Carolyn Gregory, 10/3/2010

Current Occupation: Hospital administrator and freelance writer
Former Occupation: Hospital administrator and freelance writer
Carolyn Gregory has published poems and music reviews in American Poetry Review, Seattle Review, Off the Coast, Main Street Rag, Bellowing Ark, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Slant. She has published two chapbooks and a full length book, OPEN LETTERS, in 2009. Her next book, SCENARIO, will come out in 2011. She has worked in academic and research jobs for over 25 years. She is also a community activist.
###
The Space Man

All day, he sits beside a computer scanning polyethylene.
He tells technicians what to look for on the screen
as his words measure electrons and radiation.
How odd: in the hospital, no sign of blood
behind experiments though they’re supposed
to measure bone.

When there’s a mistake, he puts people in their place,
never says thank you, doesn’t acknowledge holidays.
Everything’s one way: to make him shine.
As he loads his outbox, juggles his tasks,
he inspires little joy with drafts of legal defense,
the justification of tubes and protocols.

Dry and loud, his conference calls are broadcast
on a speaker phone.
He calls everyone his friend but trusts no one.

On the screen, wave forms flow and dissipate
as he dreams of machines, never hearing a flute
warbling on the radio, accompanied by broken piano.

#
Lost in the Highrise Economy

Coldest winter day, I get lost,
looking for an office in the wrong place.
The front desk sends me to an empty floor,
twisted with wires and asphalt.
The wind chill reaches ten below.
I pull up my hood and hit Federal Street.

Diving across intersections,
flying into a faster elevator,
I reach the thirty seventh floor
of One Financial Center.
Long halls and security codes beckon.

Catching my breath,
it’s a blur till noon
when three cakes magically appear
and traders descend upon them,
lusty with forks.

In 1929, traders threw themselves
over railings, certain it was the end
while in 2007, a husky blue bull
promises EXCELLENCE
in bold white letters.

Down the street, a homeless man freezes
in a wind tunnel.
I keep the news to myself,
knowing we will all be cold
when rush hour comes.

Moriah Erickson, 9/26/2010

Current Occupation: respiratory therapist
Former Occupation: funeral home hairdresser
Contact Information: Moriah Erickson currently works as a respiratory therapist in Duluth, MN, where she lives with her spouse, six and a half children and two obnoxious dogs. She was previously employed as a hairdresser at a funeral home. Her hobbies include laundry and dishes, and she would like to hear from anyone interested in real poetry. Mericks28@gmail.com

###

Sago Wives

We got the call before CNN
and Fox News. We arrived
at the mouth of the mine
before this became a “national
disaster.” We stood, helpless, idle,
waiting in the January cold, our kids,
still high on Christmas break
tucked in sleeping, half-awake neighbors
sit at our kitchen table or
doze in our recliners.

Julie Lewis, hysterical, is convinced
David is dead. She is sobbing
and unable to talk, her cheeks raw
from the thunderstorm air.
Mary tries to comfort her,
wrapping her fat, motherly arm
around Julie’s shaking shoulders,
but can’t stand the feel of her
for long.
For us there is no comfort.
We wait. Someone ties ribbons
to the fence, one for each
of our men.
Rescuers go in, come out coughing,
their oxygen masks making them a cross
between elephants and aliens.
The gas is thick. TV cameras arrive
in vans. They shine bright lights
on the entrance to the mine
but don’t go in.
We stand in the shadows, Julie still
sobbing. We hug each other
and pray and know that in the end
no one will tie ribbons to anything for us,
for our kids. We will fight
insurance companies and the mine
and come out worse off than we went in.
We will miss you, boys, thunder cracks.
A beam breaks, rain pummels us.
We are bruised, alone.
We cannot turn away as an ore cart
emerges, no urgency in its empty rattle.

Leslie Mitchell, 9/19/2010

Current Occupation: Client Services for an Albuquerque CPA firm. My main work includes light bookkeeping, vendor relations, proposal writing, proofreading, editing.

Former Occupation: Prior to Albuquerque, Leslie lived in Chicago, Illinois and was a proofreader at an accounting consulting firm.
Contact Information: Leslie has written poems and short fiction for over 33 years. In 2003, she published three poems in the Journal of Ordinary Thought, a literary magazine based in Chicago, Illinois. Leslie works in Client Services for an Albuquerque New Mexico CPA firm. She is currently completing a novel titled, “A Reverberating Case of the Angries.”
###
Office Conduct Becoming

As I ambled back to my cubicle from the restroom, Igor from the mailroom stopped me to ask about our co-worker, a word processor named Doris. I told him I hadn’t seen her for nearly an hour, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t skulking around the floor somewhere.

Doris, as sullen and solid as her towering frame, worked in my department. Though we weren’t the best of friends (she was nearly 25 years older than me), Igor knew we were friendly enough that I might know her whereabouts. Though he didn’t work in my department, I was friendlier with Igor.

Igor said Doris was in a foul mood. She hadn’t like a joke he’d told her earlier that morning.

“I told her this funny joke about a bus driver, a nun and a horny young guy, and she looked like she wanted to hit me. Do you think I offended her?”

Igor had a large, earnest face, large brown eyes, and salt-n-pepper hair. He was easily Doris’s height, or taller, and he walked with the lightness of a much younger man. I instantly felt sorry for him. It was just my fate that he would be drawn to Doris’s darkness, a compliment to his lightness. He constantly stopped by to deliver or pick up, and he often engaged Doris in halting conversations about current events and movies. His accent was heavy, and Doris, straight out of the ‘hood, made no attempt to understand him, so their pained conversations took on the tone of a comedy skit. Though she was never rude to him, I had the distinct feeling that when Igor left her cubicle, Doris immediately forgot all about him.

Everyone could see that Igor was smitten, but Doris was a phobic woman given to difficult habits. She ate at her desk, and her lunches smelled as if they’d come straight from the slaughterhouse. She was an online shopaholic whose credit cards had been maxed, hacked and cancelled. One rumor held that she was a raging pothead. Another was that she’d once come to work with both wrists heavily bandaged, fractured in a fall at home. Men always seem drawn to tragic women, the ones who carry their sadness around with them like a misfiled report.

Of course, I was jealous. Though he was never more than polite to me, I liked Igor. A happy man with ruddy cheeks and a soft muffled voice, Igor came to America two years ago. He was full of stories about his Polish community, his drinking buddies, the friends he’d made, his weekend antics, and the comedies he liked. He always greeted me with a huge hug, an unheard of gesture in our corporate office, where most men worried about sexual harassment suits.

He’d once wondered why people in my department were always so moody and angry. Why couldn’t they be more like me, he asked. I shrugged off the question, thinking: That’s who they really are.

At work, I was the consummate liar. No matter what I felt inside, one would think I was everyone’s best friend.

“Don’t take it personally,” I told him. “You know how she is. And we’ve been busy, bottle-necked with projects right now. Doris is just feeling the strain.”

I didn’t know if Doris would get over her mood or not, whether she was really offended by his joke or just acting out, but what else could I tell him? Igor nodded, but I could tell his feelings were genuinely hurt. He pursed his full lips in a way I secretly adored. Without thinking, I reached out to him. He instantly clasped my hand in his big, callused ones, squeezing my fingers lightly.

We talked a bit more about the difficulties of office friendships and keeping personal and professional boundaries. All the while, our fingers were interlocked. I wasn’t even listening to him, unsure of my own words. I was thinking about his fingers, holding mine, mine holding his. My hands were cold and clammy. His were warm, almost hot. I wished he weren’t talking about Doris. I wished he were talking about me.

“Sometimes, it’s just easier to keep it professional, Igor. Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I heard myself saying.

Igor squeezed my fingers, and said, “I understand. I’m like that, too. During the day, I love you to death, but after the five o’clock whistle blows, I don’t know you.”

Calla Devlin, 8/15/2010

Current Occupation: Writer
Former Occupation: Communications Director
Contact Information: Calla Devlin’s work has appeared in anthologies and literary journals, including Watchword, Five Fingers Review, Visions, Square Lake, Harrington Fiction Quarterly, the New College Chapbook Series, and forthcoming in The MacGuffin. Her story “Borderlines” won honorable mention as one of the year’s most notable publications in Dave Egger’s Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 and another story, “Bird’s Milk,” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2009 fiction competition. Most recently, she was included in two anthologies, Lost on Purpose: Women in the City and Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond. Currently, she is at work on a novel.
###
The Grief Assistant
1. The Advertisement
Have you lost a loved one?

Does your teenage son own an appropriate suit to wear to the memorial service? How do you manage neighbors and friends bringing an endless caravan of casseroles? Is your yard suitable for an outdoor wake? Need obituary assistance? Are you comfortable negotiating costs with a funeral home? Notifying distant friends and relatives? Who can administer all of the details when a family is in severe crisis?

Contact Claire Solomon, Grief Assistant.

Practical guidance, supportive listening, reasonable rates.

2. The Call

“My name is Greg Blakely. Joan Spence referred me to you. She indicated you could help with my wife’s arrangements. I can be reached at 858-555-6427. Thank you.”

3. The Interview

I favored widowers over widows. Two of my previous three clients were widowers. Heart attack and suicide. The widow—the stroke client—was tougher than the suicide. Cried the entire time I worked with her. My preference for widowers may have been attributed to stereotypes—stoic men versus crumbling women—but the truth was men required less. They rarely cried in my presence; their needs tended to be practical, simple, and clearly stated.

Mr. Greg Blakely asked me to sit down and I debated the chair or the couch, settling on the latter. On the phone, Mr. Blakely sounded like the sort of man who wore a uniform of golf attire regardless of the occasion. I imagined an older man with thinning hair and a thick middle, but my assumptions were incorrect. Mr. Blakely appeared to be in his early forties and wore a casual outfit of jeans and a butter yellow polo shirt that complimented his olive complexion and red-rimmed green eyes. Like many widowers, he spoke softly as though he might frighten me away with his normal tone of voice.

“It’s best to start with this form.” I waved my clipboard. “Is that okay with you?”

Mr. Blakely nodded.

“It’s called the ‘Grief Intake Form’ and I prefer to fill it out with you in person rather than leaving it with you. The information is more complete that way. It’s best if we just run down the list.”

He nodded again.
“It looks like I have your all of your contact information. Would you like to provide me with your email address so you can receive periodic updates about Grief Assistance? All information is kept private.”

“I would prefer not.”

“That’s fine. Can I ask why you decided to employ my services? I know Mrs. Spence referred you.”

“She’s a bookkeeper in my office and she called and told me about you. She understands that, at times, I prefer to hire someone to handle projects. It’s easier for me that way.”

“I see. Now I have some questions about the deceased. What was your wife’s name?”

“Jennifer.”

“What was her date of birth?”

“April 6, 1969.”

“An Aries?”

“I think so. I’m not much for astrology.”

“And her date of death?”

“Last Friday. The nineteenth.” He winced as he answered.

“Her favorite color?”

“White.”

“White?” I asked. I took a moment to scan the room. Every item in the room was dark, from the wood paneling on the walls to the deep brown of the leather furniture. Even the spines of books lining the shelves were a dark hue.

“That’s right,” Mr. Blakely said.

“Unusual,” I said.

“She was that kind of woman.”

I tried to interpret his expression. His eyes lit up but his mouth remained a ragged line. By the way he squeezed his hands together and hunched his shoulders, I sensed how much he loved his wife.

“What was her favorite flower?”

“Peonies.”

I wrote the word down, not sure if I spelled it correctly. I crossed out my first attempt and proceeded phonetically, PEA-O-NEES.

“How about her favorite poem?”

He looked startled for a moment and was silent. I scanned my sheet of paper before looking at him.

“You don’t know?”

He shook his bowed head. While the form was essential to my work, I regretted the process. Death was difficult enough, but some of my clients discovered small, unknown details about the person they had lost.

“That’s all right. Most people don’t. It’s nice to read a poem at the service. How about her favorite song?”

“Candle in the Wind by Elton John. The Princess Di version. She followed Diana’s life closely.”

I nodded. “Many of us did.” For a moment, I remembered the flash of tragic news: the curled, smashed metal of Diana’s car followed by her funeral. I had feigned the flu so I could skip work and watch the televised memorial.

“This is going well,” I reassured. “The next section is more challenging. Please indicate the following as true or false.”

I looked up to make sure he understood. He met my eyes and offered a slight nod.

“The deceased loved the harp.”

He raised his eyebrows and frowned. “Why do you need to know that?”

“Because it helps determine suitable music for the service.”

“Oh. Well, I can’t recall Jennifer ever saying she enjoyed harp music.”

“That’s false then. The deceased loved piano music.”

“True.”

I had the sense Mr. Blakely approached the SAT exam with similar uncertainty, selecting noncommittal answers rather than making risky guesses. I suspected Jennifer made most of the tough decisions in this household. When I said, “The deceased loved polka music,” I predicted his answer would be false. It was.

“The deceased cared about the environment.”

He looked puzzled for a moment.

“I’m not here to judge,” I said.

Relieved, he said, “False.”

“The deceased was an extrovert.”

“True.”

“The deceased’s death was sudden and shocking.”

Mr. Blakely gave a startled jump and then flinched. His eyes remained closed for a moment.

I would have touched his hand, but the coffee table separated us. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“She died in a car accident. She had been drinking.”

Just like Princess Diana. I nodded and told him I was sorry again. “Do you want to talk about it?” I asked. That’s what I said when someone called the crisis line where I volunteered every Wednesday night. My heartbeat quickened and—in this moment—I felt incredibly close to him. I wondered if it was unprofessional to feel this way.

He opened his eyes and leaned back into his chair, leaned away from me. “No, no I don’t think I can.”

My heartbeat slowed down to its usual pace. I scratched the next question, “The deceased’s death was a long time coming.”

“Let’s take a break,” I said. “May I use your bathroom?”

“Of course,” he said. “It’s just down the hall.”

Mr. Blakely rose and walked through the dining room to the kitchen. I stood and inventoried the living room, a masculine room with a large picture window framing the couch.

It was helpful to become acquainted with a family in their environment. They tended to feel more comfortable and, from the surroundings, I could assess the relationship with the recently departed. Slowly, I walked down the hallway and peeked in the cracked doors. Everything was tidy. Not at all the typical surroundings of someone grieving, with clutter and dirty dishes scattered about. The first room, colored in jewel tones, served as an office with an imposing desk, more bookshelves, and a large television. The second room startled me, a large sunny space decorated with remarkable grace. Completely white, the room boasted an amazing view of the Pacific. Framed white embossments lined the walls, each image an etched shell: clam, conch, sea snail, abalone. Delicate fabrics comprised the curtains, covered the pillows, and upholstered the furniture. A large basket filled with sea glass and enormous shells rested on a table. So, this was Jennifer.

I continued down the hall toward the bathroom and noticed how the house was absent of photographs. When I returned to the living room, Mr. Blakely handed me a mug of coffee and gestured toward the cream and sugar on the table. I added a dollop of cream and took a sip.

“Now let’s talk about the reception,” I said.

He thumbed through a stack of paper on the table. He withdrew a legal pad and handed it to me.

“Here’s a list of those who need to be contacted about the reception. I’ve indicated the relationship of each one. There are about two hundred. Most have been notified of my wife’s death, but some won’t know yet.”

“That’s fine,” I said as I accepted the paper. His handwriting was tight, slanted to the left, and neat. All of his words recorded in capital letters.

“Do you know what you will wear to the service? It’s best to wear dark, conservative clothing. Something formal. Would you like me to take a suit to the drycleaners or purchase an outfit for you to wear?”

“That’s something you do?”

“Yes. I can purchase clothing for anyone attending.”

“My mother will need a dress.”

I made a note about his mother. “That’s not a problem.”

“I’ll phone you with her size.”

I glanced around the room. “Your house seems to be in order.”

“All I’ve been able to do is clean. I must have vacuumed this room fourteen times.”

“It’s spotless. Will you need a housecleaner after the reception?”

“That would be helpful.”

“I’ll fax you some of the caterers’ menus this afternoon.”

Mr. Blakely nodded.

“How about an open bar?”

“That will be essential.”

I reviewed the form, confirming all of the details. “I think I have everything I need to get started. Thank you for your time and, once again, I’m sorry for your loss.” I collected my things and stood.

Mr. Blakely extended his arm to shake my hand. When we did, I was surprised by his electric touch and I didn’t want to let go. I followed him to the door, studying the dark wet line down his back and circles under his arms. Grief was a thorough workout.

On the drive home, I questioned whether or not Mr. Blakely had cried. He seemed so formal, so restrained. I wondered if he could allow himself to collapse, to succumb to his feelings. It would comfort me to know he was taking care of himself. I could take his hand at the reception and tell him it’s okay to cry. I could hold him. I bet his mother was a nice woman. I hoped she wrapped her aged arms around her son and comforted him in this time of need.

4. The Arrangements

Jennifer Blakely Memorial

* Service Program: Proofread at the printer tomorrow morning. Pick up programs at 4:00 PM and deliver to mortuary.
* Flowers: A Bed of Roses will deliver peonies and calla lilies at 10:00 AM.
* Food: Comfort Catering will serve chicken skewers, fruit salad, green salad, pasta salad, cookies, meats and cheeses, and sliced baguettes. Bartender will serve open bar and a wide selection of nonalcoholic beverages. Catering staff will arrive at 11:00 AM to set up.
* Guests: All calls have been made. 182 confirmed guests.
* Out-of-town Guests: Hotel reservations confirmed. Town cars confirmed.
* Clothing: Mrs. Blakely’s (mother—NOT the deceased!!!!!) dress delivered this afternoon. Mr. Blakely’s suit picked up from dry cleaner. Will deliver this evening.
* Yard: Landscaper’s work completed. Will water the evening before the reception.

5. The Memorial

My car reached Mr. Blakely’s home at eight in the morning. Already, five cars snaked along the curve of the road, with three more jammed in the driveway. Alarmed, I scanned the guest list, counting which relatives were authorized to arrive before the service. Nine members of the immediate family. Why didn’t they carpool?

With an assortment of pastries, I climbed out of the car and marveled at the landscaper’s impressive work. Mr. Blakely’s yard was transformed by the addition of blooming plants: showy dahlias and fragrant gardenia bushes lined the path leading to the door. Shifting the platter, I rang the bell.

Like Mr. Blakely, his mother looked much younger than I expected. Her white curls framed her delicate face and her pearl necklace rested elegantly against the raw silk black dress.

“You must be Claire,” she said, taking the platter from my hands. “I’m Sandra Blakely, Greg’s mother. Thank you for your help. I couldn’t have selected a better dress myself.”

I murmured a thank you and entered the house. Mr. Blakely sat at the head of the dining room table as though he were waiting for a formal dinner to be served. Two women huddled beside him like bookends. One was my age, early thirties, and the other was closer to Mr. Blakely’s age. Both had long straight dark hair, alabaster skin, and blue eyes. Striking women usually intimidated me, but I was there in a professional capacity and there was no place for intimidation.

Mr. Blakely stood when he saw me. “You’ve met my mother?”

“Yes,” I said, turning to see where the senior Mrs. Blakely had gone. She must have been in the kitchen.

“These are Jennifer’s sisters, Catherine and Meredith.”

The two women didn’t look up.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said. “Mr. Blakely, as we discussed, I’ll stay here during the service and everything will be in order when you come home for the reception. Are you pleased with the yard?”

“Yes. Jennifer would be pleased.”

“I brought pastries.”

He moved to help me, but I held up my hand. “I can manage it, Mr. Blakely. Please stay with your family. This is why I’m here.”

“Very well,” he said as he returned to his spot between his wife’s sisters.

Mrs. Blakely waited in the kitchen. “I’ve put the platters on the counter. I can arrange the food.”

“Thank you, but I can manage. It’s my job. You should be getting prepared to leave. There might be traffic.”

Mrs. Blakely turned from me but didn’t leave. Like Jennifer’s room, the kitchen was white: the walls, floor, counters, cabinets, and dishes. When I turned around, Mrs. Blakely faced me.

“What can I do to help?” She asked, wearing a strained smile.

“I think I have everything in order.”

“Your job has left me quite useless,” she said. “I have nothing to do but walk in circles.”

“It would be a great help if you could collect everyone. You’ll be late if you don’t leave soon.”

“Very well,” she said. Various members of the immediate family filled each seat in the living room. Gently, she announced it was time to leave. Everyone rose and followed her outside. Mr. Blakely nodded at me as he left. I stood near the door until I heard the last car drive down the hill.

Quickly, I inspected the house and it occurred to me that there should be some sort of shrine to the deceased. I was certain I could find photos somewhere. Maybe from their wedding? All of the rooms were in order, cleaned with cleared tabletops for flowers and platters. I checked the entire house before approaching the closed door at the end of the hall. I rotated the knob and saw another white room with plush carpet, a tall bed, and a long window seat. A table was covered with half a dozen votive candles in matching crystal holders. I gathered them up. A large walk-in closet to my right revealed his dresser. In the bottom drawer tucked beneath his folded sweaters was a large picture of a woman with the same long dark hair as her sisters. The frame, a burnished gold, was exquisite. I carried everything to the dining room.

It didn’t take me long to arrange the photographs with the candles. With the wicks ablaze, I was reminded of Buckingham Palace and how everyone left notes and pictures and candles for Princess Diana when she died.

I stood next to the shrine and waited, and right on schedule, the bell rang, and the caterer arrived with her staff. I was so caught up with the food, helping to direct the bartender and servers to their stations, that I hadn’t heard them come home. I heard his voice first, anguished and then angry, followed by a duet of women hurling curses, Bastard! Motherfucker! Scum! Then the crash, the sound of something hard hitting against the wall, glass scattering across the hardwood floor.

I rushed to them. Mr. Blakely stood hunched over, his hand covering his forehead, a trickle of blood dripping down his temple. The frame, now broken, had hit him first. The sisters, transformed into shrill harpies, continued their shrieks, now chanting, Whore! Slut!

Mrs. Blakely checked her son’s wound and then said in a low voice, “How could you? I thought you had ended it with her.”

I assessed the photo and now saw that the woman in the portrait didn’t resemble the sisters in the least, although it was hard to tell with all of the woman’s makeup. Yes, they all had the same long hair, but the similarity ended there. What had looked like a dress was more of a negligee, deeply cut revealing her generous bust. When I looked up, Mr. Blakely’s furious eyes met mine.

“That’s not Jennifer,” I said.

He shook his head.

“The housekeeper will be here at four. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.” I snatched my purse and clipboard from the table and fled, grateful that I had had enough sense to park down the block so my car wouldn’t get trapped in the driveway.

Grief was famously one-sided, inherently unrequited, the living pining for the dead, who in their disembodied state, were free of pain. Yet Jennifer must have known of her husband’s betrayal, and must have left the world with a wounded heart. I had felt driven to find that photograph, as though her spirit had guided me to the room, to the closet, through his dresser drawers to literally uncover his secret. Now Jennifer could rest in peace.

Holly Day, 9/5/2010

Current Occupation: Freelance writer
Former Occupation: Secretary
Contact Information: Holly Day lives in Minneapolis, MN, with her husband and two children. Her hobbies include designing erotic needlepoints and kicking and screaming at vending machines.

###

In Summation

Across the table from you is a man holding a pile of office supplies. “Just in time,” says this man, whose name is “Frank.” “Kids start school next week, and now I don’t have to worry about shopping for school supplies.” He holds up a ball-point pen with an eraser attached to one end and shakes it. “Neat.”

All around you are men and women doing exactly the same thing as “Frank.” Pin-striped suits and pastel-colored blouses, strings of fake pearls and shiny Pleather shoes. They, too, coo like pigeons over the vast treasure of office supplies filling the low wooden table. Hands reach out for extra staples, monogrammed coffee mugs, tiny flashlight key chains with the name of the company you work for etched on one side. You look down at your hands and suddenly it’s all spelled out for you, in plain, simple language: this is your life; this is the summation of your life’s work. This handful of erasers, experimental cleaning supplies, rolls of transparent tape—this is what all those years of college and, even before that, the tithe of childhood dreams, this is what your life equals. This is it.

In one of the cubicles in the other room is your desk, and in your desk is the gun that you have kept hidden in there ever since that crazy high school massacre, just in case one of those misfortunate psychotics from the school had a spiritual twin that had not mowed down his classmates as a teenager, but had instead grown up to become an ad executive, or a secretary, something disgruntled. You have found great comfort in this piece of metal, this amazing contraption of rotating cylinders and reflexive technology, the way the solvent still smells faintly sweet when you hold the barrel up to your nostrils, and down to your mouth. Sometimes, when you reach inside your desk for a pen or a piece of paper, your fingertips brush the molded rubber handle of the gun instead, and your mind goes blank, the sought-after object forgotten, the feel of the darkness in your hand the entire world.

Back to the shareholders’ meeting, where boxes of transparent tape and toilet brushes and mechanical pencils are dispensed among the employees that own part of the company, gag gifts dispensed with great pomp and aplomb as though this is what you actually had bought into when you were buying stock, and not some tightly-held dream of retirement someday, and dare you even say it? Comfort. “Hey, did you get one of these?” asks “Ann,” shoving a red ballpoint pen with an eraser under your nose and waggling it. ”I thought they only had the black ones this year, but there’s a box of red ones in the corner, too. Pass it on.” And she’s gone, delivering her gospel of red ballpoint pens with erasers to the rest of the assembled. Red.

Every day before this one, you have been sleepwalking, but now, standing here, gun smoking in your hand, a line of writhing bodies in your wake, you are finally awake. You don’t even know how the gun got from your desk in the other room into your hand, in this room, right here, right now, but it did. Perhaps someone asked you to get extra silverware from the office, and you went to your desk instead. Maybe you just wanted to touch the rubber handle of the beautiful little Luger for comfort, because if anyone here needed a brief fix of self-indulgent comfort, it was you. Or is this the dream? Your hand still tingles from the kick of the .35 caliber rounds, all six of them, and then the next volley, mechanical, you must have fed the second clip into the six chambers in your sleep, and the third, and God knows how many after that. Either you did fire the gun, and did it again and again, or there is something wrong with the nerves in your hand and all the way up to your elbow. Tingling like a heart attack. Either you did fire the gun, and did it again and again, or your coworkers are playing a trick on you, pretending to be dead.

The red ballpoint pen with the eraser has leaked a torrent of red through your clean white shirt pocket, and it looks like blood but it isn’t, it’s ink. All the way through to your skin, and it’s the type of ink that might erase fine from paper, but it does not easily wash out of fabric. The red spots on your shoes are blood, though, and that does come off, wipes off neatly with the handy one-cloth stain remover samples that were handed out at the beginning of the stockholders’ meeting. This is what your life amounts to.

This is what your life amounts to—running out the back door and down the service stairs, so completely and utterly panicked and sane, finally. How did this happen? Did someone say something? Are you even involved in all of this? Are those sirens? Or are your ears still ringing from the reverb of metal hitting metal, gunpowder igniting, someone screaming next to your head? There has to be some way to make this right, and going to jail is not going to make anything right. You long for wide open spaces free of concrete, skyscrapers, glass, and noise, and so you get in your shiny red car and drive.

You drive. You just get in the car and drive. You take off your shirt while you drive, and your pants, and your shoes, until you are just wearing your pinstriped boxer shorts and a pair of socks, your blood-and-ink-stained clothes random markers on a life disappearing far, far behind you. You grab your sunglasses off the dashboard and slip them on, and now you feel just plain silly. You’re driving a car in your underwear, wearing a pair of sunglasses. You take the sunglasses off and now you feel almost Biblical, some Biblical, apocalyptical figure leaving a wake of holy retribution behind you. Nah, not even God would have told you to kill your coworkers. This is all on you. So you’re just going to drive until all this is behind you. There are thousands of miles of concrete between here and the ocean, and even more if you drive north/south instead of east/west. That’s the great thing about the Midwest, you think, because you can drive in any direction for a really long time. By the time you hit the ocean, you will have this all figured out.

Spey Rod, 8/29/2010

Current Occupation: Steelhead Stalker
Former Occupation: Composition-grading Robot for Large Urban Community Colleges
Contact Information: After 20 years of teaching college-level composition, Spey Rod uses the few brain cells he has left trying to trick big steelhead on Oregon’s Sandy River. You’ll have to find him on the river, but if you ask him if he wrote this poem, he will deny it.
Additional Note: Spey Rod’s “Post Tenure Fish in the Machine” was published in the 3/29/10 edition of Work.
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Satori on I-84

At the large California community college
honest writing teachers before me
were like horses killed in war.

One had quadruple bypass,
another suffered internal bleeding,
and a third, a nervous breakdown.

Only fear and the IRS stopped me
from resigning my tenured position
and moving back to Oregon.

One night, driving under stars
from Hood River to Portland
was like sailing through Orion’s Belt.

Interview with Nicole Perretta, 8/22/2010

Nicole Perretta was kind enough to give WORK a few minutes of her time by conducting an email interview. Featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Ellen Degeneres Show, Perretta has built a reputation as the finest. Keep in mind, she is not just another whistler. This gal can really sing!

JM: What is your job description?

NP: Part-time Bird call performer/instructor

JM: Did you consciously decide to be a professional bird caller?

NP: The work has pretty much found me. I’ve worked as an avian caregiver most of my adult life. Bird calling just went with the territory.

JM: How did you come to be a bird caller?

NP: I started to imitate birds when I was a child, but throughout the years I have performed in front of audiences for free. As I became more well-known, I started to get paid for my performances.

JM: As a bird call expert, what was your most recent job? Who did you work with and where? What was the overall experience?

NP: I worked for a film production company in Canada as a bird vocals advisor on a new feature film coming out in 2011. The experience was great, I could write a whole article about that, but I’ll save it until after the film comes out.

JM: Has anybody told you that you’re crazy or that you can’t make a living on bird calls?

NP: Many people, especially those I went to school with. They just thought I was plain crazy and annoying. I think most people who have known me for a while aren’t surprised when they hear of my career. Most probably think, “It figures.”

I actually do not have the time to be a full time bird caller, so I do not make my entire living from bird calls. That would entail a lot of traveling and I’ve got a family to take care of, so I limit my bird calling work to only part time.

JM: How did your parents react to your bird calling when you were young?

NP: They told me to go outside.

JM: How do your parents react to your career now?

NP: They are proud of what I’ve done. I’ve always worked in bird related fields, so I’m sure they think it’s a natural progression for me.

JM: You have children, what do they think of bird calling?

NP: My oldest probably likes the bragging rights he has from having a mom who has been on Jay Leno and Ellen. My youngest walks around the house listening to bird calls on my ibird app and squawks in unison.

JM: Run us through a typical bird calling scenario – from the reason you’re making the call to the finale.

NP: If I’m outside and I see a raven fly by, I’ll usually call it and watch it wing around and circle over me. When he starts to fly away, I call again and coax him to land in a tree and our “conversation” will begin. We’ll call back and forth for a few, then I’ll stop and let him continue on his way. If I am on stage, I usually perform a collection of calls the audience may be familiar with.

JM: Do you often record your calls? What kind of equipment do you use in recording?

NP: I have a CD I produced with about 130 bird calls on it. I am in the process of recording an instructional CD. Some of the equipment I use are a macbook, M-audio interface with Pro Tools LE( though I often just use garage band), MicThing, and MXL 990 Condenser microphone.

JM: What are the steps to learning a call? Any special diaphragm exercises or research skills required?

NP: This will be explained in my new CD, stay tuned!

JM: Do you know about the rule of 10,000 hours [see Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers]? About how many hours do you think you’ve clocked bird calling?

NP: I’ve heard of that rule, and I wish I knew the answer to this. I’ve spent almost my whole childhood doing bird calls almost every day and I’ve worked professionally with birds for 20 years, talking with them every day. I’m sure I’ve logged 10,000!

JM: Once you learn one call, are all other calls easy?

NP: Once I learn a particular sound, then I can make many different calls using the same sound.

JM: What are the differences in calls?

NP: Some high pitched, some are low; some are clear sounding, others raspy.

JM: Which is your favorite bird call?

NP: Whichever gives the best reaction out of the bird I’m calling at the moment. My hawk calls get the best reaction out of an audience.

JM: Can you discern personalities of birds?

NP: Each species have their own generic behaviors that one can predict. It is not until you develop a personal relationship to birds, as in working with captive birds or observing specific groups in the wild over long periods of time, where individual personalities can be discerned.

JM: How do you feel about Myna birds / Starlings?

NP: They are much better at mimicking than I.

JM: Do you have conversations with birds?

NP: Sort of. Birds express basic desires through their calls such as, danger, curiosity, contact, aggression, attraction, and food. If one learns to discern these calls for different species of birds, and learns to imitate them, it is possible to hold a bird’s attention and “speak” to them for extended periods of time.

JM: What are they thinking about; any existential pangs or ecological lectures? If we included a couple bird representatives in this interview, what would they say?

NP: Is this a pet bird or wild bird? A pet bird would probably say, “Scratch my head, give me a snack, and bring me a new toy.” A wild bird would likely say, “Yikes! Big, scary, mammals! I’m out of here.”

JM: What are the traits of a good bird caller?

NP: A well muscled voice box and the ability to laugh at one’s self.

JM: Is there special equipment in this job?

NP: Bottled water

JM: Where do you work / What does your office look like?

NP: I work mostly in class room settings or on stage. My office is a laptop.

JM: Do you have a limit to how many bird calls you can make in a day?

NP: About 30 minutes a day, or 40 calls.

JM: Do you keep pet birds?

NP: I’ve kept pet birds for about 30 years of various species, but do not own a pet bird at this time due to my travel schedule.

JM: How do you feel about hunters?

NP: I think they contribute a lot to the conservation of wildlands. Much of the hunting license fees go directly into preserving habitat for game animals, which in turn saves habitat for all manner of wildlife. Most hunters I know are also ecologists and have a lot of knowledge and respect for the quarry they pursue, and have a keen interest in preserving their wildlife heritage.

JM: Why bird calls?

NP: It started as just something fun to do as a kid, but later as an adult I realized my talent was a bit unique, so I continued refining my skills and adding more species to my list. I think I’m up to 160 species now.

JM: How do people respond to your calls? Do you ever whip a bird call out in a crowded location, like Times Square?

NP: Usually in amazement. I try to keep my calls to myself unless I’m performing or out bird watching. I don’t want to give anyone a reason to send me to the loony bin! However, I have thrown a few calls out when at the zoo. I’ll be in front of an exhibit talking to the birds and people are looking everywhere for the “bird” they just heard. It’s kinda entertaining.

JM: Some people have work-related stress dreams – what’s your stress dream?

NP: Getting a head cold before an important job.

JM: You also make bird paintings and illustrations. What medium do you use?

NP: Acrylic and watercolor

JM: How long have you been at that?

NP: I started drawing birds about 30 years ago.

JM: Did you attend art school?

NP: I went to Idllywild Arts ( then known as Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts)

JM: Tell us about the books your artwork is featured in.

NP: I illustrated Understanding the Life of Birds, by Patrick G. Coyle, The Complete Bird Owner’s Handbook, by Dr. Gary Gallerstien DVM, Taxonomy of a Marsh Wren, by Phillip Unit, cover of the December 2005 issue of The Raptor Journal and I have also done illustrations for the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Zoo, and San Diego and Buena Vista Audubon Society.

JM: You also are doing voice over work? How is that going?

NP: I may be doing some looping work for a feature film in the near future.

JM: How has your work taken you to unexpected places?

NP: I recently returned from Canada in where I worked on a feature film as a bird advisor, specializing in bird sounds. I met with the director and producers and got to work with a screen actress.

JM: What was the most gratifying moment of your career?

NP: I think anytime I see a room full of children blurting out bird calls in perfect imitation is my most gratifying moment.

JM: How has being a guest on TV shows changed your career / your viewpoint regarding what you do?

NP: Being on T.V. has helped me to receive recognition and perhaps some credibility. Before being on T.V., I only performed bird calls at work parties, and after T.V. I am now requested as a national speaker.

JM: How many professional bird callers are there in North America? Are bird calls more popular in other countries?

NP: The only other professional bird callers I know of are individuals who have won National Wild Turkey Federation calling contests. They however do not use their voice, they use mouth pieces or manual calls to produce the sounds. These guys are often featured in hunting shows and conventions, and hunting magazines. There are a few speakers and bird watchers who imitate birds in their talks. Some whistle ( quite well) and some “pish” which is a shushing or kissing sound used to attract songbirds. I think most bird watching speakers can imitate at least a few birds. As far as I know I am the only one who can imitate 160 calls. I am not sure about other countries. My internet and youtube searches have come up empty. I do think there are some birding guides in other countries who whistle and do vocal bird calls to attract birds for paying bird watchers.

JM: Who is the typical bird caller?

NP: Hunters, bird watchers and researchers use bird calling to attract target species. Most people use digital recordings or manual/mouth calls to produce the sounds. There are some individuals who do vocal calls, but it is rare.

JM: How can an every-day person, such as your interviewer, make a positive impact for birds in his/her community?

NP: I think one of the best things we can do is to make sure our children have an appreciation for wildlife and wild places. People only protect what they know and love, and we must instill a love of birds and wildlife in children to insure the future of wild places.

An additional thing we can do to protect birds is to help at home by keeping our pet cats indoors. Domestic cats are responsible for the deaths of thousands of song birds annually. With habitat loss in both breeding and wintering grounds, song bird populations are decreasing rapidly. Domestic cats are not native to North America and when they kill native birds and other wildlife, they are creating unbalance to the ecosystem. Cats can learn to walk on a leash and if space allows, a cattery can be built to allow the kitties fresh air without allowing them complete freedom. We love our pets, but we need to love our wildlife too.

JM: Do you recommend bird watching journals or nature journals? Why? Should a person invest in an official journal or what?

NP: I think just about anything you want to know about bird watching can be found online. There are a lot of bird watching blogs and websites out there. If one wants to read stories about bird watching, leaf through nice photos, see lists of birding events and tours, or to watch what the latest birding products available are, then printed journals would be helpful. Bird Watcher’s Digest, Birder’s World and Wildbird Magazine are popular. I think some of these journals have digital versions now, if one would prefer to read online.

JM: How do you feel about bird call ringtones?

NP: They have some? Where can I buy one?

JM: Which organizations are doing good work for birds?

NP: Almost every type of bird has their own organization that promotes conservation, research and education for those species: Ducks Unlimited, Peregrine Fund, Hawkwatch International, and National Wild Turkey Federation, to name a few. Local wildlife rehabilitation centers help on the individual level, and do a lot of outreach programs to help educate the public. Oiled Wildlife Care Network is among many who are helping to save oiled wildlife in the gulf as we speak. Accredited zoos also do a lot for birds in helping to breed and rear critically endangered species and reintroduce them back into the wild. The California Condor is one example of a captive rearing success story. Birdlife International, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Audubon Society, do a lot for birds and are good places to start if one is looking to learn more.

JM: Do you feel you’ve become a spokesperson for birds?

NP: I’m not sure. Perhaps I have helped a few kids appreciate birds more. When they hear a bird call, they may be able to recognize the species, or may even be able to imitate it after one of my classes. I feel I’m more of a spokesperson for the outcast kid who would rather spend an afternoon watching and talking with birds than play video games. Perhaps I can give some hope to these kids who think they are weird and different, and that it is ok to pursue uncommon dreams. Sometimes kids are shy and afraid to make noise in front of other people for fear of retribution. Perhaps when a child sees an adult on stage being noisy and sounding funny, it will give them the confidence that it is ok to be expressive and even a little strange.

Please check for updates and new products at Nicole’s website: www.bird-calling.com

For Perretta’s art: www.nicoleperretta.com

Lisa Miles, 8/8/2010

Current Occupation: Professional Creative Artist/ Author/ Educator/ Speaker
Former Occupation: same
Contact Information:LISA A. MILES is a composer of original music on violin and mandolin, and author of two books including This Fantastic Struggle: The Life & Art of Esther Phillips, which was researched in part at the Archives of American Art in NYC. That book serves as source for portions of this essay.

Lisa’s work is a blend of the literary, arts, performance, independent historical scholarship, humanities, teaching, therapy and public speaking. She has been featured on KDKA-TV & The PA Cable Books Channel, as well as NPR and other national radio. Despite all that, she is an underemployed creative artist herself. More info/ Contact: www.lisamilesviolin.com

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The Artist as Worker

The scare and struggle surrounding a person’s livelihood has suddenly become common denominator in this country. Workers simple and schooled, both with equal pride, have faced significant questions about the integrity of their professions, let alone the viability of their chosen occupations. Auto workers and bankers looked for signs last year– newfound public appreciation or government help spurring sales, confidence in the market, or perhaps literally the blinking exit to another arena to save face.

One group of professionals has continually weathered this storm, however. The nation’s artists. As to whether it makes it any easier to ride out, when many are now suffering, remains to be seen. But due to their strong sense of identity (and the fact that they are used to being poor) they will come out the other end intact– more than can be said of other occupations.

Artists as workers is a concept still un-embraced, despite FDR’s inclusionary attempts with the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. Artists almost flourished for a small time then. Notice the talk is of artists, here– not so much art organizations. (Much could be written, with artist testimony, on the questionable support of arts organizations to this nation’s actual individual artists.) This definition includes but is not limited to musicians, theatre artists, filmmakers, painters, writers, sculptors, poets, dancers, storytellers, photographers, composers, performers and illustrators (and especially the independent ones, creating new, not derivative, work).

Like the nation’s newly unemployed or underemployed, creative artists are constantly searching for work, looking for viable opportunities for their skills, remaking their roles to fit current needs, and struggling to make ends meet.

Some of the more successful artists are simply blessed with being more resilient and lucky. All those with genuine talent, though, and with an accumulated body of work (albeit little money) have an integrity that can not be swayed externally from their already fragile position. All deserve a better lasting situation in our American society.

The most visible products to come out of the WPA were the bridges and public park structures that many Americans are familiar with, so much in evidence still to this day. But the WPA had many subdivisions, one of which was the Public Works of Art Project, or Federal Arts Project. Its subdivisions were the Theatre Project, the Writers Project, and the Mural and Easel Projects. Produced in cities all across America were new works for the stage, writing both creative and to chronicle, and easel paintings, lithographic prints, posters, watercolors, murals and sculpture, plus more.

Works were made for and distributed to public schools, libraries, planetariums, city and county buildings, housing authorities, garden markets, post offices, park structures, and other tax-supported institutions. It was indeed a ‘shovel-ready’ project (or rather brush and pen) that utilized talent to meet need. Governing bodies other than the WPA partially funded the work. City and state governments and colleges were on board with the creative-economic collaboration. Private recipients included hotels, homes for the elderly and banks.

Associated with the Federal Art Project were the Museum Extension Projects, which employed (as described by program material of the time) “research-workers, draftsmen, artists, sculptors, photographers, model-makers, and other men and women from the professional and technical groups.” Just a bit of material produced: “models of historic locomotives, frontier forts, historic buildings and mankind’s homes the world over, all built from scale drawings based on authentic research; plastic replicas of fruits and vegetables, reptiles, and topographic relief maps; costume color-plates; dioramas; and puppets and puppet play scripts and properties.”

The major uses of the products were as instructional aids, but also for cultural and beautification purpose, with so many public and even private institutions benefitting. Early American reproduction items were produced, to be included in both the Index of American Design and a book on Americana sponsored by the Library of Congress. Historical societies employed writers’ summary essays, as well as theatre artists’ conveyances, of items cataloged in their collections. The value of such vast creative output was deemed a necessity in the realm of public education and cultural betterment for all of society.

Though likely much of the work produced for schools hasn’t survived the touch of youth, time itself hasn’t dimmed direct evidence that the WPA’s Art Project positively affected our nation. Arts project output can be witnessed in natural history museum collections display, and in murals and canvas still visible in public structures of every city– nostalgic momentos of a brief time when public policy actually addressed artists’ dire need for work.

The Great Depression was devastating to most people, and yet ironically, creative artists found themselves considered for the first time with their inclusion in President Roosevelt’s project linking viable work with skillful individuals in need. The economic downslide actually helped– for once, a means by which creative workers could earn a living with their abilities!

FDR’s programs were intended to give not a handout, but an opportunity (previously unconsidered) to employ workers. Homer St. Gaudens, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, wrote in 1941 that the previous decade was one in which approx. 4,000 artists “were certainly in the submerged social strata. There was appropriated [with the WPA] a sizable sum with which artists, 90% of whom were to be on relief rolls, were [instead] employed at wages of from $69 to $103 a month.” (The American Artist and His Times, NY: Dodd, Mead & Co.)

Artists not only earned money for their basic livelihood, but gained a new sense of outward respect. Through the ages, they have either embraced self-worth or risked insanity. Now at least in the U.S. government’s eyes, artistic ability was finally seen as a viable part of society. Un-legislated individual viewpoints would prove much harder to change.

Former NEA Chair Jane Alexander spoke last year in support of the arts’ inclusion in President Obama’s economic stimulus package, on the heels of protestation by Lousiana Governor Jindal and others deriding what they did not want to understand. She of course well knew the increased stigmatization of the arts that took place in modern-day America at the time of Reagan’s de-funding of the NEA. Her words were significant, stressing the need and value of the country’s artistic output. For though FDR was mindful of the economic suffering of artists in addition to blue-collar workers, possibly enabling the general public to better understand their plight, any public good will would be soon enough squashed (as the Federal Arts Program would hit political pressure and the economy bowed to war).

The opportunity now in 2010, as we pull ourselves out of the Great Recession, is for the work of artists to take a new place in the economy. Discussing the benefits of WPA-like support for creative workers is called for. As well, when business and industry pick themselves up and dust off, they will need to take on Edgar J. Kaufmann’s courageous call for art in commerce. He who utilized art’s beautification in his Pittsburgh department stores, as well as commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build the masterpiece Fallingwater home, put out a call to muralists in a 1930 store pamphlet, and noted, “the fact that today we are the richest of nations places on us the added responsibility of giving greater momentum to cultural development than it has ever received from any people. Business and industry must accept a share of the responsibility which opportunity imposes.”

But let’s face it– most skills bring money in good times. Creative work has never, really. Dancers, writers, composers, painters, actors and more struggle every day to make a living. Creative artists, like all people, need work in order to survive. It is a terrible predicament to be good at something, to know you have a unique ability to do something that not everyone can, to even recognize that those abilities could creatively transform problems into solutions and certainly should have a place in our society– but to see little prospect of work.

All artists need opportunity to earn money utilizing their talent, doing what they do best. (This should be as much the American Dream as home ownership). That opportunity can be in so many forms, including (the very overlooked) schools and institutions hiring professional artists en masse for residencies; people hiring live musicians, esp. those writing original work (not simply derivative top 40 pop); community businesses adorning their walls not with usual-fare ‘doctor’s office prints’ but the work of local painters; performers and sculptors being commissioned to create for public and private enterprise; and grants and fellowships being awarded to individual artists who have a body of quality work to show the world, with more waiting in the wings.

In order for there to be work for artists, some subsidy may need to happen. In our land of plenty (should we be able to call it that anymore), it is certainly a shame that artistic ability has never garnered better wage. We have found our way around tremendous problems (and now stare at more daunting ones), and yet we have never tackled the idea that cultural work is indeed still work. That creative workers shouldn’t be always expected to live in poverty due to the (lack of) valuation of their skill.

For sure, artists got through, however narrowly, the slump– whether tagged recession or depression– intact. But they have always needed more than that just to get by, far beyond the here and now of common economic suffering. It is rather simple, really. Artists need to be employed– with consideration given to the full meaning of that word. Something with lasting impact is called for. Whether it be the jump-start of a Federal Program, or simply a long-deserved recognition and understanding from the rest of the country, spurring on employment opportunity. For indeed artists are workers.

Interview with John S., 8/1/2010

John Smith works for a nation-wide training company. Through this company he trains workers in the latest updates to building code, OSHA safety practices, and management and safety of hazardous waste cleanup. I first met John through OSHA ten-hour training as part of a month-long employment exploration. John made the ten hour class go more quickly than I’d anticipated and he had so many amazing stories of danger and intrigue that I knew I had to interview him. As you read through this interview you’ll see what I mean. Danger is, I’m pretty sure, his middle name.

###

JM: What is your job description?
JohnS: Right now I am an Environmental Specialist slash Safety Trainer. I do probably 80% training, 20% field work, which is almost exclusively inspecting job sights: so an insurance carrier or maybe the General [manager] will say, “come on out” depending on the size of the project “once every week, twice a week or once every two weeks and we just want the good, the bad, and the ugly.” They all kind of seem to follow the same format. I take pictures of the good, the bad and the ugly, give them a citation and stuff like that. The workers don’t care about citations and that crap. They want to see ‘what’s wrong with this picture.’ They hold safety meetings and discuss stuff like, “Oh, wow, that guy needs a tag line when they’re moving the framework.”
I love it because it’s like, hey, this stuff is going to good use.

JM: You’re an OSHA person?
JohnS: I’ve never worked for them. My training center has people who have.

JM: You’re a pre-OSHA…
JohnS: I’m a consultant. When I started out, I was the EPA guy because we were doing cleanup and you had to know all the clean up levels, DOT rules on shipping Haz(ardous) Waste, time frames … so I was really well-versed in EPA rules. We used to be Marine and Environmental Testing. OSHA was a small town in Wisconsin so far as I was concerned. When we changed focus it was like, “Wow, these guys are experts.”

One of the problems about OSHA is they have all this language but they never tell you what the hell it means. So, you have to go to resources to understand the rules. One of the things the State of Washington is doing really well is taking the OSHA standards and writing them in plain English. Marvelous documents. I wish everyone in the world had these documents because any businessman anywhere in the world could sit down and understand them. The way it is now, that [the difficult reading of OSHA rules] is why my business exists. You open the rule book now and it’s like it’s in French, man. When I started, I had no idea what they were talking about. We do a lot of making businesses OSHA compliant.

There are a couple of gals who started a paint store in East Port Plaza. They called us up and said, “We don’t know anything about this. We want you to come in and check out our new line of paints.” They paid me some money, I went down, spent maybe an hour, wrote up the report. I said things like, “This guy needs a GFCI. The heaters have to be eight feet off the floor.” All that little stuff. They just wanted to make sure their workers were safe. Which I think is nice, now they’re all working in a safe building and before they had no idea. They didn’t have stair rails … that’s weird. It was a mixture of old and new. They had gut one part and modernized it. The basement was the old archaic stuff.

That’s kinda what I do now. We do DOT training, Air Shipment training, Maritime, Industrial Hygiene, a huge gamut. What OSHA did was say, “Look, there’s a huge need to train young workers. We can’t do it all in Dust Plains, Illinois. So let’s create regional training centers associated with colleges and universities, give them some money so they can have OSHA continuing education courses, and make it all across the United States.” Our company is an external provider of those courses. Our most recent OSHA 10 Hour class was sanctioned by the U of W. Organizations are out all the time looking for grant money to pay for this stuff. That’s how it’s been. The course has been dynamite, horrendously successful in construction for young workers.

I met a guy from Canby, he was the welding teacher. He was taking his kids through a ten hour construction course. Can you imagine? In High School, getting on the ground floor of what it’s like out there, on construction sites. Man, I just said, “Boy, that is phenomenal that you’re doing that.” There are so many young kids coming out and they don’t have a clue. They get taken advantage of, get put in dangerous situations.

JM: A lot of that stuff is subtle. They say, “I need you to hang this thing up there. Here’s the ladder.” The kid may not know how to use a ladder safely and may end up doing something dangerous unwittingly. You know you have to get the job done, but no one is giving you the tools to do the job right.
JohnS: Right. I was just over at St. Vincent’s where they’re getting set up for some DOT training with an old buddy of mine and her husband happened to be there. Kenny is a master welder. You can ask anybody. He’s retired. The guy says, “I can’t pay him (Kenny) enough to get him down here.” That’s one of Kenny’s things is to mentor young kids. He’s going to work in their physical plant and show them how to weld, how to weld really well, because he loves it. He’s in seventh heaven when showing someone else. It’s like, “Here’s how you do it. Now here’s how you do it really well.” What a craftsperson. I love craftspeople. It looks so easy until you go to do it.

JM: Your company does both Earth & Environmental and Marine & Environmental?
JohnS: No. They acquired us. The Marine name had to disappear. It’s now just Earth & Environmental. I think there are more women in our office than men. We’re more of an engineering firm. All the techs go out and get their hands dirty but all the rest, the bulk of the staff, are registered geologists. They put together the scope of the work, energy audits … we’re doing a ton of energy audits for the military right now, we’re doing the clean up on Rhone-Poulenc and that’s going to be a multimillion dollar project, we’ve been on that one for, like, forever.

JM: So outside of trainings you are also doing the work you are training people to do.
JohnS: As a company, yes. I used to, but now I don’t do the field stuff so much. As a company, our field techs are out there working on all different kinds of jobs and some of the registered geologists go out. One of the guys is getting ready to go out to Government Camp, Oregon. There’s an oil plume they’re trying to trace; where is it coming from, where is it going to. So, primarily our office is made up of engineering types and they’ll put together the project and then someone else carries it out, we sub out the work to someone else. It’s a monster company. We do almost 4 billion in the US alone. The company acquires small companies like mine was. We had eight employees. But The company’s investors were like, “We have no training centers in the NW. Let’s get these guys.” Or, “We need more wetland expertise.” So they go up to Snohomish and buy out this two person company. The company is assembling chess pieces. Most recently they acquired GeoMatrix, 600+ employees, very strong California presence. They just acquired a 700-employee company in Britain. We rank in environmental firms, worldwide, I think we’re fifth or sixth. CH2M Hill is the big dog; a Portland, Oregon based company.

There are a lot of firms that do environmental clean-up. The nice thing about the company is if you have a project coming up, like Camp Pendleton clean-up, they’ll send people down there to help the existing staff to clean-up.

I’m glad I’m not involved in this one or I’d quit, the Tar Sands in Canada. They are just raping the Arctic environment. You can extract oil from sand. It takes three times as much energy, you have to de-forest everything, and then what do you do with all the water? That’s part of the process. You put it in these impoundment ponds that aren’t worth a damn. It’s like what happened in Tennessee. They impounded hundreds of millions of gallons then one of the ponds broke and it ended up in the river, killing a river. And you call yourself an environmental company? I wouldn’t even send people up …. In the winter, that’s when the work is done, we’ll send maybe eight people up and they will work with drill rigs because they are still figuring out the extent. It’s a huge area of Tar. When the price per barrel gets up there, they go to work at extracting. It’s like. “Boy, our short sightedness on fossil fuels is scary.” When you look, the Gulf of Mexico is a classic case of ‘the oil is there but it is a risky business’. And then you lose one, well, now what?

JM: And the impact of that! You can’t get enough people to go down there and clean that up at this point. What are you going to do?
JohnS: Yeah, and the technology to keep it out. Once they get the weather, there’s not a boom in the world big enough to hold it out. It’s going to come to shore. The last I heard they are thinking of making a huge dyke but … this is bunker. It will float, but with the weather it will sink and then it will kill all the bottom critters. It’s a super rich fishery.

JM: Crawdad country! Catfish country!
JohnS: All of that. We watched Poisoned Waters. Brings a new perspective to oil spills. Wow!

JM: I heard the other day they were talking about it separating. They can get a grasp on what’s on top but everything underneath they are like, “whoopsee”.
JohnS: One of the things they used for the Exxon spill, and it worked really well, was a dredger called the Essayons. Its dredging arms go way down and it dredged up a ton of the bottom that they could reach. I don’t know how deep this Gulf spill is, they may be on their way right now. It’s one of the few vessels where you can actually recover what’s at the bottom. And then it’s like you can only go so deep, dredging. There are pools in Alaska that are going to be there forever. We just can’t get to it.

JM: When they pick up that oil, then what?
JohnS: You have to put it in something. Usually what you try to do, as this stuff comes to shore, you try to push it back, get it in the water, then you skimmer it. Skimmer it, it goes to a bladder, goes to a reservoir tank, goes to a vac truck. Down there it’s bunker, so they’re probably going to use squeegee stuff. That’s where you try to keep it off the beach so you can recover it. It’s really labor intensive. In the newspaper they described how much boom they are going to need. It’s incredible. And then all the workers, OSHA is down there to make sure all these guys have training on the hazards of bunker and that they are wearing the right Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) because you’re going to have literally hundreds of thousands of people working if this thing comes in like they’re predicting. I mean, we made a ton of money off the Exxon Valdez spill. But you know, when push comes to shove, we should have just walked away. What did we do? We tore up miles of beach line, steaming it back into the water, killing everything, wiping rocks.

They have known about a bug that feeds on oil for years. They are trying to modify it. They’re trying to get it to go from Anaerobic (without oxygen) to Aerobic. Whoever does that is going to make a bazillion dollars. Seed it and walk away. The bug will digest all the oil, no harmful byproducts.

JM: There are new rules for lead paint, right, like you have to put your house in a giant bubble?
JohnS: Well, you put down ten feet of plastic, you do your work but it has to be HEPA vacuum tools, if I have a sander it has to have a shroud over it, and then when I’m done, then I spray all the plastic I was working on, fold it inward. All the stuff can go out as household garbage, which is real unusual. It’s really the people-hours that are difficult.

JM: What does HAZWOPER mean?
JohnS: HAZWOPER covers people who do cleanup work, cleaning up polluted sites. When you clean up a polluted site all the waste has to go someplace. So HAZWOPER covers the handling of waste. All our waste goes to Treatment Storage and Disposal facilities, TSDs. They can be big, they can be very small. There’s one here they’ve closed now where all they took were chlorinated solvents. There’s one up in Tacoma, very small, all they take are corrosives, acids and bases. Arlington will accept no liquid waste, so you have to solidify it: kitty litter, walnut shells, however, and then you bury it. Arlington is a repository. Whomever’s stuff is in Arlington is, as lawyers would say, jointly and severally liable forever for the waste. You can never get out from under the loop. That’s good! Whoever put that waste there pays, not you and I.

I have to do my research. I look at my sewer bill and there’s this thing, I’m thinking why are we paying for this Superfund cleanup? It’s not a lot. It’s $3.50. But I’m a citizen. Wait a minute! The polluters pay or you dip into Superfund. I know a lot of City of Portland people so I’ll find that out what the true skinny on this is.

So, that takes care of cleanup jobs, where the waste goes, the last part of HAZWOPER is for Emergency Responders: HAZMAT teams, all the semiconductor industry has HAZMAT teams, Portland, Gresham, Tualatin, so it’s a private and public sector. So HAZWOPER sets the training. If you’re going to be a HAZMAT technician this is what you have to know. It’s all competency based. The first part “HAZWOP” is like following a recipe. When you go over to Emergency Response it is like, “Whoa, wait a minute. This is competency based, I have to demonstrate competency in these areas.”

JM: What are those areas of competency?
JohnS: They talk about knowing the incident command system, your roles and responsibilities in an emergency at your facility, who’s the boss, who is not, who is the incident commander, who is the site safety officer, what procedures will we use to safely contain/control this release. Kind of standard operating procedures. It’s kind of like the Fire Department – they go down I-5 and if it’s HAZMAT incident, they’ll call a HAZMAT team. The HAZMAT team shows up with a white board. They list who’s running it, who’s the site safety officer, who’s going to run operations, and they fill in the blanks for a safe response to whatever it is that got dumped. Now with facilities, they can pre-plan all that. They know the chemicals they are dealing with, they know what kind of PPE to wear. Are these the kind of gloves for Caustic or are these the kind of gloves for Hydrochloric. They have what they call Crash Carts and all their stuff is there. They have a spill, they move the crash cart as close as possible then get to work on cleaning up the spill.

JM: So they have bins with everything they need.
JohnS: Yeah! They have little charts. It will list the acid, say, and it’ll say green glove/yellow suit. Real simple. That way, “Green gloves, guys. Yellow suits, guys.” Very efficient. These guys have been doing it so long that they are very, very proficient.

JM: How long has HAZWOPER been around?
JohnS: 1990. One year after the Exxon Valdez spill.

JM: How long has hazardous material been in production?
JohnS: Oh gosh … since the beginning of time, man. We’ve always made nasty stuff … to kill people, right?

Think about mercury, mad as a hatter. The Romans probably had more lead poisoning than anyone realized because the troughs they ran water through were made of lead. So HAZMAT has been around forever. But the regulation of it was kind of a gradual thing based on public need.
In the late 1980’s, HAZCOM, or the worker right to know was formed [Hazard Communication]. So, Julie, say you’re working with Methyl Ethyl Death, you need a piece of paper that explains everything you need to know about Methyl Ethyl Death; that’s the MSDS sheet [material safety data sheets]. That’s called the worker right to know law. You can’t be working with chemicals you don’t know anything about. But on the flip side, the cost to industry was hundreds of millions of dollars. I had to send every chemical I made to a lab, kill a bunch of rats, find out the good the bad and the ugly, and transfer that onto an MSDS sheet. Whoa! That was expensive. On the other hand, MSDS sheets are a real valuable tool. What does it react with, what does it do, what’s the splash point, all that stuff.

JM: And now that we have it, we don’t have to do it again.
JohnS: Unless you change the ingredients. They’ve done the bulk of the work so it’s not a burden when they add or delete something in their product line. That’s been a good thing because people can educate themselves about this stuff.
One of the problems is they are difficult to read because the damn lawyers get a hold of them. So it’s not skin rash. No, no, it’s Adermatitis. Here’s supposed to be the best source but we’ve got all these big words in it, so I’ve got to get a medical dictionary, I’ve got to get my firefighter buddy for the fire explosion section, and an industrial hygienist for health because nobody can understand the terminology. They are cumbersome.
JM: Do you think it could be possible for humans to stop producing hazardous waste?
JohnS: No. Watch Poisoned Waters. We are all polluters. I love the move for green energy, hybrid/electric cars, that kind of stuff, but we are always going to make something nasty and when we’re done we’re going to call it hazardous waste and put it in these repositories.

But, really, these repositories are really well designed. They’re lined, monitored so if the liner breaks we know it breaks, tightly controlled access, that type of stuff. So if you have to get rid of bad stuff, we’re alright. We [Americans] are probably one of the leading nations in the world for the cradle to grave management of hazardous waste. We have the EPA rule that says you have to manage your waste from the cradle to the grave and this is how you do it. These are hard, fast rules and if you cheat on us we are going to hurt you with fines, stuff like that, you can go to jail for five years if you knowingly and willingly endanger human life and the environment.

JM: How have regulations changed?
JohnS: A lot of people say it’s getting tougher and tougher to do business. But on the other hand you have more educated, savvy workers. The number of work injuries is down. Prior to the creation of OSHA there were 14000 injuries a year. Last year was the best year on records with a little over 5400. If you think about the number of people working in this country, that’s a very acceptable number. What OSHA is trying to do is work more with companies. They have compliance or consultation. If I was a company, the easiest thing in the world for me to do is to call up OSHA and say, “Can we see a consultant?” The consultant does all the work and you can’t be inspected for compliance. It’s a good thing. Everybody wins.

Consultant comes in and does a full-blown inspection. The consultant says, “I want management with me and I want some worker bees with me. Here’s the laundry list. Let’s sit down and figure out how to deal with this.” It’s usually money issues. We set a rough schedule and chip away at it until it reaches 100%. It takes management and workers to do this. As they get close then the carrot comes out. The consultant says, “You know what? You are so close to winning Oregon’s highest Health and Safety Award, the SHARP Award. You’re this far, why not go for it?” And they do. You can walk into a SHARP workplace and you won’t see any violations. The employees are pumped about it. You have to renew it, it’s not like it is home free but from OSHA’s standpoint there might not be a call back or three years.

JM: Talk about the history of the EPA.
JohnS: Largest protest ever on American soil was the very first Earth Day, late 60s. Tricky Dick Nixon did not want to sign it in, but in the same year he signed EPA and OSHA into existence. Industry thought this was some fad that would blow away.

JM: Damn hippies …
JohnS: Yeah! Yeah! Industry was always, well, you’d just locate your shop next to water and flush everything out. That’s how everybody thought. You have to go back and think about this for a second; we’re talking late 1960s. Ecology was not in most textbooks in the late 60s and then came along one person, a lot of historians will name her, Rachel Carson. Carson was one big contributor to the formation of the EPA. She came out with Silent Spring [ISBN-10: 0618249060], whoa man! It’s a worldwide best seller. She traced the bioaccumulation of DDT. It galvanized the public. Not only did you have 20 million protestors, you had a lot of people sitting around their living room tables going, “What are we doing?”

Man is not a good steward of the environment. You have to have a government agency to protect the environment against man.

It was a great bipartisan effort. Everyone knew if he said no to EPA, he would never get reelected. People were fed up. You could cross the Hudson River and it was filled with pollution and crap. It was like that all over the United States, just garbage piles of water. We were killing ourselves.

China is going through it. They build factories in provinces and the central government doesn’t even know about it. Yet they are supposed to have a permit to build the factory in the first place. So there is rampant expansion. “If I’m going to build a factory, I’m going to build it right next to your village so all of you can work at my factory. Oh, and by the way, I’m going to poison all of you while I’m at it because of this stuff I’m making.” They have huge cases of child poisoning, well over a thousand cases, and this is permanent damage in 6 and under. It’s tragic. They’re killing off their population. We were doing the same thing.

One of the biggest benefits for kids in America was when they banned leaded gasoline. We’d do cleanup jobs and DEQ would say, “We want a background sample.” We had arguments because, well, it’s everywhere. We couldn’t get a background because it was everyplace. They wanted a background of zero but it ain’t there.

Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, these are all protective of the environment. Remember when Reagan said we’re going to self-regulate? And that’s what Bush followed? We get away from big government and don’t have anything OSHA or EPA related happening then we get Democrats in office and that’s when things start to happen. There’s a lot of new stuff in the pipeline.

These agencies are definitely political. The people in charge are appointed to position. It’s kind of tragic because if you’re working for them and believe you are trying to make a difference by keeping this stuff out of our water, air, or where ever it happens to be, and the head is not supportive … well, it’s always a pendulum. We’re on the upswing now.

JM: Do you think pharmaceuticals are a form of hazardous waste?
JohnS: No. I think it’s one of those that we really haven’t evaluated. Over at St. Vincent’s they just started keeping their patient’s leftover pills and sending them to a safe repository. We are catching up to the industry as far as these chemicals they are manufacturing and we don’t really know anything about them. We pay the price for inventiveness.

JM: What do you do in your free time?
JohnS: I do a lot of cross country skiing, canoeing, and, my son and I, we bird every weekend. He’s the birder. I carry the scope. We just look at birds. Over the course of years, he is very good. We’ll go out with Audubon, they sponsor field trips just about every weekend, and Backyard Bird Shop does bird walks. In Portland we have a lot of birds. We have the largest wetland in the United States, Smith Bybee. And we have the largest forest in the United States, Forest Park. I love Smith Bybee. If you’re going to go in the water you need to go early in the morning. It’s a beautiful piece of water. I go all around the state doing that stuff.

JM: Is that your reward for having done this kind of work, to enjoy what you saved?
JohnS: It is. When I was doing cleanup I was very proud of what I was doing. Whatever it was, when we walked away, the environment was in good shape. This is more than just a job, it’s hard, it’s filthy and no one wants to be in that damn suit, but when we’re done there’s going to be one small chunk of real estate that’s clean.

JM: Is there a difference between clean and restored?
JohnS: Yes. What Portland is really known for is what we call a Brownfield development. If we’re not number one in the nation then we’re certainly number two. We have over 1000 Brownfields to be developed. What it does is it allows you to use every square inch. In 2004 Congress passed a new act. It took the dagger away from over your head. It’s steamrolling. The waterfront is all Brownfield development. DEQ wins, developer wins, and property owner wins. Scoop out the dirty dirt, drop in new dirt, build condos. When you go over the Marquam Bridge where Cirque du Soleil is, that was all Brownfield. That is some, along the waterfront, to die for real estate. You know the Portland Esplanade? $30,000 per foot to clean that up. It has been one of the most successful, popular, usable projects ever done.

JM: You have worked cleaning hazardous waste and drug labs….
JohnS: Yeah, well, the way it works in a drug lab is the cops nab the bad guys, they collect evidence to convict them, glassware, paraphernalia, you don’t need the product, and then we would go in and take all the chemicals, identify them, categorize them, pack them up for HAZwaste and get them out of Dodge. And then, later, when they found that, you know you can take all these chemicals out of drug labs but they still are not safe places to live (they had a two year old kid die because the house hadn’t been cleaned enough) so now the States of Oregon, Washington, and California have made it so you pre-sample the house, clean it (which is essentially washing the house three times – wash, rinse), clean and pack it all up.

JM: By wash you mean soap and water?
JohnS: Soap and water. Get out your painter’s brush and start scrubbing stuff down. And then you post sample and all that goes to the Department of Health and they issue a certificate of occupancy. Oregon, Washington and California are the first three states to do this in the United States. Drugs always start in the West and go East.

JM: When you take a container of waste to a storage site you pay, right? There’s a holding fee for each barrel, yes?
JohnS: Well, you dispose of waste by weight. Everything is by weight. If you send something to any place, they weigh the container out and it costs x-much. Since we have the river, barge companies have oil spill trailers, booms and all the equipment to protect if something happens when transferring.
That’s one thing we learned from Exxon. They said they had the capability when in fact they didn’t because they never believed they’d spill.

It’s going to be interesting how this off-shore drilling thing will work out. Exxon Valdez for oil spills worldwide is number 54. For tanker spills, it’s number 6. The largest oil spill was a platform off of Venezuela; the largest oil spill in history.

We are so dependent on fossil fuel. But I see more and more incentives as far as rebates, homeownership stuff for energy efficiency. Used to be there weren’t rebates but, gee, if someone will pay me fifty bucks to disconnect my downspouts, hey, I’ll do that.

JM: So preparedness. Are we prepared?
JohnS: Imagine you create a poison that you don’t know what to do with. Think nuclear energy. Do we have a repository for it? No we don’t. Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? Yes it is. Come on, guys!

JM: Remember that video of those guys that get fifteen seconds to try packing a piece of uranium into a pot and they were running up and using these super-long tongs to pick up the uranium and then they’d run away and another guy would runs up, trying to scoop it up – fifteen seconds each!
JohnS: OH YEAH! Where are you going to put this stuff? Hanford is just a temporary holder. You have to deal with this. Half life of uranium is 4.5 million years.

JM: How do they figure that out?
JohnS: A health physicist can figure that out. It’s the decay. They calculate that out. There are books that give you the half life of all this stuff. So it’s still radioactive after four and a half million years! It will eventually turn into lead, but it’s this shedding as it goes through the process. Health physicists go through like four years of school.

JM: Do you think the alternative would be to contain it and send it out to the moon?
JohnS: Too expensive. I think it’s a good renewable source but there are better ones that don’t leave you with a waste legacy. Wind and Solar. Most countries, their reactors are standardized. France, all the reactors are the same. Here it’s a hodgepodge; companies saying buy my generator, etc., so when you walk into a plant you have to figure out everything all over again. You walk into a plan in France, Germany, they are standard. What that does is drive the costs down. All the tools are the same, all the parts are the same. To me, today the way technology is going. Leave nuclear, mothball it.

JM: What is the most hazardous household material?
JohnS: Oven cleaner, without a doubt. IPH. You’re spraying it in there, remember before with self-cleaning ovens? You’re spraying this very corrosive material, you’re getting in there to get that back wall, boy if you don’t have your clothing on and eye protection – housewives have been burned, hurt, killed by oven cleaner. Anybody who has a caustic on them knows what it means to rub fingers together and have a slimy feeling – it’s pulling all the fat out of your cells. All our cleaning agents are caustics. They emulsify the oil. Dishwasher comes on, squeaky clean plates.

People are doing the green thing, which I think is totally cool. Get rid of the Clorox and use Baking Soda. It works just as good.

Then there’s, what, whole lines of eco-friendly dishsoaps. Nitrates and Phosphates are killing everything. You get plumes and fish die … But you know the biggest hazard is Agriculture. It is the largest polluter in America.

JM: So the biggest household danger is the food you eat.
JohnS: Yeah.
A lot of people are looking at how much an airplane takes and they are saying, “I think I’ll drive a car to Wenatchee next time.” Because they realize the price, what a huge consumer flying is.

JM: I know quite a few people who take the train whenever they travel long distance. And Obama is making a big push for trains, so they are bringing trains back and trains are hiring again.
JohnS: I saw in China there is a train that never stops. That’s what consumes all the energy, starting and stopping.

JM: What was the most harrowing job you had?
JohnS: I think fighting forest fires was the most, even more dangerous than crop dusting, just from the standpoint that you really had to pay attention to what the fire was going to do. See, in the old days things were different. You apply to the forest service, you get on a regional hotshot crew – you’re one year green, three year green, four year green you’re pretty comfortable. That’s probably changed by now.
Say lighting hits, district crews go in but can’t fight it, smoke jumpers go in up to ten but they lose it. Now you need a line building machine. What Hot Shots are supposed to do is go in and build fire line.

JM: So you’re just trenching, trenching, trenching.
JohnS: Trenching, trenching, all day long, 16 hours, at the pace of you and I taking a leisurely stroll through Forest Park, you should be able to do that for 16 hours. So there’s a lot of conditioning. The crew boss can see what everyone is good at – I want this guy down here shoveling, I want this guy up over there. That way your line digging gets faster and faster. There are some guys that don’t like breaking bare ground, other guys are really good at it. We would work out physically and dig line two weeks before we actually got put out.

JM: So boot camp before you get sent out?
JohnS: Yeah.

JM: How many fires did you fight?
JohnS: Oh God…. Seven years times twenty, so a lot of fires.

JM: What was the turning point that made you switch to something else?
JohnS: Uh … well. I think I got married. Yeah. I got married.

JM: No more danger!
JohnS: Exactly. No more gone all summer. We’d go out and stand fire and the key was you stayed on as long as possible. When you’re in camp, you’re losing money. Come back to camp; wash everything up knowing you can go back out within 12 hours. Do all your laundry, a frenzy doing laundry to get it done and get back out there.

JM: You’re packing things with you?
JohnS: Water, files (for the tools), packs, canteens, damn, been so long … So you’re real mobile. You’re on the fire for a week, go home to do your laundry, they’d send us to schools, colleges, we’d use their laundry facilities and stuff, get totally drunk and then go back to work in the morning. We would fly in in these goony birds, the old DC-3, WWII, aw man, metal seats, huge noise things, the only way to get on that plane was to get drunker than a skunk and go to sleep. There were always those damn DC-3s.

JM: So what was crop dusting like?
JohnS: I got out of it as soon as I could. I crashed. I didn’t have the concentration. You’re going along the ground at 90 miles an hour, you have to have the concentration every second and I didn’t have it.

JM: You caught a wheel or something?
JohnS: No, first one I was learning how to fly a bi-plane, which was an Ag-Cat, they’re really squirrelly on the ground and I was landing on a gravel road and I just kind of slid it off the road, cracked the wing. It wasn’t any big thing. But the other one … so I was teaching and crop dusting. So you get up at 3:30 in the morning. I was teaching High School science (for six years). I could see the airstrip from the school house. I’d been out partying like a fool the night before. I show up, hop in the plane, start it, take off, swing over the river, and I’m headed right for the high school. THUNK. I look at the fuel gauge. I know there’s no fuel in this plane. So I’m coming in silent. They’re having their early morning practice on the football field. It’s either the brick building or the football field to put this thing down in. Oooo. I hit the smoker, the exhaust was hot, and one of the kids looked up and I’m pointed right at him and he sees all of this smoke and he had enough foresight to clear the field. Soon as they started doing this [waving arms] I lined in for a landing. Really bumpy, cart wheeled the plane. I thought I was home free. I didn’t know they had an irrigation ditch around the field. Oh that hurt. I didn’t break anything but I walked away thinking, “You’re going to kill yourself. You don’t have what it takes to have that 100% concentration.”

JM: Plus if you’re teaching … Was it a full load, teaching?
JohnS: Yeah. Teaching. Yeah it was, I was doing too much then. Yep. I got this one professor when I went to graduate school. He said, you know, one of the greatest teachers of all time was Socrates because he said you have all the answers. The teacher has to ask the right questions. He was good at it. That’s what got me hooked on teaching. The teaching was six to six every day, half a day Sunday and I just barely kept my head above water. I loved the work but it was just … it’d grind you down. Bone grinding. I did it five or six years and then I was finished. I loved it, high school kids, it was fun but wow it was a lot of work. The other thing was pay; back then the janitor was making more than I did. That’s why I was crop dusting.

JM: You were a paramedic in Alaska?
JohnS: Alaska was like the last frontier, man. I was up there a year after the huge earthquake they had in the 60s. They were still clearing it. They had no infrastructure. The only transportation in Alaska was the Alaska railroad. It was federally funded; the only railroad in the United States that was federally funded, because of the maintenance. But it was the life line. From Anchorage to Fairbanks by car you want to Junction then to Fairbanks; they hadn’t built the direct road. All these people who had homesteaded relied on the railroad to supply them; to deliver those two drums of kerosene for the winter. Whatever they needed came by train. So you ask “how long does it take” and they say 18 hours, maybe, because everyone would wait at mileposts and wave it down. Loading moose onto the train, offloading supplies, baggage cars were busy, busy, busy. I loved it up there. It was just too expensive. I would have loved to stay. That was the mid-sixties and a beer was a buck. That was horrendous. Things were so expensive. One of the guys I worked with, him, his wife and his kid lived in this little hovel of a place, it’d be kind of like your bedroom. That was their apartment. That was the 1960s and it was like $300 a month. It was too expensive and really undeveloped. They didn’t get any of their federal funds for highways until 1958. Forty Five MPH was white-knuckle time because they hadn’t done the permafrost thing (pavement), so there was eleven miles of highway and that was it. The rest was crap roads. Now, I went up there to do something, but took the train – now the train and the road parallel each other.

The big thing out there was icing and whiteout. You take off, you’ve got timberline but all of a sudden you’re up in the arctic where the timber disappears and you have an overcast day? Where’s the mountain? Where’s the sky? You can’t make the distinction. You’ve got ten seconds to go to instruments or you will crash. Ten seconds. That is vertigo. Vertigo is really … I’ve had it once. My flight instructor said, “I’ll tell you about vertigo. I was out farting around in Arizona, getting my night time [required hours for certification], blaring the radio, having a good time and I notice my airspeed indicator is going up. So I get the plane right but the indicator is still going up. So I’ve got this brilliant idea: point the stick at the stars.” He pointed the stick at the stars and he’s starting to shudder, he’s about redline, and he realizes, “I am pointing my stick at the headlights of a car driving across the desert.” That’s vertigo.

People think “how can that happen”. Folks, it does. You don’t know if you’re right side up, upside down, whatever. You’ve lost your spatial orientation. So many of the wrecks we did (rescue) were pilots, private pilots who got vertigo and crashed. Most of your little light planes don’t have any de-icing. You have to watch your weather forecasts.

The toughest guy I met, he crashed his plane, had burned a third of his body and he walked 15 miles to an airstrip where we flew in and picked him up. Burned and walking, 15 miles through the snow in snowshoes. You’ve got to be the toughest creature on earth.

JM: Were the burns the reason he didn’t get hypothermia?
JohnS: Maybe. I don’t know. He was travelling. He knew he had to get going. At least he knew the right direction. You get those amazing stories of survival from up there.

JM: You had a lot of hypothermia cases you picked up?
JohnS: Yeah. Their snowmobile falls into the water, that kind of stuff. If we could, we tried to get them back to the cabin because we could get them warmed up, get some warm liquids into them if they’re in good enough shape – rather than make that flight all the way back to the base before much is really going to happen to them. We had blankets and stuff but the kind of care you could get at a homestead was way better, way better. So we had these 90 pound kit bags. The bag went out first then you went out the plane next and then as you got close to the ground you release it and let it fall. All the medical stuff was in this kit bag. The doctors, they didn’t like the jumping part so they’d say, “you all go down there, get on the radio and let’s deliver this baby”. So you’d be describing the head coming out, or it’s kind of bulging and they’d say to cut skin.

JM: You were delivering BABIES?
JohnS: Yeah, well, you see in the military you’re carrying morphine, Demerol, finger blocks for kids that got hooks stuck in their fingers. But all these physicians we worked for were sharper than hell. They’d tell you to look for this or that.

JM: Alright. So now at this point I’m thinking you’re superman. You’ve done all these amazing things!
JohnS: You know, when I was younger, and my brother is even worse than me, I loved the rush. That was like drugs for this guy. Yeah, it was fun, man. Imagine jumping out of an airplane or flying along at ninety miles an hour a couple of feet off the ground. Feels good! My brother is even crazier than I am. He would do shit I would never think to do.

JM: What drew you to chemistry then?
JohnS: I’m not a chemist. I took chemistry in college. I wasn’t interested until I started cleaning up drug labs and wondered how they really were using this stuff. When we were doing drum jobs I’d ask why we were using something. I do chemistry in broad strokes. If you know your chemistry really well and are given two products you can figure out what they are going to do based on formula and all that chemistry stuff.

JM: What’s the number one lesson you want students of your training to take away?
JohnS: After all these years, it really doesn’t matter what you’re doing, just do it safely. Once you learn what safe is, stick to it. Invariably when people cut corners they get themselves into trouble. I used to cut corners all the time and then I’d end up doing twice as much work because I cut the corner and it didn’t work out. It took a long time to learn that lesson: Do it right the first time, stick to your marching orders, and you’re not going to get into trouble. You do this creative stuff, you can get into trouble, you can get somebody hurt, stuff like that. If you’re lucky enough to get an employer to show you how to do it right the first time, stick to it. It’s kinda like Maslow’s Pyramid, you get so many near misses and then something terrible is going to happen up here (at the point). The safety buck stops with you and me. It’s what you do out there on the field that determines …

JM: What’s banana oil?
JohnS: Banana oil is used for fit tests. If you are wearing a respirator, you have to be fit tested. It smells. It’s Isoamyl Acetate and it smells just like bananas. So the idea is I let you smell it first to be sure you can smell it then I put you in some cartridges (mask). I have this little vial of this stuff and your mask is on and you smell it, you fail. We do normal breathing, deep breathing, look up, down, side to side, jog in place, read the rainbow passage. Anybody can do the fit test. You’re just following a recipe set down by OSHA. If you get through the fit test and you don’t smell any banana oil, you’re respirator fits. Now me, I do the fit test with smoke. With banana oil, I’m relying on you to tell me you smell the banana oil. This stuff (smoke) gets in your mucus membranes, turns to hydrochloric, you’re going to *cough, cough, cough* like that. That’s the reaction people have. But the students, they have to gas themselves. Then it’s like, wow, this thing really works. The cartridge works!

JM: Do you have a favorite PPE?
JohnS: None of it is a favorite. It’s all miserable crap. It’s like you having to work on a sunny day in your rain gear and it’s 90 degrees. What fool would do that? The body burden, whether it’s level C air purifying or the moon suits, it’s all the same as far as what you’re poor body is going through. That’s why they give guys such an extensive physical. And you’ll see guys out on the field are fit. They’ve burned off all that fat over the course of getting acclimatized.

JM: You’re in a sauna every day.
JohnS: It is, but you work through it and pretty soon it’s like getting dressed. It’s going to be hotter than heck today, we’re going to take a lot of breaks, it’s going to be a slow day, we aren’t going to get very much accomplished, okay, so make the best of it. A lot of it is mental; working through it.

JM: Can safety plans used for hazardous sites be used as templates for everyday living?
JohnS: For the standpoint of job hazard analysis, yeah. What am I going to do? I’m going to go up and clean the gutters out. What are the hazards of that? Well, let’s see: ladder hazard. What can we do? Well, I can secure the ladder to… it’s what am I going to do, what’s the hazard, what am I going to do about it.
A lot of government agencies do this. Hazards and controls, hazards/controls — so that everybody is on the same page, all talking apples and apples. That’s what I learned from site safety plans is that if you follow that methodology, your job will go very smooth because you’re forced to pre-think it out. When we’re doing clean up and we have this plan, it goes a lot smoother.

JM: What do you want readers to get out of this interview?
JohnS: Life is fun. You can have a lot of fun. Get paid to have fun – training, that’s not work. I get paid to have fun. People ask me if I’m going to retire. Hell no, I’m not going to retire! I’m having so much fun doing this, it’s like why quit. People get themselves to where they are. It’s not exterior forces. We’re all on clear paths. We may not know where we’re going but we are definitely responsible for all that happens to us. You plot your own course through the universe. I’ve run into so many terribly unhappy people. This is quite a ride that we’re on, enjoy it.

JM: Do you think people know what the right job for them is?
JohnS: You know, I don’t think so. I think you just fall into it, kind of. When I graduated from college, I had no idea. No idea.

Jan Priddy, 7/25/2010

Current occupation: public high school and college English teacher

Former occupation: Art teacher, quilt store clerk (best reverse income), baker, architectural draftsperson, freelance designer, dog magazine columnist, direct delivery junk-mail rep (most disreputable), record store sales clerk, abused Taco Bell employee

Contact information: My work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and recent publication in CALYX, Raven Chronicles, and North American Review. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, I live in my great great aunts’ house on the north Oregon coast where I am not completing a novel, but do irresponsibly rant and thoughtfully rave on my “Quiet Minds” blog: http://janpriddyoregon.blogspot.com. Also find me at andpride@gmail.com

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You cannot walk straight when the road bends.—Romani proverb

MY AIDE
for Sue Hogarty

The smiling classroom aide—usually a mother
of older children who needs insurance—works
for hourly wages, a few dollars over minimum.

I do not deserve her. She is more diligent than her pay
demands. Every day she tracks her assigned charges
from class to class, taking notes. She murmurs

to her students; answers weary questions before
they become barriers, retrieves papers scattered
like toys across the lawn. She takes home their books

to study, stops by before class to verify a deadline,
understands more than they about Math and English,
and sighs over the passionate secrets of teenagers.

The aide uses her cell phone only outside, is absent
only when she is ill. She never talks back in class
or refuses to follow directions. She accepts responsibility

for her actions and for the actions of others. Here:
She folds their minds into tidy shapes, smoothes crumpled edges,
feeds the hunger of these girls and boys a steady diet

of encouragement and admiration. They preen, they glow,
these half-starved cubs, yet unable to feed themselves.

The classroom aide notes behaviors I overlook, repeats

instructions, reasons over their excuses, celebrates
every triumph. Her steady work—that we cannot earn—
reminds me to slow my busy hands to gentle

work, measure the child who walks into class this
day, track his progress, reward each step, and finally
gift smiles to whoever they are when they walk out.

Perry Genovesi, 7/18/2010

Current Occupation: Public Librarian
Former Occupation: Mail Services Clerk, Supermarket Cashier
Contact Information: Perry Genovesi lives in West Philadelphia, where his apartment was once home to Gary Heidnik. He is a recent graduate of Drexel University’s library science program and has another story up in Prick of the Spindle.
###
A Full Time Job

Five hundred coffee cups on my desk. There are lily pads floating in some of the mugs, between which tree frogs hop. There is stale coffee still pooled inside four hundred ninety-nine and now I have to find where I left this morning’s coffee. I must approach this methodically.

I know from touch that the mugs near the ends of the perspective lines on my desk are cold. Theirs is coffee from centuries ago.

Yellow floss-thin vines twist through handle holes. Farther back small, stop motion animation dinosaurs march. But they may be wind-up dinosaurs. There may be sparks shooting from their mouths and knobs in their ribs. Greg from Accounting may be playing tricks again.

Tall mugs tower over my head, temples of pottery and clay. My safari pants. I feel I am so much closer to this morning’s coffee, that holy chalice. On the ground I can see its tar-black rings fading into the brush. I bend down, sweep away some pencil shavings and find another ring. I pat my palm on its surface: still sticky.

There’s steam smoking from some of the cracked steel cups but they are farther back on my desk. Or farther forward. Clank of many cups clinking. Coal coffee. I am in a coffee Industrial Age. There may be a flavor of metal tinged into this age of black java.

The black obelisk coffee cup dwarfs the apes that scream and slam their fists against its foundation. They throw dirt and bones into the sky and the camera pans up to follow one of the bones.

Me and Greg at the men’s room sinks. We look into the mirrors. We lather thick foam soap and slowly pat it onto our cheeks and chins. On my face I sculpt an elaborate Civil War beard.