Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Desk in the Den

My father, brother and I moved to our house in San Jose in 1963. I was four years old and my brother was still a baby. My father lived here until he died in 2008. For all of those 45 years, the den was off bounds. As children, we were forbidden to enter that room. In fact, everyone was forbidden to enter that room. Housekeepers, babysitters, visitors, girlfriends, relatives, cleaning personnel, good friends and personal nurses were all equally and unequivocally banned from my father's den. We never called it "the study," or "the office." It was always called The Den. And a den it was. It was where my father escaped from screaming kids, a nosey housekeeper, and an impending family dinner of burned pot roast and canned peas to read the newspaper in peace behind closed doors after a stressful day at the lab. It was where he retired to read notes from the school principal and survey our grades. This is where he kept the family documents, paid the bills and stashed away his secret hoard of chocolate mints and nougat. So it was not without a bit of interest that we entered the Den after my father's death to search its secrets.

These are some of the things I found on the desk.
A long file of flight schedules from probably every trip my father ever took spanned across the desk. He despised travel agents and always chose to plan his trips himself. As you can see:

Western Airlines, December 1986,
World Airways, June 1981
Welcome Timetable 2004,
Wings West Airlines, April1985,
Air Berlin City Shuttle
Aurigny, com, October 2003
German Wings and the Flight Guide to the San Jose Airport of 2001
Southwest Airlines of October 1999
West Air December 1985,
United Airlines,
Northwest Airlines
Piedmont of 1987
Metro Airlines January 1983,
Midway Airlines, Jan 1989
Morris Air and Muse Air,
National Airlines, July 1976,
Mexicana Itinerario of Mayo 1999,
Malaysia March 1989
Lufthansa and Jetstream International Airlines of June 1984,
Japan Air Lines of 1973, and July 1996,
Finnair, Summer 1986
Frontier, December 1984,
Golden Gate Airlines, October 1980
Hughes Airwest, July 1978
Gull Air (Bahamas) , September 1985,
Hawaiian , April 1987,
Golden West of November 1971
East-West March 1989,
Crossair, October 2000
Delta 2004, 2000, 1999, 1997, 1990
Eastern of Augut 1990
Canadia October 1988
British, March 1989,
Chaparral Airlines (Dallas) ,1983,
China Airlines March 1996,
Continental of September 1989,
Christman Air System (Charlston) September 4, 1990,
American West May 1998,
ATA Winter timetable,
Amsett, 1989,
Apollo Airways,
November 1981 (Bakersfield to Santa Barbara)
Amerian West Airlines,1998,
Air China 1999
Alasa Airlines of Jul 1990
Orario of Alitalia of March 2006,
Aöegjemy, Kime 1976,
All Nippon Airways, September 1994,
Alpha Air, November 1985,
American Airlines of December 2001
The Port Authority of NY & NJ consolidated flight schedule of John F. Kennedy, La Guardia Newark , effective 1985,
Greyhound Airport express Service of June 26, 1985
Air New Zealand of October 1988
Air Canada 1985,
Air Canada, Sunbelt Airlines, April 1983,
Sunworld 1987,
Sunworld July 1986,
Swift Airlines, December 1980,
Trans Sierra Airlines , June 15 1971

I also found a Radio Austria International broadcasting schedule from 9/1990 to 4/1991; a German calendar from 1954; a 3" IBM Magnabelt; a copy of a map, hand-drawn by my father, of the house location in San Jose; a 1984 calendar by Mark F. Hopkins, Insurance Brokers; a whistle; the London Transport Official Tourist Information of 1977; a pamphlet entitled "10 Reasons You Should Buy Your Next Water Heater From SEARS"; a stamp bad; a THINK notebook; an old Tuck Tape tin filled with hard erasers; an aerogram for 36c; a paper entitled "Minutes of the IBM PC Club Committee Meeting of December 2,1997," whose attendants included Jan Engel, Education Chairman; newspaper clippings about the Dead Sea Scrolls from the San Jose Mercury News of February 27, 1994; the obituary of Martin Dost, computer expert at IBM, August 1994; a Block T Puzzle from Technicolor; a slide ruler from Switzerland; a brochure of the French Pavilion at the Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Montréal 1967; an invitation to a French Affair at " La Maison de Judy Shermon" on Sunday, March 24 from Joyce Jarvis, cocktails to begin at 16:00; a postcard addressed to Dept. H62 Members, IBM Corporation, H62-282, 2600 Cottle Road, San Jose, CA 95193, from Torremolinos, dated October 27, 1977 that begins: "Actually, the Alhambra cannot be put into pictures. It has to be experienced."; a 1969 gift catalog from the Kyoto Handicraft Center, Japan; and a notice from the University of California Extension, Berkeley, sent May 2, 1968, announcing:
"Jewish Writing and Modern Experience
May 11-12 1968
160 Kroeber Hall

This card must be presented for admittance."

There were instructions of the "Oak Creek Ski Conditioning Exercises" with a handwritten note: "To Jan. The one thing I can give you and no one else can. --- Henri"; a handout about the Low Carbohydrate Diet; a subscription letter from KPFA with a paid subscription receipt from January 5, 1959 and the Program Folios of August and September 1960; a brochure about Arizona Highways 1953; my father's trip itinerary to Japan in 1966; a letter from the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan mailed February 24, 1948 to J. M. Engel, 1561 Gates Ave., Manhatten Beach, Cal.; apair of broken sunglasses; and a Burroughs typewriter ribbon.

Under the "Notes and Proceedings from the Solid State Device Research Conference, July 9 -11, 1962, University of New Hampshire" I found a spark plug from Small Engine Parts, Co; an old box of water colors; a jar cap full of miscellaneous screws; a mazuza; two glass test tubes; an Avis rent–a-car directory from 1966; a wooden jumping jack cowboy that used to hang on my father's bedroom wall; a stapler; a change-a-lock re-keying kit; the prospectus/proxy statement of Hallwood Energy Partners, of February 14, 1990 concerning 400 Riley Ridge Units; an "Honorary Brewtaster" certificate awarded in San Jose on Sept. 27, 1964; a box of old checkbook registers and every single outdated credit card, organized by credit company, that my father had ever owned, including:

26 Chevron national credit cards
12 Uni-cards
10 Bankamericards
2 California State AAA cards
4 Mastercharge of Central bank, and credit cards from
Avis, Shell, Montgomery Ward, The Emporium, 76 and a Visa from First Interstate.

I also found a little black card stating "Good for only one: FREE KISS, Satisfaction Guaranteed, If bashful please return;"

a San Jose Public Library Card of 1974; a box of Morton pellets (water softeners); the desk calendar inserts for each day of the week from 1966 – 1968; a box of slides, labeled "IBM Research, B. Hall";a purple light bulb; a Pacific IBM Employees Federal Credit Union matchbook; and the notes I must have taken as a ten year old when Emil Hopner called regarding Jadmilla Lipa Jensen in 1969. My father had found room on his desk for a Hard Rock Cafe LINE PASS; a Jewish Community Center of San Jose membership card of 1975; a plastic trophy entitled "World's Greatest Programmer;" a pair of reading glasses; and an envelope from his companion Sharon, with some red home-made coupons redeemable for:
"one home cooked meal,"
"this ticket good for one back rub"
"20 minutes mending"
"home-made cookies"
"one walk to chase blues away"
"one search for lost glasses"
"one walk to cheer up blues"
"one search for lost keys"
"one search for lost keys";

a note of appreciation from the Holocaust Center of Northern California of December 20, 1997 for a donation of $20; a pamphlet published by the Pacific Finance Corporation, Los Angeles, CA entitled "some odd facts about MONEY; an obituary of Irene L. Maxwell 1920 – 1974 who was active in the California Arts Society urging "spreading information that non-toxic nutrition and supportive therapy can control cancer – and that accepted cancer practices of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy may do more harm than good;"a list of expenses for my brother Stephen in 1975 from his cousin Ursula; a California Conditional Sale Contract for a 1956 Pontiac that Dad bought used on May 13, 1957 for $1375.00; book in phonetic Engish entitled scwl, bwk 2; a pamphlet entitled Preparation for Tomorrow, A German Boy's Year in America; and the pamphlet, Germany, Promise and Perils by Sigmund Neumann, July – August 1950, published by the Foreign Policy Association for 35c. Next to that lay Once Again? A Report on Certain Aspects of Reviving Nationalism in Germany, by Basil Davidson, published in England, one shilling; copies of William Winter's Comments, published in Sausalito, CA, in 1964 and the notebook diary of my mother when she went to England and Austria with my father in 1960.

I discovered a typed press release announcing San Jose physicist Jan M. Engel will lead a Los Gatos discussion group in "Ways of Mankind", offered by the University of California Extension , as an exploration of man and the many cultures he had created. The group will meet weekly for a period of 11 weeks. Participants in the group will explore such questions as culture, family, ethics, education, and status, and will examine problems ranging from the ethics of an African tribe to the problems of a corporation executive's wife. The program was designed to give adults with similar interests an opportunity to discuss questions of mutual concern. Readings include work by Ruth Benedict, Thorstein Veblen, Alfred Kroeber and Lewis Mumford.

On a notepad paper from the International Conference on APL in Leningrad, USSR from 6-10 July 1992, contained scribbling of my father's name in his handwriting in Latin characters and then in Russian characters. That was found underneath a newspaper article entitled Some of the Nation's Greatest Gaffs and Political Cheap Shots citing Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Richard Nixon, Dan Quayle, and Mario Cuomo. There was also a card from Temple Beth Zion that "gratefully acknowledges your gift to the Janet Greenky Engel Fund, in memory of Samuel Hershoff, " dated February 7, 1966 and a cut-out of the The Jerusalem Post of Thursday, May 5 1994 when Rabin & Arafat signed the Gazo/Jericho pact; copies of a teacher's comments on an essay I wrote for religion in junior high school in 1972; a collection of signatures in a small photo album my father must have gathered in Poland; and an
article by Walther Nystrom on "Lithium Carbonate, a deadly drug." My father had also kept a newsletter of the Beth-Am 35+ Singles of April 1989; an ad for white loafer dress shoes, 2 pairs for $24.50 from the Haband Co.;a pamphlet entitled "Arizona Highways 1953"; a file folder on CAREERS, labeled in my mother's handwriting, filled with the following pamphlets:

Should Your child be a Nurse?
Should Your child be a Newspaperman?
Should Your child be a Farmer?
Should Your child be a Teacher?
Can I be an Office Worker? Let's find out ....
KEY TO CAREERS in the Retail Automotive Business
Career for the experienced engineer and scientist: leading national employers highlight their job opportunities for experienced men.

College Expenses and Ways to Meet Them: The University of the State of New York, Albany, 1959; apamphlet entitled "Here are the FACTS about San Jose 1963; "pamphlets entitled " Why are We here? Why Are Our Lives Unequal?"You and the UNIVERSE";a mimeographed map, hand-drawn by my father, depicting the fastest route to the Bayshore Freeway; and the San Jose Rainfall Record 1874-1958.

I haven't finished yet.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Red Cross Bandages

I think part of the reason the concept of cleaning up our father's house is so overwhelming is that my brother and I are confronted with two mind-boggling concepts. One is grasping the truly monumental task ahead, and the other is the idea that we finally get to peek into those shelves and drawers, enter into those closets, and investigate under the beds and wardrobes of rooms or areas of the house that we had been forbidden to enter, touch, change, clean-up or move around in any way.

The bedroom is a case in point. As children we were allowed to enter my father's bedroom, after knocking and hearing the command "come-in," only on Sunday mornings when we were also allowed to get into his bed. We got to cuddle as he read the Wall Street Journal. I guess, in retrospect, it was this weekly ritual of affection that spawned my love of wordy print newspapers. But at all other times, we were not allowed to enter the bedroom. My father had been not only extremely possessive about his numerous private spaces, documents, photo albums, and personal belongings. He also had been extremely possessive about his untouched piles of 10 year-old junk mail, unread physics journals long obsolete, and his 37 pairs of old worn-out shoes. Sorting out the trivial from the treasures is something that neither my brother nor I want to delegate to a clean-up crew. Maybe this little story will explain why.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Animal Hospital

We hadn't been in San Jose more than a few weeks before Tiger, ecstatic to have a yard to play in again, comes inside with a tick. The bite got a bit infected and so I decided to take him for a check up to the nearest veterinarian I could find. The nearest place turned out to be a real "Animal Hospital." To those of us used to those little back office examining rooms behind pet stores, this was certainly a new experience for me.
Before one even entered the door, the signs in front of the building showed you this place meant business:

Once inside I was greeted by two very busy assistants who immediately had me fill in a "new patient " form. A few strokes into the computer, and Tiger's medical file soon joined the awe-inspiring collection in the file cabinet in the back.

Next came a short stay in the waiting room. I think Tiger appreciated the advertising as little as I did, but I did enjoy the free coffee and cookies.

When we were ushered into the examining room, a medical assistant first checked Tiger's temperature, weight, and overall fur quality. Then came Dr. H. wearing a white coat and stethoscopes. She examined the tick bite, listened to his heartbeat, felt his abdomen, and questioned me thoroughly on Tiger's health and vaccination history. She took Tiger away to clean the tick bite and to administer a blood test.

In the meantime, I got into a friendly conversation with Linda, one of the assistants in the reception area. When I told her I was back in the USA after 18 years abroad, she told me to read Bill Bryson's book, I'm a Stranger Here Myself. In fact, she just lent me her own book. Right there, in the office. "Here," she said after having met me only five minutes ago. "Just bring it back when you're done."

A few days later, while I'm in Los Angeles visiting cousins on a Saturday afternoon, my cell phone rings.

"Karen Engel?"


"This is Dr. H. I just wanted to let you know Tiger's blood tests have come in. His BUN levels are within normal but his creatinine levels are a little high."

"Ah, what does that mean?"

"Well, his kidneys are still functioning but they could be a little weak. That would account for his high water intake. You might want to put him on a senior diet."

"Oh, OK, thank you."

That extraordinary experience was soon topped by the enormous bill for this admittedly extraordinary care. ($334.29) I could also mention, just on the side, that I don't even pay this amount of cash for my kids' check-ups. Their kidneys have also never been checked. But then I am sure this blog would be swamped with comments from animal rights activists accusing me of heartlessness and cruelty for feeling guilty for spending so much money and resources on a cat, when I really truly believe that money (and resources) should be spent elsewhere, on human beings, for example.

But I'll save all that for another post.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Customs and the Cat

After none of my friends wanted to adopt a cat for half a year, and a cat "hotel" would have cost me more than 800 Euros, I decided that we had to take Tiger with us to the United States – especially after a quick look at US customs regulations confirmed that cats don't need to be quarantined (except in Hawaii and Guam) after arrival. They don't even need a health certificate.

Sounds easy. It wasn't.

First of all, while cats may not need visas to the US, they do need plane tickets, plane reservations, and if they are European cats, a passport. Even cats flying from one EU country to another need health certificates and rabies shots. And airlines and individual states can make their own rules. Although we were flying from Graz, Austria to San Francisco, we were changing planes in Frankfurt, Germany. The entire trip was booked through Lufthansa, but the flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco was on a plane run by United. Lufthansa said we didn't need the health certificates and rabies shots, because strictly speaking, we were not entering Germany, only the Frankfurt airport. But United said we did.

So off I went to the vet. By the end of the visit Tiger had received a set of vaccines against rabies, cat colds and other viruses, had been examined for all infectious or contagious diseases, had been microchipped and computer identified, and was issued a "Veterinary Health Certificate" in German and English, and a verifiable "Pet Passport" for the European Union. And I got a bill for 160€ (or $205).

We were ready to go. Or so I thought.

I wanted to take the cat with us into the cabin. Not so much because I was so worried about the cat having to stay in cargo as I was worried about my 12 year old daughter agonizing over Tiger's most certain and imminent death if he were not with us. Lufthansa said the cat carrier could be no larger than 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. United said the carrier could be no larger than 43cm x 30cm x 20cm. In any case, my carrier was a bit larger. I could not find a small enough carrier in the pet store. And the vet told me such a small carrier would certainly kill the cat.

In desperation I took my cat carrier with the cat inside it to the airport in Graz. It was in-between flights and the check-in attendants at Lufthansa were just sitting around chatting. I came up to the counter with the cat and they all immediately fell in love with Tiger. There is nothing like being the single male among a group of women. I told them I was flying out in three days and I wanted to know if I could take the cat just like this on the plane – with a ticket, of course. Of course! was the immediate answer.

And indeed, the flight from Graz to Frankfurt was a breeze. Tiger didn't even miaou. He was happy – but the flight was so late, that we had literally only 20 minutes to change planes in Frankfurt. We made the flight, miraculously and out of breath because Lufthansa personally escorted us through the back doors, and through security to United. While the German customs officer did check our passports, he didn't even glance at the cat.

United was so busy getting us on the plane that they didn't see the cat either. In fact, the woman sitting next to me on the flight didn't even realize we had a cat in a box by our feet until Tiger peed two hours before we landed in San Francisco.

US Immigration didn't give a hoot about Tiger. They didn't even ask for his fancy passport.

Tiger did get a bit of attention at the Baggage Claim area in the San Francisco airport. The dog working for the US Department of Agriculture couldn't keep his mind on sniffing out illegally imported German sausage or Dutch hashish and came around for several visits, much to the annoyance of his colleagues.

US customs didn't care about the cat either. The only thing they were worried about was the one small sealed free sample package of Royal Canine dry cat food that I had along for an emergency. It contained meat by-products and was banned from US entry.