Entering Into the Retirement Zone

I recently turned 58, and one of my birthday presents was the realization that I only have 7 or 8 more years to officially belong to the workforce.  I can continue on after that if I still feel some drive to teach and exhibit my work, so the end doesn’t have to be in sight just yet.  But the promise of an upcoming choice made me feel positively lighthearted.

And I had another realization:  my professional ambitions have largely gone unfulfilled.  I am not a tenured college professor, I’ve made nearly no impact in the world of fine art, and I’ve never earned more than chump change selling my art.  If I had known how things would turn out when I was twenty-five I might have chosen to become an accountant or a biological research technician, but I’m happily surprised to say that I’m not bitter about my choices.  I’m largely satisfied by the experiences I’ve accumulated as I made my artwork.  The sweetness of applying paint to canvas is addictive, and I’ve had 30 plus years to scratch that itch.  Teaching has been a trial at times, but helping students still satisfies me.

And it’s good to know that most accounts have been settled, that I’ve gone about as far as I’m going to go.  It’s an odd relief to accept that a final sink into oblivion is probably my natural arc.  I’ve never been a fan of suspense, of waiting for the moment when my professional fortunes would finally start breaking good.  The overwhelming evidence suggests that they never will.

I still remember how I used to torture myself when I was twenty-five about every move I made as an artist, how I questioned and doubted my abilities and potential whenever I finished a painting that didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.  Now I know that it’s just a matter of averages.  Like a baseball hitter I’m bound to succeed and fail according to a percentage.  I’m happy when I do well but no longer hope that a streak of good work will continue indefinitely.  In my personal life I also have realized that I will inevitably screw up from time to time, and be thoughtful and kind other times.  I have fewer illusions about my ability to maintain a state of benevolence, and also know that I have a penchant for snarky cynicism.  I still feel guilty when I say or do something hurtful, but am aware that there’s another side to the ledger.

It helps of course that I’m married to a woman who accepts who I am.  The one blessing that I desperately needed when I was 25 was to find someone who saw me in my entirety and still loved me. It took another couple decades for me to figure out that she hadn’t made a self-destructive mistake by volunteering to live with me.  Now I finally can relax in the knowledge that we’ve had a mostly happy marriage and have been good for each other.

The next decade or two may consist of a long downward slide, but at least I’ve gotten some altitude (thanks to Judy) from which to descend.  To quote Edith Piaf, “No, I don’t regret anything.”



The Nicest Guy?


Trust him.  He means no harm.

I told a drawing class this morning that my goals as a professor are to teach as many concepts and techniques as possible, and to deliver the material in the most direct and easily digestible form available.  I want them to succeed.  I said that some students inexplicably believe that I’m trying to block their paths to success by making things difficult, by arbitrarily throwing up road blocks.  I countered that by saying that my life is much too complicated at the moment to take the time and energy to come up with diabolical schemes.  I’m 100 percent on their side.  Really.  I am.

But I’ve been told on a number of occasions that I’m considered to be a tough teacher who is very blunt.  I think that I’m just the nicest guy around, very kind and diplomatic, but when I say that to my adult children they snort and roll their eyes.  Their opinion is probably prejudiced by memories of a few times when I laid down the law when they were little.  At odd moments I channeled my father’s parenting techniques and gave them high decibel orders while staring down at them with a Wrath-of-Godlike glare.  They fail to recognize that I disciplined them purely out of loving concern, and never out of annoyance and impatience.  My brother has reported that one of my “special looks” is like a slap in the face, but he must be mistaken.  Sometimes folks confuse an expression of nearly violent concern as one of angry contempt.  Go figure.

When I went to Quaker Meeting several years ago I noticed that some of my more vivid stories and colorful language made my listeners cringe and withdraw.  I learned eventually through trial and error to avoid talking about traumatic childhood experiences, painful operations and current symptoms of undiagnosed diseases during coffee hour.  It’s uncouth and jarring, apparently, to introduce such topics immediately after congregants have left behind the ineffable peace of meditative worship.  Live and learn.

When I was a child my family sat around the dinner table and discussed Uncle Ralph’s bouts of alcoholism, Aunt Betty’s shotgun marriage as well as Grandpa Bob’s body odor and psoriasis.  Tales of death, misery, misdeeds and moments of tragic miscalculation accompanied dessert and coffee.  I grew up believing that folks discussed these matters frankly while in company, and that adding a few snide remarks as editorial commentary was also in good form.  Who knew that other people avoided such topics and hid awkward moments in family history in repression closets filled to overflowing?  I discovered these tactful people when I left home and Ohio, and it was as if I had crossed over into another dimension.

Now that I’ve seen the error of my ways I strive toward gentility, to an aristocratic sense of restraint and dignity.  Lord Grantham in Downtown Abbey is my role model.  Not his blood vomiting ruptured ulcer scene, of course, but the moments where he absorbs yet another blow to his standing and reputation with barely a murmur of protest.

I tell my painting students that painting is a process of making mistakes and learning how to fix them.  My life has been a lot like that, but I live in hope that one day my nature will become less erratic and explosive and more docile and tranquil.  I want to guide my ship through rough waters into a safe port.

But if that finally happens I may have to deal with one more problem:  my wife’s expectations.  She has become accustomed after 32 years of marriage to the vagaries in my mood and character, and any true sea change in my personality may cause her undue distress.  She may have to go through a period of withdrawal not unlike an addict kicking meth.

I remember one morning several years ago when we sat down together at breakfast and I took pains to conceal my residual anger from an argument we had the night before.  After ten minutes of polite conversation she put down her spoon and demanded, “What’s wrong?”

I said evenly, “I’m being a perfect gentleman.”

She answered, “I know you are.  That’s how I can tell that something’s wrong!”



Accusers and Their Opinions


A few weeks ago as I was walking out of an office I heard one woman tell another that I was “paranoid”.  The woman who described me as such is a serial liar who shifts blame onto others.  If I have any sort of dealings with her I never know if she’s lying outright to me, telling just enough to answer a question but not enough to provide helpful information, or is allowing mistakes that others have made become my problem.  One can usually tell that she’s being less than forthcoming when she shifts into vague language and uses professional jargon in impenetrable, multiple clause sentences.  Another warning that she’s desperately trying to avoid saying anything true or useful comes when she narrows her eyes slightly, tilts her chin up a few degrees and talks in a bored tone of voice.  She asserts her superior position while also conveying that she’s trying to be patient with another one of my stupid inquiries.  Her goal is to drive me away before I ask a question too direct for her sidestep.

I avoid her whenever possible as I get frustrated trying to thread my way through her maze of self-serving obfuscation.  I am concerned that she may try, or has already tried, to spread lies about me, but I take nothing she says or does personally any more.  Expecting respect and honesty from her is like expecting a giraffe to walk on a tight rope. And her insights about my character are hardly worth considering.

I take other people’s opinions of me much more seriously, but I’m aware that some assume a lot based on little information.  Personal biases filter their perceptions, a few of my actions fit into their ready made preconceptions, and I’m labeled accordingly.  It’s useless to try to alter my behavior in hope of changing their minds:  everything said or done will be bent and twisted to fit into the set pattern of their opinion of me.

Of course I’m aware that I’m guilty of putting people into pigeonholes constructed from my biases.  It’s a defense against uncertainty.  The world seems much easier to navigate if I can read personalities, recognize intentions and anticipate actions.  I learned this as a little kid when dealing with unpredictable adults.  It was much safer to keep a low profile when seated next to a man who scowled as he read his newspaper.  Tugging on his sleeve and making a request was an invitation to him to vent his frustrations on me.

The difficulty for a well meaning adult is to choose when to listen to his or her defensive preconceptions and when to reserve judgment.  I’ve learned that in most, nonthreatening situations it’s better to wait until a lot of evidence comes in.  An imperious student who snaps at everything I say may just be having a bad day.  He could turn out to be an easy going fellow when his personal life isn’t in panic mode.  Or he may be an arrogant prick.  Time usually tells.

The woman who called me paranoid doesn’t deserve any more effort on my part.  My opinion is based on years of bad experiences with her.  But I imagine that even she has moments when she’s a good friend, wife and mother, and that others who know her in a different context might describe her as a funny, smart woman who is a consummate professional.  Maybe she bakes cookies at Christmas and hands them out at a food bank.  She’s probably kind to puppies.  Who knows, and who am I, in the end, to judge her?

But I don’t want to try to get closer to her to find out whether she has a softer, truer side to her personality.  We’re never going to be buddies, and I think that we both prefer it that way.





A Narrow Slice of Time

narrow slice cover 3    Cover image for “A Narrow Slice of Time”                      

“A Narrow Slice of Time” by Dennis and Judy Schmalstig is available on Amazon.com.  The following is the link for the print version (also available in Kindle):  https://www.amazon.com/Narrow-Slice-Time-Traveller/dp/1533577420/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1466860827&sr=8-2&keywords=a+narrow+slice+of+time+schmalstig

The summer of 2013 sucked.  Actually the whole year turned out to be a torture fest of illness, hospital visits, departures, wrangles with an Insurance Company Who Will Not Be Named, and a death in the family.  My wife Judy and I hit bottom sometime in August.  There was nothing wrong with our relationship, but the circumstances of our lives had become harsh. I cast about for something to distract us from continuously brooding over our situation.  I remembered that Judy had mentioned that she was interested in writing a time travel book with me.

Her eyes didn’t exactly light up when I mentioned my willingness to try a writing project with her, but we began to brainstorm a plot.  Judy was set on trapping someone in the past, and I had ideas about a time travel device and an organization that made changes in the past for the supposed benefit of the future.

I began to write chapters late at night after Judy had gone to bed.  I would print them out and show them to her, and she would get back to me in a couple days with editing suggestions and positive criticism about my dialogue, plot twists and character development.  As the story progressed and various characters went about their business on different time lines, Judy provided the vital function of keeping things straight.  She has a clear, logical mind well developed from years spent doing research as a plant physiologist, and she was able to keep the book on track.

We still faced a good deal of miseries during the time we spent working on the book, but every time we sat together and discussed it we forgot about our troubles for a while.  We got excited about exploring new avenues and about planning the end of the book.  We even got way ahead of ourselves by playing around with ideas for successive volumes in a time traveler series.

It’s been nearly three years since we began “A Narrow Slice of Time”, and our circumstances are better.  We no longer need a distraction to help us get through our days, but have decided to continue working together.  We found out that we deeply enjoyed sharing the creative process of writing a book.  Of course we don’t always agree on all issues, and I’ve dug in my heels on a few occasions.  I’ve discovered, however, that Judy has a very good sense of plot and doesn’t care for a lot of fancy frippery in the telling of a story.  She wants me to move things along and to get to the point.  She has good taste when it comes to character development wanting fully fleshed out villains and protagonists with believable motives.  I’ve learned to take her advice on most occasions.

The best thing about this whole experience has been finding something new to share as a couple.  It’s an unexpected journey, an adventure that has shown us that our horizons are still open and that there is still more to see and do.

What Do You Do with a Drunken Girlfriend Ear-ly in the Morning?

Jane told me over the phone that she had met a young woman named Callie at the hospital. Jane worked as a medical secretary on one of the floors in the main building of Miami Valley Hospital, and Callie had just been a patient there. Jane was vague about the reasons for her new friend’s hospitalization, but I got the impression that she had overdosed and been housed in the detox ward. Callie had invited Jane to come to a party to celebrate her release. Jane added that Callie would be picking her up at the hospital after she finished her shift.

Jane said, “I wish that you could come along, but you always have to work on Friday nights. You should trade for some day shifts so that we could do things together on the weekend. I hate being trapped with nothing to do because of your job.”

I grunted. Our relationship had grown sour by that time, and we both knew that she was lying when she said that she wanted to spend more time with me. When we did go out on a dates in recent weeks we spoke less and less, and the tension between us made her crabby and gave me a headache. We were both looking for the exit, but hadn’t admitted it to each other yet.

Jane said, “Well, I might see you tonight at the hospital. I’m coming over to the Apple Street exit.”

“Okay,” I replied unenthusiastically.

At twelve a.m. Jane came bustling through the lobby where I worked as a third shift receptionist in the nursing school dormitory at Miami Valley. A thin woman with brunette hair and freckled, pale skin followed in her wake. Jane paused to introduce me to Callie, and when Callie said, “Hey there, Jane’s boyfriend” her lazy consonants mushed together. She was already tipsy.

Several uneventful hours passed by, and few people came and went. I was drawing a copy in my sketchbook of a still life painting by Chardin when the phone rang. It was Jane. I could tell that she was in the mood to be cruel, and she sounded very drunk. She sneered, “Hey, Denny. I’m at the party!” (I heard dance music and laughter in the background.) “I having a great time, but you wouldn’t like it. People are having fun! You don’t like to do fun things, do you? Well, I do. Hey fellas! Do you think that we’re having a good time?” (A group of men cheered.) “Hey, Denny! D’ya wanna hear what these guys think about you?”

“Not really,” I answered.

“That’s too bad, because here they are. Boys! Tell old Dennis what you think of him!” (A group of men shout into the phone, one over the top of the other. I thought that I heard a few obscenities and slurs, but it was hard to decipher what they were saying.)

Jane came back on and said, “Nighty-night old man!” and hung up.

I sat there and stewed. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and put away my sketchbook. I decided that I had to break up with her once and for all. Why waste time and effort on someone who enjoyed mocking me? She kept telling me that she thought that I was too old for her even though we were only four years apart. Somehow I was to blame for keeping her from a young and carefree lifestyle.

At five thirty she and Callie staggered into the lobby. Jane obviously needed a ride home. Callie was a lot more sober, but didn’t want to go out of her way to drop off her drinking buddy. She looked happy and relieved to dump the problem in my lap. Jane went to the bathroom after Callie dashed out the door. She left her purse on the counter in front of me, and I fished her car keys out of the clutter of cosmetics, loose coins, gum, cigarettes, and used tissues inside the bag.

Jane came back and tried to find her keys, and I held them up in front of her.

“Give me those,” she demanded.

“You’re too drunk to drive,” I said.

“I am not! Give me my keys. I’ll call security!”

“You’re drunk and you’re on hospital property after hours. What are you going to tell them?”

“I’ll think of something, damn you! Give me my keys!”


“You’re just doing this because you’re mad at me. I had a good time tonight and you didn’t and now you’re taking it out on me!”

She had a point. I might have been holding onto her keys to reassert my power in the relationship, or to pay her back for that night’s phone call. But what really made me persevere was a temptation that danced around in my head. A devilish little thought told me to let her drive home, and if she got into a wreck it wouldn’t be my problem. If she killed herself or someone else I wasn’t responsible. She had chosen to humiliate me that night, and I felt like letting her meet her fate.

That evil enticement made me do the opposite. I knew that I couldn’t live with the guilt if something did happen to her. I would always suspect that I had let her go just to get rid of her. There was nothing selfless in my decision to hold onto the keys, just a twisted mess of motives and counter motives.

“If you don’t give me my keys I’ll get you fired!” she threatened me. “When the next shift comes on I’ll tell them that you held me here against my will! I’ll tell them that you hit me!”

“You’re drunk. They won’t believe you. And you’ll get fired too. Can you afford to lose your job?”

She calmed down while she thought that over. Her head bobbed a few times as she nearly fell asleep while sitting in a chair just across the counter from me. She got up and stalked away to the lunch room, and I heard her trying to put coins into a vending machine. She kept dropping them and cursing, but managed to get a cup of coffee. She spilled some of it as she walked back to my post. She made a show of drinking it down, and began to walk back and forth in front of me. She swayed and veered, and was too drunk to realize that her words were heavily slurred when she told me, “See, I’m sober now. I can drive.”

“No,” I said.

“I have to get home! Who’s going to be there when Carol Ann wakes up?”

“Your mother will be there. I’ll drive you home when I get off my shift.”

“But what about my car? It’s parked on Apple Street. I need my car!”

“I’ll drive you in your car, and I’ll call Tony to follow us down to Miamisburg. He’ll drive me back.”

“Call me a cab!”

“I don’t have the money. Do you?”

“Fuck you!”

“No thanks.”

We spent the next hour arguing in short bursts. She gradually got more sober, but still seemed unsteady. I called my brother at six and apologized for getting him up. I explained the situation briefly to him, and he agreed without complaint to come down to the hospital. He knew some of the things that had been going on between me and Jane and wasn’t surprised by this latest development.

My day shift replacement was a starchy old lady who had been widowed for years. She was a straight shooter for the most part, didn’t gossip much or wage office wars, but I was still worried about her reaction. Jane screeched something horrible about me stealing her keys when ‘Clara’ sat down at the desk, and I said nothing. Clara sized up the situation and her eyes narrowed when she took in Jane’s disheveled state. Tony walked in the lobby door, I clocked out, and Jane led me to her car. I pulled around to where Tony was parked and honked the horn. He nodded and started his engine, and we headed south.

Jane fumed in the shotgun seat and said, “I could have driven home. I wasn’t that drunk.”

“You would have killed yourself. You couldn’t see straight when you came back to the hospital.”

“How would you know? And don’t sit there judging me! You always act so superior, but you don’t have to live my life. What would you do if you had to raise a little girl with your parents nitpicking your every decision, looking over your shoulder and interfering? How would you handle it? I just need some help to get by. Everybody needs some coping mechanisms to get by.”

Jane had been taking diet pills for the last two months to shed pregnancy weight left over from her daughter’s birth three years before. As she got thinner she became more irritable and had begun to smoke and drink. Her ego had swelled as the fat on her frame diminished, and she had let it slip on a few occasions that she thought that I was no longer in her league.

I lost my temper and shouted, “Coping mechanisms!? Trying to kill yourself isn’t a coping mechanism!”

She was startled at first, and then became peevish. “You don’t have to shout at me!”

“You don’t respect me unless I shout! You don’t listen to anybody unless they yell at you!” I shouted louder.

“All right, all right! I get it!” she said as she turned away. We rode the rest of the way in silence. When I pulled up to her parents’ house I turned off the motor and tossed her the keys. I got out without saying anything and walked over to my brother’s car.

He drove us back to the hospital where I picked up my car. I thanked him and explained a bit more about what had happened at the hospital, and he told me not to worry about calling him for help. I also said that if Jane tried that again I’d let her drive no matter what her condition.

It was past nine when I got home and I was exhausted. I fell into bed and didn’t wake up until supper time. Jane hadn’t called while I slept, and I entertained the hope that she had finally decided to dump me. I had grown tired of finding myself in situations with her where I couldn’t tell whether or not I was making right choices, or making right choices for right reasons. She had a talent for twisting me into mental knots.

I graduated with a B.F.A. from Wright State a week or so later. Jane came uninvited to a party that my Mom and Dad threw for me to celebrate my accomplishment. When she walked out onto the back patio I felt my face stiffen and the muscles in my neck and shoulders tense up. I hadn’t known that I was still that angry with her until I saw her and heard her voice. She tried to glad hand her way around the crowd until she came to me, but some of the folks gathered there knew her reputation and didn’t do much to welcome her. I glared at her when she sidled up to me. She laughed as if nothing were the matter, and I could tell that she was trying dazzle her way out of trouble by laying on the charm. Her face fell when I ignored her pleasantries and said, “What are you doing here?”

She left a few minutes later, and I felt some satisfaction in driving her away. But I knew that our ordeal wasn’t really over. My show of force was just a temporary victory. She was the one in charge of this disaster, would end it when she was good and ready, and would dictate the terms.