The Fun Part 1

The Fun Part 1

We’re at the airport. Nearly midnight on August 14, about to become August 15. It’s already August 15 in Vietnam, probably about lunchtime. Maybe we should go upstairs to the restaurant up there and have lunch. Just kidding.

This afternoon Rev Haynes from Chicago called me, while I was at Flowerland with Gabi. He was calling to say goodbye and to wish us a good trip, and he said a prayer for me. It was a really good prayer that covered just about everything – health, mental well-being, work, travel, safety, etc. Having someone actually say a prayer specifically for you, about you, about what they want to see happen to you, is a wonderful thing. Hours later, I’m carrying his prayer with me.

Dinner with Gabi, Dave and Theo at the Kensington Pub. Isabelle came over yesterday evening (Thursday) to hang out, but we were all so tired that we could hardly talk. She’s working as a camp counselor all week, and then at Urbanity, a vintage shop, on Sundays, and then school will start 6 days after the end of camp. There are also parties, apparently, to which all the camp counselors, even the 15-year olds like her, are invited. She told us that she’s getting a car, Liisa’s car when Liisa gets a new one. Isabelle has summer homework in math that she hasn’t started yet.

My brother and Kaethe called from Maine. Lots of talk about medical care, prescriptions, etc. We also compared thoughts about blogs.

It’s been along day with so many parts to it that it seems more like a week or a month. I borrowed James and Katie’s car and went to Kaiser to pick up some more medications, the result of seeing an opthamologist yesterday. I also picked up a new computer, a little Macbook, from the MAC store on Shattuck. Very beautiful little object; basically an Iphone with no phone, however. Must learn how to use it, ha!

When I got home Joe told me that John Hess had died. Today. Joe saw him day before yesterday. He’s been going down with Parkinson’s now quite quickly for the last year. Only a year ago Joe was still trying to interview him for our book about bargaining in the CSU system, where John was a key organizer during a period when casualization was just heating up and the union had to figure out who it was going to represent – tenured full-timers or everyone? There were great fights that ultimately led to a really good contract. There came a point last year when Joe would come home from John’s and say that John was losing his ability to tie ideas together, losing his “executive function.” He would lose an idea in the middle of a sentence. For a long time, Joe could prompt him to tell stories by providing the executive function for him. Then that also began to fail. Joe stopped actually taping the conversations but continued to visit regularly. When we left for Vermont in early July it wasn’t clear that we’d see John alive again. But we came back last week and Joe saw him a couple of times. The last time was yesterday. Joe says that he could tell that John heard him talking to him and was happy to see him. Joe says that John has explained his equanimity and sense of peace about dying by relating it to his Buddhist practice.

Then today Joe got a phone call from John’s stepson, Shawn, saying that he had died.

I have only typed up about a third of the interviews with John. Already they make a fat binder. A lot of it repeats. We probably have enough to do a book right now, but of course it will have to wait until we get home next year.

So we have tapes of a set of interviews, done over about two years, with someone who at the beginning had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s but wasn’t showing significant loss, and who at the end has lost so much coherence that the interviews were discontinued. That’s not the story we’re trying to tell, but it’s interesting to know that it’s there. Some people do a series of photographs of their dying friends or relatives. This is a record of someone’s thinking, not their appearance.

This morning, packing. We’re bringing so many books! We could each probably go with one suitcase, even a small one, if we weren’t bringing books. But we’re allowed two each, so we’re filling them up, weighing them on the bathroom scale to try to keep them under 50 pounds. Then there are the various “gifts”, things Joe gathered from various unions around the Bay Area – hats, pins, pens, labor movement tchotzkas.

James drove us to the airport. Approaching the Bay Bridge we saw high, red flames near the toll booths. As we got closer we could see that there were at least two cars on fire. One was still in a lane, the other had careened entirely off the ramp and into the grass where it had started a wildfire. Fire engines, police. A cluster of people over at the edge of the ramp, someone lying down. The flames burned from every part of the car, which might have been some kind of jeep or Humvee – a big square thing, or maybe just an SUV. It was nothing but a skeleton but it was still burning wildly. In photos of marketplace bombings there is always a car – often the one the bomb came in – and the car is a skeleton like this. I always wondered what burns, in a car – the seats? Apparently it’s everything, even the paint.

I’ve brought Catch-22 to read on the plane. I went down to my garage office to return my backup disc to the electronics bin, and looked around at the bookshelves and asked myself, “What’s the best book I’ve read recently?” Remember that we went on an Ursula LeGuin binge in Vermont. So I chose Catch-22. I remember being bowled over by the tangles of irony in it.


So we got on the plane, had exit seats with plenty of leg room. I even had a window, but it was night the whole way until about an hour before we landed. Blankets, pillows, two meals of Chinese food (pork and rice, chicken and rice). I probably slept 3 or 4 hours total. It was a Boeing 777 that seated 370 people. I can’t imagine where they stored the food. The flight attendants did not have the tight teamwork choreography of Southwest attendants. They seemed to float around ornamentally. But they got the food out and cleaned it up. The east began to get pink behind us as we approached Taipei, early Sunday morning. What happened to Saturday?

Which is were we are now, in a large white waiting room with one line of people going to Hanoi, another line going to Ho Chi Minh City.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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