Tipping A Glass To Our Unknown Irish Ancestors

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a day when everyone is Irish, or at least claims to be.

The Webners are no different. Richard recently took one of those mail-in DNA tests, and the results showed a significant percentage of Scotch-Irish DNA. I get the Scottish part; our extended family tree includes Neals, McCollums, and Fergusons. My grandmother, born a Brown, claimed Irish ancestry, and I’ve no doubt that there are other, now-unknown branches that undoubtedly touched the Emerald Isle. It’s enough, at least, to allow us to celebrate March 17 with a heartfelt Erin go Bragh.

I’m proud of whatever Irish ancestry we have. In my view, you have to give the Irish credit — of all of the countries that have contributed to our melting pot nation, the Irish have the best traditional holiday, by far. St. Patrick’s Day blows Columbus Day and Cinco de Mayo out of the water, and most other countries aren’t even in the running. There’s no Deutschland Day, or British Bash. And no other country has the branding of Ireland, either. Whether it’s leprechauns, shillelaghs, four-leaf clovers, or pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, the Irish stand alone at the top of the heap.

It’s also admirable that the Irish made drinking beer an essential part of St. Patrick’s Day. Sure, we know St. Patrick had something to do with chasing snakes off the island, but most people associate the holiday with beer. Beer drinking also is an essential part of the culture of the Germans, the Brits, the Belgians, and even the French, but the Irish have co-opted it completely. Years ago, some savvy Irishman obviously understood that focusing a holiday on beer-drinking is bound to increase the amount of participation.

St. Patrick’s Day is an easy day to celebrate: you wear something green and drink beer. You don’t have to go to church, and there’s no significant physical danger involved, such as you might find in running with the bulls in Pamplona. Instead, there’s just an opportunity to bend an elbow with your friends, quaff a few dozen ales, and pretend you like droning Celtic music. The only risk is being punched in the face by some drunken, red-faced IRA member, getting a wet kiss from a beefy red-headed woman wearing a “kiss me, I’m Irish” pin, or ending up face down in a vomit-filled gutter.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Bad Jeans

Today, like millions of other Americans, I’m wearing my jeans. Unfortunately for me, unlike the rest of the country, my jeans apparently suck.

IMG_5978Kish, Russell, and Richard are unanimous: my one pair of jeans should be thrown out immediately, if not doused in pitch, placed on a funeral pyre, and lit on fire in some kind of quasi-Viking ceremony that involves chanting. As they explain it, everything about the jeans is wrong. They’re too light and too blue. They’re embarrassingly frayed at the bottom of the legs. They’re too baggy. They’re very worn, and a few holes are visible here and there. When I wear them, Russell says I look like a deranged homeless guy. (Of course, I’m not sure you can blame the jeans for the “deranged” part.)

The concept of jeans has changed since I was a teenager. In those days, you had one pair of jeans that you wore until they basically fell apart and your Mom threw them away. Patches were cool. Fraying was cool. Holes that were created by your wearing the jeans (as opposed to fake, manufactured rips) were cool. The whole idea of jeans was about comfort, with a bit of counter-culture rebellion thrown in for good measure. I’m confident that, if my ’70s self saw my current jeans, they’d get the thumbs-up sign.

But, at some point between the ’70s and now, things changed. Jeans became a fashion item. People started to buy multiple pairs of jeans, and what was a multi-purpose article of clothing became specialized. People needed jeans in different colors, flares and straight legs, “destroyed” and non-destroyed, with different pocket designs. Pocket designs? I don’t know if my jeans even have one, because I’d never think of looking at a pocket as part of the jeans-buying decision-making process.

So, I’m reconciled to the fact that my jeans should be the source of humiliation. I don’t care. I’m not wearing them to make a fashion statement, I’m wearing them because they’re comfortable. I cling to the old ways. Oh, and one other thing — I’m cheap.

Pinfoot

I’ve now got steel pins in the bones of the middle three toes of my left foot. It sounds pretty painful, and it is. In fact, it hurts like hell.

Curiously, I didn’t really focus on this aspect of the surgery before going under the knife. I guess I thought it would be like having a dental implant, or some other painless miracle of modern medicine. It isn’t. When you’re drilling holes in bones and inserting metal rods, it’s going to hurt. The fact that the pins protrude from my toes and have little yellow plastic balls at the tip, like some kind of doll pin, just adds insult to injury. And I’ll probably never use the word “pinpoint” again without an inward shudder.

My painful, pinful experience also helps to explain the back story and motivation of that Pinhead horror movie character from the Hellraiser series. I’ve only got pins in three toes; that poor bastard had pins in every square inch of his head. No wonder the guy was always in such a foul mood! Just imagine how murderous he would have been if he had little yellow balls on the end of each pin, too.

Crutches And Couches

Since my surgery yesterday, I’ve kept my left foot elevated above my heart, to try to minimize swelling, and avoided putting any weight on my left foot, to avoid bending the pins that are straightening my toes. That means I’ve made two new friends — our family room couch and my crutches.

1394631752489In our house, the couch is the province of Kish, Penny, and Kasey; I’m a chair guy. I’m also happy to report that in nearly 32 years of marriage I’ve never slept on the couch before. Last night I broke that record. It’s just easier to stay on the first floor right now, and couches are well-suited to constructing teetering towers of pillows to serve as a platforms for my bandaged hoof. With the aid of some pain medication, I slept pretty well last night, and my main concern is keeping the dogs from jumping up on me.

I’ve also been fortunate to never have used crutches before. They’a bit awkward, and I’ve got to watch slipping on the rugs on our hardwood floors, but I’m starting to get the hang of them. I can hobble around, after a fashion.

Some time in the distant past, some now anonymous person invented the first crutch. Like the splint, the crutch is one of the basic medical care devices that has been used for millennia; it apparently dates back to ancient Egypt. On behalf of all modern users of this ancient device, I’d like to thank it’s true inventor — whoever you were.

The Value Of A Good Nurse

Today’s outpatient procedure at the East Side Surgical Center demonstrated the value of a good nurse — and how essential they are in the modern world of healthcare.

From the outset, after I completed the registration materials, I was in the realm of nurses. Pre-operation, a friendly nurse adjusted my crutches to the right height, got me changed into surgical garb, took my vitals, created my ID bracelets, gave me my initial medication, and set up the blood vessel portal for the anesthetic to be administered, among other tasks that I wasn’t even aware of thanks to our relaxed conversation. She was a real pro.

After the surgery, I awoke to the company of another nurse who checked the dressing on my foot, explained that the operation had gone well, took my blood pressure, gently engaged me in a slow-talking conversation as the anesthetic fog gradually lifted, steadied me on my crutches, then wheeled me out to where Kish was waiting for me with the car. She was great, too.

In our penny-pinching health care system, doctors have to focus on doing the high-level procedures for which they are so well trained, and nurses carry the load of performing the other medical, and administrative, and human interaction duties that need to be completed. We can only keep costs under control — and also create an experience where the patients truly feel like they are receiving care — if we have a corps of kind, pleasant, professional nurses who make the system run.

I’m happy to report that I received excellent nursing care from some wonderful people at the East Side Surgical Center on my visit this morning. Of course, the best care of all is at home, where Kish is saddled with keeping an eye on me while I’m flat on my back for a few days.

The Last Morning Walk

This morning I took my last morning walk — for a few months, at least. It was a crisp, clear morning, like countless others where I’ve started my day with a brisk 5 a.m. walk around the Yantis Loop in New Albany.

IMG_5967Tomorrow I’ll have surgery on the toes of my left foot. Joints will be shaved down, tendons will be rearranged, bones will be straightened, and steel pins will be inserted. I’ll have to keep my left foot elevated for a few days, to keep the foot from swelling to the size of a pumpkin, and then won’t be able to put any weight on it for a few weeks. My recuperation period will end with a few more weeks in one of those fashionable walking boots.

I’ll miss my morning walks. I’ll miss their deep feeling of peace and solitude, I’ll miss the sense of routine and structure they bring to my days, and I’ll miss the chance to collect my thoughts and let my mind wander as I ramble along. I’ll miss the exercise, too.

But I’ll gladly trade a few months of my walks to do what’s necessary to avoid my left foot looking like the gnarled and twisted roots of an old oak tree.

Spring, Ahead?

IMG_5961On this morning walk I spied a most welcome sight: a few tender, trembling, bright green shoots had pushed through the permafrost. Could spring, and warmth, and color, and flowers, actually lie ahead?

Speaking of spring ahead, be sure to set your clocks an hour ahead if you haven’t done so already. And if you’re cursing the jerk who first came up with this idea that costs us an hour of sleep each spring, his name apparently was Ben Franklin. Richard has a good story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that gives a bit of the back story.

A Heartfelt Farewell To UG

Today Gilbert H. Neal died, at age 82. To the rest of the world, he was the accomplished tire company executive who had a globe-spanning business career that culminated in the presidency of General Tire. To our branch of the Webner clan, though, he was simply known at UG — pronounced “Ugg,” and short for Uncle Gilbert.

IMG_5950He had an enormously successful business career that saw him rise from the bottom of the corporate ladder to the very top. He began in sales, was manager of a Firestone Tire store, then eventually became district manager of the Firestone stores in southern California. The Firestone executives clearly saw promise in this young man, because they made him the branch manager of the Firestone affiliate in Puerto Rico — and when he handled that job adeptly, he became managing director of the Firestone affiliate in Argentina, and then managing director of the Firestone affiliate in Brazil. He was brought back to the States to become vice president for Firestone’s Africa, Asia, and Far East operations, then moved to London, England to become vice president for Firestone Europe and Africa. He was named president of Firestone Steel Products, became a Firestone corporate vice president, and then became the president of General Tire.

It’s a record of extraordinary achievement in the business world. As kids, we Webners were dimly aware of Uncle Gilbert’s success, because we heard about the Neals living in the most exotic locations imaginable. Hey, one time they lived close to Disneyland, the mecca of any American kid in the ’60s! And they lived in foreign countries, and ate foreign food and went to foreign schools, and had security guards drive them around! To kids growing up in suburban Ohio, it was all impossibly glamorous and romantic.

Yet somehow, through it all, Uncle Gilbert remained UG. The success never changed him, really, from the man I first remember from when I was a toddler. He was a big man with an even bigger personality. If we kids were acting up, he gave the same blue-eyed, laser beam glare that could bore holes into the frostiest glacier and make you snap back into correct behavior in a nanosecond. But, his house was always a fun place because he and Aunt Barbara made it so. Theirs was the first place I remember hearing the record “The Twist,” and we kids watched Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Barbara laugh as they showed us how to do that dance. We Webners loved getting together with our Neal cousins Peg, Beth, Gib, and Dave because we knew we were in for a good time.

IMG_5947For as long as I knew him, UG had the same corny sense of humor and toastmaster jibes, like the one about the farmer being the man who truly was out standing in his field. He could talk for hours about golf mechanics, but he had the fastest golf backswing ever seen on the planet, one that broke all laws of physics and could not be captured even by stop-action photography. He played euchre with a roar, always asking for “the hook” on the turn card and always ready to burst into a huge, delighted grin when he somehow took the last trick that kept my sister Cathy from winning a hand. He was an avid reader who kept a fascinating array of books around the house. And he always — always — loved, respected, and honored my grandfather, and would sweat bullets when Grandpa Neal would sit as Uncle Gilbert labored to balance Grandpa’s checkbook, down to the very last penny. He knew well that if that checkbook didn’t balance, he’d just have to do it again and again, under Grandpa’s withering glare, until he finally got it right.

When I graduated from college, Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Barbara were living in London. They hosted me at their Marylebone Road flat for weeks before I went on a Eurorail pass trip around continental Europe and then again before I returned to the States. They were the most gracious hosts imaginable, and I will always treasure that time spent with them — although I think, now, about what it must have been like to have a shaggy, bearded college know-it-all suddenly become a fixture in their home for what must have seemed like forever. If they had any regrets, they never shared them or showed them. It takes a generous man to do such a thing.

As I grew older, and learned a bit more about the past, I learned that I owed another thing to UG — I might not even be here if it weren’t for him. He was instrumental in bringing my parents together and convincing my grandparents that my father was a hard-working man with prospects who really was good enough for a bank executive’s daughter. Dad and Uncle Gilbert always had a strong bond. It struck me that the first time I saw Uncle Gilbert, the executive who was at ease behind any podium, unable to stand and speak was at the small, family-only memorial service we had when Dad died almost 17 years ago.

I mourn the passing of this great and good man, who worked so hard, accomplished so much, and meant so much to his family, our family, and his many friends. I send my prayers and best wishes to my cousins Peg, Beth, Gib, and Dave, and their families, who are today dealing with such an enormous loss. Tonight, UG and his legacy will be very much in my thoughts.

When The Internet Is Fun Again

-6I recognize there are downsides to the internet. It can be an angry place, where anonymous people hurl their rage like weapons. It’s filled with porn, and scams, and falsities, and predators looking to inflict harm on the unwary.

There is so much about the internet that is bad that we forget, sometimes, that the internet can be fun, too. I remembered that today, when I received a comment on our blog from a fellow named Tim. He’d read some of our blog posts about Grandpa Neal, and he wanted to reach out and connect. You see, he’s related to one of Grandpa’s lifelong friends, and he has some pictures of Grandpa with that friend that he wanted to share.

This kind of contact with an unknown person is exactly the kind of thing that makes the internet so much fun — and, sometimes, so treacherous. I responded to Tim, we exchanged emails, and he has sent me some great old photos and news articles. This picture of the Firestone Bank 1923 basketball squad, which apparently won the Akron bank league competition, is a classic that made me smile. I’ve never seen it before. That’s a ridiculously youthful Grandpa Neal holding the ball, and Tim’s grandfather standing above Grandpa’s left shoulder.

Were it not for the internet, I never would have communicated with Tim or seen this photo. For all of its drawbacks, the internet remains an extraordinary communications tool. Thanks, Tim, for sharing — and thanks to the internet for making it all possible.

The Dog Burglars

Recently the Webner household has been repeatedly victimized by a thieving pair the authorities call the Dog Burglars.

IMG_5939It’s Penny and Kasey, of course. After two years of living together, they’ve developed into a very effective robbery team that successfully pulls off at least one caper every week.

Their sizes, shapes, and capabilities are complementary. Penny is tall enough to get her front paws on the counters and tabletops, and Kasey is small enough to get her nose and paws into even the most narrow, remote areas where part of a crust of bread might be found. And neither of them has an ounce of remorse about pilfering whatever they can.

It also helps that their tastes are complementary. Recently Kish bought a T-bone steak to cook for my dinner. Penny detected it on the counter and knocked it off, Kasey grabbed it, ran off, and ate the meat, and Penny was then chewing the bone when I got home to learn that soup was now the featured menu item. In other cases Penny will knock yogurt containers off the kitchen table, Kasey will open them and lick the inner surfaces clean, and Penny will then happily chew the plastic into a sodden, unrecognizable mess.

Of course, unlike cat burglars there is nothing stealthy or clever about our larcenous pair. They’re about as secretive as a thumb in the eye. They make lots of noise when they’re blundering up on the counters or scratching furiously to get at a blueberry that has bounced into the space between the refrigerator and the wall and when they’re chomping away at their illicit plunder. They’re not shy about leaving the evidence of their theft in plain view on the family room carpet, either.

They’re shameless, and they wouldn’t hesitate to steal every item of food in the house. We put up with them anyway.

Hammertoes

This week I learned I have “hammertoes” on my left foot and that I’m going to need surgery to fix the problem. It was not a highlight of the week, obviously.

“Hammertoes” is an embarrassing name for an affliction. Even worse, the name always make me think of the “Hammer time” passage in M.C. Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This. It refers to a condition in which the muscle, ligament, and joint of a toe become imbalanced, causing the middle joint to bend permanently. In my case, the second toe of my left foot has not only become arched, but has twisted and is overlapping with its neighbor, my big toe. This makes wearing shoes a painful exercise. Even worse, the next two toes also have begun to curl over, and their twisting and torquing adds to the discomfort.

The result is a left foot in which only the big toe and little toe are normal, and the middle three look like gnarled, freakish deviltoes that need an exorcist. If I were barefoot on a beach in this condition, mothers would grab their young children and flee. It’s weird, too, to see the toes on a x-ray, where the skeleton beneath the skin is exposed in all of its monstrous deformity.

Hammertoes can be caused by a number of things. In my case, the doctor says it’s genetic rather than being caused by wearing shoes that are too tight. I don’t know of anyone in my family, extending back several generations, who had this problem, but I’ll accept the diagnosis because it means I’m not personally to blame. It also means I’m going to need to keep a close eye on my right foot, to see whether I can detect the telltale signs of new toe betrayal.

As health problems go, hammertoes is small stuff. I’ll have outpatient surgery in which the muscle, ligament and joint are restored to their proper alignment, pins will be inserted into the rebellious toes to keep them in line, and I’ll have to gimp around on crutches and later in a walking boot. I won’t be able to take my customary morning walk for months. Instead, I’ll be sitting in a chair, with visions of M.C. Hammer in his funky pants dancing in my head.

Being On Time

Recently I had an appointment at a designated time. I was there early. The designated time came and went. About ten minutes late, things finally got underway.

I tried not to let this bug me, but deep down it did.

Growing up, I was taught that it is rude to be late. If you say you will be somewhere at a particular time, you should be there. My grandparents were famous for never being late. They drilled their punctuality habits into UJ and me — and old habits die hard.

I recognize that a few minutes isn’t a big deal, but I’ll always believe that not being on time shows disrespect. The tardy person clearly doesn’t value the on-time person’s time. I think it also shows other things. If you can’t organize your schedule to make your appointments, what else are you failing to manage or account for properly?

Some examples of self-centered tardiness are worse than others. The most egregious example I experienced occurred when a guy I was meeting was 25 minutes late, then showed up with his gym bag and breezily said he’d been working out. Seriously? I readily concluded that the guy was a selfish jerk, and I’ve never changed my mind.

If you want to make a good impression on me, please be on time! If you want to start out with two strikes against you, be late. And if you want to be on my shit list forever, bring along your gym bag, too.

When College Graduates Move Back With Their Parents

Last week Gallup released some survey data that deserved more attention than it actually received. The survey indicated that, in the United States, 14 percent of adults aged 24 to 34 live with their parents. What’s more, 51 percent of young adults aged 18 to 23 live with their parents. Put them together, and almost one-third of American adults under the age of 35 live with their parents.

As the Gallup report linked above indicates, there are many potential causes for this phenomenon. Some young adults, for example, may be helping to care for their aging or infirm parents. But deep down, we all know what the real cause is — the job market for young people is terrible, and many college graduates have obtained their diplomas at the price of a huge amount of debt. If you can’t get a job that covers the cost of housing, allows you to service your student loans, and leaves a little money left for living expenses, you don’t really have a choice. Inexorable financial necessity drives the decision.

The reality exposed by the Gallup survey is why so many of us have difficulty accepting the gradual decline in the unemployment rate as real evidence of an improving economy. We all know too many smart, capable, motivated college graduates who have had to move back in with their parents to try to make ends meet while they look for a job. It’s not what they — or their parents — envisioned when then went off to college.

The Gallup piece ends with a paragraph that begins: “A key question is to what extent those living at home are better off or worse off than their contemporaries who are out on their own, and what implications that has for society in general and the economy in particular.” Gallup promises to explore this question in a future report, but I think I can predict the findings — young adults who live with their parents probably eat better but are less satisfied than their friends who have found a job and are living on their own. People want to be independent, and the surest indication of independence is maintaining your own place. Mom’s home-cooked meals are nice and the comforts of home are pleasant, but young people who have to move back into their old rooms to make ends meet have to be frustrated and worried about their careers and their futures.

Webner House In Winter

IMG_5905I believe in giving credit where credit’s due. I therefore want to thank the builders of our house, for building a sturdy, snug structure that has held up to this winter’s harshness.

Bad winters, like this one, can expose the problems with a house that isn’t well built. You can develop cracks in your basement from freezing and thawing, or feel the cold seeping through windows that aren’t properly framed. Or the weight of snow on the roof can buckle support beams that aren’t up to code. Most perilous of all, water pipes that aren’t correctly placed and insulated can freeze, and you come home to find water cascading down the stairwell or dripping through the kitchen ceiling.

We haven’t had any of those problems — knock wood — even though this has been one of the worst winters in years. Our houses are like our health — we tend to take them for granted until something bad happens, and only then do we appreciate what good health or a house that doesn’t require expensive and disruptive repairs truly means.