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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Water Signs

La Jolla Sunset

Sunset over Pacific Beach, La Jolla CA

I spent part of this week on a business trip to the southern end of our great state, training staff down in San Diego.  The ocean’s moderating influence on air temperature makes the California coast particularly appealing for inlanders like myself this time of year.  So I was surprised to learn, while watching live video feeds of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, that San Diego was under an “extreme heat advisory.”  The temperature?  85°F.  What I thought to be pleasant is apparently dangerously hot by San Diego standards.  I suppose it’s all a matter of what one is used to.

Meanwhile, back home in Sacramento, we continue to experience day after scorching day of 100° plus temperatures, as one of the hottest summers on record marches on into September.  Driving north from San Diego, we stopped for lunch in Santa Clarita before chugging over the Grapevine into the Central Valley.  The thermometer in our car displayed an outdoor temperature of 112°F.  It felt like a flashback to our three years of living out in the Mojave Desert.  Our holiday weekend promises more of the same, with the Saturday temperature forecast to hit 111° here in California’s capital.  We hide out in our tiny house and blast the A/C.  150 miles to our south, my octogenarian parents (who rarely turn on the central air in their large home) have been paying $400 per month in electricity bills just to keep the house cool enough to avoid heat stroke.

During the monotonous 1,000 mile plus round trip to and from San Diego, it was hard not to notice the roadside signs and billboards up and down the Central Valley along Interstate 5 and Highway 99.  I am a bit too young to remember the whimsical Burma Shave signs of yesteryear, but old enough to recall the goofy South of the Border signs that dot Interstate 95 through North Carolina as one approaches that tourist trap in Dillon, S.C.  Anyone remember the upside down sign emblazoned with the legend “Pedro Feex Later?”  It sounds more than a bit racist now, but as a child in the 1970s, I didn’t know any better and thought it was hilarious.  This from a New York Jewish white boy who had never met a Mexican-American and didn’t know what a tortilla is until the age of 35.

Here in California, the signs planted in the fields along the vast empty expanse of freeway cutting through Fresno, Kings and Kern Counties shy away from cheesy advertising in favor of pleas for water.  Yes, water.  You have to live here to appreciate the never-ending political and financial battles over obtaining more water for agricultural purposes.  Now, I don’t pretend to know a thing about California water politics, but I am aware of the constant shrieking and hand-wringing over the relative merits of building tunnels in the Bay Area and high-speed rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles as opposed to making greater efforts to satisfy the seemingly insatiable thirst of our farmers.  I also hear a lot about diversion of Sierra Nevada snow melt runoff away from the Central Valley to satisfy the water needs of southern California cities.  Amidst allegations of the south stealing the north’s water, I am reminded of the nation’s bitter division during the Civil War.  Indeed, there are perennial proposals for everything from California’s secession from the Union to dividing our sprawling state into two, four, six or eight states of more manageable size with greater local control.  If you don’t believe me, check out hashtag #calexit on Twitter or this recent article from the Sacramento Bee or this one from the Los Angeles Times.  In California, land of the ballot proposition, anything (no matter how outrageous) can be put to a vote.

With water being the essence of life, it is difficult for anyone to argue against it.  However, the signs along the freeway have a tendency to pander to base instincts at the expense of rational thought.  One is led to believe that providing more water to California’s agricultural interests is a “no brainer.”  But is it, really?  And so, without further ado, I present for your entertainment two of my favorite roadside signs that I have seen in multiple locations with a number of minor variations.

“Is growing food wasting water?”  The most recent version of this sign features a photo of a young boy with a puzzled expression scratching his head.  Um, well, for starters, define your terms, please.  What exactly do you mean by “growing food?”  Perhaps you are referring to California’s famous fields of lettuce, onions and tomatoes, our orange groves and almond orchards, our world-renowned vineyards.  Or perhaps what you really mean are the vast hay and alfalfa fields that suck up water to feed, not our people, but the animals that power the state’s beef cattle, dairy and poultry industries.  This type of “growing food” leaves us with a legacy of methane gas that contributes mightily to global warming (I told you it was hot) and waterways polluted with millions of tons of animal feces.  If you should happen to think I’m being overly dramatic, by all means take a ride down I-5 past Coalinga and catch a whiff as you whizz by Harris Ranch.  The hubris of that operation in posting billboards advertising its restaurant boggles my mind.  How would you like your shit today, sir?  Rare, medium or well done?

Is growing food wasting water, you ask?  I’m surprised that the state’s agricultural industry has the nerve to bring this up.  It sure is wasting water when used to sustain hungry and thirsty livestock just long enough to kill the poor beasts and turn them into hamburgers, steaks and Chicken McNuggets.  If raising animals for meat and dairy were banned from the state, we’d have more than enough water to grow the plants needed to feed our own people and export to neighboring states and to the world.  But agricultural interests don’t want you to know that.  They must think we’re ignorant, stupid or both.

“No water for valley farms = No jobs!”  Oh, goodness, you’ve got to love this one.  Again, define your terms, please.  No jobs doing what??  No jobs picking grapes, strawberries and citrus?  Check out this article in today’s paper, suggesting that a significant reduction in the number of undocumented Mexicans crossing into the United States to perform backbreaking labor in the fields at low wages has resulted in increased automation and fewer jobs.  This has nothing to do with water.

Then, of course, one must consider the folly of the paradigm that is California’s agriculture industry.  The PR people will tell you that we are “the nation’s salad bowl” and that we feed the world.  Excuse me, but why?  Anyone who thinks about our climate for even a minute would have to at least ask.  The climate of California’s Central Valley is Mediterranean, just one tick shy of desert.  We are a very dry place.  It doesn’t rain at all here for most of the year.  Our water supply depends largely on how much snow the state’s northern and eastern mountains get in the wintertime.  The phrase “seven years of drought” is bandied about regularly.  Yes, we have year-round sunshine and suitable land, but who in their right mind would plan extensive agriculture in a desert climate with little water?  All of us need a steady, reliable water supply for our homes and families.  I say people before agriculture.

Our state’s agricultural industry is largely dependent on irrigation.  That means bringing in water from elsewhere because we don’t have much here naturally.  Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to concentrate our nation’s plant-growing operations in areas that God has blessed with plenty of water instead of in the desert?  The Pacific Northwest and New England come to mind.  Why deprive the people of our cities of their water supply in order to run the Rain Birds and sprinklers that prop up the state’s agriculture?

When the sign says that no water means no jobs, what it really means is that no water means no agricultural jobs.  The state’s big agricultural interests would have us believe that we’ll all be out of work unless we kowtow to their demands to commandeer our scarce water supplies so they can keep making money.  This is a lie, pure and simple.

I have to laugh when I hear the wry suggestion that the entire valley be paved over to bring all the call centers here from India and the Philippines.  I do get it, though.  We have evolved into a post-agricultural, post-industrial economy that focuses on the information industry.  Concentrating our state’s economic efforts in that direction instead of wasting them on irrigation not only fits with the realities of climate change but would also create plenty of jobs and bring renewed prosperity to California.

 

Uncle Guac’s Stupid Sign of the Day

(Hand-written on green construction paper and taped to a telephone pole.  I wish I could have taken a photo of it, but I was driving.)

I will buy your house for ca$h!  Call Larry.

Oooh, Larry, now aren’t you a stud?  Put that dollar bill away, you big spender, you.  Actually, I’m not looking for ca$h.  I was kind of hoping you would pay me in chicken eggs.  Bawk!

Back in the Old Days

TURLOCK

Sunday afternoon.  Sitting in our car in front of a Wal-Mart on the drive back from my parents’ house down south.  My wife ran in for a minute to get a couple of things, so I get to people watch in my air conditioned cocoon, buffered from the 104°F heat just outside my door.

I feel sorry for the cart guy as he leans into his conga line of shopping trolleys in the searing sun.  Here comes a young woman in an orange T-shirt (logo illegible from this distance) and bright purple hair.  We once had a Chevy that color, but I never associated it with a part of the human body.  Out comes a middle aged woman pushing an empty cart.  You have to wonder what’s up with that.  Wouldn’t you leave the cart in the store if you couldn’t find what you’re looking for?  Maybe she needed the cart to lean on.  The woman’s deeply wrinkled face makes her look old, perhaps a legacy of years of nicotine.  Indeed, she has a cigarette hanging from her lips; the second she crosses the store’s threshold into the dreadful heat, she lights it.

My thoughts drift away to our Fathers’ Day visit to my dad.  We went out to dinner to a local Italian place on Friday night (I need the gluten-free pizza crust, please, and here’s a little Baggie of vegan cheese to use in place of the mozzarella, okay?) and to a steak house on Saturday (an order of broccoli, please, steamed with no butter, and a baked potato with just chives; also a salad with no cheese, croutons or dressing).  Family occasions can be a challenge for gluten-free vegans.

It seems that I seldom come away from a visit to my parents without at least a few stories that I hadn’t heard before.  I need to hear these while I still can.

This time, I learned that my uncle, age 90, is one of the youngest veterans of World War II.  He was sent overseas with the Army Air Corps at the very end of the war; when the war ended, he was still eighteen years old.

Then there’s my dad’s take on history.  During the Great Depression, he tells me, the life expectancy of an American male was 62 years.  A guy who had a job would remain employed until he was too old and sick to work.  Then he’d spend a year sitting on a park bench.  Then he died.  There was no Social Security.  No one took care of you, my father went on; people took care of themselves.  Before FDR’s New Deal, he told me, our guarantees extended to life, liberty and property.  How you ate and paid your rent was up to you.

My father seems to long for those days.  His ideas put me in mind of Archie and Edith Bunker, opening each episode of  “All in the Family” by singing “didn’t need no welfare state/everybody pulled his weight.”

I have some questions.  Was it really like that?  Or is it more like wearing rose-colored glasses regarding the Good Old Days?  How did the old, sick guy on the park bench support himself for that year?  And what about his wife?

I suspect that part of the answer lies in extended families supporting each other.  I’ve been rereading Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath lately, and it is not lost on me that the Joads dragged the elders of the clan along with them as they headed west, even though Grandpa had to be drugged to prevent him from stubbornly remaining behind.

Just as my octogenarian father waxes wistful over a time long gone, I wish we still lived in an age when people stuck together.  The breakdown of the American family over many decades results in people in need having no support (of either the financial or the emotional kind).  We have elderly folks living by themselves in little apartments, spouses dead or divorced, children moved to distant cities and states to pursue their own lives and dreams.  Perhaps striking out on their own and leaving family behind is reflective of the pursuit of happiness.  After all, family members often don’t get along.  And yet, in the days before public assistance, it seems that families had to get along just to survive.

It makes me sad that we seem to cherish the freedom to worship the self and ignore others and, ultimately, the freedom to end up old and alone.

 

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.

 

“Cost of Living” is a Relative Term

I read an interesting article today that claims one must earn at least $100,000 annually just to get by living in a major international city such as New York, London or Tokyo.  To live comfortably, the article states, one must earn $200,000 annually.

And I thought California was expensive.

The author points to an interesting dichotomy that illustrates the vast differences in living standard that occupation and location can entail.  While, on one hand, earning $100K annually would place one within the top 10% to 15% of incomes in the United States, on the other hand, incomes of that caliber are now standard in New York City for a first year finance industry associate, doctor or lawyer.  And about that seemingly elusive $200K income?  Pretty much the norm for a 30- to 32-year old second year associate in one of the above-mentioned professions.

Don’t choke on your beverage, please.  Breathe.

I am not sure how to place this information in perspective.  I have a law degree and have worked in management for decades but don’t earn a fraction of those six-figure incomes.  But at least I have a job.  Of course, I’m a do-gooder who works in the public sector and I reside in Sacramento, not New York.  The cost of living here, which seems sky high to me, is nowhere near what one must bear to live, say, two hours down the road in San Francisco.

Growing up in New York, I never thought about money.  I know I didn’t have adequate appreciation for the fact that my parents each worked demanding jobs in the public schools and, together, probably just earned enough to get by.  This was true even though the price of their brand new 1967 station wagon was $2,700 and the price of a new home on a ¾ acre lot was about ten times that.  Most people couldn’t swing that kind of money and, like my aunt and uncle, continued for decades to live in tiny, roach-infested, rent-controlled apartments from which you could walk to the subway.  When my parents were just about ready to finish their 30-year suburban mortgage, they sold their house and moved to California.  By that time, the house was already starting to fall apart.  But that was more than 20 years ago, and the couple to whom my parents sold their house still own it, according to Zillow.  I’ll drive by it when we’re in New York next month and let you know what it looks like these days.

When I graduated from college in 1980, I applied for a job in New York City that came with a salary of $5,000 annually.  My father told me not to bother with it, as it would cost me that much just to commute from our suburban home, where I was living for free, into Manhattan every day.  I would essentially be working for nothing, donating my labor.  Instead, I took a job at a local print shop, pulling night shift for more than twice what I would have earned in the city.  After a year, I moved over to a union shop that paid more than eight dollars an hour.  I thought I was rich.

How times have changed.

To counterbalance the inflated salaries earned by professionals in New York (and to counteract the effects of my agape visage that was letting in flies), I read another article about how some New Yorkers get by on an income of zero.  You read that right, zero.  And I’m not talking about homeless individuals, either.

There will always be resourceful people who manage to “squat” in vacant apartments.  I imagine that the temptation to go this route must be high among low- or no-income New Yorkers who are willing to rough it a little (or a lot).  I think of the Manhattan home that author Jeannette Walls’ mother made for herself (as described in Walls’ best selling memoir The Glass Castle).  She was a freegan, also known as a dumpster diver, as was Marie, the zero-income New Yorker described in the article linked to above.  Marie was not a squatter, but instead had a great living situation in a three-story home.  She took care of the place and, in return, was allowed to live there for free.  So, technically, The Guardian is incorrect in characterizing Marie as having had no income.  Although she did not receive a paycheck, she obtained what the IRS calls “in kind income.”  Then again, I doubt that Marie, who was in this country illegally, ever paid a dime in federal, state or city taxes.

Most industrialized nations do not have a homelessness problem on the scale that the United States does.  This is partially due to the fact that, in most countries, you don’t need a six-figure income to get by (nor does one need that kind of income in many areas of the United States).  Another factor is that the deeply-ingrained American consumerist culture doesn’t exist in many parts of the world, so the concept of “getting by” has an altogether different meaning there than it does here.  Yet another factor is that most developed nations recognize that having a roof over one’s head is a right, not a privilege.

Unlike in Sacramento, municipal law in New York City does recognize a right to housing, even if that means sending an entire family to squeeze into a tiny motel room out in the hinterlands by JFK Airport.  Of course, New York still has a large homeless population, among which are many who are mentally ill and/or are alcoholics or addicts who are unwilling or unable to follow the rules by which one must abide to remain in a shelter or other city housing arrangement.

My father longs for the old days, when no one received a handout and everyone was entitled to exactly what their earnings would purchase and not a penny’s worth more.  He told me that he likes the way that the homeless were summarily driven in a police car to the city limit and informed that if they ever returned, they would receive free housing in a jail cell.  My thought was:  This explains “hobos.”  You had to move from place to place if no place would allow you to stay.

I’m glad we live in a (somewhat) more compassionate society today.  Here in Sacramento, homelessness seems to have blown up as a major issue in the news lately.  This is at least partially attributable to the publicity surrounding the destruction of homeless encampments by law enforcement both here and in the Central Valley (Sacramento has an “anti-camping” ordinance).  It also helped that some of those displaced by the police demonstrated their ire by camping out at city hall.  Many were arrested but, upon release, immediately returned to city hall with their sleeping bags or tents.  Out came the TV camera crews and, all of a sudden, homelessness is in the news again.  While homelessness is right under our noses every day, we choose to ignore it in “emperor’s new clothes” fashion.  So it is refreshing that homelessness has lately become a popular topic of discussion in our local area.

I often make self-deprecating remarks about the fact that I live in a two-room mouse hole and pay handsomely for the privilege.  But at least I don’t have to own a sleeping bag or a shopping cart and I don’t have to lie down on the sidewalk in the rain and the cold, as many do downtown each evening.

And I don’t have to get my dinner from a dumpster.

 

Mom’s 82nd Birthday

MADERA

On Friday we drove down to the Central Valley, about four hours south of here, to celebrate my mother’s 82nd birthday.  My sister and her two adult children drove in from the Bay Area and we all had lunch at Mom and Dad’s on Saturday, followed by dinner out that night and then cake and gifts.

My sister announced that she did not bring a gift because Mom hates anything she gets and either returns it to the store or allows it to sit, abandoned and unused.  While I don’t approve of the smarmy attitude, Sis has a point.  Mom has often said that she doesn’t need anything because anytime there is something she wants, she just buys it.  Now, my parents, while not wealthy by any means, live fairly modestly and have a comfortable retirement.  They have always objected to consumerism and acquisitiveness in general.  They say they’re doing fine because they never wasted money on frivolity.  They taught me well, as I see most purchases for the inanimate objects that they are.  Early on, I learned to value people rather than things.

Case in point:  I own one pair of shoes, the ones that are currently on my feet.  When they begin to wear out, I will buy another.  Why do I need more than one?  I find clothes pretty boring.

I am glad that my parents don’t require financial help from anyone, but they do need assistance in other regards.  Over the weekend, Sis replaced the tricky overhead lighting in my parents’ kitchen while my nephew the engineer worked on getting their computer working again.  Dad loves his computer, which allows him to spend hours each day browsing classic cars on eBay Motors.

When pressed, Mom finally admitted that she would like some dark chocolate.  Sis and her kids made a Trader Joe’s run, netting Mom a couple of Big Blocks and other assorted fodder for her sweet tooth.  As I am a bad son who never gives proper attention to these things, my wife had kindly found a book on nutrition (among Mom’s favorite subjects) during her shopping rounds last week.

I am pleased to report that the fighting and fussing that typically accompanies visits from my sister were largely absent this time.  Well, except for her reference to the time Mom’s sister (long gone), who had begun losing her teeth, went running down the street, wrapped in a muumuu and yelling at the top of her lungs.  But that was a minor glitch.

Mom wanted her birthday dinner to be at Cheesecake Factory, but the place was packed to within an inch of bursting (Fire code?  What fire code?) with teeny-boppers who wouldn’t think of yielding a seat in the lobby to a senior citizen, and we ultimately decided not to wait an hour and a half for a table.  We retrieved the cars and headed for Macaroni Grill, where we were seated immediately.  That was a lot easier for me, as I’ve only dined at Cheesecake Factory once, prior to my vegan days.  They serve a veggie burger (hold the cheese and mayo, please), but is it really free of dairy products?  At Macaroni Grill I have a tried and true standby, pasta and mushrooms with garlic and oil instead of butter.  Having a regular dish at certain restaurants may sound rather unimaginative to some, but animal products are everywhere, so the vegans among us will undoubtedly appreciate my point of view.

The moments that make me most uncomfortable during visits with my parents are the inevitable apocalyptic references.  Those with aging parents know what I mean:  The conversations about decline and death.  We all want to believe that our parents will be healthy and happy forever.  We want to remember younger versions of our parents, before surgeries and pill bottles and a litany of aches and pains.

My parents mentioned that they would leave their home to any of the grandkids who would live there.  None of them will, of course.  Mom and Dad live out on the rangeland, where fields of cattle much contentedly on the waving grass before being murdered and turned into steaks and Big Macs.  The place has always reminded me a bit of the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska.  They live less than a 30 minute drive from downtown Fresno, but the nonagricultural parts of the Central Valley economy, never all that robust in the first place, took a particularly hard hit ten years ago during the recession and have never really recovered.  Mom acknowledges that living there would be difficult for people of working age due to the lack of well-paying, stable jobs.

Dad insists that he will be the first to go.  While the idea of his demise is in itself distressing to me, the thought of having to deal with Mom (a very difficult person) afterward is downright scary.  We live in a tiny mouse hole of a place and have no way to take her in, and we certainly aren’t able to move out to farm country.  Even if we could afford a two-bedroom apartment (we can’t), Mom would be miserable without trees to plant and rose bushes and tomato plants to potchke with.

I am aware that Mom is already lonely.  Her superannuated cat died just before Christmas and my father, whose hearing has become quite poor, likes to sit by himself and stare into space or sit in his darkened office, keeping company with the glow of his computer monitor.  Despite the work involved, I could see how much she enjoyed our visit.  Dad had even vacuumed the carpets throughout the house.  Mom did a lot of shopping and cooking, sending me home with jars of my favorite homemade mushroom-barley soup.

I need to try to live in the present and not fret so much about the future.  I should count my blessings.  When I reminded my boss on Friday morning that I would be leaving at noon to travel to Mom’s, she shared that it was her father’s 91st birthday and that she would be heading to Stockton after work to visit him in a nursing home.  He has recently suffered a pair of debilitating strokes.  While I squirm like a bug thinking about what the next few years might bring, I realize that this is one of those times when I really do need to rely on my faith.  Let go and let God, as they say.

Ultimately, I know that my very wise wife is correct:  Whatever is supposed to happen is what will happen.

 

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?