My father enjoys sitting in the dark.

Sometimes he sits outside, but mostly he sits in the little TV and computer room that my parents made out of one of the spare bedrooms.  It may be late at night, but he keeps all the lights off.  I may see the glow of the television as I walk by; aside from the news shows, my Dad likes watching serials and movies about murders and gangsters and investigations, the bloodier the better.  The ones where the wife kills the husband (or vice-versa) seem to be his favorite.

If my father is not watching TV, he’s on the computer.  Also in the dark.  He owns an old Model A that he’s restored, and he loves surfing classic car enthusiast websites and the parts sales on eBay using his painfully slow dial-up connection.  If I call my parents and the line is busy, I know that Dad is online again.

Other times, my father just sits in the dark and stares off into space, lost in thoughts unknown to anyone but himself until he falls asleep in his chair.

In the daytime, my parents are often to be found outdoors.  My mother, who fancies herself to be something of a farmer, loves gardening of any ilk.  Meanwhile, unless my father’s talents are called upon to dig a hole or haul a heavy wheelbarrow full of debris, he is likely to be somewhere nearby, sitting in his chair, still as a stone.  My mother confided that one of the neighbors, thinking that my father must be silently suffering from some sort of horrible disease or disability, asked what exactly is wrong with him.  That’s just Dad, she explained.

My father turned 81 years old this past weekend, and we made the eight-hour round trip to the Central Valley to celebrate with him.  I am pleased to say that both my parents are in rather good shape for octogenarians.  Lately, however, my mother has begun admitting that it’s not as easy to get around anymore, that the old muscles just aren’t as flexible as they used to be, and that it is becoming more difficult to do the stooping and bending required to keep her trees and flowers and vegetables growing.  Then she told me about all the hyacinth bulbs she just planted — purple, yellow and pink.  So it’s hard to know how much concern is warranted, how much is genuine discomfort and how much is just kvetching.  But one thing is pretty clear:  My parents are slowing down.

Although my parents enjoy living out in the country, on the edge of the rangeland where the cows munch the tall grass contentedly (moo today, Big Mac tomorrow), we are worried about their isolation and what is likely to be their increasing inability to care for a huge house and acres of property.  I have mentioned my concern in this space in the past, but as time goes by, I can tell that this is a snowball rolling downhill.  It is just a matter of time before it collides with an immovable object and goes splat.  I sense that this is the calm before the storm.  As I related to my wife, I am holding my breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Perhaps one of my parents will pass away suddenly, which will be hard enough to deal with.  It is clear that the surviving parent will not be able to remain on that big spread alone.  Arrangements will have to be made, and it will not be pretty.

What I truly fear, however, is that a rather different scenario will play out, rendering things a whole lot messier.  For instance, if one of my parents takes a fall, breaks a hip and ends up first in a hospital and then in a convalescent facility, eventually returning home and being unable to get around or being cowed by the experience into a sedentary lifestyle.  Dad would probably take it in stride; he likes sitting around in the dark anyway.  Mom, however, would go stir crazy.  I haven’t yet forgotten what it was like when she broke her shoulder and had to have emergency surgery sixteen years ago.  I wasn’t around all that much, but I do remember the fit she threw in the kitchen one night when she was unable to serve herself and there was no one in the same room to assist her immediately.  I can’t imagine having to deal with that on a regular basis.

One would think that I’d be able to simply sit down with my parents to discuss the subject of aging and future plans.  I have, however, found that this is not the simplest thing to do.  There is the “squirm factor;” it is an uncomfortable topic for all parties involved.  Every adult child wants to think of his or her parents as young and spry forever, and what elderly person wants to delve into the prospect of incapacity, losing the people and things that are important to them and, yes, mortality?  It’s far easier for everyone to just ignore the subject completely, allowing that particular white elephant the status of honored guest, here to stay and ignored by all.

My wife (God bless her wisdom and her finely honed sense of discernment) recently mentioned, during one of our early morning commutes, that I ought to consider mentioning to my parents the possibility of moving to the Sacramento area when they are finally ready to sell their house and property.  That would place them close to shopping, medical care and all the services they need, and they would be only about 40 miles away rather than a four hour drive down the freeway (which, this time, we did in the pouring rain both ways).  I promised her that I’d bring up the subject.  The worst they could do would be to say no, I pondered.


Raindrops through the window.  “Pray for rain,” read a roadside sign.  California desperately needs the water, but the rain placed a decided damper on Thanksgiving weekend travel in the northern part of the state.

I followed through with this over the weekend and was pleasantly surprised to find that, not only did they not say no, but my mother actually seemed pleased that we wanted to have them near us.  As I said, my wife’s sense of timing is impeccable, and one of the endless reasons that I love her so much.  Not long ago, any mention of the subject would have just ticked off my parents, causing me to be characterized as an insensitive boor.  But time does march on, now doesn’t it?

This is not to say that my parents are actually going to plan to do such a thing.  They just thought it was nice that we asked.  My mother reminded me that property values have dropped considerably since they had their home custom built some twenty years ago.  Despite the fact that they have not kept up the place very well, they have sunk more than a little money into improving and repairing it over the years.  My mother does not want to sell the house until the real estate market rallies sufficiently to allow my parents to get the price that they think the place merits.  My wife and I roll our eyes, as we are well aware that this will never occur.  My parents’ sense of what their home is worth bears no relation to what anyone would ever pay for a place in that condition.

All of which brings me back to what I mentioned earlier:  Nothing is going to change until something drastic happens.  And that, of course, could be any day.  It could happen tomorrow or ten years from now.  It is just a matter of when cruel fate decides to pull the rug out from under all of us.  For it is then that our lives will be turned topsy-turvy, likely in a most dramatic fashion.

My mother told me that my sister from Texas agreed to come out and help her clean out the house, pack things up and donate or discard unneeded items, whenever my parents are ready to sell the house.  This is good news, as it is a big job and my sister (like my wife) is good at such things.  My parents, of course, hope that they do not have to take my sister up on her offer for many years to come.

Before we left, I asked my mother whether she thinks that she will still be able to maintain the house and the grounds and do her gardening when she is 90 years old.  No, she admitted, whereupon I reminded her that my father will be 90 in just nine more years.  “Nine years is a long time,” she replied.  “But it goes really fast,” my wife chimed in.

My mother says that, if someone would be willing to come live with my parents and help them, they could stay in their home a lot longer.  In-home health care is always available, of course, but as for someone being willing to live with them, it’s just not likely.  There isn’t anyone in the extended family who would be inclined to move out to the country, away from everyone and everything.  And my parents are, if I am to be honest, not easy people to get along with.

Still, my parents admit that they are in a precarious situation.  Should one of them experience a sudden medical emergency that required immediate attention, calling 911 simply would not cut it.  It would take bloody forever for an ambulance to get out there even from Madera, much less from Fresno.  My parents are just rolling right along, humming a tune, hoping that somehow the worst never comes to pass.  It is, I suspect, a foolish notion, but what else can I expect them to do?  Move to a condo with nowhere for my mother to dig in the dirt beyond planting tomatoes and hydrangeas in little window boxes as she did in her childhood days?

All in all, it is clear to me that my parents fully understand the realities of the situation, but choose not to dwell upon it.  I can’t say that I blame them there.  After all, it could lead to morbid thoughts, and why shouldn’t they enjoy doing what they can do while they are still able to do it?

So my mother showed me her new sheets and slippers, pointed out with pride the new location of her cactus garden and insisted on giving us gas money.  We drove into Fresno for a birthday dinner at a chain restaurant, splurging on two appetizers before the entrées and singing “Happy Birthday” when the server brought out a little ice cream sundae with two candles stuck in the top.  Then we returned to my parents’ house for birthday cake and sang to my father again.

I can tell that Dad is aging.  I don’t think I would be comfortable asking him to hit tennis balls with me anymore, even if there were any place to do such a thing locally.  We still did that until after he turned sixty.  But, of course, I was a lot younger then, too.  In some respects, I am in a lot worse shape than my father, and who knows whether I could even manage to hit a backhand anymore.

On the way home, I told my wife that, at least to me, my Dad is finally starting to seem like an old grandpa.  As my maternal grandfather aged, we began bringing him the same gift for every birthday and every Father’s Day.  We knew exactly what he wanted:  A bottle of whiskey (which he always referred to by its Yiddish name, schnapps).  Although I was only a teenager, I seem to recall that he favored Canadian Club.

With my father, it’s beer.  The hard stuff really doesn’t interest him, although he’s been known to make an amazing Tom Collins when the summertime heat climbs over a hundred degrees.  For the past few years, my wife and I have gone looking for some sort of beer or ale to present him with on his birthday.  Often, we go for one of those sampler packs that tend to hit the shelves for the holiday season with such corny names as “flags of the world.”  This year, we ran out of time to shop for Dad’s beer properly and had to choose from the limited selection that was available at a store close to my parents’ house.

Now, I don’t know a thing about beer.  Neither my wife nor I drink it.  We are boring teetotalers.  What I know is that my father likes light to medium beers and ales, and has somewhat of a preference for the imported varieties.  I know he doesn’t like the dark stuff, but that’s about it.  I couldn’t tell you the difference between hops and skips or between malt and salt.

Fortunately, my eye fell upon a 12-pack of a light ale that I had never heard of before.  It was a wheat ale, the package reported, made with citrus peel and coriander.  Well, that sounds interesting, I thought.  I doubted that my father had ever tried it.  This, of course, can cut both ways.  He may very well enjoy the opportunity to try a variety of ale that is new to him, but then again, what if he hates this kind?  Then he has a dozen bottles to get rid of.  And although the ale was “Belgian style,” it was actually domestic.  But it’s all Greek to me.  Who ever heard of such a ludicrous thing as an alcoholic beverage called Shock Top in a bright orange case?

Well, we lucked out.  We presented my father with the ale as soon as we arrived, and he immediately popped open a (still) cold one.  He loved it!  He oohed and aahed about how smooth it was, and what a delightful flavor.  My wife and I gave each other the look that says “high five!”

But whether you’re an ale man, like my Dad, or a whiskey guy like my grandfather, the problem with reaching that age is that the number on the birthday cake cannot be ignored, much as we would like to.  Each of my grandfathers only lived about one year more than the age that my father is now.  Losing him would be very sad indeed, and I know I would have a terribly hard time with it.

But losing him or my mother to some sort of cruel life-in-death like a stroke or a fall would be even harder.

And so we sit and wait.  Wait for that day when we receive the dreaded phone call, frantically throw clothes into a bag and take a screamer 200 miles down the freeway.  This haunts my dreams.  My wife reminds me that, to save our sanity, we can’t dwell upon it.  We just have to take one day at a time and leave it in God’s hands.

Indeed, all we can do is pray.  At least until that fateful day when I awake to find that the nightmare has become real.

Hanukkah and the Big Eight-O



My parents presented each of us with Hanukkah gifts.  Not a first, but sufficiently rare to have been a surprise.

Even when my sisters and I were children, gift-giving was generally designated for birthdays.  For Hanukkah, we typically received a little mesh bag of chocolate “gold coins,” perhaps accompanied by a handful of real coins, essential to the playing of dreidl.

But Hanukkah was still special to me.  The lighting of the colored candles, the singing and the latkes with applesauce and sour cream constituted sufficient pageantry to make an impression.

Although those celebrating Christmas with enormous piles of presents under the tree might beg to differ, we lacked for nothing.  If we hankered after something reasonable in, say, March or August, one way or another we usually got it (sooner or later).  And avoiding mindless shopping based on the page of the calendar helped us to avoid destructive habits of acquisitiveness, avarice and poor money management.

So it was a bit of a surprise when my mother brought out a box of wrapped gifts and began distributing them.  There were puzzles, lotions, sachets, candy and, for me, a bag of coffee ice cream flavored coffee, already ground.  I know it will be delicious.

Meanwhile, my sister and her husband outdid themselves in the kitchen.  This was my first taste of broiled tofu (we usually sautée it), which was heavenly.  And there was a homemade apple pie, vegan and gluten-free.  For the second day running, we ate until we were stuffed.

In addition to Hanukkah, today was my father’s eightieth birthday.  It is difficult for me to believe he has reached that age.  As must be common to most children, I will always think of him as a young man in his thirties and forties.

It is strange how, as we grow up, time seems to stand still in regard to our parents.

My parents specified that we should bring no gifts to this occasion, but we ignored that request.  Not that my father is easy to buy for.  He has become proficient in the use of the internet in recent years, and he buys the books and movies he wants online.  New clothes just don’t do it for him, as he prefers to wear old duds, even after they’ve sported holes and stains.

But all is not lost.

Thanks, Sam Adams!


>NaBloPoMo November 2013

Stupid Signs Seen in Retail Establishments

Listen up, business owners!  Today’s topic is:  Stupid signs in retail establishments that annoy the crap out of me.

These are signs that are not cute, are not funny and generally bespeak the fact that the owner and/or manager is a cretin with the IQ of a cockroach.  The fact that the establishment believes that its customers will enjoy such signs is indicative of its belief that the patrons are as soft in the head as the management.

So without further ado, I present to you the top four items on my list of infamy:

in God we trust

In God we trust, all others pay cash.

These days, most stores do not accept checks for obvious reasons:  Too often, they are worthless.  Cash is backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government (although the bank will send a counterfeit bill directly back to the merchant, but that is another issue entirely) and credit card payments (with proper I.D.) are guaranteed.  I cannot fault businesses for wanting to be paid.  If this means not accepting personal checks, I am fine with that.  I occasionally run across a business that does not take credit cards due to the fees involved, and I can accept that as well.  But please do not insult my intelligence.  Prominently display a sign describing what forms of payment you accept.  Please do not bring God into it.  Not only is this blasphemous, but it gives you away as a hick that is not worthy of my patronage.

you break it

Lovely to look at and lovely to hold, but if you break it consider it sold.

Aww, what a cute rhyme.  This informative sign immediately tells me three things:

  1. Children not welcome here.  I definitely would not bring my little grandniece into such an establishment.  Everyone knows that children like to touch things; in the case of my grandniece, she has to put them in her mouth and taste them.  Yes, parents are responsible for controlling their children in public.  However, there is a limit to what a parent can do.  Children will be children and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Even if you are holding your little one tightly in your arms, there is no guarantee that he or she will not suddenly thrust out an arm and unintentionally knock over one of your precious pieces of inventory.  And guess what?  My grandniece doesn’t have any money.  But I do.  And you’re not getting any of it, sucker.
  2. Customers with disabilities not welcome here.  I am probably lucky if I can get a wheelchair through the door of your shop.  Having surmounted that hurdle, however, I now have to deal with maneuvering tight little corners and narrow aisles so that you can get the maximum amount of stock into the postage stamp that you consider a store.  If, in the process, a wheel should happen to hit the edge of one of your displays and jar loose an item that a previous customer has replaced too close to the edge, I will have the pleasure of arguing with you (and probably the local constabulary) about why I am not paying for your overpriced schlock.  The same goes for those of us who, while still able to stand on their own two feet, have balance issues and might end up breaking something when quickly grabbing onto a shelf to avoid falling.  But really it’s not a problem, as it is obvious that you don’t need our money or our business.
  3. You are an ass who does not understand costs of doing business.  Your sign is forcing me to assume that you are an uneducated peddler who failed to graduate from high school and does not have even the most rudimentary understanding of economics.  So allow me to educate you.  Breakage/spoilage is a cost of doing business.  (Ask your accountant how to deduct this from your income taxes.)  If you are unprepared to assume this risk, or your paper thin profit margin does not allow for this, get out of business.  The fact that you wrongheadedly attempt to pass these costs onto your customers will not bother most patrons who walk through your door… until they break something.  If your merchandise is really that valuable, make sure it is enclosed in a locked case the way jewelry stores do.

Note:  Just because a retailer posts such a sign does not necessarily impose liability upon a customer who accidentally breaks an item.  How much a hapless customer must pay (if anything) largely depends on the law of negligence in your state or country.

helen waite

Our credit manager is Helen Waite.  If you need credit, go to Helen Waite.

Ooh, now we’re getting back into religious territory again.  No matter, I need to make an appointment with Ms. Waite, please.  I need to meet with her to discuss my excellent credit rating, my superb purchasing power and why your sorry business will not be the beneficiary of any of my disposable income.  In my magnanimity, however, I have added your establishment to my Christmas list.  Your gift this year will be a recording of “I Gave Her the Ring, She Gave Me the Finger.”

free beer

Ye Old Announcement:  FREE BEER!  December 32nd

I actually saw this one today when the family was having lunch at Shakey’s Ye Old Public House (otherwise known as pizza parlor) in Oroville.  This type of sign is the progeny of the old-fashioned candy store notice in which the proprietor announced “Free Candy Tomorrow” — and never took the sign down.

I so wanted to take a bit of white paint and a brush and very carefully change the “3” to a “2.”  I wonder if anyone would notice, not to mention how the management would react to the lines outside the door a few days before Christmas.  My guess is that the sign would mysteriously disappear without delay.  Which is a step that the management should take immediately.



An Open Letter to My Niece About Drugs

To my niece, who I love dearly:

Yesterday, I tried to help you with an essay you were writing for psychology class. It brought back many memories of my own college days.  After reading an article on the effects of alcohol and various types of illegal drugs on the brain and nervous system, you were supposed to write a short theme expanding upon how the information presented applies to your own life.  I suggested that you must have a wealth of anecdotes to draw upon from the experiences of your high school classmates.  (I sincerely hope you have no personal experiences to relate, and if you do, I’m not sure I want to know.  But let’s talk about it anyway. I know your two brothers use marijuana and I am concerned that your love for them might influence you in the wrong direction.)

“I don’t know what things are like in high school these days,” I told you, “but when I was in school a long, long time ago in the ‘70s, drugs were a really, really big thing.”

Without skipping a beat, you responded “it’s just like the 70s again.”

Well, then.  I guess drugs are everywhere.  Umm…

I have lots of stories I could tell you, dear niece, but I have a very distinct feeling that they wouldn’t even come close to the ones you could tell me.

Despite having graduated from a suburban high school in a wealthy school district and then having attended the local “drug central” state university campus, I never used drugs.  Not once.  Never experimented, never even was curious.  Bill Clinton may not have inhaled, but in my case, I just said no.  To do this, I had to be an island in the midst of a swirling sea of pot smoke, pills and worse.  And I had some close calls.

Drugs scared the crap out of me, and I ran away as fast as I could.  I spent four years of my young life doing the bob and weave.

Alcohol was different.  It didn’t scare me, it just disgusted me.  Dorm mates would get drunk and pull the fire alarm at two in the morning, causing those of us living at the top of the residence hall tower to roust out of bed and run down 21 flights of stairs to gather out in the below zero temperatures of the quad in our PJs.  Keg parties would be held on Saturday night; on Sunday morning, the dorm carpets would be sopping and sticky so that sloshing my way to the elevator (squish, squish) caused my socks to get wet.  The pervasive smell of beer and vomit was just another day in paradise.  The Who’s classic tune “Teenage Wasteland” comes to mind.  (I’m sure you can find it on You Tube, my dear.)

I remember celebrating a friend’s birthday with a bunch of students in a bar down on Quail Street and ordering an amaretto sour.  I didn’t even know what it was, but I had heard that it was pretty sweet and figured I had a chance of being able to sip at it without gagging.

I found beer as revolting as it was ubiquitous.  To this day, I do not know how my father (or anyone) drinks it.  “It’s an acquired taste,” Dad tells me.  Ugh, bully for you, Dad.

Then there was the wine.  The student choice appeared to be a cheap rosé called Lancer’s, often consumed with local favorite Freihofer’s chocolate chip cookies.

Let us not forget the many variations of Cuba Libre that were passed around.  One type involved buying cans of Coke out of the soda machine, drinking half the can and filling the rest with rum.  Then there was “rum and cherries,” served in a Dixie cup, that contained just a smidge of Coke for coloring.  I’m probably too old to use the word “yucky,” but there you have it.

Although I tried to fake it for a while by taking a sip of whatever was being served, about midway through college I had an epiphany that made me decide I wasn’t going to put up with it anymore.  Funny thing is, nothing dramatic happened to push me in that direction.  I was at a party at a dorm across campus, someone put a plastic cup of beer in my hand, and I proceeded to sip at it, trying very hard not to make faces at the horrible taste.  I walked around with it as a prop, as I always did, and finally braved a few more sips.  I realized it wasn’t as terrible as I had heretofore imagined and I drank about half the cup.  It was at that point that I woke up.  “This is not me,” I thought, “this is not who I want to be.”  I set down my beer, walked out of the building and never touched a brew again.  I had finally had enough of playing games for the sake of fitting in.  After that, I would just tell people that I didn’t drink.  If that made me a wussy, tough cookies.

The article that you were assigned to read, dear niece, mentioned something called a “keg stand.”  This is a phrase I had never heard of before.  I had the distinct impression that it did not refer to a platform on which to set the keg.  So, of course, I had to look it up.  Your assignment descriubed it as a dangerous form of binge drinking.  Turns out it’s an acrobatic drinking game (thanks, Wikihow).  What’ll they come up with next?  Sheesh.

In my first year of college, I quickly learned that a bong was not the sound that the carillon made to strike the hour.  I also learned that “hits” did not refer to music and that a “tab” did not refer to a bar bill or a typewriter key.  But then there were lots of strange terms I had to learn in college.  Many of my dorm mates hailed from Long Island and had a vernacular of their own.  A “pisser” was not a urinal; it meant that you were quite a character.  A “piece of work” was not an assignment to be turned in for credit; it meant that you were a hopeless nerd.  Furthermore, “taking a dump” did not mean that you were going out to empty the trash and “tossing your cookies” did not have anything at all to do with Freihofer’s.  And “worshipping the porcelain god” was decidedly not something that one did in church.  I’m sure all this stuff carries totally different monikers today, dear niece, which is far out, man.

Living in the college dormitories was intolerable for me; I made a go of it for two years before settling for a cubbyhole in a single room occupancy firetrap of a hotel downtown.  Being straitlaced resulted in merciless teasing that got old after a while.  And I found myself in a no-win situation involving eight students in a suite trying to make do with one bathroom.  I won’t go into details here, but it wasn’t pretty.

The swirl of pot smoke never seemed to end.  If I walked into the suite and they were at it again, I would turn around and walk out.  I’d take a bus downtown or wander around the campus.  The big question should have been:  Why isn’t anyone calling the cops?  The answer, of course, was that the city police stayed out of the campus and the Kampus Kops turned a blind eye.  The administration didn’t give a flip.

As a freshman (first time away from home and all that), I was terribly naïve and very nearly stumbled into disaster one day.  I should preface this story by explaining that I was caught up in a nightmarish game of Musical Roommates.  My first roommate, a very friendly guy, left me after three days to go bunk with his homie down the hall.  My next roommate got homesick and let after a couple of weeks.  At this point, I was paired with an older student, a druggie who did not appreciate wimps like me who told the residence staff just what was going on (which I finally did after walking in on him and his girlfriend doing the nasty).  My lovely roommate found the perfect way to get back at me.  He knew my Achilles’ heel:  Food.  In this case, homemade brownies.  His sex partner had made an entire pan, cut into nice little squares, and wouldn’t I like to have one?  I wanted so badly to take one, and it took all my willpower to say no.  I had read something once about druggies consuming marijuana that way.  Only later did I learn that the brownies were laced with hashish.

Pills of all kinds were for sale in our dorm.  The local drug dealer lived two doors down and across the hall from me; he kept his wares stashed in one of his dresser drawers, beneath his bulky sweaters.  He warned me that I would get hurt if I told anyone.  I have no doubt that he was telling the truth.

I suppose the ultimate in my college experience of dodging the ever-present barrage of drugs occurred at a party I attended in my senior year.  I was one of the editors of our student newspaper and an end-of-semester bash was held by the staff at another editor’s home downtown.  It was a three-story Victorian and they took advantage of the party possibilities that this arrangement afforded.  I walked in the front door to find people milling around with cups of beer.  Nothing unusual there.  Then I saw the sign.  “Liquor, first floor.  Pot, second floor.  Hard stuff, upstairs.”  I turned around, tore open the door and walked as fast as I could to the nearest bus stop.

And so, dear niece, if indeed it is the 1970s again in your high school and now your college, I feel for you.  I truly sympathize with what you are going through and I hope, for your sake and that of your little daughter, that you will emulate your uncle by turning and running the other way as fast as you can.

I know I’m over fifty years old and that I can’t possibly understand the challenges that your generation is facing today.  But I like to think I know a thing or two about peer pressure and how it is possible to respect yourself enough to say no.

And one other thing.  I love you and I kind of want you to be around for a while.