January 11, 2008

Whack Jobs

Category: News — Ira @ 6:38 pm


“….you’ve got to ask yourself one question:
‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

—Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry”

I go to the gym regularly. Five or six days a week, if I can fit it into the schedule. I’ve been going to the same place for almost six years now. And gotten to know a few of the regulars. We chat. Talk sports. Kid each other.

Doc (not his real name) is a regular, an older guy, a curmudgeon-type individual. We got to be half-decent friends. Doc grumbles a lot, but he knows a lot. He knew more than the gym staff about which exercises I should be doing. And taught me. He got me started jumping rope, an excellent cardiovascular exercise. I now jump rope for at least two minutes every workout session, which is a lot harder than it sounds. Try it sometime.

Doc was a moody guy. Some days he’d talk incessantly; the next day he’d ignore you. I learned to not bother him when he was in one of his spells. But he always came around, and we chummed like good friends.

Then, one day last fall, I did something that pissed him off. For the life of me, I don’t know what I said or did. Something silly, probably, or thoughtless. But he gradually became more hostile and soon completely ignored me. Like I wasn’t even there. Which was, if not fine, completely within his rights. We didn’t have to be friends. But we did have to exist together at the gym.

And so it went for about a month. Doc getting increasingly hostile. I tried to be laid back and polite when we absolutely had to interact. Politeness only seemed to make him madder and moodier. It got so we just flat out ignored each other.

Both of us use the dry sauna after working out. Usually I was done first. I always left the heat turned on for him. If he was first, he left it turned on for me. Then he stopped leaving it turned on for me, even though he knew I was coming in to use it within fifteen minutes. Sometimes he even propped open the sauna door to make sure the sauna would be ice-cold by the time I got there. I became increasingly irritated, but didn’t confront him.

Then, around mid-November, one night he did it. Pulled a trigger he shouldn’t have. Ten minutes before finishing my workout, I strolled into the locker room to turn on the sauna, knowing he had shut it off. He was just getting out of the shower. The sauna door was standing wide open. I walked in, shut it, turned on the heat and politely asked him not to touch the controls. He mumbled defiantly.

Ten minutes later, after finishing my workout, I returned. He stood before the mirror at the sink, combing his long stringy hair. The sauna door stood propped wide open again, the heat turned off.

At this point, I suppose, I should have paused and considered, “What would Jesus do?” Sadly, I did not. Besides, I don’t know what He would have done. But I can tell you what I did.

Without a word, I turned and went back out to the gym and got Rick, the attendant and we walked into the locker room. I was fuming. I showed Rick the open sauna door and told him what had just happened. That this man had deliberately opened it and turned off the heat after I’d asked him not to just ten minutes ago.

“That man, standing right there at the sink, did it,” I said.

Doc finally turned, stunned that I had actually fetched Rick and was confronting him. He began yelling loudly. Rick, poor guy, was frantic that we would come to blows. He tried to soothe us, to defuse the escalating situation.

“Doc, you’re a !#%^*!# (bleep),” I said. I was amazed at my voice. From inside, it felt barely controlled. It came out flat and calm. Doc instantly started swearing back at me.

“You’re a !#%^*!# (bleep). That’s all you are.” I said again, firmly.

Doc went off on a two-minute tirade about how I couldn’t boss him around. “I’ll sit in that sauna all evening, from 5 PM until 8 PM, just so you can’t use it. What you gonna do then?” he yelled, somewhat irrationally, since he would shrivel like a prune if he did that. I waited until he stopped to catch his breath.

“You’re a !#%^*!# (bleep).” I said flatly, for the third and final time.

By now, he’d gathered his stuff and walked out, yelling that this gym wasn’t big enough for us both. Rick bounced about like an excited rubber ball. Then Doc was gone. All was quiet. I was fuming, so furious that I shook. Then, from one of the toilet stalls came a polite cough, and the sound of a flushing toilet. Some poor guy had been sitting on the pot the whole time and heard it all come down less than ten feet away.

Still fuming, I talked with Rick for a few minutes, then sat in the slowly-warming sauna to calm down. As I left, I apologized to Rick for all the fuss. But I was still steaming mad.

In the next few days, I thought a lot about the whole episode. I had never, in my memory, done anything remotely like that. At least not while sober. I felt a bit bad for swearing, mostly that others had heard me. Doc and I both claimed to be Christians. We’d often discussed our beliefs and the Scriptures in general. But there we’d been, heatedly swearing at each other like two drunken sailors. Any way you look at it, something about that seems a little screwy.

I didn’t see Doc again for about a week. On a Saturday, as I was leaving, he’d just started his exercise routine. Against all my will, and only because that was the way I’ve been trained all my life, I walked up to him and apologized for swearing. He was surprised. But we stood there and talked calmly for a few minutes. I told him that we could have disagreements. That was OK. But I regretted the swearing. That was wrong. He then apologized for what he’d said. Not that I’d expected it.

Strangely, as I walked away, and for weeks later, I was irritated at myself for having apologized. Seemed like such a trite, formulaic thing to do. So pat. I apologize. You apologize. Now we all sing happy songs and get along. Except we don’t.

Since that Saturday, Doc has avoided me like the plague. But he doesn’t prop open the sauna door anymore, or turn off the heat after I’ve turned it on. I guess one could say we’ve “reached an understanding.”

In my next counseling session, I ran the whole thing by my counselor, sparing no details, including the exact swear words. But, I insisted, I called Doc exactly what he was. To my surprise, the counselor seemed little concerned with my reaction or the whole episode, really.

“It shows that you are alive,” he said. “After all that’s happened to you this year, that’s a good thing. Not that you swore. But that you’re alive. And reacted like you are alive. Bristled a little.”

His analysis made sense. Seemed valid. About having life, and not being a doormat. Not that I plan to walk around swearing at people or anything. Unless you really work at irritating me. Then I might.

I’m not quite the same person I was when I posted my first blog back in April of last year, and throughout last summer. I’ve been a fairly passive, easy-going guy for most of my life. Probably still am, mostly. Except for a few small changes.

Now, if you bray incessantly at me, or launch poisonous life-draining arrows at me, I will shut you off. And cut you off. From my life. And my site. Just like that. Which is no big deal, not a huge important event, one way or the other, in the big scheme of things. But it’s important to me in that it affects how I choose to live. And I will do it.

I’m done with all the sly, sneering, caustic drivel disguised as “open inquiry” when it’s really just manipulative BS from small-minded people who have actually become what they claim to loathe. And have developed an elaborate art form of tearing others down. I’m done with all the crap about fulfilling others’ expectations about who and what I should be. And what attitudes, from hateful to barely tolerant, I’m supposed to harbor for the culture from which I have emerged. I deeply respect that culture and always will.

I’m done with all the condescending blather, all the subtle mind games, about what I should or shouldn’t write, and how it’s written. I’ll make those choices. Some may be wrong. Inevitably, some will be. I’ll live with that. And learn from that. Because the choices I make, right or wrong, will be my own and not the result of trying to appease the cynical disdain and colossal ego of some bitter, washed-up armchair critic who can dish it out by the pound but can’t take it by the ounce. And who couldn’t get 35,000 hits on a personal blog site from now until the next century.

It’s negative, draining noise. It’s just bluster. And it’s just bullying. I reject it. I rebuke it. And it’s gonna stop. It in fact already has. Because I’ve shut it down. As of about 10:45 PM last Saturday night, with the help of my “nephew network.” (Thanks, guys, with special thanks to Howard.) It really is like killing swarming rats trapped in a barrel. Just easier; point, click and delete. I don’t touch the vermin. Or read it. As do none of you. And you won’t. Not on this site.

I write what I want, about whatever catches my muse that week. I appreciate all readers. I try to respect my audience. To be honest. Not talk down to you. Or preach. You are welcome to agree with what I say. Or disagree. Or have no opinions what-soever either way. You may be horrified that I swore at a guy at the gym. You are welcome to post a comment stating that. Agree or disagree, or call me stupid or silly. Or wicked, even. As long as you respect the person you are addressing. If you don’t, you won’t participate. As some of you won’t, because you can’t. And that’s how it is.

How’s that for some bristling? I think my counselor might approve. If not, he’s got some work to do.

A few words to Buckeye fans. You’re good people, most of you. Salt of the earth, and all that. Great to hang with. And that string-cut potato salad you make, it’s the best in the world. You’re always welcome at any of my cookouts simply on the quality of your potato salad alone.

But your football team. Ahem. This is a bit awkward. Two years now. In a row. Blown out. In the Championship Game. Maybe it’s time you gave it a rest for a year or two. Regroup a little. Let Michigan, or even Iowa, have a shot. I’m just saying, is all. I was going to watch the entire game, but was so embarrassed for the Big Ten that I went to bed early in the third quarter. Score at that time: 31-10 LSU.

It was too much to expect, I suppose. That the Dems of the “Live Free or Die” state would have enough sense to rise up and drive a stake through the heart of the Wicked Witch’s campaign. Nah. Would’a simplified things too much, to do that. Now we’ll be inflicted with her screeching for another few months, or heaven forbid, the entire Presidential Race. New Hampshire Dems should just adopt a new slogan, “Enslave me ’til I die.”

Republicans there didn’t show much more sense, giving McCain the win. McCain is a sleazeball, and I won’t soon forget his gratuitous demonization of my Alma Mater, Bob Jones Univeristy, in the 2000 campaign. Or that he placed restrictions on the most valuable of expressions, political speech, in his unconstitutional and soon to be over-turned McCain-Feingold Act.


January 4, 2008

Fame and Hospitality….(Sketch #5)

Category: News — Ira @ 7:02 pm


“Fame is a fickle food – Upon a shifting plate.”
—Emily Dickinson

“Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”
—Benjamin Franklin

My father was a famous man, in his world and in his time. As a writer, he was widely known throughout the vast majority of Amish and Mennonite communities in North America and even some foreign lands. He was a well-known “Budget” scribe for many years before I was born. But after he co-founded Pathway Publishers in Aylmer and launched and edited the monthly magazine “Family Life” in the late 1960s, his name became legend.

“Family Life” was (and is) a very nice little magazine if you like didactic stories in which the protagonist always repents after harboring heretical notions of leaving the Amish faith, or some such similar crisis. And the wayward son always returns in true humble repentance to court the plain but upstanding girl who is actually very beautiful inside, which as we all know is what really counts anyway. A glad light springs from her eyes as she modestly welcomes his return. Or maybe the glad light springs from his father’s eyes. I can’t remember. Whatever. The fiction was all pretty formulaic and predictable.

To be fair, a lot of useful practical stuff was also published. Farm tips and such. Inter-esting and well-crafted editorial opinions from my father and later, Elmo Stoll. And David Luthy’s in-depth historical research on extinct Amish communities always was and remains of the highest caliber.

Unrealistic, certainly, a lot of the magazine was (and is), but nice. And widely read, with great gusto and satisfaction, across a broad spectrum of Amishland. Nothing like it had ever been done before. I give my father a lot of credit; he had a vision and pursued it to heights even he could not have imagined. I should note that a pocket of hard-core conservative Amish people resented and resisted my father’s efforts, especially “Family Life.” These people felt that one should read only the Bible. Any supplemental reading was unnecessary and possibly detrimental. These people still exist out there.

Growing up, and for years after leaving, I could never admit my last name, Wagler, to any person remotely connected to Amish background without being asked if I knew David Wagler. I always admitted reluctantly that, yes, I knew him. Reluctant, not because I was ashamed or anything, but because it just got old, really old, really fast. The questions always continued: Are you related? Again, a grudging affirmative. More persistent and increasingly excited questions followed. Eventually the truth always emerged to reactions ranging from rapturous exclamations to clutching at the heart, and fainting (just kidding on those last two).

In the mid-80s, my brother Nate and I lived in Sarasota, Florida for a few months over the winter. We enjoyed chatting with old folks we met around Pine Craft. One elderly man from Arthur, Illinois, asked the usual litany of questions and finally got us to admit who we were. After our confession, he leaned on his tricycle in stunned silence for a few moments. He seemed drained.

I couldn’t resist, so I said playfully, “Just think, now you can go back home and tell everyone you met David Wagler’s sons.”

He stood mute for another moment, still leaning faintly on his tricycle. I thought he might not have heard my comment. Then he quavered, “They probably won’t believe me anyway.”

And that was about as classic as it got. Nate and I still chew that one.

The Aylmer community considered itself an example for the lesser elements, the “shining city on a hill,” from which grave noble proclamations could be issued on how one should live. The proclamations were particularly harsh on the communities that allowed tobacco use and/or “bed courtship.” And on fathers who worked away from home instead of farming. On spending money eating out in restaurants. On how one’s children should be raised and disciplined. Much of the latter, especially, was written by authors who had no children or whose children were very young. In those heady years, a lot of concrete (with rebar enforcement) was poured into some very deep footers.

Fame begets pilgrimages from admirers. Many people flocked in to see for themselves the perfect church. My earliest memories include strangers in the house, company from other communities, people who stopped by for a meal or for a day or for the night.

They came from all over. In vans and in cars. On the train and on the bus. From the small communities dotted about in the various Eastern and Midwestern states. From Michigan. From northern and southern Indiana. New York. Wisconsin. From the hills of Holmes County, Ohio. And yes, from the blue-blood enclaves of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

They had a wide variety of dialects and dress. Daviess County, Indiana (my ancestral home) people talk fast and sloppy, with many English words mixed in. Holmes County people converse in a slow drawl, taking forever to get anything said. Even their English taxi drivers spoke Dutch. And Lancaster, well, those people used old German words we had never heard before and had no idea what they meant. We thought the Lancaster people the strangest. They were certainly the most unlike us. Men wore wide, flat-brimmed black hats and the women sported funny little heart-shaped coverings. We heard rumors that even their buggies were quite distinct from those in most other communities.

Guests frequently arrived unannounced, often just minutes before meal time. Mom always scratched together enough food for everyone. Cheerfully. Only later in life did I ever consider how inconvenient it must have been at times. My sisters, too, have commented sometimes how they would bake a cake or some other delicacy, only to see it wolfed down by hungry guests they never saw again.

Some left their impressions, positive or negative. Once, when I was about four years old, a couple stayed with us for the night. The man was salt and pepper-haired, with a sharp pointy little beard and piercing eyes. I was terrified of him for some reason and thought he looked quite evil. The next morning, as they were getting ready to leave, he looked right at me and asked if I wanted to go along home with them. They needed another little boy, and I would be just the ticket. I was horrified and speechless and wildly shook my head. He was, of course, only joking, but I didn’t know that. It left a lasting impression.

My sisters sometimes wearied of all the intrusions. And all the extra dirty dishes that needed to be washed after the meals. After one late evening meal, a guest lady offered to help my sister Rachel with the dishes. Rachel graciously told her not to worry about it, that she was company. The lady replied, “Oh, that’s all right.” She helped with the dishes. For some reason, we thought that line was hilarious and we chewed it for years. “Oh, that’s all right” became a sarcastic little retort at our home.

Once, several couples from Lancaster stopped by for a late afternoon meal. Only Dad and Mom ate with them. They had cold peach soup, which consisted of cold milk, peaches and soggy lumps of bread. We had heard of cold peach soup, but never eaten it. Such things were common in Lancaster County, we heard. They all sat there primly, visiting and eating the cold gooey mess like they enjoyed it. We children lurked behind the curtains and peeped in to actually view the atrocious concoction being consumed. Nobody collapsed after eating it, so it must have been OK.

Single men made the pilgrimage to Aylmer, emerging from the hills of who knows where, on a mission to find a wife. Wild-eyed and shock-haired, they came, sometimes lurking about the community for a week or two. I remember few names. None, as far as I know, was successful in his mission. One long-bearded youth once stayed with us for a few days. The first day, he asked for a basin of water and towels, then disap-peared behind our large barn to “wash up.” I don’t know why he didn’t just use our bathtub. Maybe they didn’t have running water where he came from.

My brothers and I were a pretty rip-roaring, uncouth bunch. Tow-headed, raggedy, gallused and barefooted little savages. Always ravenously hungry. When we sat to eat at the table, we turned our full attention to the business at hand. (When we ate cereal with milk, we scrunched down over the plate and the spoon never stopped rotating. By the time it came back up to our mouth, we’d swallowed the last gulp. We greatly prided ourselves on this rare ability.) Such eating habits caused many strained, tense mom-ents when we had company.

After the meal was blessed, we piled great heaps of food onto our plates. Dad and Mom and the guests began eating at leisure, conversing between bites in moderate, measured tones. Not us. We went “slurp” and our plates were empty. In minutes. The food gone, just like that. We then sat back and dawdled on the bench, waiting im-patiently for everyone else to finish so we could have some dessert. Many a guest cast startled, discomfited glances that our embarrassed parents could not ignore. Many a time Dad chuckled grimly and said, “The boys eat too fast.” So we did. The guests just smiled politely. I’m sure they were usually horrified.

When we had overnight guests, devotions after breakfast always provided their own little ritual. Dad reached back and got the Bible and the Prayer Book and invited the guest husband to lead. It was standard accepted protocol for the guest to humbly protest and urge Dad just to do it.

“We usually have devotions. You can read a passage of Scripture and then lead the Morning Prayer,” Dad said.

“No, no, you are at home here, you go ahead,” the guest protested.

“No, you are company. Go ahead.” Dad persisted.

And so it went, back and forth, like a carefully orchestrated dance. This ritual was followed to the T, regardless of which community the guests came from. It must have been a universal Amish thing. I can’t remember a single time when the guest accepted the proffered duties without protest. I suspect it would have been considered prideful. I’m sure the ritual still unfolds today exactly as it did back then.

After two or sometimes three such rounds, the guest always reluctantly allowed him-self to be persuaded. We boys listened keenly, as the man would be severely judged by the tone and quality of his delivery. Especially the Morning Prayer, which is usually intoned with some measure of inflection and rhythm. If the prayer was powerful and loud and rhythmic, we were impressed. If it was dull and slow and squeaky, we napped. We soon learned not to judge before actually hearing the prayer. The most unassuming quiet little man might well have the most impressive intonation, his voice reverberating throughout the house. Conversely, a giant of a deep-voiced man might well prove disappointing, with a weak and barely audible delivery. Either way, we often discussed the man and his method in detail later, while working or choring. Sometimes we imitated a particularly impressive rhythm. It was actually a compliment, of sorts.

Today, my father is still well known and actively writing, but his star is receding. The middle-aged to elderly still speak of him, but the younger generations increasingly know him not. I deeply respect his accomplishments, but sometimes wonder how far he could have gone had he not been hampered by Amish rules and restrictions. And whether he could have found a broader audience for his writings.

I still meet people who tell me they visited our home in Aylmer, back in 1969 or 1971 or some such remote date. I rarely remember specific guests. But if they say they were there, I’m sure they were.

Overall, I consider our hosting experiences as a positive thing. Our little world was quite provincial and inhibited. These people from all the various communities greatly expanded our exposure to other places and practices different from those we knew. Our guests provided lots of fun for us children. And lots of stories.

The New Year arrived uneventfully. I stayed up to watch the NYC ball drop on TV. On New Year’s Day, I putzed about. Ate my annual meal of pork and sauerkraut from the Leola Fire Hall. Watched an endless stream of college bowl games. GO, LSU. Beat the Buckeyes.

The NFL playoff picture has emerged. The vile Patriots took it on out with the refs’ help and ended at 16-0. My only hope now: that some team will travel to Foxboro and stomp the (bleep) out of them in the playoffs. I am not optimistic.

The Iowa caucuses were held last night (yawn). I’m about as uninterested in the process as I’ve ever been for more than twenty years. I don’t like or trust a single candidate except one. Ron Paul. And he has about as much chance of winning as I have, and I’m not running. Although I didn’t raise $11 million dollars in two days like he did. One positive development; Hillary got stomped by Obama. Her policies would actually be less harmful to the country than his, but the thought of a screeching Nurse Ratchet delivering the annual State of the Union Address for four years just over-whelms my mental capacity to process or comprehend as even a remote possibility.

This week I received an unusually spiteful and vitriolic email from a now-former friend excoriating me for my whiny “Woe is me, poor little Amish boy” post last week. All carefully couched in “I’m your friend and want the best for you” language, of course. Kind of caught me off guard. I thought it was perfectly valid to reflect at year’s end on events that had transpired, positive or negative. And yes, I got a bit melancholy in the last post. That’s my temperament. If you read this blog on a regular or irregular basis, you know that.

My response to the vitriolic email: “If you don’t like what I write, don’t read it.” Instead of reading it and getting all worked up about what I should or shouldn’t write, how I write it, and whether it’s whining. Seems like a pretty basic concept to me. I can’t force anyone’s mouse to click on my site. It takes a hand to hold and direct the mouse. A finger to click it. Onto this site. Perhaps it’s time for another reminder: It’s just a blog, folks, for crying out loud. Oh, and one more thing. It’s MY BLOG.

Constructive criticism I can take (or try to); spiteful vitriol I will not tolerate. Not any-more. That now-former friend and his household are hereafter banned from comment-ing on this site. And I don’t want to hear any howls about free speech. This is the free market. As defined by me. I can’t keep anyone from posting anything, but I can delete any posted comments. I will delete his and those I suspect might be. And any follow-up personal emails he might send. I’m just done with all the mind games about my writings.

Finally, despite my Grinch status, I had a fine Christmas. Thanks to Steve and Wilma for providing several sumptuous meals, to my sister Naomi for the box of outstanding homemade candy, and to my sister Maggie for the box of baked goodies, including my favorite, tarts.