A Good Man Down

We lost another friend yesterday.  A colleague from work, Tom passed away after a short but valiant battle with pancreatic cancer.  He was only 60.

meteorWe met 31 years ago when I joined the law firm and was assigned to an office next to his.  We shared the same curse, both being diehard fans of Cleveland sports teams, and became workplace friends.  Because I had worked for a few years between college and law school, he was already a seasoned associate when I was a raw rookie, and he happily served as a sounding board for the kinds of questions that inevitably arise when you start working at a new place.  It quickly became apparent that he was extremely smart, a very talented lawyer, and somebody who was viewed by firm partners as a rising star.  He invited me to join a group of older associates who went out for lunch from time to time and swapped stories about the firm at a place that specialized in apple dumplings, and it made me feel included, and a little bit more like a part of the firm.  He didn’t have to do it, but he was just that kind of person.

After a few years in neighboring offices he exercised his seniority and moved to a better office, and we saw less of each other.  He got married and we both focused on our families and things like trying to build our law practices, but he remained the kind of guy who would send along an article and funny observation about the latest crushing Cleveland sports disappointment or email a wry comment about national politics or a development at the firm.  Since his death yesterday, several people have said that he had no enemies — and that’s true.  He was a person who was happy with his wife, happy with his life, and happy in his work, content with his circumstances and satisfied with how things worked out.

And that’s one of the things that made the news about his discovery, only a few months ago, that he had already advanced pancreatic cancer so difficult to accept.  It simply doesn’t seem fair that such a friendly, mild-mannered, fundamentally decent person could be taken so cruelly and never given the opportunity to retire and enjoy the fruits of his years of very hard work.  But after you’ve seen untimely death take a number of good people, you realize that fairness really has nothing to do with it and stop trying to make sense of it.  The key thing is to live a life that, when the time comes, hopefully leaves those who must move on with fond memories of a good person who will be missed.

Tom Ruby accomplished that.

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Tree Fail

When we moved in to our house we had our back yard landscaped.  Kish hates direct sunlight, so a key element of the design was a new tree planted at one corner of the patio.  It was supposed to grow tall, leaf out, and provide lots of the glorious shade that Kish likes so well.

For the first year and a half, things went according to plan.  The tree grew like crazy and looked to be doing fine.  Then late last summer, the tree started to visibly struggle.  Beginning at the top of the tree, the leaves wilted and died.  We hoped that the tree would recover this spring, but the top half remained dead and the only new leaves appeared at the base of the tree trunk.  As a last-ditch salvage effort, the landscapers cut off the dead top part of the tree — leaving us with the pathetic looking elongated stump shown above — in hopes it would spur new growth at the bottom of the tree.  Unfortunately, that effort also failed.  Our little tree has given up the ghost.

I like trees.  I hate to see them struggle and I hate to see them die.  This tree death is particularly weird because there’s no apparent cause.  It wasn’t struck by lightning, and every other plant and shrub in our back yard is thriving.  I guess sometimes death just happens.

I’ll miss our little tree.

In The Grand Scheme Of Things

Yesterday I received word that a friend and long-time colleague had died.  Even though I knew it was coming, the news still was difficult to take.

It had been about a year since my friend was first diagnosed with cancer.  He had one of those “bad cancers,” where the survival rates are low and the prospects are grim and there just haven’t been many treatment advances that can give the afflicted some encouragement.  Nevertheless, my friend was unfazed.  He’s always been one of those happy warrior types, the kind who approach everything, even a terrible personal illness, with optimism and enthusiasm and curiosity.   He learned what he could about his condition and his treatment, engaged in spirited and intelligent discussions with his doctors about his options, and could give you detailed, knowledgeable descriptions of what was happening, and why.  It told you a lot about his true nature.

There was something inspiring, too, in how he dealt with his condition.  He may have had private moments when he cursed his luck and the dread disease that had befallen him, but his public face inevitably was hopeful and confident.  He came to work when he could, and spoke of days in the future when he could take an even greater role, because he loved being a lawyer.  It was an amazing display of spirit and fortitude.  He unfailingly projected the positive mental attitude and willingness to battle, undeterred, that doctors often say can make a significant difference in a patient’s prognosis.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an instance where the mental could control the physical.  When my friend got the news that the treatments weren’t working, he accepted it with a kind of awesome grace.  He would speak of how his illness had opened up new channels of communication, made his talks with his friends and family more meaningful, and brought his already close family even closer.  He actually seemed to feel that, in certain ways, the bad news had nevertheless provided some important benefits.

The last time I saw him, Kish and I visited my friend and his wife at their home.  The cancer was taking its physical toll, but his mental outlook remained bright.  We talked and tried to say the things that need to be said without making it seem like we considered this to be the Last Time Ever, and as our visit drew to a close he mentioned that we should see his “trophy room” — which turns out to be his dining room, filled with pictures of his family.  As the inevitable end neared, he realized that that was what was important, and the pride he obviously took in his family left us moist-eyed and with lumps in our throat as we left his house and walked to our car.

I’ve always liked the phrase “in the grand scheme of things,” because it captures the sense of perspective that we should all strive to maintain.  In the vast spectrum of possibilities that we may encounter during our lives, some are important but most truly aren’t, even though they might seem to be at the time.  My friend fought his cancer with courage, faced his prospects with dignity and grace, and could find positives even in circumstances that many people would find unendurable.  He was able to see the grand scheme of things and distinguish the crucial points from the petty reversals and the minor annoyances.  We should all hope that we can do the same.

Marine Mammal Deaths At SeaWorld

On Sunday the San Antonio Express News published a terrific, but immensely sad, story by Richard about the deaths of orcas, dolphins, and other mammals at the SeaWorld parks.  What’s Killing the Orcas at SeaWorld? takes a careful look at the statistics of creatures dying at SeaWorld and quotes trainers, SeaWorld employees, research studies, and animal rights activists in an effort to address the care of marine mammals in captivity and whether they are more likely to die than members of their species in the wild.

Infections seem to be a huge problem for marine mammals in captivity.  Richard’s story reviewed reports that SeaWorld filed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and calculated that almost 150 orcas, dolphins, sea lions, and beluga whales have died of infections at SeaWorld since 1986, and five dolphins, whales, and sea lions have died of various infections — such as fungal infections, bacterial infections, and inflammation of the brain — since May 2014.

wild-orca-alaska_siThe big point of contention is whether living in captivity contributes to those deaths, as animal rights advocates contend, or whether the creatures at Sea World are no more prone to infections than members of the species living in the wild.  As Richard’s article reports, that’s tough to assess, because there aren’t many reliable studies of the lives of these mammals in their native habitat.  Animal rights advocates argue that creatures that have evolved over millennia to range widely over large areas of ocean, hunt their own food, and form relationships in the wild simply aren’t suited to captivity.  The advocates believe the orcas become stressed (and show it by breaking their teeth chewing on concrete and metal) and the stress makes them more prone to infection.  Richard’s article quotes some former SeaWorld trainers who talk about the constant medication that some of the mammals have received.  And while we don’t know the prevalence of infection deaths in the wild, we do know this — orcas, dolphins, and sea lions have somehow survived and thrived in our oceans for centuries without have to be heavily medicated by human beings.

I should note that SeaWorld has criticized Richard’s story, saying on its blog:  “The article is unfairly critical of SeaWorld and misleads readers with incomplete sets of facts that are presented in a biased way.”  I respectfully disagree.  I think the piece is a fair treatment of an important issue that employs the tools of great investigative journalism, like review of public records, getting quotes from people on both sides of the story and experts, and then trying to piece things together.  The reality is that the death of the marine mammals in the care of SeaWorld is just an uncomfortable topic for SeaWorld.

I’ve never cared much for zoos or places like SeaWorld.  I feel sorry for the animals that are caged, and I think it reflects poorly on us that we keep creatures that are meant to be in the wild penned up for our entertainment.  It’s particularly appalling that we confine marine mammals that show clear signs of intelligence, like orcas, and then have to dope them up to try to keep them alive.  Richard’s story just heightens that view.

My First Momless Christmas

Yesterday I was baking my cookies, thinking about who would be getting their holiday tins and plates, when I suddenly realized that I’m going through my first Christmas without Mom.

IMG_7596It happened when I was cutting out the sugar cookies.  Mom always really liked them — or, in a reflection of the loyal, unflinching support we kids always got from our mother, at least said she did — and this year will be the first time in a long time she won’t be getting to eat an iced Christmas tree cookie that I made or sample one of my new efforts.

Of course, it made me feel sad and wistful, and the feelings caught me off guard.  When a loved one dies, time helps you deal with the everyday sense of loss because life goes on, but then a special memory or event that you shared with them sneaks up on you and you feel their absence all over again.  I remember one of my friends talking about how difficult it was to watch the OSU-Michigan game for the first time after his father’s death, because they had always watched it together.  In my case, baking Christmas cookies is what brought it back.

So I sat there for a few minutes, listening to the holiday music that was playing and thinking about Mom.  I thought about how I was with her the first time I ever helped in making Christmas cookies, when I was a little kid and the Webner family kitchen was a madhouse of flour-covered people with rolling pins and cookie cutouts and icing and bright sprinkles.  That’s one reason I’ve always liked making Christmas cookies.  And then I thought about how most of the Christmas music I listen to during my baking days, from Bing Crosby to the traditional carols to the Nutcracker pieces to the Chipmunks’ Christmas song, and just about everything in between, were songs that Mom loved, too.

IMG_7602And I’m sure I’ll think of her when I watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at some point over the next few weeks, because Mom was a movie person and it was one of her favorites that always provoked some loud and happy laughter, and when I look at the little Santa mug with “Bobby” painted on it that she gave me years ago and I remember how there were little Santa mugs with names of each of the five Webner kids painted on top that were lined up on the fireplace mantle for Christmas — and then I’ll remember how much Mom loved Christmas all over again.

It made me realize that, although she’s no longer physically with us, her spirit and sense of fun and the little family traditions she created and the memories of those shared holiday events will always be with us.  I may be technically Momless, but there’s still a lot of Mom in my Christmas.

Dying Alone

This New York Times piece on the lonely death of George Bell is one of the most interesting and poignant pieces I’ve read lately.  Interesting, because it dives deeply into the machinery of public administration and the sleuthing process followed when a person dies alone, and poignant, because George Bell died without family or friends.

Bell lived alone in his apartment in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens.  He died there in 2014 at age 72.  The authorities aren’t sure exactly when he died, because his body was found only after a neighbor noticed a rank smell and called the police.  When the police arrived, in the middle of July, they found a body that had been decomposing for days in an apartment crammed with the kinds of possessions and mystifying mountains of garbage and other stuff that hoarders inevitably accumulate.  The condition of the body was such that they couldn’t initially confirm it was Bell — which required some of the sleuthing described in the story — and he had no wife, or family, or friends to identify his remains.

The Times piece is a long one.  It carefully traces the steps that are followed when a person is found dead, alone, in New York City, and in so doing it also tells some of the back story of George Bell.  He was an only child.  He worked for a time for his father, served in the U.S. Army Reserves, and began working in the moving business.  After his father died and his mother became crippled by arthritis, he took care of her.  He drank, and was known to some friends as “Big George.”  He never married, although he came close.  He was a diabetic.  He was injured at work in 1996 and began living on disability payments and a union pension — and one by one, he began to snip away his connections to the world.  After thirty years of growing isolation, his last regular acquaintance was a person he had met at his regular bar.

I’ve always thought the most terrifying part of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol wasn’t the appearance of Marley’s ghost, or Scrooge’s visit to his gravesite, but the scene at his deathbed, where Scrooge lies, dead, alone, and unmourned, while his belongings are looted by people who felt no pity for him.  In that respect, George Bell was like a modern-day Scrooge, dying without leaving much of a mark on the world around him.

It’s a sad story, but also a compelling one.  One of the workers whose job is to ferret through the apartments of lonely people like George Bell, looking for evidence of relatives, has drawn upon his macabre job to consciously try to build his circle of friends and his connections to the world.  “I don’t want to die alone,” he says.

Death Drivers Of The Orient

It sounds like a bad urban legend, but apparently it isn’t:  in China, there are recorded instances of a driver striking a pedestrian, then backing up to run over the fallen victim again and again to make sure they are dead.  In two of the more appalling cases, drivers ran over a little girl, and a grandmother, multiple times.

Why?  Because the tort and criminal system in China provides a financial incentive to make sure that the victim of a hit-skip incident is dead.  The one-time compensation to be paid to the family of a deceased victim typically ranges between $30,000 and $50,000.  If the victim is seriously injured and requires ongoing care, however, the driver has to pay for the care for the rest of the victim’s lifetime — which obviously could run into considerably larger sums.

Hence, the death driver scenario.  In the split-second after an accident, Chinese drivers have to decide between their pocketbook and their humanity and decency — and for a number of drivers, the pocketbook wins out.

It’s discouraging to think that money could turn a distressingly large percentage of drivers into cold-blooded killers, but perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.  The historical record consistently demonstrates that people respond to economic incentives and disincentives — just ask anyone who lived in the old Soviet Union.  The Chinese death driver example simply shows how far economic incentives can go in influencing decision-making and behavior.  It isn’t a pretty picture.