Do We Owe Them Nothing?

Something I’ve been musing about recently, which I would write an essay about but I am far too lazy and far too busy to do anything of that nature, so I’m going to fire off some thoughts here

I wonder, what do we as a polity owe one another? When I go back to visit Bethlehem PA where I went to college, and I see the abandoned steel stacks towering over an entire city built, by the, now defunct, Bethlehem Steel. And I wonder, what do I, or people like me, owe the people who worked there?

Famously the ‘white working class’ quote unquote revolted and delivered us, Trump. We’ve talked a lot as a nation about those who’ve been ‘left behind’ by globalization. My great-grandfather worked on the railroad, but since then I have no direct connection to heavy industry. It’s easy for someone like me to look at the steel & coal towns throughout America and murmur incantations about ’employment trends’ ‘retraining’ ‘structural shifts’ and ‘cyclical unemployment.’

In economics we talk about friction, meaning anything that prevents markets from operating at optimal efficiency. Mass changes in the labor market cause ‘friction’ for instance. Friction while we transition for an economy based on physical, muscular jobs, to an economy of knowledge workers in cubicles.

The aggregate statistics, in this case, lose a reality. That the ‘friction’ is people, Americans. The ‘friction’ is waiting for a 22-year-old college grad to take the place in the labor market of a 45-year-old steelworker who was laid off and will never work again. Middle-aged steelworkers were not being re-trained to be accountants or computer programmers.

Steel is an interesting case to me because it’s one of the industries that didn’t need to go away. There is no economic law that dictated America needed to outsource steel production. The death of American steel was the result of a trade policy pursued by the American government. It was not an unfortunate accident, it was a deliberate choice.

The situation as I see it is this. America in the post-war order pursued a set of economic and trade policies. These policies benefitted the country (and world) as a whole. Yet the brunt of the cost, almost all the downside, was borne by a minority of our citizens. Do we owe them nothing? A pink slip & well wishes? Destroying American steel made America rich, but made American steelworkers poor.

At this point, some tech-utopia libertarian going to stick his head into the conversation. He’ll say ‘well they should have followed employment trend, learned how to code, transitioned to another industry!’ Which I have two objections to.

First, on learning to code. A 45-year-old man who spent his entire life as a steelworker is not just going to up and learn to code and get a software dev job. Some will and can, most won’t and can’t. It’s not realistic as a broad solution. Especially if that 45-year-old man was, until he lost his job, supporting an entire family on his income and relying on a now nonexistent pension for his retirement.

Second, that recommendation, in general, doesn’t scale. That advice works if you have a friend who is in x industry which is going to go away soon. It does not work for an entire industry of workers. Why? Because we needed the steelworkers, right up until the moment we didn’t. It was the steel industry that made the materials for the tanks, airplanes, and ships the won WWII and the rebar that built our cities. If everyone took the advice of leaving for greener pastures when the writing was on the wall, we would have been in a pickle.

Take trucking. Trucking is going away as a profession in the next decade. But, up until the very second that we turn trucking over to autonomous vehicles, we need truckers. They’re the engine of our economy, getting almost everything we use from the docks to us.

Do we owe them nothing? People doing the equivalent of going down with the ship so that the economy can still function and we can live comfortable lives while we make their industry & jobs obsolete? I think we owe them something. I don’t know what, but we can do better than snide slogan about ‘learn to code’ and a half-hearted ‘job retraining’ program that doesn’t work.

600,000 Burning Libraries

This winter my grandfather, Maj. Bruce Shore USMC, passed away. During the quiet drive to the military cemetery in Saratoga this passage from a novel I’ve never read was gnawing at me from somewhere in the recesses of my memory;

I remember hearing this somewhere: when an old man dies, a library burns down. I wondered about this as I walked among the graves. How many stories were here, buried and forgotten? How many old burned libraries, how many young ones that had been building their volumes year by year? And all the stories, lost. I wished there was a place you could go, and sit in a room like a movie theater and look through a catalogue of a zillion names and then you could press a button and a face would appear on the screen and tell you about the life that had been. It would be a living memorial to the generations who had gone on before, and you could still hear their voices though those voices had been stilled for a hundred years. It seemed to me, as I walked in the presence of all those stilled voices that would never be heard again, that we were a wasteful breed. We had thrown away the past, and our future was impoverished for it. [1]

As my grandfather’s memory deteriorated, his library, the library which I had studied at through my childhood and adolescence, began to crumble. Memories and stories which at one point were available at the snap of a finger to be retold with a twinkle in his eye slowly became more opaque, more distant. Eventually, entire wings of grandpa’s grand library were sealed off from us.


Standing silently in a military cemetery on a cold January morning, I felt my body convulse as the honor guard fired the first volley in the three-volley salute. The sudden crack was an excuse to relax the rigid control I had been exercising on my muscles. The great epic of my grandfather’s life had come to an end. However that evening in my aunt’s living room over a bottle of scotch my grandfather lived on. His stories, his memory, were revivified as we took part in an oral tradition which would be recognized by our earliest prehistoric ancestors.

I was struck then, that it was now our responsibility to preserve these stories. My children will never know my grandparents. They’ll never hear the stories I did growing up unless I tell them. Our family and friends who’ve passed live on through those of us who loved them- their stories and wisdom are in our hands as the living. We bear a sacred responsibility to be a conduit of these stories to our children, to convey the past to the future, a transaction as old as time.

We too often forget our great stories. Our animating principles, our responsibility to those who came before us, and to those who’ll come after. We gleefully take sledgehammers to the pylons which hold up this miraculous civilization- built on the exertion and blood of our ancestors. We eschew that wisdom which has been passed down to us and refuse to take seriously the notion that maybe our predecessors may have known something we don’t. We burn our Library of Alexandria daily. We do this at our peril.

On this rainy Memorial Day remember all the men and women who died in service to an ideal. America has over 600,000 war dead since her founding. Americans have been laid to rest in cemeteries across the world, each headstone marks  a library set aflame, a life crying out for remembrance.

Tell their stories; it is only by our continuing interest that we prop up these great libraries, that we unearth what has been long buried. Consider with gratitude the lives we all live by their exertions and sacrifice. Consider how best to honor that sacrifice- how we each can live so that the dead that built this country did not die in vain.

Onstage, the Missing Link says, Every breath you take is because something has died. Something or someone lived and died so you could have this life. This mountain of dead, they lift you into daylight. The Missing Link, he says, Will the effort and energy and momentum of their lives. . . How will it find you? How will you enjoy their gift? …[D]ead soldiers are only a tragedy if you waste their gift sitting in front of the television. Or stuck in traffic. Or stranded at some airport. How will you show all the creatures of history? says the Missing Link. How will you show their birth and work and death were worthwhile?[2]


[1] Boy’s Life, Robert McCammon
[2] Haunted, Chuck Palahniuk

Barroom Conversations: Reflection on 3.5 Years

Yesterday I was sitting at a bar with four of my best friends since my very first semester at DeSales. This morning I took my last undergraduate final. This afternoon I had dinner with two of my best friends who I’d only become close with over the past six or so months. This evening I moved out of my college dorm for good and drove back to NJ. Life comes at you fast, and sometimes you need to step back and let it unravel. This is a reflection on my time at DeSales. It’s overly long and self-indulgent, and there isn’t really a point to it per say- just to put some things down on paper at a milestone in my life. I am sure there are typos here, I’m fixing them as I find them, grammar is not one of my strong suits

It’s often said: the worst thing about DeSales is that it’s so small, everyone knows everyone and everything. But I’ve come to realize, that the best thing about DeSales is that it’s so small, everyone knows everyone and everything.

It’s a significant cultural adjustment starting your Freshman year at any college, let alone DeSales. Not only are you all of a sudden on your own, no parental supervision, but you’re also thrown into a community of a couple thousand, which for most of us is a small fraction of the size of towns and cities where we grew up. We all came to college, with a vague idea of what it was going to be like, something like a fresh start than a four-year party.

I never so much got that “fresh start” after high school, I came to DeSales with five other people from my (small) high school. I couldn’t really reinvent myself overnight because I was around people who knew me. I was frustrated by this for a while, it felt like I had been cheated of a “quintessential college experience” by having stories from high school follow me to college, and not being able to become a new person on freshman move-in. These people from high school, especially my friend Gerry, kept me accountable when it may have been tempting to embellish or gloss over bits of high school.

Beyond just the “fresh start” part of that college mystique the high school students buy into is not just that college is one big party, but that there are no strings attached. The way college is portrayed in pop culture is that it’s a libertine “find yourself” and “experiment with everything” environment. I was quickly disabused of this notion my freshman and sophomore year. You don’t get to go around willy-nilly doing and saying whatever you want with no social consequences. You will, and I did, get a particular reputation around campus. People will know what happened last weekend. People will know you and your girlfriend are fighting. People will know who hooked up with who. There are no real secrets. People swap stories like social capital especially at a school this small. You can’t just “disappear” into a crowd.

I’ve told prospective students more times than I can count: DeSales is what you make of it. If you want to party, there is certainly a nightlife. If you want to have a chaste, temperate, college experience, there’s ministry community at a lot of folks who come here for that kind of lifestyle. If you want something else, or a mix of the two, there’s just about every imaginable lifestyle in between. I certainly made a choice my freshman year, and freshman year was one long party for me. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood’s character from Heartbreak Ridge “I’ve drunk more beer… and pissed more blood and stomped more ass that all of you numbnuts put together… You men do not impress me!” I thought I was quite the swinging Richard my freshman and sophomore years, so it was only fair that over my junior and senior years life would knock me down a few pegs.

In a lot of ways, I think I peaked my sophomore year. Sophomore year is what I reminisce about when I think “college”. I was a sophomore who thought I ran the damn school. I was in a relationship with a beautiful, fun, woman, a relationship I found fulfilling. I had two part-time jobs and more money than I knew what to do with. I went out almost every weekend, some of my best party stories are from sophomore year. I thought I was going to go to law school. Things made sense, but what I realize, looking back, is that it was just an illusion. I thought I had everything together because I was faking it. The plans I had weren’t realistic, and the life I was living wasn’t sustainable. I broke up with my girlfriend. I quit my job. I lost my focus academically. I fell away from my friends a little, I spent my first summer since middle school largely unemployed. While everything was in reality crumbling, from the outside it looked like I had it all together. I was taking over as the Captain of DeSales EMS, I had been officially hired as an RA, my grades were great. I learned that having direction and purpose was more important than having a title. Leaving sophomore year, I’d collected a lot of titles, resume boosters, but I’d lost my purpose, and I felt very alone.

Junior year is, I like to think, the year I really grew up. It had its ups and downs. At first, I loved being an RA, I met lots of new people, made new friends, turned 21 in December. By the winter the bloom had come off the rose. I had fallen into some old habits, being an RA had crushed my spirit, I had a surgery, and did some things I wasn’t proud of. I was very unsure of who I was or what I was doing. I realized I didn’t really have a good reason for a lot of the things I did, I just acted on impulse a lot.

The second semester Junior year made me the person I am today, I think. It taught me the influence of randomness, of “black swans” on my life. We like to think that we’re in control, and the modern world gives us that illusion. But we’re not, “No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word”. Sometimes in life, a person, or event, comes through like a wrecking ball, shattering that illusion of control, reminding us that we’re all victims of chance.

At the risk of sounding cliché, I met a girl. We met in February 2016, and over the next six months give me the highest highs and lowest lows. It was very much an on again off again relationship, and like most relationships existing in the real world, doesn’t really fit into any of the standard molds of relationships, so I’m going to decline to try to describe it in too much detail. I could draw parallels to songs, movies, and literature, to try and explain it, but I’ll spare you being that vomiting inducing. Suffice it to say, it was a relationship that simultaneously made me feel like a kid again, and like the man I didn’t know I wanted to be. The relationship ended, but like most things, its lessons endured. I walked out of my Junior year with everything together- and a different outlook on life. The summer of 2016 was probably one of the best of my life- I didn’t work, but I was seriously happy for the first time in a long time.

What I mean when I say I was happy is this, that I didn’t just have momentary blips of not being unhappy, but I was just in a pleasant state most of the time. I’ve found that the best measure of my own happiness is where my mind goes when left unsupervised. If when left to wander my mind goes to happy memories and positive aspects of my future, then I consider myself happy. However, when my mind goes to unhappy memories and an uncertain future I consider myself unhappy. For the summer, I was happy, I reached a kind of zen for a few short months.

Most of my time at DeSales, I hated that I had picked a school this insular, with this much gossip. There are only a handful of undergrads, walking into senior year, I could give you the nickel version of pretty much anyone, my characterization of them very well may be inaccurate, but there aren’t a huge number of people about whom I could say “yeah I have no idea who that is”.

People will often lament “DeSales is just like high school”. One of my friends recently said after getting her first internship in a “real” workplace, “the world is just one big DeSales!”. So it seems, just like in the Bowling for Soup song, High School really doesn’t ever end. Many of the things people criticize DeSales for really aren’t DeSales specific problems, they’re just part of life. I often wished I could get away from my problems, get away from my reputation, get away from my past. By the time I was a senior I had two failed relationships with DeSales students under my belt, along with a line longer than I’d like to admit of dates, courtships, hookups, or as college students would put it: people I had a “thing” with or had at one point “talked to”. Add on top of that three years of baggage, arguments, rumors (true and false), and people I had met in a negative way, either through my role as an RA or an EMT on campus. Being at DeSales just seemed frustratingly complicated at by the beginning of my senior year.

At DeSales, as in life, you can’t just run away from the things you’ve done. I’m only coming now to realize how valuable that is. If I was at a school where I could easily escape any of the stupid or questionable things I’ve done, I would be nowhere near the person I am today. Just learning how to be around people you don’t like or don’t want to be around is an incredibly important life skill.

Being constantly surrounded by people you know forces an intense self-awareness. When someone has a poor opinion of you, you don’t have the luxury of brushing is off and avoiding them. The luxury of saying off the bat “well… that’s just like… your opinion man”. You have to confront and seriously consider what other people think of you. This is at times a painful process but real self-examination always is. You may decide at times that a person’s opinion is junk and they’re just being an ass (these people do exist, surprising I know), but it’s important to consider what they’re saying because it will follow you. You may refute what they say, you may think they’re wrong, but you can’t just stick you head in the sand and pretend they’re not saying it. I can say I am without a doubt a better person because of that self-awareness I’ve gotten from DeSales. I hated it for a long time. I hated that certain people on campus looked at me as an irresponsible, womanizing, typical college guy. I hated that some people looked at me as a self-important know it all. I hated the opinion my ex(s) and their friends had of me. For a long time, I stuck my head in the sand. But to paraphrase a comedian whose name I don’t remember, “when somebody says you’re an asshole, you don’t get to decide they’re wrong, it’s not up to you”. I hated it because a lot of people had limited interactions with me, and I felt were drawing unfair conclusions from incomplete data. I really thought I was more than all that, that I was a good person.

This eventually (after too many years) forced me to confront two things. First, that while I thought I was a good, decent, personable guy, the way I was presenting myself sometimes didn’t reflect that. Second, I wanted everyone to reserve judgment on me until they had really gotten to know me, meanwhile, I was the king of making snap judgments about someone after hearing something about them or having one interaction. I wanted everyone else to give me the benefit of the doubt, however, believed that my gut judgments on people’s character were always accurate.

I realized all this, and then realized how many “enemies” I had made by simply refusing the recognize that other people may… actually be humans who have bad days or complicated lives like me. I remember saying to one of my friends a few months ago in the midst of extreme frustration with this school that “there’s nothing left for me here, I just need to get out of this place, move on to what’s next”. I wanted a clean slate. I wanted to leave all of the baggage behind. It was only late in this semester, my last semester, that I realized far from there being nothing for me here, everything for me is here.

My last semester I started to consciously be friendlier and approachable to everyone, including those I thought I disliked. I reconnected with people who I had falling outs of varying varieties with. I met people and interacted with social circles I had previously dismissed as “too this” or “too that”, or people I had just decided I wasn’t going to like. I took ownership, really for the first time, of ways I had mistreated people around me, and I let go of grudges I had been holding for years. Granted “taking ownership” of having not treated people with the dignity they deserve, or “letting go” of a feud doesn’t excuse anything or make that history go away. I don’t get to decide “well I’ve forgiven myself on your behalf for acting like an ass”. But it is a step in the right direction. These things did me no good to cling on to (yeah I know I’m starting to sound like a pop self-help book you bought at a thrift shop, trying to bring it around).

I was amazed by how quickly these interpersonal conflicts I had built up into mountains in my head reverted to the molehills they were once I stopped playing into them. Why I was still ignoring and avoiding people who I had some kind of argument with 3 years ago is really beyond me. Ok, actually I do know why. I was playing into these conflicts because it was fun, well, maybe not fun, but it was something to do. Acting like I was some Game of Thrones character, playing interpersonal politics gave me something to do. There’s something addicting about having “enemies”. About being able to say; “Oh that height/ sports team/ group of friends/ major doesn’t like me, and I don’t like them”. Having “enemies” makes you feel like kind of a badass, makes you feel good in a weird way. None of this is good, or healthy, or productive, but it is, that’s the way I am, or people are. Once I stopped pretending I had enemies around every corner, the way this campus looked to me changed. It revealed the great diversity and tremendous amount of human beauty at a place people complain about being homogenous and tiny.

It took me years of being the awkward loner in the corner, a surly introvert to realize that I like people, being a part of something, a community. The worst things about DeSales are also its best things. The reasons for hating it are also reasons for loving it. To quote Chesterton;

“The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot.”

We say we hate this school. We bitch and moan constantly. We all say we wish we had gone somewhere else, and most of us at one point had serious thoughts about transferring. But there’s something that keeps us here, there’s a part of us that loves it here. I know what kept me here, and it wasn’t the academics, the athletics, or the sunsets, it was the people.

I realized that this terrible little school, with its terrible people, represents the best parts of humanity. I realized all this, just in time to leave it. I was the guy for years who would act like an angsty nihilist teen, say, quoting Bukowski, “I don’t hate people I just prefer when they’re not around”. I realize now, I didn’t like people, or community because it’s hard. People are difficult, and instead of trying I would just withdraw inside myself and segregate myself. I realized years late, that I love people. I love the diversity of thought, I love connecting with other human beings,

I want to love my neighbor not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman because she is entirely different. If souls are separate love is possible. If souls are united love is obviously impossible. A man may be said loosely to love himself, but he can hardly fall in love with himself, or, if he does, it must be a monotonous courtship. If the world is full of real selves, they can be really unselfish selves.

I got the clean slate I wanted. I didn’t get it by moving somewhere new where nobody knows me. I got it by a change in attitude. I love this community, and leaving it now, having just realized that, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

 You matter, your life matters, and what you make of it. But you can only make something of your life if you realize others matter more -Roger Scruton

I often wonder, what my legacy will be at this school once I’ve gone. Everyone has a legacy after they leave. Everyone leaves an imprint on the people they’ve interacted with. I wish I was naïve enough to say I’ve had a uniformly positive impact on those around me, but I’m more self-aware than that. I know what it feels like to have your heart ripped out of your chest by someone you trust, and I know what it feels like to do that to someone. Even in the last couple months having taken a less cavalier attitude with other people’s feelings, there are a couple relationships with (now former) friends that I seriously f’ed up. At the same time, I’ve met so many great people in the last two semesters who I wish I had met years ago, people who I feel like I didn’t get enough time with. But I don’t know if more time is it, I could probably spend a lifetime with these people and still want more. Leaving friends who I’ve known since freshman orientation, who I’ve spent most of my college career with, felt like it was too soon.

One of the more enduring quips from JRR Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring is Bilbo Baggins speaking to his neighbors at a party, saying “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve”. This is how I feel leaving DeSales, leaving all my friends, classmates, coworkers, associates, whatever words I should use to describe my relationship with the people here. Having said a lot of goodbyes in the past week I began to acutely feel the passage of time. It was only when it was coming to an end that I realized how much more I wish I had done.

[H]e does not belong to it, or to any place; and the proof of it is this, that he thinks of [it] as a place. The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe.

I am rooted to DeSales, and it was only in my last semester that I came to appreciate it for what it is. I am rooted here, and just I am rooted, I vanish.

I’ll leave you with this; Father O’Conner said to me regarding our respective future paths-” I guess you and I are in the same boat right now, I’m sure we’ll get it all figured out. I have faith there are great things still to come”

As always- It’s a great day to be a Bulldog.

To This Beautiful Life​

My unit had been sent to bring a discharge from the hospital back to his house. There was much grumbling by myself and my partner leading up to this job because the patient weighed 250 pounds and his home had 15 steps, which meant that we would need to physically carry the patient up the two flights of stairs to his bedroom. My partner and I roll into the hospital, and of course, the nursing staff is nowhere near ready to discharge our patient (they never are), so we drop our stretcher to an appropriate height, take a seat, and wait.

When the nurse has decided that the patient can indeed leave, I walk into the room with her to introduce myself and meet the patient. I’m confronted with four women standing around a man sitting in a chair. One of the women introduces herself as the patient’s wife, but before she can finish the man in the chair interrupts with the air of someone who has spent a lifetime being in charge. He points at me and says “I know you!” I having never seen this man before in my life respond “Oh you do?” “Yes yes,” he says “you helped me out last week!” as I’m forming the word “No…” in my mouth, I look at the wife who gives me the motion indicating “just roll with it”. Yes, I say, I remember you, how are you doing? “Well, I’m doing just fine”. I step outside of the room to speak with the nurse and the wife, who tells me that my patient is 97 and has advanced dementia. She adds in that I should just humor him and make him feel important and he’d be happy.

So I do all my paperwork, speak to the wife about her house, and the best angle of approach to get the commander (my patient had been a commander in the Navy) home and in bed. During all of this, the commander is perfectly happy to sit back in his chair and observe the scene. “You know” he chimes in “this place is really run like shit. There’s no organization whatsoever. Everyone is always running around, they have no idea who comes and goes. This would not have passed in the Navy.” I couldn’t help but chuckle. His floor was very busy with discharges and new patients that night, and there were people everywhere.

We get the commander loaded and into his house. We have him seated on a piece of equipment called a stairchair, which is essentially just a metal chair with handles that’s used for carrying people up and down stairs. Before we can lift him up procedure says we need to strap him in with a strap over each shoulder and across his chest to keep him secured in the chair. “When you were in the Navy did you ever wear a jump harness?” “Of course, I did son” “Alright well I’m going to strap you into our chair here, and it’s going to be just like a jump harness, nice and tight to keep you attached to the equipment” “Well get on with it son”. He made a quip which I won’t repeat for the sake of decency about the straps being “looser than a…” compared to a jump harness.

Having strapped him into the chair we carry him upstairs. His wife who is watching from behind gets nervous as many people do, and the commander shouts “Now honey calm down and let these men work, this ain’t the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done”. Once we had him upstairs and settled in bed, his wife brought everyone a glass of water since it was a hot summer day and me and my partner were sweating. Before we could take a sip, the commander piped up:

“Now first I want to do a toast. I know toasting with water is bad luck, but to hell with it, never believed in luck anyway. Here’s to this beautiful life, the little bit I’ve got left, and what you guys have got in front of you.”

My job is not a fun one. Being a Transport EMT is the kind of job people do on their way to somewhere else. It takes a herculean effort for me to drag myself to work, especially those early morning shifts. There’s something devastating about working for a company that is at best ambivalent about your existence, for pay that’s hardly adequate, doing a job that requires you to take nice people to a facility they’re probably going to die in, and being pleasant and reasonable with people who will yell, scream, spit, and throw things at you.

Every time I step into an ambulance at work, I know that today I’m going to meet someone who want’s to live and is going to die. I’m going to meet someone who wants to die but is going to wither in a nursing home for years. I’ll deal with the ass-end of the healthcare profession and a lot of people who I’m not sure how they still have a job. This is the part of our healthcare system that doesn’t look like Grey’s Anatomy. The walls are dirty, the doctors are nowhere to be found, the nurses are at best burnt out and at worst apathetic, and nothing works the way it’s supposed to. Most people, doctors, nurses, EMTs, who are stuck in this part of the system are overworked, underpaid, and fighting a losing battle against things they cannot fix.

Sometimes, however, a glimmer of light shines through my days of lukewarm coffee and stuffy ambulance cabs. There’s a moment, just a moment, where I don’t hate myself for what happens at work. I meet people who give me perspective. I meet people who show me how not to be. I meet people who give me a funny anecdote. I meet people or find myself in situations that teach me a lesson. It’s these patients, family members, medical practitioners, who can make a twelve hour shift with mandatory OT worth is.

Towards the end of my shift, my dispatcher hops on the radio and tells my partner and I, we’re going to have one more job. Shit. Of course, because 12 hours isn’t enough. The job is a psych discharge from an ER going to an inpatient psychiatric facility an hour away. Just wonderful. Psych patients, especially the ones requiring in-patient care who need to travel by ambulance, are not typically the kind of people you want to spend an hour in an enclosed box with going on the 13th hour of your shift. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. I’ve had psych patients attempt to jump out of moving ambulances, swing at me, spit on me, and talk my ear off about government mind control chips. But it is what it is, this is my job, at least I’ll pick up an hour of time and a half.

We roll up to the ER, wander inside. The nurse hands me a stack of papers, which I absent-mindedly flip through while she signs my transfer sheet. The patient is a middle-aged male with a history of substance abuse, depression, and violence. Internally I groan at “history of violence”, I really don’t want to restrain anyone tonight. We head over to the room where our patient is, my partner and I introduce ourselves, and have the patient get himself situated on our stretcher. Seems like a mellow enough guy, kind of looks like one of my friend’s dad. A little bit of hope grows inside me, maybe this guy isn’t that bad.

We get in the truck, and I do my normal “do you want the lights on or off; do you want the AC on; do you want to sit up or lay back? Please keep your arms and legs inside the ambulance at all times, the Captain has turned on the no-smoking light” shtick. The patient is quiet, just stares out the back window for the first 15 minutes of the trip. All of a sudden he turns to me and asks “What kind of music do you listen to?” Caught off guard I say “Rock and country mostly”

“How about Johnny Cash?”
“I’ve been known to listen to Cash”
“Do you know the cover he did of 9 Inch Nails?”
“Yeah, Hurt”
“If you wouldn’t mind could you play it for me?”
“Uh… sure”

I pull out my phone, dial up “Hurt by Johnny Cash” on YouTube. As he listens to the song, I see tears roll down his eyes. After the song ends, he apologized and started explaining how he ended up in the back of an ambulance being committed to a psych ward. He had dropped out of college, got married, and ended up owning a plumbing company with a friend of his, where he made ‘good money’. He had two kids. He told me his whole life story. His wife left him, and he hadn’t seen his kids in years. What was obvious to me, but what he was still in denial about was that he was an alcoholic. He maintained that he would just have a few drinks after work and his (ex)wife would always overreact, and they just had some fights that got “out of hand”. I’ve seen substance abuse before, but not this side of it. Never what happens after I drop off that drunk guy at the ER.

Alcohol has destroyed this man’s life. His wife lost a husband, his children lost a father, and he lost his family. Standing in the wreckage that used to be his life in a last attempt to take control, he tried to take his life. Now he was sitting in an ambulance crying to a 19-year-old EMT who was trying to pretend like he knew what to do. Choices have consequences, and before you know it you may hardly recognize yourself. Since that night I’ve never been able to listen to Hurt without thinking of him and his family. When we dropped him off, he shook my hand, wished me luck, and told me he’d look me up if he ever got better.

There’s one facility everyone hates, and my company, bless them, has a contract with this facility so we are in and out of there on a regular basis. This facility is a “Skilled Nursing Facility”, and I use “Skilled” in the loosest sense of the word. If you’ve ever seen a horror movie set in an old medical facility, this is basically that. The scent that hits you when you walk in is overwhelming, feces, disinfectant, and something I still can’t place that only exists in places like this. There are patients left in the hallways, moaning grabbing at us as we pass. The nursing staff is typically nowhere to be found, and when you finally track one down, they’re less than helpful. Many of them clearly do not care about their patients. This is just a job for them, they show up, do enough to get by, and leave. Others are just incompetent. I cannot imagine working in a place like this, let alone receiving “care” and living here. Neither can most people, so the long term residents at this facility are people who have nobody left to advocate for them, or people with no other option.

There are a few patients at this facility who are regulars for our company, meaning we take them to and from treatments (typically) dialysis three times a week. One such patient is a male with a host of problems, but he’s nice enough. I’d been taking him regularly for a few weeks, he’s typically quiet and looks sad, so I would leave him be during the transport. But today was different. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we took him outside. The sun hit his face, and I’d never seen him smile the way he did that day. On the drive back to this facility, he asked me if I liked NCIS the TV-Show. I don’t watch it regularly, but I know enough to hold up a conversation about it, so I said yes. We talked about NCIS the whole ride back (apparently, it was his favorite show), this was a man who I don’t think had ever said two words to me before.

When we pulled up to his Nursing Facility he asked ever so sheepishly if we could stay outside for a minute so he could enjoy the sun. We told him that we technically weren’t supposed to, and he could have his family or one of the nurses bring him outside. He quietly told us that his family didn’t come to visit anymore, and the nurses always told him no. Sounded completely plausible, so we sat outside with him for a few minutes. After that, we brought him inside and put him in bed. On our way out I asked him if he was going to be watching NCIS, he said he wanted to, but his TV wasn’t working. I did what I was supposed to do and I let the nurse know, who rolled his eyes, and said he would get around to that “someday”. So, I lied to my dispatcher to stall him, and I went back to the patient’s room. After some digging around, I found that his cable connection had fallen out the back of his TV. I popped it back in and just like that everything worked. I left him in his room beaming with the NCIS title sequence playing.

Most of my patients are elderly; I do however occasionally get the opportunity to work with life after it has just begun. I sometimes get kids, and occasionally even infants. The catch is none of these children are healthy by the time I interact with them. Their parents are going through what all parents dread: spending time in a NICU, PICU, or specialized children’s hospital. Some of these children have been abandoned by their parents, left as wards of the state. It’s a harrowing experience, in a lot of ways harder than dealing with adults.

Dispatched to a pediatric long-term care facility, to take a patient for evaluation by an outside physician. Get to the facility and start doing my paperwork and talking to the nurse, this patient as it turns out is on the upswing, and may be able to be discharged. I knew it was going to be a good day when I walk up to my patient’s bed to introduce myself and I get a high-five and a “hey dude”. This kid, bless his heart, was the most energetic ladies’ man I’ve ever met. The patient was 9 years old and a character. On the ride to his doctor’s appointment, he was picking my brain the way only 9-year old’s do. He’s particularly interested in how I do with the ladies. Asked if I have a girlfriend, and I showed him a picture of my girlfriend at the time. I get a “Nice dude! She’s a score!” and another high-five. He asked me all about my job, and how much training it took, and how much I get paid, and what’s the furthest I’ve gone in the ambulance, and what the buttons on the ambulance do, and what I’m writing on my paperwork, and everything else under the sun.

Dispatched to one of the hospitals my company has a contract with, to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), to bring an infant to a procedure at another hospital, parents would meet us at the destination. This baby was on her way to being discharged and sent home with her parents. In the back of the ambulance, the baby started crying. I really didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d interacted with a baby. I would assume sitting in a car seat next to some random guy in the back of a loud box probably wasn’t the most soothing experience for a newborn. I tried to “pet” her I guess? Calm her with my hand? Anyway, as soon as I touched her, she grasped onto my finger. I started humming amazing grace, I don’t know why really, I just did. She stopped crying and smiled. I’m almost certainly assigning too much significance to the acts of an infant, but that was a good day.

Folks reading this have probably caught on to the fact that I do not have the highest opinion of my sisters in scrubs, the collective nursing staff’s of the facilities I work with. I should clarify, I don’t hate nurses, I just feel strongly about bad nurses. That, I do run into a lot of great nurses, and one of the best pressure releases during a long can be joking with a nurse about our shared lot as unappreciated cogs in the machinery of modern medicine.

Nurse: Damn it, I forgot room 32 was going out today
Me: Don’t sweat it, I’m paid by the hour, don’t cost me nothing to sit here for a few minutes
Nurse: Ain’t that the truth, in that case, I think I’ll go on break, reconvene here in 30 minutes?
Me: Sounds good to me! I’ll go catch some shuteye

Or embracing the suck of the industry we’ve found ourselves in. This is an excerpt from a report I gave to an ER Nurse.

Nurse: What’ve you got?
Me: Fall victim, possible AMS from such and such nursing home
Nurse: AMS? When was the last time he was seen normal?
Me: Sometime in the past 72 hours
Nurse: *gives me an “are you f**king kidding me” look* [which is the only appropriate response to that statement]
Me: The nursing staff at the facility said someone may have seen him normal on Tuesday, but they’re not sure
Nurse: Great… I love that facility
Me: Oh yes it’s one of my favorites!
Nurse: So in what way is he altered?
Me: Well, he has a history of dementia, and I couldn’t get a straight story on what his baseline is… but he’s pretty in an out in terms of having a grasp on what’s happening
Nurse: *exasperated sigh* alright, thanks
Me: No problem

Little moments of professional humor can always make a shift go faster.

A common question that people ask me when they find out I’m an EMT is “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?” It’s the public safety version of the infamous “Did you kill anyone?” question civilians ask of veterans. I don’t understand why people ask this question. If I walked up and asked “what’s the most terrible haunting thing you’ve ever seen?” to people I had just met, people would think I was a sociopath. But for certain professions, this is an acceptable conversation starter. I know what they want, some crazy story about a 10-car pileup, or a chemical spill, or anything involving drugs or alcohol. I’ve got a few of those, and I usually give the crowd what they want. Lay people lap that up for some reason. I don’t know why someone being really drunk and going to the hospital qualifies as an interesting story, but whatever. These things don’t bother me anymore, trauma’s, car accidents, OD’s, death, they don’t get my blood pumping the way they did when I first started. The honest answer to the question “what’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen” is despair. I don’t talk about it because that’s not what people want to hear, that’s not what they’re interested in. What keeps me up at night, what twists knots in my guts is the patient’s I’ve had who have given up. They’re alive, but they just don’t care anymore. People who are waiting to die. That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen, and I see it regularly.

That’s my conclusion from all of this. You need something to live for. I realized at a point when I was nearing the end of my rope at work that I had more in common with a patient I was taking to hospice who had visibly given up on life than many of my peers. All of the patient’s who I admire, the ones I talk about above all had something in their life worth caring about, a reason for them to still be alive. The commander loved his wife and enjoyed telling his old war stories even if they’re the same ones over and over. My depressed patient still cared about his family more than himself, even if he hadn’t yet come to terms with his alcoholism and depression. My regular dialysis patient just wanted a few minutes of sunshine and to watch NCIS. If a man with no family left, living in an awful nursing home can be made that happy by a few minutes of sunshine, then me, an able-bodied college kid with a lot going for him can certainly find something worth caring about no matter how much I may dislike my job sometimes. Sometimes it’s something silly like taking a quality Instagram picture or getting an Oreo Frosty on my way home from work. Sometimes it’s something more wholesome like going far beyond what is expected of me for a patient or advocating for them when nobody else will. Either way, I’m trying to learn from these moments. I try to find the beauty in life, even if that means embracing the suck of wiping feces off my stretcher. I’ve found over the past years, that more than anything else (including coffee) I need those moments that remind me of the good in people, I need those moments that make me feel like me again.

From my Instagram (
From my Instagram (

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In Remembrance: My Memories of Ken Stiefel

I remember the first time I met Ken Stiefel. It was my first week of high school in 2008, I was 13 years old. I was still adjusting to being in high school. They had said in the morning announcements that the signups for something called “TV Crew” was in the back of the library during lunch. I thought that sounded interesting, I figured I’d go and sign up to see what it was all about. I went to the library, and after asking a few people, I found what I was looking for, a door in the very back of the library labeled “TV Studio”. I went in to find two men, one older and one younger. The older man had a big smile on his face and was wearing jeans, suspenders, and a flannel. This was Ken, I didn’t know it at the time but the two men I had just met and the club I had just signed up for would be a defining factor in my high school career and the man I am today.

Ken, Joe, myself, and a bunch of the rest of the crew during our senior year

Last week was filled with memories at every turn for me. Last Wednesday, Joe Voorhees, Jeff Stiefel, myself, and many other students, alumni, friends and family, attended a Board of Education meeting. The reason we were all there was to petition the Board to change the name of Davis Hall (The Governor Livingston Theater) in order to honor Ken and his contributions to the theater program. On Friday I was back working in the theater for a Dance Show, which Ken used to work with us, and his presence is sorely missed. Saturday morning I was up at 6 am to go back to the theater for another dance show, and I was greeted with a notification on my phones saying It’s Ken Stiefel’s birthday! Wish him a happy birthday. After the dance show on Saturday was the Berkeley Heights Relay for Life. Two years ago after Ken was first diagnosed I helped organize and fundraise for a relay team in Ken’s honor, called Daddy’s Crew. Two years later the current students continued that team.

Ken, or Daddy as we called him, has undoubtedly been one of the largest influences on my life to date. He was the most stubbornly optimistic person I’ve ever met. If you listened to him during one of the many crises in the theater, everything was going to be fine, even if he had to make a square peg fit in a round hole to make it fine. He was the kind of person who knew something about everything. I remember countless brainstorming sessions and experiments trying to make all manner of things do something they weren’t quite designed to do.

I remember while working on sets for the shows the little bits of life advice he sprinkled into work. During my junior year, I was dating another member of the crew. I was 16. In the way that things do when you’re 16, it seemed like this relationship was the most important thing in the history of mankind. When we broke up, once again, it seemed like a tragedy that would echo through the ages. High School relationships can be funny that way. Ken’s favorite quip while we were dating was some variation of : “You know, you’re a lucky guy, she’s too good for you. Just remember, whenever you get in a fight, she’s right. When she asks for something, give it to her, but that’s not going to be enough alone, you’ve got to surprise her, show her why you deserve her”. He would lovingly refer to his wife as “she who must be obeyed”. After we broke up, I took it very poorly, and making some highly questionable decisions, Ken’s response in classic form was “Well that was a pretty stupid thing to do, but at least you learned something, bet you won’t do that again.” Over the years Ken gave me more advice on school, relationships, and life than I can even remember at this point. He was the kind of person who you could go to with any sort of problem, personal, professional, technical, and he would find a solution.

There was a running joke among GLTV Crew and GL Theater, that Ken who was old enough to be Joe Voorhees’ (the TV Teacher’s) father, and old enough to be my grandfather, wasn’t allowed to leave GL until Joe had retired as a teacher. One of them being separated from the other was inconceivable to us. My fellow students and I used to joke that after we had finished with college and all had lives, we would come back to GL to visit. We would find that the administration had canceled the TV and Theater programs. But us being the few, the proud, the Crew, would obviously have to go investigate what had come of the TV Studio. So we would find some way to break in, and we would find it dark and covered in dust, but otherwise exactly how we left it. To our surprise, we would also find that Ken and Joe hadn’t left at all, and had been stowing away in the abandoned studio for years. We would find them exactly how we left them, constantly re-writing, and building all sorts of things that shouldn’t work but did. We thought that Ken and Joe, running the TV Studio and Theater, would just go on forever.

When Ken was diagnosed with cancer, it came as a shock, at least to me. This man who had become such a big part of my life, built a theater and a TV Studio, this wise man, father, husband, and friend, had cancer. But Ken didn’t let it slow him down. He was still in the theater every day doing what he always had. He would go to his treatments and then come right to the theater. He would insist we not worry about him and just let him be. For the two years after he was diagnosed, Ken was still the man I had always known and kept doing what he loved.

After Ken passed, there was a memorial service held at the GL Theater. I along with most of the other GL Theater Alumni, stood up by the booth, where we were most comfortable. Most of us rarely if ever sat in the seats in the theater, we were always in the booth, the TV Studio, or backstage. In the Stage Manager’s seat, where Ken would sit we put a coffee, milk, no sugar (because he’s already sweet enough), and a spotlight, in his honor. The memorial service was surreal. Hundreds of people turned out, from all walks of life, and not just theater alumni or GL Students, Ken’s extended family, members of a model train club he was active in, members of his church, friends of his from far back. I was amazed by just how many people Ken had touched during his life. He was always a humble man, of modest means, but had influenced the lives of hundreds of people who all came out to honor him. It was for me, a watershed moment in how I looked at what a successful life is. Ken hadn’t “made it big”, he wasn’t a wildly successful businessman, he was someone who I’ve never seen not wearing flannel and suspenders, and drove a Minivan with a ladder strapped to the roof everywhere. But he had during his life, been a positive, formative influence in the lives of so many others, a had a loving family, and a strong network of people who came out to support him.

I remember the last time I saw Ken. It was October 2015, I was 19 years old. After getting a call saying that Ken was in the hospital, I drove to Overlook Medical Center straight from school. I let myself in the Emergency Department entrance and went down to the Oncology Floor. I went to Ken’s room, and there he was, hooked up to all the machines, for the first time, he looked like a terminal cancer patient. I didn’t know how to process what I was seeing. I’m an EMT, and at work, I work with cancer patients and the chronically ill regularly, I know what this looks like, I know what the equipment does. But none of that experience could have prepared me for seeing one of the most stubbornly independent men I’ve ever known, dying in a hospital bed. I remember sitting on the floor next up against the nurse’s station trying to pull myself together. I had known conceptually what was happening and what this was going to look like, but seeing it was different. The drive back to school was long and quiet.

This is not how Ken would have wanted to be remembered. Those last days at the end never defined him, and he would have wanted to be remembered as the man he was. I remember the last time I saw Ken. It was September 2015, I was 19 years old. Joe had sent out an email asking if any alumni could come out to a football game the TV Crew was shooting. Joe couldn’t be there, and Ken was going to be running it by himself. Ken being Ken was going to try to do the whole thing himself instead of just sitting back and supervising the rest of the crew. I had a free Saturday, so I drove out. I stopped to pick up coffee, medium black for me and medium with milk for Ken, and I drove to the high school. I was supervising the supervisor if you will, doing the heavy lifting so he didn’t try too. We ended up sitting on the bumper of the bus and bullshitting for most of the day. We talked about my experiences at school, new plans for the Theater, the TV Studio, my ex-girlfriend from high school, everything. Everything except his cancer, which is the one thing he never had any interest in talking about.

To say that a man like Ken “lost his battle with cancer” is a fallacy. Ken never lost his battle, he won. He never let his disease define him, he flatly refused to step back from the theater or TV Crew, despite our urgings he wouldn’t slow down at all if he could help it. I remember working a dance show in 2014, and there was a light on stage with a blown lamp. Ken, grabbed a ladder and climbed up to change it himself before I could stop him or offer to do it myself. Joe called down on the radio asking, “Why is Ken climbing a ladder?” But he was going to do it, no matter how much everyone insisted that we have the young expendable one (me), do it. Ken lived the way he wanted to all the way to the end, and he left behind a legacy that will live on in the heart and minds of generations of students, family, and friends. If that’s losing, I don’t know what winning looks like. I am proud to have been able to count Ken among one of my friends.

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Ken saying goodbye to our old bus which we used as a remote truck

Ken, Joe, and myself at my high school graduation