Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Day 181: Becky

Envision a six-foot-tall Amazon with blazing, long red hair, and a voice that bounces off the walls. Temper that with a lust for life, freckles and an easy laugh... that's Rosalyn Rebecca Williams. That's Becky.


I started this post a couple of weeks ago. It's been impossible to get motivated to finish it. Becky is near death at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. She's alive, but she's already gone. Barring some sort of miracle, the sickening phone call will arrive possibly as soon as today. We all know what happens now. But it's so hard to accept it.

And that's why I couldn't finish this. Because I don't want to let her go. Nobody who knows her, or knew her, does. She's a force of nature. But nature always wins. Becky's triumphed over a ton of crappy things during her life, but no one wins this one.


The first thing I ever remember happening in my life was the day I met my little brother. I wasn't yet three.

Trying to recall long-ago memories is always a challenge. What endures? One of my earliest memories is of Becky. She got married to Wendell at age 18. It was the week after the JFK assassination. I remember the big church, and her in a wedding dress. I honestly can't remember anything from my very early childhood before those two memories.


There are five Williams girls, and believe me, they're all pistols. Michaeleen is the first. My mom. Then came PJ, who is a hard-charger. Nancy, the middle child, is ideal in that spot for her balance and even-handedness. She doesn't get rattled too much. Becky was fourth. Phyllis, the youngest, is a moonchild and another sparkplug.

Two of the girls now live in their hometown. The other three have lived more away from home than at home. Phyllis went to Florida, Mike to Texas, and Becky wound up in Michigan.

All the sisters had at least one child, except for Becky. So when my brother and I were kids, she borrowed us for a couple of weeks a year.

I don't know how it got started. It must have been more or less as a lark. But my stepfather worked for an airline, so we could travel inexpensively. Starting in 1971, my brother and I began annual holiday trips to Michigan to visit Becky and Wendell.

For two flatlander Texas kids, Detroit seemed exotic. Becky and Wendell lived in an apartment near the intersection of Ten Mile Road and Hoover in Warren, Mich. -- Eminem's hometown!

I Googled it recently... the apartments look exactly the same as they did 40 years ago. I built my first snowman in the front courtyard of those apartments.

Everything about Detroit was exciting to us. In 1971, the Motor City was still a huge city, a great city: the home of the American automobile industry, Motown, and sports heroes like Gordie Howe, Al Kaline, Bobby Layne, Bob Lanier.

The first time we went was Christmas Day in 1971. As we were readying to go, I was watching a historic NFL playoff game between Miami and Kansas City. It went into overtime; we had to go to the airport. We listened to the game on the radio. When Miami won it in the 6th period, we listened to the game broadcast in our car in the parking lot at Love Field in Dallas.

We arrived late that night and the thing I remember most is passing a giant Uniroyal tire alongside Interstate 94 near Metro Airport.

We stayed for a week, and wound up going back several more times. I know for sure we were there in 1973 (on New Year's Eve we saw our first NHL game against Buffalo at the bombed-out Olympia Stadium, opened in 1927), 1975 (I watched the Cowboys' Hail Mary game while in Michigan), 1976 (I listened to Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" repeatedly -- a Christmas present), and 1978 (saw my first NBA game, with Dick Vitale as coach of the Pistons, in the Pontiac Silverdome -- as it turns out, 14 years to the day prior to the birth of my daughter). But my mom says we went every year.

We might have gone other times as well. I'm pretty sure we were there over New Year's in 1974.

Becky also invited us up a few summers. We were there in the summer of 1973 -- I saw my first baseball game at Tiger Stadium. Becky knew the catcher for the Tigers, a guy named Bill Freehan, and he threw me a ball before the game. We sat on the third-base stands, lower level about 15 rows up. Good seats. They cost $3.50. I still have that ball, still have the program. I found the boxscore online:


Memory is strange... I thought Norm Cash and Al Kaline homered that night. Only Kaline did; Cash didn't play. But I got to see some amazing players: Yaz, Fisk, Spaceman. And Willie Horton. Every time he came to bat, Becky would yell, "Hit that ball, Willie!"

We also saw the Swingin' A's pound the Tigers in a 1975 twinbill. I remember Reggie hitting a homer, and misplaying a fly ball below us (we sat in the right field upper deck). The ball flew over his head for a John Wockenfuss triple -- a rare occurrence, one of only 11 career triples by the Tiger's backup catcher.

Becky liked baseball. This girl was competitive. I wouldn't say she was a tomboy, but when you're a six-foot redhead you're kind of hard to miss, so I guess you'd better be ready for anything. I think this is a Williams sister trait: none of them are exactly wallflowers, but I'd have to say Becky was always the most ebullient. The first time we went up in summer, she was playing softball for a team. Naturally, she was the star. A six-foot shortstop. I imagine opposing pitchers lived in fear.

I got a taste of her competitive nature one year when we were all at the family homestead in Arkansas. A group of us was putting together a jigsaw puzzle. As the puzzle neared completion I confiscated a piece and pocketed it: I don't know why, but I wanted to put in the last piece. As the moment arrived Becky noticed a piece was missing and my secret was discovered. For some reason she didn't approve of my move and chased me through the house to rescue the missing piece. She felt guilty about that for years.

Bec, it's cool. It gave us a funny story to talk about for a long time.


So a huge highlight of my teen years was our annual pilgrimages to see Becky. We always did so many fun things and had such great times. The older Williams sisters had children and seemed more "grown up." Becky and Phyllis were more like us. But Phyllis was in Florida and although we visited at times, Florida was like Texas with Disney World. Michigan's holiday visits made them memorable.

My first time on ice skates was on a frozen lake in Michigan. Ditto first time on snow skis. We went to a place called Pine Knob. The biggest hill there seemed like a 90-degree precipice. I still get palpitations thinking about it.

When we left Pine Knob Becky took us to a cider mill. A *real* cider mill with a water-powered press. It was sublime.


As the 80s unfolded my brother and I were unable to take the annual trips and so we obviously didn't get to see Becky as frequently. Wendell was a firefighter and also a drinker. I'm not sure what precisely happened with them; I know on one of our last visits he was in a hospital trying to kick his attraction to alcohol. Sadly the last time I remember seeing Wendell was when he was in the hospital.

Wendell was a dark, stocky guy with a dry sense of humor. He didn't say a lot. They had a green Mustang that had a sticker on the inside that said "FTA." For years we would ask them what that meant, and they would laugh and say "Fun, Travel and Adventure." Wendell was a veteran and it wasn't for many years until I found out what "FTA" really meant was "Fuck The Army."

When they'd pick us up from the airport in that Mustang, Becky was always wound up. We'd all talk excitedly for the trip back to Warren, which seemed to take an hour. Wendell was always the mostly silent driver. Becky would chatter about the things we were going to do, ask how things were, etc., etc. And at then end of each exposition, she'd turn to Wendell and end with "Huh, Wendell?" Wendell would nod or agree. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

So I don't remember as much about Wendell. He had a reel-to-reel tape player that had amazing sound and seemingly everything the Rolling Stones had ever recorded. I remember the tapes piled in boxes and lusted after their sound the way a lot of teenage boys lusted after Valerie Bertinelli. And like if Valerie Bertinelli was there, you never would touch even though you wanted to.

Tangent: The first time I ever heard Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" was on a radio station in the back of Wendell's car as we drove around Detroit.

Wendell had family in the Detroit area. We hung out with them some, but not a lot.

One last Wendell story: There was a convenience store that had a large sign proclaiming "If we don't have it, you don't need it." We stopped and waited in the car as Wendell went inside to procure whatever. But he came out empty-handed. As he opened the door and saw our puzzled faces, he grinned and said "I guess we didn't need it."


I don't know when Becky and Wendell split, or how. And I don't know when Wendell died. I probably should. He was a neat man.

But in the time after Wendell, Becky had a rough period. I'm not going to get into too many gory details, but like a lot of us she met someone she would have been much better off not ever knowing. I met this guy but didn't really know him. But he was bad, bad news, and toxic, and led Becky down the wrong path.

Fortunately Becky had met someone else around this time: George. When things got really bad for Becky, who was all alone in Michigan, George loved her more than anyone outside of her family. George rescued Becky.

George is one of those people you meet who you know is pure goodness. When there is a family member you love, one of the best things you can ever hope they have is someone who will appreciate them, cherish them, do right by them. Everyone knows George is Becky's hero. He's kind of my hero, too.

We're all worried about George. He and Becky have been United Against the World for a long time. It's clear they have one of those relationships where they always have each other's back. The difference, from this view, is that George never needed Becky as much as Becky needed George. What I mean by that is that George has always seemed centered enough to be strong no matter what. Becky had stumbles, and George always was there to make sure she could get back up.

George is going to be tested now. Losing Becky is going to be the greatest loss of his life. This is probably happening the way it should. Becky couldn't live without George. George is strong. My heart aches for the guy. He's maybe the nicest person I have ever met. He's a better person than just about anyone I know. I hate knowing his pain is so great. It's just unbelievably sad.

I guess the good thing, for George anyway, is that he had more and better years with Becky than any of us. He's lucky in that sense. But that also makes his loss the hardest to withstand. I love you, George.


I've bought one house in my life. It was a magnificent home, and I loved it. Becky made it happen. She loaned me the money to pay for it.

When I got divorced, I had to stop paying her back for a while. "A while" became several years. These years were struggling years for me in a lot of ways. When I finally got stable I talked to Becky about resuming payments.

She sent me a note making the remaining balance a gift. This was not a small amount of money. So throughout my life, she was always giving me unforgettable memories. I could repay the money. I could never repay what she meant to me or how she enriched my life.


I was lucky in the late 90s to have a job that required the occasional visit to Southeast Michigan. I got to see Becky at home a few more times. My daughter's first time to fly and to see real snow was a trip to Michigan.

During that trip we took a sidetrip to a frozen Niagara Falls. Only time I've been there. So naturally, another memory exclusive to Becky. We also cadged a sweet suite at a Red Wings game during that visit.


In 2001 I was in a bit of trouble. I felt like I needed to get out of town. I hatched a ridiculous plan but knew that I would have a safe haven with Becky.

After 24 hours of driving, I placed a phone call to her early one morning in the summer of 2001. "Hey, how are you?" Becky: "Oh my God, how are YOU? What are you up to? Where are you?"

"Ummm... a few blocks away."

::laughter:: "Want some breakfast?

I got to spend a couple of days with her and George. Becky and I caught a baseball game at Comerica and reminisced.


Then she got sick. I saw her a few more times in the intervening years. The last time was a couple of years ago and she had obviously slowed down a bit. But still Becky.


That hair! I've had a thing for redheads ever since.


When she went into the hospital recently I couldn't call her. I heard that she wasn't in great shape. Maybe I am selfish about this, but I just couldn't bear to pollute my memories of her with the shell that her well-lived life is leaving behind. That's not her.

Becky's the attractive, amazing woman you see at the top of this post. That's who she'll always be. I love her. And I miss her.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Day 180: Choices

As cheesy as it sounds, attitude is a choice.

Some things could bring me down today. Already I've had some unpleasantness to deal with. I'm going to fight through it.

Our lives are marked by choices big and small. What to have for breakfast. Which way to go to work. What to wear. Where to live. Who to spend time with. What to say.

I'm a pretty accomplished Eeyore when I want to be. I don't want to be. I'm going to look at the positives as much as possible, as long as possible. Examples:

* An old friend and I reconnected over the weekend and put aside some differences. It's cool. I like this person immensely and my life is now a little better.
* I saw some beautiful teamwork at home and elsewhere over the weekend, too. That's a good feeling.
* A beloved family member is on her deathbed, and her imminent passing will leave an awful void in my life. I'm trying to fill that void with memories of the amazing, special times we had that she made possible. She will always live on with me because she did so much to enrich my existence.
* We all want to be liked, but some folks just don't get each other. I've got a few of those people who would love to take me down a peg and who are actually pleased that I've been struggling. That's their right. But I can't worry about that. Some people don't like me, I don't like some people. But I've got too much to do and too much yet to experience to let them drag me down. To the "haterz" -- I hope your lives improve to the point that you get your energy from sunshine, not darkness.

Go love something today.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Day 177, Pt. II: Comments

I love comments. I love the interactivity. However, an old psycho stalker-type person has turned up. So pardon the inconvenience, but comments are now moderated.

We now return to your regularly scheduled whatever.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Day 176: The thermostat Nazi

This house was built in 1939. It's got a lot of typical charm for a pre-war home: hardwood floors, big windows, nice trees in the lot. It's located within walking distance of the campus, the main drag, a grocery store, the city's best park.

The downside: it's poorly insulated, the furnace is more than 40 years old, not a single floor is level, foundation cracks abound. In the summer the ancient water pipes finally gave way and required a massive rip-up of the yard (which still hasn't been restored... the steps leading to the front door are only barely usable and somewhat a health risk to the mail carriers).

I've added weather-stripping and taken some measures to watch the energy consumption. Our very first heating bill here ran $209. An upgrade of the furnace would be a good idea, but when you are a renter, you can only hope that the landlord is willing. And while he's at it, maybe a new fridge to replace the 26-year-old on hand?

Anyway I've earned the nickname "the thermostat Nazi" because in the summer I set the a/c at 80. It's worse in the winter. After the overnight house temperature dropped to at least 55 (could've been lower), I decided to turn on the heat for the first time this season to see if the pilot was still lit and it would kick on.

The holiday season is upon us, and with it come some wonderful aromas: pumpkin pie. Baked turkey. Fresh hot bread.

That first time you turn on the heater provides a seasonal aroma as well. Not sure why furnace dust, or whatever this would be called, has that particular stench. But it's unmistakeable.

I set the thermostat at 56. That's probably too low. I'm willing to consider 58, but only if I can annex Poland.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Day 175: Eventually

The worst day on a job is always the first. However, I look forward to it.

The first day you're always nervous. Obviously you made a strong enough impression, but now what? Job interviews are like first dates: They're inherently phony. You're only showing the very best possible representation of yourself. That's a facet of you. Not you.

And this goes on for a while, either by design or by showing good sense. In some cases you might have a probationary hiring period where if you do something stupid they will chop you. Generally you've got to hope that there's no slip-up on your part that might give them reason to not like you as much.

It's a balancing act. I can be a little intense and on the job that can rub people the wrong way. I've never understood why. When I am hired to do something, I'm always motivated to do the best possible work I can in fulfillment of my job. Here's an example: I worked for a large PR firm in California, handling the agency work for a global automobile maker. This company was preparing for a gigantic launch of an important vehicle, a legacy vehicle. The intro was going to take place at the largest U.S. auto show.

This particular auto show is a grind for the media. Thousands fly in for the show. For more than three days, the media throngs from automaker event to automaker event, hearing from the bigwigs, seeing the new toys. Every hour, sometimes every half-hour, they move like a herd of 5-year-old soccer players from booth to booth. After a day of this, it becomes a drone. After two days, you just can't wait for it to be over. On the third day, you're homicidal.

I attended many of these as a media member. I think my analysis is fairly typical.

When I was working for the manufacturer, we started planning the big launch. The manufacturer reps had an hour. They planned to open the show with the sexy new vehicle, then touch on the rest of their product line, none of which had the jazz of the new arrival. I made the case that opening with the new product would mean once they moved on to the other stuff, the media would fade away and start staking out ground at the next intro. Three times I made this case, and three times they said they would start the show with the new thing.

When the show came, they started with the new thing. For the second half of their show, they spoke to an audience about two-thirds smaller than what was at the start.

I felt it was my duty to bring my experience to this scenario, but they went another way. The fact that I was right is nice for me, but ultimately, I'd rather have been able to make the case that what I was saying wasn't about me but about what was best for the company. I was willing to go against the grain to make the point that was in the best interests of the company. It wasn't in *my* best interests. I could have easily just shut up and nodded.

I feel that's the coward's way out, and doesn't ultimately benefit the team. But you all know that the workplace is filled with sheep who just want to get through the day without any conflict. I have a hard time doing that. I think it's a matter of integrity to work hard for who you work for.

I've got tons of examples like this. One stop, in a nepotism situation that should have been handled by corporate, one of the beneficiaries of nepotism was incompetent. I could have let that go, and not helped fix that problem. Obviously no one would be able to complain since the nepotism was allowed. But I couldn't bear to let the product suffer so I fixed the problem, over and over and over again. Why? Why should I care more than the people I work for?

Because I don't like coasting. If I'm in it, then I'm in it. Dolph J. Regelsky said it well: "Pro way is the easy way."

So when I get that new job, I will tread lightly to fit in, and hope that everyone is rowing in the same direction so that I don't have to be the one to stand up and try and fix things.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Day 174: Tremors

Weird stuff been happening around here lately: EARTHQUAKES!

I expected this but never really experienced it in SoCal. What does it mean?

* 2012 stuff is unfolding.
* Fracking is fracking dangerous.
* It's a sign from beyond...

I have had a couple of little job tremors, too. A job with local Behemoth has unshaken some back-and-forth via the e-mails; even more hopeful is the NoCal dream job that I applied for with little hope of becoming reality.

I'm a major longshot for that one although I could clearly shine in the role. It's something that not only would allow me to put to the test my ideas about the future of J, but the fact that it would happen in a dream location is not unappreciated.

Again, I'm definitely a dark horse on this one, but so are earthquakes in Gawd's Country.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Day 170: Drift

I'm frustrated.

I'm not inspired to write. I feel like I'm trying to run underwater.

Last night I had a dream where I had to make a cross-country flight simply to be in person to sign a document. I flew to my destination, caught a cab to the place I had to go. It was a sterile, nondescript glass-and-metal office complex, filled with people. When I got to the place I was supposed to go, I entered a large, dark blue room that looked like a medical waiting room. It was filled with people but since I was expected I was quickly ushered past the waiting room and into the place where I was to sign. I signed, then immediately left.

Outside there were even more people around the building. I found a security guard and asked about getting a cab to get back to the airport. Apparently my entire trip consisted simply of the trip to sign the document, doing so, then returning. The return flight was probably less than three hours after my arriving flight.

What does it mean? I think it means my dreams are stupid.