The Dreams of Old Men

Bay Bridge

The elegant lines of the Bay Bridge, crossing from San Francisco to Oakland.

SAN FRANCISCO

As I have visited the famed City by the Bay only a handful of times over the years, it always seems new to me.  It’s a case of what Joseph Heller referred to as jamais vu — it’s as if I’ve never seen the place before.

I first encountered San Francisco in the 1980s, during a visit with my sister, who had recently married and moved across the country to Silicon Valley.  Guidebook in hand, I boarded a northbound Caltrain in San José, determined to hoof it around the city to all the famed tourist spots.  I visited Golden Gate Park and the Exploratorium, took a cab ride down twisting Lombard Street, communed with the ghosts of poets at City Lights Bookstore and tasted the culinary delights of Chinatown.  I got on the plane back to New York with an avocado sandwich in my carry-on, singing “California Dreamin'” and vowing to return.

Two months later, I flew west again, this time with my parents.  I rode the cable cars (standing up and hanging on for dear life, trying my hardest not to lose my Fisherman’s Wharf lunch), stuffed myself into a chocolate coma at Ghirardelli’s and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito with my father.  Dad, a lifelong student of infamous American mobsters, could not pass up the excursion to Alcatraz.  I stayed behind, as I don’t much care for the turbulence of boat rides.

Ten years later, I moved to California.  And yet, I hadn’t been back to San Francisco since, unless you count passing through on the freeway or flying into SFO airport.  But this week, I found myself back in downtown SF, conducting two days of training classes.  To have seen me gawk, you’d think I’d never been there before.  Sunrise over the bay, the incredible geometry of the Bay Bridge, the late afternoon fog slowly rolling in from the ocean to slide a shroud over the high-rise buildings in the business district.

But before we headed up the peninsula to the Golden Gate, we spent the weekend with my parents down in California’s Central Valley.  We went out to dinner with my Mom and Dad twice, drove them down to our niece’s birthday party in the South Valley, and had some interesting (and mildly uncomfortable) conversations about the fact that they’re getting older and how they’ll handle their house and property.

The one conversation that moved me the most, however, occurred at sunset on Saturday night, while we were sitting on folding chairs, just the two of us, out in the driveway catching the evening breeze.  The sun slowly sunk behind the house across the street, but Dad, in his poetic way, informed me that the sun was setting over the ocean.  We watched the stars come out, and he pointed out the planet Venus, then the Big Dipper, Orion the hunter, and the W of Cassiopeia.  We were wowed by a shooting star that screamed across the sky.  I noted several light planes crawl across the heavens, red lights blinking.  “They’re very far away,” Dad told me, “at least five miles.”

And then he reminded me that he, too, once flew such planes.  He told me it’s been 40 years since he’s taken the pilot’s seat.  Flashback:  I am about 14 or 15 years old, summertime, out for a day with Dad.  We played handball on the courts at the school where he was a driver education teacher, got haircuts, and had lunch before he took me out to the airport and showed me a Cessna up close.  He wanted me to get in and go for a spin, but I was petrified and refused.  He was disgusted.  My mother had forbidden me to ever go up with my father, for fear we’d both be killed.  She was unhappy with his hobby and, eventually, forbid him from going up either.  I still remember how upset he was.  Unfortunately, it was not the only time that he agreed to give up dreams to satisfy her.

I thought this was all in the distant past.  Until Saturday night, when Dad confessed that he’d been surfing the web to look at planes for some time now, and that he’d like to purchase one.  He reminded me that pilot licenses never expire.  He might have to go up with an instructor once to show he still knows how to do it, he suggested.  And then he really got into it, explaining that planes, like cars, have fancy electronics now that didn’t exist back when he flew.  “GPS was science fiction,” he told me.  You had to plot out your route and map it out with a pencil on the chart.

My father is correct that many things have changed in 40 years, with technology not the least of it.  But one thing that undoubtedly has not changed is my mother’s attitude.  I was too cowardly to ask how he intends to get over that particular obstacle.  Could it be that he’s finally reached an age at which he’s daring enough to defy her fiery will?

“They say young men have dreams and old men have memories,” he said.  “I’ve got news for you.  Old men have dreams, too.”

Dip a wing when you fly over our house, Dad.  Just like you did when I was a kid.

I’ll be watching for you.

SF Bay Sunrise

Sunrise over San Francisco Bay

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Cilia Than You Can Imagine

BERKELEY

It’s amazing the things that stick with you from your schooldays.  I remember seventh grade science as a horror for many reasons.  Among them were the fact that my mother was teaching more or less the same curriculum in another school a few miles away, the fact that my mother had worked with my teacher and knew him quite well, the fact that my teacher was a mean old so-and-so, the fact that I came close to having a nervous breakdown that year, and the fact that I had no interest at all in the subject matter and never bothered studying for the class.  Science just wasn’t my thing.  In that regard, I favored my father, the English major, far more than my mother, the biologist.

Accordingly, I am shocked that I still remember the unicellular microorganisms that we learned about in that class, more than 45 years ago.  There was the amoeba, pretty much the basic model, just a blob with a nucleus.  Never mind that drinking the water in Mexico could introduce a few million of those critters into your system, resulting in the ghastliest case of Montezuma’s revenge imaginable.

Then there was the euglena, which has a whiplike tail called a flagellum that it uses for locomotion.  And finally, there was the paramecium that contained all kinds of anatomical structures that I never could remember.  The only ones that have stuck with me are the vacuole and the weird hairlike structures, the cilia, that surround the organism on all sides.

I found myself thinking back to seventh grade science class while attending a Scrabble tournament in the Bay Area this past weekend.  Allow me to start by saying that Leesa is truly the hostess with the mostess.  This was the fourth tournament that I have attended at her home in Berkeley in 2017.  Most of the tournaments that she hosts are one-day events on Sundays.  For the Memorial Day holiday, however, she held a two-day event followed by a “late bird” on Monday.  Although I did not attend the extra Monday session, I learned quite a bit over the weekend.

By the way, “vacuole” is a seven-letter word, a rack-clearing “bingo” that nets the player an additional 50 points.  But it was those paramecium hairs that have gotten me into some interesting spots during games lately.  Keep in mind that “cilia” is a valuable “vowel dump” in that it allows a player to clear two Is and an A off his or her rack.

So last weekend, I played in a one-day tournament in San José (a six-hour round-trip, thanks to traffic on Interstate 680), where I was paired with host John Karris for the final game.  The guy is good.  He grabbed a blank out of the bag late and bingoed out with “ciliates.”  I assume those are critters that, like our hairy friend the paramecium, are blessed with cilia.  Then, in Berkeley this past weekend, I had plunked down “cilia,” whereupon my esteemed opponent attempted to bingo by hooking an S to my play.  Challenge!  Off the board it went.

I guess it pays to know your Latin.  “Cilia” is already a plural and, hence, does not take an S.  The singular, in case you’re interested in such trivia, is “cilium.”  After I won that challenge, my opponent sheepishly admitted that she had erred, that “cilia” actually takes an E hook (“ciliae”).  No!  It doesn’t!  Granted, adding an E to the end of certain nouns is a way to make them plural in Latin.  And while “ciliae” has a certain ring to it, it comes back down to the concept that one cannot pluralize a word that is already a plural.

I was not so lucky when it came to other plays.  One of my opponents started our game right off with a bingo, “beetier.”  I thought it plausible, so accepted it and struggled to make headway against my opponent’s 72-point lead.  Just call me stupid right now, shall we?  Let’s just say that there are a lot of words with “-ier” suffixes that are permissible in Scrabble.  Among my favorites (although not a bingo) is “eelier,” which gets rid of three Es and and I.

If a particular comestible tasting of grapes can be “grapy,” “grapier” or “grapiest,” why can’t a food tasting of beets be “beety,” “beetier” or “beetiest?”  To make things worse, some veggies and fruits only take you half the way.  Does that taste like onions to you?  The Scrabble dictionary says it’s definitely “oniony,” but cannot be “onionier” or “onioniest.”  Oh, you think that’s bad?  Well, what’s good for the goose apparently is not good for the gander, at least when it comes to garlic.  Forget the onions and grab yourself a K, as the Scrabble dictionary allows “garlicky,” “garlickier” and “garlickiest.”

These things seem more than a little arbitrary, don’t you think?  When it comes to citrus fruits, for example, you’re in the clear when it comes to the superlatives of “orange,” “lemon” or “lime.”  My favorite grapefruit is feeling left out of the citrus pantheon.

But that’s quite okay.  I’d probably have to tear my hair out if one of my opponents were to try to extend the word “grapefruit” into the 14-letter phony “grapefruitiest.”

 

Is There a Maximum Driving Age?

My wife and I visited Florida in May and, as I recall from my experiences traveling there to visit my grandparents in the days of my youth, we noticed many senior citizens driving the highways and byways of Fort Lauderdale in their big boat cars.

The idea of the little old lady in the Crown Vic has become something of a joke, a stereotype that has a basis in fact.  Legend has it that driverless cars have been reported (in the days before Google) that turned out to have Grandma at the helm, now so shrunken that she could not be seen over the steering wheel.

At the time of her death, my grandmother, who lived to the age of 97, had not driven in well over twenty years, probably closer to thirty.  (Unless, that is, you count her oversized adult tricycle with ANN on the license plate.)  She didn’t really need to drive, as my grandfather took care of that all the way up to his death at the age of 82.  After that, Grandma pitched in a bunch of money so that she and her daughter could purchase a house.  Grandma had her own little wing with private bath and my aunt and her husband took up the driving duties.

My mother stopped driving about the time my parents retired and moved from New York to California, more than twenty years ago.  My father, who will turn 83 this fall, does all the driving.  He was a driver education teacher for 30 years and wouldn’t have it any other way.  He claims that spending his life driving was a curse wished upon him by his own father when, as a teenager, Dad was always taking his car.

Thankfully, my parents no longer make cross-country road trips as they did for years, particularly when my sister still lived in Boston.  Sis resides in Dallas these days.  After a few annual road trips to the Lone Star State, my parents gave it up in favor of flying.  It’s a real pain.  They drive three hours to San José, stay over in a hotel, pay to park their car, take the shuttle to the airport, wait forever at the TSA checkpoint, then hop the first leg of a flight that usually involves at least one change.  When they arrive at DFW, they have to rent a car so that they’re not stuck at my sister’s house with no escape for a week.  Still, it’s better than 23 hours of driving to Texas and then the same back to California.

My other sister lives in the Bay Area (except when she’s working out of state), and my parents usually make the six-hour round trip to visit her once or twice per month.  Three or four times each year, they drive up here to the Sacramento area to visit us, a nearly nine-hour round trip.  We live in two rooms and there is no place for anyone to stay over.  Rather than expending the money and effort of packing clothes and paying for a hotel, my parents treat it as a day trip.  More than once, my parents have mentioned that it’s more driving than they can safely do in a day.  Most of the time, we go there.  To be honest, however, we don’t go all that often.  We both work hard during the week and we prize our time off on the weekends.  Still, we made the drive to the Central Valley for Father’s Day in June and met my parents at my sister’s home in the Bay Area for my nephew’s birthday last weekend.  My parents will likely drive up for my wife’s birthday next month and we will spend several days there for the High Holy Days in October.

Needless to say, something has got to give.  My parents aren’t getting any younger.  I’ve expressed my concerns in this space on many occasions.  The fact that they live out in the boonies doesn’t help the situation.  When I ask my mother how they’ll take care of that big place when they’re 90, she admits that they won’t be able to do so.  Well, that’s seven years away.  For now, my parents are doing fairly well for their age.  However, I cannot escape the feeling that the future is now, just one phone call in the middle of the night away.  Along with a million other things, what will my mother do about driving when Dad is no longer around?  Will she suddenly begin driving again at the age of 90?  I mean, the minimum driving age in California is 16, but what is the maximum driving age?

Meanwhile, can I count on my father to stop driving when it’s no longer safe for him to do so?  I seriously doubt it.  His hearing is now considerably diminished and I can only hope that the manifestation of his road rage is limited to the stream of unprintable invective that streams from his mouth any time he objects to the actions of another driver.  My mother assures me that’s not the half of it.

How do you tell a parent that he or she shouldn’t drive anymore?  And what are the children supposed to do when driving is the only way the parents can get to the grocery store, to the doctor, to worship services or anywhere?  My father says that getting old is not for sissies.  But to leave elders as prisoners in their own homes seems like adding insult to injury.

My grandmother used to tell me that, in Broward County, Florida, anyone over the age of 70 who surrendered his or her driver’s license would be given a free bus pass.  But when you live out in the country, it’s not like you can just walk to the corner and wait for the bus.  If we’re lucky, perhaps my mother will go live with my sister when the time comes.  But what about in the meantime?  Will my father continue to drive until he has a serious accident?  Remember, no driving means no independence (at least in rural California it does).

I read an article today about how to get your elderly parents to stop driving.  To me, the suggestions are nothing short of despicable.  To wit:

  • Contact your parents’ auto insurance agency and get them to cancel their policy. (So now I’m supposed to turn informant on my folks?  Wait, wasn’t that what the Nazis encouraged kids to do?)
  • Place an anti-theft club on the steering wheel of your parents’ car. (They already use one.)
  • Move the seat all the way forward so your elderly parent can’t get into the car and sit down. (Fortunately, my parents still have all their marbles and know quite well how to adjust the seat.  Umm, I think.)
  • Remove the distributor cap and tell your parents that their car can’t be driven because it won’t pass smog. (If you don’t live in California, you can’t appreciate the headache of the infamous smog test.)  (My father can take a car apart and put it together again.  I know because he’s done it.  Exhibit A is the perfectly running Model T Ford sitting in his garage.  He takes it out for rides periodically.)
  • Simply sell their car! (Someone explain this one to me, please.  How exactly does one sell something that belongs to someone else?  Wait, isn’t there something in the California Criminal Code about that?)

Tell me that people haven’t lost their minds.  Please.

 

My Sister and I Hail From Different Planets

About a week ago, my wife and I had dinner with my sister.  It was the first time I’d seen Sis since my father’s 82nd birthday three months ago.  She has had no luck securing a hospital job in the Bay Area where she resides, so she’s settled, at least temporarily, for the life of a traveling sonographer.  After having served in states from Ohio to New Mexico, she now finds herself in the Stockton area for a few months.  She heads home to San José every other Friday, staying in town on the alternate weekends when she has just one day off (Sunday).  Accordingly, I may be seeing her quite a few times before she moves on to her next assignment.

I only hope I survive the experience.

This is rather difficult to explain, so I’ll just say that my sister and I have little to nothing in common.  For example:

Sis:  Divorced
Me:  Married

Sis:  Two children
Me:  Childless

Sis:  Moves from job to job
Me:  Steady job

Sis:  Had bariatric surgery
Me:  Would rather be fat

Sis:  Has money.  Owns two homes.  Complains that she’s broke.
Me:  Has student loans.  Can barely afford rent.  Poor and happy.

Sis:  Loves skiing in Colorado.
Me:  Loves sitting on the couch watching skiing on TV.

Sis:  Thinks California is “paradise.”
Me:  Wishes he were back in New York.

Sis:  Classic rock
Me:  Country music

Sis:  Science geek
Me:  Literature freak

Sis:  Loves Facebook.
Me:  Hates Facebook and won’t have anything to do with it.

I suppose what we do have in common (from the past) is having shared a warped childhood and (from the present) is managing to upset each other every time we meet.

On this particular occasion, my wife and I were aghast when Sis showed us photos of the woman her boyfriend recently left her for and proceeded to describe what he used to moan while they were having sex.  Later, my mother let me know that Sis complained that the pasta joint we took her to had no protein other than pork, so she had to eat two hard-boiled eggs before meeting us.  I may have to remind Sis that chicken is protein.  But, hey, I’m just a vegan, so what do I know.

I don’t drink, but I’m starting to feel like the guy in that Craig Morgan song.  Any recommendations, bartender?

 

 

Deal of the Century

SAN JOSÉ

My sister has owned her home for several years (well, the bank owns it, but she thinks she owns it because she pays a mortgage), but this was my first visit.  She moves around so much that I have been to a number of her residences, and even lived in one for a while.

Considering the heavenly amount that my sister pays for her house each month, more’s the pity that she can scarce enjoy it.  She is only there on the weekends, as her current job is located about four hours’ drive away on California’s north coast.  During her stints working at hospitals in places like Texas, Idaho, New Mexico and Ohio, my sister rented out her house through an agent.  If she couldn’t live in it, at least let someone else pay the mortgage.

Now, however, my niece and her boyfriend live in my sister’s house — rent-free, I might add.  They are both college students and have been for years.  They are among those for whom college is not preparation for a career — it is a career.  My sister is just happy that she doesn’t have to leave the house empty all week while she is away.  The real reason that she allows those two to live there on the mooch is that my niece would otherwise still be living with her father.  My sister will have none of that.  My niece lived with her ex for quite long enough for her tastes.

Accordingly, my niece had the upper hand and was able to dictate the terms under which she would move in and perform housesitting duties:

  • The boyfriend had to live there for free, too — package deal.
  • They had to be assigned the large master bedroom. Otherwise, the boyfriend wouldn’t come and then neither would she.
  • They had to have run of the house and not be expected to so much as pick up after themselves.

They got everything they wanted and then some.  My sister rents out one of the small bedrooms to travelers through Airbnb; she’d get a lot more income if she rented out the master, but she was blackmailed out of that one.  My niece was expected to at least clean the guest’s bathroom, but she refused to do even that.  So my sister gets the pleasure of taking care of that task when she’s home briefly on the weekends.

Having run of the house, my niece and her boyfriend, who both enjoy cooking, use the kitchen liberally.  They spatter grease on the walls, leave filthy dishes containing moldy food in the sink and don’t bother to touch a sponge.  My sister can’t say anything about it, as they have her over a barrel.

We must be suckers to pay rent, clean up after ourselves and be unfailingly polite to our landlord.

Oh, did I mention that my niece and her beloved are rude, too?  On a recent weekend, my sister came home to the smell of something delicious cooking in the kitchen.  She asked her daughter if she could dish some out for herself.

“No!” came the response.  “We’re bringing it over to Dad’s and we’ll eat the leftovers tomorrow!”

I’m telling you, these two have the deal of the century.

 

Casa de Tourist Trap

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ON THE PACHECO PASS, CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

The Pacheco Pass, also known as Highway 152, connects the Central Valley with Silicon Valley and the Pacific coast.  It winds its way from Los Baños, in Merced County, to Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world.  Home of the annual garlic festival, Gilroy features shops and roadside stands hawking diverse types of garlic memorabilia along with fresh produce.

Just west of Los Baños, the Pacheco Pass affords views of the huge San Luis Reservoir and rolling hills grazed by cattle.

imageAbout three-quarters of the way across is the mega rest stop and tourist trap known as Casa de Fruta (Spanish for “fruit house”).  As I am originally from the east coast, it reminds me a bit of South of the Border on Interstate 95 in Dillon, South Carolina.  As kids making the semiannual car trip from New York to Florida, we would beg my father to stop there, seduced by the Burma Shave style advertising signs along the interstate.  He acceded to our whining only once, and he was right, the place was a schlocky, notorious tourist trap.

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Casa de Fruta has a Hollister postal address, but is actually about nine miles away from the town, located in a different county with a different telephone area code.  The place contains shops selling outrageously priced fresh and dried fruit, candy, nuts, ice cream and souvenirs.  We splurged on some dried apricots and pistachios.

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There is a little train ride and a carousel for the kids, and you can go “prospecting” for precious metal à la Gold Rush.

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Casa de Fruta is a convenient rest stop between the Bay Area and Fresno, but it’s a better place for a walk around than to spend your money on overpriced snacks and gewgaws.

NaBloPoMo 2015 Logo    nanopoblano2015dark

Scribes and Pharisees

Sitting in the parsonage this evening, we remarked that we haven’t seen Homeless Guy #3 for a while.  I’m surprised that he hasn’t come by for food for several days.  Perhaps he got his Food Stamps for the month and walked over to one of the mini-marts down the street to shop with his EBT card.  I barely know him, but it seems that a large part of his problem is his inability to get along with others, a problem fueled by drugs, drinking and a lifetime of hardships and heartaches.  I’m told that he has a history of making threats, including to his own family, and that he’s not above pushing someone around to get what he wants.  For a while, he’d been sleeping under a tree that I can see from the front door of the parsonage.  Lately, however, I hear that he’s been seen sleeping on a couch on a neighbor’s porch.

No sooner did I finish writing the above paragraph than Homeless Guy #3 appeared at the parsonage door, his gray hoodie pulled up against the evening breeze.  Nine o’clock at night.  Pastor Mom went in the kitchen and started putting together a food package.  We made him two sandwiches; I asked him whether he prefers mayo or mustard.  We packed up some chips and clementines.  I stepped outside to chat for a minute, and he told me that he’s done staying in the neighborhood and is ready to move on.  He says he grew up here, but that he’s no longer happy in this location.  “Some people just like to step on you, make you miserable, you know?” he tells me.  I encourage him to forget about those who have hurt him and to start over, move forward into a new future.  “Why be unhappy when you can be happy?” I ask.  He asks whether we’ll give him a ride tomorrow to a church residential program two towns north of here.  We assure him that we will, but encourage him to call first.  As far as we know, the program isn’t taking in any new participants right now. 

We don’t know whether Homeless Guy #3 is serious about wanting to turn over a new leaf.  He’s talked about going into a residential program numerous times in the past, but has never acted on it.  Perhaps he’s serious now, ironically at a time when the program will be unable to take him.  The man seems to be trapped in a vicious cycle in which words are meaningless, you violate others and they violate you, and every day is the same as the last.  It’s sad to say that he might be better off if he ends up in jail.

Jail.  It seems as if most of the homeless in this area end up there sooner or later.  Online, I read vicious comments from those who urge the homeless to sober up and get a job.  When a person has nothing — not a roof over his head, not a sandwich in his belly, not a hope for the future, not a person who cares — who can blame him for self-medicating with alcohol and street drugs?

I had my first appointment with the cardiologist today.  We had to make a 70-mile round trip for that, just as we did last week to visit the gastroenterologist.  Local specialists won’t take Obamacare, so the primary care physicians have to send us up there.  Among the things I’ve learned on my journey is that “Obamacare” is something of a dirty word.  You’re supposed to say “the Affordable Care Act,” or better yet, “Covered California.”  The clerk at the registration counter took one look at my insurance card, sneered and asked “Are you maybe employed somewhere?”  I could hear her voice drip with contempt.  “No,” I responded, feeling somewhat ashamed.  Yes, ma’am, I’m one of those worthless human beings who contribute nothing to society but demand high-cost medical care.  I’m one of those leeches who have run out their unemployment insurance and stand in line for food distributions.  I wondered whether I should show her my notebook, a hard cover composition book like kids use in elementary school, in which I’ve documented each of the 143 jobs for which I have applied.  But I know it would be useless, that it would not change her opinion.

After waiting for a while in the examining room, the young doctor enters, followed by an even younger “scribe,” who rolls in a laptop on a cart to take notes on our conversation.  “What, no Pharisees?” my wife quips when I tell her later.

The doctor asks the standard questions that all doctors seem to ask.  The scribe records my responses.  Do you use tobacco?  Never.  Do you use alcohol?  Never.  Do you use recreational drugs?  Never.

I may be among the long-term unemployed, doctor, but at least I’m not homeless yet.  My wife and I rely on family for help, as well as on federal government programs, and the state, and the county.  Yes, we had to come up here because my health insurance is Obamacare (that word again).  But I don’t need to self-medicate with all those substances you mentioned, because I have love, and hope.

Not like the residents of the homeless encampments in Fresno that the police destroy when they show up with bulldozers.  Not like the homeless up the road in Chico or those over in Berkeley, where police recently threatened to remove a homeless camp as a “nuisance” and then did so at 4 in the morning.

Not like Homeless Guy #3, who shows up at the church for a sandwich and asks for a ride to a place where there’s no room at the inn.

For information on the proposed California Homeless Bill of Rights, click here.