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.

 

Boston on My Mind

Massachusetts sign

My sister moved from Dallas to Boston today.

She’s a teacher, so she waited until the end of the school year to resign.  Then she got on a plane and went, leaving her husband behind to rattle around in their big, empty house with their two cats.

Not that her husband is home all that much, anyway.  He’s an executive who half the time lives on planes and in hotel rooms.  He spends one week out of each month in Germany, and has for years.  My brother-in-law will fly up to Boston on the weekends and stop there on his way back from his trips to Europe.

It’s not like my sister went to Boston for a job, although she does intend to look for one there.  Right now, she’s staying at the home of friends who have decamped to Cape Cod for the summer.  With her extensive experience in education, I have no doubt she’ll be employed again when the new school year begins in the fall.

The reason my sister abruptly moved 2,000 miles away is her daughter, my niece.  She is struggling with anorexia in Beantown and is not doing well.  We all fear she will starve herself to death.  I have no idea what words to use to describe my feelings on the matter.  It’s like a big blank space.  What can one possibly say that would be even approach being meaningful?

My niece has now been through two programs, expensive residential programs that are designed to teach her proper eating habits, how to prepare balanced meals and how to keep her inner demons at bay.  As if such a thing were possible.

I don’t have much contact with my sister (it’s a long story), but I did call her while she was visiting in Boston recently.  She reported that at least my niece eats some ice cream in the evenings.  Did I mention that my niece now weighs about 70 pounds?

I wrote two letters to my niece earlier this year, addressed to the residential treatment center where she was then staying.  I was nothing but cheerful, omitting mention of my wife’s surgery and my problems at work.  I regaled her with tales of my adventures in Scrabbleland.  I sent her cute cat pictures.  I discussed birthdays and vacations.

No response.

Not that I really expected to hear from her.  I mean, what is she going to say to an uncle whom she barely knows?  I’m locked up for my own good, I hate it here, and your pathetic efforts are not helping?  I know you hated that place, Rebecca, and I’m glad you’re back home now.  Yeah, I heard about the thing with the bacon.  Um, we’re Jewish and, well, it’s not like they never heard of Jews in Boston, so I don’t get it.

The doctors and therapists advised my sister not to move in with her daughter.  So she’s giving my niece her space, hoping to make Shabbat dinner for her on Friday nights and to be nearby if needed.

I always thought that anorexia was a problem faced by middle school aged girls who think they’re fat.  Just call me stupid.  Not that you can entirely blame me.  The first time I ever heard of anorexia was back in my college days when, home for the summer, I would sneak peeks at my sisters’ teen mags.

These days, I’m told that anorexia is a form of mental illness that is often a lifelong affliction.  I don’t know that it can be “cured,” at least not in the sense “make it go away forever.”  I haven’t read up on it because, quite frankly, I’m afraid of what I’d learn.  Meanwhile, it’s hard to wrap my mind around a brilliant young woman, valedictorian of her college class, who appears to be hellbent on a long, slow suicide.  Whose fondest hope seems to be dissolution into the ether, to make herself disappear piece by piece until, like the Cheshire cat, there is nothing left but the smile.

Should I write my niece another letter?  Should I just forget about the whole thing, chalk it up to an old fart’s lack of understanding of twentysomething problems, remember her as the cheerful, vivacious 12 year old that she was when I traveled to Texas to attend her bat mitzvah more than a decade ago?  Should I heed the serenity prayer and learn to accept the things I cannot change?

At the end of next month, I will be in Massachusetts for a week to compete in a national Scrabble tournament.  I will be about a 90-minute drive from my niece and my sister.  Should I go visit them?  Will I just make matters worse?  Should I conveniently omit to mention that I’ll be in the area?  Will I feel even worse if I see my niece?  I already feel like crud in making it all about me when it should be about her.

My elderly mother is sad that it has come to this, but blames the whole thing on my sister’s and brother-in-law’s unhealthy attitude toward food.  Ultimately, I think this may hark back to my niece’s paternal grandmother, who is thin as a stick and despised her husband’s obesity until the day he died.  When my niece was growing up, her mother and grandmother made sure she was aware of the dangers of becoming fat, with the apparent implication that food is the enemy.  My sister and her husband were pescaterian for a time, then began eschewing “fish meat” and went vegan.  Today, I hear, they eat fish again.  On top of that, my sister and her mother-in-law are both gluten sensitive, so there are a lot of things that they won’t eat.  I get it; I’m vegan and gluten sensitive, too.  Not that it’s done anything to change my lifelong obesity.

My niece has two brothers, neither of whom exhibits anorexic tendencies.  For reasons that I do not understand, apparently anorexia is disproportionately suffered by women.  Could this have something to do with body shaming, with women aiming to succeed by living up to some warped body image concept dreamed up by men, involving waiflike girl-women hopped up on pills so they can strut their stuff on the runway and appear on the covers of magazines to the approval of leering male gazes?

Surely it’s more complicated than such a simplistic explanation would suggest.  Not to brag, but my niece is not some airhead; she’s a talented biochemist with a bright future ahead of her.  At least she could have a bright future ahead of her if she weren’t so intent on turning herself into a puff of smoke that is here one moment, then suddenly carried away on the breeze, up into the clouds to disappear from view forever.

 

Recall

 

Saturday afternoon.  I am over in the next county sitting in the waiting room of a giant auto dealership, waiting for one of our cars to be serviced.  We have two vehicles, completely different models and manufacturers, but both have been subject to recalls in recent months.  Lacking a mechanical bone in my body, I don’t even try to understand what electronic thingamajig has to be replaced or adjusted to avoid having our vehicle go up in flames or self-destruct in some other equally dramatic fashion.  While I’m there, they can change the oil and check our alarm system that keeps going off, at least according to our landlord.

Funny thing about recalls.  It used to be that when a product was recalled, it meant that you could return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.  While this construct continues to apply to hummus, kids’ toys, power tools and gardening equipment, somehow the concept hasn’t caught on with big ticket items like automobiles.  Giving me my money back seems like a reasonable form of demonstrating contrition for screwing up.  I’m sure the dealership isn’t thrilled about having to conduct free repairs on hundreds of cars, but presumably they are being compensated by the manufacturer.  As for me, my Saturday is now shot and there is no compensation to be found.

They have the A/C cranking at the dealership and the waiting room is freezing.  My allergies, already having kicked into overdrive (gotta love springtime), decide to have a little party at my expense while I am a captive audience.  I’m glad I remembered to bring a handkerchief.

I brought a thick book with me, but rather than improving my mind, I am allowing it to turn to mush by messing around on my phone.  The place has wifi, so what the heck.  In walks a man and his developmentally disabled teenager, who sit across from me.  Every time I cough, the boy looks straight at me and asks “Are you alright?”  His father does not admonish him.  Perhaps I am nothing but an inveterate meanie (or just an incorrigible old fart), but my thoughts are not particularly charitable at this time.  About the third or fourth time that I cough and he asks the same question, I blurt out “Yes! Are you?”

Then my mother calls.  She wants to fill me in on the blow by blow of the Chabad Seder she attended on Monday evening.  This is followed by the details of the community Seder that my sister attended over in the Bay Area.  I should mention that I have very little contact with my sisters (believe me, it’s for the best), so Mom feels compelled to fill me in on the minutia of their lives.  I roll my eyes and say “yep,” “uh-huh,” “that’s good” and “wow!” in the appropriate places.

For the uninitiated, Chabad is an Orthodox Jewish organization that specializes in outreach to Jews scattered all over the world, particularly those in remote locations where little or no Jewish life is available.  They encourage donations, but unlike other synagogues, never require anyone to pay anything to attend a Passover Seder in the spring or High Holy Day services in the fall.  Although I strongly disagree with many of their beliefs, I continue to support them and am proud of their inclusiveness in that they turn no one away, Jew or non-Jew, black or white, religious or secular, poor or rich, old or young.

I have attended several Chabad communal Seders with my parents, most recently last year.  My mother’s description of the disorganization, the bad food and the strange characters in attendance sounded exactly like what I remember.  She complained about the constant conversations that prevented her from hearing the rabbi and caused her to keep losing track of what blessing he was saying and what everyone was supposed to be eating at any particular point.  The Seder attended by my sister was no better.  Having had bariatric surgery (years ago now), she could not tolerate the food and kept having to leave the room to upchuck the bite or two she managed to get down.

I cough.  My mother asks if I have a cold.  The kid sitting across from me asks “Are you alright?”  Grrr!

My mother is fed up with the Chabad Seders but she says it’s better than sitting at home and having a Seder with just my father (who has no interest in anything religious).  However, she points out, my other sister (the one in Texas) did exactly that with her husband this year.  Instead of a big family celebration, it was just the two of them.  Next year, Mom tells me, she is making the Seder in her home.  I quickly check the date on my phone and find that it falls on a Friday night.  Yes!  I’ll be there, I tell her.  (And think to myself:  God willing.)

Who knows what will happen between this Passover and next?  Will I still be around?  Will both of my parents, who are in their eighties?  It occurs to me that it is not only cars that are recalled.

My mother and father begin arguing in the background.  He wants to go into town to do some shopping and she says no, it’s too late in the day already, she’s going to start dinner.  They can go tomorrow, she tells him.  No!  He doesn’t want to go tomorrow, he’s going to mow the lawn then.  Mom:  We can go before or after!  Dad:  No!  I’m too tired to go if I mow the lawn!  Mom: Okay, then we’ll go Monday!

These two have been arguing about everything for nearly 65 years.  I am amazed at how they have managed to stay together, particularly when I remember the knock-down, drag-out screaming matches they used to have when my sisters and I were kids.  The many fond memories I have of my childhood can never make up for that.  It doesn’t help that their current conduct reminds me of that past ugliness nearly every time I visit or talk with them on the phone.

And yet.  They’re my parents.  The ones who raised me.  The ones who put up with me when I was not at my finest.  And I know that they’re not going to be around forever.  I am getting old and am not in the best of health myself, so I have to laugh when I realize that I’m at the point of wondering who will go first, me or them.

Despite all I’ve been through, I know I will take it hard when they’re not around anymore.  By the same token, my father has let me know in no uncertain terms that he will never forgive me if I die before he does.  Note for a future post:  Do dead people need forgiveness?

I hope it is God’s will that we all make it long enough to attend that Seder together at my  parents’ house down in the Central Valley on March 30 of next year.  I plan to take the day off work and arrive the night before.  I can help make the sweet haroseth and then set the Seder plate by referring to the Hebrew embroidery on my grandmother’s matzah tosh (covering for the three pieces of ceremonial unleavened bread).

I tell Mom I have to hang up because the car is done.  The dealership tells me that I should replace my battery and air filter, that two of my running lights are out, and a couple of other things that sound like automotive Greek to me.  How much?  The guy punches numbers into a calculator and tells me it’ll be about $320.  Are you kidding, man?  I text my wife, who is up north with her family for Easter, to confirm that we’re not buying their bullshit.  Car guys, geez!  Shysters all, who live and die by the upsell.

I pay for the oil change and head for the door.  I cough.  “Are you alright?” says the kid, followed by an enthusiastic “bye!” as I walk out.

“Bye!” I respond.  “Have a great day!”

May all our recalls be of the automobile kind, fixable in an afternoon.

 

Nine Days, or Wound Care for the Clueless

scrabble-cat

Sumi, my first Scrabble partner at last week’s tournament.  I think his name is supposed to sound Japanese, although to me it just sounds litigious.

Monday

It rained most of last night and it’s still raining.  The Cosumnes River is expected to overflow (again) by Wednesday if this keeps up.  The weather people say this will go on all week.

My second day out of work.  I am missing a big conference that I organized.  Tomorrow, I am supposed to train staff over in the Napa Valley, but I have sent a subordinate in my place.  I try not to think about work too much, instead concentrating on what I can do to help my wife.

It’s a lot easier not having to apply those bandages every couple of hours.  The disposable Depends are very convenient and I thank God for them.  Unfortunately, my wife’s feet are starting to swell.  I send an email to her doctor but receive no response.

My wife’s cousin comes to visit, bringing along larger pairs of Crocs and some slippers that make it more comfortable for my wife to walk around.  More importantly, however, she is going to help my wife learn to inject insulin.  At the hospital, they found that her diabetes is out of control and that this was the likely cause of her infection.  We’ve both been on oral blood sugar lowering medication for some time, but we had no idea it had gotten this bad.  I just had my own A1C read a few days ago and was still within a reasonable range.

Typically, my wife checks her blood sugar only once in a while.  I don’t do it at all.  Sharps of any kind freak me out.  I have had nightmares about syringes and needles since childhood.  So now we have two types of insulin on hand for my wife, slow acting for bedtime and fast acting for before meals.  Now she gets to check her blood sugar and inject insulin throughout the day.  I pinch myself but am unable to wake up from my nightmare.

While my wife is getting an injection lesson, I head out to do the errands.  Gas up the car, visit two supermarkets, pick up mail from the post office, return a large load of items to Walmart.  My nieces had gone shopping to pick up some supplies for my wife on the day she was discharged from the hospital.  Unfortunately, most of what they bought turned out to be unneeded or didn’t work for us.

The rain continues to fall and we wonder if the power will go out when the winds pick up.  Insulin, I have learned, must be refrigerated.

I drive around town with the wipers going, getting wet at every stop.  My wife usually does most of the driving, which suits me fine.  I have never enjoyed driving and have never been very good at it.  For decades, this was an embarrassment to my father, who had a long career as a driver education teacher.  My reluctance to drive was something of a family joke in my younger years.  Eventually, I got over it to some extent, even driving across country by myself on one occasion.  But when I think of the number of auto accidents I have had over the years, and the fact that my wife (who has been driving longer than I have) has never had an accident, I am glad that she does most of the driving.  So to head out in the rain, among drivers who are not used to inclement weather and are hydroplaning speed demons, is right on the very edge of my comfort zone.  My limited driving experience in the area inevitably results in a wrong turn that finds me in a part of town with which I am unfamiliar.  I turn around, stop and map every stop on my phone after that.

But I am in luck today.  My niece has called me for help in applying for a job online.  Cantaloupes are on sale for a dollar each at Sprouts.  I find a handicapped spot directly in front of the Walmart entrance, along with a conveniently located shopping cart to haul in all the returns.  I lean against the cart in the lobby, my jacket dripping, while the clerk takes forever to remove each item from the cart and then from their bags, scanning everything individually and issuing red stickers from his handheld point of sale device.  Then, of course, I still have to stand in line at the customer service counter and then wait while the clerk examines each item yet again.

Then it’s back out in the rain.

 

Sunday

8:30 am.  We wake up to the phone ringing.  It’s my wife’s doctor, calling a bit early.  We relate our woes, letting her know that we have only one bandage left, enough for one wound dressing change.  She suggests that we come into the clinic, open until 12:30 pm, no appointment necessary.  The nurse will check the incisions for signs of infection and will supply us with bandages.

Up and at ‘em.  Shower, clean and dry the incisions, apply the last bandage.  Out the door and head across town.  We’ve been to the clinic several times, as this is where I typically have my blood drawn.  We park in our usual place and start searching around for the clinic.  Most of the departments that we pass are dark and empty, befitting a Sunday morning.  We walk and walk, quite slowly, with my poor wife holding onto the wall.  We had no idea that we had parked at the wrong end of the complex.

We stop to rest on a bench, get a drink of water.  Elevator up to the third floor.  Walk some more.  We arrive at the clinic, check in, sit and wait.  Eventually, we are called, only to be told that we were supposed to have an appointment (despite what the doctor told us), that they have no supplies at that location and that there was no one to check the incisions.  Go to the emergency room, they tell us.

Understandably, my wife is angry.  We hoof it all the way back to the car.  We have a folded bedsheet in the car’s hatchback that we use as a liner.  I pull it out so that my wife has something soft to sit on.  I drive to the hospital.  Another car zips into the last available parking space in the emergency room lot.  A man relaxes in the car, cigarette dangling out of his month.  We wait for someone to leave so that we can park.  We spy a Staxi abandoned in the parking lot.  I grab it and give my wife a push across the lot and into the emergency room.  We wait in one line, then another line, then sit and wait to be called.  We contemplate a second emergency room copay in a week.

A nurse takes us in back, checks my wife’s blood pressure and send us back out to the waiting room until an exam room becomes available.  When we are finally called, I try not to be rattled by the moans and groans of the occupants of the other bays.  One woman yells out in pain every few minutes.  We are visited by a doctor, a nurse, a patient care technician.  They agree to hunt around for the bandage size we need.  Their initial search turns up empty, and they agree to check the fourth floor.  A few minutes later and, voilà, a tech shows up with a grand total of four bandages.  We could just purchase them online, we realize, at a price of $83 for eight bandages.  One such package would last us a day or so.

The nurse recounts how his wife had a similar incision and drainage due to an infection.  She used large size Depends rather than expensive bandages, he tells us.  Another alternative, he suggests, would be to use sterile gauze pads.  He asks me to glove up and try it out.  The first set of disposable gloves doesn’t begin to fit my distended hands.  He then exchanges them for a larger size that I am just barely able to pull on.  I soon realize that this exercise is for naught, as the nurse intends to apply the gauze himself.  To do so, he uses a large quantity of medical tape, crisscrossing the gauze in every direction.  This is going to be a doozy to remove later, I think, and I am right.  I found myself trying to release her from all that tape quickly when she needed to hit the toilet.  It was a painful experience for her, and I amazed that I managed to avoid pulling her skin off with the tape.

Next stop is Walgreen’s for a box of Depends.

 

Saturday night

9:30 on a Saturday night.  I’m calling around to the few pharmacies that are still open to try to find sterile bandages that are the right size to cover my wife’s surgical wound.  No one has heard of this type of bandage.  No one has another brand in this size.

At discharge this afternoon, the hospital gave my wife seven bandages to take home.  They did not tell us that this supply would not even get us through the night, never mind for the next couple of weeks.

Nor did they show me how to apply said bandages to my wife, nor did they explain how to clean the incisions.  I get to figure this out by myself.  Yay!

I call Kaiser for help, listen to inane recordings (I can now tell you quite a bit about their women’s hot flash and menopause clinic, as well as about their weight loss meal replacement program) and get transferred to three different people before I finally get disconnected while on hold.  I think:  Is this what socialized medicine is like in the rest of the world?

Kaiser calls back, apologizes for the disconnection.  Can we talk to your wife to make sure that we have permission to talk to you?  HIPAA (or “HIPAApotamus,” as one of the hospital nurses put it yesterday) has got to be one of the most annoying laws ever passed by Congress.  The nurse attempts to troubleshoot, seemingly aghast that, in all her years of service, she has never been asked such a question.  She suggests we return to the hospital floor from which my wife was discharged to ask for more.  (They had told us that we were given all the bandages they had.)  She suggests checking a medical supply store.  (On a Saturday night?)  We settle on a telephone appointment with a doctor in the morning.  By happy serendipity, it’s my wife’s regular doctor.

My wife points out that we have nothing to complain about, reminding me that we just talked to a health care professional on a Saturday night and will have a consultation with her doctor on a Sunday morning.  I step down from my high horse.

 

Thursday

My wife has been in the hospital all week.  I have been attending mandatory offsite training all week.  This turns out to be quite a combination.

I arrive at the training site across town an hour early to avoid traffic.  I dump my grits packets into my bowl and head to the break room to apply boiling hot water.  Then back to the training classroom, where I have some Earth Balance vegan margarine stashed in my bag for application to said grits.

I text a good morning to my wife.  She has had a bad night in the hospital, vomiting due to medication being pushed on her when she hadn’t eaten anything.  I can’t say that I blame her.  The so-called food there looks and smells positively disgusting.

When the trainer sends us on a break at 10:30, I check my phone and find that my wife has texted.  She has to have surgery tonight.  I try not to panic.  What kind of surgery??  She does not respond.

Lunchtime, I text my mother-in-law.  “Mom, are you coming???”  Yes, she says, along with my sister-in-law and my niece.  When class lets out at 4, I inform the trainer that I will not be present tomorrow for the last day of training due to my wife’s surgery.  She tells me I can make it up later.  I head straight for the hospital, where I learn the nature of the surgery and the plans to do it between 6 and 7 pm.  My wife’s family shows up, but when 8:00 arrives and still no surgery, they are ready to leave.  They have a 90-minute drive home and have to work tomorrow.  They disappear.  High-ho, the merry-o, the cheese stands alone.

The surgeon has been delayed, we are informed.  The previous procedure has taken much longer than expected.  The surgeon has to rest a little before performing the next one.

At 10 pm, orderlies arrive with a gurney to take my wife off to pre-op, all the way across in the other hospital building.  They walk fast and I can’t keep up with them.  It’s okay; I have a general idea of where I am going.  Turn right, turn left, turn right.  I am used to this part now.  Head outside.  Cross a bridge, then a roadway, then back inside near the emergency room.  Turn right, walk through a long ward, turn left, turn right.  Now I am lost and at the mercy of signs directing me to the appropriate elevator.  I make it to the surgical waiting room.  There is one other person there.  High overhead, near the ceiling, the TV is on.  I am unable to locate a remote to shut off the noise.

I check my phone periodically, but leave it off as much as possible, as it is quickly running out of charge.  I do not want to have a dead phone if I have to contact someone fast.  I should have had the forethought to take my niece’s phone charger, left back in the other hospital building, plugged into my wife’s IV pole.

Midnight.  I don’t know what to do with myself.  I have been up since 5:00 this morning and try not to fall asleep.  I try to ignore the idiotic drivel on the TV.  I walk down the hall, walk back.  I flip through the magazines.  TimeNational Geographic.  Most of them about a year old.

There is a cart full of books and I peruse the titles.  Mostly Reader’s Digest condensed novels (which I refuse to read as a matter of principle) and paperback romances.  I settle for one of the few other items, a legal thriller by Brad Meltzer, The First Counsel.  I move to the other side of the room and read the first couple of chapters.  Some guy is dating the president’s daughter and they go tearing up D.C. on a Saturday night in an ultimately successful effort to shake the Secret Service detail.  A lot of reckless (but not wreckless) driving is involved.  Also a visit to a gay bar and a drop-off of a big stack of cash in a manila envelope out in a remote area.  Poorly written and boring, I think.  I set the book aside.

About the time that Jimmy Kimmel appears on the tube, the phone rings at the deserted information desk in the corner of the surgery waiting room.  My sole companion rushes to pick it up.  He listens for a moment, then starts yelling.  Something about that he should have been informed earlier that they were going to transfer his wife elsewhere.  He slams down the receiver and storms off toward the elevators.

Now I am alone.  Just me and the year-old mags and the romance novels and Jimmy.  At one in the morning, I get the bright idea to use the info desk phone to call the recovery room and see if I can find out anything about what’s become of my wife.  After all, the phone number is right there, laminated for all to see.  Sure enough, they tell me my wife is in recovery and that I can come down.  They give me directions, which are either lamentably poor, or perhaps I am just a dunderhead who can’t follow directions.  I try several wrong doors and hallways before I find the right place and knock on the big double doors.  A staff member comes out to get me.  I ask why they hadn’t called the surgical waiting room and I am told that my wife just came out of surgery a few minutes before.  She looks pretty good for just having been cut, I think.  The anesthesia has not made her sick.  A doctor comes by and gives me the rundown.  My wife asks for water, and it is a while before I can get anyone to bring some.  We are told that she can be wheeled back to her hospital room in about half an hour.  It is now two in the morning and I have been up for 21 hours.  My wife tells me to go home and get some sleep.

I head back out the surgery area and down the elevator, only to realize that I am in an unfamiliar location, likely way on the opposite side of the hospital from where I am parked.  I find a hospital map that appears to confirm my suspicions.  I sit down on a bench for a few minutes before I begin my hike.

After navigating a number of corridors, I regain my bearings.  I sit down by a deserted Starbucks coffee station and call my parents.  Mom said to call and let her know how the surgery went, regardless of the hour.  I tell her all about it.  I confess that I hope I can keep my eyes open long enough to get home.

When I arrive at the final door out to the parking lot, it will not open.  “Oh, come on,” I mutter to myself.  This is supposed to be an automatic door.  Who am I going to be able to find to help me at 2 a.m.?  I notice a sign:  “In emergency, push to open.”  Oh, man, I don’t want to do that, I think.  Alarms and crap are going to go off.

But they cooperate.  I am shocked when the doors fly apart and I am outside in the damp, night air, just a few feet from my waiting vehicle.

 

Wednesday

This is my wife’s second hospital stay of our married life.  Last time was nine years ago, when we lived in Fresno and she landed at St. Agnes Hospital (referred to locally as “St. Agony” or “St. Anguish”) after contracting a virulent strain of flu.  They stuck her in the quarantine ward, fearing that it was the dreaded H1N1, which it turned out not to be.  I’m hoping that the script is more or less the same this time, complete with a prompt discharge, some pills to take home and a rapid recovery.  But I know that this time is different.  I can feel it.

The quarantine ward at Saint A’s was annoying for visitors, who were required to don a gown, hat and gloves (an outfit you can really sweat in).  For the patient, however, it was nice and quiet.  The 1 West building at Kaiser Hospital in Sacramento could be described as the diametric opposite.  Daytime and nighttime blend into a haze of 24-hour alarms, beeping IVs, patients yelling, nurses and patient care technicians coming and going.  Always someone talking and some machine going off, demanding attention.

Across the hall, a homeless man with apparent mental issues is giving every staff member a hard time.  He raises his voice, argues with everyone, complains about everything and uses the F-word in place of every comma and period.  Tonight, he is griping vociferously that the staff had promised to put a second dinner tray, cornbread chicken, aside for him.  Now he’s hungry again and he wants it.  Unfortunately, the staff can’t seem to locate it.  He makes his anger known repeatedly and loudly.  It is past dinnertime and the staff attempt to placate him by offering whatever leftover trays they can find.  No chicken, but he can have fish.  Oh, but he doesn’t want fish.  After ten minutes of arguing, he tells them to just bring him everything they have.  When his food arrives, he wants salt.  He’s not supposed to have salt.  He starts yelling, finally accepts some Mrs. Dash.  My wife informs me that, earlier in the day, he had become violent, throwing an applesauce so hard that it caromed across the corridor and into her room.

Days later, after my wife comes home and I find myself struggling to clean the incisions and apply bandages, she asks me if I’d rather that she return to the hospital.  I stutter, not knowing how to respond.  No, I do not want you to still be in that hellhole where it’s impossible to get a moment’s peace and quiet, not to mention a few hours of sleep.  Yes, I want you to go back to the hospital where there are people who know what the hell they are doing.  I am so afraid of the incisions getting infected due to my incompetence.  Maybe I’m selfish because I’m lonely here without you and I’m so glad you’re home.  Maybe I’m selfish because this is so much work and I’d rather someone else do it.  Either way, I’m a terrible husband.

Eventually, hospital staff and the home health nurse tell me I’m doing a fine job.  Talk about dumb luck.

Tuesday

The trainer starts today’s class with an ice breaker.  Everyone is supposed to stand up and tell one thing that’s happened within the past 24 hours for which he or she is grateful.  We hear stories of good news at work, good grades reported by grandchildren, sports victories.  When it’s my turn, I say “I don’t usually drive, so I’m grateful that I was able to find this place today with only one wrong turn.”

I expected that my wife was going to give me a ride all week.  I did not expect that she would end up sick in the hospital.

I leave the house at a quarter after six, having mapped the location on my phone.  I try to remember my landmarks.  Go past the 80 freeway, past Grand Avenue and turn left on Arcade.  Get on the Capitol City Expressway and stay in the far right lane.  Get off at the 160 freeway and then off again at Canterbury.  Turn right on Leisure Lane, right on Slobe, left on Commercial, right on Lathrop.  Yes, I am grateful for having found this place without getting lost.

After class, I head back to the hospital.  I have mapped it, but I find myself in the wrong lane by the mall and have to find a place to turn around.  I won’t make that mistake again, I think.

I know from yesterday’s experience that there is no place to park anywhere near the out building where my wife’s hospital bed is located.  I also know that I don’t want to have to do that big outdoor walk over the bridge again.  So I park near the medical office building, which is connected to the main hospital, but not to the building where my wife is.  It’s got to be the better part of a mile walk over there, I think.  I’ll just have to walk slowly and do the best I can.  Follow the signs.  Too bad Google Maps won’t help me with the inside of hospitals.

And then:  Just as I get out of my car, I hear my name called.  It’s the husband of my wife’s cousin.  Cousin is visiting and hubby decided to take a walk and figure out whether there’s a faster way to get from the car to my wife’s hospital room.  I tell him I need to try to walk inside as much as possible and that I was hoping to find a staff member who would give me a push over there in one of the hospital’s personal transport chairs, known as a Staxi.  “I’ll push you,” he immediately tells me.  “God is good,” I mumble.  We walk to the information desk, he installs me in a Staxi, and in five minutes he has pushed me all the way over to my wife’s room on the other side of the complex.

Late at night, when I leave my wife’s side, I am not so lucky.  There is no cousin’s husband and no staff member to help me.  I get to hoof it solo, slow and steady like the tortoise.

 

Monday

It’s my first day of a pain-in-the-neck weeklong mandatory training class.  You’re supposed to take this class as soon as you’re promoted to manager.  After two years as a manager here (and a couple of decades elsewhere), someone finally figured out that I hadn’t had the class yet.  Busted.

Actually, this is only the first half of a two-week training class.  I am scheduled for the other half at the end of the month.  To make matters worse, we have a statewide conference on the very day that I return to work.  Fortunately, I have set it all up in advance.  Then there are deadlines that I must meet and training trips that I have to take.  The timing is very bad indeed.

I don’t do much driving around town and have no idea how to get to the out-of-the-way neighborhood where the training center is located.  My wife has not been feeling too well, but she is familiar with the lay of the land (having grown up here) and drives me over.  She seemed to be feeling a bit better on Saturday, when we had a big family gathering at a restaurant in honor of my birthday.  Yesterday, she seemed tired, although she woke up with me and cooked some food for me to take to the Scrabble tournament in Berkeley.  This morning, she was upset that I had not woken up early enough and that I might be late to my first day of training due to the traffic.  We just make it in time.

Since my wife was upset with me, I paid attention to how she zigzagged from one side road and freeway to the next to get to the training center.  You know, just in case she were to decide she didn’t want to drive me anymore.  I had no idea how important this would end up being.  I had no idea that she’d be in the hospital for the next week.

When the trainer sends us on our first break of the day, my wife texts to let me know that she was able to schedule an 11 a.m. appointment with her doctor.  Same-day appointments are hard to come by, and even more so with one’s own doctor.  She asks me whether she should go.  Yes, please go, I tell her.  I’ve been telling her that the boil that’s come up on her skin looks infected and needs to be checked.

At lunch, I call her.  She tells me she vomited in the exam room and the doctor said she had a fever and needed to go to the emergency room.  She was on her way there.  I wonder to myself whether she’ll be admitted.

When I don’t hear from her for the rest of the day and she doesn’t show to pick me up, I know what has happened.  I call the hospital, endure the inevitable transfers from person to person, and eventually reach someone in the emergency room who informs me that she is still there.  “She’s on the sicker side,” I’m told, and will be admitted.  Problem:  I am in a distant part of the city with no transportation.  As bad as I am with anything technological, I manage to figure out how to download Uber on my phone.  Soon, a ride to the hospital is headed in my direction.

The driver is very kind, driving around the emergency room parking lot until I find our car.  He even helps me load my belongings into the trunk.  I give him a tip out of the few dollars in cash that I have on me.

I check in with security, receive a stick-on badge and am pointed in the direction of the bay where I find my wife.  Due to the fever and infection, she has been admitted.  They are just about to wheel her over to a hospital room in another building.  “We’re going outside,” the orderly tells her.  “Are you going to be warm enough, or do you need another blanket?”  Outside??!!  You mean these buildings are not connected?  What the heck do they do when it’s pouring down rain?  “This is California,” I’m told when I ask.  “We love the fresh air.”

“Idiots,” I think.  “This would never happen back in New York.”

I can’t keep up with the gurney, despite the fact that the orderly stops several times when I fall way behind.  This is quite a walk.  Head outside.  Down a little path, across a bridge, then into another building to wind around more corridors.  About 30 minutes later, my mother-in-law shows up with her daughter, granddaughter and little great-granddaughter.  My wife is hooked up to an IV, on heavy-duty antibiotics, fluids, insulin.  The family tells me to go home and sleep, they have it under control.

Sleep sounds good to me, but it means that I have to find my way back to the car.  I hadn’t the forethought to leave a trail of bread crumbs, Hansel and Gretl style.  I’m told that I have to go outside and walk over a big bridge to reach the emergency room parking lot where our car is.  Now, I don’t do well walking outdoors.  If there is the slightest bit of wind, I can’t breathe.  My agoraphobia kicks in and I panic.  How the heck am I going to do this???

You have to do it, kid, I tell myself.  You need to be an adult and take care of your sick wife, not make a scene.  “What’s the worst that can happen?” I think.  After all, I’m at a hospital.

I head up over the tall bridge, trying not to hyperventilate.  There’s barely a hint of a breeze, which is very much in my favor.  On the other side, I see the emergency room entrance and a large parking lot.  I wonder whether this is where the Uber driver dropped me off.  And I wonder whether I should go sit in the emergency room for a while to fortify myself for the remainder of this outdoor walk.  No, I tell myself, I must be almost there.  I see the edge of a building, and as I come around the corner, there’s the car.  I made it.

 

Sunday

Berkeley is about 80 miles west of Sacramento via Interstate 80.  Eighty on 80.  This will be my second Scrabble tournament there, my first having been just recently, on New Year’s Day.  I performed very poorly on that occasion, having lost every game.  But I’m a glutton for punishment and I’m back for more.

To me, competitive Scrabble is a lot like playing the video poker machines in Reno, another pastime I enjoy.  It’s not about winning or losing.  It’s about playing the game.

Although I’m not a very good driver and am not good with directions, this is one trip even I can pull off successfully.  The tournament is at the director’s house.  Our homes are each about a mile from the freeway.  Only the long stretch of I-80 stands between me and a good fight over a Scrabble board.

Last time, I had to lug two heavy bags up the host’s steep stairway.  One bag carries my Scrabble board and equipment, the other my food.  There is always plenty of food at a house tournament.  When you’re vegan, however (and gluten-free to boot), you know to bring your own.  I had a hard time pulling those bags up, one at a time, step by step.

I didn’t really know what to expect.  I found out about the New Year’s tournament from a bare mention in an email sent out by another director.  It was our host’s first time directing, and she didn’t publish the particulars in advance.

Now, however, she’s learned by experience.  An email went out to participants with all the details.  Last time, there were an odd number of competitors, and most of us had to have a “bye” (sit out a round).  During my bye, I made the mistake of sitting on my host’s sofa in her living room.  I sunk in and couldn’t get up.  Fortunately, our host is a personal trainer who is strong and extremely physically fit.  She grabbed my arm and pulled with all her might.  She nearly fell over backward, but she got me up.

This time, as soon as I entered, our host informed me that she had set up a playing room downstairs in addition to the upstairs tables.  Would I perhaps like to stay downstairs?  Hmm, and avoid lugging everything up that flight of stairs?  Oh, yes!

The host had warned attendees in advance that she has cats, but that they stay downstairs.  One of her feline friends, an amiable orange tabby, took a liking to me as soon as I sat down and set up my Scrabble board.  After the obligatory scratch of the belly and behind the ears, he decided that I’d do just fine as a Scrabble partner.

And so I started off the tournament with a smile, and even managed to win one game this time around.  I enjoyed munching on the soy meat and potatoes that my wife had prepared that morning.  Happy birthday to me!

I had no idea that I’d spend the rest of the week going back and forth to the hospital.

 

The Dumb Side

Our Thanksgiving with family has involved a roller coaster of emotions for me, which is something I am still processing.  While I figure out how to write about the experience in a coherent matter, let’s lighten up and do something a bit more fun today.

Over the weekend, I saw an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer entitled “19 Signs You’re Intelligent — Even If It Doesn’t Feel Like It.”  I usually don’t lend much credence to such lists, but if this one is at all accurate, there’s only one conclusion:  I’m dumb.

I didn’t flunk every one of the signs listed, but enough of them describe my opposite that, at the very least, I come out squarely on the dumb side.

And so, without further ado, let’s review how these signs of intelligence (don’t) apply to Uncle Guac:

1. You took music lessons. As a kid?  Nope.  I recall playing a recorder and a pink toy piano with colored keys for a while, mostly with one finger.  I wanted a real piano, which was unreasonable in light of my parents’ finances.  They offered to buy a portable electric keyboard or a guitar, but I declined.  Not the same as a piano.  My sister took violin in school, but the rented instrument mostly sat under her bed collecting dust until it was returned to Alto Music on Route 59.  My mother still says that, if I were such a musician, I would have hauled it out and learned how to play.  Hmm.  Does taking one flute class in college count?  How about taking two flute lessons as an adult before quitting?  I’ve long since sold the flute. Does it count that I can sing?  La la la LA!  Oh, shut up, dogs!

2. You’re the oldest. Admittedly, this is a qualification to which I can lay claim. Rumor has it that this is one of the few things in my life that I can honestly say was completely outside my own stupidity.

3. You’re thin. Hahahaha!! Morbidly obese since birth.  I told you.  Dumb!

4. You have a cat. Not! Oh, man, where do I start?  I could list the little apartments in which we’ve lived that came with “no pets” as a cardinal rule rivaling only “rent paid after the fifth of the month will be subject to a late fee.”  Also, my wife appears to be allergic to cats (and hates them with a passion in any event).

5. You were breastfed. Not a chance. The bottle (heated in a pot of water on the stove of our cockroach-filled Bronx apartment and temperature-tested on the inside of the wrist) was something of a religion in our family.

6. You’ve used recreational drugs. I have done many stupid things in my life, but I am proud to state that this was not one of them. That is actually saying something significant, considering that I attended college in the 1970s.  I retain very unpleasant recollections of dodging a haze of pot smoke and worse until I gave up and ran away to a decrepit single occupancy room hotel downtown for the remainder of my undergraduate experience.  Case in point:  I once attended a student newspaper party held in a three-story townhouse rented by a few of my fellow budding journalists.  Upon entry, attendees were greeted by a sign indicating that alcohol was at ground level, marijuana on the second story and hard drugs in the penthouse.  I turned right around and walked out the door and into the night.  If that makes me dumb, I’d rather be dumb.

7. You’re lefthanded. Struck out again! Not a southpaw.

8. You’re tall. The article states that taller individuals score higher on IQ tests. I’m short, fat and, apparently, just dumb.

9. You drink alcohol regularly. It appears that all those Saturday night keggers at college that I so despised were actually attended by smart people! Turns out sobriety is for dummies!  Who knew?  Being fat, I have developed liver problems that are similar to those experienced by alcoholics.  I guess being a lifelong teetotaler and missing out on all the fun just makes me… dumb.

10. You learned to read early. Ahhh, finally an indicator of intelligence that I can own. I was reading at the age of three, devoured the public library as if it were a chocolate cake and continue to enjoy a good book until this day.  By the way, this is one of the few indicators of intelligence on this list that actually makes sense.

11. You worry a lot. Unfortunately, this is one vice with which I continue to struggle. Although I am a natural born worrier, I like to think I am not quite as intense as I was in my younger days.  I do try to “give it to God” and to allow He who is in control to make things as they should be.  Still, my tendency to worry is not easily quelled.  I’ll have to call this one “neutral.”

12. You’re funny. Nope! My wife is the funny one.  She is quite the wit, and I admire her sense of humor greatly.  As I cringe at the thought of labeling myself as “dour” or “humorless,” perhaps I will just settle on “dumb.”

13. You’re curious. Umm. Ouch!  While I have a diverse set of interests, I’m not one of those people who have to know how everything works.  I grew up on such platitudes as “curiosity killed the cat” and “MYOB.”  My existentialist side will justify my lack of curiosity by asking “who can really know anything anyway?”  Oh, I’m just dumb, you say?  Yep.

14. You’re messy. Winner! See?  Being messy doesn’t make you a pig; it just means you’re smart!  If messiness were the primary mark of intelligence, I’d be right up there with the geniuses.  I am an unapologetic slob.  Not only do I hate cleaning, I believe that I have better things to do.  While it may be unfair for me to leave the cleanup to others, my true feeling is that I don’t care if it gets cleaned or not.  Just go away and leave me to my mess, please.  Reference:  My cubicle at work.  Yeah, I’m one of those.

15. You didn’t have sex until after high school. Winner again! In a very big way, I might add.  I’ll leave it at that.

16. You’re a night owl. Yes! Three in a row!  I have fond recollections of my years working the graveyard shift.  I only wish my work schedule permitted me to stay up all night and sleep during the day.  My circadian rhythm is decidedly not normal.  I love the deep, dark hours of the night, as that’s when my creativity seems to be at its best.  Reference:  I frequently wake up in the middle of the night and begin scribbling notes on my phone.

17. You don’t always have to try hard. And now, my friends, we travel back to the dumb side of Uncle Guacamole. I have to try hard to obtain any measure of success.  Unfortunately, I have a lazy streak a mile wide and often prefer not to try very hard even if it means failure.  Reference:  My checkered college days.  Guess I’m just dumb.

18. You don’t constantly need to be around people. This one falls in my favor. While I do generally prefer to be around people, being alone is just fine as well.  I keep busy, so a lot of the time I barely notice when I’m alone.  That said, I absolutely love being married.  I wouldn’t go back to my single days for a million bucks.

19. You live in a walkable city. Nope. I reside in a rural area where the roosters crow all day and night, the sheep baa across the road and that “thunk” you just heard was a wild peacock jumping off our roof.  I lived in New York City until the age of six when my parents purchased a house in the suburbs.  Eventually, I moved to California, car culture capital of the world.

If I am counting correctly (which, at this point, I am not sure I am smart enough to do), I have satisfied five of the above 19 indicators of intelligence.

Fortunately, being dumb isn’t the end of the world.  If nothing else, I am in good company.  After all, there are a lot of us out here.

In the Wee, Small Hours

When I awake in the wee hours and find that I can’t get back to sleep, I don’t tweet like President-Elect Trump. Instead, I grab my phone off my nightstand and start to draft blog posts.

Now, writing in the middle of the night can yield some interesting results. Perhaps this is because my brain is still in that muddled middle ground between sleep and wakefulness. Reading the notes of my nocturnal ramblings the next day may, at times, leave me a bit puzzled. Now why did I wake up thinking about THAT? It is just as likely that I will end up hitting “Delete” than that my disconnected thoughts will ever make it into a post.

It is probably fortunate that I am easily distracted. I will remember that I need to make a packing list for an upcoming trip and I will start on that. I will take my turn in the ten or twelve Words With Friends games that I usually have going at any given time. I will check the headlines in The New York Times.

All of these pursuits are better than lying in the dark and thinking of my sister, who just moved more than a thousand miles away for a new job and was promptly fired. Or of my twentysomething niece, who has been suffering from anorexia in Boston and is now down to a skeletal 75 pounds. Or of my octogenarian father, whose hand has gone numb and who can no longer lift his other arm without awful pain.

Such thoughts make my own problems seem decidedly small. I remind myself that everything is relative. And I count my blessings. I look forward to tearing up the interstate this week so that we can spend Thanksgiving with as many family members as possible, and celebrate my father’s 83rd birthday to boot. Instead of worrying about what we don’t have, or what we might lose, I thank God for all that we do have.

And I recite what I find to be one of the most comforting Bible passages, the 91st Psalm, and I go back to sleep. After all, I have to get up for work in a few hours.

Growing Up Jewish and Racist

My wonderful wife has a heart of gold. After all the years we’ve been married, she still amazes me. For one thing, she cares deeply for people. For another, she has an intuitive understanding of others that’s almost scary. Words will come out of her mouth that are dead-on perfect while I’m still muddling through my feelings and trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Like last week, for example. We were having lunch in a nearby restaurant on Saturday afternoon. I started chattering about police-involved shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement when my wife’s comment stopped me in my tracks. “Am I the only one who feels like walking up to a black person and apologizing?” she asked.

No, my dear, you’re not. That’s exactly how I feel, though I hadn’t been able to define it. And I suspect there are a lot of us white folks out there who feel the same way.

I can hear the criticism now. “Feel sorry for what? I didn’t do anything to them.” Well, there has to be a collective sense of guilt. For referring to those with a different skin color as “them,” for one thing. There is no “them.” There is only “us.” An injustice done to one is an injustice done to all. We are all connected.

Each Passover, observant Jews read the Haggadah’s warning that he who fails to acknowledge his freedom from slavery on the grounds that he was never personally a slave to the ancient Egyptians is a sinner who, had he lived in Egypt in those times, would not have been deemed worthy to be redeemed.  Dare we ignore our brothers’ legacy of slavery and their continued oppression and marginalization in modern times?  We do so at our peril.

This puts me in mind of the prejudices deeply instilled in me during my upbringing. Trust me, these early influences are extremely difficult to overcome. Intellectually, of course, I know better. But it is frightening how those preconceived notions continue to sit there in my subconscious, waiting for the right moment to invade a split-second thought.

I grew up in a lily white suburban neighborhood where I rarely encountered anyone who looked different than I did. Segregated neighborhoods resulted in de facto segregated schools. Oh yeah, also the teachers all were white. And this was in New York, not Mississippi!

I attended a very large junior high and I don’t think there were ten black kids in the whole danged school. They must have lived right on the district line. The only black kid I remember was named Leroy (hanging my head in shame) and he was constantly in trouble. I watched him set a fire in the boys’ room once.

At home, blacks were schvartzers (or worse, if my parents were angry). The Yiddish word just means “blacks,” but was always uttered in a tone dripping with contempt. By the time I was five years old, I knew that a vast chasm stood between “us” and the schvartzers.

Us: People of the Book. Value education.
Them: People of the Street. Can’t speak English properly.

Us: Doctors, lawyers, accountants.
Them: Maids, cooks, janitors.

Us: Married with two children.
Them: Single women with five kids by different daddies.

Us: Hard-working. Law-abiding.
Them: On Welfare. Criminals.

Us: Sip of wine in synagogue.
Them: Bottle of wine in a paper bag on the street corner.

Us: Kosher
Them: Hazer (pig) lovers

Us: Academic track. College bound.
Them: Detention, suspension, things too horrible to mention.

Us: Success.
Them: Failure.

I learned early on to stay as far away from the schvartzers as possible because they were no-good troublemakers. They would steal your money, beat you up and kill you.

I am crying as I write this.

There is no pennance I can do that would begin to atone for the hate instilled in my heart when I was a kid. Al het shakhatanu… For the sin which we have committed. The sin of hate, for which there is no forgiveness.

Can hate and fear be unlearned?  Can I forget my father’s ugly racial slurs, cruel jokes, imitations?  Can I replace these memories with love and blot out that evil forever?

And then I went to high school and the world changed overnight. It was 1973 and we were now integrated. Uh, sort of.

A lot of the seniors were still hippies with their faded denim jackets, ripped jeans, flower decals, beads, peace sign chains, pot smoke. The school was beyond capacity, bursting at the seams courtesy of the baby boom. And a few hundred of us were black. (I hadn’t yet heard the term “Hispanic.” Oh, you mean Puerto Ricans?)

The school district was heavily into tracking. The extent of one’s exposure to teens of another race largely depended on one’s track. “B” class? (Remedial level) Nearly all black. “O” class? (Average track) About 3 whites for every black. Advanced placement or honors class? Lily white.

Well, everyone has to eat. The cafeteria, you would expect, would be the great equalizer. You would be wrong.

The student newspaper denounced the lunchroom’s “invisible line.” The white kids sat on one side, the black kids on the other. I thought it was just plain dumb. No one dared cross over to the “wrong” side. This self-imposed racial segregation was accepted by most of us as an ironclad rule that could not be violated. I don’t recall any brave soul from either camp ever attempting to break down this barrier.

After a year and a half of accepting without understanding, my mother took a job an hour and a half away and I found myself in another giant high school, this one on the edge of farm country. White as the January snow. I learned what an evangelical Christian is. They learned what a Jew is. I came to the conclusion that being different just wasn’t worth it. I stopped wearing a yarmulke when I ate my tuna sandwich in the cafeteria. I joined the chorus and figured out that it wouldn’t kill me if I sang a song with the word “Jesus” in the lyrics. But the impromptu prayer meetings after school was where I drew the line. So I was never a real native, even though most of the time I could pretend. What if my skin were black? Would I have been able to blend in then? And would I have been welcomed at the prayer meetings?

Flash forward to the present. My efforts at color blindness have met with mixed success. I say “mixed” because there are so many interracial relationships now that I often couldn’t make a racial identification of a particular individual if I tried. I am far more interested in what a person knows and what someone can do than I am in what he or she looks like.

Case in point: My family has become a melting pot. (Whispering: And I love it.). My twice-divorced sister-in-law had married two Hispanic men. We have a lot of fully and partially Hispanic nieces and nephews as a result. They all grew up and many of them got married, to spouses of every race, skin color and cultural background. So when we attend our grandniece’s third birthday party (Hispanic mom and African-American dad), we know there will be a piñata, hard core rap music, and American burgers and hot dogs on the grill.

We all need to be involved in narrowing the cultural chasm, the racial divide instilled in me as a child that I continue to struggle to overcome. I see my landlord as a role model. He and his wife are Ukrainian-Americans. His wife emigrated as a child. He owns his own business and rents us a house that he built with his own hands. They home school their children, attend a Russian church, speak excellent Spanish and hire employees of every race and culture. If the American Dream still exists, surely this is it.

I was disappointed recently when I read about how a “Black Lives Matter” posting on an employee white board (!) at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park was crossed off and replaced with “All Lives Matter.”

Really? With the epic gun violence and shocking murder rate in our country, I am led to believe that life is cheap. It’s hard to believe that “all lives matter” when the pettiest slight will get you shot and no one seems to care if you live or die.

So all lives matter, eh? Do white-skinned people have to worry about racial profiling? Do white-skinned people have to worry about being automatically thought of as criminals? Do white-skinned people have to suffer the indignities of serving as the butt of tasteless jokes based on racist stereotypes? Do white-skinned people resign themselves to being shooting targets for the cops? Do white-skinned people have to live life knowing that many consider them utterly disposable due to their appearance alone?

I was relieved that Mark Zuckerberg chastised his staff for crossing off the “Black Lives Matter” sign. Insisting that “all lives matter” diminishes the pain and suffering experienced by African-Americans. The aggressor is not entitled to share in sympathy extended toward the victim. And don’t tell me that you never did anything to “them,” that what happened to “them” is not your fault. Let me say it again: There is no them! There is only us!

We’re all responsible for this horrible mess. I bristle when I hear the words “check your privilege,” but it’s true! I enjoy white privilege that my darker-skinned brethren will never have. And although I can’t undo that, I can only hope that this privilege will erode through a combination of education, exposure and cultural melting. For it is only then that our nation’s ideal of E. Pluribus Unum will become a reality: Out of many, one.