Breaking forth

Floating in this concrete amnion,
An organism among the osmoles,
Out I reach and stretch my arms,
Quickening my nearly naked body
Immersed in fluid blue,
Whip-kicking down the channel
Toward the final mosaic cross :
Like a newborn infant I emerge,
Lungs bursting with newfound air—
Life’s first breath.

2011©Brian T. Maurer

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Under the wire

On the spur of the moment my friend telephoned to say that he had just got two tickets to the Traveler’s Championship Golf Tournament — corporate row seats above the 18th green. Would I like to go? He could swing by and pick me up in an hour.

Outside of a handful of names of great professional golfers, my knowledge of the game of golf is slim. I understand it flourished in Scotland during the 19th century; the links of Saint Andrew’s are said to have defined the modern 18-hole course. Mark Twain called golf a good walk spoiled — presumably because during an otherwise pleasant stroll over several miles of manicured turf you have to take time out periodically to strike a small white ball with a club and follow wherever it may land. Once you deliver it into the cup on the green, you’re free to repeat the process ad infinitum 18 times. This helps to develop your vocabulary, the strength of your voice and subsequent control of your emotions.

Given my rudimentary knowledge of the sport, I decided it was high time I applied myself to learn something more substantial about this activity which seemed to have captured the hearts and minds of so many of my contemporaries. The lawn would have to wait another day to be cut. I told my friend I would go.

“Wear a hat and comfortable shoes,” he told me. “Put on a dab of sunscreen. You might consider short pants; it’s going to be hot and humid.”

I rooted through the closet and found my old Banana Republic straw fedora. I pulled on a white cotton polo shirt and grabbed my sunglasses from the car. True to his word, my friend swung by at the appointed time to pick me up, and we were off.

Years ago when I went to New York City for the day with a friend and his brother to see a show at the Met, I learned that the secret to an enjoyable afternoon in the big city is going with someone who knows his way around. This same principle applies to attending your first golf tournament outing.

My friend ignored the suggestions of personnel directing traffic and scooted into the parking lot marked “Media.” From there it was a short walk to the entrance, where we presented our tickets. A large sign listed prohibited items: backpacks, cameras, coolers; cell phones were to be silenced. We were stopped at a security check point where an electronic wand was passed over our bodies. The bar codes on our ticket stubs were electronically captured a second time before we picked up programs and headed to corporate row.

A policeman and several young men in plastic vests screened us at the entrance of the walkway. We pushed through the doors into the air-conditioned Greenside Club and suffered one last check point, where we were given wristbands that identified us as clubhouse guests.

The room was laid out with scores of tables covered with white linen cloths. Along the back wall stood the bar, and to the far right a buffet luncheon. Any number of folks were milling around with drinks in their hands, making polite conversation or sitting at table to eat. Outside in the banks of chairs we found seats to watch the latest threesome putt out on the 18th green below.

My friend knew the course well, having played it several times himself. He described the lie of several holes, noting their par and strategic approaches. He digressed a bit, telling me of other courses he had played on, mostly notably Morefar Back O’Beyond, Weyhill and Hilton Head.

“Morefar was built by C.V. Starr, the founder of AIG,” my friend said. “It’s a fabulous course, bronze statues dot the fairways. They only allow five or six foursomes on the greens a day. You play the first nine, then stop off at the clubhouse for a gourmet brunch before picking up the back nine.”

“Weyhill is one of four courses in Saucon Valley, the former Bethlehem Steel country club outside Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Weyhill was purposely laid out with 100-yard walkways between each green and the next tee. It was over the course of those walkways that many business deals were cut.”

My golfing education was progressing into full swing.

The favorite at this year’s championship was a 19-year-old amateur from UCLA, Patrick Cantlay, who currently led the field by 12 under par. The day before he had logged a 60, the lowest score by an amateur in PGA Tour history. We decided to stroll down to the 14th hole to see if we could catch up with him.

No sooner had we left the clubhouse than we were hailed by two colleagues from my friend’s former institution. They invited us in for a free drink. Once inside the pavilion we elected to try the chicken tenders as well. We sat down at table and were soon joined by a middle-aged fellow, who struck up a conversation about golf as he had played it in his youth on Hilton Head.

He knew the courses, he knew the holes, he knew the hotels and the restaurants and the bars. He knew the lay of the land, knew where the prime real estate had been developed. For nearly half an hour he spun his stories while we munched on Ben and Jerry’s ice cream popsicles. He had a golf app on his cell phone and showed us the current standing of the pros in the tournament. The sign at the entrance prohibited the use of cell phones, yet here was this fellow who seemed to hold the golfing world at his fingertips.

We tore ourselves away and headed out to the 14th hole in time to see Cantlay hit over the hill. We followed his threesome to the 17th tee and watched as his shot found the water. The crowd emitted a collective groan. In spite of having to drop a stroke, our favorite hit onto the green in two, only to miss the final putt by a hair.

Walking toward the last hole, we met another acquaintance — a former member of our swim group. He was there for the day with his brother-in-law. Each sported an official looking badge draped from the neck which read: “Honorary Observer.”

“It’s been great,” they said. “We’ve spent the afternoon inside the lines, right there watching the pros putt out — absolutely fabulous. How about you guys?”

“We caught up with Cantlay and followed him through the last four holes — the water gave him some trouble on the 17th.”

Corporate row was closing down by the time we trucked up along the final green. We picked up copies of “Life & Leisure,” the official publication of the PGA Tour’s TPO network, and once again made our way down the walkway, where we ran into our erstwhile golf bum.

“Hey, you guys — golfers, right? — great stories. What a great time — you gotta love it.”

I noticed a slight list in his bearing as he sauntered up the path.

Huey Lewis and the News played in concert that evening in the fan zone. We stood in the crowd and clapped and sang along for several numbers. From the day’s pedestrian traffic the field under our feet had turned to mud .

Halfway through the final number we left, strolling up the long hill by the tee at the first hole. Up along the crest you could see the lights coming on in several houses. Groups of people lounged at porch rails, drinks in hand, listening to the band belt out their final number.

“Are those houses part of the course?” I asked my friend.

“No, they’re privately owned.”

I thought a moment. “Who underwrites the cost of the tournament?” I asked.

“Corporate sponsorship. Each company pays $100,000 for their pavilion on corporate row. Travelers is the main sponsor — they kick in $4 million.”

“How much do the players earn?”

“Top 125 pros — probably somewhere around $1.5 million a piece.”

In 1457 James II of Scotland, through an act of the Scottish Parliament, issued an edict that banned the game of golf. Subsequent bans were imposed in 1471 and 1491, where golf was described as “an unprofitable sport.”

The game has come a long way since the links of Saint Andrews, I thought, as we ducked under the flags and headed back to the car in the fading evening light.

Author’s books now available at iTunes bookstore

Brian T. Maurer’s books Patients Are a Virtue and Village Voices are now available as iBooks for purchase and download at the iTunes bookstore.  Interested readers may click on the links below to access these titles.

Readers may also search for these titles directly at the iBookstore using the following ISBNs.

The ISBN for Patients Are a Virtue is 9781257166220.
The ISBN for Village Voices is 9781257351039.

Putting up a mailbox

I ran down to our local Lowe’s Wednesday after work to get everything I needed. It took me a while to locate the items (I always hate to ask), but the in the end the fellow directed me to aisle 4, where I found a cedar post, a set of steel mounting brackets, burnished brass house numbers, and a mailbox. I chose the white one with the red metal flag because I thought it would look sharp with our blue and white-trimmed house.

I stowed the paraphernalia in the garage, figuring the next morning I would tackle the chore of putting up the mailbox for home mail delivery.

I slept somewhat fitfully (the night air was close), rose early, pulled on my work clothes and found a tape measure in the kitchen.

I walked down the driveway and along the curb to the neighbor’s front yard, where I stopped to measure the height of his mailbox and distance it stood from the curb.

Then I retraced my steps to our garage, measured the cedar post, read the suggestions on the back of the mailbox package, studied the steel brackets and the mounting instructions, located my old posthole digger—and then retired to the front porch.

I sat in the rocking chair in the sun and listened to the sounds of the morning. The dog curled up at my feet, occasionally lifting her head to offer a bit of solace. Dogs sometimes understand these things better than their human masters.

None of us relishes change in our lives; most of us are downright averse to it. Hence the undue stress experienced when changing jobs, making a move, getting married, becoming a new parent—or putting up a mailbox.

Many times change is forced upon us. Like it or not, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, pressed into making a difficult decision.

Shortly after my wife and I moved from Pennsylvania to this New England town thirty years ago, we rented a mailbox at the village post office. The postmistress stepped out from behind the window to demonstrate how to manipulate the antique brass dials. “Now you give it a try,” she said. I did; it opened fine.

I used to lift my kids into our red wooden Radio Flyer wagon and pull them down Winthrop Street past Bob Atkins and Son small engine repair shop and Farrell’s Market to check the mail. Afterwards I’d pull them back up the street and maybe stop off at the school playground to push them on the swings before heading home.

When they got older, my kids learned how to dial in the code to open that post office box; and they’d walk down to check the mail on their own.

Later, when my kids were grown up, I used to take my granddaughter down to the post office to check the mail. We would stop at the window to chat with the postmistress and select a piece of candy from the basket. (I was always partial to root beer barrels; my granddaughter liked Tootsie Rolls.)

The village post office was the place where neighbors met and greeted one another. Inside, they talked as they waited in line to purchase stamps or post packages, and afterwards they talked on the steps outside. The postmistress knew everyone by name. If you stopped by to check the mail, she’d tell you if your spouse had already dropped in. She knew the names of your kids and what they were doing with their lives. She ran an efficient ship and did so with a smile.

Our local post office closed last February. Since then, instead of getting our mail through the village post office box as we had done for the past three decades, we’ve had to drive seven miles round trip into town to check the mail. The town post office is busy, hectic, understaffed; the parking is horrendous; and, unlike the village post office, nobody knows your name.

Over the past four months our mail has been delayed, misplaced, returned undelivered. I have stood in line at the window for twenty minutes to call for an item that was too large for our post office box, only to find that no such item was available. (There must have been some mistake, the clerk explains: perhaps the yellow card had been place in the wrong box. If anything comes in, he’ll let me know.)

And so I made the decision to erect a mailbox at the end of our front walk and have the mail delivered to our home. It will be a change, I’m sure. There will be glitches to be dealt with, but nothing insurmountable. Eventually, things will sort themselves out.

Meantime, I’m still sitting in the sun on the front porch, figuring that it’s too late to start the project this morning. Soon I’ll have to get ready to go to work. I have to work the next day as well, and my daughter tells me it’s supposed to rain this weekend.

I suppose, all things considered, I might have to put it off until sometime next week, maybe even the week after.

The dog lifts her head and yawns, then rests her chin on her front paws and regards my face with empathetic eyes. She’s well aware that nobody likes change, least of all me.

Twin Brothers: a novel relationship

When I read the story of the twin brothers who had entered the Franciscan order to spend their lives in service to their fellow monks and subsequently died on the same day, I couldn’t help but think of the twin boys Esteban and Manuel, Thornton Wilder’s characters in his 1939 novella The Bridge at San Luis Rey.

Wilder writes: “They became vaguely attached to all the sacristies in town: they trimmed all the cloister hedges; they polished every possible crucifix; they passed a damp cloth once a year over most of the ecclesiastical ceilings….When the priest rushed through the streets carrying his precious burden into a sickroom either Esteban or Manuel was to be seen striding behind him, swinging a censer.”

According to the New York Times article, Brother Julian and Brother Adrian were workers, preparing the altar for chapel, chopping wood for kindling, exulting in ice cream at the Twist & Shake — the identical Riester twins were together, always.

“As they grew older, however, they showed no desire for the clerical life.  They gradually assumed the profession of the scribe.”

To dismiss the twins as blank slates would be to misjudge them; their simplicity had depth. Rarely speaking of yesterday, they lived in the God-given now.

“Because they had no family, because they were twins, and because they were brought up by women, they were silent.”

Here, then, were two shy men, surrounded by scholars, discouraged from speaking, uncertain what to say if given the chance, and yet confident that this was their calling.

“There was in them a curious shame in regard to their resemblance….From the years when they first learned to speak they invented a secret language for themselves, one that was scarcely dependent on the Spanish for its vocabulary, or even for its syntax.  They resorted to it only when they were alone, or at great intervals in moments of stress whispered it in the presence of others.”

Brother Julian became the sacristan, maintaining the chapel, and Brother Adrian became the chauffeur, but they also built the bookshelves and maintained the garden and cleared the growth from the shrines in the woods — and rarely spoke unless invited.

“This language was the symbol of their profound identity with one another, for just as resignation was a word insufficient to describe the spiritual change that came over the Marquesa de Montemayor on that night in the inn at Cluxambuqua, so love is inadequate to describe the tacit almost ashamed oneness of these brothers.  What relationship is it in which few words are exchanged, and those only about the details of food, clothing and occupation; in which the two persons have a curious reluctance even to glance at one another?”

If they quarreled, Brother David said, “It would be over the measurement of a piece of wood.” And even then, it would be done silently: a slight cock of Julian’s head, to suggest that he didn’t agree with Adrian’s calculations.

“And yet side by side with this there existed a need of one another so terrible that it produced miracles as naturally as the charged air of a sultry day produces lightning.”

The Rev. Canice Connors, a Franciscan who spent a restful summer at the friary, became enchanted by the guileless twins, who seemed to embrace a deeper, ego-free reality.

“All the world was remote and strange and hostile except one’s brother.”

When Manuel dies from an infected cut on his knee, Esteban takes on his identity and tries to make sense of the world.  But his efforts are in vain.  He can no longer exist without his soul mate.  He perishes in the collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey.

Brother Julian and Brother Adrian died on the same day.  At 92 years of age, they died within hours of one another in keeping with a quiet life of doing most everything together at St. Bonaventure.

Brother Julian died in the morning and Brother Adrian died in the evening, after being told of Julian’s death. Few who knew them were surprised, and many were relieved, as it would have been hard to imagine one surviving without the other.

“We ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Show me the way to go home

Like ghosts, late-morning mists hovered momentarily over the mountain, winding their way upward to lose themselves in the low-lying clouds. Up on the ridge the old tower stood stately firm, a shell of its former glory. We wound our way along the river road, the pavement still glazed from morning rains.

Down the interstate we flew, making the Pennsylvania border in record time, then coasted into Milford, where we turned southwest to begin the descent through the long green valley. Off to our left through the trees we caught glimpses of the grey Delaware. A wild turkey strutted through the brush; an oriole darted across the road into the trees. A short detour twisted through a stand of dense forest.

We turned off at Smithfield, picking up the shortcut that my uncle had told us about decades ago. Shortly, we glided over the crest of the hill and dropped down into the old town. We pulled into a parking space, crossed the street and slipped inside the church just in time to catch my cousin’s eulogy, the prayers, the creed, and a few familiar hymns from long ago.

The graveside interment was brief. The hillside lay dotted with flags freshly planted for the Memorial Day remembrance. We returned to our cars and headed out to the banquet facility on the hill.

I met my cousin at the entrance. “It was a good talk,” I told him.

“I almost didn’t get through it,” he said.

“You did fine. I liked your description of what it was like when your dad would get home at the end of the day, pulling into the driveway, jingling the change in his pocket, humming some old tune.”

“It was the best part of the day for him—and for us.”

We filed inside and found our seats at one of the long tables. It had been years—fourteen, in fact—since I had sat down to break bread with my extended family, the remnant of aunts, uncles and cousins I had grown up with. I shook hands and exchanged hugs, recalling snatches of their personal histories, knowing that they knew mine. Collectively, a family grows, breaks, gathers together to bind up its wounds and moves on.

We ate and reminisced, stood and shook hands, introducing ourselves to the younger set we hadn’t seen in years. Finally, before dessert, we sat to sing my uncle’s favorite, “Show me the way to go home.”

It was a shorter drive back up the valley to the interstate. Despite patches of heavy fog and steady rain along the extensive stretch of darkened highway, we navigated our way through the night back home.

Humane Medicine — The year of the great-grandmother

“It’s been a tough year,” she says. “I’ve got my mother living with me now. I didn’t think it would be quite like it turned out. She’s 85, and with frontal lobe dementia, she requires constant care. But what can I do? She’s my mother. And then there’s Meg—I’ve still got Meg at home. You remember Meg—”  more»

Interested readers can now access my latest Humane Medicine columnGenerational Medicine: The year of the great-grandmother — recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.