Radio Man

I went to school at Kearney High, graduating in 1993. I hated school. I viewed it as a prison. But it wasn’t without its charms. Most of those charms were wholly unavailable to me because, frankly, I was completely clueless about girls. Aside from that, Kearney High was one of two high schools in the state of Nebraska blessed with an open campus during the lunch period. An open campus simply meant that students were allowed to leave the school and stuff themselves with wonderfully unhealthy fast food before returning to the drudgery of the classroom. If you were under 16 and confined to walking, you might have been able to make it to 7/11 or Dairy Queen for a quick bite before the clock ran out.

My dad availed himself of this policy by taking me to lunch once a week. One day, in the autumn of 1990 when I was a sophomore, I jumped in the truck and heard a rich, robust voice coming out of the radio. He was going on and on about the Democrats. The only line I remember from his monologue was something to the effect of, “If Bush wins this war, the Democrats won’t have a prayer in two years.” This was about three months after the U.S. had invaded Kuwait.

“Ryan,” Dad said, “You would do well to listen to Rush. He is a very analytical thinker.”

To solidify his point, Dad drove us through Runza and I ate my cheese runza and crinkly fries sitting in the passenger seat of his Blue Ford pick-up somewhere in a park with the windows down as Rush H. Limbaugh III went on and on about the war, President Bush and evil Democrats.

At the time, I assumed that Dad urged me to listen to Rush because he wanted me to be informed about current events from a conservative perspective. Many years later, I came to suspect that Dad had an ulterior motive. I think he wanted me to be inspired by Rush so that I would pursue my dream of one day being a radio personality, just as Rush had done back in the 1970’s.

I was not a popular kid in high school. Like Rush, I was the overweight kid with few friends and no social life. Unlike Rush, I was the sole blind kid at my school. Aside from my dad and a kid named Mike, I seldom went out to lunch with friends, nor was I invited to sit at anyone’s table in the cafeteria. I began to use the school’s Resource Room to eat alone. One day, I found a dusty old clock radio sitting in a corner behind a box of paper. I plugged it in, clicked it to A.M. and spun the tuning dial until I heard Rush Limbaugh’s unmistakable voice issuing from the tinny speaker.

For the next two years, it was not uncommon for me to be sitting alone in the Resource Room during the lunch period with a cheeseburger and fries, orange juice, a chocolate sundae and Rush on the radio. Michelle Obama would’ve been proud.

I won’t revise history and tell you that I preferred this daily scenario. I would much rather have been copping a hurried feel in the back seat of a car with Amy, Jennifer, Heather or a dozen other girls. I had fantasies of steaming up their windows as they panted, “Ryan! Ring my bell before KHS rings theirs!”

With fictional dialogue like that, gentle readers, you can probably understand why I didn’t come to know a woman carnally until I was 18. At first, Rush was a coping mechanism. If I was going to be alone anyway, I may as well be entertained and informed.

One day, Mrs. Redman walked through, stopped, poked my shoulder and said, “Ryan. What. Is. That?”

“Wuhhsss ermmmbawww,” I said around a mouth full of cheap pizza.

“Bummer. I thought you were smarter than that,” she said, and stormed off.

Mrs. Black, one of my Special Ed teachers, also wasn’t a fan of Rush.

“I hate the way he talks about teachers. Paid summer vacations? BS! I’ll bet I put in more hours on nights and weekends grading papers than he ever did on the radio.”

Not all of my teachers were anti-Rush. Mrs. Wolfe, my other Special Ed instructor, liked his style and flair. She even routinely read to me from Rush’s Limbaugh Letter. In fact, her husband worked at KGFW, the local radio station that carried Rush’s daily program.

Like Rush, I started doing gigs on local radio while I was still a teenager. Rush was a D.J., while I merely did little news spots. My official title was, KGFW’s Kearney High Correspondent. It wasn’t sexy work like being a D.J., but it was my official entrance into the radio field.

I wasn’t as lonely in college as I was in high school. I still wasn’t popular. I wasn’t a frat boy. I was more of a dorm rat, though I did serve in student government for a time. I did form a few friendships and got laid here and there. I skipped a lot of classes, hid my lousy grades from my folks and eventually, became active in the NFB. Despite my decided lack of enthusiasm for academics, I attended enough classes to hear the siren song of liberalism from the mouths of professors of all stripes; English lit, Sociology, History, more English Lit, Criminal Justice, political science, Broadcast Journalism and yet more English Lit when I needed to fill a credit here or there. I was almost seduced. My fellow students didn’t pull me back from the brink. Rush was responsible for talking me down from the ledge.

Like Rush, I ultimately dropped out of college in 1998, much to the disappointment of my parents. Dad wanted me to emulate Rush, but this wasn’t what he had in mind. Unlike Rush, I never went back home to live with Mom and Dad. Eventually, I did return to college and repaired my decrepit GPA in 2002.

In retrospect, Rush was in his prime during the ‘90’s. Like every great drama, fiction or nonfiction, a hero is only as good as the villain whom he faces. Rush had the perfect foil in President Bill Clinton. Not only did the 42nd POTUS champion every liberal cause that Rush decried, but he typified the lack of character that Rush claimed exemplified the entirety of the political left. Rush didn’t have to embellish a thing. President Clinton made himself a susceptible target. From Hillary to White Water to Monica Lewinsky, Slick Willie proved to be Rush’s most prominent foe again and again for eight glorious years. Many credited Rush for the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, which lead to the so-called, “Gingrich Revolution.”

It wasn’t just that Rush spoke plainly to the masses about conservatism. He was in the Republican culture, but not of it. He shattered the esoteric crystal ceiling, carefully forged by high-brow types like William F. Buckley, George Will and Charles Krauthammer, filtering politics and culture down to the lowly pond dwellers in The South, Fly-Over Country, the rugged West and all of those lonely souls in big, blue cities where leftism holds sway. As he put it, he was the man who, “Made the complex understandable.” And it wasn’t merely a facade. He was a man who was truly erudite in politics, but who was able to translate beltway snobbery into decipherable colloquialism.

It was not uncommon to hear Rush spout off self-referential phrases such as, “Talent on loan from God,” “… With half my brain tied behind my back, just to make it fair,” and “Having more fun than any human being should be allowed to have.” His numerous critics would accuse him of having an ego surpassed only by his ample frame, but I call BS. His apparent outsized bravado was pure radio shtick; part of his carefully-crafted public persona meant to endear himself to his fans and rankle his detractors. Every celebrity does it to one degree or another. I always suspected that he was a man of humility bordering on diffidence off-mic.

I loved Rush not only because of what he believed, but because of how he delivered his message. Radio had been in my blood since I was eight years old. It brought me voices as wide-ranging as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Jim Bohannon, William Conrad, George Strait, Jack Webb, Rick Dees and Casey Kasem.

Sidebar: Does anyone remember Talknet? Gawd!!! How did I ever get so bored that I listened to the likes of Bruce Williams and Sally Jessy Raphael? That further explains my unwanted teenaged celibacy. I was really a loser radio nerd.

From the moment that I heard his first utterance, I knew that Rush Limbaugh was a master of the medium. Everything from his massively controversial “Caller Abortion,” to his deliberately noisy rending of a newspaper in front of the mic after reading a repulsive story, to the parodies delivered by white comedian Paul Shanklin, proved that Rush was born to be on the air. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rush wasn’t merely a former politician, political pundit or hack journalist slinging hash on the side. He was the real radio deal. How can you not idolize a guy like that?

It’s worth pointing out that Rush almost single-handedly saved A.M. radio in the 1990’s. He owed a large debt to President Reagan, who repealed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. This antiquated, inflexible legislation forced radio stations to air both sides of any controversial issue, subjecting said stations to hefty penalties from the Federal Communications Commission if they failed to comply. It had the intended consequence of stifling political speech. Many stations, particularly in smaller markets, found it easier to avoid controversy altogether, rather than paying punitive fines. This is why the ‘70’s and ‘80’s airwaves were cluttered with innocuous fluff such as the afore-mentioned Talknet, Larry King, music, hard news and of course, sports.

In the ‘90’s, Rush spiced up the A.M. band with his distinctive style and viewpoint. It didn’t take long for an army of Rush imitators to rise up in his wake. They were an entire cadre of talk show hosts who all sounded different from Rush, but yet, very similar. Sean Hannity, Michael Medved, Hugh Hewitt, Laura Ingraham, Dennis Prager, Mark Levin, Michael Savage and Bill O’Reilly all owed their success to the big man seated behind the golden EIB microphone. He created a format that still dominates the medium to this day.

The proliferation of cable TV in the ‘90’s also heralded the rise of Fox News, which gave half the country a small-screen voice. Rush rightly needled Roger Ailes, claiming that Fox News merely mimicked his style with camera-friendly blonds rather than fat guys with faces for radio.

My interest in Rush ebbed a bit after I left college in 1998. I worked at Gallup for a time and was often in my cubical when Rush’s show aired on KLIN from 11 to two. Then, in November of 2000, our one-way love affair was rekindled when the great Bush V. Gore fiasco went down. Luckily, I had transferred to early evenings at Gallup, so I could hear Rush’s show during the day. Thus, I sat transfixed as the whole drama unfolded, until Al Gore finally conceded on December 13.

After W won, Rush’s critics predicted doom. They were certain that his popularity would wane now that his arch nemesis was out of office. But, like Jack Bauer, Rush’s popularity only grew, with no small thanks to Osama bin Laden, along with the Iraqi and Afghani conflicts and No Child Left Behind.

Rush seemed all but invincible when he bounced back from acute hearing loss in 2001. A deaf guy working in an audio medium!? Ain’t life ironic? His bulletproof status was further crystallized when he took a hiatus and underwent rehab for addiction to pain killers in 2003 and came back to an audience who readily forgave his apparent legal transgressions. I didn’t know it then, but our haste in overlooking his evident hypocrisy regarding his hardcore views on the selling and using of narcotics would serve as a bit of dark foreshadowing of things to come.

I stuck with Rush through it all; W’s second election, Hurricane Katrina, TARP, my move to Denver, Obama’s two elections, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the GOP victories in the House and Senate and the Gang of Eight.

Contrary to what you might think, Donald Trump was not responsible for my conversion away from Dittohead status. My passion for Rush had already cooled before Trump’s grand descent on his escalator in June of 2015. This was due to a local conservative host on Denver’s A.M. blowtorch, KOA, named Mike Rosen.

When I first heard Mike, I instantly compared him to Rush. This guy is as dry as a popcorn fart, I thought. I can’t believe he’s lasted this long.

That was in September, 2007. Two years later, Rosen was my go-to guy. I couldn’t help but notice that, while Rush seldom had callers who disagreed with him on the air, Mike Rosen welcomed them. Rush would usually hang up on a caller before delving into the guts of a debate. By contrast, Mike would revel in substantive disagreement. Sometimes, he would keep after a caller, often holding him/her over for two or three segments until the topic of choice was exhausted. While Rush was the radio guy adept at translating the nebulous world of politics to its lowest common denominator, Rosen was the irascible professor who performed deep, nuanced dives on issues. It wasn’t Rush, but Mike Rosen who kept me sane through most of the Obama years, especially when I went to work in The Peoples’ Republic of Boulder in 2014.

Sidebar: Years before I moved to Denver, Mike Rosen was a guest host for Rush while he was in rehab. He only filled in once or twice. He was always very tight-lipped about why he had never been asked back more frequently. Possibly, it was because of Rosen’s dryer, more intellectual style, or maybe it was because Rosen was less concerned with social issues like abortion or gay marriage than was Rush.

I was shaving in the shower at my folks’ place on Labor Day weekend, 2015. I had Rush on my waterproof blue tooth speaker and I was putting lather on my face when he said, “I know a lot of people are wary of Trump, or don’t like Trump, but I gotta tell ya, folks… I know him and I think he really means what he says.” I nearly slipped and cut my lip.

If Rush had been my man crush, this was where it officially ended. Still, though I seldom listened to Rush after that, I kept a place of affection for him in my radio-loving heart.

This all changed in August of 2016, when a call between Rush and a listener named Rick made a splash on social media. It was after Trump had conquered the GOP primaries, but before the general election. Rick was beseeching Rush to explain how he could support Trump when he knew Trump was lying about his stance on immigration, specifically his intention to deport entire families, including native-born children.

Rush retorted, “I guess the thing is, this is gonna enrage you. You know, I could choose a path here to try to mollify you, but I never took him seriously on this!”

Rick responded, “10 million people did!”

Rush’s response was very illuminating:

“Yeah, and they still don’t care. My point is they still don’t care. They’re gonna stick with him no matter what.”

More dark foreshadowing. Forget the man crush. The genie was out of the bottle and could never be returned. If Rush never took Trump’s rhetoric seriously, what else didn’t he take seriously over the years? What other disingenuousness did he impart under the banner of rock-ribbed conservatism? Did he really reconcile the lascivious behavior of Donald Trump to that of Bill Clinton, or did he just, “Evolve,” as Barack Obama did on the issue of gay marriage?

In fairness, I don’t think Trump was Rush’s first choice for the Oval Office. I think Ted Cruz was his guy, but Rush was too smart to openly endorse him. Rush often admitted that his first order of business as a radio personality was to part people from their money. This is consistent with capitalism. However, the product which he was selling to his advertisers and his audience was truth, refracted through the clear lens of conservatism. “America’s truth detector,” he would often call himself. Yet, the truth detector seemed to undergo a massive recalibration once Donald Trump stormed the beaches of the GOP establishment.

Rush was careful not to alienate Trump and his fanatical base in the early stages. Once Ted Cruz was out, Rush read the tealeaves and realized that, if he wanted to stay relevant, his best bet was to go all in for The Donald. He simply capitulated much earlier than did many of his D.C. beltway counterparts. As a businessman, I understand him. As a principled conservative, I felt betrayed. In the wake of his admission, and with the retirement of Mike Rosen at the end of 2015, I began to ignore Rush altogether in favor of podcasts by Ben Shapiro, Jonah Goldberg and John Podhoretz.

Sidebar: My only exposure to conservative publications such as National Review, The Weekly Standard and Commentary Magazine came when Rush would read an excerpt and analyze it. Those were niche offerings that were not available in braille or audio format. Now, with the internet and my accessible phone and computer, I can read it all. How times change.

Six days ago, I was sitting in the control room fighting off the mid-morning black hole when The Chief came in and informed me that Rush had announced that he has been diagnosed with advanced stage four lung cancer. He was taking a few days off for immediate and aggressive treatment. My emotional response was muted. There was a time when I would have cried on the spot. There was a time when I might have taken the day off work. As it was, I just stopped for a few seconds and absorbed the sorrow, not for Rush so much, but for the respect for him that I once carried. I had already grieved for the passing of Rush Limbaugh three years ago.

The responses to the bombshell were predictable. His fans prayed for him. His enemies rejoiced. The media pounced, feigning empathy mixed with barely-suppressed glee at the likely demise of one of their fiercest critics. Even President Trump was predictable in his unpredictability, awarding Rush the American Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union address.

I rightly anticipated the mirthful reaction to Rush’s announcement by many on the left. It was the same response I saw on social media when Andrew Breitbart died seven years ago. It was the same reaction I felt when I learned that Ted Kennedy had died. To a point, I get it. Rush was an agent provocateur of the left for decades. From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, Rush showed no mercy to those who carried the banner for the other side. I’m sure they feel justified in their vitriolic response to his predicament.

But I wonder how many keyboard warriors have stood at a loved one’s bed side and watched them gasp out their final breaths as the cancer finally claimed them. I wonder how many of them have sat and wept with a cancer victim as they try to decide whether or not to endure the interminable agony of chemotherapy for a result that may ultimately be rendered moot. Some things transcend the bitter divide of politics, and one of them is cancer.

I don’t think there’s a single person who hasn’t been touched by cancer, either directly or indirectly. In 1995, my mother had a brush with it. It was a very scary time for all of us. She had surgery and lost part of her shoulder and a small spot was removed from her lung. Aside from the surgical scars, she’s been healthy for the last 25 years. I’ve also had several friends who have lost parents, spouses, siblings and friends to cancer. I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy.

As for Rush, I wonder if he has any sense of the irony of the timing. Cancer has now invaded Rush’s body, but it has been all around him for five years, infecting the Republican Party and the ideology he once claimed to champion. How fitting that his announcement should kick off a week that included a political debacle at the Iowa caucuses, truly toxic behavior from political and spiritual leaders at the State of the Union and the National Prayer Breakfast, an acquittal of the President on impeachment charges based on partisanship over fact, and the castigation of the loan Republican who voted his conscience over party loyalty. Does Rush even remember that he gave his full-throated support to Mitt Romney in 2012? Hell, Romney was his early favorite in 2008!

And yet, I sit at the microphone in the control room at Radio Talking Book every day and feel right at home. I count myself lucky each morning when I come into work, knowing that I love what I do. Even though I work in a niche industry, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if not for Rush Limbaugh. I reflect upon him often as I turn the mic on and hear my own voice filtering back to me over the headphones. I have lost so much of my identity over the past five years, but I am still a proud radio man.

And tonight, as I ponder Rush’s legacy and my own, I contemplate the half-filled humidor behind me on the bookcase. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Rush than to have a cigar. I say this with the full knowledge that the cancer may very well kill him. “Don’t be afraid to live,” he would always tell his listeners when the topic of liberal health Nazis came up. I’m sure he would approve of my tribute, as would my dad.

Thank you, Rush. Thank you for filling all of the lonely hours in high school. Thank you for my alternative education in college. Thank you for being a beacon of hope in the dark days after 9/11. I will pray for your recovery. If it is your time to leave us, I will pray that your soul finds peace.

Mythology

In my previous entry, I said that I seem to find great comfort in Star Trek during times of emotional turmoil. When I moved from Denver to Omaha two years ago, I began a major binge of the original Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and many of the feature films. Recently, after Mags died and as a prelude to the premier of Star Trek: Picard, I again began to re-watch great chunks of the franchise. I also re-watched the original Star Wars trilogy over the holiday season.

I have some random thoughts about Trek overall, but I want to focus on a common thread that I see running through the major reboots of our time, especially Star Trek and Star Wars.

When we first see Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we quickly discover that he is a vagabond. Far from the relatively happy person he was at the end of Return of the Jedi, he is a galactic burn-out who has separated from Leia and who is now reduced to near homeless status. By the end of the movie, he is murdered by his own son.

In the sequel film, The Last Jedi, we discover Luke Skywalker, another major hero of the original trilogy, living as an embittered old hermit on a secluded island. He voices regret for everything he did as a Jedi, feeling that his efforts made little difference. He ultimately becomes a force ghost, and even though subsequent writers quickly tried to retcon Luke’s initial sentiments in the final movie, the contrast alone signifies major tonal discords in the Star Wars universe.

Now, we meet Jean-Luc Picard after 20 years in Star Trek: Picard. Again, we find a defeated, embittered old man, living on his family vineyard in France, looking back regretfully at his life. Time will tell as to where Picard will end up, but it’s safe to say that he is not in a happy place when we first rediscover him. In interviews, Patrick Stewart seems to refer to the TV series that re-launched his career as flawed in some way.

Why does Hollywood insist in tearing down its own mythology?

It’s not a stretch to lay much of the cynical mindset of the creative community at the doorstep of current-day politics. Stewart did that himself in his own pre-show interviews, siting Brexit and Donald Trump as the key inspirations which drove him back to the role 17 years after the last movie in the franchise.

In a strange, twisted way, we can link these recent events in the fictional world to those in the real world; specifically, those of The 1619 Project, launched last year by the New York Times Magazine. IN it, a series of authors and historians claim that the entirety of America’s existence must be viewed through the lens of slavery. It is an impressive body of work, but it has been disputed by many historians from across the political spectrum. Still, The 1619 Project is now slated to be included in the curriculum of many education systems across the country.

Why are we living in a time when our mythology, as well as our own history, must be torn down? I have no concrete answers. I do think that a good deal of it has to do with the blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy. Terms like, “Fake news,” can easily be reshaped into terms such as, “Fake history,” “Fake philosophy,” or “Fake science.” In this hyper-flexible environment, it is easy to tear down someone’s reality in an effort to supplant it with another. If one’s own substitute reality isn’t readily accepted by the masses, better to plant seeds of doubt with a giant question mark, rather than allowing crystallized reality to continue.

We are eight days away from the Iowa Primary; the first in the 2020 election cycle. I have absolutely no idea where our country will be a year from now. As I age, I seem to know less and less about the real, static world around me.

But I know this. We all need heroes in our lives. As a child of the ‘80’s, I found Luke, Han and Leia to be a great comfort to me. In the ‘90’s, I found Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Data, Worf and all the rest of the Enterprise crews from both centuries to be a continuing comfort. More than that, even as I questioned the possibility of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future, I found peace in the hope of it. Apparently, I still do 25 years later.

I can’t say that I believe in Roddenberry’s vision for the future. There are far too many holes in it. As I grow older, I fear that my worldview comes closer to that of Game of Thrones than Star Trek. This is why I liked Princess Leia much better as a female hero than Daenerys Targaryen.

More than anything, I find classic Trek to be the best form of escapism for me. I love the constant rumble of the engines of the Enterprise D, the childlike musings of Data, the growling observations of Worf and the calm, paternal presence of Picard.

I agree with Irvin Kershner that Star Wars is a fairy tale. Many categorize it as science fiction, but there is very little of actual science in it to explain lightsabers, blasters, droids or The Force. Star Trek tries a little harder, but it too is unlimited by its own ever-changing rule book. I treat them both as fantasy. They have different props and settings from Harry Potter, but they are tonally and thematically similar. In all three cases, they served as fictional beacons of optimism in a volatile world for three generations.

The character arc of Han Solo is particularly tragic to me. When we first met him, he was a criminal; rakishly handsome, callow, arrogant and charming. His self-seeking nature was transparent. He made it clear that he was not rescuing Leia out of any sense of the betterment of his world. He was only doing it for money. Yet, Luke and Leia lifted him up, showing him that he too had a stake in working for something larger than himself. At one point, Han tried to run away from his responsibilities, but he never quite made it before he ended up as a screaming carbonite statue. Yet, his friends risked everything to save him. Han discovered that the price of growing up was friendship, loyalty and honor.

But his story ends with Han as an old space bum who gets a lightsaber in the chest; a lightsaber wielded by his own son. Many young men might very well examine the trajectory of Han Solo and ask, “What the hell was all that for?”

Luke Skywalker did very little to advance his own arc, even before he died. Leia could not do more to empower the next generation of women warriors everywhere due to the untimely death of Carrie Fisher, but given our current political climate, it’s safe to guess that the woke writers in Hollywood would have been kinder to Leia’s legacy than they were to the other two heroes in the original trio.

Captain Picard may yet be able to restore the legacy he holds with classic Trek fans everywhere. It is likely that he will rise from the ashes and redeem himself. He will likely do it by forcing the United Federation of Planets to redeem itself for its wayward ways since he left. Yet, if the first episode is any indication, the tone of the show will be much darker and may prove to be inhospitable for Picard’s calm, measured approach.

Many critics would argue that the time for the wide-eyed optimism that used to characterize Star Trek has passed. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense!!! One need only look at the time period in which the original series was conceived to know that there is always room for hope and optimism. When Star Trek premiered in 1966, America was in the middle of the most divisive military conflict in the 20th century. Rioting occurred in the streets of most major cities as minority groups rose up and marched for their civil rights. Every American institution was questioned and criticized down to its very core. In the ‘70’s, when Star Trek Flourished in syndication and really captured the imaginations of the public, the country also experienced an energy crisis, tension with the Middle East, a mounting drug epidemic and the resignation of a sitting president one step ahead of impeachment. Sound familiar? So please don’t tell me that the times don’t allow for hope and optimism in our culture.

Sidebar: I find it interesting that Captain Kirk’s legacy seems to be unblemished, even though the younger version played by Chris Pine didn’t perform very well in two of the three reboot movies. Perhaps it is because the character was killed off when Trek was still in its creative prime. Even though the manner of his death did not go over well with fans, he died a hero, unlike Han Solo.

I mentioned Harry Potter before. I think he, more than Kirk, Picard or Han Solo, signifies the hopeful hero of our current generation of youth. They didn’t grow up with the U.S.S. Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon in their subconscious. They grew up with Hogwarts. Wouldn’t it be a shame if someday, we learned that Harry, Ron and Hermione did it all for nothing?

Sorry, Katya, but fanfic doesn’t count.

The Collar

The first time I experienced real grief was when my grandpa died in 1996, just five days before my 21st birthday. We knew it was coming. He had been deteriorating for months and finally had to go live in a nursing home.

My second grandparent (Grandma) died almost seven years later. In her case, it was a relief. She was felled by a massive stroke in November of 1998 and spent the last four years of her life in a nursing home. She could not speak coherently, or remember who any of us were. She was a shadow of her former, formidable self.

My last two grandparents passed away within a year of each other. In both instances, I came home from Denver to attend their funerals. As with their previous mates, we knew their end was coming and I think the family was relieved. All four of my grandparents had lived full, happy, fulfilling lives. We shed tears over their passing, but their deaths felt like the natural conclusion to their lives.

I grieved for all four of my grandparents when they passed, but it was a gentle grief. In my life, I have experienced other forms of loss that have resulted in grief. The move from Denver to Omaha would certainly qualify as a loss. The loss of friendships, break-ups with certain girlfriends, the loss of our family pet dog, Yogi.

But I have never experienced anything like the grief I feel over the loss of Mags.

One month ago today, I took her to the vet and made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the alleviation of her pain and suffering. 13 days after that, Dana went with me to the Completely Cat Clinic one last time so I could reclaim her ashes. They are in a beautiful wooden box with her name printed on top. I placed them on my bookcase right next to the clock, just as I said I would.

Sometimes, I randomly walk over to her box and just touch it. It is a comfort to me to know that her ashes are nearby. Even more of a comfort to me is her kitty bed, which rests against the pillows on my bed, exactly where she would often lie when she was next to me. Her bed is the last thing I feel at night before I drift off and the first thing I feel in the morning when I wake. Sometimes, I still tell Mags goodnight, or good morning. In fact, I think I may talk to her more now than I did when she was here.

I’m not going to tell you that there aren’t benefits to Mags being gone. My heat bill is a little lower; cats like it warm and this apartment has lousy insolation, so I kept the temp at a constant 76 degrees during the cold months. The frequent vet bills and Lyft fare to maintain her health no longer strain my paycheck. I can come and go as I wish, not having to be bound by Mags eating schedule. If I want to take a trip out of town, I no longer have to make arrangements for her. I seem to be sleeping through the night, not being awakened by the sound of her jingling collar, or by thumping cupboard doors. I can now smoke a cigar indoors without fear of hurting her little kitty lungs.

Yet, I would trade it all in a heartbeat, if I could just feel her brushing against my legs, or leap up on the bed after I am settled in. My nightly hot bath Is a lonely one. We just had our first major winter snow yesterday and it seems colder than usual without her here.

I no longer get teary when I walk in the door and she’s not here to greet me. I can now listen to our Pet Pause program at work without breaking down. I can hear about other people’s pets without getting irritated. Often times, I think I’m doing better. Then, some random thing creeps up on me.

Star Trek fans remember that Data, the android from The Next Generation, had a pet cat named, Spot. I was watching the seemingly innocuous episode, “Data’s Day,” not long ago, when I heard Data feeding his cat in one of the scenes. I lost it.

Sidebar: Strange how I always seem to turn to Star Trek as a source of comfort when I’m going through a tough emotional time. As it turns out, “Data’s Day,” was the very first episode to feature Spot. Her last appearance was in Star Trek: Nemesis.

Even though I have Mags’ ashes, I am still angry with myself about one thing. I wish I’d kept her collar. I should have asked for it after she passed, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. Sometimes, I think I can hear it in the stillness of my apartment… Or is it the wind rattling something outside?

People keep asking me when/if I’m going to get another cat. My answer is always the same. I probably will at some point, but I’m just not ready yet. Maybe when I’m done grieving for Mags, I can move on and find another companion.

I wonder if cats chase mice in kitty heaven, or if mice go to heaven and it’s separate from cat paradise.

Mags

If Marty would not have broken her foot, the whole thing might never have happened.

I was sitting in the control room at work in Boulder on the Wednesday afternoon before Memorial Day Weekend of 2016, when the phone rang. I answered and was surprised to hear Marty.

“Well… I hate to tell you this, but I won’t be coming this weekend. I stepped in a hole outside of work earlier today and they think I broke my foot.”

I choked down my disappointment, imparted the usual consolations, asked if there was anything I could do, and hung up about 15 minutes later. Marty and I had been dating for about three months and it felt as if we barely got to see each other. If her foot was broken, it would probably kill, not only Memorial Day Weekend, but our summer plans as well.

Some of you reading this may wonder why I didn’t offer to go stay with Marty and nurse her back to health. Let me offer a five-word answer that many guys will respect implicitly.

Marty lives with her mother.

Two days later, my coworker Bethany and I were sitting in the drive-through line at Wendy’s just across the street when she asked me, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Why? You gonna come ravage me now that Marty’s laid up?” I asked, only half kidding.

“Umm, no. I was gonna see if you wanted to take Winnie.”

“You’re kidding!” I said. “You really want to get rid of her?”

“Yeah. I’m just too busy with work and school and Hallie and can’t give her enough attention. I think she needs someone who can spend more time with her.”

“Well… Sure… I will give it a shot. But you need to know that, if she works out, I’m changing her name. Winnie is what a horse does.”

“Ok. I don’t blame you,” Bethany said. We both ordered Baconators, fries and large frosties and went back to work to dine with our disapproving coworkers.

The next day, Bethany showed up with her daughter Hallie around noon. When she came in my front door, she handed me a small cat carrier that made noises that sounded like, “Errr! Errr!” I opened it, reached inside and muttered, “Ahh shit. She’s got longer hair. Sue’s gonna hate that.”

“Sorry,” Bethany mumbled in reply.

Sue was my kindhearted building manager from Texas. Four years earlier, I’d negotiated with her in order that some friends and I might give Katy a kitty for a Christmas gift. She told us we could, but he had to be declawed and have short hair. “If I get around a long-haired cat, I swell up like a hot air balloon,” she informed me.

In January of 2012, Ty came to live with Katy. He had short hair, but she never got around to mutilating his claws. Thank God Sue never pressed the point, probably because she fell in love with Ty along with the rest of us.

I gently extracted the fuzzy bundle from the too-small carrier, set her on my couch and waited. She immediately jumped off the couch and prowled around the room. It took her about 45 seconds to disappear.

It took Bethany about three minutes to disappear with her daughter. Two months later, Bethany would leave AINC and move on with her life, but my life with my new companion was just beginning.

That night, I sat on the phone with Marty and wondered. “How long you think it’ll take her to come out?”

“Probably a day or two,” Marty said. “Did you find her yet?”

“I think she may be in the closet,” I said.

“Go see,” Marty urged. I went to my bedroom closet and knelt down. I heard a small, “Err,” from the back of the closet. “I found her!” I rejoiced.

“See if you can coax her to come out,” Marty said.

“Maybe I should just leave her alone.”

“Yeah, but if you pet her and talk in a high voice, she might relax and come out.” Marty was the cat expert, having owned a few felines, so I took her at her word, reach my hand behind my dusty bass guitar and touched a furry, cat-shaped object.

“Errr,” she said and wriggled away from my fingers and behind the laundry basket.

“I think she wants me to leave her alone,” I said and went back to the bed.

The next day, I sent Katy a message. “Take a break from your Harry Potter erotica and come down. I want you to meet my new roommate. I think she’s gonna come out today.”

“I’m reading Alex Cross, you jerkface. DID YOU GET A CAT!?”

“Why do you sound mad?”

“I’m not mad. I was gonna give you Ty. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now.”

“Well, too late now. Bethany brought me her cat and I agreed to take her. Hey, when you come down, can you bring your extra cat collar with the bell on it? I may need it if she comes out. I’ll give it back to you when I get my own.”

Katy came down. We hung out for a while. She talked about Harry Potter. I talked about Breaking Bad. We both consumed a Domino’s cheese pizza together. In all that time, my new guest did not make her presence known once.

ON Memorial Day, Marty and I had one of our hours-long phone chats. At one point, I thought I heard a faint, “Err,” from the living room.

“Hey! Marty! She’s coming! I think she’s out!”

I sat bolt upright in bed, awaiting that happy moment when she would leap upon the bed and greet me. Instead, at the instant I sat up, I heard the sound of scurrying feet, followed by… Silence. It was the first lesson I would learn about my new cat. She did not respond well to loud noises, or abrupt movements from her human.

The next day, I went to the Woodlawn Vet Clinic and bought a cat pheromone diffuser. Brad, the friendly but quirky vet, told me that it would help relax the kitty so that she might become more comfortable in her new environment. “Don’t sweat it if you haven’t seen her yet. Some cats take up to a week before they trust their new owners.” I assured Brad that she was eating and using her litterbox. He told me that was a good sign and sent me home with the plugin kitty pheromone diffuser, which reminded me of one of those Glade dispensers that I used in college to impress girls when they visited me in my dorm room. Of course, back in those days, I wanted to get the girls excited. Now, I was trying to achieve the opposite result on a different species. I really was getting old.

Five days after Hallie’s former playmate became my roommate, I was sitting in my recliner listening to Megyn Kelly on Fox News (remember those heady days) when I heard a soft, “Err,” from the middle of the floor. Either Megyn had just received an unexpected guest on-set, or my new friend was going to give me another try. I sat statue still. “Err,” I heard a little closer.

“Come here, girl,” I said softly. “Come here.” I patted my leg softly and said, “Come here, girl. It’s okay. Come here.” I just kept speaking softly to her, careful not to move or speak too loudly.

Suddenly, she was in my lap in a flurry of legs and fur.

“Hi there,” I said softly. “Hi there, girl. Welcome. Hey there. You’re home now. This is your home. You’re safe here, girl. You’re okay. You’re home now. It’s okay. You don’t need to be afraid. You’re home. You’re safe.”

I just kept talking to her as my hands explored her back, her sides, her tail and her fluffy head. She in turn explored me with her nose, her face and her cat whiskers. She started to turn in circles on my lap, showing me her tail, then her head again, then her tail. And then I heard the noise that would never fail to fill my heart with warm joy, like brandy on a cold night. She started to purr. I knew then that she was my cat. In the moment when her body rubbed against my face and I felt her purr vibrating against my neck and shoulder, I knew that she was here to stay. She was the first pet I’d ever truly owned. She was, in every way possible, my cat.

Shortly afterward, she jumped off my lap and went to her food dish. She didn’t return to my lap again that evening. Later, when I was in bed and had hung up with Marty for the night, I said, “Goodnight, Mags.” I’d taken the intervening days since she’d come to my house and gone into hiding to decide on a name for her, choosing the criminal matriarch from the TV series, Justified. I put my sleep mask on and prepared to drift off to sleep. As my brain began to fill with welcome fog, I felt a “thunk,” followed by an, “Err.”

Off came the sleep mask. Again, my hands ran over her body, but this time, since I was in a prone position, she walked all over my chest and stomach, purring and sniffing as she investigated me. Eventually, she curled in between my feet and I put my mask back on. It was our first night together; the first of many happy times when I would drift off to slumber feeling her warm body near me, waking up later to her gentle nuzzles and good morning purrs.

As it turned out, Marty’s broken foot did not ruin all of our summer plans. She came down for a few days in July. As we came through the front door, I heard the customary jingle of Mags’ collar as she came to the door to greet me. Then, she saw Marty’s guide dog, Monty. That was the last I saw of her that night. The next night, Mags crept up on to the bed after Marty and her mongrel were asleep. She let me know, in no uncertain terms, that, while she approved of Marty, she eagerly awaited the departure of that smelly, drooling beast.

So, summer drifted into autumn. Work continued to be a stressful place to be. My relationship with Marty felt more and more distilled down to an obligatory phone call filled with distracted silence. Donald Trump continued to transform the political landscape into a blight zone. Alicia married Mark, though it happened only after he fought a hard battle with cancer. The CCB felt less and less like a place where I fit in.

Through it all, Mags was there every night when I arrived home. She would greet me at the door, wait till I was inside with the door locked, then she would run and attack her scratching pad. I would drop my bag, have a whizz, wash my hands, then go sit in my big recliner. She would leap into my lap, sniff my face to investigate what I’d had for dinner on the way home, do some circles on my lap and stomach, then lie down for her nightly petting. Sometimes, I would doze off in my chair, or turn on a radio show or the news. She would stretch out full length, her body nestled in between my right thigh and the cushy arm of my chair. I would sit for a long time, just petting her or letting her draw warmth from me, until she either got hungry, or my bladder insisted that I break the spell. Sometimes, I would brush her and she seemed to love it.

It was around Thanksgiving, about six months after Mags came to live with me, that I noticed that her ribs seemed to stick out more than they used to. It coincided with another disturbing trend; Mags seemed to throw up more than usual after she would eat. Brad (the vet) told me that she might have kitty IBS, so he encouraged me to put her on wet food, which would be easier on her system. Six months later, her weight was still falling by a couple of ounces per month. I changed wet foods, but Brad advised me to keep her on dry food so that she might gain weight.

Still, Mags was as energetic as ever. In almost every way, she was the perfect cat. She never woke me from my sleep, but once she discovered that I was conscious, she demanded attention. She had no destructive habits with respect to my property. She always used her litterbox. She seldom growled (unless she saw another cat outside our window) and she never, ever hissed. She figured out early on that I was blind and realized that she would need to say, “Err,” or jingle her collar, whenever she wanted to alert me that she was nearby.

The only troubling thing she did was occasionally throwing up after eating. That, and she would sometimes bite my hand a little too hard in order to get my attention. Brad agreed with me that the aggressive nipping was not an aspect of her normal personality, but that she was trying to tell me that she didn’t feel well. Throughout the spring and summer months of 2017, she continued to lose weight and eat less.

Then came that fateful day in August of 2017 when I responded to an Email advertisement for a job position at Radio Talking Book in Omaha. I left Mags in Katy’s care and boarded a train eastward. The rest… Is history.

As fate decreed it, I was half way in between Lincoln and Omaha on the way to check out an apartment for rent with a driver whom I barely knew when Katy sent me a recorded message from the vet. She had taken Mags for a vet appointment in my absence. I thought of waiting until I returned, but I was worried enough about her declining weight that I didn’t want to delay, so Katy was my stand-in. Brad was off for the weekend, but his partner Lisa examined Mags. Recently, I found the recording Katy made for me and can transcribe Lisa’s words verbatim.

“Based on her blood analysis, it looks as if Mags has early stage renal failure. What we want to do is get her on a renal-friendly diet. She’ll need special wet food and dry food that will help to support her kidneys. It’s early yet and we really need to keep an eye on her, but for now, she’s still very healthy.”

I heard this news having already accepted the job in Omaha, knowing full well that a move was coming. It was the worst possible news at the worst possible time. Cats are very territorial creatures and relocating them to a new environment is exceedingly stressful. Moreover, I had to focus on getting my apartment packed and ready for an interstate move, along with training a new replacement for my current job in Colorado. Trying to ween Mags on to a new diet was going to be nearly impossible.

Looking back now, I think that my biggest mistake was not placing more importance on Mags during the month of September, 2017. I was concerned over her health, of course, but once I returned to Littleton and reunited with her, the old girl was energetic and high-spirited as ever. The first morning that I returned after the all-night voyage on Amtrak, I just wanted to sleep the day away. Mags would have none of it. It was one of the few instances during our time together that she actively woke me from a dead sleep with emphatic back-rubbing so that I could make up for leaving her alone for nearly five days.

The move did happen, of course. Brad shot Mags up with some kind of drug that had little to no affect. She seemed to know that something major was happening. She yowled in her carrier as I took my final Lyft ride in Denver, heading to DIA. When I took her out of the carrier for the TSA agents, I was shocked to discover that she had peed and pooped all over herself. This was very unlike Mags, who had always fastidiously used her litterbox. I could only conclude that the poor girl was terrified.

“We gotta get Hazmat in here,” the TSA agent grumbled as I scraped cat poop off of her hind quarters. After they checked her over, I had no choice but to place her back in her piss-drenched carrier before leaving the private security room. The sounds she made broke my heart. It was a yowling sound; a mixture of fear, anger, confusion and sadness. Maybe I was anthropomorphizing. It was a horrible journey for both of us, yet, there was nothing to be done as we boarded the plane and flew to Omaha. The guy in the seat next to me assured me that Mags was sleeping peacefully under the seat in front of me. But when we landed and I picked her up, she immediately began yowling again.

The first night in the Extended Stay America was a nightmare for both Mags and I. She erupted from the carrier in the bathroom, where I’d closed her in so I could clean her off as best I could. Then I fed her a can of Fancy Feast, which she vacuumed up greedily, which told me that whatever drug was in her system had not worn off. She drank down her water in big gulps, which was also very uncat-like. She tried to use her new litterbox, but it was strange to her at first. All in all, it was just overwhelming for her to process.

She began to issue forth with a new noise; one which I had never heard before. It was a low, keening sound. It was filled with trauma and betrayal, punctuated with a sharp question mark. “Why? Why? Why?” I had no real answers for her. Any explanation I could offer was merely a human construct. More money. Change of scenery. Who really knew? None of it was good enough for her. All through the night, she would wait until I had fallen asleep, then begin again with her yowling. “Why? Why?”

My spirit finally broke around 10 the next morning. Physically exhausted and emotionally wrung out, I lay on that cheap hotel bed and sobbed like a kid. “I’m sorry, Mags. I’m sorry.”

Later that afternoon, fortified with a cheese Runza, crinkly fries and a large Diet Pepsi, I returned to the hotel room. I lay down on the bed. Mags jumped up beside me, flopped down and fell into a heavy sleep. I dozed beside her for a time, then listened to a Broncos game with Marty. Later, I cooked some dinner, chatted with various friends and readied for my first day at my new job. All that time, Mags barely stirred, only getting up once or twice to use her litterbox.

That night, after a shower and a shave, I crawled into bed. Mags snuggled up beside me.

“Baby, I need you to let me sleep through the night so I can be awake for my first day tomorrow, okay?” I stroked her head and flank. She nuzzled me, then stretched out along my extended right arm.

The next thing I knew, it was 6:30, my alarm was going off and there was Mags, demanding her good morning pets and scratches as if it were a normal day in Colorado.

“Good morning, my girl,” I said with a smile. A good night’s sleep really can do wonders for both humans and animals.

We spent two weeks in that low-end hotel before moving to the place that would prove to be Mags’ final home. My parents helped me move in. At one point, Mom said, “I can’t find your kitty anywhere.”

I began calling for her, but didn’t hear the tell-tale jingle of her collar. “Ahh, shit! Did she get out?” I said. Finally, Mom opened the cupboard door beneath the bathroom sink and began laughing. “Mags! How’d you get in there?”

It turned out that Mags had a skill with which she had never acquainted me during our time together in Colorado. She had the ability to open cupboard doors and hide inside the cabinet. She couldn’t put her abilities to use in our former apartment because the kitchen cabinet doors were held shut by weak magnetic seals. The cupboards in my new apartment in Omaha were the old-fashioned kind, easily pulled open by human fingers or cat paws. It was not unusual for me to awaken in the early morning hours to the sound of thumping cupboard doors as Mags honed her burgling skills.

So, my new life in Omaha commenced. The brutal cold set in and with it, the loneliness. I had few friends in Omaha. Everyone whom I was closed to was back in Denver. My boss, Jane, and her deputy, Bekah were very warm and welcoming to me, but the deep pain of loss ate into me like acid. Denver had been my home for 10 years and it had been harder to leave it than I had imagined it would be. To get a picture of my mindset, go find the infamous ‘Deep Shadow’ entry from New Year’s Eve, two years ago.

Yet, through the physical and emotional cold, Mags was there. She would greet me every morning with her usual nuzzles and purring. Every night when I walked in my front door, I would hear her familiar, “Err,” from the bedroom. NO matter what task demanded my attention, I always took 15 to 20 minutes to talk to Mags and tell her about my day as I stroked her and fed her.

Finding a decent vet was a priority, of course. The first one I tried was recommended to me by my predecessor at Radio Talking Book. I took Mags there on a Saturday morning and was instantly turned off by the assembly line feel of the place. The guy who examined Mags sounded as if he couldn’t have been over 21. When I told him that Mags seemed to keep losing weight, no matter how much wet food I gave her, he asked, “How much are you feeding her?”

I replied, “Two cans of Fancy Feast a day.”

“Well… Maybe you should up it to three.”

I left in disgust. When they sent me the automatic Email survey, I gave them zeros across the board.

Alicia had recommended a veterinarian service called, The Completely Cat Clinic. It proved to be a bit of a jaunt from my place, but as it turned out, it was well worth the trip. Mags disagreed, of course, but cats are compulsively contrary when it comes to matters of medicine. Sharon listened attentively as I spelled out Mags’ history. After I finished, she said, “I want to do a full blood work-up on your girl.”

“Money’s a little tight right now. Can we do the bare minimum and I can try for a full panel after I save up a bit?”

“We’re gonna take care of you and Mags today,” she said matter-of-factly. “Let’s get her to feeling better and then we can talk about payment.”

I didn’t argue. Maybe it was charity. I can’t say for certain that Sharon and her compassionate staff treated any other patient with the same kindness. I only know that I was in no position to be supercilious. My pride ended at the doorstep of Mags’ welfare.

Sharon and co also sent me home with several kidney-friendly brands of wet and dry food. Over the next month, I tried them all on Mags, but she turned her tail toward all of them. The only thing she seemed to crave was Fancy Feast and Purina One kibbles.

So began two years of various treatments. We started with Vitamin B-12 shots. I tried to administer them myself in the comfort of our home, but my hands kept shaking and I only succeeded in annoying Mags by getting her coat all wet. I began taking her into the Cat Clinic at regular intervals so that they could administer the shots.

The treatments worked, at first. Mags began to eat more. Her energy was up. She stopped her aggressive biting. Once again, she became the sweet, loveable kitty who first came to live with me in Colorado.

At first, I took her for her shots about twice a month, but as time wore on, the shots became less effective. Soon, I was taking her in once a week; usually on Saturday mornings. The round trips with Lyft added up to a pretty penny. Eventually, I was forced to sign up with Share-a-Fare in order to recover some of the costs of transportation. But the vitamin shots were inexpensive, only tallying up to $28 a month. Mags didn’t care for the regular ritual of being loaded into the carrier for a quick trip to the vet, but it was well worth it. Slowly, she began to gain weight again. Instead of losing two to three ounces every month, she began to gain as much.

So life went for my girl and I for about 14 months. Then, sometime in the early spring of 2019, she began to lose weight again. She ate less and began to vomit more. She also started the aggressive biting again. Sharon agreed that the B-12 had lost its effectiveness and decided that it was time to put Mags on a steroid.

For the first few months, the steroid worked. Mags began gaining weight. She quickly returned to the 12-and-a-half pounds that she was when I first took her. By early autumn, she was a little over 13 pounds. I began to have the opposite worry. I didn’t want her to be an obese cat. That would bring with it a new host of health concerns, diabetes being the most obvious. I also began to worry when Mags stopped using her litterbox to pee in, choosing to go just outside of it. I wasn’t sure if the steroid was irritating her bladder, or if her refusal to pee appropriately was behavioral. Eventually, I had to lay down some old towels over plastic around her box.

One evening in late September after coming home from dinner with friends, I discovered Mags lying on the floor in the corner of my bedroom. I tried to coax her on to the bed. I heard her scratch at the post, as if she were trying to leap up, but she didn’t have the strength to make it. I scooped her up and placed her beside me. She seemed content, but the next morning when I woke up, she wasn’t there to greet me. I found her in her kitty bed at the back of the bedroom closet. She wasn’t interested in food or water.

A hasty trip to the clinic followed. We did the usual blood tests and Sharon threw in a free x-ray. While Mags’ blood looked fine, Sharon discovered a small spur on one of the vertebrate near Mags’ tail. She also found that Mags was severely constipated. She sent home a powdered laxative for me to stir into Mags’ wet food, but said that the bone spur wasn’t a concern yet.

“We may have to get her on some kitty Aspirin if the pain gets worse,” she said. I worried about this. I’d already discovered that it was impossible for me to administer any oral medication to Mags. She simply refused to take it and I didn’t have it in me to force a pill down her throat once or twice a day.

I took Mags home, dispirited and worried. I texted Joe as I rode in the Lyft. “Hey, buddy. Mags is really sick and I’m gonna need to monitor her closely. I’m going to have to cancel our weekend.”

Something about that trip to the clinic with Mags caused me to turn an emotional corner. While all of my previous efforts were tinged with hope, it now felt as if Mags was entering into her final descent. The collective weight of her mounting medical issues made me feel as if her overall condition was worsening. Sharon had confirmed that her kidneys were shrinking, and that there was no hope of them becoming more healthy. As I lifted her from her carrier and placed her on the bed, I realized that I needed to treasure each day I had with her. I didn’t know how many were left. I warned my coworkers that I might leave work early, or show up late, depending on Mags condition. They greeted this news with their usual beneficence. I don’t know what I would have done had I gone through the ordeal in a different job with coworkers who were less supportive.

Mags and I spent Thanksgiving together. I had several offers to attend dinners with friends, but all I wanted to do was stay close to her. She was eating more and her energy was up. I’d kept her on only wet food for a while, But Sharon had encouraged me to put her on a high-fiber dry food to keep her regular. This seemed to help, but her bad habit of peeing outside of her litterbox only got worse. One night, I brought a female friend home after dinner and we were greeted by the strong smell of urine when we walked in the door. I apologized profusely as I gathered her towels to take to the laundry.

On Friday, December 13, I bought her a second litterbox. I hoped that a change of scenery might retrain her to pee on sand again. That night, she seemed to take to it. I found leavings in both boxes. The next morning, I again awoke to discover that she was not on the bed. Again, I found her in the back of the closet. I called the clinic to see about a last-minute appointment, but they were swamped. Eventually, Mags did take some food and water and I thought she might rally, but she never left her kitty bed.

At seven o’clock Saturday night, I lost my resolve and called my pal Kevin. “Mags needs to go to urgent care. Can you take us?” As usual, Kevin didn’t say no. He was there in 30 minutes and we went to Urgent Pet Care.

As it turned out, it was all but a wasted trip. Emergency animal care is a very expensive proposition. They wanted to run more bloodwork and x-rays on her, but they also wanted nearly $700 for their trouble. I simply didn’t have it. In the end, they gave her subcutaneous fluids and an anti-nausea med and sent us home.

So began the longest day of my life. Mags went straight to her nest in the back of the closet. Save an occasional trip to her litterbox, she didn’t leave her bed. I tried taking her warm wet food and water time and time again, but she barely acknowledged it. Eventually, she turned away from her water and faced the wall. My heart sank further late Sunday night when I heard her breathing become labored and shallow. All I could do was lie there, petting her, talking to her, begging her to hang on through one more night until we could make it to the cat clinic.

Kevin picked us up Monday morning. I took her there and was surprised to find a waiting line. Apparently, there were a lot of people with sick cats waiting to be tended to. Yet, Annie took her and promised that they would make her comfortable until Sharon could take a look.

When Sharon called me later that morning, she was mystified. “We’ve got her on fluids and gave her another steroid. She’s eating, going to the bathroom and drinking normally. I’m not sure what’s wrong.”

“Sharon,” I said. “I don’t think Mags can keep doing this. Honestly, I can’t keep doing this. I just went through the worst weekend of my life and I just can’t watch her suffer anymore.”

“I understand,” Sharon said softly.

“I wonder if we shouldn’t just… Ya know… Exercise life-ending measures?”

“I can get it done today if you want me to, Ryan,” she said.

“No!!! I mean… I just want a little more time with her before we have to say goodbye.” There I was, standing in the hallway outside of my office, breaking down at the prospect of facing the loss of my closest companion. After a few moments I said, “I wanna try one more time. I’ll come take her home, but the next time she has a crisis, we should go ahead.”

Sharon asked to keep her overnight for further observation. The next afternoon, I left work early and went to pick her up. Missy, one of the vet techs, said Mags was resting comfortably and eating and drinking just fine. I got her home, let her out of her carrier and waited.

At first, Mags wandered around the apartment, occasionally letting off an, “Owww!” This wasn’t unusual. She usually behaved like this when she came home from spending the night at the clinic. I laid down for a short catnap. Just as I was drifting off, I felt her jump up on the bed. My heart leapt. I stroked her and scratched her head, telling her how glad I was that she was home again, rejoicing in the sound of her purr.

An hour later, I found her at the back of the closet. Again, she turned away from food and water. I checked three more times and always found her in her nest. When I pet her, she uttered a soft, “Oh.”

At 5:55 PM, I called the clinic. “Tell Sharon that I will be in at 7:30 tomorrow morning. Tell her… It’s time.”

My last night with Mags was an emotionally mixed affair. On one hand, I was devastated at the impending loss of my companion. Yet, the sorrow was embroidered by relief. I was glad Mags wouldn’t have to endure more trips to the vet, more discomfort, more periods of mild dehydration and malnutrition due to nausea. I lay with her on the floor in the closet, whispering softly to her, petting her gently.

“Remember that time you got so mad when I brought a dog home,” I said. “Remember how much you hated that hotel room? Remember how much you liked Katy? Remember all the nice stuff Jeanne sent home for you? You love that scratch box, don’tcha?”

And later…

“Thank you, Mags. Thank you for keeping me company for the last three years. Thank you for taking care of me on that Christmas when I was sick. Thank you for getting me through the move to Omaha. Thank you for being your sweet self. I love you so much, Mags. I will miss you so much.”

I went to bed that night thinking that I wouldn’t sleep. Surprisingly, I dropped right off. About three in the morning, I was awakened by the familiar jingle of Mags’ collar. I sat up and heard her scratching at the post of the bed.

“I’m coming, baby!” I scooped her up and lay her on the bed next to me. She began to purr and weakly nuzzle my hand. We lay together for a long time, me stroking her and she softly nuzzling my hand to encourage me to continue. Later, she gave me her ‘leave me alone’ nibble. I lay next to her, listening to her soft snoring as she slept, her back against my big pillow for the last time.

“Mags,” I sobbed. “If you can give me a sign that we should keep going… I mean… I just wish you could talk, girl.” No response.

An hour later, she jumped off the bed, went to use her litterbox, then went to the back of the closet again. I had hoped that her venture to my bed was a rallying point, but as it turned out, it was her way of saying goodbye.

I don’t have the wherewithal to write about Mags’ final trip to the cat clinic. Any pet owner knows what it’s like to show the ultimate act of mercy to a beloved animal. I will only say that, when the end came, Mags was at peace. I will also say that my tears were not the only ones falling as I bent and kissed Mags on her head for the last time. Sharon and the two vet techs were also emotional. How many times had they witnessed such a scenario, yet they still possessed the humanity to show their grief along with their patients’.

Since Mags passed away, coming home after work has been the hardest part. The thing I looked forward to most was my time with her when I first returned, followed by her nightly supper. Now, I come home to an empty apartment that is cold and baron. I sleep with her kitty bed each night. She’s still the last thing I think of before I drift off, and the first thing I think of when I wake in the morning. My hands trace the soft contours of her bed, remembering how she felt inside of it, her head propped on the edge, as she lay comfortably there. Sometimes, I still catch myself listening intently, swearing that I can hear the jingle of her collar. As I write this, I keep expecting to feel her gently brush against my ankles, or her front paws tap against my thigh. My afternoon catnap just isn’t the same without Mags to warm my feet. My nightly bath is lonely without Mags lying beside the tub on her folded towel, or leaning over the edge to take a drink.

Last Friday, I received a call from the clinic, telling me that her ashes are ready for me to come collect. I plan to go New Year’s Eve morning. I will be taking a friend with me for emotional support. The care package is waiting by the door, filled with uneaten Fancy Feast cat food, a baggie full of Mags’ favorite kitty treats, an unused electric kitty bed and several bags of Baker’s chocolates for the angels in human form who took such good care of my girl. Mags’ final resting place will be on the bookcase of my living room, right next to my clock, in front of a painting that my friend Kelly did for me.

I won’t argue the notion that parenthood is probably the most selfless job that an adult can undertake. Honestly, I never wanted kids. I don’t regret not having them. I just never saw myself as fatherhood material. But in the absence of children, I believe that taking care of animals is also a very noble, selfless job. Animals cannot speak for themselves. Therefore, as compassionate human beings, we are responsible for their welfare. If I had known that Mags was sick when I first took her in, I would not change a thing. I wouldn’t trade a second of the time I spent with her, even during the moments when she was sick. Mags taught me the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned; how to love unselfishly, especially when the object of that love is ill. Making the decision to send her over the Rainbow Bridge was the hardest choice I’ve ever had to make, but despite the heartbreak of her loss, I feel it was the right one. I only wish that I could have spent just one more Christmas with her before she went away. Christmas has always been my favorite time of year, but now, the shadow of her death will always dampen the holiday.

I have struggled over the years with matters of faith and spirituality. Yet, even in my dark moments of agnosticism, I believe in an afterlife. I used to imagine my entry into heaven as my landing somewhere familiar. I would picture myself standing at the front door of my grandparents’ home. I would walk in, and there Grandpa would be in his chair, waiting for me to plop down in his lap. From the kitchen, I would smell cookies baking as Grandma rattled dishes.

Since Mags came into my life, my view has changed. I now imagine my death as a time when I will go to sleep. I will drift off, finally achieving the peace that has so often proven to be elusive in life. Then, I will wake up in bed. My bedroom window will be cracked, the cool, crisp Colorado morning air bathing my face. Then, I will hear, “Err.” Mags will greet me with her usual nuzzles and good morning purrs, lying curled up in a ball as I stroke her fur. Every time I stop petting her, she will nuzzle my hand until I resume. It will be her way of telling me that I’m safe… I’m loved… I don’t need to be afraid… I’m finally, home.

Thank you for everything, Mags. Someday, I may have another cat, but I will never have another Mags.

Goodbye, girl. Goodbye.

Mags Marie Osentowski

Born: ?
Came to live with me: Saturday, May 28, 2016
Passed away: December 18, 2019

She wasn’t my pet. She was my family.

Alexa, Cancel Ryan O

Dear Colleagues:

I am writing to explain to you why you should probably pull me from all on-air breaks, as well as my voice tracks from the automated rotation here at the radio station.

In October 2001, while attending the state convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska, I participated in an auction fundraiser in which I dressed up as a woman for the purposes of raising money to contribute to the state’s efforts to send people to the Washington D.C. gathering of the NFB the following February. Although I was surrounded by laughing, cheering fans who wanted to gain both a visual and tactile appreciation of my atypically feminine garb, I now realize (18 years later) that what I did was wrong. Even though this controversy happened over a decade before The emergence of Caitlyn Jenner and controversies over separate bathrooms, I realize that what I did cannot be forgiven. Therefore, we should purge my voice from all aspects of our daily operations.

This doesn’t mean I should be fired. Mags needs to have her vet bills paid for. Yet, my profile should be drastically lowered so as to avoid any possible controversy that may be engendered by an overly aggressive reporter from some newspaper somewhere Who may take a capricious disliking to me.

I just realize that I use the word, “purge,“ in this letter. I would like to state for the record that it is intended only as a verb for cleansing, not as a disparagement of anyone with an eating disorder.

While I’m at it, I should acknowledge that, as a child, I went through a phase in fourth grade when I stole Transformers from my fellow students. This does not mean that I condone thievery. I also acknowledge that the Transformers were a product of the Reagan era. Even though I probably would have voted for Reagan both times had I been an adult, I acknowledge that the Transformers were and still are a blatant symbol of capitalism that, to some, may be offensive. Perhaps my need to steal the toys of others, even though I lived in relative economic comfort, was a sign of childhood guilt. Not really sure, but feel I should cover all bases, even though it occurred 35 years ago.

If it will help to balance the scales of economic justice, I will lend credence to the possibility that Optimus prime, leader of the auto bots, was a socialist. Why else would he be famous for his quote, “Freedom is the right of all beings.“ Obviously, he was talking about economic freedom.

My current confession streak is compelling me to tell you that, on numerous occasions, I stole from my parents. My father would often bake chocolate chip peanut butter cookies to take on his hunting trips. I would find them in the basement freezer and usually eat them late at night while watching Star Trek. When dad asked me if I ate them, I lied about it. I do hope that I can be forgiven for my thievery and dishonesty. I feel that these transgressions are balanced by the fact that I watched Star Trek, which should demonstrate my commitment to diversity.

I also stole chips, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, fried chicken, Cap’n Crunch, pizza and other snacks that I cannot now remember from my parents refrigerator and pantry late at night. I sometimes hid the empty wrappers behind my bed in order to conceal my nocturnal gluttony. This said, I am committed to a clean environment and I am not in favor of littering, pollution and urinating in the snow without being obscured by a tree.

I hope it makes up for it when I tell you that my parents did buy a water filter when I was in high school and encouraged me to drink water, rather than soda. I also hope the fact that I was and still am a compulsive overeater does not display my insensitivity to those who are food insecure.

I just realized that I used the word, “Confession.“ I hope this doesn’t display an inappropriate animus toward Catholics. I respect the fact that our executive director is Catholic. I was raised Catholic, but no longer consider myself part of the faith. Yet, I hope that any participation that I had in Catholic youth groups does not imply that I condone the violation of children, even though those scandals didn’t break until 2001. I respect all protections of the first amendment, particularly any and all minority religions, and any religions that don’t exist yet, but may exist 30 years from now when I might possibly be in a position of influence or prominence.

I mentioned that my father was and is a Hunter. I respect the Second Amendment as well as hunting, but I also respect those who choose to live a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. There was this one time at an NFB chapter picnic in 1995 when I attacked an entire group of people with a Super Soaker 250 water gun. This does not mean that I endorse mass shootings of any kind and I expressed complete empathy and sympathy to all victims of gun violence. However, I will defend (to the death) the rights of all blind and visually impaired people to own and use water guns, both in public and private, whenever they so choose.

At certain periods, I did drink too much in college. I don’t have a full memory of everything I did and said under the influence (or sober, for that matter), but I want to reaffirm my respect for women, minorities, animals (particularly sheep), nature, the flag, an African-American James Bond, Mom and apple pie. Anything that might be unearthed that would seem to indicate the contrary should be taken as an isolated incident, probably fueled by alcohol. Any photographic evidence that may emerge of my time in college was taken without my express knowledge or consent.

One photo that may surface might be of me floundering around in Broyhill Fountain amidst a huge cloud of soapy suds. This would have come from an entire box of Tide laundry crystals. I hereby acknowledge that many soaps and detergents, previously unknown to be harmful to the environment, were in fact poisonous to mother earth. I respect mother earth and try my best to be a good steward.

After a bad break up in the summer of 2006, I began to smoke cigars on a semi-regular basis. I would like to state for the record that I like cigars and have no intention of giving them up. That being said, I do acknowledge that some of the behavior of big tobacco is unethical at best, evil at worst. But then again, former President Barack Obama, supreme social justice warrior, was a chronic cigarette smoker. Even his wife couldn’t make him quit. I should also go on record as saying that vaping E-cigarettes is probably unhealthy and wrong. Since President Trump has now come out against it, there doesn’t seem to be much harm in being anti-vaping, so I am. During my time in Colorado, I did partake of marijuana several times. Even though it was legal, I realize that it is not legal in Nebraska. To that end, I acknowledge the sovereignty of Nebraska and the general goodness of states’ rights. However, I also acknowledge that the federal government has a positive role to play in the lives of many who are considered to be oppressed.

I honestly can’t remember everything that I have posted on social media. Perhaps I should handover my passwords for Facebook and Twitter to Bekah, so that she may perform a full biopsy on all of my content to gauge its suitability for current cultural and professional standards. There is a chance (albeit a small one) that a picture of me from 2001 could surface. In the interest of equal access, I would like to request that Bekah give me a full visual description so that we can judge how ravishing I was in my red dress, red wig, feather boa, high heels, pantyhose, golden earrings and glittery chest hair.

You know what… You guys better forward this to the entire board of directors, as well as everyone on the general mailing list, so that we can get out in front of this thing well ahead of any crisis. Maybe we should also draft a press release, and perhaps even hold a news conference. Do you guys wanna call the mayor, or should I do it?

Thank you for your attention and your non-judgmental, non-reactionary approach to the situation.

Love,

RyanO

PS: I realize that I just used the word, “Love.“ I stayed for the record that my use of the word was in a platonic, non-sexual sense. As a male working with a predominantly female staff, I state categorically that I respect the #MeToo Movement, but I also respect the due process rights of the accused.

PPS: earlier in this message, I used the term, “Political tornado.“ This was intended as a metaphor for political chaos or backlash that is unexpected. It was in no way subliminal commentary on climate change. I thoroughly respect science. I respect the environment. On the other side of it, as a man who loves our free and open society, I support the right of those who choose to be skeptical of any prevailing wisdom. Even Alex Jones has rights. So do stray cats.

#CarsonKing

#CancelCulture

Hell on Ice

I wonder if any of you reading this have ever experienced real terror. I don’t mean the kind of terror you feel while watching The Walking Dead, or riding the Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point. I’m talking about genuine, piss-your-pants terror, in which you are suddenly forced to confront your own mortality. It might be the kind of terror a reporter would experience in a war zone, or that of a police officer confronted by a mass shooter with an upraised gun.

I experienced such terror on February 19, 2018, one day after my 43rd birthday.

I did not hear of the harsh weather conditions on the radio because it was tuned to KOA out of Denver. My first hint that things were amiss came as I exited my apartment building to go to work and slid across the wooden front porch toward the steps. Still, I felt that I had the situation under control.

That self-assurance evaporated as I walked down the steps, slipped, and collapsed in a heap like a sack full of used kitty litter. My white cane went flying from my hand and I scrambled on the slippery ground, trying to retrieve it and get my feet back under me. It was a monumental effort. Sure, I’d fallen many times before, but this was the first time that every single surface was covered by a glaze of ice.

Eventually, I found my cane, got up and began to walk down the middle of the street to the bus stop.

Let me correct my last statement. The place where I pick up the Metro bus is not officially a designated bus stop. It’s a spot along the street where the bus drivers very charitably ignore Metro policy and pick me up, so that I will not have to walk in the street for a block-and-a-half to the actual bus stop. The walk is hazardous because there are no sidewalks along the route to the bus stop; only sloping grass and a curb that indicates the street.

So, I collected myself and off I went, trying to recall what an O&M instructor once told me about walking on ice. I think he told me to keep my knees slightly bent and to slide my feet, rather than taking actual footsteps. I tried this approach and was about as elegant as an elephant on a balance beam. Twice more, I fell before I got to the intersection of my street. Twice more I hefted my considerable bulk and soldiered onward to my intended destination.

Finally, I made it to the street crossing that I had to forge in order to catch the bus to work. I lined myself up, waited for a break in traffic and started across…

… And almost immediately, went down again. My cane flew out of my hand and rolled away. I began scrambling for it, but couldn’t find it. I tried to get up, but couldn’t regain my footing. Every time I managed to become half-upright, I would slam back down on to my hands and knees on the icy pavement.

And then, I heard the car rolling toward me. It didn’t sound as if it were slowing down. I scrambled like a gerbil on a hot griddle, but couldn’t seem to get any traction. The car rolled closer, then sounded as if it hit the brakes. I heard the unmistakable sound of tires skidding on wet pavement. I knew I was dead.

The two thoughts that flashed through my head like hurriedly-sent texts were:

God, don’t let Mags end up in a shelter!!! Please let one of my friends take her!!!

And.

Why the hell didn’t I just take Amy to bed that night after my house-warming party?

It’s funny what we think about in times of mortal peril.

The next thing I remember was a lady’s voice saying, “Sir, you look like you’re having a hard time.”

“No shit!” I bellowed.

“Can I help you up?”

“Yeah!” I said. I threw my hand up, she grabbed it, hoisted me to my feet and helped me over to the curb.

“Here’s your stick,” she said. I felt such relief at holding my cane again that I didn’t bother to correct her on the terminology. It’s called a cane, not a stick.

“Can I help you get somewhere?” she asked.

“Nah, I’m good,” I said.

“You sure?” she asked.

“Actually, can you help me across the street? I’m gonna catch the bus.”

She took my hand and walked with me across the street. I don’t remember if I thanked her properly or not. She got in her car and drove away. I didn’t think to ask her for her name. I couldn’t look at her car to note its description, or memorize her license plate number. My head was full of an odd buzzing sound; actually more of a sensation than a sound. It seemed to reverberate throughout my whole body, making the tips of my fingers and toes vibrate like a tuning fork. After she was gone, I sheepishly felt the front of my pants, not certain if the moisture was entirely that of melted ice.

I waited for 20 minutes, but the bus never showed. So, I clinched my sphincter extra tight and skated back home, aided this time by another resident from my apartment complex who just happened to see me flailing around in the street.

When I moved from Denver to Omaha in October of 2017, I knew there would be adjustments. I knew the cost of living was lower. I knew public transit sucked. As a native Nebraskan, I knew that the winters were more brutal than those in Colorado. But I was not prepared for the lack of sidewalks in my living area.

In Denver, you can walk almost anywhere. Convenient to me in my neighborhood in Denver were all of the necessities; a bank, a grocery store, a vet for my cat, a post office, and at least half a dozen restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Here in Omaha, my coworker informs me that sidewalks become more and more scarce once you get west of 72nd Street. I live within walking distance of Westroads, but can’t walk there due to lack of a pedestrian-friendly route. Once a month, I attend meetings of our local NFB chapter at the Swanson Library, located only a few blocks from my home, but I can’t walk there because most of the trip would be in the street. Some NFB hard-liners would read this and say, “Just shoreline the curb, dumbass!” I tried that at first, but many drivers came way too close for comfort. When I learned cane travel in the early ‘80’s, I was taught how to navigate streets where sidewalks were not present. That was long before the existence of terms such as, “Distracted driving.”

Even so, curb-hugging is all well and good in the warmer months, but what about winter?

Imagine walking in my neighborhood last February, when we got one snowstorm on top of another and the drifts were piled high along the curbs. Sometimes, they can push me out into the middle of the road. Then, there’s the time of thawing, when we get slush. Cars drive by and I often get an unwanted shower, courtesy of their spinning tires.

Worse yet, the problem extends to my apartment complex. We don’t have sidewalks here either. We only have islands of grass that serve as boundaries for parked cars. When I first toured the facility, it never occurred to me to ask the manager if they had sidewalks or not. It just seemed like it would be good common sense to have them. Now, every day, come snow, rain or shine, I walk in the street to catch the bus.

The absence of sidewalks may seem a small quibble to all of those who have the privilege of driving automobiles, but I can testify that it carries a real impact on those of us for whom walking serves as a primary means of conveyance. It is far easier to either take a bus, or more often than not, to call for a Lyft or an Uber to take me a short distance to a meeting, to the mall, to dinner, etc. The problem has become so enormous, and my sense of isolation has grown so vast that I find it necessary to move from my complex when my lease expires.

There are other reasons, of course, the most glaring being that of the family of raccoons that lives part time above my head.

… But that’s another subject for a future blog entry.

In conclusion, let me deliver a heartfelt thank you to the kind soul who stopped and helped the struggling blind guy regain his feet on the cold winter morning of February 19, 2018, at the intersection of Burt Street and North 94th Plaza. Thanks to you, I got to celebrate my 44th birthday this year. I apologize if I spoke rudely to you and didn’t properly express my gratitude. God bless. The meager staff of the Radio Talking Book Service thanks you as well. Without your kindly interference, they would have had to start another search for a new station manager.

To the rest of you drivers, GET OFF YOUR FUCKIN’ PHONES AND WATCH THE FUCKIN’ ROAD!!!

Reality Check

… Good morning to all of my blind peeps; it’s post Easter, so peeps is no longer a dirty word.

When I’m 60, I expect to still be working. By then, I should be back in Colorado, my first million cooling in a bank account in the Caymans. I’ll live in a small town in the Rocky Mountains somewhere. I’ll take my self-driving car to work every day, kick my employees around all day, stab them in the back when they are not in the room, and set them against each other for my own amusement in my own little micro version of Game of Thrones. But they’ll all love me anyway because I give them incredible cash Christmas bonuses every year that they don’t have to claim on their taxes.

I’ll go home to my wife at night. She’ll be at least 30 years younger than I, but I’ll have lots of money, so no one will care. In fact, she’ll be a trophy. She’ll slip some Viagra in my beer, wait 30 minutes, then we’ll devour each other on our palacial patio in full view of the neighborhood. The hired help may be offended, but I won’t know it because they’ll all trash-talk me in Spanish. Many of my male neighbors will secretly envy the fact that I can bag a former porn star. Later, she’ll nail the gardener, but I’ll be too exhausted to care. In fact, I’ll be disappointed if she doesn’t catch at least one bone on the side.

Since polygamy will be legal by then, my other wife (the older, wiser one) will bring me a cigar and a snifter of brandy later in the evening, light it for me, and then we’ll discuss the events of the day. She’ll think she is the dominant one in the marriage because, “Girls rule, boys drool.” I’ll think I’m the dominant one because, “Men think, while women feel.” Like most typical marriages, we’ll lie to each other and ourselves, but the status quo will be so comfortable as we live behind curtains of hundred dollar bills, none of us will care.

This is pretty much what I expect my life to look like when I’m 60, which will be in 2035. So… What are y’all’s plans when Social Security becomes insolvent?

Join the Club

Today, my thoughts are with a man named Coby Mach. Most of you who live outside of the area of Lincoln, NE wouldn’t recognize the name. Coby was the host of Drive Time Lincoln, an afternoon talk show on AM 1400, KLIN radio. He was also the president of the Lincoln Independent Business Association for many years. Mr. Mach passed away this past Friday afternoon, a victim of an apparent suicide.

I didn’t know Mr. Mach personally. I never met him during my 14-year residency in Lincoln. I did speak to him several times when I would call into Drive Time Lincoln to voice my opinions on an issue, which was usually the inadequate state of public transit in the city. I found his attitude toward me and my views to be contemptuously dismissive. He ended one phone call with me by saying, “Ryan, the only thing that is a waste of time here, is this phone call.”

That served as the extent of my interactions with Mr. Mach. My only other vivid memory of him comes from a public hearing for Startran in June, 2007. The purpose of the hearing was to discuss sweeping changes to Startran bus routes that were being proposed. Mr. Mach was the first speaker at the hearing. He got up, delivered his remarks on behalf of LIBA, which took all of two minutes, then walked out of the hearing. The essence of his remarks were thus; those who rely on public transit should move into the core of the city so that they may still avail themselves of the service. I was dumbstruck by Mr. Mach’s cavalier attitude to an issue that impacts so many of us with disabilities in such a profound way. Even Dr. James Nyman, who recently passed away as well, and who was gifted with a razor-sharp intellect, voiced his bafflement to me at how someone so educated could be so oblivious to the effect of his own words on others.

In reading of Mr. Mach’s death, I discovered that he was afflicted with tinnitus, which is a disorder that affects one’s hearing. This disorder is very common among those who work in radio, due to the fact that they must wear headphones for long periods of time every day on the job. Mr. Mach’s passing is only about 48 hours old and there is still much we do not know about the circumstances surrounding it. If Mr. Mach did indeed take his own life, and if tinnitus was a major factor in his decision, then this is a tragedy beyond all measure. It is a tragedy that I find sadly ironic. When Mr. Mach chose to dismiss those with disabilities, he didn’t know that he was dismissing a club to which he would ultimately become a member. But then, every able-bodied human being eventually becomes a member of the PWD club, merely by getting older.

It may seem as if I am dancing upon Mr. Mach’s grave. I don’t mean to give that impression at all. I wonder if we in the disabled community ever reached out to Coby and others in the community to educate them on the richness of life that can still be experienced when one is disabled. He delivered his remarks in June of 2007. Three months later, I left Lincoln for a life in Denver, so I certainly didn’t try to initiate a dialogue with him. I doubt any of my brethren in the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska did either. Sometimes, we are as guilty of an ‘us and them’ mentality as we accuse our opponents of being. It can cause us to entrench ourselves and harden our hearts toward others, forgetting that they are three-dimensional human beings with their own lives and burdens to carry. This short-sightedness is our failure and our cross to bear as well.

The cross Mr. Mach’s family must now bear is unfathomable to me. I follow several people on Facebook who have relatives and friends who have committed suicide. Facebook offers me merely a narrow gap into their pain. Mr. Mach has set the survivors of his final act upon a long, arduous journey. Some of them may never be able to complete it. I have no words for them, or for anyone enduring such pain, other than to say that my heart is sad for you. Mr. Mach was 53 years old when he died; just nine years older than I am. I cannot believe that a man who was so vibrant and alive did not have much more to contribute to his family and his community, no matter what his physical state may have been.

As for the broader body of society, I can only state that everyone has choices. When you are faced with a disability, you can either choose to adjust to it and carry on for the sake of yourself and your loved ones, or you can surrender to the darker angels of your nature and end your journey. I believe in life. On that basis, I hope you will choose the path of living.

This was a long read. I thank those of you who chose to finish it.

If Only Cobra Commander Had Recruited Santa

Well, here we are at the Christmas season again. Too much eating, too much drinking, too much spending and too much bitching from the Scrooge types who are sick of the same 10 Christmas songs being recycled over and over again by everyone from Bing Crosby to Lady Gaga. I wonder if said Scrooge types understand that the only thing more tiresome than Christmas music, which we’ve all been hearing since a week before Halloween, is them bitching about it. Probably not. It’s not that said Scrooge types aren’t self-aware, but rather that they don’t care about being self-aware.

Anyway, I don’t know what the hell that had to do with my topic, which is toys.

I ran across a YouTube channel called, RetroBlast, which is some nerd and his wife who review ‘80’s toys and the cartoons that resulted from Ronald Reagan and said ‘80’s toys. The guy (I don’t know his name) says that the “big three” toy lines that every miniature human with a developing penis either owned or wanted were Transformers, G.I. Joe and the Masters of the Universe.

As a witness to the events between President Carter’s unceremonious departure from the White House and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, I can state unequivocally that this is a fact. I was big on Optimus Prime and his merry band of talking robots, as well as Cobra Commander and his incontinent hiss. All of my friends were also big on Transformers and G.I. Joe. Strangely, none of us collected the He-Man toys. Some of us watched the cartoon, but that was just filler until Transformers came on at four. Besides, you have to admit that, even by today’s standards, Skeletor was a pussy compared to Megatron.

My first Transformers toy came to me Christmas of 1984. Up to that point, I was big on toys called, Super Powers Collection. These were basically action figures based on the Superfriends cartoon. A Superman figure that could actually punch the air was cool, but a tape recorder that could be changed into a robot was way, way more awesome. I played with my Joker toy for about five minutes, but kept going back to Soundwave and his little buddy housed in his chest compartment, Buzzsaw. Buzzsaw was just like Laserbeak, but with a less cool name.

I forget the name of my second toy, or third, or fourth. I do remember collecting Cliffjumper, Megatron, Skywarp, Prowl, Brawn, Slag, Inferno, Sunstreaker, Sideswipe, Blitzwing, Ramjet, Ironhide, Longhaul, Shockwave, Blaster, Smokescreen and the entire Airealbots team throughout the years of ‘85 and ‘86. But my biggest prize was Jetfire, a huge jet that turned into a robot that stood at about a foot tall. Mom got him for me but said I had to wait until Christmas of 1985 to open him. But then, she bribed me by telling me that if I practiced piano every day for a month without complaining, she’d give him to me. I did it, and playing that stupid E-scale was never so painless. It was the first lesson I learned about how positive rewarding can work with a kid, as long as the reward is Jetfire.

I should testify truthfully that I tried to steal a few Transformers from my classmates at school. I pilfered Swoop, Bombshell and Windcharger, but I always got caught in the end. I wasn’t a particularly clever criminal.

I will also testify that my enthusiasm for the Transformers toys was directly influenced by my love of the cartoon. Yup… I was a product of those evil capitalists who wanted to sell toys to kids. G.I. Joe and He-Man were already around in September of 1984 when the first three-part Transformers miniseries hit the airwaves of KOLN-KGIN, the CBS affiliate that covered the cities of Lincoln, Grand Island and Kearney. He-Man was kind of meh for me. Even as a kid, I always thought that John Erwin sounded like a wuss trying to pass himself off as an alpha male. Duke, Flint and Destro were more interesting. For the first time, I saw cartoon characters engage in fistfights and gun battles. Of course, none of them were ever shot and or wounded by gunfire, but who cared. Imperial Storm Troopers never hit anyone either, and Star Wars was real life action, man! So why would it matter? Still, none of those characters impressed me as did Optimus Prime as he stood atop Hoover Dam and did battle with Megatron.

I have to stop my meandering stroll down memory lane to pay homage to the guys who did the voices of The Transformers cartoon characters. Most of the boys in my tiny 4th grade class watched the show, but the other guys could see the robots change into cars, planes, dinosaurs and even a handgun. I could only hear it. Thus, guys like Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Chris Latta, Casey Kasem, Michael Bell, Don Messick, Dan Gilvezan and Corey Burton were the stars of the show to me.

Oh sure, I collected G.I. Joe toys as well. My love for them sprang up more in the summer of 1985. I had Cobra Commander, Duke, Quick Kick, The Baroness, Shipwreck, Flint, Ladyjaye, Zartan, Ripcord, Blowtorch, Airtight and all of the Dreadnoks. For Christmas of 1985, I got the Crimson Twins (Tomax and Xamot), as well as Perceptor and Redalert. I went through a love affair with the Joe toys for about nine months, but my affinity for The Transformers lasted for over two years.

Sidebar: My first stab at sex education came, not from the stupid, awkward lecture from the school principal and nurse, but from my futile efforts to place my Flint and Ladyjaye action figures in various positions that were meant to simulate copulation. It was a sorry effort that was also inspired by the cartoon series. If Bill Ratner or Mary McDonald-Lewis ever happen to stumble upon this blog, #SorryNotSorry.

My passionate romance with The Transformers officially ended at the premier of that accursed Transformers movie. The writers killed off Optimus Prime, along with most of the original toys that were scattered around my bedroom floor at home. I’ve heard tales of some kids crying in the theater. I didn’t cry. I was alternately mad and sad. As pathetic as it is to admit, Optimus Prime had been a major hero to me. He was a character that had unwavering morals, a strong sense of loyalty to his followers and a courageous mechanical heart. Sure, guys like Duke, Flint and Roadblock were American patriots, but Optimus Prime seemed to carry something larger with him. I can’t explain it, other than to say that he gave those of us lonely kids who felt empty something to look to when times got rough. Recess was full of physical and emotional bullies, but I took heart in knowing that Optimus Prime would be waiting for me when I got home, always ready to do the right thing. Sure, I took visceral pleasure in watching the Joe Team beat the crap out of those hapless Cobra troops, but Prime employed a measure of compassion toward the innocent. Decepticons were contemptuous and violent toward humanity, calling them names like, “Earth germs.” Prime always defended humanity, arguing that freedom was the right of all beings.

It seems strange to think that, of all the toys I collected, the Optimus Prime toy was not one that ever made it into my basket.

AND THOSE ASSHOLES KILLED HIM!!! They scrapped him and replaced him with freakin’ Judd Nelson, Robert Stack, Leonard Nimoy, the Micro Machines guy and… Orson Welles!? Citizen Kane as a planet-eating monster. What a way to go out. I can understand why Orson did it. He wasn’t getting a lot of other offers and he had to pay for his expensive wine habit, but why the hell would Leonard Nimoy take a voice role like that? He was doing just fine and Star Trek: The Great Whale Chase, was about three months from hitting the screens.

Anyway, I tried to keep up with the TV cartoon, more out of habit than anything, but Rodimus Prime and Galvatron were poor substitutes. Meanwhile, G.I. Joe brought Sergeant friggin’ Slaughter, a professional wrestler, on board to do battle with Serpentor. Cobra Commander was kind of a clownish terrorist, but he was fun and colorful. Serpentor, by contrast, was just boring. Think about it! Serpentor had the DNA of Vlad Tepes in his makeup, but he never got around to sticking Cobra Commander up on a pole.

In Christmas of 1986, I got Ultra Magnus and Kup. I also got the Cobra Night Raven. Galvatron was my last toy, given as my 12th birthday gift in February of 1987. I played with them for a time, but the magic was fading. By the summer of ’87, I was watching crime shows like The Equalizer, Mike Hammer and Simon and Simon. I had also been introduced to old-time radio and had quickly become a fan of The Shadow and The Green Hornet. The cartoons seldom got turned on and my toys were relegated to a plastic basket in my closet, eventually to be taken downstairs and stored somewhere in the basement. The surviving toys would come out again years later, when my little nephew Hunter discovered the same love of Star Wars and The Transformers that I’d had as a kid. Yeah… We’re getting too close to Toy Story territory here, so I’m gonna move on.

I think my parents had hoped that I would grow out of toy cartoons in the sixth grade as many of my peers were doing. Honestly, I didn’t fully turn my back on the show until early in the seventh grade when the whole Headmaster thing hit and I realized that reincarnated Optimus Prime had outlived his usefulness. My parents breathed a huge sigh of relief. Maybe I was gonna finally grow up and go out for wrestling and hit puberty. Their rest bit was short-lived, because about a year later, I discovered Star Trek on VHS, available for rental at Video Kingdom. Mom and Dad stood aghast at the fact that they had sired, not only a blind, chubby, reclusive middle kid, but a nerd as well.

I did, of course, buy the DVD’s of both the G.I. Joe and Transformers cartoons in the early 2,000’s. I humbly admit that it is my prerogative to break them out and sample them every now and again. They are hopelessly dated, of course, but I get a warm feeling when I watch them. You’re entitled to judge me if you want, and I’m entitled to tell you to kiss my fat Polish ass. I’ll tell you this… Optimus Prime and Megatron have aged a hell of a lot better than Hostess Cupcakes and Twinkies. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine one without the other.

I particularly admire the voice artistry of the actors I listed previously. Peter Cullen said it best when he spoke at some Comic Con panel or other. “The only way you can do a job like this is if you really, truly love it.”

It is interesting that, in hindsight, I find The Transformers to be more compelling than G.I. Joe. It’s also interesting that, of all the Christmas gifts I received during my childhood, the ones that stand out most in my memory are the Transformers toys, as well as the cassettes of old-time radio programs given to me by my grandparents at Christmas, 1987.

My final thought is that I find it odd that Transformers and G.I. Joe have gotten several major movies, while Masters of the Universe has not. Maybe the 1987 film with Dolph Lundgren did what Skeletor never could and killed He-Man, dead. Then again, if you look at how the modern Transformers movies turned out, maybe He-Man and Skeletor got the better end of the deal.

If only Cobra Commander had brainwashed Santa Claus, he would’ve had all of the kids saying, “Merry Chrisssssssssssssstmasssssssssssss!”

PS: If you guys aren’t able to read this blog in about two weeks or so, it’s because Steve Sawczyn, the guy who gets the bill, was a He-Man fan.

Little ears! Big ears! Sensitive ears!

The following is a guest editorial from the Denver Post from 2011. I heard local conservative commentator Mike Rosen read it on his radio program and wrote an Email in response. I will paste the editorial first, followed by my response.

I find it darkly ironic, since I now endure Omaha’s mass transit system. Yet, I would not change a word I wrote.

Guest Commentary: A car-free life in Denver
By
Special to The Denver Post
June 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm

We are raised on cars. For many Americans, the idea of riding a public bus or train seems foreign and inconvenient. Car owners who have no experience with
public transportation may believe a car is always the necessary method to get from here to there.

Two years ago, I moved to Denver from Chicago, well practiced in public transportation and committed to life without a car. To me, there is independence
in the car-free lifestyle. It is freedom from hefty car payments and dealings with insurance companies. It is the freedom to walk any way I want down one-way
streets, to cut through fields of untouched snow on the way to the store, to observe the moving city around me without worrying if I am holding up traffic
or about to cause an accident.

It is the opportunity to get more exercise and support a cleaner environment.

The year after college, I lived in a suburb of Seoul, South Korea, where public transportation was not just abundant, it also was efficient. Digital postings
at stops and stations told me exactly when the next bus or train would arrive. (They arrived often and crowded.)

Few of my peers owned cars in Chicago. We all took the “L” or bus to work or play — always a faster and cheaper alternative to driving.

So when I moved to Denver, I searched for an urban neighborhood that had all necessary conveniences within walking or busing distance. I settled on Uptown,
where, unlike other neighborhoods, I could walk to the grocery store, the movie theater, restaurants, cafes, shops, and the bus stop.

In Denver, when I tell people I don’t have a car, I get varied reactions of bewilderment: “You live without a car?” “Isn’t it dangerous?” “Isn’t it inconvenient?”
“Doesn’t it take longer?”

To these questions, I ask: Have you experienced the pleasure of reading a novel all the way to work? Do you know the convenience of finishing work on the
commute home? Do you know the peace of mind in not worrying about ice and snow? Have you watched the world move from day to night during the 5 o’clock
rush while someone else stresses about traffic?

This freedom, however, comes at a cost. Without a car in Denver, it takes longer to go just about anywhere. It takes more planning and more patience. The
appeal of owning a car is not lost on me, especially in Colorado, where cars are necessary for trips to the mountains and Sunday rides in the foothills.
Like most American cities, Denver’s adequate but inefficient public transit system will never reach its full potential without more citizens who use it.
Denver could lead the country in greener, community-oriented practices that encourage lifestyles where we walk, ride and bus more often.

Denverites, in general, love the environment, are committed to healthy lifestyles and will do anything to be outside. So why does it seem like the number
of Denverites who support those ideals is disproportionate to the number who use public transportation?

Denver needs improvements: safer bike routes, more comprehensive light rail, more bus users so routes run more frequently and at a lower cost. The city
needs more neighborhoods like Uptown, whose conception begins with, “How can we make this neighborhood as self-sustained as possible?”

The other day, when I got on the No. 10 bus on the way to the Highlands, I found it full of middle-schoolers on a field trip. For many, it must have been
their first experience on a bus. I applaud their teachers for exposing them to public transportation. On this trip, the kids no doubt learned where to
catch the bus, how to pay their fair and how to act.

We may be raised on cars, but we can learn to move in other ways. The first step, truly, is to try.

Elizabeth Costello of Denver is a writer at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.

June 9, 2011

Dear Mike:

I listened to your program today on public transit with great interest. I am a blind guy who relies on public transit on a daily basis. I’m currently unemployed, though I recently worked as a cashier at Lowrey Airforce Base; a job I could not have done without the aid of RTD. I’m also a rarity, a blind man who is a conservative. I’m stating this directly so you won’t misunderstand the intent of my message.

Elizabeth Costello’s guest editorial seems to serve RTD very well. It’s full of the same puffy propaganda that I read every day, courtesy of RTD’s Twitter feed. If Ms. Costello is as fulfilled as she claims to be, living life without a car and at the whims of RTD, then I am truly happy for her. More to the point, I’m amazed by her.

Most of us who use RTD services do it, not because of any moral obligation or intrinsic desire. Quite the opposite. We do it because we are compelled to avail ourselves of bus and light rail to get where we need to go.

I relocated to Denver four years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska, and RTD is a big step up from the pathetic transit system I was forced to endure there. RTD is a good bus system with good hours and adequate coverage of the Denver area. Having said that, if I could wave a magic wand and restore my ability to drive a car, I would do so in a heartbeat. I hasten to add that I’m not whining about my blindness. I live a comfortable life. I’m merely acknowledging that a car is a far more convenient mode of transportation than is RTD.

During your program, you stated a number of sound objections to public transit in favor of the automobile. The most persuasive argument for me was the time factor. This past Memorial Day, some friends and I decided to visit a local restaurant for lunch. If we were to have hired a driver to take us, the ride from my front door to the restaurant would’ve taken approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Since my friends and I are all blind, we naturally took the bus. From the time I walked out my front door to the time we arrived at the restaurant, an hour and five minutes had elapsed. This was due to a phenomenon I term, The Domino Effect.

An RTD route often involves one or a series of transfers from one bus to another, or from bus to light rail and back, in order to reach one’s final destination. If one of those buses happens to be even a minute or two late, it can cause a disruption that can result in the collapse of the traveler’s intended schedule. In our case, the driver of the originating bus was a few minutes late. The connection we needed to make was tight, so I asked him to radio ahead and ask the driver of our connecting bus to wait until we got to our first stop. I was within my rights as an RTD passenger to request this as it was in compliance with RTD policy. However, the driver either couldn’t or wouldn’t make the call. I’m not entirely certain as to his reason, since the driver’s thick accent made it virtually impossible to discern what he was saying. Whatever the explanation, we missed our transfer and had to stand at the bus stop an additional half-hour and wait for the next bus to arrive. I am hard pressed to think of a comparable inconvenience we would’ve faced had we been driving a car.

I mentioned previously that I used to work at Lowrey Airforce Base and that I used RTD to get to and from work. The commute home to Littleton usually took approximately an hour and 40 minutes. Near the end of my employment, I hired a driver to come pick me up after work and take me directly home. It cost more money, but it cut my travel time by over half. The cash I spent was well worth the extra hour I got to spend at home unwinding from the day.

As a regular RTD passenger going on four years, I had to chuckle at some of Ms. Costello’s assertions. She talks of happily trudging through snowy fields to get to the store. Such a scenario would constitute an annoyance for me at best and a nightmare at worst. Snow travel is often difficult for blind people and usually results in wet clothes, cold feet and in some cases, bruises or even broken bones. Moreover, I don’t know a single sighted person who would enjoy such an activity when they could more easily drive to the store.

The biggest laugh I got from her commentary came when she wrote about a joyful trip on the number 10 bus with a group of middle school students. I’ve taken many a long and arduous voyage with children of middle and high school age. I’m not a puritan by any stretch of the imagination, but I wouldn’t perform a sex act on my worst enemy with the mouths of any of those juvenile brats. The cacophony of yelling, swearing, extraneous cell phone conversations and blaring electronic devices results in stress that is only made worse by passive drivers who refuse to enforce RTD’s policies of civility and low music volume by all bus passengers.

Furthermore, if I could get back all the time I’ve wasted waiting on buses and light rails in my life, you and I could take three back-to-back cruises together. By the conclusion, maybe you will have broken down “A Conflict of Visions,” to a comprehensible level for me.

I’m not writing this to disparage RTD. They have a job to do and they do it fairly well. But Ms. Costello’s premise is that a car-free lifestyle is what she prefers and that more people should join her in this mentality. This is utter nonsense.

Recently, the National Federation of the Blind unveiled a car that could be operated independently by a blind driver. This was just a test run and I don’t suggest that a car will solve all of our problems, but if such a thing becomes a mainstream reality, I will kick, beat and claw my way to the front of the line to buy one in order that my life may become more convenient. You’ll be my first stop, Mike. We’ll go out and lift a jar or two and you can begin your translation of Thomas Sowell for me. Until that happy day arrives, thanks for taking the time to read this.

Yours truly,

Ryan Osentowski

That was written in June of 2011, three years before I took a job in Boulder that required me to spend over four hours a day commuting to and from work via RTD. It was also three years before ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber became a reality in my life. With that experience in mind, plus the downgrade to Omaha’s meager bus system, let me add a few additional thoughts to Ms. Costello’s assertions.

She says, “Have you experienced the pleasure of reading a novel all the way to work?”

A lot of people read novels while driving a car. Ever hear of audio books?

She asks, “Do you know the convenience of finishing work on the
commute home?”

Nope. I leave work at work. Based on some of the cell phone conversations I heard from my fellow RTD passengers, I wish they would have as well.

She further asks, “Do you know the peace of mind in not worrying about ice and snow?”

Umm, I presume you mean while riding the bus? I spent many a harrowing walk to and from the bus stop during Denver’s cold winter season worrying about ice and snow. And we won’t even talk about Nebraska’s brutal winter season. I nearly got killed more than once while worrying about ice and snow.

She says, “Have you watched the world move from day to night during the 5 o’clock
rush while someone else stresses about traffic?”

Yes, the buses in Denver were much more crowded during peak hours. However, if traffic or weather were severe, the passengers did not simply chill out and ignore it. The collective stress level would go up exponentially if we were in a traffic jam or an ice storm. See my above remarks about The Domino Effect for clarification.

IN closing, it’s been seven years since I wrote that Email to Mike Rosen. I miss Denver. I miss RTD. I miss Mike. Sorry, Elizabeth, but I still want a car.