Oct 072013
 

from the book: Life Will Get You in the End:
Short stories by David Satterlee

A liberal fable. Not every one can be born to good looks, wealth, or privilege. How should we think of the disadvantaged people we happen to see, knowing that their appearance, condition, or status may not reflect their inner gifts or intrinsic worth?

The Ugly Baby

Little Jenna was born ugly. There’s no getting around the fact; she was definitely butt ugly. She didn’t have the usual cuddly baby fat but looked like a bundle of sinew-wrapped sticks. She had a red blotch that covered her right jaw and went all the way back to her ear. Her left eye looked kind of droopy. Visitors to the hospital nursery either stared at her or looked away.
Jenna’s father left when he found out about the pregnancy. Her mother took a third part-time job but still couldn’t keep up with the rent. Between her mother’s stress, exhaustion, and poor nutrition, Jenna was delivered sickly and premature, which didn’t bode well for her future.
Jenna’s widowed aunt eventually agreed to let her and her mother stay in a spare room. Jenna’s cousin had been brain-injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq and would never be coming back to sleep there. Jenna’s mother tried to get her GED high school diploma but, without transportation, she had attendance problems and dropped out. She tried to get work, but the economy was slowing and she began drinking heavily. Consumed by anger, helplessness, and hopelessness, she was an indifferent and inattentive mother to her ugly little burden. When Jenna was two, her mother disappeared without even leaving a note.
Jenna’s aunt became the bright spot in her otherwise physically, mentally, and emotionally-impoverished life. Her aunt, getting past her initial revulsion and resentment, opened her heart to nurture the child. She rocked and cuddled Jenna. She talked to Jenna and read to her, took her on trips and showed her how to prune the imperfect buds in the garden so that the others could bloom larger.
For the first time in her life, Jenna began to smile, talk, and laugh. Her curiosity bloomed. She liked to help in the kitchen and took responsibility for things like being sure that the cats always had food and water… and a good petting when they were in the mood. Coached by her aunt, Jenna quickly learned her letters and learned to read early. She also began developing skills including drawing and music. Who would not be delighted by such a prodigy?
However, Jenna began to notice that, although her aunt gave unreserved gifts of acceptance and attention, no one else seemed to like being around her. She sat on the front steps, but no one came to play. When she knocked at the doors of other children, they were always too busy. She wasn’t invited to parties. When she went out, people stared at her or looked away. Jenna discovered that she was ugly, and she learned, indelibly, what being ugly on the outside meant.
This was a transforming epiphany for Jenna. She recognized, at an unusually early age, that there was a difference between superficial ugliness of the flesh and deep ugliness of the spirit. She had not been raised in any religious tradition but found herself moved to make a heartfelt dedication to figuring out how to be beautiful inside. It is from such a spiritual awakening that all saints are realized.
Third grade challenged Jenna’s newfound resolve. Her classmates were especially cruel. Her teacher not only failed to correct the bullying, but was indifferent and negligent toward Jenna as a person, as a student, and as a creative, questing soul with abundant potential. Jenna decided that an imperfect bud was being pruned.
Often, in a family or a small group, one person becomes singled out as different, difficult, blameworthy, and unlovable. Jenna easily became that target of unintended malice. She quit trying to participate in class, talk to others, or complete many make-work assignments. She withdrew into herself, absorbed in just watching, being preoccupied with her own thoughts, and preferring to retire into quiet places to read at every opportunity.
And, just as everything was crashing down on Jenna at school, her aunt suffered a serious stroke and died. Jenna was placed in foster care with some difficulty. Nobody wanted an ugly girl who would hardly even look at you, and had a poor academic record. She was probably stupid as well. The couple that finally accepted Jenna likely only wanted the foster care payments, but they did provide a private room, regular meals and other obligatory physical care.
The rest of Jenna’s primary and secondary school experience repeated these same fundamental patterns with one exception. Hormones produced physical development and unreliable emotions. Jenna saw other girls and boys infatuated with each other and ached to experience the same satisfactions for herself. For a while, she mistook the power of promiscuity for the evidence of affection. This ended abruptly when she discovered the contempt with which a suitor described his conquest to others.
After graduating from high school, Jenna found work processing insurance claims. Her native intelligence and easy facility with words and numbers finally found a productive and acceptable outlet. Jenna had a private cubicle. There was little opportunity for people to stare at her or turn away. She earned enough to maintain her own apartment and automobile. And so, she went through the motions of having a life, but without the usual satisfactions.
In fact, by living such a difficult life, Jenna discovered that she had developed a high level of empathy for the difficulties of others. But, she also discovered that her work was designed to frustrate or deny as many claims as possible. The resulting conflict between Jenna’s values and actions produced an inevitable and intolerable tension. She began drinking wine at home after work to dull her painful misery.
Alcohol will ease the pain, but at the expense of good judgment. One night, Jenna discovered that she did not have enough wine on hand to fully achieve the usual sweet oblivion of sleep. Driving several miles through town to buy more, she realized that she was about to plow into a small group of inattentive teenagers swirling across the street in front of her. She swerved abruptly to miss them, recognizing that this would take her headlong into a large tree. Jenna did not doubt for an instant that she would be killed or that she had any other choice.
Jenna was not killed, but the last boy in the group was crushed and bled to death in minutes. Jenna was often wracked by the pain of inconsolable grief and guilt. She could not imagine any relief nor any forgiveness.
Jenna’s usual ugliness was amplified beyond all consideration by her mug shot. Her nose was broken. She lost three teeth. Her right eye was badly bruised. In a mirror, she both stared and then looked away, finally understanding the fascination and shock of unexpected novelty.
In jail, a church lady began making visits. She spoke of a loving and forgiving God. She played tapes of sermons and left literature. The lady kept a folder and made notes. One day, the lady took Jenna’s mug shot out of the folder and invited her to describe how she felt about the sinfulness of her earlier life. Afterwards, Jenna overheard the lady showing the picture to the guards and heard the contempt with which the lady described her ugliness. Jenna decided that she had once again mistaken the power of attention for the evidence of love.
Alone in her jail cell, Jenna wept long and hard, neglecting the food on her meal tray. Thinking back over her life, leading to this point, and imagining her probable future, she indulged some self-pity, which quickly compounded her guilt and self-condemnation. And then, Jenna experienced another transforming epiphany.
Jenna washed her hands, dried her face, and filled a cup with water from the sink. She took a bite from her lunch sandwich; the bread was stale and dry. She took a sip of water; the bouquet felt rich and fruity and went down with smooth warmth.
Jenna removed her pants. Lacking anything higher, she tied one leg around a cross-member of the bars and the other around her neck. Summoning extraordinary will and purpose, she extended her legs in front of her, gradually giving up her weight. In due time, her painful misery gave way to sweet oblivion. Strong arms lifted Jenna up and embraced her. She looked up. His kind eyes looked back directly into hers. He smiled and comforted her gently.
Two guards discovered her body there in the cell. Her reddened face and distended tongue only accentuated her usual ugliness. One of the guards stared at her. The other looked away.
May 262012
 

The 2011 debt limit crisis demonstrated beyond any doubt that our Republican-controlled Congress is willing to do damage to America and its people. They behaved like a kidnapper cutting off a finger and sending it back to distraught and fearful parents to get them to pay a ransom. We understand that Republicans speak for their financial and religious-right masters. They want money. They want power. They want full control. And, who knows who these terrorists are willing to shoot in the head and shove out the door next.

Effective government is a good and necessary thing. Good government serves its people. Government is a forum for debating issues, agreeing on compromises, managing common resources, and enforcing public decisions. Government should not be something that you try to destroy – or weaken so much that it can be bought. In 2011, “Young Guns,” Tea Party freshmen, and other leading Republicans actually called for the government to default – refusing to pay the bill for spending they had already approved.

What do these “Young Guns” want? They want to run the town, and they are willing to intimidate any citizen, shoot up any merchant, and face down any lawman to do it. They want to lock up the sheriff in his own jail and take him out at night to lynch him – or “drown it [government] in a bath tub” as Grover Norquist said. Too over-the-top? Extend the metaphor with President Obama in the role of Sheriff and replay Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying, “Making Obama a one-term president is my single most important political goal.”

Actually, Republicans seem hostile to the idea of America’s entire administrative branch and presidency. Let’s listen, again to their ranch-boss, Grover Norquist: “All we have to do is replace Obama. We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. … We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate. … Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States. This is a change for Republicans: the House and Senate doing the work with the president signing bills. His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.”

Since our founders designed our constitution, America has always depended on distributed power, with checks and balances, between three branches of government. Can you imagine a do-nothing rubber-stamp president? Now imaging that president appointing whomever he was told to the federal courts, including the Supreme Court! Well, now we’ve got a deal. The big ranchers now run everything. Because they can make any law, the town is effectively lawless. Now take it another step and imagine that all the preachers were in cahoots too. Yep, that would be the Republican radical religious right.

Of course, all this could never stand. Eventually the citizens would rise up with their sickles and pitchforks and charge headlong into a hail of bullets. We have done it before to overthrow tyranny and oppression and we could do it again. We would do it again. Is that what you really want?

This 2012 election could be that critical tipping point. Are you going to move forward, working together, committed in faith and goodwill, to a better world for our children? Or are you going to sit behind your windows, watching in fear and helplessness while thugs ravage your town, taking anything and everything they want?

©2012, David Satterlee

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May 212012
 

Joe rolled his eyes after watching yet another cranky TV talking head take yet another pot shot at the other party’s candidate. “I just don’t get it,” Joe moaned, “They’re all crooks. If I even bother to vote this year, I’m tempted to just write in, ‘Someone Else.’” Linda looked at him quietly for a moment. If there was going to be a teachable moment, this was probably going to be it.

Linda had always been pretty quiet. Joe had always loved the gentleness in her touch, the light in her eyes, and the eagerness in her kiss. They had met in high school. Joe dated several of the pretty girls and Linda had let someone else take her to the Junior Prom. But, Linda loved Joe’s honest directness, his strong hands and character, and the attention and energy that he gave to the things he loved… and he said that he loved her.

Joe started working for his father early on. His dad owned a small, but reasonably successful, chain of retail stores. As soon as Joe could drive, he started driving a delivery truck for his Dad. Linda won a scholarship to a state university. Joe made the trip to see her the first weekend of every month. By the time she graduated and moved back home, Joe had been promoted to warehouse supervisor. They got married that fall, just like everybody always thought they would.

Linda took a breath. This was not a time to cite Macroeconomics or quote Noam Chomsky. So, Linda started, “The big difference between the political parties these days is all about who gets the goods. One party wants to make it easier to make a profit…”

Joe interrupted her: “There is nothing wrong with earning a profit. If you don’t earn a profit, you go out of business and then what good is that to anybody?”

Linda smiled her best disarming smile. “You’re absolutely right. Businesses and the people who buy from them keep money in circulation and make the economy healthier, and that is just as it should be. And, if a business makes a profit and wants to take a risk, they can invest in a new location, or a new product line, or something worthwhile. And, because they put their own money at risk, they stand to make an even greater profit and that’s a good thing too.”

Joe knew his woman well, so he just waited. The other shoe was about to drop. Linda regrouped, “The problem comes when you want to make your profits on transactions that put other people’s money at risk… or by buying and plundering other people’s companies and the pension plans of their employees. Some investors have even figured out how to keep profits while transferring risks and losses back into public society.”

Linda realized that she was going too fast when Joe replied, “Wha…?” It was quite obvious that he was experiencing some issues and had just barely not objected: “What the hell are you talking about?” Actually, that would have been better than some of her friends’ husbands who would just have gotten a beer and tuned in ESPN. All was not lost.

Linda remembered a paper that she had written for American History 202. “Actually this is nothing new. Andrew Jackson had a problem with the Second Bank of the United States. He said that those bankers had been using funds on deposit to speculate in commodities. And, when they won, they divided the profits, but when they lost they charged it to the bank. He said they were a den of vipers and thieves.

“Well damn.” Joe interjected, “I hope he closed them down.”

“He sure did,” Linda agreed, “and you can see how bad that kind of thing is. In fact, that is why the recent financial crisis was so hard on the country. That kind of financial abuse has been happening on a huge scale. And then, when their bad investments went south, it was us that had to bear the burden of the bailouts, protecting them from their losses, because they truly were too big to fail.”

Joe was still feeling angry. “The government should do something about that.”

“Well, your candidate actually sometimes did that kind of stuff for a living and his party is fighting hard for others like him to be able to keep on doing it. They want to keep on reducing government regulations that protect the public, people like me and you… and your dad with his business. I’m planning to vote for my candidate because I just can’t support such a den of vipers and thieves.”

Now Joe was feeling alarmed — with just the first twinges of regret. Some sort of penance was in order. He reached over, took Linda’s hands in his, and he promised to support her and vote for her when she ran for City Council.

©2012, David Satterlee

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Mar 052011
 

Sample Time

By David Satterlee

The miserable old man lay in his hospital bed, staring at the clock on the wall. The nurse had just left after waking him from a vivid dream to take a sample of his blood. They were probably checking to see if he still had elevated amylase and lipase in his blood; indicating pancreatitis. “Hell,” he mused, his stomach was still distended; anyone could see that. “Hell,” he mused, “if the disease doesn’t kill me, all this bloodletting will.”

He hated that dream. It haunted him from before he retired; before his wife had died; before he started drinking. Always, he was railing against an illogical way of doing things at the gasoline refinery where he used to work. Sometimes he was complaining to other engineers; occasionally to supervisors, managers, or even the working stiffs whose only concern was to follow orders. Always, nobody seemed to think that his issues were important enough to worry about, to say nothing of making the major changes for which he lobbied. It was the way that things had been done for years. It had become codified into operational software and work habits. Nobody seemed to care—nobody had ever cared except that noble champion of what was right and true that he used to be; this impotent, disillusioned, and very desolate old man that he was now.

In his dream, the engineer, still an earnest, idealistic, and fastidiously through young man, is speaking: “I have reviewed our new plant-wide data acquisition and reporting system. It has several design flaws, related to time, that need to be corrected. The first issue has to do with sample times for analytical laboratory tests. The system is designed to record real-time measurements of continuous process temperature, flow, pressure, and level at intervals down to one second. One of the benefits used to justify our new data acquisition system is the ability to incorporate laboratory test results, such as boiling point or viscosity, into the same displays and reports as the continuously metered measurements. The problem is that our laboratory preprints labels to be placed on sample bottles and these labels only show the time that the sample is scheduled to be picked up at the unit by the lab’s collection truck. It would be nice if we recorded the time that the lab test was completed, but that is a minor issue. The major issue is that the only thing that ties the sample test results to our continuous process measurements is the actual time that the sample was removed from the process stream! And… there is no provision for recording the actual sample time. When we look at the ‘sample time’ on a report, we are actually seeing the scheduled sample pick-up time. It gets worse. Because all samples are due at the same time, unit operators begin drawing these samples early, sometimes hours ahead of pick-up, at arbitrary and variable times according to their individual convenience. I was shocked to discover another distressing issue. For whatever reasons, some units keep reserves of previously-extracted process samples, which they send to the lab instead of new samples. Do you remember the fire that shut down our catalytic hydrocracker last week? The reports showed that two hours after the upset, while all the vessels were still being dumped to flare, several product streams, although having zero flow, were still on spec.

“Secondly, we are corrupting our data every time we shift to or from Daylight Savings Time. The policy is to simply reset the system clock. The result is that every spring, the units appear to disappear for an hour, before reappearing out of nowhere, and every fall, every instruments’ measurements for one hour are intermixed with their history for the previous hour. Both events make hourly and daily averages inaccurate. We are responsible to OSHA and the EPA to maintain accurate records that can be used to reconstruct and analyze exception events. Especially in the fall, we are systematically making that impossible. Unfortunately, the only solution I can think of is to operate refinery processes on Standard Time even when everything switches to Daylight Savings.” And so it went, in one version or another, to one person or another; the argument sound, the effort futile.

The nurse had interrupted that dream. He would have been grateful for that interruption, but for the irony, as we shall see. It had happened in this way: “Time for a blood draw Mr. Dawson.” Glancing at the wall clock, he challenged her, “It’s only 5:06 in the morning. I thought Doctor Wallent had charted it for 7:00 o’clock.” Nurse Betty looked annoyed. “It’s okay, it won’t make any difference. I’ve got a lot to do before going off-shift so I’m getting some of my work done early. And besides, I’ve actually got four patients with blood draws scheduled for seven o’clock; I can’t do all of them at the same time, can I?” This seemed to settle the issue.

Being a well-trained professional phlebotomist, Nurse Betty did an efficient and commendable job of extracting her sample from Mr. Dawson’s right-side median cubital vein on her first try, and with a minimum of discomfort to the patient. Nurse Betty put a pre-printed label on the sample tube and started packing to leave. Mr. Dawson scowled with annoyance. “Aren’t you going to write down the actual time that you took my blood sample?”

Nurse Betty scowled with annoyance. “It’s preprinted. They don’t give me a place to enter that information. Like I said, it’s not a problem; don’t worry about it.” She didn’t realize that Mr. Dawson had been worrying about precisely this for several decades. Nurse Betty had the grace to turn down the lights when she left at 5:13.

Mr. Dawson, realized that the universe had just shown him, as clearly as two billboards in a row with bright flashing lights, that now was the time to finally do something definitive about his frustration. He poured himself a glass of tepid water. He fastidiously wiped up the ring of moisture left by a little remaining condensation on the outside of his plastic pitcher. Fishing in the drawer of his bedside table, he removed all the tablets of narcotic painkiller that he had been palming. He took them methodically; each swallowed with a sip of water. He finished at 5:18, coded at 5:56, and was pronounced dead at about 6 o’clock or somewhere thereabouts. Mr. Dawson’s corpse was logged into the basement morgue at 6:42. Nobody ever noticed or cared that a laboratory report showed that his blood, supposedly drawn 18 minutes later at 7:00 am, contained elevated enzyme levels.

Writing context:
The author’s actual recurring dream. It’s Monday, December 20, 2010. I woke up at 5:06 am with the same damn dream and couldn’t go back to sleep. Here is the crux of the matter: it was a real issue. And, I still can’t do anything about it but whine to another audience.

Copyright 2010 David Satterlee

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License, which essentially says that you are free to share the work under the conditions that you attribute it fully, do not use it for commercial purposes, and do not alter it.

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Sep 302010
 
From TED.com

Sebastian Seung is mapping a massively ambitious new model of the brain that
focuses on the connections between each neuron. He calls it our “connectome,”
and it’s as individual as our genome — and understanding it could open a new
way to understand our brains and our minds.
[Jump ahead 2 minutes.]

Jan 292010
 

Course Description

Professors Benjamin Karney and Thomas Bradbury lecture on families and couples. This course examines relationships and their connection to individual psychopathology, marital discord, and family disruption.

Lecture 5 – Sex and Gender Orientation

 

Watch it on Academic Earth

Jan 252010
 

Course Description

Professors Benjamin Karney and Thomas Bradbury lecture on families and couples. This course examines relationships and their connection to individual psychopathology, marital discord, and family disruption.

Lecture 2 – Methods of Studying Families and Couples

Watch it on Academic Earth