Rambling

My Dad's Story by Brandon

Roger Charles Keim passed away Saturday night, December 26, at the Eastern Maine Medical Center. He was 67 years old.

Roger was born October 9, 1942 in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania to Charles  and Ruth Keim. Though the region's character and ecology have been largely lost to sprawl, Roger's childhood setting was pastoral, and farm country and culture molded his character.

Happy as a boy to find an orange in his Christmas stocking or play baseball with cow patties for bases, Roger never took small comforts for granted, or failed to appreciate a kindness. Work on his uncle's farm and summer trips to Lake Ontario seeded a love of nature and its rhythms, and of fishing. Trains captured his imagination — the craftsmanship of engines, whistles that hinted of a world beyond his own. So did the Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts he found at night on a crystal radio set. That the broadcasts were in French only made them more romantic; Roger became a lifelong Montreal Canadiens fan, later giving the surname of star player Maurice Richard as a middle name to Brandon, his second son.

A linebacker and kicker in high school, Roger attended Temple University on a football scholarship. He majored in communications, graduated in 1964 and took a job as a general assignment reporter at the Coatesville Record. Shortly after graduating, he married Nancy Hie, with whom he had a son, Roger Alan Keim, born in 1967. The couple divorced a few years later.

After a year at the Record, Roger was hired by the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he became the youngest sportswriter at a major daily newspaper in the nation. He covered the Philadelphia Flyers, Eagles and 76ers, as well as other sports; he relished memories of going to the laundromat with Wilt Chamberlain, taking serves from Arthur Ashe, being saved by Stan Mikita from beer bottles hurled by an angry fan.

In 1973, Roger married Angela Gilladoga, a physician from the Philippines, and moved to New York City. Their courtship included a trip to the Montreal Forum and watching the New York Mets win the 1969 World Series. Roger first traveled to Maine to write about the blueback trout, a rare fish considered by some to be extinct; he caught one, and — as he loved to recall — it was accidentally cooked for breakfast by Angela. They honeymooned in northern Maine at the Red River Camps, to which they returned almost every year for the rest of Roger's life. Enamored by the Maine's rural ruggedness and cheer, they moved to Bangor in 1976 in expectation of the birth of their son, Brandon.

Though new to the state, Roger was soon rooted in it. He enjoyed fly fishing for Atlantic salmon — and, more than fishing itself, telling stories — at the Penobscot Salmon Club. He became active in the local model railroading community, and campaigned to keep passenger rail service in the state. He explored Maine's back roads and forgotten corners, often with Brandon and always with a camera, photographing trains and wildlife and weathered farm buildings.

As Brandon grew older, Roger retired from journalism in order to be a full-time father. He coached hockey, first for local youth teams for which Brandon played, then at Bangor High School and with the River City Raiders, a team founded by Roger and Angela. As a coach, Roger was inspired by the example of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, known as much for caring personally about his players as for success on the field. Two players in particular — Natan Obed, now working on social policy in Iqaluit, Nunavut, and Brock Soucie, an electrician in Flemington, New Jersey — were like sons to him, and remained close to Roger until his death.

In 1992, Roger and his family moved to their current home on Ohio Street. There he began work on a model railroad layout that, had it been completed, would have been among the largest in the country; covering 2300 square feet, each part corresponded to a place his family had visited during their many trips across the United States and Canada. Much of it was devoted to British Columbia's Rocky Mountains, a region that, like Maine, he treasured for its natural beauty and small-town warmth.

The home on Ohio Street and its environs became Roger's world. He read extensively and loved watching animals in the fields and fishing in the nearby pond with Comet, the family's beloved Labrador Retriever, at his side. In 2005, shortly after finishing his final article — a feature, co-written with Brandon, on the invasion of muskellunge into northern Maine's waterways — Roger was hospitalized with severe heart disease. His heart recovered, but diabetic neuropathy restricted his movements to home. Nevertheless, Roger remained active in the lives of Brock and Natan, welcoming their children as grandchildren. He took great pride in, and gave unflagging support to, the burgeoning journalism career of Brandon, now a science writer for Wired and other national publications. Articles they discussed and researched during Roger's final years, on the restoration of Atlantic salmon to Maine and the anticipated disfiguration of the Moosehead Lake region by corporate real estate developers, will be written. Roger often worried that Angela worked too hard, and encouraged her to relax.

Roger is survived by his wife, Angela; his sons, Brandon and Roger; his sons in spirit if not blood, Natan and Brock; his mother, Ruth; his sister, Molly; and many friends and relatives.

He will be remembered with love.

Notable Mice In My Life by Brandon

The first was a gerbil named Herbie. I was about ten years old. He came with another male gerbil, who turned out not to be male; many more gerbils followed. They had names, too, but Herbie is the only one that survives in memory. Some of their great-grandchildren escaped into a hospital office building; I like to think they established a permanent colony. Mice aren’t gerbils, I know, but really. Close enough. Herbie I considered a friend. I cried when he died, and dug him a grave with a headstone.

Ralph S. Mouse, Stuart Little, Algernon and Reepicheep.

When I was a teenager my family moved to a house in a field. It didn’t take long for the field mice to move in. At first my mother considered exterminating them; I don’t think she considered it very seriously, and it didn’t help that I pressed their case as being God’s creatures, as much as any other she loved. On the whole they were good neighbors, making little mess or fuss, and ate food left over by our dog Comet. I suspect mom put a little food out for them, too.

My dad found a mouse in the cellar that seemed sick and weak, and didn’t run away from him. I put the mouse in a box with a towel and some water, and put the box on the heater. He recovered. Later my dad said a mouse would sometimes sit on his bookshelf, watching him.

In graduate school my roommate thought he saw a rat run under the stove. We sat by the stove for half an hour, drinking whiskey and listening to country music and waiting with a hockey stick and a blowtorch at hand, less out of genuine rat-killing sentiment than the spirit of the moment. Then we went to sleep. The rat turned out to be a mouse; I named him Ralph, and said we should leave him alone. One night I had nightmares about being in an old house with vermin teeming under the floorboards. The next night, as I turned my sheets to make the bed, there was Ralph, crushed flat underneath. That was disturbing.

Natalie Jeremijenko has written about the simple (and non-harmful) behavioral experiments one may conduct on mice living in our homes. Implicit in her propositions is a sensibility of the mice as being both real and independent. In an urban environment in which nature is almost entirely controlled or eliminated, mice are still living in the wild. There is something wonderful about this. I love watching them on the subway tracks.

I often write about biomedical research involving mice, or even the refinement of the mice themselves into genetically diverse models of disease and drug response. I’ve never felt comfortable with this, though I understand the necessity of such research. Recently I visited a prominent breeding center. Hundreds of strains were on display in a tent, developers describing their traits, holding conversations while holding mice in the air, by their tails. I couldn’t handle it and soon went outside. I still support the research, and am fully aware of my inconsistencies.

Over the last several years I’ve seen several mice in my apartment. I assume they entered through a heating duct, and departed the same way. They’re welcome to any crumbs that find their way into the floorboards.

One night last week I was sitting on the couch when Orwell, my cat, pounced near the bed. It didn’t register until he was trotting towards me with something in his mouth; I thought it was a toy, then noticed how long the tail was. Worried that the mouse might have a disease, I took it from him. The mouse was badly wounded but still alive.

I put the mouse in a box on the balcony with some water and a stale Jewish pastry, named him Ralph Jr., and took his photograph. I envisioned nursing him back to health, and writing about him for work, and how if he recovered I might see it as a metaphor of some sort, a sign of good fortune. It would make a good series. As Ralph Jr. huddled in the box, torn and battered, I thought of what he could do for me. The next morning he was gone.

Image: Kevin Czarzasty

Wrong Numbers by Brandon

The phone rang yesterday afternoon. I picked it up.

"Hi, is this Chicky's Run?" asked the caller. She had a jaunty voice with a hint of country drawl.

"I'm sorry, you've got the wrong number," I said.

"Oh. Sorry about that!" she said brightly.

"No problem," I said. "Have a good one."

"You too!"

Afterwards, I found myself thinking that the call had been, in some odd way  I couldn't really articulate to myself, rather pleasant. It had something to do with its unexpectedness, with the sense of flower-potted window opening for a moment into another person's world, and being closed with a polite wave; a small, self-contained and very human moment.

Each day I'm involved in about a dozen business-related calls. In every one, I'm asking someone for something, or being asked. The conversations might be enjoyable, they might even be a talk between friends, but there's a pretext. The Chicky's Run mixup was refreshingly free.

And as I thought about it, I realized that I couldn't remember my last wrong number conversation. When I misdial, I end up in someone's voicemail, and hang up quickly. I assume the reverse is true.  No doubt people make more calls than ever; but in an age of cell phones, Skype and incoming caller ID, this particular interaction seems to have vanished.

Whether it says anything about our historical moment that a wrong number now seems a comparatively meaningful interaction, I don't know. But I kind of miss them.

Image: Dennis Markham

Taxis in Iqaluit by Brandon

Iqaluit is a place where people seem to wash ashore, like Indian wedding decorations or terra cotta pot shards in Jamaica Bay. How did they get there? Where are they going? Who knows? Apart from Inuit and government administrators, it's a rare person who can explain just how he came, by long-thought plan, to live in a city of 6,184 souls, some 1,200 icy uninhabited miles north of Ottawa, a day's snowmobile ride from the Arctic Circle.

"It's so good to see a friendly face," sighed my first taxi driver as I entered the car, an inch-long cut from a rifle sight still fresh between my eyes. "I just got robbed." He explained how his last fare held a knife to his chest and stole $150. His dispatcher had called the police, but it probably wouldn't help. "Does this happen often?" I asked. "Oh no," he replied. "It's the first time in three weeks."

Another taxi driver, the next day, was Lebanese and wore expensive Italian sunglasses. He rolled down his window to hail every cab and most of the cars we passed. Before Iqaluit he lived in Brooklyn, not far from me, working for his uncle in a downtown counterfeit goods shop. When the city cracked down, a relative said he could make good money here, and so he was; but after six months he was ready to leave. He recounted how a colleague's hair was set on fire by a passenger in the back seat.

My next cabbie was a large man who ignored several attempts at smalltalk before asking, in a good ol' boy southern accent, where I was from. "New York City," I said, to which he replied, "God-damn!" He'd gone there often, he said, while driving a truck in Rhode Island. "I worked for the Chinese," he said. "We were thieves." Exactly what he stole wasn't clear, as his details came in a jumble, but he managed to convey a distaste for rural Illinois.

The last cabbie was an old man with a French accent who waited outside NorthMart, a sprawling department store where arm-long arctic char rest beside fish sticks and fox skins hang above crochet materials. I shared the cab with an Inuit teenager and his younger brother. Cab sharing is common in Iqaluit. A flat six dollars takes you anywhere in town, with the proviso that cabs will pick up new passengers while already en route.

Destinations are designated by number — I stayed at house 2625, and had visited building 208 that day. Cabbies memorize the layout, which signifies the order of housing construction and is broken several times between adjacent but asynchronously erected neighborhoods. The teenager and his brother lived at house 2465. Beside it was house 460. This particular juncture was the bane of new drivers, said the cabbie.

I asked how long drivers tended to stay, mentioning the robbery and the hair-torching. He laughed. "I came here 23 years ago," he said. "I was just going to stay for a few weeks."

Image: From the Iqaluit set.

Ozymandias, King of Penguins by Brandon

I stumbled across this photograph several days ago, and am endlessly cheered by it: the shipwreck's skeleton a classic symbol of human aspirations broken and forgotten and on the shoals of fate, as embodied by nature; but the penguins give fate's indifference a comic, even absurd, aspect.

All dreams, in the end, come to nothing; whatever.

Image: "Wreck of the 'Gratitude', Macquarie Island, 1911," from the collection of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales . Desktop backgrounds here .

See You Space Cowboy by Brandon

Something I've been wondering: Why does style matter? One possibility: because the context in which style is expressed — a task, an ordeal — is often unavoidable, or unimportant, or impossible, and requires nothing more than utilitarian resignation; style is personal triumph against the impersonality of fate, a joy in process rather than product, a form of control over destiny, like a leaf charting its own course in the wind.

Thoughtlessness by Brandon

On Saturday, as I descended the stairwell leading from the locker rooms to the pool at my YMCA, I was brought up short by a child who made a tent with his fingers and stopped to waggle them, oblivious to the person walking just behind him.

His mother shouted at him and apologized, but the incident touched a nerve rubbed raw by life in the city. In a place where the slightest task can hardly be accomplished without entering a press of people, where you mingle with thousands of strangers every day and the only solitude comes in your own apartment -- though, unless you are single and rich, you likely share that with a stranger, too -- consideration is vital.

Not engagement, necessarily, but an awareness of self and other. Small, common-sense acts -- a held door, a hand with a cart -- are what keep everyday routines from becoming a trial, if not from breaking down altogether. Yet I seem to notice, now more than when I arrived four years ago, acts of thoughtlessness.

Standing in front of subway doors without letting passengers off, pushing in as they exit, not giving seats to the elderly; refusing to move to the back of the bus, though the front is crowded; leaving carts in the center of narrow grocery store aisles; loud cell phone conversations in quiet places; and so on. Such trivial things, they require no special effort, no break from routine, only the most rudimentary level of empathy. In some ways their omission bothers me far more than other mistakes and cruelties which can at least be considered personal.

Nevertheless, as the  boy descended  I wondered if there might not be something unhealthy in my sentiments. What does it say that I become so annoyed? Might I not be taking it personally, seeing myself as the target of these small unkindnesses -- my dismay a reflection of supreme self-centeredness masquerading as public concern?

I entered the pool and did my laps. In my lane was an old woman who swam slower than everyone else, but instead of letting us pass on the turns she’d push off again, causing delays behind her. No, I thought, it’s not about me. It’s about the society we live in: one marked by a radically unfair division of wealth and dwindling social services, by short attention spans and rats-on-a-ship reality television, by unbridled consumerism, reflexive power worship, home theater systems, friends walking side-by-side with headphones in their ears. No, I thought, it’s not about me. It’s about our culture. No wonder people are such assholes.

Back and forth I went in the pool. After a while I rested and realized that a loud, repetitive shout I’d unconsciously ignored was coming from one of a group of children playing in the lanes next to mine. Looking closer, I realized they were mentally disabled. Among them was the boy from the landing, a stack of multicolored floats strapped to his back like so many candy wafers. He paddled tentatively as his mother held him, her face gentle and radiant with love and pride.

Image: David Sim