Category Archives: new old age

A pandemic diary: Tell me something

May 20, 2020

It’s confounding how the most ordinary things have become complicated. A misplaced box of screws for a home improvement project means a trip to the store and that means masks, worries about surfaces, and general stress. On top of all that, the elastic on the mask tugs on my hearing aids and I have to rig them just right or they’ll fall out. Nothing that happens beyond the front door is casual.

But I’m not complaining, because just having a home to improve is a blessed condition right now. There’s food in the fridge and those pesky aids allow me to hear clearly, which was a struggle for several months. My wife and I can sit on our porch as the evenings grow longer, watching the moon come up behind the trees. We’re lucky and we know it. That’s more than I can say for plenty of people, and they’re going to hear about it (and RIP Jerry Stiller).

I’m not talking about anybody who’s been sick; who has lost or agonized over a partner, relative, or friend; or whose job, business, or way of life is gone. I mean the privileged cretins who think the Bill of Rights covers shopping at Crate & Barrel. In the midst of a worldwide catastrophe, they act like it’s all a personal affront to their entitled, curated lifestyle.

Bob Seger, who’s never gotten his due as a songwriter, skewered these types back in 1974 in “U.M.C. (Upper Middle Class).” I want a paid vacation / Don’t want to have to ration / A thing with anyone but me / And if there’s war or famine / Promise I’ll examine / The details if they’re on TV. Yes, eating out again is fantastic unless your best friend or your waitress catches the virus at your table. And I know the pandemic has upset your big plans. There’s another word for that problem: Life.

My mother had finished three years of college when the Great Depression brought hardship to the family. Instead of her senior year and a degree, she got a job in a laundry, working six days and 48 hours a week for $7.00 per week. That’s not a typo. “We had to have it,” was all she said.

I made it through the University of Michigan but a week before graduation, the class of ’76 was greeted by this. The gist of it was that we’d been wasting our time and tuition, preparing for careers that wouldn’t exist.

I majored in broadcast journalism, a fiercely competitive field, and I scuffled around for awhile. This wasn’t the world I’d expected but I kept pushing until I landed my first job, then another and then a few more, each better than the last. I didn’t waste anything. I sure didn’t expect the universe to grovel at my feet.

Living isn’t stasis. Even when this is over, you’ll still wake up some morning and find that everything you know is wrong. We adapt or we end up like the dodo. Don’t take it personally.

You say there’s some mistake
You didn’t get your break
You don’t see the magic in the moonglow
You’re on a one way street
Your life is incomplete
Well, tell me something that I don’t know

Mose Allison, “Tell Me Something.”

A pandemic diary: Our daily bread (but not hot sauce)

April 17, 2020

My wife and I are lucky because we can afford to keep ourselves fed and haven’t had too much trouble finding the essentials. Still, “going to the store” is nothing like it used to be.

First off, we never go inside. Too many people won’t keep their distance. Every week, we put together an online order and arrange a pickup time, which is getting tougher because the slots fill up fast. We park in a designated spot, pop the trunk, and a staffer loads the bags — no up-close contact required. If we’re buying beer, like we did today, we leave a driver’s license in the trunk to confirm we’re a few years past 21.

The weekly load

Sound easy? It’s just the start. A few weeks ago, we got home and found we didn’t get everything we’d paid for, so we had to go back to the store (twice). Now, we drive across the road to an empty parking lot and sort through all the bags to be sure the contents match our list. Except for toilet paper we haven’t run into many shortages, though we haven’t been buying large amounts of meat, and today for some reason we couldn’t get Tabasco sauce.

Finally, at home we wipe everything down with disinfectant before stowing it. Some of the experts say this isn’t necessary but as long as grocery workers are getting sick we’re not taking any chances, however small. The people at the local Kroger’s are always helpful, polite, and understanding. One of them told us he’s an actor who was thrown out of work when everything shut down. Now he has one of the most important jobs in the country, and one of the risky ones.

At least the delivery people had sun and mild temperatures to work in today. In the Chicago area, where my photographer cousin lives, schlepping beer and milk around the parking lot would be no fun at all. Take care and be safe.

Lessons from the last world war

I’ve hardly been out of the condo for three weeks. Except for my wife, my last offline human interaction was five days ago with a grocery clerk. Every time I wash my hands, which is often, I feel like Lady MacBeth: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” But I know I’m one of the lucky ones and hope everyone understands that yes, we are in this together.

The notion of a common enemy and shared sacrifice is simply foreign to most people in this country. Though the Cold War could have wiped out the world if it turned hot, and a few hard-core preppers even built their own fallout shelters, it generally didn’t affect daily life. Vietnam turned us against each other. Some compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, but except for the armed forces and their families, most people didn’t need to do much except take their shoes off at the airport. (Watching “Rescue Me” was optional.)

A collective effort of this magnitude hasn’t been asked of us since World War II. I know some of y’all are about to click away from yet another tribute to the Greatest Generation by one of its boomer children. History is made up of small stories, not big names. My dad’s story offers a few examples for today.

He joined the Army in the spring of 1942 and was assigned to the Air Corps, which was part of the Army then. At the age of twenty-nine he was considered too old to fly, so he was sent to clerical / administrative training in Colorado, then to an air base in Salt Lake City.

When he wrote to his family back in Elgin, Illinois, he always emphasized that he was fine and, “there are a lot of worse jobs in the Army.” He used his great sense of humor to ease the strain of separation, telling his sister how the Colorado post was built in 1888 and still had a regulation that said, “…it was positively against all rules and stuff to shoot buffalo from the barracks window.” He added, “Being in the Army isn’t as bad as a lot of people seem to think, though I wouldn’t be mad if I could get into my blue double-breasted pin stripe suit again.”

What he wanted most was for my mother to join him in Salt Lake City, even if it wasn’t like their old home. “It will be swell having her out here, or wherever I am, and although it won’t be like the place we had, anything will do until this thing is over. Practically everything we have is in cold storage, furniture, car, boat, everything except dreams…if we can keep those out we’ll be okay, and I don’t think we’ll have any trouble doing that.”

A couple of weeks later he wrote to his parents, “There is an awful big show going on, and I’m glad to be a very very small part of it…All of this, like everything else, will come to an end some day, and if sitting here in this office pounding a typewriter all day and part of the night will help to bring that end about, this is where I belong, and I wouldn’t get out for anything, even if they’d let me.”

There’s not much I can add to that. Be safe and look out for each other even if you can’t hug each other. Don’t forget to laugh. This will pass. Take care.

The kindness of non-strangers

So you made it through the holiday. Congrats, but don’t stay happy for long! Seeing as how you’re a Real American, it’s time to shed the mindset of celebration and take up the mantle of guilt and self-improvement. New Year’s resolutions? Dude, like soooo last millennium! According to the poohbahs of pop-psych, what you need to do in 2020 is be kinder to yourself.

I’ve always thought of myself as the kind kind (and modest about it), but this one has thrown a whole set of wrenches into my gearbox. Here’s how the ideas in the article shake out for me.

Take more time for yourself. I’m retired. I’ve taken a whole life for myself. Not that it’s all chocolates and violins, because reaching retirement age means the spirit often makes promises the body can’t keep. I’ve become very familiar with “Pill Hill,” the part of Atlanta overrun by medicos and hospitals. I’ll probably be dead to the world long before the ball drops in Times Square. But I can’t figure out how to retire from retirement.

Take time to do nothing at all. See above. Besides, what’s “nothing?” Does that mean sitting in my recliner reading the good books I got for Christmas? That’s “something.”

Cultivate more casual, low-stakes friendships. The article hints, “Think of the parents you see in the drop-off line at school. Your favorite bartender. The other dog owners at the park.” I’m way too old for kids, don’t have a dog, and haven’t had a favorite bar or tender in years. And “casual, low-stakes” sounds like “friends with benefits,” which is NOT on my horizon.

Learn to enjoy things when they’re good because, “Worrying about when ‘the other shoe will drop’ will only steal your current joy.” Well, maybe. But this runs up against the fundamental nature that’s gotten me this far in life, summed up by John Cale in “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend.” The other size nine is always out there, like an asteroid that could blast our world right into the cosmic corner pocket. I will remain my own toughest critic and like a boxer will protect myself at all times. So sue me.

Learn to accept a compliment—even if it’s from yourself. “Dave, if I say so yourself, this is truly one of your best posts. It’s witty, timely, and not too long. It should yield a bounty of likes, hits, and clicks to start the New Year.”

Yield a bounty? Who the hell taught you to write? Go back to the recliner and let me finish this before you kill what’s left of our reputation. My advice to me is to recall what James Thurber wrote in response to the self-improvement loonies of the 1930s: “Let Your Mind Alone!” Okay, we’re done. That’s still not too long, is it?”

Fords and Ferraris, forever

Dear Dad,

I hope you enjoyed the movie as much as I did. You weren’t sitting in the theater, but you were with me the way you’ve been for fifty-plus years now, and especially since I heard about the film “Ford v Ferrari” a few weeks ago.

That title could’ve been taken straight from our lives. After all, our Ford and Ferrari battled it out on the racetrack many times. We also had a Mustang, a Corvette, and a Jag, but the Cobra and the bright red Ferrari were our favorites. And racing was racing. It didn’t matter that the track was plastic, laid out on a table in the basement, and the electric “slot cars” were only a few inches long.

We sure had fun down there. I remember hitting full power at the starting line, fighting to get around the loop without spinning out, tearing down the back stretch, and blasting through the last turn to the finish. I also recall when we saw a real race at the state fair, sitting in bleachers with those monster Indy 500 cars of the ‘60s screaming past us on a dirt track, the noise deafening and the dirt flying.

I didn’t care who won. Just being there was enough. We never kept score in the basement either, because there was always time for one more heat. Until that day in February when I was fourteen and suddenly there was no more time for anything.

For a long time afterward, I felt like I was driving on an endless course at night, running blind in the darkness. But as you taught me, I kept going and came out intact in the demolition derby that was high school. My career as a journalist and wordsmith required me to race plenty of deadlines, and I’m proud to say they haven’t beaten me yet.

I hope you’d be proud too. I doubt that I could ever match your integrity, your big heart, and especially your gift for salesmanship, which I need now that I’m peddling a novel. But I can tell you that both of us married loving, intelligent, funny, wonderful women.

I’d give anything on earth if we could all be together in our old living room with you playing the piano and my wife singing something like “Moon River.” And if somehow we ever did see each other again, I’ll bet the track would be there waiting. Let’s go. You can have the Ferrari.

Scooting through life

My wife and I recently drove from Atlanta to Detroit, a two-day interstate slog that covers several hundred miles and gets even longer when you try to avoid the endless work zone known as Ohio. Despite all that time on the road, the most enlightening part of the trip for me was a ride on the mean sidewalks of the Motor City, aboard a mobility scooter.

You’ve probably seen these at the big-box or the grocery store. Most often used by victims of stroke, arthritis, lung disease, and heart trouble, scooters can transform the quality of life for those with severe disabilities. My wife’s arthritis isn’t that bad but it makes long walks difficult, so her scooter was ideal for a jazz festival in Detroit, with four stages spread over several blocks.

A scooter like the one I rode

A few snarky commentators, especially in England, think some scooter users are lazy sods who just don’t feel like walking. This, as they say in the UK, is bollocks. As I learned the day I retrieved the scooter from the hotel, no one would climb on these things if they had any choice.

First of all, scooters don’t have shocks. Every little crack and rough spot in the pavement goes straight to the seat, and big holes really rattle your teeth. I felt like I was bouncing all the way to the festival. Second, your carefree way of walking is over. You can’t just cross the street; you have to look for the cutout curb. And good luck getting through a non-automatic door.

Navigating a crowd is a struggle because of all the nubs* with their eyes glued to screens and their earbuds in so they won’t even hear your bell. You’re constantly slowing down, speeding up, and shifting left or right to keep from bumping somebody. On top of that, you have to watch for little kids running loose and big ones breezing past you on those dumb two-wheel scooters, which they later drop in the middle of the sidewalk and block your path. The speed control allows you to putter along at a good clip, but between crowds and bad concrete, I could’ve gone faster on foot.

All of this can be stressful, even if you’re not already coping with a serious disability. I’ll never take mobility for granted again.

The next time you see someone on a scooter, please understand that it’s a necessity, not an indulgence. Open the door for them. Ask if you can help with their bags. And all of us should insist that people with disabilities receive accommodations. We were told the jazz festival didn’t reserve space at concerts for fans who use wheelchairs or scooters. Think we’ll make that long drive to Detroit again?


*A dense, spectacularly clueless person. Derived from Navy jargon: “non-usable body.”

Geezerhood for dummies

Since today is National Senior Citizens Day, I thought we could all take a break from our busy schedule of lying about being at Woodstock, and using periods in texts just to aggravate the grandkids. Stay with me while I share some priceless* information from our good friends at the AARP on the subject of living in place. (You do plan on living for a while, right?)

This concept, also known as aging in place, means adapting your home to your age—perhaps by lopping off the second floor to get rid of those knee-killing stairs! Seriously, there are lots of practical, helpful ways to do this. Sadly, the AARP’s ideas are uncommonly bad.

Their first mistake was outsourcing the piece to those Property Brothers from HGTV (bless their hearts) and putting it in the form of a cartoon. This multi-page spread shows the bros leading their own parents through the house, while offering these king-size pearls of wisdom:

“Bedside units hold books, glasses, water, and medicine.”
“Low-flow toilets reduce water bills.”
“Non-slip floor surfaces reduce falls.”
“Elvis really is dead. He’s not hanging out at the Burger King in Kalamazoo.”

Okay, I made up the last one, but you get the idea. These yutzes** must think us elders have the brains of a kohlrabi. So what did you expect from the magazine that invited you to, “Meet Joe’s Prostate?”

The worst part is that many of their suggestions truly make no sense for seniors (or anyone else). The article notes, “A raised dishwasher eases the burden of bending and lifting.” Except that the cartoon shows, right next to said dishwasher, a fridge with the freezer at the bottom WHICH REQUIRES BENDING AND LIFTING EVERY TIME YOU TAKE SOMETHING OUT.

Still in the kitchen: “Under-counter lighting makes midnight snacking easier.” Right, and while we’re at it, let’s facilitate weight gain and heartburn. And get this: for the bathroom, they propose robo-toilets with “voice-activated flushing and lids that raise automatically.” So when Joe’s prostate gets him up at 3:00 a.m. and the privy suddenly gets balky, he’ll be yelling, “FLUSH! I SAID FLUSH!” and Jane, awakened out of a hot dream involving Harrison Ford, will be telling Alexa, ‘Look up divorce lawyer NOW!”

This panel sums up the witlessness of the story. Would any real husband be so dense as to blurt out, “She’s got a lot more to store!” emphasized by that thought-balloon next to his head? The wife would probably have her own balloon, with a big red X over his vintage Playboy collection.

Seriously?

*Since it doesn’t come with a price, it’s worth exactly what you paid for it. Get it?
**Similar to “putz:” dimwitted, but without the added meaning of being slang for “schlong.”