In Memmorium

20020307_mom


Genevie “Jennie” Dietz Gerhards
January 15, 1928 – October 9, 2006


Eulogy
October 11, 2006
St. Paul Church
Silverton, Oregon

A Life Well Lived

I was much younger when I last attended Mass in this church. But imagine me younger still, seven years old, maybe. I am walking along with my mother. We’re about to enter a building. Sears and Roebuck, maybe. Just as we come to the door, she stands aside. I stop too, not knowing what to do next. I look to my mother for a little guidance. She says, “A gentleman holds the door for a lady. Go on, open the door.” I open the door, hold it for her. She leads the way. I follow.

There are two important aspects to this story that personify our mother’s life and our life with her.

The first is respect. How often my brothers and I heard the words “respect your elders.” That meant respect for parents, respect for family, respect for teachers, respect for rank. It was all inclusive.

The second aspect this story is example. What I learned from both of my parents is the importance of setting a good example with your life.

Respect and example, of course, are not really two things, but one.

My mother was the child of a Polish immigrant. She grew up in a small coal town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her father worked in the mines. She understood what it meant to be on the low end, the labor end, the minority end, of the social scale.

The unkind treatment of the lower class made a big impression on her. Perhaps that is the only thing she ever really hated. It also made — indirectly — a big impression on my life. Never in her presence did I hear unkind words about a person’s color, religion, or nationality. Prejudice and bigotry were simply not part of my education. Instead, all people are equal and deserving of respect.

There is an immutable truth to life that says good actions bring good results and bad actions bring bad results.

I’ll speak more about good actions and their results in a moment. Now is the time to talk about bad example, bad actions, bad results.

Those of you of her generation no doubt remember when Mother Culture taught that smoking was sophisticated, glamorous, a symbol of independence. These were qualities my mother wanted to cultivate as she escaped the oppression of small town life into the excitement of the Big City, of Washington DC.

But instead of sophistication and glamour and independence, what she ultimately got was just the opposite. As most of you know, about 18 years ago she was diagnosed with emphysema. Say good bye to sophistication and to glamour, and especially say good bye to independence.

As I said, bad actions bring bad results. We all make our mistakes and she made her share. But she was wise enough to understand that even though actions of the past cannot be changed, and we have no choice but to live with their results, it’s the actions of the present that matter, and those actions have a tremendous effect on the future.

Until just a couple of weeks ago, most of her life since that diagnosis was spent quietly in her spiritual room where she wrote her memoirs and poetry, read her Bible and other spiritual books, listened to recorded stories and watched a little TV. And, in the most positive of ways, she reflected often on her death.

The result of such reflection is wisdom. She had no delusions about how things were and how things would be for her.

What she did not do was complain about her condition or any of the negative things which that condition imposed upon her. In truth, there wasn’t much to complain about.

My mother’s life was a life well lived.

It was well lived in four ways.

It was well lived because she treated everyone with loving kindness.

It was well lived because her compassionate heart included everyone.

It was well lived because of the great joy she found in her family and her faith.

It was well lived because of the equanimity with which she faced her many trials and setbacks and limitations.

Now I ask you to consider one very important result of those good actions, of a life well lived. It’s not that she gets a heavenly reward. It’s not that people say nice things about her at her funeral.

My mother, our mother, our friend, my father’s wife of 58 years died well. She died well indeed.

May all of us benefit from the example of a life well lived.

Aloft and away

imageWe arrived at the airport about two and a half hours before takeoff at 6:44 Saturday. I like to be early because if there was a problem needing resolution, there would be plenty of time for it. But all went well. On a Saturday afternoon PDX was nearly empty. We zigzagged unimpeded through the stanchions as we approached the Delta counter.

Two attendants vied for our business. Robin and I each had a carry on bag, but we shared a large suitcase to check. It weighed in at 49 pounds, one pound under the limit to avoid a fee. We went through security with the same ease.

Before going through security, we stopped in at Powell’s Books. One of our traditional pastimes while on vacation is reading, but not independently. Robin reads aloud while listen. One of her favorite genres is young adult fiction.

We got a cup of coffee, wandered down Concourse D, then settled in at D5 where Robin began reading “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs. After we boarded and got underway, she read for awhile more before we went into our own worlds: I with my writing, Robin with a sudoku puzzle.

Moments ago I felt the obvious change in altitude as we began our descent into Los Angeles. Seat belt fastened. Ready for the next phase.

“Persist” a Winner in Ebook Competition

One of the books I published through my company, Parami Press, took first in its category in the second annual Global Ebook Awards.

Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce, by Los Angeles author Peter Clothier, won first place in the Art/Graphics Non-Fiction category. The book is not about art per se, nor does it contain artwork. Rather, it’s a collection of compelling essays offering inspiration and encouragement to artists and creative people of all kinds, especially those who struggle against the stream of commercialism and profit.

In the Introduction to Persist, Peter writes:

Earning a living with art is a fanciful expectation for the vast majority of those we certify as artists with the award of a college degree, thanks largely to a self-supporting, self-perpetuating system that provides teaching jobs for otherwise unemployable artists. What results is a disconnect between what students have been led to expect and the realties that await them . . . and there is an army of the walking wounded out there to prove this point. Our culture celebrates creativity from the earliest age in schools. Children are encouraged to express themselves even before they learn the ABC’s that enable them to do it. So many of our brightest young people dream of careers in music, acting, film, and television, but later find themselves in a career market that offers scant possibility of fulfilling the dream they have been fraudulently urged to dream. I live in Hollywood and go to restaurants. I talk to the servers.

This collection of essays is intended to celebrate and encourage these amateurs—or rather, more honestly, us. Because, though I myself have been fortunate enough to enjoy a good measure of success as a writer, I too am confronted with the reality of a publishing world in which many thousands of worthy writers flounder against the formidable rocks of commercial demands. If I write about the survival of the creative spirit in such a cultural context, it’s because I myself have needed to develop strategies and mind-sets that enable me to persevere with a sense of dedication, self-respect, and persistence that might otherwise seem foolishly quixotic. These essays have been written to remind myself, at moments of discouragement, that I am, first, foremost, and always, a writer—if only because that is what I have been given to do.

 The ebook edition of Persist is available for immediate download in both MOBI and EPUB formats directly from Parami Press through the Gumroad download service. You can also order Kindle and NOOK editions from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Of course, the paperback edition is available, too.

Graybeard No More

The last time I shaved off my beard was about 17 years ago, while my daughter was away for the summer visiting her grandparents. Kathryn was around five years old. When I picked her and her mother up at the airport, Kathryn wouldn’t speak to me. She hid behind her mother, staring at me doubtfully, not sure I could be trusted. On the drive home I could see her in my mirror, glowering at me. 

Before she’d left, we’d talked about putting some shelving in her closet, a job I’d completed while she was away. Showing her what I’d done seemed to convince her I really was the same person who took her to the airport a month earlier. She relaxed her guard and began chattering away. It’s a good story, one that’s become part of the family repertoire, brought out around the dinner table at various gatherings.

I don’t recall exactly when I let my beard grow for the first time, but the mustache began the day after I graduated from high school. The beard has come and gone in many configurations over the years. Once, while still living at home, I walked into the kitchen after removing the chin part of my beard. My mother looked at me and said, “There’s something different, but I can’t tell what it is.” The mustache has come off only once—and that only for the time it took to grow back. 

The purpose of the beard—it’s primary function—is not so much to support a style or make a statement (well, a long time ago it was) but to eliminate the need for shaving. It’s an activity that takes time in the morning and is irritating to the skin. It’s easier just to let alone, trimming it as necessary. Eventually, though, it becomes a fixture, a part of one’s identity. Taking it off this time required a lot of deliberation. Over the past several years I’d been keeping it short clipping it once a week. But over the past few months I’d use the razor around the edges, whittling it down to get used to the idea. Then one day off came the sides. After two or three weeks, off came the chin part. That’s the worst part—very difficult to shave closely without irritation.

I’ve always like the term “graybeard” as a reference to an old man. It’s appropriate and respectful. So I didn’t shave it off to mask my aging. There are plenty of other signs of that. I owe it all to whimsy and caprice. And I’m going to stick with it—for a while, anyway. 

Kathryn is still uncertain.

Hacked

Yesterday morning I discovered that my website, this website, got hacked. The first thing I noticed was that email from my account at this url wasn’t coming in. Then there was the very long spammish-looking email it turns out wasn’t spam after all. Somewhere within all the gibberish was the address of my hosting service and a message saying my account has been suspended. 

So when I called up my site, all I got was a screen just like the one shown above. When I tried to login to WordPress admin, same thing. And with cPanel, same thing. Bad stuff. I was able to start an online conversation with technical support at my hosting service. My account was suspended because it’s against their terms of service for me to host pornography on my website. 

But I didn’t. Honest.

My account would be unsuspended on condition that I remove the offending material within 24 hours and that I promise never to do it again. And I was warned of their three-strikes policy. What a relief I get two more chances before my account is permanently suspended.

Once my account was again active I was able to see what got them so upset. I don’t know how this stuff works, but an HTML file got inserted into my root directory. Pornography all right, no doubt about it. After deleting the file I spent the better part of yesterday and much of today backing up my site files and database, upgrading WordPress, scanning for viruses and malware, changing passwords and permissions, backing up again (and again), researching and installing security plugins, and other stuff like that.

This is no fun. And it’s not the way I need to be spending my time, but I need to spend it that way like it or not.

A Graduation

RobinWhen the need arose for Robin to get back into the workforce several years ago, she applied for a job in the Vancouver School District. Prior to that, she had worked as a volunteer in the schools her children attended, so it was not a completely unfamiliar environment. Still, it took her ten minutes to build up the courage to drop the big envelope into the mail slot. She knew going back to work would be a life-changing event.

For a few years she worked one-on-one with a boy with disabilities, helping him navigate physically and emotionally through elementary and middle school. Then she found herself working as one of two para-educators in a middle-school structured-learning classroom. Her job was to help the teacher manage the dozen or so students who had a variety of behavioral problems. In spite of being called every possible name, accused of doing every imaginable thing with farm animals, and even being physically threatened at times, she loved her job and cared very much for the kids she worked with. She never referred to them as bad kids. To her, they were ordinary but disadvantaged kids whose bleak living conditions made it impossible for them to come to school to learn much of anything.

As much as she liked the job, Robin realized there was not much potential for advancement. Her job was fairly secure, despite all the cutbacks elsewhere, because not very many people could do what she did for more than an hour or so, let alone five days a week. And the pay? Well, it’s a little better than minimum wage, at least. So she began thinking about going back to school.

She knew she wanted to work with kids, especially kids with disadvantages, but she didn’t want to be a teacher. Art therapy sounded good. Washington State University has a campus in Vancouver, perhaps there was something there that would interest her. But she didn’t do much else but talk about possibilities. 

One day a friend who works at Clark College, a community college here in Vancouver, brought her a flyer. Eastern Washington University was starting another three-year social-work cohort at Clark. “You should apply, Robin,” the friend said. Never mind that the deadline was only about a week away—not enough time for much vacillation. It was a push to get her transcripts from Fresno State, where she had graduated with honors in 1976 with a degree in consumer science (previously known as home economics).

She was accepted into the program and thus began a new way of life for both of us. Her schedule was grueling. Classes were from 12:30 to 9:00 on Fridays. She was able to get Friday afternoons off from her job at the middle school, which made this whole thing possible. Off hours—outside of both classrooms—were consumed with reading, researching, and writing dozens of papers in the very meticulous APA style. Things like vacations were eliminated from our lives.

This past 15 months had an added bonus of stressors: practicum internship. Robin got an excellent placement, one that gave her lots of good experience in a setting that allowed her to showcase her skills: working at the Clark County Juvenile Justice Center. She started out as a mentor at community service activities on weekends. Then she got certified in Aggression Replacement Training (ART), classes designed to help juvenile offenders from going deeper into the system. Aside from her day job at the middle school and her classes on Fridays, she was now assisting in classes at the justice center on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings. She went directly from one job to another. And still there was research to do and papers to write.

But today that came to an end—at least for a while. Today Robin graduated—again with honors—from Eastern Washington University School of Social Work. Well, not exactly with honors. Even though her GPA is around 3.95, she doesn’t have enough credits specifically from EWU to warrant them giving her proper acknowledgment. She didn’t get to wear the applicable summa cum laude cords nor have *** after her name in the program. But one of her professors said to me after the ceremony, “We didn’t do questions and answers, we had conversations. She’s brilliant.” Yes, high honors for extraordinary effort.

So this was Robin’s day, celebrated with a party at our house with a few of the great friends she made through this extraordinary experience.

Holding Back on the Praise of Steve Jobs

I’ve been using Apple computers since somewhere around 1987. My first computer was a Kaypro II. After that was no longer usable, I got a DOS machine. When it came time to replace it I got a Macintosh.

I have never owned a Windows machine and have only marginal familiarity with that environment. I don’t foresee every using anything but an Apple computer. “But Macs are so expensive,” some people will say.

Yeah, Macs are expensive. But they work well, are easy to use, and are relatively durable. And they are elegant, both physically and functionally. These qualities have value that’s worth paying for. As Guy Kawasaki writes here in “What I Learned from Steve Jobs”:

“Woe unto you if you decide everything based on price. Even more woe unto you if you compete solely on price. Price is not all that matters—what is important, at least to some people, is value. And value takes into account training, support, and the intrinsic joy of using the best tool that’s made. It’s pretty safe to say that no one buys Apple products because of their low price.”

So I’m an Apple fan.

And like everyone else in the world, I’ve been hearing and reading about what a innovative and visionary genius Steve Jobs was. All over the Internet are stories about and lists of how he changed the way people use computers, communicate, and buy and listen to music.

I wish I could be more like Jobs: innovative, persuasive, brilliant. Don’t you?

Yet there is something unsettling to me about all the praise that has been heaped upon him since he died last Wednesday. It’s unsettling because according to things I’ve heard over the years and especially what I’ve been reading recently (for example here and here), Steve Jobs was not a nice guy. Here’s what Rob Long writes in National Review Online, just two days before Jobs’s death:

“The stories of Steve’s temper are passed around Silicon Valley like business cards. Steve tossing a chair when a prototype wasn’t thin enough. Steve firing an engineer in an elevator when the engineer told him about the battery life of a new iPhone. Steve scrapping an entire product line because it wasn’t perfect, and had no hope of becoming perfect. Steve demanding more features. Steve insisting on better syncing. Steve shouting for thinner. Steve screaming for lighter. Steve terrifying his employees, his vendors, his business partners. Steve, engaged in furious e-mail exchanges with journalists, bloggers, and random customers who happened to e-mail him at the right moment, when he was taking a break from making his employees sweat and from engineering even higher standards.”

So why did employees (those who were not fired) put up with such things? The pay, either in cash or stock options, must have been great. But it was more than that. I think people at Apple knew they were on the edge of something great, and they believed Jobs would take them there. That thinking was part of the culture of Apple. As Kawasaki put it:

“I lived in fear that Steve would tell me that I, or my work, was crap. In public. This fear was a big challenge. Competing with IBM and then Microsoft was a big challenge. Changing the world was a big challenge. I, and Apple employees before me and after me, did our best work because we had to do our best work to meet the big challenges.”

A visionary like Jobs would get nowhere and accomplish nothing unless he could attract very talented people who could tolerate his mercurial behavior for their own gain and convince venture capitalists that his ideas would make them all the wealthier. Perhaps that was his greatest strength.

So, yeah, Jobs had an impact on the world. And he was, until last Wednesday, a living legend. Now he’s ranked with Edison and Einstein and Ford for his accomplishments. Yet I think care should be taken in praising too much a tantrum thrower who treated people so poorly and allowed less-than-ethical business practices when it came to stock options.

I will continue to use Apple products because I, too, believe they great value for the money, both functionally and aesthetically.