My Uncle, Age 91 and Still Fighting

I’m back!  Big thanks to WordPress happiness engineer Megan, who managed to solve the seemingly intractable technical problems that have left me locked out of this space for months.  Merci, grazie, danke schöen!

I usually speak to my mother on the phone about once a week.  I feel like a terrible son when I tell the truth, which is that it’s more of an obligation than anything else.

To be honest with myself, I must admit that, as an adult, I remain stuck in childhood patterns of behavior when it comes to my parents.  If I don’t call for a couple of weeks, Mom will call and start the conversation with a sarcastic comment such as “Did you forget that you have a mother?”  Now, if I were my sister, who operates with no filter whatsoever, I’d likely respond with “I guess you reminded me, huh?”

As for my father, he hates to talk on the phone.  He’ll answer if my mother happens to be outside or in the shower, or if my parents are sitting on the driveway in folding chairs, enjoying the evening breeze, and he runs into the garage to pick up the ringing 1980 baby blue rotary dial phone.  He will pass the phone to my mother as soon as possible.  “Here, talk to your Mommy,” he will say and rush off the phone.  If my mother answers, she may, at some point in the conversation, cajole him into coming to the phone.  “Talk to your son!”

I don’t have much contact with family members other than my parents, and I like it that way.  I upset my mother when I tell her that I was forced to deal with them while growing up and that I’m happy that I no longer have to do so.  I have two sisters, one in Boston and the other in the Bay Area.  I typically visit or speak on the phone with Boston sister once every year or two or five.  Bay Area sister is much closer at hand and so is more difficult to avoid.  Boston sister will leave me alone, but Bay Area sister doesn’t grant me quite as wide a berth.  I guess I can’t complain, however.  I can expect her to text or call once every two or three months.  Fair enough.

This is not to say that I’m unaware of what is going on in my family.  Far from it.  My mother regularly gives me the low down and the skinny on everyone we know, from our relatives to the neighbors to her dentist.  There is really no news that my sisters could possibly share with me, as I’ve already heard it from Mom.

Occasionally, what I hear from my mother is disconcerting.  Like all families, ours has its dark spots, and the passing decades don’t seem to have caused them to go away.  On last week’s call, my mother was filling me in on the latest regarding my uncle, her late sister’s husband.  Apparently, his second wife, who is not in good health, has suffered a long series of falls.  I’m told she has many bruises on different parts of her body.  My mother mused aloud about whether my uncle hits his wife.  This doesn’t surprise me at all, as throughout my childhood, he and my aunt had a turbulent relationship during which they would batter one another.  My uncle is a little guy, maybe five feet tall, weighing about 95 pounds soaking wet.  My aunt weighed about 300 pounds until she developed cancer.  Despite their physical mismatch, my uncle was able to defend himself amply.  With his diminutive physical profile, he claims to have gained his pugilistic skills early.  And yet, from what I can tell, he was usually the aggressor.

My uncle was constantly getting into fights.  Unconfirmed rumors, whispered or spoken of in code so the children wouldn’t understand, involved arrests and scrapes with the law.  My uncle’s modus operandi involved throwing a punch at the slightest perceived threat, real or imagined.  As this wasn’t discussed openly while I was growing up, I sometimes wondered whether I was imagining it.  That all changed a few years after I graduated from college, when I attended the first wedding of my aunt and uncle’s only son (he is now on his third marriage).  As we were enjoying our salmon en papillote at the reception, my uncle downed a few too many vodkas and took to the floor to perform his signature Russian dance, the kazatsky.  A few minutes later, I observed him starting a fistfight with the father of the bride, right there on the dance floor.  At this point, someone called the cops and my entire family stood up and walked out.  The valet brought the cars before the police showed up (if they ever did).

So I guess I wasn’t imagining things after all.  Throughout my childhood, he and my aunt would engage in horrific screaming matches that would terrify my sisters and myself.  My aunt would yell at full volume to call the police, and my mother would try to calm her down.  These are some memories that I wish I could forget, but these scenes are, unfortunately, etched into my brain.

The thought that my uncle may be repeating this ugly behavior with his second wife, ill as she is, is both sickening and disgusting.  The kicker is that he is 91 years old!  And he is not in the best of health himself.

My uncle and his wife continue to reside in our old neighborhood in New York, although they purchased a home in south Florida several years ago for the purpose of avoiding the icy Northeast winters.  Mom tells me that they have now sold the Florida home because it has become too difficult to make the trip back and forth.  I am guessing that there are health issues that make flying problematic.  For a number of years, they would drive to Virginia in the fall, whereupon they put the car on the auto train and rode in comfort to Orlando.  The last time they did this, however, my uncle took sick on the train, which had to make an unscheduled stop for an ambulance to transport him to a hospital.  I am told that he had a minor heart attack and that a pacemaker had to be installed.  So now they’re done with Florida.

Mom informed me that, instead of selling off the furnishings in their Florida home, or simply selling the home fully furnished, they paid a mover to pack everything up and truck it back to New York.  Now they have two households full of furniture in one house.  What was unloaded by the movers remains in shipping containers, filling their garage, their spare bedroom, and every other room in their house.  My uncle says that his son, who resides in North Carolina, couldn’t come visit even if he were so inclined, as there would be no place for him to stay.

As for my uncle’s wife, she’s back in a convalescent facility again, for what I believe is her fourth or fifth stay.  She is engaged in physical therapy and recovering from her latest “fall.”

I wish there were some way I could tell my mother, without being unbearably rude, that I don’t want to hear the family gossip.  Tell me about your appointments at Kaiser, your trips to the dentist in San José, the trees and flowers you are planting, your latest experience at Red Lobster or the ongoing problems with your multiple lawn mowers.  But I can do without hearing about the bad behavior of my nieces, my sister’s hysterics and my uncle’s domestic violence.

Perhaps ignorance really is bliss.  I realize that pretending that the family drama is not occurring is not going to change anything.  It’s just that I don’t want to hear about it, Mom.

That is, if you want me to keep calling you.

 

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Have a Merry Little Dysfunctional Christmas

Christmas Eve.

We just spent the last two days with family and we will again on Christmas Day.  We have a break in the middle for the purpose of driving up California’s Central Valley to maybe throw a load of laundry in and spend a night sleeping in our own bed before heading north to do it again with another part of the family.

Today is my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary.  We had Shabbat dinner at their house on Friday evening, followed by an informal party on Saturday.  In between, we drove down to the rural area of southern Fresno County to watch my wife’s three year old grandniece open gifts.

Both my sisters, along with two of my nephews, were present for my parents’ big day.  Mom made up the hors d’oeuvres platter, my parents bought the cake at a local supermarket, and one of my sisters did most of the cooking.  She and her husband are pesco-vegetarians, but they accommodated my vegan ways by preparing tofu ratatouille, broccoli, rice and potatoes along with their salmon.  The carnivores in the crowd had meatballs and franks.

One of my sisters lives over in the Bay Area and commutes to her job in the Central Valley.  Working 12-hour shifts in a hospital, she has a crazy schedule and was lucky to get a day off to attend our festivities.  My other sister is a teacher in the suburbs of Boston, while her husband is a tech industry exec in Dallas.  All three of their kids are in Boston; two work in tech, while one is still in college.  After years in Dallas, Sis left her husband behind and decamped for Boston in June, mostly because their anorexic daughter was in and out of the hospital and Sis was worried sick.  Before long, my niece told Sis to buzz off, which, understandably, my sister took hard.  Still, she enjoys the Jewish community and liberal academic environment that Boston has to offer, a far cry from her red-state experiences in Texas.  Back in Dallas, hubby takes care of the house and the cats and is overseas for his job one week each month.  He visits Sis in Boston frequently.  The thought is that, eventually, they’ll buy a house in Boston.  None of us is getting any younger, and hubby is bound to retire sooner or later.  Meanwhile, Sis rents a room in a house owned by a couple she knows.  She complains that the room is drafty and is usually too cold in the New England winter.  But she loves her job and being near friends and her kids.

I am reminded of my parents, who were also separated for a number of years due to their careers.  My mother worked in places like Rhode Island and Utica NY while Dad stayed in the house in the suburbs of New York City, making a long drive to visit Mom once or twice each week.

What a way to live, huh?  I know that, these days, you have to go wherever the job is, but I always think in terms of wife and husband moving together.  Then again, I think of marriage as involving shared finances as well as a shared residence.  Yet my parents have kept their finances separate for decades.  I used to think this was unusual, but now I’m starting to hear that it’s not so uncommon.  Blech!

The funny thing about my family, that was really brought home to me during our visit this week, is that we have next no nothing in common.  From a common origin, my sisters and I have shot off in totally different directions in terms of geography, family and career.  I’m glad that I don’t see my sisters very often, as I can’t imagine us getting along for more than a few hours every year or so.  We simply have different worldviews, and I sometimes wonder whether we’re really from different planets.  Certainly I couldn’t ever see calling one of them to ask for advice on a problem.  For the most part, I prefer to have as little to do with them as possible.

The disjointedness of our lives became embarrassingly apparent as my sister from Boston attempted to encourage conversation as we all sat together in my parents’ family room on Saturday.  There were long pregnant pauses, during which three or four of us would be occupied by apparently fascinating things on our phones, the rest of us absorbed in our own thoughts or staring off into space.  Hospital Sis was sprawled out on the couch, nearly asleep.  Boston Sis would offer conversation starters such as “Who has an interesting story about their job?” or “Who has done something interesting lately?” or “Has anyone seen any good movies or TV shows recently?”  Most of these overtures fell flat after a minute or two, leaving us in physical proximity, but as emotionally distant from one another as we usually are geographically.

When it was time for dinner, we had to rustle up my wife and Hospital Sis, both of whom were fast asleep.  Mom decided to wake up Sis by tickling her, which devolved into loud accusations of rudeness from both sides, along with threats never to visit again.  Typical for us, I’m afraid.  As Trump is so fond of saying, “Sad!”  I don’t know why we bother to put on this dog and pony show, regardless of the occasion.  Mom is a firm believer that “blood is thicker than water,” that families must stick together regardless of the profound differences between their members.  Uh, enjoy?

Finally, when the cake and ice cream was served after dinner (no vegan desserts available, although I declined the offer of an orange), Hospital Sis resorted to web searching on her phone for a site full of courtroom jokes.  Some of them were quite funny, primarily at the expense of inept attorneys, and we all laughed at them.  Then Dad began to tell the same racist and dirty jokes that he’s told since I was a kid.

Soon, my wife and I drifted off to the family room to visit with my nephew, who told us stories about his life in the Bay Area.  Everyone else remained in the living room, from whence I could hear my mother telling family stories about her parents’ emigration from Europe to America, the same stories she’s told dozens of times, year after year.

I’m not coldhearted enough to say no to my parents when they want all of their children present on the occasion of their 65th anniversary.  Sixty-five years of fussing and fighting, yelling and cursing at each other.  I know I’m not unique in this respect.  As Tolstoy famously wrote, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

As if to prove the truth of Tolstoy’s observation, my wife’s niece called us on FaceTime while we were at my parents’ house.  She is 20 years old, has a 5 year old daughter, and can’t figure out what she wants in life.  I attempted to give her advice along the lines of being true to herself, as she thinks she led a guy on, who she now wants to let down easy, or maybe not.  Respect yourself and insist that he respect you was my recommendation.  We had the call on speaker, and I think we put on quite a show for my own family.

As if to add a punch line to a decidedly unfunny joke, we stopped for coffee on the way home today and proceeded to drive over a nearly invisible concrete divider at the entrance to a parking lot, blowing out one of our tires.  Right in front of a tire shop, I might add — a tire shop that was closed for Christmas Eve.

This makes two months in a row.  Last time, it was on a desolate stretch of interstate in the middle of the Arizona desert on the way to the Grand Canyon.  At least this time we had friends nearby who came to our rescue while the Triple A tow truck hauled off our vehicle to the only open tire shop in the area, about 15 minutes down the road.  We had one hour until the shop closed, just enough time for them to take off the flat and install a new tire, to the tune of $165.

Uh, merry Christmas?

 

 

Your Cat is Eating Your Turkey

HAYWARD

In early November, my sister sent me a text message inviting me to Thanksgiving dinner.  She recently purchased a house in the Bay Area and wanted to show it off.  I consulted my wife and then texted her back to say yes, we would come.  Her new home is less than two hours away and we didn’t have any firm plans for the holiday, so I figured why not.

Two days later, Sis texted me again to say that Thanksgiving was off.  My parents had visited her and apparently indicated that they would never return.  It seems that they were frightened off by the winding roads that lead to the mountaintop street where my sister now resides.

An hour later, my sister texted me again.  “Thanksgiving is back on.”  My parents had agreed to drive as far as a supermarket parking lot on the flats, where my nephew would pick them up and haul them up the mountain.

My parents stayed home anyway.  Dad recently contracted a severe case of conjunctivitis and, despite the use of eye drops prescribed by a doctor, he has been unable to open his eyes very far, making driving out of the question.  We offered to drive all the way there, pick them up, take them to Sis’s house in the Bay Area, and drive them home again.  They declined on the grounds that Dad is probably still contagious and no one will want to be near him.

As if it weren’t bad enough that my parents would be spending Thanksgiving alone, the fact that Dad is unable to drive has created much greater problems.  My mother, also age 83, hasn’t driven in seven years and expressed to me that she never plans to drive again.  She says she doesn’t feel comfortable driving, and that it makes her feel a bit dizzy sometimes, and that she’s just too old.  Nevertheless, she plans to renew her driver’s license when it expires in 2020.  She just doesn’t plan to use it.

My parents live in a rural area at the edge of the rangeland where the cattle graze.  I call it “the wild prair-ie.”  The nearest supermarket is about 20 miles away, although there is a small grocery store about four miles from their house.  I’ve been on the phone with my parents on an almost daily basis and they’re starting to complain about running out of their favorite foods.  It’s not that they don’t have food and are going hungry, it’s just that they’ve used up the items they need to prepare the meals they like best.  Not only that, but they need to prepare more meals than usual, as they aren’t going out to dinner several times per week as is their usual practice.

My parents celebrated Franksgiving, eating hot dogs and beans for dinner.  Mom was annoyed that they had no buns on which to serve the franks, although not as annoyed as Dad is that he is out of bananas to cut up in his morning Honey Bunches of Oats.  Yesterday, Mom reported that they are completely out of bread.  “Not even the frozen kind?” I asked.  My parents are famous for freezing many loaves of bread and defrosting a little bit at a time.  Nope, even the frozen stuff is gone, she told me.

I asked whether we should drive down there (seven hours round trip) to get them some groceries.  No, said Mom, they’re not out of food yet.  I offered that, if she provides us with her grocery list, we can probably have what she needs delivered to her door.  Then we checked online and learned that we probably can’t.  My parents’ location is just too rural.  I couldn’t find any online services that deliver to their zip code.  Most likely, the best we would be able to do is to have canned goods shipped to them in the mail.

Sis says she may drive down there on her day off and take my mother grocery shopping.  If not, my wife and sister-in-law will take care of it.  That is, unless Dad is driving again.  Now that Mom is putting the drops in his eyes instead of having him do it himself (and missing), things are looking a lot better.

We thought seriously about skipping out on my sister at the last minute and driving to the Central Valley to spend Thanksgiving with my parents instead.  However, Mom begged us not to.  She told me that Sis was already distraught that they weren’t coming and she’d be truly upset if we were to bag out on her, too.

I had no idea how right Mom was.

My sister urged me to invite all of my wife’s family to join her for Thanksgiving.  Most of them had other plans already, however, and the driving that would have been required is excessive.  Now, Sis has two adult children.  Her son resides in the same town and agreed to come early to help prepare the meal.  But her daughter failed to respond to her invitation.  Sis even called her ex-husband in an effort to browbeat him into coming and bringing his daughter along.  Of course, neither of them showed up.  My niece has some type of ongoing argument with her mother and doesn’t wish to speak with her at the moment.  As for my sister’s ex, well, he’s remarried and has obligations to spend the holiday with his own family.

Traffic on Interstate 80 was terrible on Thanksgiving morning, and it took us nearly an hour more than expected to reach my sister’s house.  At one point, we nearly turned around and went home due to traffic being at a dead stop for close to 15 minutes.  I’m glad we didn’t.  Other than my nephew, my wife and I were the only guests.

Mom called while we were stuck in traffic to find out why we weren’t there yet.  She said that Sis, having initially expected lots of guests, had purchased a 30-pound kosher turkey.  I didn’t know that birds come that large, so I wasn’t at all surprised to find that she had been exaggerating more than a little.

My wife had made a fruit salad the night before and I put together a batch of fresh guacamole.  We transported both in a cooler, along with my almond milk and a few other miscellaneous items.  Well, it turned out that my sister had prepared a feast.  Knowing my food restrictions, she served me sautéed tofu with mushrooms and onions, although it was my wife who actually cut everything up in preparation for cooking.  Sis also fixed me roasted vegetables and a dressing prepared with gluten-free bread and vegetable broth.  Both were delicious, and we had ample leftovers to take home.

After dinner, we retired to my sister’s living room, with its amazing picture window view of the bay, Oakland and San Francisco.  I suppose living on a hilltop does have some advantages.  Sis was stretched out on the sofa, my nephew busied himself watching videos about Japan on his laptop, and my wife and I relaxed in a pair of rocker-recliners while we chatted.  Sis was facing us, while my wife and I had a clear view of the kitchen, where none of the leftovers had yet been put away.

Soon, Sis made up some soy mochas while my nephew sliced the pie.  Actually, there were two pies, both Dutch apple, my sister’s favorite.  One was “regular” and the other was both vegan and gluten-free for my benefit.  The latter cost a hefty $15.  Curiosity got the better of my sister and she decided to try my pie first.  She took one bite, gagged, and spit it out.  She began yelling that it tasted like lemon-flavored sawdust on cardboard.  I assured her that there was no reason to be shocked.  That’s more or less what a commercial gluten-free pie crust tastes like.  Those of us who cannot tolerate gluten can either put up with it or not eat pie at all.  I’m told that there are homemade gluten-free pies that actually taste decent, but I don’t cook and am happy to get whatever is available.  This was the first pie I had eaten in about a year or so.

Sis gave me the rest of her slice of pie and we took the remainder of the pie home in its box, where I promptly demolished it.  It really wasn’t as bad as she described.

I should mention that my sister has two cats.  Butternut (alias Butt, Nut or just Squash) is a rambunctious orange tabby that sheds fur like there’s no tomorrow.  Sis rescued her from a shelter in Albuquerque.  Then there is Macchiato, whose coat features a crazy quilt of every cat color known to man on one side, while being nearly entirely white on the other side.  Macchi was rescued from a shelter in Boise, Idaho.  My sister moves around a lot.

Macchiato is fairly shy and made herself scarce during most of our visit.  Butternut, however, is extremely outgoing and insists on being a part of whatever happens to be going on at the moment.  When not perched on the coffee table or getting underfoot, she would jump up to her cat bed, high atop her scratching post.  There, she could be queen and master of her domain.

The availability of a particularly large variety and quantity of food was not lost on Butternut.  I decided that I had better describe what I was seeing.  The squash meister had jumped up on the kitchen counter and was helping herself.  “Your cat is eating your turkey,” I nonchalantly informed my sister.

“WHAT!!!” was her reply, causing my nephew to spring out of his seat and complain that his mother had nearly caused him a heart attack.  Sis sprinted into the kitchen, removed Butternut from the counter and chastised her severely.  Still, she did not put away the food.  Instead, she returned to join us.

We lounged in my sister’s living room, she nearly asleep and me admiring the twinkling lights of the city while listening to my nephew regale me with tales of working in downtown San Francisco. It didn’t take too long before I noticed that Butternut was at the carcass again.

“Your cat is eating your turkey,” I repeated.

“Don’t say it like that!” yelled my sister.  I guess I was supposed to jump out of my seat and make a hullaballoo instead of being calm about it.  Once again, Sis removed her cat, but not before Butternut had lapped up most of the gravy out of the measuring cup in which my sister had served it.  She made growling noises at ol’ Butt that I suppose were designed to teach her a lesson that her behavior was unacceptable.

And then my sister finally began to put away the food.  The turkey, she indicated, would end up in freezer bags and would take her many weeks to use up for her lunches.  Whereupon she began to portion out the remaining turkey meat, totally unfazed that it had been mauled by the filthy mouth of a cat.

 

Regret

I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father.  It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff).  My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful.  Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes!  No dining hall goop for me tonight!  Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.

I do not drive.  Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel.  This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go:  I ride the bus.

There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it.  However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names.  The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train.  Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride.  Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents.  But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer.  I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.

A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.

“Why would you want to know that?  To know which bus you just missed?”  My father laughs.  His son is weird.

Well, yes, Dad.  Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important.  After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today.  It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.

Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret.  Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class.  On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all.  I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).

Regret is a tough road to go down.  The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter.  To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again.  You start singing Sinatra.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But then it hits you over the head suddenly.  Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night.  Those two words.  What if.

You never know what will be the trigger for these head games.  It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work.  It could be a story on the six o’clock news.  Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.

This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.

First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.”  Damn, I want to do that!  The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia.  I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today.  It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it.  This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas.  (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.  For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job.  I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago.  Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world.  The interviewer told me his was “rock star.”  I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED.  Need I say that I didn’t get the job?

Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds.  Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School.  One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school.  Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour.  I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.”  The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.

Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again!  As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment).  The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me.  I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper.  I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house).  And all of that when look what I could have done!  I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer!  If only I had known.  How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?

I must confess:  After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted.  My labor was all in vain.  While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.”  There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.

The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense.  Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.”  Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.

All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again.  Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures.  Scott Turow became a novelist.  And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.

Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by.  As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings.  To tell that bus “later, gator.”

And it’s true.  Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken.  Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…

Three Visits With My Parents

Mahzor

Have prayer book, will travel . . .

Among the effects of having one’s children early is that when you’re old and would like your kids to take care of you, they’ll be old, too.  Granted, they won’t be as old as you are, but old nevertheless.  As in you’ll be able to go out to eat together and both of you will get the senior discount.  Both of you will be getting Social Security checks in the mail.  I mean, think about it.  When you’re 85, they’ll be 65.

I visited my parents three times during the month of September.  That’s a total of 18 hours of driving.  The first time was a birthday party for my wife’s little niece.  Then came Rosh Hashannah.  And finally, Yom Kippur.

My parents are 83 years old and they don’t go to synagogue anymore.  My father never went to synagogue to begin with (being somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum) and my mother has had some type of falling out with the synagogue she had been attending.  There are three synagogues in her area, and she finds them all to be money-grubbing.  I am inclined to agree.  I appreciate the need of a synagogue to pay the light bill and the expenses of keeping up the building, not to mention the cost of running its programs, but the strong-arm tactics that they use to squeeze money out of attendees are a bit much.  These days, many synagogues have financial directors who want to see your tax returns to determine how much you earn and to calculate how much you should be paying toward support of the congregation.  It has become fairly standard in the United States for synagogues to charge non-members hefty fees for attending High Holy Day services.  And even organizations like Chabad that claim never to require payment of participants hold an endless round of dinners and speakers before or after services, requesting that attendees pay hefty fees for attendance.  Disclosure:  I do support one of our local Chabad congregations and, frankly, I’m getting sick of their constant emails begging for money.

In my mother’s case, the discomfort engendered by this situation is exacerbated by the fact that she drags my reluctant father with her every time she attends synagogue.  This is mostly because my mother doesn’t drive anymore (she’s perfectly capable, but has chosen to have my car-loving father do all the driving for the past 20 years or so), but also because she won’t go anywhere alone.  She says it makes her feel like a widow.  (In some respects, she is.  My father won’t admit that he’s lost a large part of his hearing, which has already resulted in some dangerous situations in which he could not hear my mother calling him.  Also, they sit in separate rooms and do their own things most of the time.)

At age 83, my parents seem to feel that they are at the stage of life when they can pretty much say whatever they want without consequences.  This has borne some interesting results.  It has caused a number of ugly moments between Mom and my wife, for example.  And when it comes to synagogue, my father, a nonbeliever, feels compelled to comment on the rabbi’s teachings or even challenge them outright.  The rabbi’s young son doesn’t help the situation by running out of the sanctuary to loudly announce to his mother “He’s at it again!”

Patio

On the patio at Mom and Dad’s.  Notice the hummingbird at the feeder.

My mother says she’s tired of “getting it from both ends” (the rabbi and my father).  Under the circumstances, I don’t blame her for passing on synagogue attendance.  For both Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, I made the trip down to the Central Valley, mahzor (prayer book) in hand and held my own little service for Mom’s benefit.  On Rosh Hashannah, we did this at the kitchen table (with my uninterested father sitting out on the patio), and on Yom Kippur, outdoors.  The weather was fine (unlike the freezing cold temperatures that we remember from High Holidays of yore on the east coast) and we got to watch the hummingbirds at the feeder and the sheep next door while we atoned for our sins and prayed for forgiveness.  It was a kick to get my cantorial singing voice on and, all told, it was a rather moving experience to spend this time with Mom.  I can’t help but wonder how many more opportunities I will have to do this.

Sheep

Mom had a large container full of salad that was past its prime, so I got to feed the sheep next door.  There were only three rams and the entire flock of ewes was pregnant.  Baaaa!

The weekend after Rosh Hashannah, still hanging out at my parents’ house, Mom decided to lay a heavy on me by providing instructions for her burial.  This is not as simple as it sounds.  She wants to be laid to rest with her parents at the family plot in New York City.  My wife and I visited the graves of my grandparents there both this year and last during two trips to the eastern seaboard.  Two plots occupied, six more vacant.  It was hard not to think of a time when two more plots will be occupied.  I now know that my mother wishes to be buried directly in front of her mother.  I also know which funeral home to use, as well as a little about what must be done to fly a body from Fresno to LaGuardia.  Uh, um, I guess I wasn’t really ready for this.  But guess what, it looks like the time has arrived for me to grow up and face the facts.  My parents aren’t going to be around forever.

Perhaps the most intriguing factor in this little drama is the uncertainty involved.  Will Dad go first?  He keeps pointing out that, statistically, the husband usually dies before the wife.  My mind fills with pictures of supporting a grief-stricken Mom on a cross-country flight, preceded by taking a screamer down the 99 in the middle of the night when we get the news.  How fast can we throw a week’s worth of clothes in a suitcase?  Yikes.  And then, what would become of Mom?  She doesn’t want to live all alone in that big house way out where the cattle graze on the rangeland.  There is no room for her to live with us in our rented tiny house, where my wife and I are barely able to keep from tripping over one another.  She could always go live with one of my sisters (either the one in the Bay Area or the one in Boston), which I know would not be a particularly pleasant experience for her.  She wants me to retire so my wife and I can come live in her house and take care of her.  Let’s just say that this is unlikely.  There are too many reasons to count.

But what if Mom went first and Dad were left all alone?  He is a loner by nature and probably wouldn’t mind being in that house by himself.  But he doesn’t cook and, despite everything, I suspect that he’d be horribly lonely.  My wife and I were discussing this recently and we agreed that he probably wouldn’t live long if Mom went first.

Let us not forget that there is, at least from my perspective, a third scenario.  As I started off this post my mentioning, when you have children early, they get old right along with you.  I am no spring chicken myself.  Nor am I in the best of health.  What if I shuffle off this mortal coil before my parents do?  My wife knows that I am adamant about being buried here in California rather than having my dead body dragged across the country to a final resting place in (ick) Queens.  (My sisters don’t want to be buried there either, with the likely result that the remaining four plots will remain unoccupied for the next hundred years or so.)  But what of my parents then?  My father, who has long since informed me that if I die he will never forgive me (?), might not last long due to grief.  Perhaps the same is true of Mom.  I certainly hope not, but there it is.  I suppose my sisters will be particularly angry with me for dying when they realize that they now have to deal with Mom and Dad.  I giggle thinking of this.

Sigh.  The whole situation brings on a feeling not unlike that of an impending train wreck that cannot be avoided.  We are clearly heading down that track and all I can do is close my eyes and hold on tight.  I keep telling my parents that, considering their relatively good health, there is no reason that they should not live to 100.  I seriously hope they do.  I figure that things will eventually fall into place, one way or another.

In the meantime, my parents solicited my assistance in planning a celebration in honor of their 65th wedding anniversary.  Sixty-five years of fussin’ and fightin’.  Sixty-five years of bickering and cussin’.  (Mom is bewildered that Dad goes around muttering “Shit!” and “Pain in the ass!” under his breath all day, failing to realize that he is referring to, um, her.)  Their anniversary date is Christmas Eve, just 78 days from this evening.  My sister and her husband are expected to be in California for other reasons around that time, so we’re hoping to arrange for all of us to be together.  We are planning to split the festivities into two parts.  One part will be with my sisters and some of the grandkids near my parents’ home in the Central Valley.  The other part will be with my wife’s family near our home in Sacramento (most of them live 40 to 80 miles north of here).  They are thinking of having a dinner at a Golden Corral, a family buffet place just down the street from us.  They want streamers and balloons.  And invitations.  Thoughts of printing costs and hand calligraphy flashed through my pea brain before I broke the news to Mom about a little thing called Facebook Events.  She knows we do most things electronically these days, but doesn’t want to know about it.  Fine, whatever works, she says.

By the way, I have been trying to convince my parents to purchase iPhones.  They have pre-paid cell phones, although they don’t know how to use most of the features (neither do I).  I think I made my best pitch yet when we were discussing the anniversary party.  Mom says she doesn’t know when it will be held exactly, as she doesn’t know when the school at which my sister teaches will be on vacation.  It’s a Jewish school, so she thought that Sis might be off during Hanukkah rather than around Christmas.  My sister recently moved from Dallas to Boston, so I am not aware of her current employer.  “What school is that?” I asked Mom.  She didn’t know either.  So I whipped out my phone, Googled Jewish day schools in Boston, and checked out a couple of links before Sis’ pic popped up on her school’s website.  Then it was just a matter of clicking around a bit to find the school calendar.  You’re in luck, Mom, she’s off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

My parents were appropriately impressed by what can be done with a smart phone — at least enough to allow me to show them the simple icons and the ease of accessing features.  “We’d never use most of that stuff,” my mother protested.

Guess what you’re getting for your anniversary, Mom and Dad!

 

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

Talkin”Bout My Generation

Big Sky

Montana:  Big sky, open highway

The 2017 Great American Escape

BILLINGS, MONTANA

I have long had an eclectic appreciation of popular music.  During my childhood, my father introduced me to big band music and show tunes; later, I got into ’50s doo-wop and then country music and finally the hits of the ’70s and ’80s.  I pretty much lost track of pop music around 1990.

This can mean only one thing:  I’m getting old.  The music on my iPhone largely represents the days of my youth.  And I guess I’m not alone.  A lot of us Baby Boomers are starting to sport silver hair, serve as fodder for AARP and create commercial opportunities for all things retro.

To verify that my musical tastes are in line with the masses of my generation, I need only to visit a store or restaurant and pay attention to the background music piped in through the speakers.  Last night, for example, as we perched on stools at a casino bar in rural Nevada and stabbed at the video poker machines, I couldn’t help but notice that the house music was the Sirius XM channel 80s on 8.  As I sipped my soda, I realized that nearly every song I heard is on my phone.  Cyndi Lauper?  Check.  Madonna?  Check.  Michael Jackson?  Check.  Bananarama?  Check. Men at Work?  Bon Jovi?  Prince?  Check, check, check.  I guess my age group is supposed to have money and has thus become the target audience to woo.

This morning, we stopped for breakfast in Twin Falls, Idaho.  As we checked out the menu, we heard “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” followed by the Honeydrippers’ version of “Sea of Love.”

I rest my case.