Hubby Survives Death Cafe

Being the husband of a hospice chaplain can have its odd and trying moments, as you will see in Steve’s darkly comical anecdote below:

 A few years ago my wife told me about a nearby event called a “Death Cafe.” I was instinctively leery of anything with such an ominous-sounding name, but she seemed enthusiastic about being able to promote her hospice book there so I decided to try it out. Even though it was already evening, it was considerably warmer and more humid than the average summer day. The event was on Park Street in Montclair, New Jersey in a fairly upscale neighborhood, so I wasn’t too concerned about a lack of amenities. Unfortunately, my original fears proved to be justified as the meeting was on the top floor of a house in what would be called an attic in a less swanky town–and which had no air conditioning. One of the primary topics of discussion was whether assisted suicide should be legalized in New Jersey, but I was distracted from concentrating on that matter. The temperature in that packed single room was near 120 degrees with almost zero ventilation, so I tuned out whatever weighty issues were being discussed and quietly lay on the floor. I looked up to a majestic vaulted ceiling with outsized musical notes, and realized to my surprise that it was the beginning of the song: “You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.” I remembered that Herman Hupfeld, the composer of this catchy tune featured in Casablanca, had lived in Montclair. I had no idea that I would ever be in his attic, or why he never had air conditioning installed.

I concluded soon afterward that I didn’t want to remain in the house, so I went outdoors to walk around the back yard. The old construction hadn’t been modernized, and as it was getting dark, I didn’t realize that there were some sharp black iron pipes located in unexpected places. I banged my head against one of them and soon began bleeding profusely. Not knowing what to do, I remembered that in the uncomfortable attic were several tubs of ice cubes for the drinks, so I went back to put ice on my skull. When I walked in several people screamed when they saw me: blood was pouring out of my head down my body and looked much worse than it actually was. Fortunately more than one physician was present; two of them poured water over the wound and applied ice with towels, and within a short while the flow had mostly subsided. When they saw that I was recovering, a few people remarked that it would have been ironic to have an actual death at the Death Cafe. My wife never got the opportunity to mention her book to the other attendees. I had mostly blocked this experience from my mind until I heard on the radio that assisted suicide just became legal in New Jersey a few days ago, when I immediately recalled the details of that sweltering evening. The fundamental things apply as time goes by.

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Steven Jon Kaplan regularly writes quirky stories on his website, true contrarian, as a side show to his main focus on contrarian investing, which is about unfollowing herd behavior in the financial markets.  He is a financial planner. The link to his site is https://truecontrarian-sjk.blogspot.com/

For more of my own writing, check out  my microblogging on https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

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Barnyard Stories

Former farmer race horse trainer and bar owner Trisha regaled me with some “stories I swear are the truth.” Who wouldn’t want to listen to a story teller with a triumvirate of careers like that?  This is when visits with my hospice patients get entertaining, which in turn feeds this blog. Her first story was about three ducks. “I was in a gardening store and I saw three ducks there, looking like the owner wanted to sell them soon or who knows what might happen to them. So I was worried about them, and I offered to pay whatever he wanted. And when I offered to do that, he said I could have ‘em for free. For free? I couldn’t believe it; I was ready to pay whatever he wanted. So I took ‘em. Well I knew there’d be trouble with my husband when I brought them home, but you see I was worried about what would happen to them. Anyway, when I got home, I put ‘em in the bathtub.” At that point I did become skeptical, so I said, “In the bathtub? Well what about bathing?” Trisha just went right on. I guess she took literally the idea of associating ducks with bathtubs. “My husband wasn’t so pleased with that. Well eventually I got one of those outdoor plastic pools, you know, and I put the ducks there.” I could just picture the cute little darlings splashing around, and the husband (now her “ex” go figure) grunting his displeasure mixed in with resigned tolerance.

She had one more story for me: “I saw this chicken dragging its leg along, and I took it to our farm because I wanted to rescue it. I was so stupid; I put it on the ground to let it do what it wanted. And then nine vultures came down from all around, and then there were feathers all over as they grabbed it and tore at it and hauled it off. They went and killed it,” she said shamefacedly. Maybe after that she stuck with caring for horses.

I wanted to hear more stories, but by now Trisha had run out of energy. Next time, though, and if she is game, I hope to hear about the horses and her bar, and then make you privy to her anecdotes as well.

Love Story, Hospice Style

An online fiction magazine editor said I could not reprint in its entirety a story of mine published there, but that I could summarize it. Summarize it?  How amusing since the story in question is only 101 words long! God forbid I would cross a publisher’s request and reprint it here, so I invite my readers to see “Beaten to It” in the place it was born (101words.org; November 27, 2018)) and raised (i.e. commented upon). The premise is true, but the rest is fiction:  https://101words.org/beaten-to-it/

War Is For Grownups

[Warning: fiction ahead] Pining for one big happy united world does not jive with the fact that we would not want to be in the same room with a hefty percentage of the seven billion people we share it with. Just step outside our little bubble and that’s clear. At best, you and I might feel at one with several million or so.Well if Earthlings cannot be one big happy seven-billion member family then much less can we become one big happy united Universe. You see there are whole worlds operating on premises more alienating than Earthlings who belong to the wrong political party.

It just so happens I stopped in one such goofy planet that made me curious in spite of myself. They have a way to keep war at a minimum, but by means most Earthlings would find unpalatable. Like many places on Earth, the inhabitants have a life-span of approximately seventy to ninety years. But no one may join the military until they are at least sixty years of age. I know this because my tour guide Buroh explained this to me when I remarked how peaceful their planet is. The creature said, “This policy has many benefits. Top on the list of course is that wars are infrequent and short. Old people don’t have much stamina for prolonged conflict, and with the perspective of their years, often keep a cool head to avoid wars in the first place. Another great thing is that by either training for war or in extreme cases going to fight, the ancients have something to do once they retire. And lastly, when our people are young and most fit, they apply all that energy to their occupations and family life instead of wasting it on wounding and killing. On Earth, you take such a foolish risk of wasting citizen resources when they are at their most valuable. That is so inefficient; it’s hard for me to relate to your species.  Doesn’t it make more sense to let the young live decades more whereas an old person has already given their best years and risks losing at most about ten years of life?”

No doubt their way of life has its charms, but I was too polite to say to my guide that rare is the Earthling who would countenance having the elderly endure the physical and mental strain of say, driving a tank over bumpy terrain. More fundamentally, we like to get bad things over with in our lives and look forward to taking it easy as we wrap things up.  A united Universe? What were we thinking?

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If you like this whimsical sort of satire blended with science fiction, then you might like my gentle sci-fi book, Curiosity Seekers, about an endearing old-fashioned couple in the future who sometimes has trouble feeling united with each other let alone with the larger society. See reviews and a free chapter on Amazon. It is available on Kindle and as a paperback and can be purchased wherever books are sold.

A Hippie’s Homily

Lucy, a patient not much older than myself, remarked to me last week, “I was at Woodstock, and tried every drug in the book…just like everyone else was doing.” Even on a cold day like that one, she was outside her home, seated by the back door, indulging now only in the drug of nicotine. She had unruly grey hair, except for a garish red clutching at the lower half of it. She had explained that she used to dye her hair red, but now found it was too tedious and tiring to sit long enough to have her hair dyed again, so she is just waiting for the rest of it to grow out. I gather you get the picture for why I then burst out, “So you are a hippie, right?” Lucy replied, “Oh yeah. Old hippies never die.”

She then turned her attention to her smoking habit after I mentioned further along in the conversation that I like to write. “I have a story for you to write about. And you don’t even have to attribute it to me.” I thanked her for that, as it can be a challenge to decide what to write about in Offbeatcompassion.  Oh boy! Fresh material dropping right into my lap! I settled in for the story, glad I had kept my pink button-down sweater on, not having anticipated the visit would be outdoors. She took one last puff on her current cigarette and began, “I’ve known Mr. Nicotine since I was ten. When I was ten, Mr. Nicotine was young, energetic, and cool. Handsome and cool. And a great talker. Everyone wanted to be with him, so we all joined in. But now, Mr. Nicotine is old and horrid and grumbles. He has a long grey beard and there’s food in it. He is very dirty, but now it’s too late for me to get away from him. So watch out you don’t get caught. That’s the story about Mr. Nicotine. He fooled me.”

I listened some more, and as the cold  penetrated past my sweater, I gave out some hints that I was about to put the brakes on the conversation. Her response as I left: “You’re givin’ up, huh?” I wish I had been quick enough on the draw to retort, “Certainly not. Chaplain visits never finish.”

The day Col. Sanders met Lyndon Johnson’s dog

In acknowledgment of the commencement of the general presidential campaign, I am featuring a guest post about First Dogs. Author Mindy Quigley’s post in this case is only remotely connected with the themes of my own blog in that the protagonist in her books is a healthcare chaplain!

Mindy Quigley

A reviewer once opined that, though she loved my books, she found the speaking in tongues scene in A Murder in Mount Moriah unbelievable. I laughingly noted that that scene, along with the notorious squirrel in the bathroom incident, are just about the only events in the book that are based on true incidents. This reader had happily swallowed the miles of yarn I’d spun and choked on the single nugget of truth.

I was reminded of this recently during a long road trip with a colleague, who I travel with several times a year. You can only talk shop for so long, so we often end up telling stories of our younger days to pass the tedious hours trekking back and forth along I-81. We were regaling one another with tales of pets our families had kept over the years–the bird who angrily demanded everyone in the house go to bed at 9pm, the…

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The 99.5 Percent Solution

A short cartoon, just one frame of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, has provoked an awful lot of thought on my part. Snoopy is taking it easy as usual on top of the doghouse and Charlie comes round to vent to his buddy and perhaps imbibe some wisdom. He has some news for his dog: “Someday we’re all gonna die.” Snoopy retorts, “But not on all the other days!”

I told this joke last Wednesday in an unlikely place for a not only Reform but female rabbi: A Chabad Center. At this very Orthodox venue, where the male host would not shake my hands in case I was “unclean” from a feminine characteristic (never mind my postmenopausal age), I was invited to be on a panel alongside an Orthodox rabbi to discuss, “how to make our lives better now.” No sweat, I could handle that question. I was less sure about the venue. I Tweeted, “What was a female Reform rabbi doing in a place like a Chabad Center in Bedford Hills NY? To discuss our mortality but of course.”

The Charlie Brown joke got surprised laughter from the crowd of Boomers and Generation Xers. Whew, I would be alright. But really, the cartoon captured in one sentence one of my main observations that night, which is that contemplating death can tune us in so much more to life, and to what we want to continue and discontinue for our remaining allocation of days. Snoopy the sage also intimates that we should appreciate and savor all those other days that are left.

Savoring life by staring at death may be a commonplace. But how about this? I told the group that sometimes my work in hospice intensifies some of those days that I get to live. On such an occasion, objects seem more present, more “there.” Sounds are richer, reflections off of water brighter, overheard talk more poignant, smells more pungent. I stand in the inscrutable swirl of existence.

During the question and answer period, many questions hinted at fear of death. They asked if people tend to accept it near the end, or whether everything falls into place for them at that point. I sensed the yearning for ultimate answers, which of course no honest human can provide. I gave the consolation prize of explaining how chaplains at least strive to clear away inhibiting agendas and provide a safe sacred space with open-ended questions. This and abundant time to listen lets persons articulate their thoughts without censoring them for family and friends. This way they can then clarify to themselves what their life story has been about.

But you know? Maybe humans don’t have the answers, but Snoopy makes a good point: Around 99.5% of the time that we are alive we are not going to die. Why worry about that less than 1% exception?