January 25, 2008

Counting Sheep

Category: News — Ira @ 5:27 pm


“….to sleep;–To sleep! perchance to
dream:–ay, there’s the rub….”

—Shakespeare, “Hamlet”

I am a light sleeper. Have been for decades. After retiring to bed, it usually takes me a while to drift off. I toss and turn. Doze, then start suddenly, wide awake, my relaxed brain flooding with the worries and problems of the previous day. Issues from work, some call I forgot to return, or whatever. Often I wake up around 4 or 5 AM, suppos-edly the ideal time for the most productive deep sleep. When that happens, I usually doze fitfully again until the alarm blares at 5:40.

Lack of sound sleep has afflicted me most of my adult life. As a teenager, and later an adult living in my parents’ home, I regularly burned my bedroom oil-flame lamp late into the night, reading whatever I could get my hands on. Lots of trash. Some good stuff, real literature. While such late-night reading was greatly beneficial for my self-education, the price ultimately was steep. An accumulated lack of sleep.

Sleeplessness runs in the family, I think. My father often stayed up until midnight or later, pounding away on his typewriter. He did a great deal of his writing after supper in his little office, the mantle lantern hissing above him. As the rest of us went to bed, the clacking and dinging of his typewriter reverberated faintly through the walls. (What the man could have done with a computer will never be known.) But he was always the first one up, well before sunrise, hollering into our bedrooms at the boys to get up for morning chores.

Sometime around 2001-02, Ellen and I bought a Select Comfort mattress, the kind Rush always brags about on his world renowned, growing-by-leaps-and-bounds radio program. The mattress was a king-sized model. I still use it. It’s probably the best bed I’ve ever owned, although not quite as magical as advertised (by Rush or anyone else).

I never sleep well in hotel beds, either. So when I went to the 4-day Timonium Horse World Expo in Baltimore last week, I expected the usual. I booked a room at the Holiday Inn Select in North Baltimore, located about a block from the trade show. The first night, I retired around 10. I stretched out on the king-sized mattress and pulled up the soft comforter. Amazingly, and quite unexpectedly, I fell asleep almost instantly. And slept like a baby all night, without waking up once.

I couldn’t believe it. I briefly examined the bed on Friday morning before heading out for the day. Looked like a regular, cheap motel bed. It did have some kind of pad on top of the mattress. “Oh well,” I thought, “probably a fluke. We’ll see how I sleep tonight.”

I stayed at the Holiday Inn for three nights, and slept better those three nights than I have for many, many years. I stopped at the front desk to inquire about the bed one evening. The dreadlocked, droopy clerk didn’t know and didn’t care. He eyed me suspiciously through his tiny round spectacles. I’d have to ask housekeeping, he said, stifling a yawn. Oh, yeah, housekeeping. If I could only communicate with them. The maids I saw were talking another language.

I raved about the mattress on the trade floor to my neighboring vendors. One lady told me the pad on top of the mattress was called Memory Foam, and that it was available in stores like JC Penney and Boscov’s. Now I was getting somewhere.

I always take a day off after doing a trade show. So on Monday afternoon, after hitting the gym for the first time in six days, I headed to the mall to find a Memory Foam pad. Penney’s didn’t have them. I wandered into Boscov’s next. I walked into the household goods section and approached a matronly sales lady.

“Memory Foam?” she responded pleasantly to my inquiry. “Sure we have it. Right there.” She pointed to a stack of various sizes.

Trying to look as helpless and forlorn as possible, I asked some questions as to what I should buy. Kate, the sales lady, was a quite helpful, and I soon selected a Queen sized, 2-inch thick pad and a cover spread. Kate assured me that I could try it for a few weeks and return it if it was unsatisfactory.

After paying for the items, I realized they were too big to fit in a bag. No problem, Kate claimed, as she taped some chintzy-looking plastic handles on both. I expressed doubt as to whether the handles would hold.

“Why, Mr. Wagler,” Kate scolded, “have I given you any indication that I don’t know what I’m doing?”

I chuckled and confessed that indeed she had not given me any such indication. And apologized for my lack of faith. The chintzy little handles held up well as I trundled from the mall, the boxes banging against my legs.

I wasted no time installing the Memory Foam on my bed when I got home. The verdict after a few nights: A definite improvement, but not quite as good as whatever was on that hotel bed. I may have to try the 4-inch pad.

Some of you may have wondered why no updates were posted on Anne Marie Zook’s brain tumor diagnosis. The tumor results were returned several weeks ago. At the time, Paul and Anne Marie requested that I refrain from mentioning anything publicly until further notice, as they needed a few weeks to gather their thoughts in relative privacy. They have now given me permission to post.

The test results, or pathology report, as it’s otherwise known, revealed that Anne Marie has a rare form of cancer that is expected to return. Upon meeting with the surgeon and the radiation oncologists, they learned that because of the tumor’s location, vital parts of the brain would need to be radiated as well. Possible side effects could include loss of all cognitive functions, cataracts, or complete blindness.

Paul and Anne Marie have decided to treat the tumor naturally, with a rigorous herbal program and a diet of raw fruits and vegetables. I respect that decision. And support it. Those of us who have not faced such a dilemma would do well to hold our tongues, if what we have to say is negative criticism.


They are doing well. Amazingly upbeat, actually. Anne Marie’s parents, who had tra-veled from their home in British Columbia for a few weeks during and after the oper-ation, will return next week to be with their daughter and provide support and assist-ance. Whatever the future holds, Paul and Anne Marie will face it together. And I will be there for my friends as they have always been there for me.

The Super Bowl scene shook out last weekend. (Those of you who don’t like to read about football may skip this section.) The evil Patriots. And the Giants. Contrary to popular opinion, I think it will be a close, hard fought game.

I deeply respect the game of football. It resembles life. Or war. Which life seems to resemble sometimes. In the game, the offense keeps plugging away, trying to gain at least ten yards in three plays for the first down. It can keep plugging away all the way down the field until the goal is scored. Or it can go for a deep strike, eating up many ten-yard chunks in one play. It’s never too late to get into the game. Well, almost never. A team may be behind by three or four touchdowns and figure it all out and still win the game. Like war. Like life.

And now I must do a most difficult thing. Acknowledge the greatness of the Patriots. I despise the coach, the quarterback, and all the other players. But they are without a doubt the greatest team ever to play the game. Ever, in the history of the NFL. To do the impossible, as they have done this perfect season, demands respect, if not rever-ence. It will not soon happen again. Just too much parity in the league.

With one more win, Tom Brady will go down as the greatest quarterback of all time. Just a fact, when all the stats are in. Greater than Montana, Bradshaw, Favre, Elway and Marino. And Manning. The guy is a warrior. And a winner. He girds for war. He leads his troops. He gets the ball to where it needs to go. He does what it takes to win. By thirty points or three, it’s still a win. And all counts the same.

Now the Giants. I don’t particularly care for them. Or particularly despise them. Pretty ambivalent, actually. I don’t much like Tom Coughlin, the coach. I thought the Giants were nuts last year to extend his contract by one year. But somehow, he made the right moves, called the right plays and got his players believing. Right now he has the last laugh. I do like and respect Eli Manning. I like both the Manning boys. Southern gentlemen. Mannerly. Nice guys. And they can throw the football.

In the Giants-Packers game, I was interested in only one thing. Which team has a shot at beating the Patriots? It was clear after the first quarter that the Giants were the ones, so I cheered them on. They outplayed the Pack all night and the game should never have gone into overtime. Of all teams, the Giants fear the Patriots the least. They will play them hard. And tough. Until the Patriots lose, they are the unquestioned favorites. But don’t be surprised if the Giants bristle. I expect them to. And they might actually pull it off.

My parents, along with my oldest brother Joseph and his family, moved to Mays Lick, Kentucky this week. Thanks to my sisters Rhoda and Rachel for helping them get packed for the move. And thanks to my sisters Maggie and Naomi for meeting them at their destination and helping them settle in.

Dad and Mom plan to spend a few weeks in Florida soon. I am glad they can go, as traveling to Florida for the winter was forbidden by the church “Ordnung” in the Bloom-field, Iowa community where they formerly resided. Forcibly preventing 80-plus year old people from enjoying the healthy benefits of a warmer climate during the brutal winter months makes no sense, any way you look at it.

It is an oppressive and abusive church policy, implemented decades ago for what may then have been semi-legitimate reasons, whose time has passed. (Old folks shouldn’t go to Florida so the youth aren’t tempted to go too, and be wild and dress “English” and drive cars and such. Which makes little sense from what I’ve seen; the youth who want to go do so regardless.) An outdated relic of a policy, now enforced by a simple raw lust for power and total control over the most mundane aspects of other peoples’ lives. A shameful policy that should be abolished. As it would be if honestly evaluated.


January 18, 2008


Category: News — Ira @ 7:02 pm


“. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone,
a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.”

—Thomas Wolfe, “Look Homeward, Angel”

—Aylmer: early 1970s—

His name was Henry Palmer. Tall, toothless, beak-nosed, nasal-voiced, stooped and painfully skinny, old and bald, he eked out a meager existence by taxiing the Amish in his ancient rattletrap black sedan.

He was far from a safe driver, and it’s a miracle that he never had an accident while transporting passengers in his car. My earliest memory of riding in a car was as a passenger in his, on the dust-clogged gravel roads around Aylmer.

Henry was a WWI vet. He ran away from home when he was fourteen, lied about his age and joined the Army. Fought in the mustard gas-blanketed fields, the rat-infested trenches of that terrible conflict. After his return, he never married. He lived like a hermit in a decrepit little shack in the remote hills a few miles outside the small village of Richmond.

On the dash of his car was one of those little vinyl sticker labels you can punch out letter by letter, with his name. Whoever gave it to him had misspelled it; the label read “Henery Pamler.” He never knew the difference. I suspect he couldn’t read. Or write.

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, we heard the news at school one day. Some-how, fire had broken out in Henry’s shack the night before, and in a fierce but brief inferno, it had burned to the ground. He hadn’t made it out. We stood around in tight little knots, discussing the tragedy, knowing it couldn’t be true.

It was true. Almost too shocking, too vast, too overwhelming for our young minds to comprehend. The thought of the old man collapsing in the smoke and heat and flames, alone and unheard. And that we would never see him again.

The county buried him, I suppose. He had no one. No family. No kin. No one to mourn him or mark his passing. He was the last of his line. Any shreds of personal history he might have accumulated reduced to ashes with his body. And that’s why we now briefly honor the memory of who he was, before even it disappears, fading unnoticed into the encroaching mists of lost time.

—New Holland: 2007—

“That your truck?” she asked in a raspy voice as I emerged from Sheetz early one morning and walked to Big Blue, bleary-eyed and sipping my coffee.

I glanced at her, a rather plump, amply proportioned forty-ish, cigarette smoking bleached blonde, giving Big Blue the once-over while standing beside her powerhouse Mustang. Sleek beautiful car. Late model. Looked like it could burn some tires and move. And a shimmering electric blue.

“Yup,” I answered.

“I like it,” she said.

“Thank you. I like your car, too,” I replied, “especially the color.”

She chuckled, a full-throated rasp as she opened her car door. “Thanks,” she said. “You know what they say. Great minds think alike.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Not that I would have.

—Aylmer: around 1973—

“The Purdy girls lived back there,” he said. “Two sisters, they had a little shack and some buildings back behind the woods there.”

Gord Brackenbury, a local logger and roustabout hauler, was talking to my Mom and sisters about the Carl Sansburn farm Dad had just bought. I hung around the edge and listened to him talk. Short and rotund, Gord chain-smoked and was all but stone deaf. And it was whispered about the community that he sometimes drank to excess. He could never remember my name and just called me “Junior.”

“That was when I was a kid,” he continued in his slow amiable drawl. “Everything’s gone now. Can’t see any sign of any buildings. As far as I remember, they never got married.”

Later Mom was telling Dad. “Gord Brackenbury said two sisters lived back there behind the woods, and they were so pretty. He remembered that so clearly after all these years. How pretty they were.”

“No, Mom,” my sister Rachel interrupted, “Purdy was their last name. He didn’t call them pretty. Purdy.”

“Ooh,” said Mom.

—New Holland: 2007—

A summer Sunday morning. I stood in line at the counter at Sheetz with my morning cup of coffee. The lady ahead of me had two cups, and ordered a couple of packs of smokes. The clerk fetched them. Then she wanted lottery tickets. They both walked to the far end of the counter where the tickets were sold.

She was thin, probably in her fifties, with a hard worn face and the chronically tired look of the hardscrabble poor. I waited impatiently as she made her lottery ticket selections. Five of this, three of that, blah, blah, blah. Where was another clerk when you needed one? I set my coffee on the counter just off to the side of her items.

Finally she was finished with her picks and they came back to the register. The clerk rang up her purchases. She paid with a couple of twenties and walked out. I motioned to my cup of coffee.

“Oh, she paid for that,” the clerk said. “I rang up everything on the counter. I thought it was hers.” I thanked him and took my coffee and walked out.

She was sitting in the passenger’s seat of an old half-rusted Chevette, about the ugliest little car ever made. A fat scruffy-faced man I assume was her husband sat squeezed behind the wheel. His great bulk flowed over onto her seat. They were scratching the lottery tickets she had just bought. I approached her side of the car.

“Excuse me,” I said politely, “but I think you just paid for my coffee in there by mistake. I had it sitting on the counter and the clerk rang it up with your stuff. I’ll gladly pay you.” I offered a dollar bill.

She looked at the bill hungrily, then quickly glanced over at her husband. He hesitated for less than a second. Then he waved his hand generously. “No, no, you can have it. That’s all right,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “It was a mistake. I’ll gladly pay you.”

“No, no,” he insisted. “Won’t hear of it. That’s all right. You can have it.”

“Then thank you very much,” I said. “That’s very kind of you. I appreciate it.”

Cigarette smoke billowed from the ugly little Chevette’s windows as I walked away.

—Aylmer: early 1970s—

The “English” farmer and his teenage son stood there in their bib overalls in our barn, checking out a milk cow Dad had advertised in the newspaper.

“Is she sound?” The farmer asked suspiciously. “In good health?”

“As far as I know,” Dad answered.

“Well, is she or isn’t she? Not as far as you know,” the farmer retorted. His son looked on and listened, drinking it all in. “Yes or no. Is she or isn’t she?”

“As far as I know,” Dad answered again. “You can see her. You can see she’s healthy. And as far as I know she’s sound.”

The farmer grumbled and growled a bit more. But he bought the cow. For Dad’s asking price of $400.00.

—Lancaster: 2008—

I sat there at a little table in the center of the mall, sipping my usual cup of half-decaf, half-regular. Watching the Saturday afternoon post-holiday crowds. An elderly black gentleman with a neatly trimmed mustache approached and asked if he might sit in one of the three empty chairs at my table. I waved assent.

He carried a cup of regular coffee and a small expresso cup, which was empty. He poured coffee from the large cup to the small cup and drank it. I looked puzzled.

“It’s the way we drink coffee in my home country, in these small cups,” he explained haltingly, with just a bit of an accent. “So sometimes when I get homesick, I come here and drink it like this.”

“Where is your home country?” I asked.


“How long have you been here?”

“Nineteen years,” he said, lifting the expresso cup and slurping its contents in one gulp. “And I’ve never been back to visit.”

I am spending a few days this weekend at the Horse World Expo in Timonium, MD, manning a company booth. It’s always kind of fun to get away from the office for a few days, do something different. I see a lot of vendors once or twice a year, at these Expos. We always kid each other and catch up on the past year.


Speaking to prospective customers, mostly horse people, gets to be quite draining. By the time the show is over, I’m pretty much done. No more. I always resolve that whatever my future lot may be, it will not include owning or having anything to do with horses. Never, never, never.

A word to my nephews who are skiing on the vast slopes in Wyoming or Utah or some such exotic place, at an upscale resort. Have fun. Don’t break a leg. I sometimes grumble that no one ever tells me anything. Had I known that four of you, all big strong, strapping muscular young men, were passing right through Albuquerque, NM, I might have suggested that you stop there and see an old acquaintance of mine. Or you might call him a former friend. Just to say “hi,” of course. And perhaps one or two other choice words and phrases. Maybe you could still stop there on your way back. I hear he likes to hang out at “Jack in the Box” restaurants.