

It's a party.

pH 5.29.17

***

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Let's Do the Numbers (Again)

If you view this blog in the web version, you will find a survey on the lower right side of the page, right above the picture of the starving cat. It asks,

"A body is found at the base of a cliff. No witnesses. What should a Medical Examiner conclude?" The options: Accidental, Undetermined, Homicide, Suicide or Not the ME's Call.

There's no rush to beat the buzzer or anything, just notice the results, from an admittedly small sample. Most people would call it Undetermined. A good portion say Accident. A fraction believe Homicide; a larger fraction didn't think it was the ME's call.

Nobody says Suicide. Zero percent.

I ran several similar polls on Twitter last year, using the same scenario, but not including the option about the ME's call. Suicide registered a statistical blip is all, with the vast majority of respondents divided between Accidental and Undetermined.

I can tell (call it researcher's intuition) that this makes sense to you. NSA guys can actually see you, through your camera, nodding your head in agreement as you read it... We know this.

It should make sense to you because it is the result of thousands of family tragedies that are broken down into raw data every year. So let's confirm your gut feeling with some numbers - again.

Start with 100,000 people, all kids age 14 and younger. Almost enough to fill The Big House at a University of Michigan football game. Just one of them will intentionally kill himself or herself. That's 1/1,000th of 1%.

Two out of three times, that child is a female.

In half of those suicides, drugs were either contributory or causative.

Only one in four will use suffocation/strangulation as their method of suicide - and that is nearly universally done in a clandestine manner.

Minorities or kids in poor neighborhoods are more likely. The top of the age range in this group is 14 years, and the incident rates drop significantly by the year... All of this, we know.

Charlie was a White boy, barely 12, with no drugs in his system when he died in his front yard while playing on a years-old "Tarzan"-style rope. No witnesses to the act. No suicide note. None of the well-known societal red flags.

White. Boy. 12. No drugs. Out in the open.

The chances of his death being a suicide are less than 1/4 of 1/2 of 1/3 of 1/1000th of 1 percent. It's something that simply has never happened before, not here, or anywhere else you can find.

Another, more plausible, statistic: Accidents are the leading cause of death in all children 14 and younger... This, too, we know.

But here in Kalamazoo, why, the government tends to view these things in any way that suits their purposes. No matter who it harms. Their motto here: Ready, Fire, Aim.

It is hysterically obvious by now that ME Joyce deJong got it wrong. A far better pathologist than her explained carefully to my sister the official (read: Legal) manner used to determine cause of death: Scene investigation, which they botched, toxicology results, which they didn't get back until 3 weeks later (100% clean at that) and police reports which they didn't even bother to have mailed to them until May of the following year.

When called to account, they said they based their horrifyingly irresponsible bullshit also on letters from concerned citizens - which the ME apparently did not read - and from, well, my blog.

(Sigh.)

I sure do miss Charlie. I wonder sometimes what it might have been like, to grieve normally, instead of having to do this. My dirty job.

Someday, though, I believe I will see him again, and together we will look down at this cruel little place, and we'll laugh and laugh, until our tears fall like rain. My big belly guffaw will roll down as the thunder. And Charlie's delighted cackle will crackle with the lightning... This, above all else, we know.

pH 5.17.17

***

Monday, May 8, 2017

Top Ten Reasons NOT to Attend WMed


Does anybody else out there miss David Letterman? Many people do. It's not that Stephen Colbert (Dave's replacement) is an inferior comedic talent, or that his ears aren't lined up straight, or his propensity to be vulgar when talking about Donald Trump... For me, it was The Top Ten List that put Letterman over the top.

Here, then, are my Top Ten Reasons NOT to Choose WMed as Your Medical School:

10. Low Ratings. This stuff matters more now that we have a reality TV star running our country. If you can't be Number One, then you'd better be a close second... Last time I checked, WMed was ranked 147th in the United States. That's pretty unimpressive, if you think about it. Statistically speaking, that means that 49 other states each have 3 better medical schools than WMU's Homer Stryker MD School of Medicine.

9. High Tuition. Compared to other medical schools, $46,000 tuition is considered to be quite elevated, and you know these things only go up. Moreover, since it is a private school, I'm pretty sure no local students would be able to use the Kalamazoo Promise as financial assistance in getting a degree from WMed... Perhaps one of their 50-odd students could clarify that for us in the Comments section below.

8. Terrible Weather. That's no secret. Look, it's now the 2nd week in May. The overnight low last night was below freezing across the entire state... They don't just call this place The Big Mitten because it's easily recognizable on the map.

7. The Campus Seems to be Cursed. The private medical school, while technically a nonprofit (whose Dean makes $400,000 a year), sits on the campus at Western Michigan University here in Kalamazoo. Yes, the Broncos had a great football season last year, then the coach rowed his boat on over to the University of Minnesota (likely for favorable climate). But it's not just that. In 2014 and in 2015, teenage girls were found dead in WMU dorm rooms for no physically obvious reasons. Both were ruled "cardiac arrest".

6. The Faculty is Often in Court. The ongoing civil rights lawsuit brought by David Ferris II against WMed's Joyce deJong (among others) also embroils deputy ME Rudy Castellani, who also heads up WMed's Neuropath department. Dozens of defense motions have been filed, and hundreds of exhibits have been dumped on Judge Robert Jonker's desk, in a tired old bid to delay the trial into chronological oblivion.

5. Dean Hal Jenson is a Mormon (Probably). In fairness to myself, I'm not banging on his, or anyone's, faith. But if he tithes to his church, then a portion of your tuition money heads that way, too. Maybe that kind of thing matters to you, maybe it doesn't. I'm just covering all the bases, that's all.

4. Too Much on Their Plate. It's hard enough, one might think, just to effort along as the nation's 147th ranked medical school, but actually WMed has a lot going on. For instance, half of their M.E. staff is also on the board of MAME, the Michigan Association of Medical Examiners. Joyce deJong logs time as an expert witness from case to case. This county contractor also offers pediatric care, ironically enough. And they are under contract to provide forensic pathology services not only to Kalamazoo County, but almost every other county in West Michigan, and Elkhart County in Indiana as well.

3. WMed is Not LCME Accredited! Nope, not yet... When we filed our complaint against WMed with the LCME in my nephew Charlie's case, they seemed very interested in all those county contracts to perform forensic pathology services. If WMed's accreditation to be a medical school is hung up, they can blame us. We can take it.

2. High Turnover? Ask former Compliance Officer and Associate Dean of Finance Tom Zavitz about that - if you can find him.

1. Charlie Wolf. My sister's little boy, as delightful and happy a kid as I ever did see, died in a tragic accident while playing in his front yard in July of 2015. The psychotic gun-nut that WMed sent to our house that night, Kai Cronin, falsely ruled it a suicide. WMed's chief "investigator", Lyin' Jo Catania, tried to sweep it under the rug. Even though we've proven all of that, the heartless bastards refuse to make it right.

Go find a good medical school, aspiring pupil... For this one is so very far beneath you.

pH 5.o8.17

***

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